The Present

A Novel by Stefan Molyneux, MA

Chapter 1

Rachel had always loved the sensation of power and desirability when sweeping through public places.

She considered herself a feminist, but nothing beat that zippy feeling of striding in a tight dress with high heels through a restaurant of well-dressed people, feeling endless eyes stalking her from behind.

Rachel was 27 years old, and a journalist. This was a word she used eagerly – but not too earnestly – when describing her life. She had graduated with a degree in journalism, taught by staunch leather-faced creaky professors, who cornered her for four long years to teach her iron integrity and golden ethics - with the apparent goal of describing every principleshe would have to utterly abandon in order to succeed in her slippery field.

Rachel chose journalism because she wanted to be a “change agent” in the world, which was a term she had never been asked to define objectively – much to her hidden relief.

Rachel enjoyed watching the sliding squares of her own reflection in the mirrors over the bar. With her boyfriend’s help, she had achieved the holy grail of the modern silhouette – she had a reasonable bust, a protruding butt – and a flat belly. (Of course, she spent more time on lunges than sit ups, on the entirely reasonable premise that one could suck in one’s belly, but one cannot push out one’s butt.)

Rachel had always had what she considered a most unfortunate face – though honest male friends rated her at an 8 or 9 on a scale of ten - because each individual component seemed perfect, but somehow together, they produced a kind of late-stage desperation jigsaw, with some of the pieces hammered in. Rachel possessed wavy brown hair which drew glances of envy on a good hair day, and glances of pity when it rebelled. Rachel’s body was generally quite disobedient to her will – she gained and lost weight without understanding why, slept deeply one night, and peed like a lawn sprinkler the next; her hair fell neatly into place on a Tuesday, and then danced on a Saturday like a drunken bridesmaid. Her periods were flat-out abusive in their unpredictability – one month she barely noticed them; next, they horse-kicked her into couch-bound immobility.

Her emotions worked the same way, in that they never worked the same way. She was a Libra – the scales – but she was always striving for balance, never quite achieving it. (She was far too trained in post-modernism to believe in astrology in the superstitious sense, but she did accept that, in colder climates, being born in the fall gave people significantly different initial experiences of the world than being born in the spring.) Because her life was constantly changing – new boyfriends, new apartments, new friends, new contacts, writing assignments in new fields – her emotions had no more chance to put down roots than a sycamore in a windstorm.

Rachel’s hazel eyes were constantly pleasing – at least from the outside. Her left eye was stronger than her right, which meant that the world looked both slightly in focus and out of focus at the same time.

As a result of all these characteristics, Rachel was close enough to beautiful to be maddened by it, like a thirsty man clawing at saltwater. If she had been less attractive, Rachel would have shrugged and given up – more so, and she wouldn’t have had to wear herself to a thread chasing it. As it was, the hot pursuit of beauty had landed Rachel a very pretty boyfriend, who was kind enough to reach back and try and help her up to his own flawless pedestal.

Rachel spent her 20s having fun – it was the decade of fun, so she had heard – and she had roamed and written travel pieces and interviewed unusual people and been published, for sure – not anywhere mainstream or high profile, but a few low to middle tier websites had been content to cover the odd expense or two in return for a few thousand words of obvious analogies and high-school-level prose simplicity.

Rachel had lofty ambitions, of course – having been suckled and weaned on manic girl-power grandiosity, she had a vague sense that anything less than a mantelpiece of blinding awards would be an insult to her feminist potential.

The secret truth was that Rachel really liked to travel, to splurge the coins of her days as if she sat on an inexhaustible treasure – but she couldn’t just say that she was a traveller, because that would seem frivolous and wasteful and – well, not at all carbon friendly. Oh no, Rachel was a change agent whose calling found it necessary to travel to Guatemala, to write worshipful pieces on communities that appeared to be full of love and togetherness and oddly-shaped native art made by other travellers who weren’t at all natives. These communities always seemed to fall apart shortly after Rachel left – but she explained (mostly to herself, since people – even her boyfriend – rarely asked) that the article was still necessary because it brought inclusivity and curiosity and acceptance to the world as a whole.

To her credit, Rachel did have good instincts about her audience. Most of her readers were young women addicted to mismanaging their anxiety. To distract them, Rachel invited them into a kind of paradise, or Shangri-La – a wondrous place with the magical power to eliminate anxiety - usually through a stained-glass mosaic of pottery, chanting, meditation, incense, trying to fit together with other broken people, beautiful views and close murmuring voices. Young women flocked to her articles – and some to these locations – hoping against hope that the portal of her words would lead anywhere except into the broken remnants of their own heart-shards.

Over the years, Rachel had tried doing follow-up articles on these communities, but always found them either embittered or broken, because the anxiety these women tried to flee always followed them and brought them down, like a snarling pack of dogs that only attack if you run. When it turned out there was no magical location that purges anxiety, Rachel’s readers would turn on their own communities, pick fights, cause problems, provoke hostility, and then run to some other location or occupation or hobby or man – casting venomous backward glances at the betrayal of the universe to free them from their self-inflicted - and self-maintained - wounds.

Rachel’s parents currently funded a good portion of her career – as they had funded her university – because they seemed to feel that she was capable of something extraordinary – at least that’s what her father always said – but it was never defined what that was going to look like in reality.

Until recently, her mother’s sister had been a famous journalist who travelled the world, covering politics, war and famine. Aunt Crystal had lived a life of extraordinary danger – and considerable achievement – but that life had taken a slow, shocking toll, and Aunt Crystal currently lolled about in her Midtown condo, trying to shake a desperate malaise of indeterminate origin, and dodging calls from her agent, who was becoming rather insistent that she actually produce her long-awaited memoirs.

Rachel had a sister, Cassie, who followed the general pattern of younger siblings, which was to live a life of scant self-definition, instead generating goals in reaction to her older sister’s strengths and weaknesses. Older siblings generally carve deep, wandering paths – while younger siblings choose paths either in conformity with – or in opposition to – the confused originality of their elders.

Rachel was the prettier sister – which wasn’t supposed to matter, but always gave her a guilty pleasure. Cassie was more grounded, more sensible – having grown up in her sister’s windy shadow, she had little choice but to extend her roots deeply. It gave her less mobility, but more strength.

To Rachel’s mind, Cassie had done the utterly unthinkable – she had avoided dating around - “like the plague” as she put it – and actually married her high school sweetheart. Ian, her husband, had taken a preteen obsession with computer programming, hitched it to a one-year community college degree, and ended up in a grey cubicle rat-maze, typing furiously at a rather crazed crypto start-up.

In her early 20s, Cassie had given birth to a child – a son, robust and clingy and lusty and ridiculously thirsty. This had given rise to a cliché only deeply understandable to elder sisters – the tight smile of judgmental encouragement. “That’s great, congratulations…” Rachel would murmur, feeling slightly dizzy, and bringing her hands to her mouth not from shock, but because she wanted to hide any potential contempt.

Getting married young, giving birth, raising children, wrecking your figure and your future – cutting off your options, becoming – shudder – dependent on a man – this all reminded Rachel of her first college roommate, a goth girl with black hair and downcast eyes who only lasted three months, due to a truly ghastly habit of self-mutilation.

Since Rachel had a deeply passionate affair with her potential, she viewed any early compromises or distractions as deep, dishonourable betrayals. She only survived her mounting contempt for her sister by repeating to herself that: Not everyone is designed for great things, many people who cannot produce creative works take comfort – the biological consolation prize – in having children. I suppose that my view of what she’s doing – or rather, not doing – is similar to her view of what I am doing – or rather, not doing – which is turning myself into a broodmare for a decidedly average man.

If Rachel had felt comfortable having any confrontational people in her life, he - or she – would have said: “Your contempt for the average is a sure sign of snobbery – you, who claim to be a good progressive, a friend of the working class, a champion of the underdog – you look down your nose at the very people who provide the infrastructure that allows you to fly and type and sip and tan!”

Of course, Rachel had no such people in her life – they are as rare as stars on a cloudy night, and people like Rachel are generally not drawn to those who can puncture vanity with the hot needles of astute observation.

Perhaps the greatest difference between the two sisters was their perception of that most essential word: settle.

In Rachel’s theology of the self, “settling” meant a betrayal of your potential – which in turn led to resentment of your own compromises - and rage towards anyone who encouraged such slouching. The greatest demon that haunted Rachel’s imagination was regret - she had to live a life that avoided regret – at almost any cost. Regret was a kind of abstract lightning that could strike at any time – even from a clear blue sky – and shock your life into scattered smoke. If she could do more, but didn’t do more, that more would haunt Rachel like a ghost trailing its murderer. Rachel had to try, dammit, because otherwise regret would leech the joy from her bones, and any contentment from her future…

For Cassie, “settling” meant settling in, having a sensible life free of petty drama and wild ambitions. She loved her husband, loved her son, and had no big ambitions to become a “change agent” - or whatever new phrase Rachel was using to describe the next phase of her career.

As she crossed the restaurant floor, Rachel felt every movement of her body with great pleasure. She felt regal, because she was having a great hair day - and because she had applied so little makeup that she looked like a real ball-busting natural-earth feminist.

She reached the dark mahogany corner where Cassie waited, and sat down lightly, so that her butt would not spread too much.

“I’m so sorry,” said Rachel. “Traffic was a bear.”

There was a slight pause, because Rachel knew all about Cassie’s view on immigration.

“No worries,” said Cassie, swallowing a piece of what looked like bread.

Rachel’s eyes darted to the breadbasket, and she willed herself not to judge Cassie for how much was gone. She looks heavier, no question…

Rachel was always mildly annoyed when waiters failed to immediately materialize. “You’ve already talked to someone?” she asked.

“Yeah, I ordered some wine for you, but nothing else.” Cassie laughed. “Geez Rachel, take a breath, you just got here!”

Rachel sighed. “I know, I know. Sorry, I’m…” Her voice stalled, looking for an excuse, and finding nothing.

“Someone will be over soon,” smiled Cassie. “No reason we can’t get caught up while we’re waiting – and you won’t die if you have a piece of bread, for heaven’s sake!”

And the butter! cried Rachel silently, shaking her head rapidly. “I can do the sugar in the wine, or carbs in the bread – it’s either/or.”

There was a pause. Cassie was obviously biting her tongue.

Rachel sighed, leaning back in her chair. “Well, we can’t stop saying things right at the beginning… What is it?”

Cassie pursed her lips. “How is Arlo?”

Rachel laughed. “Yes, I suppose that is related… He is – viciously active. He’s graduated from surfing to rock-climbing. Better for the abs, he wants a leaner butt, something like that…”

“He’s so active at the zoo – I can’t imagine doing all that exercise in his spare time as well.”

Rachell frowned. “Yeah, the zoo…”

Cassie leaned forward. “What?”

“What can I get for you ladies?” Rachel looked up, noticing a young man who had clearly given up on hair, and shaved everything – including his beard – to a short even scrub. The look always reminded her of iron filings on paper, from a long-ago school science experiment.

Rachel grabbed a menu. “Oh, I haven’t even looked, but please wait, I’m starving!” She always liked saying that; it showed self-control. Also, he had to linger for her.

The waiter smiled thinly. He turned to Cassie. “And you?”

“Oh, I’m craving mac and cheese – and can you throw a little bit of tomato in as well?”

“Of course!” The waiter paused briefly, and both women fully understood that, after evaluating Cassie, he had decided not to suggest an appetizer – or, God forbid, a salad!

Rachel drummed her red nails on the edge of the plastic menu. “I’m a vegetarian, and lactose intolerant – I can do a little bit of fish, once in a while – but I really need it to be wrapped in something that doesn’t taste like fish… I suppose I could do the fish and chips, but could I get a house salad instead of the fries, with the dressing on the side?”

The waiter sucked a tiny breath of air through his teeth. “Mmm, so sorry, but we don’t have any fish – I mean, we have some salmon, but we haven’t had any halibut delivered this week.”

Rachel pursed her lips – she knew it wouldn’t do any good, but wanted to register her disapproval – perhaps to the universe, it was hard to say.

She sighed. “Okay, what would you suggest?”

“Vegetarian and lactose intolerant? Pasta with – garlic aioli, maybe some vegetables? We could do that, no problem.”

Rachel closed the menu quickly, wishing it was made of something more solid, and could give a louder whap. “Yes, fine, always the same – not your fault, I appreciate it, thank you. I’ll take a side salad too.”

“No problem. I’ll be right back with the wine.”

He turned and left, and Rachel found herself glaring at Cassie, expecting to receive an imaginary lecture on rudeness. It’s not my fault I can’t eat everything! Rachel cried silently.

“Where’s Ben?” she asked.

Cassie looked surprised. “At daycare…” Rachel could hear the unfinished end of the sentence. As he has been every single weekday since he was 8 months old!

Rachel shrugged. When she was bored, she made simple mistakes. It happens…

“Okay,” said Cassie decisively, jumping off her slow train of willed pleasantries. “Let’s talk. How is Arlo?”

There was another pause – they just could not get the rhythm of the conversation going – and Rachel was annoyed that Cassie had asked her about her boyfriend first, not her career. She is so typical, so basic – she’s more interested in people than things… Ugh, all the worst female stereotypes. Always making things more difficult for the rest of us

Rachel pretended to think for a moment, as if her boyfriend was the furthest thing from her mind. “He’s well,” she said finally. Against her will, Rachel’s eyes drifted hungrily over the breadbasket – and then on, to her sister’s belly, stretching against the fabric of her dress.

Rachel briefly thought of making up a story about her boyfriend being up for a promotion, but squelched the idea in her mind, because a strong woman should not be particularly interested in her man’s career - I mean, maybe if she’s pregnant or something, but…

I need to make up something, or say something, I’m being terribly judgy. “He finally cut his hair a little bit, starting to look like a real grownup!”

“Oh, I’ve always loved his hair!” said Cassie, before adding rapidly: “I’m sure it looks great now!”

There was a slightly awkward pause as the waiter returned and poured Rachel’s wine. Cassie put her hand over her own glass, and Rachel’s heart suddenly sank, despite her best and most noble intentions.

“Okay,” said the waiter, and both women could see him deciding not to say the word: “Congratulations.”

Rachel took a deep breath and turned to the waiter. “Give us a few.”

Cassie stared at her placidly.

Rachel frowned. “Okay, I remember the last time you refused wine – for about nine months, I guess.”

Cassie smiled broadly. “Well, a little less than that, but yes.”

“How long along?”

Cassie beamed. “11 weeks.”

“And everything is – going well?”

“Everything’s great – this one is so much easier than Ben – so far at least!”

“And Ian..?”

Cassie’s smile froze for a moment, like a tiny stutter in an online video. “He loves it, it was his idea…”

The silent word hung between the two sisters. But…

“Go on?”

Cassie let her breath out harshly. She waved her hands. “Nothing – a little frustrating, of course, it feels like there’s always – something, in life, you know? One thing after another… I had that pain in my heel, then my elbow started clicking, then I had water in my ear – and that’s just over the last six months.” Cassie tore off a piece of bread and played with it. “It’s always something that keeps my mind nagging at itself, to distract me from life’s pleasures, which are – considerable… I don’t want to take any of this for granted, but it’s… You know like when we went camping, and there was a mosquito in the tent, and we couldn’t get to sleep, but we couldn’t find it either.” Cassie laughed. “I’m not making any sense, but…” She leaned forward conspiratorially, casting her eyes from left to right. “Look, I’ll be blunt. I have nothing to hide, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just a – different thing. I mean – Rach - have you ever heard of men’s rights, or looked into that – at all?”

Rachel’s eyes widened. The phrase was unknown to her, and because it was unknown, it automatically seemed extreme. “No.”

“Do you want to know?”

Rachel hesitated, then nodded finally.

Cassie rubbed her chin. “Well, if Ian were here – and he’s joining us later, by the way, he’s getting Ben – he would say that that is the exact problem, that all we ever hear about are women’s rights, and we never hear about men’s rights, and that’s – bad, you know…”

Rachel took a deep, cautious breath. “I guess I think that – every right that isn’t explicitly women’s, falls to men – they literally have everything else!”

Cassie pointed at her, imitating her husband’s monotone. “Yes, well, there you have it, that’s exactly it.” She laughed. “You should totally write about this, it would be – something…”

Rachel laughed incredulously. “Oh God, I warned you that a computer programmer would spend way too much time online – what is he talking about, what does he mean?”

Cassie sighed. “Look, he’s a good man, a great dad - provides, you know… And we – and you in particular – had all that girl power stuff, the feminism – and I think he’s just – going that way, like we did with the female stuff, he’s just approaching it from the male – angle.”

Rachel snorted. “Cassie, what the hell? Word salad!”

Cassie laughed – incredulously, but not unsympathetically. “I know, my heart is pounding. I find it – weird, to be honest, but I don’t want to judge him… I suppose that feminism seemed weird when it first started too…”

“Yes, but feminism started from the patriarchy – in response to male dominance and – no rights for women!”

Cassie swallowed nervously. “Yes, but – has it – he would ask, has it – gone too far?”

Rachel echoed her in disbelief. “Has it gone too – far? We just lost the right to abortion!”

Cassie flinched visibly.

Rachel felt slightly dizzy. Should I apologize? “We don’t want to be that cliché, do we? I can talk about abortion with a pregnant woman, right?”

Cassie nodded distractedly. “Sure, sure…”

Where do you stand on Roe v Wade? Rachel wanted to ask – no, demand! But she felt on a cliff edge, with her sister. Her toes even curled inside her tight shoes. What a maze

“Look,” she said decisively, “tell me about the pregnancy, the baby, how you are doing.”

“Ian wants to pull Ben out of daycare,” said Cassie abruptly.

Well, that’s quite the leap, thought Rachel in amazement. As if to give them time to process, the waiter arrived with their food.

“Mac and cheese, pasta and – salad… I’m so sorry, we’re out of tomatoes, can’t get them for love or money… I put some extra cucumbers on the salad instead, I hope that’s alright.”

Cassie smiled sympathetically. “It can’t be much fun, telling customers everything you are short of.”

The waiter nodded at Rachel. “I’m actually a part owner. I spent half the early morning trying to find ingredients, but everyone seems to be out of – everything. It’s a little…”

It seemed that the word creepy hung at the end of his sentence, but he clearly didn’t want to upset them in any way, so he just smiled awkwardly. “I’m really sorry.”

“That’s fine,” said Rachel shortly, waving her hand towards the bread – and realizing, to her horror, that it looked as if she were waving the waiter away. Oh well, he’s a part owner, not exactly a downtrodden employee… She felt a strong urge to apologize, but didn’t know how to even identify her wrong without feeling paranoid. Oh my God, how hard we have to work to avoid clichés – oh look, here’s another woman overthinking everything and tangling herself up in unnecessary interpretations and apologies!

The waiter’s cheeks were flushed. “Well, let me know if you need anything…” he said, darting off to another table.

Rachel sighed. “I really dislike waiters who tell you that you are the one who has to inform them of what you need – isn’t it their job to come over and ask?”

Cassie smiled. “That might be a good article – 10 Things I Hate About Waiters!

Rachel inhaled sharply. “You know, I do write about more important things than… Oh, sorry, I’m being ridiculous. Please, tell me about the baby – and what’s this about – Ben?”

Cassie leaned forward slightly, covering her belly with her hands. “Well, he’s having some – behavioural issues, I suppose that’s the word, the phrase, these days. That’s actually what started Ian down this – rabbit hole he’s on, or in.”

Rachel felt some annoyance at this beating around the bush stuff. For heaven’s sake, get to the point, I’m pushing 30!

She said nothing, though, because she could see her sister gathering her resources for a carb-fueled onrush of honesty.

Knowing how much Rachel disliked a mouthful of words, Cassie swallowed deliberately before continuing.

“So - it was really Ben that started me on this – sympathy for men, I guess, in a way? He was such a sweetheart as a baby, so positive and friendly and affectionate and strong and – bonded. He was like my boomerang, you remember that phase – he would go to explore, come back to feed, go to explore, come back to cuddle, go to explore, come back to point at everything. I loved being the centre of his world, and watching that centre shift to wherever he was - exploring, you know. I don’t have much experience with men, compared to…” Cassie looked away and waved her hand, as if to ward off the next word. “And I guess I got my view of men from dad, and Ian of course – and I’m educated, but not like you, at least not in the arts, so I didn’t get a lot of that – view of men as tyrannical and bullying and whatnot. They work hard, they provide…” Cassie took a deep breath. “I guess I got to see Ben as a – male, in his original form, unspoiled…” Her voice caught in a sudden wave of emotion.

Rachel had an impulse to reach out and touch her sister’s hand, but was too busy scanning for evidence of all of the extra cucumbers she was promised.

Cassie took a deep breath, pushing her macaroni around. “I’m not sure this is what the baby wants…” she murmured.

Rachel looked up suddenly. “Ben?”

Startled, Cassie nodded. “Yes, yeah… Mommy brain, it’s got me… But the hospital needed me, my boss was pressuring me to come back, and I was having endless dreams about all these patients getting sick - or at least not getting better – because I was home feeding my baby boy… I had a great mat leave, Ian was wonderful, and it felt – right, in a way that I hadn’t…” She leaned forward. “Everything seems at odds for us, these days, you know, as women… Everyone tells us what to do, and it never quite feels right… But this, this felt right, Rach – and that little nagging voice in my head – our heads I think – that comes from mom a bit I suppose – that is always telling me to do something slightly different than what I’m actually doing – that voice actually shut up for once, and I was able to sit in total peace for like hours at a time – and it didn’t even bother me when Ben was having trouble latching on, that’s just – part of the process - that’s what kept going around in my head, that Ben and Ian and me were just - part of the process – and I didn’t actually have to be doing anything other than what I was doing, in the moment.” Cassie’s dreamy eyes sharpened suddenly, focusing on Rachel. “I’m sure you get the same feeling when you’re writing, or whatever – sorry, I don’t mean whatever like writing is not important, you know what I mean…”

I have 14 pieces of cucumber, but I have no idea what the average is, or whether I got more, thought Rachel, before reaching over and patting her sister’s hand. She lifted the glass of wine and took a medium sip – not so little as to look pretentious, not so much as to look like an alcoholic. She consciously prevented her nose from wrinkling – she didn’t really like the taste of wine, but she knew how good it looked in her hand, what it said about her to discerning eyes. She could feel the wine seeping into her delicate gums, and felt a flush of anxiety about avoiding the dentist.

Rachel swallowed. “And then?”

Cassie sighed. “And then, the nagging voice started to come back, you know, that the world needed me, that we needed the money, that there was no point getting educated to just - sit in an armchair reading a magazine while Ben fed. My education, my responsibilities, the needs of everyone – they all began to pile up in my head. And so…” Cassie’s voice caught again. She took another deep breath. “And so, we put him in daycare… He was about eight months, give or take a week or two, and of course he cried and wailed and – reached for me, with the same pleading eyes he gave me when I held him when he got his – shots. But you know what they say, what the voice says – it’s good for him, he needs to be – socialized – he needs his independence, just like you do – and I really wish it had been more of a battle, but all these – thoughts came between us… You know those moving sidewalks at the airport – it’s like being on one of those, in a bad dream, and your child is just – moving away from you, or being moved away from you by – something, other… I don’t know…”

“Gosh,” said Rachel, counting down the cucumbers as she ate. She felt dizzy, distant – and a giant tolling bell of fear echoed from somewhere deep within her. She shivered, and thought of asking the waiter/part-owner to turn up the damn heat in the restaurant. Another cliché, the ‘eternally cold woman,’ that I refuse to inhabit…

Cassie leaned forward even more. “So then, he’s in daycare, and there’s this period of relative peace, like he’s in shock or something… But then he starts to get – aggressive, which I had never seen before, not even a hint… And I guess I hadn’t thought of what happens over the course of the day in that – place… I was back at work, back in the groove, helping and helping and helping, you know, as I’ve always done. It’s always a blur at the hospital, just running from one need to another, the only moment you get to think is – doing paperwork, but then you have to really concentrate, so… But there was a – kind of – darkness in Ben, growing thicker… I noticed it at home at first – he was always rough with his toys – rough for a girl, I guess, normal for a boy – don’t give me that look, you just wait… But he began to be sort of – cruel to his toys. He started pulling the arms off his figurines – before, he would launch them and throw them at Lego and drop them off things – so they got some wear and tear, but that was all part of his – exploring, I guess. But then he started – dismantling them, if that makes any sense…”

Cassie’s eyes were wide. “Then he started to – bite…” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “And hit… He actually hit me one morning when I was getting ready for work, he was – 15 months, maybe, something like… A real hit, full-strength, left a real mark… I had to cake on the makeup, so Ian wouldn’t get arrested or something… And Ian really stepped up, began doing all this research - wild stuff, really out there. I didn’t know what to make of it, to be honest… I have this belief – which really makes Ian roll his eyes – that if something were this important, it would be all over the place, on the news, talked about, you know… It feels kind of paranoid to imagine there are these shadowy hands all over our information…”

Rachel stared at her, then laughed suddenly. “Wow, lot of landmines today!”

Cassie frowned in genuine confusion. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I suppose I would be one of these ‘shadowy hands,’ right?”

Cassie’s cheeks coloured slightly. “Oh, I don’t think he means…”

Rachel glared at her. “What, Cassie? What does Ian mean?”

Rachel could see her younger sister find some kind of bounce, some kind of strength.

Cassie stared back at her sister. “Do you want to talk about your career at the moment?”

There was a pause, then Rachel shook her head. “No, it doesn’t…” She desperately tried to think of another topic - but realized it would be obvious cowardice and manipulation to try changing the subject in such a tense moment.

Cassie said: “So many – paths we could take this conversation – at the moment… But I won’t wait, or ask - I’m tired of waiting and asking all the time. Ian says that what he’s learning is like sticking his head through a wall – you think it’s a wall, but it turns out you can just – put your head right through it, and see – outside, if that makes any sense… Anyway, there are these – studies – not really reported on, but by some real scientists – that daycare is not always super-great for kids, particularly boys – and it’s … I can’t help… noticing that he went from this strong-willed sweet baby to this aggressive – and mean – little… almost bully… I tried talking to the daycare teacher, but it’s a different one each time…” Cassie laughed sadly. “I even thought of pinning some kind of recording device to Ben, to try and figure out what he’s dealing with, but that would be crazy of course…”

Through her annoyance, Rachel could hear the half question mark at the end of her sister’s sentence.

“I don’t know much about this… I’ve never heard of that,” murmured Rachel, sitting up and brushing her hair back from her face, for fear that the salad dressing could ruin her great hair day.

But she had to lean forward again, because Cassie was almost whispering. “But we need the money… Interest rates are up, taxes are crazy - it feels like every time we get ahead, something comes along and takes it away…” Her voice lowered even further. “And it kind of freaks me out that the daycare teachers never told me about what was happening with Ben. We have occasional play dates – fewer now of course - and he plays pretty well with other kids, I guess. He kind of huddles over his blocks, doing his own thing, but he seems so – constrained… He was so – spontaneous and energetic when he was little… Now he seems so – fierce, self-protective, it’s hard to say… I mean, you were a daycare kid, when mom was – unwell…”

Rachel felt a deep cavernous shudder in her belly. Her face jerked back. “I loved daycare, it was better than…” A sliver of cucumber seemed to be trying to crawl back up her windpipe, and she swallowed violently.

Cassie sighed in relief. “I’m totally glad, sis. Totally. I mean, mom was home with me, and sometimes I wonder, looking at Ben, whether we ended up – a little different, maybe more than if – I don’t know, you know…”

Rachel was relieved that she had suddenly lost her appetite. Not being hungry always improved her thigh gap, and Lord knows her boyfriend barely ate anything - she was quite convinced that Arlo lived on the cranberries he fed to his damn lemurs at the zoo. Not for the first time – and not even for the thousandth time – Rachel felt deep annoyance at the word “zoo.” It all sounds so great and important until you put the word ‘petting’ in front of it!

Cassie was using her fork to push around the remnants of mac and cheese in the depths of her bowl. “Anyway, I started thinking how strange it was that the teachers never told me about any of the – problems that Ben was having… I mean, didn’t they notice any kind of change? And then – and I hate to say this, but it was Ian who clued me in… It was probably because all the kids were going the same way, he said, so there was nothing – unusual about Ben, for the teachers. It’s a kind of zoo, I guess – no offense…” Cassie added the last words in a nonsensical rush. She touched two fingers on each hand to both temples. “And it feels so – strange – wrong – to even speak this way… Thank you so, so much for listening… My heart was pounding on the bus getting here, it feels like breaking ranks, betraying – I don’t know, something… But I’m really torn, Rach - I really am, torn in two…” Cassie took a deep breath and whispered: “Did I break my boy?

A tear fell from Cassie’s eye, and Rachel felt a kind of panic. In the moment, she would have surrendered a fairly important internal organ to ensure that the waiter did not return.

Rachel reached forward, terrified that Cassie’s emotions would draw glances.

“Cassie, no, no – it’s fine, I’m fine, you’re fine, Ben is fine.” Her mind went blank, but she forced herself onwards, whipping the words out of her mouth. “It’s just the terrible twos – like the teen years, but smaller, and earlier… He’s just – trying to find his way in the world… I’m sure there are challenges in that daycare, but there are challenges for all of us, every day. He’ll emerge stronger, you’ll see.”

Cassie wiped her eyes. “I don’t want him to ‘emerge stronger…’ Not yet… He’s so little…”

The waiter approached, then beat a hasty retreat.

Oh God, thought Rachel, this is the worst part of being a woman! How do you support a sister when she’s not supporting the sisterhood?

She strove to speak evenly. “Look, Ben was born with all sorts of – advantages – sorry, do you know the sex of..?”

Cassie shook her head quickly, guiltily. “No, Ian doesn’t want to…”

WHY SHOULD THAT MATTER? Rachel was surprised at the volume of her internal shriek, and shook her head, shocked.

Rachel found her eyes staring at her sister’s swollen belly. A bod with a rod in a pod… A singsong nursery rhyme scampered through her mind, chasing something – or being chased, more likely…

A sudden fissure of unanticipated depth cracked open within her. “Cassie,” she whispered, “what’s really going on?”

There was a charged, stagnant pause. Cassie’s decades-long pursuit of Rachel’s true self paused momentarily.

The waiter appeared.

“All done?”

Absolutely,” said Rachel, pushing her plate slightly forward, evident relief in her voice.

Cassie grabbed the few remaining bites, then handed her bowl to the waiter.

He paused, faced with the daunting and delicate task of suggesting dessert to women.

“What do you have for dessert?” asked Cassie, resting her hand on her belly, as if to blame the baby for her desires.

“I have a dessert menu right here,” replied the waiter, reaching behind him like a surprise gunslinger. He handed over a small laminated card. “Sorry again, only the top two are available today – all week, actually. It’s kinda crazy, we’ve been trying to get a part for our side-oven for – what, five months? Something about the supply chain, which I don’t really understand, but it just means that there are a lot of… bare shelves these days.”

Cassie glanced at Rachel. “Would you take a bite or two of bread pudding?”

Rachel weighed her options. To say ‘no’ would seem calorie phobic – to say ‘yes’ would appear weak-willed. She settled on an indulgent: “Sure.” I’ll do it for you, sis!

“Then let it be… so,” smiled Cassie, handing the card back.

To make up for the impression of liking sugar, Rachel said: “And a black coffee for me – decaf for you, sis?”

Both sisters saw the waiter glance at Rachel’s empty wine glass, then at Cassie’s belly – and once more decide to say nothing. Rachel felt a pang of sadness, that a simple ‘congratulations’ had become so complicated, so impossible, so inaccessible… Rachel could easily imagine the waiter’s thoughts:

Sure, it’s 99% certain that the blonde is pregnant, but if I offer her any congratulations, and I’m wrong – or even if I’m right – she’s could whip up a post on social media hash tagging my restaurant – and my name, from my tag… She’ll suck in her cheeks, post a duck-face selfie, incredulously exclaiming: “Can’t believe JOSH at STEPHANOS just ‘congratulated’ me on being PREGNANT! #MenNeverLearn.” And dear God, what if it goes viral? Bored people will end up protesting out front of my restaurant, and I will end up cornered by a sitting committee of plus-sized women, endlessly apologizing for ‘thin privilege…’

Of course, Josh knew that if he didn’t say anything, he couldn’t really get in trouble – these are the endless thoughts of those who live in the modern tyranny of constant recording and perpetual sharing. Socrates dreamed that evil could be cured by knowledge – who dared imagine that free speech and social graces would end up murdered by petty publicity?

And so, the moment of fertile praise and flickering human communion passed, and the space between souls widened another few inches, and each was left a little more alone with their solitary thoughts.

Cassie glanced towards the door to the restaurant, and her cheeks suddenly coloured as she beamed. “Oh of course he arrives just when dessert is on its way!”

Rachel glanced up, to see Cassie’s husband Ian striding into the restaurant. The door banged a little behind him, cutting off a sudden cacophony of barking dogs.

Ian carried his two-year-old son Ben on his hip - they both appeared flushed from the fresh air, and Rachel experienced a strange sensation, that the air was pushing ahead of Ian – like powdered snow before a winter train.

Ian and Cassie were already a couple in college – it was the typical pairing of engineer and nurse, although Ian never became a full engineer – he had studied computer programming for a year, then dropped out to join a crypto software start-up run by a Dungeons and Dragons friend he had known since junior high school. He was a solid man – resistant to imagination, often annoyed at speculation, and sceptical to the point of hostility towards ideology. He enjoyed simple social activities (the word ‘simple’ was added in Rachel’s mind), was a self-described ‘weekend warrior’ who played hockey on Sunday afternoons. He battled a videogame addiction – like most men these days – and drank moderately. Only 25, he had developed the slightly dissolving ‘dad bod’ from an unholy excess of sitting and coding. As Ian asked more and more questions, his body less and less resembled a question mark. Rachel found him fairly easy to talk to, as long as she steered clear of the topics he found most stimulating.

Ian had had a dangerous MAGA flyby, and Rachel strongly suspected that he had voted for Trump in that blackest of years 2016, but he was cautious enough to never confirm her suspicions. He was a bit of a political junkie, strolling away from the mainstream consensus with surprisingly little sense of danger. He never went as far as Q-Anon, but was certainly sceptical of any published unanimity. Rachel avoided any political topics like the plague, because she could not stand it when he dismissed her quoted facts with the contemptuous word “presstitutes.”

Of course, Ian was sensitive and intelligent enough – not that it demanded a lot – to ‘kindly’ exclude her from this crass categorization.

They both relentlessly avoided the topic of Rachel’s aunt, who had been a well-rewarded paragon of mainstream media reporting.

Ian worked in the crypto industry, which always made Rachel think of Hedy Lamarr and breaking codes in World War II. To her, ‘crypto’ always seemed like a gang sign, a secret handshake to shaky wealth, full of strange passions and unsettling insights. Ian had once tried to explain to her the advantages of Bitcoin over central banking, using analogies about taking over a city, and communicating invasion instructions in a ring – but she got disoriented at his words, and completely tuned out when he – rather unsurprisingly – got a large whiteboard from the garage.

Rachel was a bit of a shallow water fish – she liked the sunny coral and bright colours and lifting surge of the endless waves. Whenever her inner ambling brought her to the blue cliff edge of deeper waters, she recoiled - watching the sunbeams dissolve into the midnight navy of the inaccessible depths was deeply chilling to her. She knew that Ian swam comfortably down there, always wanting to go deeper, to explore for wreckage and treasure, but when she imagined those depths (and she did dream of swimming down – being dragged down - with him one night, months ago) – Rachel never pictured looking down, but rather up, towards the faint flickering surface sunlight. The sight of the rippling sky shattering the sun made her breath catch in her throat, and in her dream, she actually bit Ian to force him to let her go, and she scrambled and swam with cramping legs towards the surface, her ears popping and aching, her blood and joints boiling with bubbles – and then she broached the surface like the hungriest whale, overjoyed to fall back down – but instead kept going, up and up, beyond the sea, beyond the clouds, beyond the air – into space itself - and in her dream, Rachel turned her eyes towards the sun - undimmed by turbulent oxygen, floating in nothing, breathing only in her imagination – and genuinely wondered why the sun was never called a ‘space heater.’

Of course, Rachel wasn’t allowed to have dreams about her brother-in-law – even ones as transparently allegorical and nonsexual as this one – so she had never told a soul, not even her boyfriend, Arlo.

Rachel did switch from baths to showers for a time, though. One evening, watching Arlo do his endless floor leg-lifts while they watched a monkey documentary together, she thought: If he cared about me at all, he would’ve noticed, and asked…

She immediately felt guilty, though, because he clearly did care about her – he bought her all sorts of moisturizers and loofahs, and nagged her about exercise, and they had done two or three Tik-Tok dance videos together, which had been a surprising amount of fun. Arlo introduced her to surfing, rock-climbing, and the joys of sweet potatoes, eggs, avocadoes, oats and various alchemical powders – and had helped Rachel avoid the seemingly inevitable mid-20s 15 pound weight gain. Thanks to him, her youthful picture on her website was not a total lie – she really did look like her younger self.

When short of meaningful work, Rachel lowered herself to covering business conferences – and was always vaguely surprised – and viscerally contemptuous – at the difference between the pictures of the speakers in the handouts, and how they actually looked onstage. It was like they had published their kid’s pictures…

Looking at Ian striding fresh-faced through the restaurant, his glowing son grinning on his hip, Rachel found herself frowning. He has reshaped himself, she thought. Rachel had an uncanny ability to accurately picture people’s bodies under as many layers of clothing as they cared to wear. Without a doubt, he had lost – what, maybe 20 pounds? Muscle weighs more than fat, Arlo constantly told her when she weighed herself every morning – and so Rachel knew that Ian had lost maybe 20 pounds of fat, and also put on 10 pounds of muscle. My God, he actually has cheekbones!

Most modern men – and this is what Rachel appreciated so much about Arlo’s deviation – were like chubby anime characters, drawn in obsessive rings of concentric circles. They tended not to be significantly overweight – at least, not in Rachel’s circle – but looked like God’s rough sketch for men, before He added muscles. They did not have the definition of thinness, nor the rolly invasiveness of obesity, and their faces always looked the same – high foreheads, square black-rimmed glasses, scant beards, hanging mouths, slightly yellow teeth, darkly ironic T-shirts, endlessly cautious and correct enthusiasms, strange permissions to rage at ‘enemies’ – and unmentionable online addictions.

Soyjacks…

Rachel hated the phrase, but understood its relevance.

Ian sat down heavily, causing Ben to bounce and giggle. Rachel expected him to lean over and kiss Cassie on the cheek, but he put his hand behind her neck and pulled her in for a deep and fleshy kiss. Naturally, Ben cried out and tried to pull their heads apart.

Ian laughed. “Hey, kid, this kind of passion is why you’re here, don’t get in the way!”

Who on earth is this? wondered Rachel.

“Hi Rach,” grinned Ian. “How are you? Ben, you remember Auntie Rachel?”

Rachel smiled in sudden guilt – she resented Ian for pointing it out, but she hadn’t spent much time with her nephew at all lately.

“Butterfly!” he shouted.

Rachel laughed.

“That’s right!” said Ian. “She brought you that butterfly wand from New York – from here!”

Ben cried out a Japanese phrase that the wand had burbled when he pushed the button. Something about “This, a guy, a little perfect guy, this, a perfect funny little guy…

“Exactly!”

“Good to see you,” said Rachel. “What’s new?”

Ian blew through his lips. “Oh, work, as usual – crazy stuff, very exciting. I got a promotion - I’m a project lead now – the project lead.” He lowered his voice dramatically. “I am the one… We’re trying to find a way to lend out crypto for interest, without requiring people to give up their keys.” He laughed. “Sorry, that’s a lot of jargon, you guys have eaten?”

They both nodded.

“Ben, you hungry buddy?”

Ben had always had a supernaturally acute sense of smell. “Pudding!” he cried, his eyes widening.

The waiter arrived and deposited the steaming dessert on the table. “Gonna need a couple of extra spoons I see!”

Ben reached for the pudding, but Ian clasped his son’s hand decisively. “No Ben, not before lunch.”

Cassie smiled. “Oh, come on, it’s just a bit of bread pudding!”

Ben said: “I can eat bread!” The first tones of whining surfaced.

Ian frowned. “Cassie,” he murmured, “what are you doing?”

“It’s just a bite…”

“You know we’re trying to control this sugar thing.”

Rachel laughed. “Oh my God, you’ve become Arlo!”

Ian shot her a ‘you’re not helping’ look.

Rachel recoiled in genuine surprise. Never seen that before!

Giving up on the adults, Ian turned to his son. “What did we talk about with sugar?”

Ben twisted in his father’s lap, as if trying to evade the falling nets of his words.

“Ben?” Ian’s face was stern, solid – but not unkind, Rachel noticed.

Ben scowled. “Not before… food.”

“We made that deal, right?”

Ben eventually nodded, as if hoping his father was blind and could not see it.

“Remember last night? I promised to take you out of daycare so we can meet mom for lunch. Remember?”

Another nod.

“Now you like being able to trust my promises, right?”

After a moment, Ben nodded.

The waiter returned with two spoons. “A small one for you,” he smiled, handing one to Ian, “and a biiig one for the fine young gentlemen here!”

Ian scowled at the waiter – and took the second spoon at the same moment that Ben grabbed it.

There was a pause.

Ben glared at his father, then at the spoon. His cheeks began to turn red.

Ian’s voice was low. “Ben. Let go please.”

Again, the two women saw the waiter wanting to apologize – but he beat a hasty retreat instead.

Ben stared at the steaming bread pudding, gripping the spoon.

Rachel saw her sister open her mouth, surely to say: “Just one bite, don’t make a scene.”

Ian glared at her. She said nothing.

Ian kissed the top of Ben’s head. “How about neither of us have dessert – I won’t either.”

Ben looked from the dessert to his father, then back again.

Cassie’s cheeks were white. She shifted in her seat.

Ian murmured: “Are you thinking of making a scene, buddy? Gonna have a tantrum?”

Ben’s lips curled in an upside-down ‘u.’

“Don’t do it, buddy. We will get up and leave if you try. I want to enjoy taking you out of daycare, Ben. I want to trust your promise about sugar - like you trusted my promise about today.” Ian’s voice lowered. “And I don’t care if you make a scene.” He gestured at the restaurant. “I don’t even know these people.”

Ben’s fierce eyes slowly faded, and he let go of the spoon.

“Sweet!” cried his father. “I mean – good!”

They ordered some more mac and cheese for Ben, and then Ian turned to Rachel.

“I’m sorry about that,” she expected Ian to say – not because he had done anything wrong, but because it just seemed – polite, to apologize for something that made someone else uncomfortable. She knew it was crazy, but it seemed – proper.

Ian made no apologies.

“I’m guessing Cassie told you the great news?”

“Oh yes – congratulations!”

“How are things with Arlo?”

You’re saying that like it has some kind of – direct connection!

Ian’s eyes were clear, curious.

Rachel frowned. “Things are good. Good. He’s looking for a promotion at the – zoo… Things are kind of crazy in the science world at the moment – unless it’s pharmaceuticals. We’re going rock-climbing this weekend.”

Ben started fussing out of boredom. Rachel expected Ian to hand over his phone, but he just asked a passing waitress for paper and crayons.

Ian laughed. “Rock-climbing, that’s cool – ha ha, I vaguely remember having the time for that kind of thing!”

Why is he needling me this way? thought Rachel angrily. “Oh, it’s not just a hobby – he’s entering these competitions – he climbs the walls like a crazy spider – you should watch the videos!”

“Oh? And what does he win?”

Rachel’s neck felt hot. “He’s just really into – physical excellence…”

“For what?”

“Excuse me?”

Ian shrugged. “I’m just curious. What is all this physical excellence for? He’s not an athlete, he’s not a model – good-looking guy though. It’s gotta be expensive, takes up a lot of time - but I’m not sure where it leads.”

Rachel frowned. “But – it looks like you’ve been working out.”

Ian nodded. “Yeah… I realized that play fighting with Ben here wasn’t quite cutting it, so I got some weights and a bench in the garage.”

Cassie smiled. “And he’s changed his diet!”

Rachel laughed and put her spoon down. “Oh, you and Arlo should now have a lot more to talk about!” She ticked off her fingers. “Sweet potatoes, salmon, oats, eggs, avocados, fat bombs. I don’t think I’m even allowed to smell this dessert!”

“When the cat is away…” said Cassie, scooping up some pudding.

“No fair!” cried Ben angrily.

Ian frowned at her. “No, Ben, mommy has already had her lunch.”

“No fair!” he repeated, louder.

Ian said: “Do we really need to eat this in front of him right now?”

Cassie shrugged. “You said making deals would work…”

Rachel could see Ian’s jaw muscles bulge, and had flashbacks to endless Tom Cruise closeups.

Ben suddenly pounded his fist on the table. The cutlery clattered loudly. “Want some!”

Cassie’s full spoon paused in midair.

“Cassie – don’t you dare!” cried Ian. The waiter appeared in the middle distance. People glanced up. “Ben, please don’t raise your voice. You’re not having any dessert!”

Ben burst into tears. “Mommy has some, Auntie has some, I don’t have any… I never get any..!

Cassie ducked her head. “Don’t hand him to me!”

Ian stared at her incredulously.

She said: “He’s just – winding himself up. You know how this ends.”

Ian jumped up, lifting his son - then realized that Ben’s hands were clutching the tablecloth. The plates, desert and cutlery danced dangerously across the table.

“NOOOOO!” screamed Ben.

Cassie shrank back, staring at her belly in bottomless shame.

Rachel skidded her chair back a little, to get some distance – and signal to the restaurant that she was not the mother.

Ben detached his left hand from the tablecloth, then raised it like a claw towards his father’s face.

“Ben!” cried Ian, grabbing his son’s wrist with his one free hand.

“You promised!” screamed Ben.

“We’re out,” said Ian, his face dark. “Sorry Rachel.”

Rachel shrugged.

Still holding his wriggling son’s wrist, Ian struggled to get around the table. With her foot, Rachel pulled a chair away from his path.

“Don’t want to!” screamed Ben. “You never…”

Cassie leaned forward, covering her face with her hands.

Rachel’s lips were compressed white lines.

Lurching from side to side as his son struggled violently, Ian somehow made it past the table.

Turning to his wife, his eyes dark with passion, Ian cried out: “Can we please pull him out of daycare?

Cassie shrank back, raising her hands as if to ward off a blow.

The restaurant was utterly silent, as one of the most essential questions hung in the air of every mind and heart present.

No one even got up to open the front door to help Ian – he had to struggle mightily with his son and a latch in order to escape.

Please God let no one have been filming, thought Rachel in desperation.

A supernatural silence had swallowed up the restaurant.

A brief glimpse to a wider world – to reality, in fact – had cracked open the petty cathedral of distraction everyone hid in. Inconsequential differences, imaginary slights, silly details of graying hair, spiky moles and acne scars, minor debts and hangnails – the anger at food served slightly cold, invitations delayed and the petty rejection of three nights prior – all these detritus, details and dust vanished in a sudden interstellar zoom out – a minor but powerful presage of the deathbed regrets that put everything in perspective, far too late.

Hearing about volatile toddlers being pulled from daycare put a chill down the spines of the droning corporate females, who wrestled with slides and spreadsheets for impatient and indifferent men – the true patriarchy of indoctrinated wage slavery – as they rushed to placate the bosses who always rolled their eyes at tales of sick children – the same bosses who would inevitably fade from their lives like the drunken siren of a racing ambulance, into the deep rear mirrors of paychecks long gone…

And a skylight suddenly shattered over that very deathbed they would all face – if they are lucky – where the empty boss-gods they sacrificed their children to are distant or dead, and they reach for their grown children, who find themselves distracted and busy… And all the lost and fossilized spreadsheets and presentations that they sold their future for will never be unearthed, never be reviewed - they have as much value to the future as the dead diapers of infancy…

And all their decades of ambition, postponement and conformity - and chasing dollars to swell their taxes - are all flushed into nothing – while all the seeds of love that should have been planted in the fertile hearts of babies are handed to bosses to be consumed and destroyed…

And all of this is hinted and revealed in the moments of perspective that strike and scald the oceans of distraction like kindly heaven-sent comets.

People listen, or recoil – time moves on regardless, and all is revealed before the end. Perspective is inevitable, morality is inescapable – the glory of the universe is the finger-tapping on the shoulder of conscience delivered on a regular – but declining – basis, until souls either listen and live or…

Rachel paid as rapidly as she could – Cassie was numb, nervous – and they fled the restaurant.

In the warm air, outside, wandering in a daze through the canyon-bowels of grimy buildings, the sisters were silent for a few minutes. Both their hearts were racing, but probably in different directions. They failed to notice how widely the crowd was parting in front of them, so that they barely had to adjust their steps – every stranger’s conscience could see that the two sisters were in the grip of perspective, and so the crowd gave them a wide berth, in order not to give birth to perspective themselves.

Even the traffic lights gave way, allowing them to keep walking, to not delay, to not let the clouds of their perspective infect the huddled masses trapped in their vicinity.

As if one body, the sisters veered to the left at the first sign of a semi-secluded park bench. The bustle of the city continued to part around them, as clouds of fish swirl away from larger predators.

They sat silence for 30 seconds, watching the strutting pigeons, until a loose dog chased the birds away.

Rachel turned to Cassie.

“Cassie, what the hell?

Cassie regarded the question, turning over the four-letter word in her mind. Rachel could be referring to any number of hells – or any layers within them.

“Mmm,” she murmured finally. “He’s changed…”

Rachel shook her head slightly, annoyed that she didn’t know which male her sister was referring to.

After a few more moments of silence, Cassie continued in a small voice: “He wants me to stay home. Now.” She ducked her head slightly. “Soon…”

“With the baby…”

“And my boy.”

There was another pause.

Rachel said: “What do you want me to say?”

It was Cassie’s turn to be annoyed. “Say whatever’s on your mind!”

“So much…” Rachel took a deep breath, brushing back her hair. “Do you want to stay home.” Do you want to confess your crime..?

“It’s so retarded…” cried Cassie, forgetting political correctness in her passion. She turned to her sister. “You know, when I thought of staying home, the first person I thought of disappointing was – you!”

Rachel feigned surprise. “Me?”

Cassie scowled and turned away. “God above, how the hell are we supposed to be related? We are so different… I used to wonder if mom had an affair…”

“Cassie!” cried Rachel.

“It’s just a thought – calm down…” Cassie bit at her thumbnail. “I don’t know what to think. It’s like when you lost religion, lost God… I’m very confused,” she said, her voice catching in her throat. “I know I’m supposed to be empowered, a modern woman, but I miss my boy, and I think he’s being harmed, and I love my husband, and he’s – offering me something, and it feels so good that I’m sure it is bad, somehow…”

“Staying home?”

“God, wasn’t it easier when everyone did it, and there was a community, and you swapped recipes over picket fences and had chicken pox parties and sleepovers where kids sung into hairdryers and hid candy wrappers in the vents? Do you think mom was happy?”

Rachel blinked. “Mom? What?”

“Rachel, keep up!” said Cassie sharply – which was unusual, but seemed fitting somehow. She turned back to her sister. “Do you think I should stay home?”

Rachel pursed her lips, knowing that she could not turn the question back on her sister. Eventually, she said: “What if you do, and you like it?”

Cassie cocked her head. “That would be good, right?”

“I don’t know…”

Cassie stared at the buildings, the pigeons on white-streaked gargoyles, the tickertapes of transitory news, the crossword of blue sky above. She murmured: “I suppose everyone has this moment, when they wonder if they’ve ever been told the truth, their whole life?”

“Did you ask mom?”

“If she’s happy?”

“Yeah, I suppose so – but mostly if she thought – if she thought you should stay home?”

“I did ask her, Sunday, at lunch – and her whole body went rigid, like total fight or flight. I see that sometimes at the hospital, but mostly with psych patients. It was like – like she thought I was trying to trap her, or trick her…” A tear spilled from Cassie’s eye. “Why is it so hard?

“There is what we want, and what we feel…”

“What?”

A couple of multicoloured pigeons strode tentatively towards them, and Rachel suddenly wondered why she had never once in her life seen a baby pigeon. Where the hell do they keep them?

Cassie cleared her throat. “When I think of staying home, it feels like – betrayal…” Her voice wobbled. “Like I have to go to my team, my boss, and tell them – and I’m betraying someone, something, my patients, feminism, I don’t know… And then – and then I imagine – running into one of my old teachers in the grocery store, in the middle of a workday, with two kids… Their disappointment – it makes me mad! Who the hell are they? I didn’t sign some contract for forever…”

“No, of course not,” said Rachel automatically.

Cassie took a deep breath, then exhaled mightily. “Oh, it’s all such… It’s a tough decision because – because I have obligations to my career, my patients – and to my husband – and I guess most of all to my children, the first and the next…” She laughed. “The Alpha and the Beta. Oh God, I sound like Ian. Sexual market value, soyboys, beta males, hypergamy, monkey branching… He’s got this whole new language, it’s like hieroglyphics made out of penises!”

Rachel laughed. “I could probably read that in braille form…”

“Ha, ha… I know I’m going kind of crazy, and that it’s – kind of ridiculous… But – I think what makes me the craziest is that – well, Ben has been in daycare for over two years, and you saw him today, you can see that he’s – changed, at least somewhat, and maybe that’s just the terrible twos, but God help me I know one – no, two – stay at home moms, and neither of them will let Ben come over to play anymore…” Her voice was suddenly bitter.

“What? When did that happen?”

Cassie gestured airily, but Rachel could see the deep wound within. “Just – the past few months…” She shook her head. “And what if I quit my career and stay home, and Ben – can’t change, can’t be fixed, and I just spend the next 15 years failing to fix what I already broke…”

Rachel’s heart spasmed. “Oh Cassie, no!”

Cassie’s eyes flashed. “I’m just telling you my fears, I’m not making predictions! It could be – but there will be a day when he can’t be helped anymore – and every morning when I get up – in the dark, you know – and I get him ready to go to daycare, I wonder if this is the day – that if I keep him home today, he can be fixed – but if I drop him off today – he can’t be fixed – anymore.  You remember how dad used to talk about smoking – that there was that one cigarette that gave you cancer – if you quit before that one cigarette, you were okay – if you smoke that one, you’re done. It’s like that with the daycare, with Ben. Every day…”

Rachel’s hand was at her mouth. “Oh sweetheart, he’s not broken!”

Cassie’s eyes narrowed. “And how could you possibly know?”

Rachel swallowed. She said nothing. She hadn’t been around.

Cassie took her sister’s hand. “Please, please don’t give me platitudes, I’m begging you! I don’t want to feel better now, I want to feel better – tomorrow. Next week. And…”

Rachel looked down, at their layered hands. “What research has Ian done?”

“Oh, there are studies, some in Québec I think, that daycare is – bad for kids.”

Rachel frowned. “Wouldn’t that be – all over?”

Cassie sighed. “Can you imagine? Every network talking about daycare wrecking kids, what that would do to – everything?” She gestured at the street, the buildings – the city.

Rachel shuddered.

Cassie said: “Who wants to know? Half the time I wish I didn’t…”

Rachel patted her sister’s hand. “What about – part-time?”

Cassie reached down, pulled off a shoe and massaged the bottom of her foot. “That just seems like the worst of both worlds – and how do you get part-time childcare? Ian has done the math – he’s got a whole spreadsheet for this… To be honest, it’s pretty tough to justify.”

“Would you – have to move?”

Cassie laughed bitterly. “Oh, Ian would love that! I swear, he wants to go full Bear Grylls and build a cabin in the wilderness! Yeah, we’d have to move, someplace rural I guess… Ian’s company has gone remote anyway…”

Rachel couldn’t help but laugh. “Good God, a stay-at-home farmer’s wife!”

“Barefoot and pregnant, milking cows!”

“Rassling pigs and hoeing the back 40!”

Cassie smiled. “You have no idea what those words mean, Rach. That’s okay, neither do I…” She leaned in, although no one was close. “But – I know it’s wrong, and bad, but he’s become – much more attractive – and attentive – since getting into this – men’s rights stuff. You saw – he’s dropped his flab, got a promotion… He’s doing things right proper at the moment!” Cassie ended her sentence with a smile and a mock British accent.

Rachel nodded. “I did… I noticed it the moment he walked in. Like Attila the Hun with an offspring. An heir…”

Cassie nodded. “That’s – good, for me… But I know I’m not supposed to – like it, this kind of – traditional – stuff.”

“But you do,” said Rachel simply. For the first time in a long time, she simply spoke a fact, rather than judging its outcome.

The sisters sat in silence.

Cassie said: “What happens when you get – pregnant?”

Rachel laughed nervously. “Oh, I’m a long way away from – that!”

“But – why? I thought you wanted kids.”

“Yeah, I do,” said Rachel – somewhat unconvincingly. “I mean, at some point… Like – I want to go skydiving, but not – this afternoon.”

Cassie tsked between her teeth. “Don’t make me tell you about The Wall.”

“The album?” asked Rachel incredulously.

Cassie laughed. “God no, it’s an Ian thing.” She imitated her husband. “‘The wall takes no prisoners.’”

Rachel scowled, feeling suddenly nervous. “The hell?”

“The wall – that tipping point where a woman is no longer – young. When she loses her sexual market value. ‘Women of a certain age’ mom used to say. Are you going to get married to Arlo?”

Rachel scowled, then smoothed her features, to prevent wrinkles. “Uhhh, we haven’t talked about it…”

“Three years, right?”

Rachel ducked her head slightly. “A little over…”

“Living together for two… Does he want to get married?”

Rachel shrugged tightly. “Ohhh, he doesn’t – really – think in those terms…”

Cassie now imitated Arlo, and Rachel had to admit what an excellent mimic her sister was. “‘Dude, it’s just a piece of paper!’”

“Bruh!”

“Bruuuuh!”

Rachel laughed again. “Yes, he’s a bit of a ‘bro’ – and he’s not exactly sprinting up the maturity cliff, but he totally wants what’s best for me – and if I really did want to get married, I’m sure it would – happen.”

When are you 28 again?”

“Don’t do that – you know when!” snapped Rachel.

“How much do you make?”

“What – what does that have to do with..?”

“Ian asked me the other night, and I realized – I don’t really know what’s going on with your career. I make sixty-five thousand a year, three weeks vacation – and a bucket load of benefits… What do you make? Heck, what does Arlo make?”

“We have – different kinds of careers… Lean years, but a lot of potential.”

“At the petting zoo?”

“He doesn’t work at a petting zoo, Cassie!” snapped Rachel. “He works at a zoo, a real zoo - which he got because of his degree in – life-sciences!”

Cassie raised her hands. “All right, all right. But he mostly gives – lemur tours?”

“Yes, he’s a bit of an expert, so that’s – part of what he does…”

Cassie half smiled. “And do the – the children, do they – pet – these lemurs, at the zoo?”

Rachel refused to be drawn into her sister’s good humour. “He’s got a lot of responsibility… Everyone has to start somewhere, Cass… There’s not a huge demand - but he’ll find a way up, to the top.”

“Rachel,” said Cassie gently, “he’s been working there for as long as you’ve known him.”

“I know!” cried Rachel, evident tension in her voice. “We’ve talked about it, don’t worry! And he started as a volunteer, if you recall!”

Cassie nodded slowly. “I’m guessing you’re – not going to tell me how much you make.”

“What does it matter?

“I guess – children are expensive, and if you want kids, and you’re – kind of broke, that affects things.”

Rachel took a deep breath. “When are you due back at the hospital?”

Cassie blinked in surprise, and glanced at her watch. “Oh crap, thanks – actually pretty soon!”

“Good times…” murmured Rachel.

“It’s all meant for the best!” said Cassie, slightly defensively. “Mom and dad should totally be having these conversations with us, giving us the benefit of their wisdom, but you know how it is, we are all raised by wolves these days – so we have to try to help each other!

More from Ian, thought Rachel, but declined to say anything.

They both stood up slowly. Rachel gave her sister a big hug.

“Thanks for an – interesting lunch!”

Cassie hugged her back tightly. “Love you, sis.”

“You too.”

After Cassie had left, Rachel sank back on the bench, her posture still keeping bystanders at a distance.

The pigeons slowly approached.

Rachel stared at them.

The thought arose within her, against her will:

Seriously, where the hell are all the baby pigeons?

Chapter 2

Rachel was secretly delighted that she failed to comprehend most of her boyfriend’s personality.

Most people never achieve beauty… Some people do manage to grow into it, but a deranged few are born into it, and never know any other way of life, perhaps until they get very old.

Arlo had been a good-looking baby, even-tempered, a fine sleeper – and his physical attractiveness always seemed to sort of sail ahead of him, like a golden icebreaker, allowing him few genuine oppositions in the languid forward thrusting of his life.

His mother was a wealthy art dealer who relished his handsomeness. His father had started as a mid-level model, and had been subsidized by his wife into becoming a middling entrepreneur. He viewed his son’s ice blue eyes and blond windswept hair with deep suspicion. To be handsome is one thing – to have an assertive hairline, a big jaw, even features and wide eyes was good; it made life significantly more efficient to see less physically blessed people give way before the dominance of accidental genetic excellence.

However, male beauty was a different matter entirely – it seemed to eternally demand excessive hair products, voodoo face creams, full-body electrolysis… Excessive beauty did not seem manly - or even masculine. It was too distracting to be used as a battering ram in negotiations – it was a dreamy alabaster statue merely to be admired from the middle distance. Beautiful men are always viewed as so far from the average that the surrounding thoughts are almost always: What on earth are you doing here?

Arlo’s father worked hard to teach his son qualities of intellect and character, reminding him that he was even more privileged than a beautiful woman, whose physical value degrades much faster under the sanding gusts of time.

“Three kinds of people rarely know the truth, son,” he repeated. “The very wealthy, the very powerful – and the beautiful. And if you don’t learn the truth, all you have is manipulation and envy – don’t be that guy!”

Arlo did have above average intelligence, but nothing close to his father’s – he had inherited more of his mother’s capacities. They were both socially easy, witty without being surprising or offensive, in relaxed possession of opinions as well-shaped as their figures – and both mother and son appeared almost entirely devoid of inner conflict.

The pair were central deities in the modern superstition of “over there.”

Ahhh, “over there…”

“Over there” is peace, tranquility, success, ease, perfection – and a pleasant life. Just as neurotic women flocked to Guatemala because “over there” was deep and Zen, people gazed at Arlo with envy not just because of his beauty, but their fantasies that his life and personality were endlessly shaped and eased by it.

Some men did fantasize that Arlo would benefit from receiving a significant facial injury, and imagined him scrabbling to rebuild his life from his sudden collapse to the average – but the fantasy that Arlo’s life was better because he was better looking – well, it is part of the general human condition to imagine that changing one variable removes all struggles from life – or that life is better without struggling…

Arlo’s looks radiated down into his athletic abilities, albeit with some unfortunate fadeout. He was a good amateur athlete, but lacked the grim will and semi-hysterical reaction times required to vault into the professional leagues. He enjoyed exercise, but the black-hearted thirst to win that so often emerges from a hardscrabble origin story was inevitably absent. Arlo was perhaps destined to settle into the upper middle – he was too pretty to stay at the bottom, too placid to battle to the top. He remained a pleasant diversion of passing beauty – perhaps destined for some public position of medium importance, memorable only in the future for the shadows on his selfies.

Like most modern young women, Rachel had a deep fetish for beauty. Throughout human history, beauty has always been intensely desirable – but it was designed by evolution to be a short-term high, not a long-term addiction. The flames of female beauty were originally a Lucifer match – burn brightly, darken quickly. For about a year from the age of eighteen or so, female beauty was supposed to shoot into the air like a flare, to draw high-quality men out of their hesitant lairs – then become pregnant, and shed smooth skin, excellent curves and bright eyes on the hard grater of gritty human reproduction.

Modern times brook no such acceleration – female beauty is now a shrieking siren to draw male attention, time and resources for at least two decades! Men are attracted to video games, women to attention – both allow adolescence to be extended into what feels like infinity – but only turns out to be eternity, after the pair-bonded richness of a life of having and creating love exists only in the endlessly regretful rear-view mirror.

Modern culture in a nutshell: Promote the narcissism of instant gratification, deny the deeper values of virtue and love – and then hide from view the roadkill detritus that scatter the lonely post-40s highways. Youthful beauty is no longer a lever to pry the next generation from drawn-to-the-mirror vanity, but an ego-infesting drug that hollows out the personality by assigning value only to its exterior.

Arlo was wise and intelligent enough to be bemused by the deference given to him for his looks. The first night he met Rachel – at a Halloween party where he was dressed as a duckling with a giant curved ‘U’ of metal as a belt – a ‘chick magnet’ as he explained redundantly - he told her the following story:

“It’s a crazy life, to be honest… Couple of years ago, I was in a bit of a shallow place; I was dating two girls at the same time – nothing was ever made official, like exclusive, but it turns out the girls thought…” He laughed. “People don’t actually ask me to be exclusive, they just assume…” He lifted his duck bill and took a sip of ultralight beer. “Anyway, this one girl came over unannounced, and found me – found another girl at my place, and the first girl got really mad, and called me all kinds of names – it was pretty exciting actually!” He smiled and shook his head. “So both the girls left – totally incensed – and I figure well, that’s that, I guess I just have to be more clear in the future. So anyway, I got a wicked flu that night – this was before Covid, it was unrelated – so anyway, I’m lying on the couch, half-dead - but happy to be losing weight frankly – and there’s this message, and this girl – the first girl – leaves me this total string of salty words about what a jerk and an asshole I am, and how could I treat her that way, you know the kind of stuff… So then the other girl calls – the second girl – and says pretty much the same thing, I don’t know if they coordinated their scripts or what, but… And I’m kind of delirious at this point – I don’t have a lot of skin on my bones, so I don’t have much fat backup for when I can’t eat, so I think my heart was chewing on my kidneys or something – but at some point, I don’t know, couple hours later maybe, the first girl calls back, and half-dazed I listen – and she says that she’s still really mad at me, but just wants me to call her to let her know I’m okay – and I think the other girl called too, something similar, but again, I was pretty out of it, hey… And then – the next morning I think – the first girl leaves a message apologizing for her earlier messages, but just really wants me to call her, because she’s worried about me – and I got this total image that she’d been up all night, I don’t know, it just - felt that way, in her voice.” Arlo laughed. “And then the other girl messages me – remember, they didn’t know each other – and said – pretty much the same thing, give or take… And then – again, I was pretty out of it – at some point the next day, both the girls leave messages in tears, apologizing like crazy, that they overreacted and it wasn’t my fault and they’re just terrified that something has happened to me – and I couldn’t at this point even tell which girl was which, they both said ‘it’s me’ but because they were crying they sounded – identical.” He laughed again, his wobbly beak slightly delayed in its movements. “Crazy world…”

Rachel had leaned forward, hungering to brush Arlo’s hair back from his forehead. “And – what happened?”

Arlo blinked. “What?”

“What happened – did you – call them back?”

“Call them back…” he echoed, frowning. Rachel could see that the idea had never even occurred to him. He smiled. “I bet you’re one of those people who waits until the movie credits have finished, just to see if there’s another scene snuck in past the end.” He shrugged. “Sorry, this band doesn’t do encores, that’s just the end of the story…”

Rachel was desperate to know why Arlo had told her that story – she believed that you knew everything about a man in the first few moments – or minutes at least – of meeting him, and her mind raced around in small circles, trying to figure out the moral of the tale she had just heard.

“What is it like, getting all that attention?”

A certain shadow of weariness passed through his eyes, like a tiny ghost trapped in an abandoned fun house. “It’s – kind of addictive, to be honest…” His eyes suddenly cleared. “I mean, I don’t have to tell you!”

Rachel glowed with pleasure.

Arlo continued: “You know, I did try being a model, ‘cause everyone was bugging me to do it – I know that sounds weak-willed, but… My frat brothers kept telling me that if they looked like me, they couldn’t be paid enough to keep their shirts on – I don’t mean to sound vain, I’m just reporting what they said… So I did… I walked into the agency, and wanted to send me out right away – I signed some stuff and was on a call that afternoon. And I got jobs – but I got thirsty faster, so I never kept it up…”

“Thirsty?” Rachel laughed incredulously. “What the hell do you mean?”

Arlo blinked, his blue eyes lost in his yellow chicken face. “Oh, it’s nuts - I had to do an underwear shoot, and I literally could not drink any liquids for like two days before – because you have to be really dehydrated to look that – thin, or ripped, or whatever… Modelling is all about where you are – but most especially where you are not, which is having anything at all hanging over the edge of the underwear – a ‘no muffin top’ zone, if you get my drift. It was good money, but it’s a really – well – creepy lifestyle – no, that’s not it – it’s a creepy – layer of society… Everyone is sex obsessed and high strung and weirdly possessive and grabby.” Arlo shrugged. “I don’t like the word – but the closest I can get to it is – bitchy, it’s full of bitchy people – especially the other models, the men. And maybe I could’ve handled that part, but…”

“But what?”

Arlo ducked his head. Rachel could see his perfect part. “Look, I’m not try to pump myself up…”

“Go on, don’t tease me bro!” (Rachel mimicked an ancient meme about tasering.)

Arlo blew through his perfect lips. “Well - I was born with a couple of natural gifts, I guess physically – and I love to exercise, and – you might not believe me, but I really don’t like to eat, I find it kind of boring and bland – and this is the first beer I’ve had in about two and a half months – so I have some natural gifts, and I have some built-in preferences – or avoidances I guess – and it just felt – wrong – to fake this kind of standard for the average dude.”  He smiled, almost sadly. “Yeah, I look pretty good in underwear, but it’s not something that the average man should focus on, or aspire to – or God help him try to achieve.” Arlo did seem genuinely troubled, and this touched Rachel deeply. “It got to the point where I felt kind of like a tall guy pretending he can sell his height to shorter guys – it’s a lie, for the most part, and I really didn’t want to participate in making other men feel bad for – natural accidents, nothing more.” He laughed abruptly. “That was a lot of it, but also I just couldn’t stand imagining the rest of my life hanging around with people who’d only ask me to play pool so they could grab at my butt!”

Rachel pursed her lips. “You know, you talk a lot about your body, Mr Chicken…”

Arlo frowned. “You think I’m talking about me in underwear so you can – picture me?”

Rachel pulled out her phone and searched for him. “Wow. Oh my…”

Arlo craned his head to look. “See, there’s just – less of me there.”

“Do you still get – residuals?”

“Oh no, I was never – I never got big enough for that.”

“How long did you do it for?”

Arlo shrugged. “Maybe – six months or so?”

“Did you meet a lot of girls?”

“Sure, I did some couple shots – but the girls all have stomach issues, and… Most of them smoke like chimneys and have the charisma of a damp rag. You can look sexy or you can feel sexy, that’s an iron law… Beauty and boredom seem to go hand-in-hand for most people.”

“So – then what?”

Arlo smiled. “Well, I – finished my degree in biology, because I always loved – roaming, as a kid. I collected tadpoles and salamanders and raised chickens and just – loved everything about animals… Volunteered at the zoo – where they had me giving tours on my second day…”

Rachel laughed, but Arlo looked injured.

“It wasn’t just a looks thing - I’m good with people, and kids really like me, and I genuinely know my stuff.”

“I’m sorry, you’re - you’re right…”

She saw the cliché behind the cliché – the inner boy who wanted to be appreciated for who he was, rather than how the man looked – and she felt some sympathy for that – but mostly she hungered for the splash-improvement of being associated with Arlo’s level of beauty.

Rachel’s mother had taught her very young that if you ever wanted to know how attractive you are, all you have to do is look at your boyfriend.

This created a multiyear obsession for Rachel, where she stared at everyone at the mall, or on a plane, or in school – looking for exceptions to her mother’s golden rule. Like a cat bringing in dead birds, she would bring exceptions to her mother, who would dismiss them with an airy gesture. “If she’s much prettier than he is, it’s because he has money…”

On the rare occasion when an attractive man was with a less attractive woman, Rachel’s mother immediately assumed hyper-religiosity, or an unwanted pregnancy.

“The exception that proves the rule!” said her mother triumphantly, which drove Rachel slightly around the bend.

“No fair!” she cried in her high child voice. “You can’t just make up a rule, then say that everything that goes against that rule proves that rule!”

“How often do you see people of similar attractiveness, but where the girl is much taller than the boy?”

Rachel thought, desperate for evidence. “Not often…” she finally admitted.

Her mother laughed, wrestling with a bread maker in their blindingly sunny kitchen. “You know, when I was a kid, about your age, my dad gave us a list of things to look for during car drives – we drove a lot, and my siblings and I would get up to all sorts of mischief in the backseat. There was some big prize at the end – can’t for the life of me recall what it was now – and I don’t remember much about what we were supposed to look for – license plates from the different states, cars with more than one colour, cars with a broken antennae, stuff like that – but two I clearly remember… One was a motorcycle with a woman driving, and a man on the back – this was before helmets covered up everything, so you could actually tell – and another was a clown in a convertible carrying balloons.” She laughed. “Your Uncle Jeff claimed to have seen the motorcycle one, but conveniently it just exited the highway as he was pointing it out, and we couldn’t – verify it. We never saw the clown, though – and even to this day, like forty years later, whenever I see a convertible, I look for a clown with balloons…” Her voice wobbled, because her father was ill. “I’d like to tell him I found one, that I remember…”

Rachel did not reply, because even as a child she always tried to figure out why people were telling her particular stories.

Her mother dabbed an eye and continued. “So, daughter of mine, when I say that most cars are not convertibles with a clown carrying balloons in them, that rule isn’t disproven when you see one. You see what I mean?”

Stung by her failed rebellion, Rachel nodded - while privately reserving her right to disagree.

Rachel’s father was altogether medium. Medium height, medium hairline, medium brown hair, medium income, moderate opinions, average dad bod - he didn’t even have any uncommon hobbies like stamp collecting or trainspotting to allow him to stand out from the masses. According to her mother, her father had great potential as a young man, but had somehow failed to achieve much of anything in life – which Rachel didn’t mind, because her father was always available to play and chat – but it bothered her mother, she could tell.

“When he was younger – oh, you won’t believe this – but he was better looking - of course, that goes without saying, we all were - and he had a little local access television show where he gave walking tours of historical neighbourhoods… And he played in a band, believe it or not, and was hell-bent on writing songs, but they lost their singer to Buddhism, and he left his songs on a bus, and the – air just kind of went out of their tires, I think. But he’s a good man, a good provider – and a woman can sustain her attraction to her husband by watching him be a good father, but there are times – I won’t lie – when I wish we could roam around the world on a big white boat, like my sister!”

It’s rarely possible in mathematics for two averages to birth an outlier – but Rachel’s parents did produce an unusually attractive child. The phrase that people generally used about her was ‘striking.’ Rachel preferred that, because it indicated impact, rather than ornamentation. She wanted to be a crater, not a pretty cloud. She kept copious diaries throughout her childhood and adolescence – entire bookshelves of scribbled red notebooks – and found herself even more drawn to Arlo when he first visited her apartment, and she showed them to him, but he just shrugged and said: “That’s all the past, man…”

As she grew to know him, Rachel learned that Arlo had as little sense of time as a deep-water shark. His physique never changed, his appetites never grew, he never seemed to encounter ideas which re-forged his personality – or affected it in any way really – and the rhythm of his days was like the heartbeat in his resting chest – steady, even, unflappable – unchangeable!

As they dated, Rachel got slowly drawn into Arlo’s timelessness. The rhythm of her period became like a metronome, without emotional or physical significance. They both staved off decay with rigorous exercise – she had to work out more, because she had a complex relationship with food. She used food as a reward mechanism for good behaviour and good decisions – which meant that she tended to oscillate five or ten pounds up and down – “like the tide,” Arlo said.

Rachel would eat well, lose weight – then reward herself by eating badly, and gain weight, and then get lectured by Arlo, and lose the weight again – she couldn’t find any balance between strictness and lassitude. She felt that running her body was like driving half drunk in a snowstorm, sliding from side to side, from excess to deficiency, always with half an eye on the rear-view mirror for the sirens of Arlo’s endlessly patient exhortations.

Rachel had to literally remind Arlo to eat – which was utterly incomprehensible to her. Rachel had vague notions of “blood sugar” which caused her to feel shaky if she hadn’t had a snack in a couple of hours. Arlo generally kept a granola bar or protein shake close at hand – especially when they were bicycling or rock-climbing – in order to short-circuit her “hangry” moodiness.

Once, he forgot to eat for an entire day – with no change in mood, no disruption of energy, no ill effects whatsoever.

“Didn’t you get hungry?” Rachel asked in shocked wonder.

Arlo shrugged in an incomprehensibly masculine fashion. “I guess I got – distracted.”

Rachel shook her head, trying to imagine a universe in which it was possible to forget about basic bodily needs. It was like listening to a doctor explain to a man that his bladder burst because he just – forgot to pee.

Rachel’s body was insistent in its expectations – or demands, to be more accurate. It complained when it wasn’t fed, watered, stretched, exercised, massaged, oiled – it was like a high maintenance camel that could run like the wind, but stumbled on a stone. She had to stretch her hamstrings every night, for fear of getting jimmy legs. Her skin grew powder dry without lotions. Her eyes required drops several times a day - and most morning she woke up with a kink in her neck because apparently her head had been off by 1.5 degrees on her pillow. (Rachel remembered Arlo’s comment about pretty girls having stomach issues when she first explained everything she had to go through in order to get an edible meal in a restaurant.)

Arlo’s body was like a machine – a robot that carried his brain and beautiful face from place to place – a server, a courier delivering the aesthetic joy of his presence to a waiting world. He barely thought about his organs, and it never seemed to give him any trouble at all – at least internally.

Being with Arlo came with a part-time job of endless movement. Quite unfairly, he did always remind Rachel of a shark – he was not predatory, she didn’t mean it that way, but she felt goosebumps one night watching a nature documentary with Arlo, where a fruity-voiced English narrator loftily informed them that sharks lacked an air bladder, and thus were condemned to swim forever. Watching the angular blue-topped beast swimming through a cloud of indifferent fish reminded Rachel of Arlo constantly passing by snacks without even noticing them – and watching him do his endless leg lifts, lying on the ground watching the landscape ocean on the television, Rachel felt a deep visceral connection between the shark and her boyfriend. Have I ever seen a fat shark? she wondered. I guess only pregnant ones

In that moment, Arlo had look up at her from the Moroccan carpet and said: “You know, when I took up surfing, people would talk about sharks all the time, but I never felt scared at all. I saw a couple of fins, and always assumed they were dolphins - and every time I could see clearly, I was always right!”

One of their own, thought Rachel - hoping that the documentary would reveal whether sharks bit each other or not. (When he nibbled on her neck that night, she felt another shiver…)

Arlo did have his sensitivities, though – mostly physical, of course, because everything about him was physical… He had to give up local surfing, because the bacteria count in the water got too high for his fragile Blanche Dubois skin. He ended up with ear infections, pinkeye, and a rash between his butt cheeks. Rachel half-expected him to launch into some progressive environmental crusade to clean up the beach water, but it didn’t appear to even cross his mind.

Rachel did end up suggesting it to him, and he gave her a speech that remained burned in her brain for days. His face was eclipsed by the outside glare through the Starbucks window, and he cradled his white coffee cup - on which, of course, the barista had drawn an inevitable heart.

“Rachel, we all want to be free – and you can beat back injustice a bit I guess – but it’s always a losing battle… It’s like fighting aging – you never win, not in the end. Yeah, I could spend the next year or two trying to get the beach cleaned up – and maybe I could succeed – but then the air would get worse, something would spill… And if you piss the wrong people off – the media might single me out, attack me – particularly because of my looks – and get me fired…” His voice thickened slightly. “And – don’t take this the wrong way, babe, but I would really miss my babies, my lemurs…” He took a sip of his black coffee, grimacing like any proper caffeine snob. “So, I end up with no money, no job, giving everything up so that other people can surf for another year or two..? Thanks, but…”

Rachel did not understand Arlo’s slacker perspective until his father blew through town on business, and she was subjected to a forty-minute lecture on the bottomless vanity and futility of the most talented and brilliant Romans who wasted their entire lives trying to slow or reverse the fall of their Empire.

He also cradled a coffee cup while lecturing – a family trait it seemed. “Just think of the energy, the focus, the concentration – people wore themselves down to a nub writing and arguing and debating and fighting and voting – and being assassinated – trying to slow or reverse these giant falling dominoes.” He gestured for Rachel, on the off chance she had never played. “The benefits of political power accrue to a very motivated few - the costs are dispersed across endless millions of people. A man who can steal a dollar from a billion people is a billionaire – resisting him only saves a dollar for everyone else. You can slow that down for a bit, but you can’t fight or reverse it fundamentally. Human nature is like physics, and only a fool fights physics…”

This determinist view of history did not cause Arlo to fall into despair – rather, it gave him release and relief from almost any and all obligations. He could enjoy his life under the shadow of a rumbling volcano without falling into the delusion – as he saw it – that any bizarre rituals could prevent the eruption.

Perhaps that’s why he never talks about children… His father was far back enough in time to have children without a sense of imminent doom, but for Arlo…

“Rach?”

Her eyes suddenly flew open like missile hatches prelaunch. Rachel realized that she had been, as she called it, “stay-dreaming,” i.e. lying in bed.

She covered up her sudden shock by pretending to lazily stretch. Oh, the subterfuge required for a jumpy person to live with a ridiculously relaxed person…

“I brought your coffee, babe,” he said, placing it on a coaster.

He always sounds like he’s trying to pre-empt my bad mood by caffeinating me, Rachel thought – before scolding herself. As Arlo constantly reminds me, I cannot convict him in the court of my mind without evidence or his opportunity to rebut…

Arlo always awoke instantly, with full functionality – Rachel had to build herself up to competent adulthood like a two-year-old learning to stack blocks. She noticed that he was dressed for – dressed for – climbing.

“Our bodies are temples – time to get to church!” he grinned. “No rush, no pressure – but how much time do you need?”

“Well, I don’t have to do my hair, so – twenty-five minutes?”

Rachel knew that saying half an hour would bring complaints, but she could easily get thirty minutes out of twenty-five. Every time she was woken up early – though it was in fact after 9 AM – Rachel remembered the difficulties her own mother had on the days of family outings, when she had to get up before dawn to get everything ready – especially the children – because Rachel’s father would get watch-tapping impatient, standing by the front door before striding to wait in the car – no matter how cold – while her mother worked feverishly to get everyone in motion. It wasn’t that her father never offered to help, it was more that there was no point – the machinery of motion was so complex that any outside aid was just sand in the Jell-O…

Rachel lurched out of bed and grabbed at her coffee - remembering that the ‘coaster’ was in fact a cup warmer, bought by Arlo – she assumed grudgingly, though incorrectly – as a resigned acceptance of the fact that – in his view – it took her forever to get up.

Arlo was a coffee perfectionist – “The ritual is half the addiction,” he said - and the deep bitter magic of his black brew was an unparalleled pleasure.

Rachel lingered in the bathroom, mulling over popping a pimple, but made it to the car in thirty-two minutes.

Arlo was listening to a nutrition podcast, and gave her a blinding smile as she lurched into the driver’s seat. All that coffee, and his teeth remain platonic white… thought Rachel, then chastised herself again. You can’t choose a guy for his perfections, then complain about his perfections…

Arlo prided himself on his silent climbing. From below, his straining calves looked like giant pink tadpoles, and he had the lean thighs of a long-distance runner – as he once was, until he read about Tiger Woods mourning the effects of youthful running on his middle-aged knees. Arlo had immediately switched to swimming and surfing to protect his joints – and now climbing, which was somewhat low-impact at least.

“My dad has a bad back, you gotta empathize with your future self!” he grinned.

They had not gone climbing for a week or two, which had given Rachel’s body a chance to heal – and oh, did she wistfully look back at her early twenties, when she never had to wonder which way her body would fall – into shrugging off overuse, or entrenching and crystallizing it into weeks of pain.

Rachel occasionally lamented the basic reality that women seemed to age faster than men – men were “bricks” as Arlo laughingly pointed out – especially from twenty to about fifty, when very little changed except perhaps the hairline.

“Women age on a slight incline – for men, it’s a giant drop from 20s vitality to bad backs and gingivitis!” He shrugged, as he always did. “There’s good and bad in both of course…”

One thing Rachel loved and hated about rock-climbing was how it changed her relationship with breathing. The slight grit and sour notes of the city were unnoticeable until they were in the high clear cliff air. The air was sweet when they climbed – which was a plus – but bitter when they returned home. Arlo constantly claimed that he would love to live outside the city, but Rachel didn’t believe a word of it – beauty has no coin in the country…

The rock-face was steeper than a hill, but not as sheer as a cliff – Arlo liked it because he said that there was no need for belaying – either solo or simultaneous – since there were few actual drops.

Rachel started climbing first, so Arlo could more easily keep an eye on her. The rock face had its challenges – a lot of tiny grips and lateral travel. Arlo’s muscles always seemed to lubricate his ascent, while Rachel felt as if she were levering herself up on the stiff tension of tendons alone. Arlo only glanced at the cliff face inches from his nose, constantly turning to inhale the landscape over his shoulder. Rachel felt dizzy when she turned, but did love the bubbling green carpet of treetops far below, dropping in undulating waves to the distant blue of a still lake. The scent of the granite was heady, gritty in their noses.

Above them, they saw an intense bearded young man descending, blasting incomprehensible inspirational music in some Eastern European language on a Bluetooth speaker attached to his belt.

“Loose rock above, dust the ridges, friends,” the man called, chalk puffing out from his pointing finger.

Arlo thanked him and spider-climbed easily up, past him. Rachel didn’t even have to look to see the bearded man’s slightly shocked face. Everyone feels attractive until Arlo sails by

Over the last year, Rachel had grown to love the climbing, because when she got into the rhythm of it, it took her completely out of her own head – like an exorcism of over-thinking. She was sometimes so desperate to escape the tangles of her own mind that she let her instincts convince her that falling was death – when the stakes were that high, her neurosis almost totally retreated.

Rachel transformed into a scanning ascending machine – panting, looking for cracks, dancing against gravity. She didn’t even notice that she had passed Arlo, see-sawing back and forth on the ridges until she was above him.

And then – and then Rachel slipped – her fingers scrambled and clawed at something, rubble – and then nothing, and she pitched backwards in a sickening flailing skidding fall.

Rachel screamed, her buried unease instantly lasering up into sheer panic. She had convinced her body that falling was death, and it now coiled for its own ending. As she dropped, Rachel caught a flash of Arlo’s face – and desperately hoped that her last earthly feeling would not be embittered rage, since he seemed almost amused, his hands resting comfortably in a vertical crevasse as he watched her plummet…

After a shockingly short span of time, Rachel’s left heel hit something, skewing her plummet. Grabbing wildly, her fingers clawed into a crevasse, straining her shoulder as she steadied herself. Twisting her head, her heart pounding, Rachel fixed her eyes on a distant container ship on the horizon, rotating her head to keep it in view, to combat the dizziness. Panic-dots swam through her vision.

“Whoa, you all right?” called down Arlo.

“I’m fine…” she muttered, then cleared her throat and spoke loudeRachel: “I’m good, I’m fine…”

“You need any help?”

“No!” she said tightly.

Pause.

“You sure?”

Rachel nodded.

Arlo had a two-question rule – he would only ask twice, then shrug and move on. It was designed to combat any potential for passive aggression.

It rarely worked, at least for Rachel.

Rachel pressed her forehead against the rock, ordering her pounding heart to slow down. She waited until she could grasp the rock-face easily, since she hated the humiliation of grabbing and failing - then slowly began to climb again, glaring up at Arlo’s tadpole calves. The first shall become last… The phrase, from a Sunday school class two decades in the past, rang through her mind.

When Arlo got to the top, he turned and helped hoist Rachel up.

“You’re upset,” he said. “Don’t worry, I still fall – even the professionals do. Talent and strength can only take you so far, there’s just this – element of luck. In life…”

Rachel shook her head tightly. “You know, I saw your face when I fell.”

Arlo laughed. “It’s sweet, you wanting my face to be the last thing you saw… No, really – so what?”

Her face was red. “You know, you could’ve reached for me!”

Arlo considered her words – he always had a slow way of responding to her aggression that made her feel a little insane. “We both would’ve fallen – probably – but…” His chin puckered. “That would have meant something, to you…”

“Well – yeah, shouldn’t that be some kind of – instinct?”

He shrugged. “The male instinct is to get into fights and protect his family, I thought that – one of the points of our relationship was to escape – toxic masculinity…”

“I don’t think it’s ‘toxic masculinity’ to reach for your falling – the woman you love!

Arlo paused again. The wind chose this moment to ruffle back his flawless blonde hair. Rachel squinted. His eyes were the exact color of the sky behind his face, like two holes in his head.

Arlo said: “I do love you…”

“That’s not the point!” cried Rachel – knowing it was a useless phrase. Arlo knew it too, so didn’t ask her what the point was, knowing that she would be unable to answer. Or unwilling.

“I’m sorry,” he said in a bland inoffensive way, obviously wanting to move on.

Rachel stared at him hopelessly, helplessly, wrestling a tumult of unknown devilry. “Of course…” she said – it was the beginning of a sentence she willed herself not to finish.

Arlo flopped on the mossy granite, lifting his arms so the breeze would dry his armpits. “I’m not trying to change the subject, but I did forget to ask you – I remembered while we were climbing – how was lunch with your sister?”

Rachel gladly followed his lead, and sat on the earth next to him, facing the sky and the lake. She tried to remember if the lake was the colour of the sky because of reflection, or something more innate…

She turned. He was waiting.

“Oh, it was good, good. Volatile…”

“Oh yeah, how?” Arlo did not have many weaknesses – despite good justifications for them – but gossip was one of them.

“Well…”

His eyes narrowed. “Don’t censor, babe – just tell me.”

She scowled. “I’m not censoring, I’m just – gathering!”

“Okay.”

Rachel frowned, shivering slightly as her sweat dried, feeling the almost-audible hum of her muscles relaxing. “You remember Ben?”

“Dude, of course!” said Arlo, slightly offended.

“Okay,” smiled Rachel. “Calm yourself… So, he’s kind of – volatile now, I don’t know for how long. Cassie says a while…”

“Volatile how? Come on, Rach!”

“Volatile – just, he escalates. He wanted our dessert…” Rachel felt a sudden reluctance to talk about having any association with ordering bread pudding. “He started screaming and – I really think he was going to claw Ian’s face.”

“Wow,” said Arlo simply.

Rachel blew through her lips. “They had to get out of there, man – Ian and Ben. Super awkward. I checked social media, no one seems to have filmed it, thank God, but I don’t really know how to search…”

Arlo sucked in his cheeks and chewed at the soft inner lining. “Has this stuff been going on – long?”

“I’m not sure… A while I think…” Rachel had a sensation of falling again, but persisted. “Cassie thinks it has something to do with – daycare.”

Arlo’s eyes widened. “Daycare! Is he being – bullied?”

“No, she thinks that – that the daycare is the bully. I think… It’s hard to have a conversation with a little kid around…”

“Oh…” Arlo frowned. “So – it’s a – bad daycare?”

“She said something about daycare as a whole…”

Arlo snorted, and leaned his head forward, massaging the back of his neck. His voice sounded strangled from the position. “We’re daycare kids!”

Rachel’s voice lowered – you never knew who was coming up over the lip of the cliff. “Ian wants her to – stay home…”

“Hm.” Arlo stretched the other side of his neck. “Kinda like locking the barn door after the horse is gone, no?”

“She’s pregnant,” whispered Rachel.

There was a slight pause. Rachel wanted to look directly at Arlo, but that would seem pathetically inquisitive.

“Good for her,” he murmured, without any particular enthusiasm.

Another pause. Arlo started to get up.

Rachel said: “I noticed something, when the wind blew – you know you’re getting a bit of a widow’s peak?”

Arlo looked down at her. She could not read his expression.

“That’s funny,” he said.

“What is?”

He smiled. “How would you react if I pointed out that you were aging?”

Rachel scowled. “Like what?”

“Oh, I’m not falling into that!” He lifted his hair from his forehead. “I know, I saw it a couple of months ago. Forehead gonna become a five-head.”

“And you didn’t – say anything?”

“You wouldn’t believe why.”

Rachel wrestled herself to her feet, taking a few steps back from the cliff edge – though they were a reasonable distance away. “What?”

“Well – it’s not anti-female, but it’s not exactly – in line with how – you might think.”

“What are you talking about?”

Arlo sighed. “I wouldn’t mind at all being less…” He gestured at the entirety of his golden demeanour.

“Less – pretty?” Rachel teased.

Arlo smiled and nodded. “I’m just so tired of being objectified for my physical beauty – I want people to see the real me, the deeper me, the meaningful me, the – ontological me. I feel that the only people who appreciate me are my lemurs, because I’m a pretty man, but I’m not at all a pretty lemur, so only they can see into the very depths of my soul, and judge me for my morals and virtues and – integrity.” He wagged a mocking finger at her. “They don’t love me just for my sex appeal, they understand me deeply, and appreciate my personality, my sense of humour, my affections and – and my joie de vivre!” Arlo pretended to be throwing a scarf over his shoulder, and lifted his chin to stare meaningfully at the heavens.

“My himbo…” murmured Rachel. “Less talk, more abs…”

He laughed.

Getting up, she said: “My sister is pregnant, but at least I have step-lemurs…”

That was an edgy joke, but to her relief – wait, was it relief? – Arlo did not read anything deeper.

“We should head back,” said Arlo, scanning the distance.

Thick clouds clustered on the horizon, like a herd of grey grumpy sheep.

“What signs of aging, on me?” Rachel demanded suddenly.

Arlo shook his head, turning down the corners of his lips in an amused half-smile. “It doesn’t matter – I know we were drawn to each other physically, at first, but – we get along well, don’t we?”

A fly landed on Rachel’s ring finger, and she scratched at it absently, shivering.

Arlo held out his hands. “Time passes, events transpire, the body fades and falls away – but there’s no one I’d rather be decaying with than you, my love!” He shrugged. “We’ll have to walk down… I couldn’t find any extra chalk for love or money, so no more climbing.”

For love or money… Rachel frowned, trying to remember where she had heard that phrase recently…

As they walked down the narrow gravel path that wound around the mountain, Cassie’s lingering punchiness propelled a few words out of her mouth.

“Arlo, have you ever heard of – men’s rights?”

There was a pause – Rachel had deliberately taken the lead, to make up for climbing second, so she couldn’t see Arlo behind her.

“Men’s – what?”

“Men’s rights. You heard me, don’t stall!”

“Isn’t that – just about – everything?”

She threw a look over her shoulder, and saw him gesturing over the whole rooftop of the world with one hand, and fingering his ear with the other. “You’d think so, but apparently it’s a whole – thing.”

He snorted. “Sounds like an incel thing…”

“So - apparently it has something to do with family courts, and – female preferences in that – part of the law,” she finished lamely, hoping perhaps that a bad explanation would help them more easily dismiss the perspective.

Arlo’s voice descended into instantaneous seriousness. “Yeah, well, family courts are brutal, man… My uncle got accused of child abuse, he was investigated for like two years.” He blew a whoosh through his lips. “Never the same…”

Rachel stopped and turned around. “What? You think there might be something – to it?”

Arlo frowned, shaking his head slightly. “I think that some – individual men can be… Well, injustices can happen to them, but I don’t think there’s anything – institutional, of course. Certainly not for tidy-whiteys like me!

Rachel fed this through her ideology computer, receiving only an indeterminate response. “I’m thinking of – doing an article.”

Arlo blinked. “On this – men’s rights?”

Rachel knew that Arlo had to add the word ‘this’ to distance himself.

“Do you know that men kill themselves way more often than women?”

“But women try more…” Arlo puffed out his chest. “Which only indicates that men are just – better at suicide, because we are more dedicated and masculine and full of testosterone and success!”

Rachel laughed. “There’s just – a lot of stuff, which is really interesting to me… It’s pretty delusional, of course, but it’s a delusion based on some data that – that needs some other kind of explanation, and I think I could – provide that.”

Arlo shivered.

Rachel continued. “You know…”

They had to pause the conversation as two men ambled down the path, holding hands. The pair stared at Arlo, then greeted them both as they passed – with some pity, Rachel thought – and she had the sudden urge to explain to them that they were not fighting, just having a – conversation.

“Well,” said Rachel after a minute, “we can’t have a serious conversation with you staring at those two men’s butts on the way down, so let’s just – stay here a bit…”

Arlo had endured a whole lifetime of “so pretty he must be gay” jokes, so just shrugged.

Rachel continued: “You know, I’m pretty happy with my career, but I’ve not – found – a place or a topic or a breakthrough article… And listen – I don’t want to get known for something like this, but it might be a great way to get my writing out to a wider audience, because it’s a – movement that has a lot of traction in certain circles – and it’s not like some extremist furry thing – it has a real presence, but it’s – mostly invisible to the mainstream… I’ve had a brief look, and it’s not talked about much, except in these – very contemptuous terms, like a slave rebellion!” Rachel laughed nervously. “I don’t mean that, that just – popped out! But my instincts tell me that this could be – a real thing for me, get me moving!”

Arlo stared at her – and she tried to remember through the static of fuzzy desire whether his eyes were really that blue, or were just reflecting the lake, which was reflecting the sky…

“Man, I don’t know, Rach…”

She waited. She almost never saw him uneasy.

He kicked a random stone. “When I was a kid, I always wanted to take this shortcut to get to – the woods, you know, where I could walk and think… It looked obvious, it went across this – open field, and the regular way was much longer – but there was just – no path. So when I actually tried to take that shortcut one day, this giant freaking dog – jumped a fence and cornered me. I actually had to climb a tree, scratched the hell out of my back.” He shrugged. “Sometimes there’s no path for a reason…”

Rachel laughed. Three tiny specks floated in the deepening blue overhead – hawks on the wing, scanning for prey. She closed her right eye, and could not see them with her left. “Yeah, that story is way too on the nose my friend. Editor says ‘delete’!” She pressed an imaginary button in the air. “So – you drag me up a mountain, I almost fall to my death, but now you tell me – don’t take any risks my dear!?!”

He smiled. “Physical risks are one thing… Has anyone else written about this? I mean seriously, in anything mainstream?”

“As I said, couple of things, but it’s all pretty contemptuous.”

“And would you write that – contemptuous stuff?”

Again, Rachel felt dizzy, and shivered in the slightly chill wind rising up from the green clouds of the treetops. She decided to tell him. It felt almost like a secret marriage proposal. “That might be a little tough…”

Arlo blinked. “Why? Because of – me?”

She sighed in mock patience. “No, Arlo, not absolutely everything is about you!”

He laughed again. Such gorgeous teeth!

“It’s my brother-in-law – Ian. He’s – into this stuff…”

“Oh wow,” murmured Arlo. “Wow.”

“Indeed.”

Another pause, then Rachel’s words tumbled out in a rush. “And it would be a kind of betrayal, I know that – it would create a lot of tension between us… And – and Ian wants her to stay home, with the new baby, and do something to – rescue Ben, as she puts it… And – and – I’m kind of torn… I know that’s nothing new, but listen – part of me thinks that she should – man up and stay at work, and part of me thinks that…” Her voice lowered, as if her phone was listening. “I don’t think she’s that good of a nurse, actually – and she’s never been particularly – smart, or ambitious, or – something – nothing like me, really. So why not – stay home, be a good little housekeeper, a 1950s wifey…” Rachel realized that her voice was getting wormwood bitter, and forced herself to stop.

“You guys are still pretty competitive,” commented Arlo.

Rachel sighed. Arlo was always going off on these tangents that led nowhere. And I guess it’s easy for him, with his simple and empty ‘relationship’ with his own sibling…

Rachel suddenly wondered if animals would be drawn to Arlo’s beauty – that perhaps it had evolved so that deer would not view it as a threat, and so would be easier to hunt…

She shook her head slightly. “I suppose I just want to – shake things loose a little bit, find out what the next – stage in the journey is going to be, because it does seem a little – repetitive – just a little bit, at times, don’t you ever feel that?”

Her heart was pounding again.

“I love our life,” said Arlo with annoying simplicity.

“Anything you would change?”

“Nothing.”

“Not a thing?”

Silence. Of course, the ‘two-question’ rule…

I think I’m going to write it! As usual, the sentence appeared in her mind for evaluation before manifesting on her tongue.

Rachel decided to say nothing – in order to bolster her resolution.

She did, however, sing one of Arlo’s favourite songs as they continued their descent, deliberately getting some of the words wrong.

He said nothing, but she could feel his annoyance.

Chapter 3

It was when Cassie started to feel violent that she began to truly worry.

She was not naturally a high-strung person, because there were no massive gaps between her perceived potential and her actual life. Unlike Rachel, Cassie was destined for a life of moderate success, enjoyable motherhood and a ripe and treasured old age.

Unfortunately – inevitably – the modern world had intervened, and taunted her happy instincts into battle with inflicted propaganda. Her instincts were to raise a happy family and use her kindness to buffer the jagged edges of her local community – so setting her at war against herself turns the promise of an illusory heaven into a deep and present hell.

Cassie had been raised strictly, but not brutally. She had been spanked a handful of times, and received stern lectures from her father – and more high-strung diatribes from her mother – and had sailed through government schools on the magic carpet of near-invisibility. In grade 7, Cassie had wandered the halls trying to find kids to sign her yearbook, and having to constantly remind them how to spell her name – because she was frightened that they might not know her name at all. To be the sibling of a pretty sister is eternally to be the “other one,” pursued (if at all) as a mere means to an end, which was proximity to Rachel and her friends.

Witnessing Rachel’s eternal discontent was horribly instructive to Cassie – especially in their teenage years. Cassie’s shaky house was built on a deep foundation of common sense – perhaps founded on her close contact with her mother after being born – but also, since she was physically plain and largely forgettable, ideologues did not invest too much into programming her. It was far better to focus on Rachel, since pretty girls so often pull the beliefs of boys behind them, as they are pursued.

So, Cassie escaped into adulthood relatively unharmed – and much loved by her boyfriend Ian. Ian was the son of a single mother – and, due to a lack of masculine imprinting, had taken the risk of inventing manhood largely on his own. This made him flexible – sometimes too much, Cassie thought.

As a husband, Ian had offered little resistance when Cassie bowed to the demands of ideology and the needs of strangers, and put their son Ben into a daycare. Like most men, he was trained to be “supportive,” which generally meant being agreeable – and thus failing to use his masculine instincts to protect the future of his family. Appease today, lose tomorrow…

It was in the early morning hours that Cassie felt the most – unstable, or volatile.

Like my son, she thought.

On the weekends, Ben slept in, and woke up snuggly and cuddly and warm and – a little clingy, but Cassie knew that she would miss that phase enormously in the colder years to come.

Cassie was pretty sure that her son did not understand the days of the week, but he had some instinct for the passage of time – and on weekdays, he usually woke up crying. Like most mothers, Cassie had fantasized about motherhood since she was little. She imagined comforting a crying toddler until his breathing slowed and he fell asleep on her chest, his fist gripping her thumb.

Having a child who simply could not be comforted was not something she had ever imagined. On weekdays, Ben woke up crying, and continued to cry – and continued to escalate. The tipping point between his tears and his rage was sharp and ragged, like the bloody gouge of a shark-bite.

On weekdays, Cassie would spend at least half an hour in the early morning trying to sooth Ben, but his upset and aggression stalked them both, and she got lost in the battle, lost in despair – despair which she valiantly fought, or at least postponed – until… To her eternal shame, Cassie secretly breathed a sigh of relief when dropping him at the daycare, and driving off to – and she could hardly believe this thought – the relative peace and quiet of the hospital ER.

This particular dawn, lying in the slightly un-darkening dark, Cassie found herself unwilling to get out of bed. She knew there was no getting back to sleep, because she was waiting for the aggrieved wailing that signalled that Ben had woken up.

Cassie found that she was able to summon deep wells of self-pity when she compared her life goals with how it was all turning out. Not only had her son grown sour and angry, but her husband had – well, it was hard to say… Ian had changed – always a challenge in a long-term relationship – and in some ways the worst part of his change was that some of it was enormously – and guiltily – welcome. Deep down, Cassie loved Ian’s new assertiveness – at the surface, though, where the programming static was, she felt nothing but stressed resistance.

A thin wail suddenly floated through the air, and Cassie’s belly muscles tightened, as if to protect the unborn. She glanced over at Ian’s sleeping head – he wore eye patches at night – “dual pirate eyes” he called them, so that he could get more sleep as the room brightened.

Cassie guarded her husband’s rest. He was doing very well at work, and had brought home a tasty bonus – though it always felt like table-scraps after taxes and deductions. One part of Cassie loved Ian being more assertive in the world, while another resented him for being more assertive at home.

All these damn package deals, she thought – knowing that she was avoiding her son’s wailing. The only way to deal with Ben was to take it all moment by moment – to never zoom out and see any kind of big picture. Cassie knew that Ian was trying to wrench her away from her microscopic, micro-moment view – she resisted this, but knew that her resistance was fading.

She had also tried to avoid describing her family problems to Rachel, because Cassie had always loved the picture of larger, child-piled family gatherings, and so had resolutely promoted the joys of family life, which made her feel hypocritical and manipulative.

Not inaccurately, she thought.

Ben’s cries began to escalate, and Cassie felt her body wrenching sideways and throwing back the covers. Responding to Ben was always an instinctual thing, like lactating when she heard a baby cry at the mall when he was a baby.

Cassie put on her slippers and bathrobe and padded down the hall to Ben’s room. He was lying face down with his butt in the air, sniffling sideways across his doubtlessly-wet teddy-bear pillow.

“Hey, Ben,” said Cassie in a slightly-forced singsong voice. “What’s up, buddy?”

“Tummy ache…” whined Ben.

Cassie felt an unwelcome flash of anger. She hated doubting her son’s endless physical ailments, but nothing ever came of them – and the few times she had stayed home to take care of him, he had plenty of energy for playing…

“Sorry to hear that, when did it start?”

“In the dark,” he said.

“That’s tough, you should have come to wake me.”

“I was stuck…”

Cassie started to sigh, then widened her mouth so it would not be quite so audible. “Well, get up, let’s have some breakfast, see how you feel…”

Sniff. “Don’t wanna move…”

“Do you want me to carry you?”

“Can’t get up…”

“Did anything happen at – daycare yesterday?”

Ben did not answer. Cassie chided herself for asking a question too advanced for him.

“Well, honey, we’ve got to get our day started, how can I help?”

Silence, sniffles.

Cassie glanced at her smartwatch. Her heart rate was increasing, and time was marching on…

Cassie and Ian had committed to no yelling, no name-calling, no corporal punishment – but it was at moments like this that the temptation to escalate – to parent as she herself had been parented – was almost overwhelming. Without aggression, getting your kids to do anything felt like trying to coach a hysterical squirrel to eat vegetables out of your hand.

The inevitable voice whispered in her eaRachel:

Just once, just grab him and yell at him and make him do what has to be done! Come on, it only has to be once – then he will understand and obey foreverrr… Otherwise you’re gonna spend the next fifteen years forever losing this stupid battle of words – trying to cajole him into doing stuff he can always say ‘no’ to… You, my dear, have an entire life to live – kiddo there just has one goal: to get his way in his little universe… It’s no contest, you can’t ever win with words – just MAKE HIM!

Cassie knew it was her mother’s voice – combined with her own frustrations of course – but that did not make it any less seductive.

Cassie leaned down and tried to pick up her son. Ben screamed and twisted away.

“Owwww!”

“I barely touched you!”

“It hurrrts!”

Cassie took a deep breath, and tried to avoid the bottomless well of self-pity characterized by the phrase: Every single damn morning…

She knew that Ian desperately needed his extra half hour of sleep – but she also knew that the fragile dominoes of her day would collapse into chaos if Ben ended up late for daycare. She stood in the dark, biting at her cuticle.

“Ben, do you want to see the doctor?”

He shook his head violently.

“But if it’s that bad - that you can’t even be touched - I can bring you to work, and you can see Doctor Hampstead – you know, Dr Hamster. We can bring you some toys to play with, for the waiting room…”

“Nooo…” whined Ben. “Just stay home…”

Cassie sat heavily on the bed. “Ben, you know mommy has to go to work – there are sick people who need me.”

I’m sick!” said Ben immediately.

“I know, honey, but you might feel a whole lot better if you get up…”

There was a pause.

Cassie could almost hear the electrical whirring of Ben’s brain as he processed his various powers and possibilities.

If I say I’m really sick, I go to the hospital – scary and boring. If I get up, I go to daycare – scary and boring… If I get mom to stay home, I have to act sick all day – boring. And she will spent most of the day on her phone anyway – but I will get out of daycare… A tummy-ache is perfect, because you can’t check for it, and it’s bad enough to stay home, unlike a headache, I’ll never try that one again…

Cassie’s voice hardened. “Ben, what do you want to do?”

He whispered: “Please stay home, mommy…”

His words hit her directly in the heart. It was such a simple statement.

What came next was even worse.

“I’ll be good all day, I promise…”

Cassie sucked in her breath, and the roots of her incisors ached. Yeah, yeah, I know I’ve got to get to the dentist

Her voice wobbled. “I can’t today, honey, wish I could…”

“Cassie?” Ian’s voice startled her from the dark doorway. “What’s going on?”

She felt annoyed at the question, at the implication that everything was her fault.

She turned. “Ben says he’s got a stomach-ache…”

Yawning, Ian stepped forward and sat on his son’s bed. “Hey, kid, roll over, let’s see…”

Ben immediately did as he was told – enragingly, to Cassie – and Ian held his right hand high over his son’s belly like a dangling fleshy spider.

“I’m gonna check, real gentle…”

Ian’s fingertips wriggled madly as his hand descended.

Getting the game, Ben stifled a snigger.

“Now, this is a very serious hand spider, very medical, much doctor…”

Ian’s fingers wriggled even more as his hand lowered.

Ben giggled aloud.

“No laughing!” cried Ian in mock sternness. “Does it hurt – here?”

His hand buried itself in Ben’s side, fingers digging madly.

Ben screamed with laughter.

“Maybe – this side?”

More screams of laughter.

“All the best doctors – tickle out the owies!”

Cassie jumped up and away as the mad horseplay careened around the bed.

Ben’s little hands tried to fasten on Ian’s knee, knowing that that was his vulnerable tickle spot.

“No, Ben, no!” cried Ian. “Tickling only goes one way, only one way! Arrrgh!

Laughing hysterically, Ben wrapped his arms around his father’s knee.

Enormously pleased – but still annoyed – Cassie left the room and walked downstairs to the kitchen.

Gathering bowls, spoons, milk and cereal, she smiled as she heard the hysterical cacophony from Ben’s bedroom. Apparently sharp-fingered missile strikes were now landing on her poor son.

So rough… thought Cassie with a chuckle.

She touched her belly, hoping once more that her newborn would be a girl, so that she would feel more included – because she often felt on the outside of the savage tribe of father and son.

After a few minutes, Ian walked in with a smiling Ben on his hip.

Cassie was about to say, all better? – but didn’t want to remind Ben of his imaginary ailment. The unfairness of Ben’s different reactions to mother and father – well, she was mostly past that. Mostly.

Next up on the parental stress marathon was the issue of milk and cereal. Ben would not eat anything else for breakfast, and always insisted on pouring his cereal himself – and woe betide anyone who interrupted his semi-OCD morning rituals.

Standing beside Ben’s chair, Ian lowered his son onto his booster-seat.

“Ben, we’re running late, buddy,” said Ian, reaching for the cereal. “How about you let me pour today?”

Ben’s lighthearted demeanour vanished immediately, snuffed by a sharpshooter of a darker self.

“Nooo!” he whined, grabbing. “I pour!”

“I can give you a cup to pour from…”

“No! Box!”

Cassie stood ready. After a moment, Ian opened the box and handed it over.

“Just – be careful, buddy…”

Sticking his tongue out the side of his mouth, Ben tipped over the cereal box. Most of it landed in his bowl – a few grains danced on the table and floor. Ben put the box down, then grabbed at the carton of milk. It tipped over from the top, crashing onto his bowl. Cereal shot into the air, landing on Ben’s face and chest. With a solid thunk, the carton splashed milk in thumping gushes over Ben’s rigid frame.

There was a shocked pause. Milk dripped everywhere. The wobbly rattle of the bowl spinning upside down on the floor slowed, then stopped.

Ian’s face was frozen.

“BEN!” shouted Cassie, her cheeks red. “Let us pour the damn cereal!

Ben glared up at her, milk dripping from his thin eyebrows. He stuck out his lower lip, then leaned forward and swept his sturdy arms across the table, sending cups, mugs and cutlery scattering and crashing to the floor.

“Cassie!” hissed Ian. “Take a break!”

There was a fusillade of angry thumps on the wall, and a heavily accented neighbour’s voice could be heard demanding quiet.

It was a small townhome – the walls were tissue-thin…

Cassie refused to move. Her cheeks darkened even further. She suddenly whirled on Ian. “It’s all – playtime – you don’t do any discipline, you just tickle him and - throw him around!”

Ian took a deep breath, smoothing his pajama top. “So – it’s my fault?”

Ben started to clamber off his booster seat, caught his foot on the side, and plunged down onto the hard linoleum. His horrified parents saw him try to brace his fall with his hands, but his fingers skated on the wet milk, and they heard a sickening eggshell crack as his forehead hit the floor.

Silence.

Red blood spread in the white milk and cereal.

Cassie’s phone rang.

Ben covered his head with his hands and screamed.

The wall-banging and shouting resumed.

“Oh God – it’s good that he’s – screaming, right?” said Ian, his eyes wide.

“Call an ambulance!” shrieked Cassie. She grabbed her phone, saw it was Rachel, rejected the call with shaking fingers, and dialled 911.

Chapter 4

They brought Ben home at night in a head-bandage, with instructions to let him sleep.

Cassie and Ian sat silently in their dark car. Fear and emotional exhaustion had left them trembling and vulnerable – and thus open to growth. Ben was passed out in the back child seat.

“We are not going to wake him,” said Ian decisively, rubbing his face, his stubble making sandpaper noises.

“What are we going to do?” murmured Cassie, closing her eyes.

“Well, for sure we’re not going to raise our voices – and if we have to stay out here all night, so he can sleep, so be it.”

“Look, one bad morning…” Cassie’s voice trailed off.

Ian turned to her, his eyes dark and unfathomable. “Are you enjoying this?”

Silence.

“No…”

Ian nodded slowly. They were both painfully aware that a negative answer to such an unspecific question was about as bad as things could get.

“This is what I’ve been thinking,” he said. “We’ve mostly been doing what everyone told us to do – our whole lives, maybe.” He held up two hands, a few inches apart, in parallel. “Like train tracks. And this is where we are.”

“Don’t blame others,” said Cassie automatically, then took a breath. “We should wait until we are more rested…”

“I actually think that’s about the worst idea,” said Ian shortly. “Then we’re back on the tracks, just chugging along, not lifting our heads to – look anyplace else.”

“Oh, stop being…” snapped Cassie, then bit off her words and sighed. “Go on. Just say it!”

Ian pursed his lips. Ben stirred in the back seat, groaning. His breathing slowed again.

Ian unlocked his phone.

“I did the math the other day…”

“Oh, God help us!”

Ian ignored her sarcasm. “Listen – you make 64k, 52 after taxes. We’re paying 17k for daycare – over 30 with the next one. More than half your salary goes to childcare, Cas. I added up the other costs – we’re spending about 15k on a second car, clothes, gas, insurance. Cassie, seriously - you’ll be making about 3-4 dollars an hour if we put the new baby in daycare. And – Ben brings home every disease known to God and man – and he has – temper tantrums… And today was really dangerous, Cas. If you weren’t known at the hospital, it could have… We might have been investigated…”

“Ian,” said Cassie with dangerously low patience. “My work is my identity.”

He scowled. “How the hell am I supposed to..? Sorry, I’ll be quieter. How am I supposed to negotiate with that? Like I’m supposed to strip you of your identity so that…” Cassie clearly saw her husband deciding not to end the sentence.

Cassie shook her head. “It’s what I do, Ian. I take care of people.”

“But – why is it better to take care of strangers, but humiliating to take care of your own children?”

“God above, stop putting words in my mouth!”

“Shhh.”

“Yeah, yeah… I never said it was – humiliating.”

“Yeah, true. Sorry. But me and Ben – we can’t compete with your work husband!”

“My – what?”

“Gary, you know. Every time he says ‘jump,’ you say, ‘how high?’”

“That is total crap – and you know it!”

Ian glared. “God I hate it when you say that! I don’t know it, Cassie!” He lowered his voice again. “He calls you in on the weekend, you go in on the weekend. He wants overtime, he gets overtime. When was the last time you said ‘no’ to him?”

Cassie pursed her lips. “That’s not the point…”

“You know, whenever you say that, I know you’ve lost the… plot.”

Silence descended on the car. A street or two over, the feral growl of a motorcycle woke some babies. Hungry dogs barked in its thunderous wake.

“I’d hire snipers for those jerks,” muttered Ian.

Cassie turned to him. “You stay home.”

Ian sighed. “Come on… I can’t breast-feed. I’m all taps and no plumbing. We need it for the bonding, the health benefits – everything!”

“So – I’m trapped,” said Cassie emptily.

He stared in shock. “That is a horrible thing to say.”

There was another silence. They both felt as if the car were slowly falling through the darkness.

Ian turned to Cassie and took her hand. He turned on the overhead light and leaned towards her.

“Look, Cassie, I love being a dad, and I know you like – love – being a mom. You are fantastic at it, when you get the time – but there is no time. You have to get up so early, and we have to get – you have to get Ben ready, then we have to get to work, and try to squeeze in some grocery shopping and bill paying over lunch – then we sweat bullets, fighting traffic to get to daycare – and Ben is all wound up and hard to – deal with. Then we fight with him over dinner…” His voice thickened with emotion. “And then we get a little bit of playtime before bath – and then we fight to get him into the bath, and then fight to get him out of the bath – and then it’s time to fight with him about going to bed… I just – it just feels like the whole day is a battle with him, Cas – and it’s not fair on the little guy…” A tear fell from his eye. “He’s just trying to – do his best, in a life he didn’t make. It’s breaking my heart, Cas…”

Her voice softened. “What if I pump? I could fill the fridge, fill the freezer…”

Ian wiped an eye. “Doesn’t that seem a little – weird? Our new baby being raised on frozen mommy milk?”

“Well, it wouldn’t be frozen when…” Cassie sighed.

Another pause. A distant siren whined like a wobbly mosquito.

Ian said: “What about… We could move to the country. I hate the noise we make in this townhouse. It’s not fair to our neighbours. It’s like living in a library…” He leaned closer. “I want us to design our lives, Cassie – not just obey them! And…”

“What?” she asked without emotion.

“I don’t know – I know you hate these men’s rights forums…”

“I don’t hate them, I just feel – displaced…”

Ian chuckled sadly. “Like me, with Gary…

Cassie snorted. “Move on.”

Ian shrugged. “Have you noticed – things being – missing, from stores?”

She blinked. “Well – yeah. Of course. I have to have a backup plan every time I go shopping…”

“Some of the guys on the forums – think that it’s going to get a whole lot worse, and that the city is the last place to be…”

Her lips curled. “So now we’re taking life advice from some randos on the Internet?”

Ian’s face was very still. “Civilizations last about 250 years. Where are we?”

Cassie shuddered. “I’m not gonna run into the woods because some stranger thinks the sky is falling!”

Ian stared at her for a moment, then sat back in his seat. He tried to clasp his hands behind his head, but the headrest got in the way.

“You know,” he said eventually, “when women went to work, all it did was drive down the wages of men.”

“Please God, I can’t take a lecture right now!”

“Quieter… It matters, Cassie.” Ian jerked his head backwards, towards his sleeping son. “I have to do something to help – build the kind of world that he can succeed in, because – things aren’t particularly friendly for men these days, especially…”

She stopped him with a gesture. “We’re just two people, two average people – we can’t change – much.”

Ian turned to her and leaned forward earnestly. “That’s true, that’s exactly right – we can only change ourselves…” He took a deep breath. “Please, Cassie – I’m begging you, at least consider it… Don’t think about me, don’t think about Gary, don’t think about now - think about Ben, ten years from now – or fifteen.”

He could see that Cassie wanted to react, to stop his words somehow, but that she was frozen, almost waiting…

“Please – think of Ben, in the future, when he asks you why he was in daycare – and these facts are going to get out, about how bad daycare is, you can’t keep everything hidden forever… What are you going to say, Cassie? Are you going to say we couldn’t afford it? We can. We can!” Ian’s eyes darkened. “Because I’ll tell you straight up, love: when he comes to me, I’m going to show him all the math. I am going to show him that you put him in daycare to take care of strangers for four dollars an hour. And that I did my very best to stop you.”

Cassie sat rigid, as if facing a firing squad. Even in the dark, her face was visibly pale.

“Don’t…” she murmured. “Don’t.”

Ian grimaced. “I hate to cause you any kind of pain, my love, which is why I am saying this! If you really think you can justify your decision to Ben when he grows up, then we will just – take our lumps. But think about that conversation, Cassie. Because it’s going to happen.”

Ian and Cassie suddenly felt the urge to crack windows – that they were breathing nothing but their own exhalations.

They both jumped when Cassie’s phone rang.

“Rachel,” she said.

He shrugged tightly, and she answered.

Ian hated the bright transformation in her voice.

“Rachel, hi, sorry about this morning, we had a bit of a crisis. Yeah, nothing – well, not nothing, but nothing that could be fixed in the moment… Ben had a fall, and we had to take him to the hospital… Yeah, he’s fine, but it was really scary… Sure, I will… Thanks. What? Uhh, she wants to talk to you…” said Cassie, turning to her husband.

“O – k…” said Ian, with the furtive expression of a man imagining he is in some kind of trouble.

Cassie put Rachel on speaker, turning down the volume.

“Ian, hi, so sorry to hear about Ben, glad he’s doing well…"

“Thanks… What’s up?”

There was a slight pause, and Rachel laughed tinnily. “Well, I hope you don’t mind, but Cassie has told me a bit about your – interest in men’s rights…”

Ian’s eyes grew darkly alert. “Uh huh…”

“And – well, I’ve been thinking about writing an article, and I’ve had a look at – some of the stuff online, and it all seems pretty horrible – totally unfair, I think… So – I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction for finding out more about this – movement. I mostly hate online research, so is there any kind of – meetup, or face-to-face group I could – look in on?”

Ian laughed incredulously.

“What’s funny?” demanded Rachel.

“Sorry, but…” Ian frowned, lowering his voice. “Look, I can’t bring a - reporter to a meet up. People would go nuts!”

“What? Why?” asked Rachel.

“Because – because of what you read! It’s all so – biased!”

“Well, I wouldn’t be biased!”

“I’m sure you’d try not to be…” Ian took a deep breath, shooting a glance at Cassie. “Look, I don’t know much about your career; we’ve kept things pretty – formal – which is fine – but this wouldn’t be the first time someone tried to bring a reporter in, and it always goes really badly… Rachel – look, there are a million topics out there. I don’t think this is the one…”

Rachel laughed. “You know this just piques my interest even more!”

Ben stirred again, and Cassie turned down the volume of the phone.

Ian shook his head. “I’m sorry, it’s just - really not a good idea. It’s kind of – an underground movement. No one wants to get doxxed or fired – or worse…”

“Worse?”

“One guy got swatted.”

“Swatted?”

“Yeah. Some troll phoned the police saying there was an active hostage situation at his address, and they – kicked his door in.”

“Whaaat?” Rachel’s voice was shocked.

“Yeah,” Ian said grimly. “It’s pretty high stakes, to be honest. And Cassie and I have a lot going on right now…”

“Yeah, of course,” said Rachel automatically, and they could both picture her scribbling furious notes. “But – is there anything I can do to change your mind? I really want to do this, Ian, it means a lot to me – and I will do right by you – you are my brother-in-law, the man who loves my beloved sister!”

Ian wrinkled his nose. “Okay, tell you what… If you can find three sympathetic articles – or at least articles that aren’t totally hostile – from any mainstream outlet, I’ll bring you to a meetup.”

“Three… articles. Mainstream.”

“Yeah.”

“That shouldn’t be – impossible. Unless there really aren’t that many articles at all…”

“Oh, they’re out there,” said Ian heavily.

Rachel’s voice was excited. “Okay, it’s a deal – thanks so much Ian! And let me know if there’s anything I can do for Ben!”

Without waiting for a response, Rachel whooped and hung up.

In the back seat, Ben startled awake and started screaming.

Chapter 5

Oliver sat in traffic, dying to get to his family, afraid to look around.

He had an ache deep in his skull – the ache of trying to wrangle equipment from suppliers seemingly dying on the vine.

These days, his import/export business felt like the worst bike he had owned as a child. He loved to go fast, racing his friends, but that one Franken-bike – six different colours, and a bell that sounded like a lazy clanking ghost… The chain kept slipping off the cog, and his foot would plunge off the pedal, dig into the dirt, and the sharp edges would tear into his calf muscle. Going fast was half-suicide.

His friends would race ahead, while Oliver tried to string the chain back on the cog, his shaking fingers black with gritty oil, his eyes blurry with tears.

Oliver felt the ache in his eyes increase slightly. He could not help but notice how few trucks were on the road. He well knew the black hole at the center of every city – all the resources it endlessly consumed – and all the trucks necessary to keep the city-dwellers alive, in their snow globe of splendid detachment, blissfully unaware of every calorie and joule necessary to supply their gritty aristocratic existence.

Oliver used to choose what to import, now he just – well, he spent his days trying to track down essentials in a wilderness of unresponsiveness. Along with his worse-than-useless bike, Oliver had also had a worse-than-useless tent that always collapsed in the middle of the night, dropping damp nylon onto his startled face.

We used to lift up, now we just hold up…

It was early afternoon, and the highway should have been packed with trucks, but Oliver had a depressingly clear view of everything around him – only mere cars… No “How Am I Driving?” signs, no rusted back locks or half-visible phone numbers, no Playboy mudflaps – nothing!

Just people inching their way to eat whatever the trucks delivered last, not thinking about when the trucks might be delivering next

He turned on the radio, and the announcer was hurling useless sound and fury at yet another example of liberal hypocrisy.

Oliver switched to a Christian station.

“Friends, we have been planning for these days since we were born – preparing for the end times since we first drew breath! You see it all around you – you can’t deny it! Everything is slowing down – we are struck the slow-motion sickness of the great reset! People don’t return your calls, people won’t take your money, nothing works, everything is delayed, everything built quickly and cheaply has to be repaired slowly and expensively! All we do nowadays is play catch up to our former greatness! You know, folks, I took my grandkids to the Kennedy Space Centre last week, and you know what I saw? I didn’t see greatness, I didn’t see majesty, I didn’t see triumph, I didn’t see genius – I saw a museum, my friends! A graveyard of what we used to be, what we used to be able to achieve! Because when I was a kid, friends, I dreamed of flying up into space, gripping the edge of a porthole and seeing the sunrise over the Sahara Desert on the curved Earth below…”

Oliver heard a muffled thump as the host struck his table.

“And that’s what we were promised! The future was going to be the Jetsons, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica – space travel and singing robots and antigravity and cancer wands that only had to be waved over people’s unnatural lumps. This is what we were promised, this is what we expected – and what did we get instead? The great slowdown. The great decay. Not shining cities on a hill, but leaning towers of corruption being urinated on by drug addicts. Did we get jet packs? No! We got national debt and collapsing educational standards. I grew up in sunny beautiful California in the 1950s, folks, and let me tell you, my friends – I feel like that old man in 1984, you know the one that Winston Smith tries to get to tell about the life that used to be – in California, in the nineteen fifties, it was paradise! We could play anywhere, roam everywhere – totally safe, wonderful community, great friends – a perfect life! Even that vision of what we could be is fading and falling away. And we know why, we all know why, my friends, don’t we? The wages of sin are death – it is said plain and simple in that most good and holy Book. We have turned away from God, we have turned away from redemption, we have sacrificed our holy morality to the sin of the senses. We have lost our souls, and gained only loneliness and fentanyl. Listen…”

Oliver switched off the station. He saw a gap in the traffic and gunned forward without even checking his blind spot.

His mother waited at the bottom of the driveway, as she always did when he was coming home – and he felt an ache of love, looking at her deep eyes, lined face and grey hair.

He was late, and had to park nine cars away. She was already there and opened his door.

“Ollie!” she cried, half pulling him from his seat and hugging him tightly.

“Mom…” he murmured, kissing her cheek.

“Everyone’s here, I’m sorry traffic was bad. I hope you brought your appetite!”

He smiled. “Thanks mom, great to see you.”

“After the hug, the evaluation… Let me see you!” She stepped back, scanning him up and down with her grey perceptive eyes. “Not bad, not bad… We make ‘em good in our family!”

Oliver laughed. “And you’re looking well, too!”

“Ha! ‘Well preserved,’ that’s all I get these days, at my age!”

She led him through the comfortable well-lit backsplit home into the enormous backyard, where a score of adults and children milled about, drinking, eating, laughing and playing.

“Oliver’s here!” cried his mother.

Everyone turned, raised their drinks, and gave him a welcoming cheer.

His father Patrick appeared and put a beer in his hand. “Great to see you, son!” His handshake was always a little too tight, but Oliver never minded. “I hope you don’t mind, we had to start without you. You’d better dig in quick, though – we couldn’t get everything we wanted for the feast, first time ever I think!”

His mother frowned. “True – not enough potatoes, and I had to dig out an old cooking pot, couldn’t get a new one to save my life!”

“I’m sure it’s all wonderful,” said Oliver.

His father leaned forward. “Anything wrong?”

“No, why?”

“You seem a little… Everything okay?”

Oliver nodded, took a swig of beer, and walked down the back steps onto the neat green lawn.

A gaggle of kids were wrestling their way through a tangled obstacle course, watched over by Oliver’s sister Diane, who was cheering them on madly, unconsciously holding the slight rise of her belly.

Diane’s mildly portly husband William was herding the children along, growling and holding his hands out like claws as he chased them from the rear.

Oliver’s younger brother David came up and grappled him in a deep bearhug. “Oliver, fantastic, it’s been a while! How are you?”

“I’m good, David, how are things with you?”

“Oh, great, great! Going blind from screens, like everyone!” He laughed and swivelled his head. “I’m going to stare around, looking for your date.”

“Going stag – as always!” said Oliver – as David said the two last words at the same time.

“Seriously, Mr Monk – let Jennie set you up! You’re in the desert of the 30s, you’re perilously close to a steady diet of dating leftovers!”

Oliver hesitated, then smiled. “I can – talk about that with her…”

“It’s embarrassing, forcing all the younger siblings to carry on the family line!”

David’s wife Jennifer was on her way over, but got diverted by Kyle, her eldest child, who had tripped over something on the obstacle course. She waved and bent over him.

“Aren’t you hungry?” asked David.

Oliver shrugged. “I need to get the fumes out of my nose before I can eat.”

“I don’t get this ‘we need more people’ stuff – it’s like people never try to drive during rush hour.”

“Yeah, and it wasn’t even rush-hour…”

Oliver’s sister Diane ran up, jumping at him with a broad smile.

“Bro!” she cried, hugging him and almost spilling his beer. “Please heavens above tell me you’ve brought a date!”

Oliver smiled and shook his head.

She punched his shoulder. “Oh, and you were all ‘don’t work too hard, sis – have children, sis - don’t get sucked into a career and lose out on what’s most important in life!’ Well, Mr High and Mighty, why are you shifting the whole thing onto us?”

Oliver’s mother appeared at his shoulder with a plastic bowl of coleslaw. “Eat something,” she urged. “And Diane, leave him alone!” She leaned in. “Are you dating – anyone?”

Oliver paused. “I can’t use anything online, and there aren’t many women in my – field…”

“Come to our church!” she said.

“Are there any single women my age at the church? I thought they were all married off in their teens!”

She smiled and shook her head. “You’re such an old soul, it would do you good to have a young girl keeping you fresh!”

Oliver laughed.

David leaned forward and said: “Don’t let all these – beliefs keep you on the sidelines.”

Oliver put his beer down on a white patio table. “Dude, when I meet the right girl, nothing will stop me – I just haven’t been as lucky as you guys.”

“Ninety percent of luck is – preparation,” said his mother decisively.

“I agree,” said Oliver, taking a muscle flex position. “That’s why I’ve been working out!”

David laughed. “With what – marshmallows?”

Oliver growled and grabbed at him. David danced back.

“Don’t spill!” cried his mother, grabbing the bowl of coleslaw.

“How are the kids?” Oliver asked David.

“Whooo!” he cried as his wife Jennifer arrived. “Ask their new teacher!”

Oliver’s eyes widened. “Homeschooling?”

Jennifer kissed his cheek. “Oh yes, it was time. You wouldn’t believe the books I found in their library!”

David shook his head. “It was the kind of stuff we had to root around in dumpsters for, back in the day!”

Their mother covered her ears. “I hear nothing!”

“How are they adjusting?” Oliver wondered.

There was a slight pause, then Jennifer shrugged. “It’s strange – we were all so into our friends and peers and – tribe I guess, when we were that age, but there doesn’t seem to be anything – solid, in their groups… They just come and go…”

David nodded. “And after online classes for two years, everyone got used to talking remotely… And it doesn’t really make much difference – we didn’t have any play dates…”

Oliver nodded. “I never got the ‘play date’ thing, just – just go play, and come back when the streetlights come on!”

David laughed. “Remember that crazy cowbell you used to ring, mom, when it got dark?”

She nodded. “Got to call the livestock in for feeding.”

Jennifer’s eyes narrowed. “Social trust has – almost completely collapsed. Everyone used to have the same worldview, now it’s just a – mishmash…”

“I hear you,” said Oliver seriously.

“And your business is – going well?”

“Sure, it was really strong at the beginning of the pandemic, insane demand – but everything is just getting – slower and slower, it’s so hard to get anything these days…”

His mother said: “That’s true, I’ve seen that. The goods are fewer, but the bills are higher.”

From behind him. Oliver’s father said: “I’ve had to give up repairing things, just can’t get any parts.” His voice was unusually anxious. “Where does it end?”

“Oh, I’m sure things will turn around,” said David, glancing at Jennifer.

Oliver’s mother put her hand on his forearm. “What do you think?”

Oliver paused. “I think - it’s high time to get reacquainted with my nephews and nieces!”

Putting down his bowl of coleslaw, he strode over to the remnants of the obstacle course, scooping up shrieking children and hugging them in a wriggling mound.

After the obligatory high-fives and inquiries, he turned to Diane, the youngest of his siblings.

“Well!” he said, looking at her belly. “Congratulations!”

“It’s wonderful,” she smiled. “If Violete had been this easy, I never would have hesitated!”

“Oh yeah, that was tough…”

She arched her eyebrow. “Single again?”

“I’ve already run the gauntlet, thank you very much!”

“Seriously, though, you’re 31 years old!”

“Yes. You know I work with numbers, right?”

“Yes, and the number you are most addicted to is ‘10’!”

Oliver rolled his eyes. “Oh please don’t give me the ‘lower your standards’ spiel again.”

“Have you seen these websites, where you enter your ideals, and see how many women are out there? I ran your requirements the other day - you’re looking at fewer than 5% of women!”

He paused. “How are things with William?”

Her cheeks flushed. “Oh, great, wonderful!”

“And – should you have lowered your standards, or waited for him?”

“Oh come on, that’s always the… Oliver – are you waiting for perfection or making perfection?”

“What fortune cookie did that come from?”

“I think your standards are too high – and your beliefs… Why are you so concerned with divorce? We don’t have divorces in our family! We honour the Lord!” Diane leaned forward. “How is your faith, Oliver?”

He smiled. “My faith is – fine. Thank you for asking the most pointed question in the universe.”

Diane shrugged. “Hey, if we’re not looking out for each other, what are we doing? Do you have any prospects?”

Oliver took a deep breath, but knew he could not lie. “No.”

“You travel the world, you can’t find anyone? Just look – closer to home!”

“I don’t travel the world. You need to be vaccinated.”

She nodded rapidly. “Yeah, of course, sorry…” Her jaw tightened decisively. “But I have some time before the baby, and I’m going to make it my mission to find you someone – and if I do find you that perfect someone, and you don’t fall in love with her, I’m going to expect an essay as to why – single spaced, at least 20 pages!”

Oliver laughed. “Deal. I’m going to trust your deep knowledge of my soul to find me a match.”

Diane touched her belly, and her brow clouded. “But – they were out of diapers at the store today, Ollie. I don’t need them yet, but – when are they coming back?”

Oliver took a deep breath. “I’ll keep you posted. I have some inside knowledge – and let me tell you, when you find them, grab as many as you can! Or use cloth.”

Slight fear flashed across her eyes. “Way to comfort a pregnant woman, Ollie!”

He smiled. “Hey, if we’re not looking out for each other, what are we doing?”

Diane leaned forward slightly. “What do the – forums say? Is it time to stack food in the basement?”

Oliver shrugged. “I can only send you that link so many times – either you buy, or you don’t.”

“So, I – should?”

Oliver shook his head slightly. “I feel a bit like Chicken Little here…”

Diane frowned suddenly. “Oh my gosh, that’s why you’re not dating!” Her voice lowered. “Seriously, is it that bad?”

“Look, just – be prepared. All right?”

Diane’s hands drifted over her belly. “What on earth is coming?”

“It might be nothing – but if you get food, and you don’t need it, you just – eat your pessimism.”

“Send me that link again…”

“Oh gosh – is that Jayda?”

Diane followed Oliver’s gaze to a pale skinny young woman with upswept multicoloured hair, who was gesturing with great energy, her stringy biceps stretching across her arm bones.

“Yeah. Kind of a sore thumb here…”

“She has even more nose-rings…”

“Yes, and a new tattoo! Apparently, she’s determined to fight stereotypes by becoming one.”

Jayda’s head turned towards them accidentally, and her dark brown eyes narrowed. With a slight wobble, she charged over.

“Oliver!” she cried in a high nasal voice.

“Hey there Jayda - how are things?”

Jayda cocked her head. Oliver had a sudden memory. Twenty years before, in this same garden, when Jayda was five or six, she had crawled on his father’s lap wearing a princess outfit, and fallen fast asleep.

Jayda put her hands on her hips and tossed her high hair backwards. “Things are just peachy, thank you. How is the life of exploitation?”

Oliver smiled slightly. “You mean my business? Well, I’m still hiring people, and so driving up the wages of all workers. How is life as a government teacher? Enjoying living off the taxes of the working classes so you can inflict guilt on their kids?”

She laughed harshly. “Oh, you’re such a reactionary! Please turn and face the wall…”

“Jayda!” cried Diane.

“Oh, lighten up, Di! If we can’t laugh, why get out of bed?” Jayda’s head darted forward slightly towards Diane. “Sayyy, unless that’s an excess of pecan pie, looks like you’re growing another tumour!”

“A – what?”

“A tumour – a clump of cells that hijacks your body to feed its own growth!” She gestured at Diane’s belly. “Baby tumour…” Her hand drifted towards Oliver. “Grown-up tumour…”

“Are you drunk?” asked Oliver.

Jayda waved her beer bottle. “Oh, this peasant pig swill is just for appearances. I don’t drink, it’s the opiate of the masses!”

Diane snapped: “And Marxism is the opiate of the intellectuals!”

Jayda laughed. “Marxism – what 19th-century hole did you crawl out of? I’m an anarchist! I’m Marx long after Marx! I am the future made manifest – and the future is female, baby!”

Jayda’s mother Karen walked up cautiously, wearily. “Are you bothering your nice cousins, Jay?”

Jayda sneered. “The only ‘thing’ that should be bothering these ‘nice cousins’ is the complete lack of diversity in this Garden of Eden! It’s like an overexposed family portrait of the Osmonds!”

“Oh, give it a rest!” snapped Diane.

“You’re right,” said Jayda silkily. “Let’s not let any inconvenient truths mar this clan gathering…”

Is that ‘clan’ with a C or a K? thought Oliver, but said nothing. What’s the point?

Jayda patted Oliver roughly on his shoulder. “I kid you, Ollie – but you really are one of the most noble people here – gloriously childfree!”

Oliver’s eyes narrowed. “Stop talking like that in front of my sister!”

Jayda stuck out her lower lip. “Why, Mr Patriarch? You gonna spank me?”

“That’s enough…” said Karen emptily.

“I wish your mother had stayed childfree…” muttered Diane, then shook her head slightly and crossed herself.

At the head of a long half-cleared white table, Oliver’s father stood and clinked his glass with a spoon.

“Dessert is served! Apple pie, pecan pie, we’ve got a cherry pie – and this one, I don’t know what it is, but they all look delicious! But first…” He lowered his bald head and clasped his hands in front of his naval. “We thank you, O Lord, for the bounty placed before us. We ask you for the grace and virtue to love friend and enemy alike. We welcome Your trials, the trials to come, and hope that we can stay worthy of Your good graces. We pray that the hearts of those opposed to You can be opened by Your love, and our example…”

Oliver opened one eye. Jayda was staring defiantly at the old man. He almost expected her skin to start smoking.

“And we thank all those who labour in the distance to provide for us in the present. We thank Jesus for His presence at our table, for man does not live by bread alone. I wish to thank my wife of 40 years – her grace, courage and conviction have been my bedrock over the course of a long and wonderful marriage. I thank You for the health and happiness of my children, and all the rich blessings of a life lived in Your service. Thank you, O Lord!” He looked up and smiled. “Amen. Let’s dig in – who wants pie?”

The women bustled like butterflies, cleaning and tidying and offering. The children raced through the tiny forests of adult legs. Men chatted seriously, gesturing with emptying plates. The beauty of the fading day streamed golden light over the easy faces of the happy people.

A karaoke machine was brought out, and the men attempted various shades of Elvis, Mel Torme, Sinatra and, for the overly ambitious, U2. The women opted for Grease megamixes and Shania Twain.

Jayda tried screeching out a rap song, but her mother turned off the machine as the swear words came up on the monitor.

Oliver sat the children in a circle and led them in a game of “three-word story” - where each participant added three new words to an increasingly lengthy and absurd tale. The younger children added endless poopy digestive issues, and the older children inserted kissing. Hysterical laughter had the children bent over on the ground.

The sun set slowly, lengthening the soft shadows of the renewing spring trees over the gathering.

Even though it wasn’t Thanksgiving, the family tradition of giving thanks started as the sun was half-setting over the amber fences.

Oliver’s mother said: “When I was a bride, I was very nervous – I guess everyone is… And I remember so clearly walking up the aisle with my dear father, and my fingers were crossed behind my back, because I was so much in love with my fiancé – as I love him even more now – and I was just – tortured by wondering how everything was going to turn out, you know, my life… But I put my trust in the Lord, as I always do, and I wish I could send a message back in time to that blushing 20-year-old bride – so hard to imagine for you young folks – and tell her that everything has worked out – even better than she could have imagined! I love you all so much, and I thank you for sharing this beautiful life with me!”

Oliver’s father stood up and said: “It’s true what they say – the days are long, but the years are short.” He turned to his wife. “I remember you walking down that aisle as if it were yesterday! I can’t quite recognise the old people we’ve become, because our love still feels so young…” He blew her a soft kiss. “But - I am most grateful for the steadfast faith my family has maintained – especially my children – in these increasingly godless times… The devil feels at work everywhere, drawing people away from the one true faith, the one true path – dragging us down to the physical, the material, the secular…”

Jayda snorted restlessly.

“But you have all kept the faith, my children – and for that I thank you. I hope that I have set a good example, but I am far from the only example in this world, and you picked your way through the modern minefields to reach this beautiful garden, this happy place, with wonderful children and joyful marriages – and you have all done me so proud! Thank you.”

Diane stood and said: “I am so grateful for you both. Where I volunteer, there so many unhappy people – it comes with the territory, of course – and I don’t think they could ever really believe what happens in this garden, in this family… I show them pictures, and they say – nothing. They want to know where all our problems are, how we fight, what we fight about – and there’s really nothing to say, other than the fact that Oliver almost forgot my birthday last year – but we are Christian folk, forgiveness is a virtue, however hard it may be at the time!”

Oliver smiled at her. His eyes were full.

“And we are blessed, we are the proof of life of the life of faith. We are happy, we love each other, we love God, and our children thrive. With God, all is possible – but without you, mom – and you, dad – God would have been a whole lot harder to find, and for that I thank you. We all thank you…”

Overcome, she sat down.

The middle brother David rose and said: “First of all, I would like to thank everyone for not commenting too much on my attempt to grow a moustache. It’s what I pray for the most, but God clearly judges me as an unrepentant sinner… But seriously – I’m thankful for the fact that we don’t – as a family – just – grow up and move away… Shatter and fragment, like most do… I’m grateful for this day, this garden, this gathering. Dad – I’m so grateful that you helped me overcame my hesitation to do missionary work, because as you know it was over there that I met my wonderful wife Jennifer. Without Jennifer, I would never have met our two wonderful children, Kyle and Kayleigh. I’m grateful for our little hideaway of deep love and commitment, far from the shallow swords of a clashing world. And I’m grateful to God, for making all this – all things – possible!”

His wife Jennifer stood and said: “I don’t mean to sound prideful, but I know that God loves me more, because I’m constantly praying against that moustache!” She smiled. “I’m grateful for a family that took me – an orphan – so deeply into your hearts – all of you… I had a – scant and unstable home life, and I didn’t even know how much I hungered for a real family until you all – took me in. You had your reasons for doubt - my background is quite different, but you just – loved me, and showed me the way. I thank you so much – for everything…”

Overcome with emotion, Jennifer sat abruptly. Her husband’s hand covered hers.

The youngest brother Keith stood and said: “I’m grateful for my wonderful fiancé Iris, who is as pretty as a flower, and helps me see the light. I’m grateful that she let me take the lead in our relationship, and draw her away from the terrible temptations of a modern arts degree! I hope to serve her as a husband for the rest of my life, and can’t wait to be a father! Mom, I thank you for reminding me how – and why – to lead – and when to follow. And Iris – I thank you so much for accepting the grace of God into your heart. I’m just a lowly vehicle, but you really…” He sniffed and laughed. “You are teaching me as much as I’m teaching you – more, most days. Thank you for trusting me, thank you for believing in me, and I am so excited for our life together!” He reached out to his fiancée, but she shook her dark hair, tears in her eyes.

Oliver’s grandfather was helped up, and leaned forward, over the white tablecloth. “To heck with modernity, this is what matters! I thank you all for staying close, and I promise to put in a good word for you with the man upstairs – but hopefully not too soon!”

Oliver’s grandmother Betty said: “I know what Barbara meant, we are all uncertain about the future, when we are young, and want to know how everything ends. Of course we, as Christians, know exactly how everything ends – and how much of that is up to us! I am sad that all the prophecies are coming true, but that just brings us all closer to God…” She wagged her finger. “Lessons are going to have to be learned, hard lessons, but it will bring people back to the bosom of Christ. I thank you, O Lord, for your stern love, despite our wayward ways. And I pray most of all for Jayda,” said Betty finally, sitting down heavily.

Jayda tipped a glass ironically, her eyes glittering. She was encouraged to get up, but only slouched deeper into her plastic chair.

Oliver stood up, leaned forward and said: “I’m so grateful that people have stopped bringing up my marital status, that shows Christian humility and deep love!”

His mother called out: “Ladies, he’s available – help him find someone while he still has his hair – at this point, just about anyone!”

Oliver smiled. “Thank you, mother, I know that comes from a place of love… Seriously, though, I am glad that you all remind me, and I promise that I am neither a monster nor a monk – and that my standards are not too high! Quite high, of course, I am fairly wonderful, but I promise I will give any good woman a fair shake. I love you all, and I promise to – keep everyone informed, about what is happening in the world, to keep us all safe.”

Jayda’s mother Karen stood, brushing back the awning of her streaked bangs.

“We’ve had some tough years, Jayda and I – but this family has always stood with us, and we are eternally grateful for your kindness and generosity and acceptance… As you know, I judge myself far too harshly – that’s why it is so wonderful to be among people with such – open hearts. After Jayda’s father left, I was – I was tempted – by despair.” She shook her head, spreading her hands. “But you – you people, just wouldn’t let me be, wouldn’t let me stay in bed, wouldn’t let me – not wash, to be honest…” She gestured towards Oliver’s mother. “Marie, you moved in, basically, and talked to me every day about love and forgiveness and – taking responsibility, darn you! And you pulled me out of a dark place, I’ll be honest! You eventually convinced me to take Jayda out of daycare, and fight for custody against that – monster. And then you told me – I remember so clearly – you told me that I was responsible for choosing that monster, because I had not battled the monster within me, because of the – drugs and – bad decisions. And that you still loved me…” Karen’s voice faltered, and she smiled. “Despite my cursed name… And I’ve tried to – I’ve tried to be a good example, but I don’t think it’s been – enough…”

Marie got up. Karen half-ran over to her, and they hugged tightly. Marie whispered something into Karen’s streaked hair. All anyone could tell was that it was a repetitive phrase of some kind.

“Jayda,” said Marie, turning to the darkening faces. “We would so love it if you would talk.”

Jayda shook her head rapidly. “It’s so – great to see all this love, but I don’t have anything to say. At the moment.”

“Jayda,” repeated Marie in a lower voice. “Sometimes in life, it’s now or never.”

Jayda pursed her lips, fingering the base of her wine glass. “It’s all so – self-congratulatory. I don’t think I have the stomach…”

“Self-congratulatory?”

“Yeah – you’re all so – grateful for these wonderful things, but in my circle, where I move, people didn’t have these – wonderful things. Never did.” Her nasal voice rose. “You thank God for all these graces, but He holds these graces back from a whooole lot of people in this world, you know.” Jayda lifted her head defiantly. “And frankly, we’re all kind of sick of this self praise, like you are all so wonderful and so happy because God just loves you – but where was God when my dad was – doing what he did, to my mom? Where was God when my teachers showed up drunk at the daycare?” Her voice trembled with venomous passion, and she glanced at the open-mouthed children around her. “Where was God when I got – cornered at that party, when I was 14? You all had these – happy childhoods, I guess – so you think that God is good and kind and generous. You don’t love God, you just love your – origin stories. Those of us with different – stories, well I guess we have different heroes and villains…” Her voice suddenly rose to a shocking shriek. “AND WE’RE COMING FOR YOU, BELIEVE IT!

Marie had been making her way towards the young woman. She leaned over, her curly hair falling past her red cheeks, and tried to hug Jayda.

Jayda jumped up, almost knocking Marie over. “Fat lot of good this does now!

“We tried, we tried! We offered to take you, we got your mom into treatment, we kept your dad at bay…”

“BUT YOU LET HER MARRY HIM!” cried Jayda.

“We couldn’t stop her – she was on the other side of the country – we didn’t know, she didn’t tell us – we asked!

“But you do everything for your family, everything for your community – why didn’t you fly out?”

Marie’s voice grew forceful. “Because there’s a reason you are here, Jayda! We never would have met you, you wouldn’t exist, if we had stopped it!”

“Why would that be so terrible?” demanded Jayda, averting her eyes.

Oliver’s father Patrick said: “Marie, listen to her. She might be – she might be with us because of our bad choices. A reminder of what we failed to do…” He turned towards the young woman’s set, angry face. “Jayda, we do love you, and we want you to be – happier. We don’t know how that can be achieved without accepting Jesus into your heart.”

“He’s too big for…” started Jayda, then stopped her words with great effort.

Richard said: “What do you need from us?”

Jayda paused, then her mouth twisted. “Just for all of you to get out of the goddamned way!

Marie’s hands covered her own mouth.

Jayda jumped up and ran from the gathering, her awkward gait showing her agonising rage and vulnerability.

Her mother stood slowly. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered, then turned to follow her daughter out into the darkness.

Chapter 6

There was a shocked silence after Jayda stormed out, Karen trailing behind. As one, the family drew its chairs around the long white table. Children sat on laps, watching the glittering eyes of their elders.

Oliver’s grandfather, Richard, spoke first, slowly.

“As Christians, we have to first believe that the fault lies with us. Sin does not grow in a vacuum, without careful tending – usually by indifference, and we are all guilty of that…” He turned to his daughter-in-law. “Marie, you, most of all, really tried to save them – and might have succeeded, we don’t know Jayda’s future…” He sighed “What do you think?”

“I think – I think that the world is making crazy people way faster than we can make them sane.”

There was a low murmur of agreement around the table. Oliver slowly stirred a hummus dip with a plastic fork, watching the grooves like little plough-lines.

Marie continued: “I’ve seen Jayda’s social media posts, they are unrelentingly – awful.” She took a deep breath. “It’s this modern – vanity, or intransigence. There is no forgiveness. Allies and enemies, that’s all they see. Any and all inequality always results from prejudice or bigotry or hatred…”

“We know the symptoms, mom,” said David. “And how quickly this all happened. I went to do my missionary work - then just a couple of years later, it was like I had returned to a totally different country. We can’t fight this in the abstract, we have to figure out what is going on for her, just as – Jayda.”

His wife Jennifer said: “How many times has she been confronted?”

Marie said: “Twice. As the Good Book says: once privately, the next time with just a few of us… But it’s tough to get her in front of the whole community, she never comes to church…”

“Has she admitted any fault?”

Richard shook his head. “I was there the second time. It’s like talking to a – a robot. A machine.” He snapped his fingers rapidly. “All the programmed answers just come – spitting out.”

Oliver watched the exchange closely, but said nothing.

Diane said: “Has she shown any interest in a family, kids? Love?”

“Oh, love is bourgeois prejudice, you know the nonsense…”

She frowned. “So – what is going to tame her?”

The youngest brother Keith laughed. “Thank heavens she’s not here to - hear that!”

Richard grunted. “We get one more kick at the can, then she’s – out, I’m afraid to say. So – how do we approach this?”

Iris raised her hand. Her fiancé Keith nodded encouragingly.

Richard gestured. “Go ahead, this isn’t primary school.”

Iris cleared her throat. “Is she – is she an outright atheist?”

Richard looked around. “Anyone?”

Diane said: “I wouldn’t put it that way… I don’t think she believes in anything, really. She’s like a nihilist, but even that has a kind of dark energy that she can’t really summon… She’s just – oppositional, to everything – even herself.”

Marie nodded slowly. “Rebellious…” She turned to her husband. “What was that song she was listening to, gave me goosebumps…”

“‘Bury a Friend.’”

“Straight up devil worship.” She sighed slowly. “Not exactly what I expected to face, at my time of life.”

Her husband shrugged. “It’s all foretold, we been preparing for this since we were kids…” He turned to his wife. “Marie, how have the conversations been going with Karen?”

Marie swallowed. “She’s – scared… She’s an old school feminist, kind of on the left, but mostly out of sympathy for the poor, and… Well, you know the type. This – new approach, this hatred and censorship and – rage – it’s frightening for her. Karen – she actually asked me if I thought she should have stayed with her ex – if that would have prevented Jayda from becoming – this. I had no idea what to say to that. It’s such a mess, I don’t know how we can – clean everything up. Or anything…”

“It’s kind of everywhere…” whispered David’s wife Jennifer. “I can’t even turn on the news…”

Richard nodded. “Yes, but we are trying to work with – one individual, not a whole – continent.”

There was a pause.

People outside the immediate family tightened their mouths.

Oliver’s father Patrick turned to him abruptly. “Ollie, so quiet…”

Oliver shrugged, his face set.

“Unusual…”

Oliver stared at him.

His father frowned. “I have the feeling that you would be the best person to talk to her…”

Oliver shook his head. David’s boy Kyle asked for a drink. Jennifer got up.

“What, you’re not the best person to talk to her, or you won’t do it?”

Oliver scowled. “It doesn’t matter what I do.”

Silence. The dark wind whirled through the high trees above them.

“Why not? She’s not beyond – hope.”

Oliver sighed and shifted in his chair. “We’ve talked to her twice. Sure, we can go again, but it won’t make any difference. She’s a machine. I don’t see any free will there at all. She’s not even admitting there’s any kind of problem! We are the problem…”  Oliver gestured at the air. “She has her friends, her media, her podcasts and forums – everything that reinforces what she already believes. She doesn’t think outside of it, so she doesn’t have anything to compare her proposed actions to – that means: no free will. Always has…”

His mother snorted. “But – she still has a soul, she can change…”

“What’s the evidence for that, mom?”

Marie’s eyes shifted from side to side. “I’m sure you don’t mean…”

“No, not the evidence that she has a soul – the evidence that she can change!

“The fact that she has a soul means that she can change!”

“You don’t have to lecture me on basic theology, mom – I get that. But those…” Oliver’s jaw clenched briefly, and he took a deep breath. “People like her just double-down, they have no idea how to engage in – rational retreat. Or self-criticism. Or compromise. They have all these simple, easy answers – we all know this – that are totally wrong. Just – slogans. Facts don’t matter, reason doesn’t matter, God doesn’t matter, science doesn’t matter – the only thing that matters is what – feeds their anger.”

“But – where does it come from?” demanded Marie.

“Rebellion? That’s as old as Lucifer, as old as Adam – as old as Cain and Abel.”

“But this new – modern way…”

Oliver shrugged, then turned to the table as a whole. “Everyone – come on, tell me about the last difficult thing you did – morally.”

A shiver of glances ran around the table.

His father said: “I confronted an atheist in the park, who was talking to children about ‘cultural’ morality.”

“How did that go?”

Patrick smiled tightly. “He could – well, you know how it is, everyone is just dying for the easy road, and he could just smile and laugh and point at me, make a couple of stupid jokes… I don’t know if I did the cause any good…”

“Mom?”

Marie said: “Well, my last conversation with Jayda and Karen was – really difficult.” Her voice wobbled. “I keep thinking that I should have done more, decades ago… And Karen was so lost, and so volatile… I thought that by – staying in contact, we – I – could do more good than harm, but I don’t know that – now…” She shivered. “I think that every time I see them, Jayda just ends up – further away from everything… And Karen – well, she’s like a ghost at the moment, these days. She’s just beaten down, used up… Jayda is – hollowing her out. There is so much worry, so much despair – and I don’t know how to counter it, I’ll be straight honest. If we could pray together…” She took a deep breath. “I have no – purchase on that child. Nothing left in – common.”

David said: “I wrote a whole rebuttal to something Christopher Hitchens talked about – it was really tough, he’s got some very good arguments, and I had to pray very hard for inspiration. I got through, but it – I took some blows, to be honest…”

His wife Jennifer said: “I feel bad, I haven’t done anything quite so – adventurous. That bitter man at the end of my street, in the house with the military green roof – I’ve been taking him lunch, trying to convince him to come back to the church, because his health is failing, but he – he saw so much in the wars that he’s given up on God completely… I mean, I’ve been telling him that the devil sows war in order to harvest the hatred of God, but he is so full of pain and anger – he won’t even answer the door when I come by any more, and I just wonder…” She sighed. “I guess like everyone, whether I’ve just driven him further away – but what am I supposed to do, just let him – fall forever?”

Diane said: “I had to intervene at a playground where some kid was screaming that he was Jesus, and jumping on puddles…”

There was a murmur of relieved laughter.

“I know, it is kind of funny – but it’s serious, too… I – can’t imagine doing anything like that when I was their age, and that’s only 20 years or so ago.”

Oliver’s father Patrick quoted: “‘There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.’”

Diane pointed at him and nodded. “That’s the question, isn’t it, Dad? Should we have done more?

Richard raised his upper lip above his long yellow teeth. “Come on Diane – we are just inheriting this mess from 150 years ago… The moment people turned their children over to the state, this world was set in stone… People put the material above love – a paycheck above their children, obedience to bosses over obedience to God – and now, we’ve got a couple of generations raised in daycare, they’ve just lost the maternal instincts completely, and – view time with their kids as a kind of torture…” He sighed. “But none of this helps with Jayda. We’re talking about one little person, not a big movement.”

Richard turned to Oliver.

“You don’t think she can be helped?”

Slowly, Oliver said: “I don’t think that helping her changes much.”

The inevitable female gasps ran around the table. Even the men frowned.

“Why not?” asked Richard neutrally.

Oliver paused for a long moment, deeply considering his words.

“I asked you all what morally difficult things you had done lately, because – that’s the whole point, morality is hard, being good is – really challenging… You have to confront yourself, your own laziness, your own – avoidance. Your fallen nature. You have to rise despite yourself. But all – Jayda has to do is just – hate. Surrender to violence – you know that’s where she’s heading, that’s what she applauds… Hatred is easier than virtue – she can feel virtuous by doing harm, there’s no way out of that trap…”

Oliver’s grim words were slowly considered by the bright eyes around the deep shadows on the table.

“Okay – let’s vote,” he said finally, staring steadily around. “But not with the kids here.”

“I can take them inside,” said Diane. “Come on, kids – let’s put a movie on!”

Scattered murmured conversation drifted across the white tablecloth until Diane returned. She had pulled the curtains wide in the family room, so everyone could see the children settling in.

Patrick said: “What are we voting on exactly?”

Oliver pursed his lips. “Hands up if you think society can continue on its current path.”

Silence hung over the gathered men and women. A certain dizziness shivered through the gathered souls, as perspective wrenched their mental eyes to the darkened skies.

No hands were raised.

Oliver nodded grimly. “All right – how many here think that society will last in its current state for another 25 years?”

No hands.

“10 years?”

Nothing.

“Five?”

Silence.

“I don’t know if you’re all just hypnotised, or if you really don’t think that society can last another half decade…” It was halfway between a question and a statement.

Mild qualifications and protests swirled around the table.

David shivered and said: “Oliver, we all know that you have a certain – specialised perspective. What is going on?”

Oliver said simply: “I wake up every morning, expecting to hear trumpets overhead.”

There was a shocked silence. Several of the adults were tempted to laugh, but a kind of helpless seriousness froze their tongues.

“Oh, come on!” said William angrily. “My wife is pregnant!”

“I know,” said Oliver sadly. “I’m not saying this because I want to hurt – anyone.”

“End times,” murmured Keith. Sitting next to him in the dark, Iris shivered.

Oliver gestured at all the pale faces. “We all – believe and accept these truths. I think about – Jayda, just about every day – with great sorrow, but good reason… We all know that forgiveness is not something that you just will, outside of the other person’s – actions. I would fall to my knees before her if Jayda apologised – or took any kind of responsibility. But she is an NPC – a nonplayer character, programmed by an empty culture into a kind of – weapon.” His voice rose suddenly “Against us! You heard her – that we have to just get out of the way!

Oliver’s eyes were dark and fierce.

“You know that those who worship the devil always proclaim their intentions, so that their ‘karma’ doesn’t blow back on them. If they tell us exactly what they are going to do, and we don’t listen, or we support them, or we don’t get out the way, then it’s not on them. It’s on us. Jayda hates us, she has been trained to, and I don’t see any – indication that she has any will or capacity to fight that hatred. It’s tough enough dislodging a devil when you are desperate to – when you’re happily married to one, you’re totally lost…”

Marie whispered: “No one is ever totally lost…”

“I get that in theory, mom – I really do… But dad asked for my opinion…” He raised his hands. “I can stop here, I don’t want to say anything – against what is right.”

His father said: “We asked, you answer… Please.”

Oliver inhaled through his nose and counted his fingers with his other hand. “First, we go to the sinner privately – then we go as a group, then we go as a church – as a family, because of course for the first 300 years, Christianity was just 25 people in a room. We can try again – I want us to follow Scripture – but in my view, today – tonight – was the third try. Jayda didn’t apologise, she didn’t offer to make amends, she didn’t even admit fault – this was the third time, and after this – she’s out. And you know why she’s out? Because we are not doing her any favours by protecting her from the effects of sin! She is rejecting God, love, virtue, empathy – and us – and it’s more than just rejecting – I think she would drive a truck over us if we stood between her and her imaginary paradise! It’s not like it would be the first time in history… And we – we are Christians, tragically we are often at our very best when we are being persecuted! The world is telling us very clearly what it intends to do with us – it’s everywhere, you can’t miss it, I won’t let you! It’s time to get to safety! Like Noah. And I’m not suffering any bite marks trying to pull everyone on board. If they want to stay – that’s free will…”

Marie said: “I thought you said that Jayda doesn’t have free will!”

Oliver shook his head rapidly. “We are born with free will, just like we’re born with healthy lungs – that doesn’t mean we get to keep either if we do everything wrong! She’s 27 years old. If you sit for long enough, you just – lose the ability to stand. The only muscles she’s been exercising are hatred and rebellion. And she can do that because…” Oliver visibly bit his tongue.

“Because – why?” asked Iris, leaning forward, fascinated.

Oliver’s eyes narrowed. “Because – the State provides for her. State daycares raised her, State schools pretended to – educate her. The same State schools – employ her, and she can’t be fired, and she doesn’t have to do any good at all – in fact, I believe, based on what I’ve seen on her social media, that she is doing great harm to – the innocents.” His voice grew in grim passion. “And we all know what Jesus said should happen to those who harm the least among us – that millstones should be hung from their necks, and they should be thrown into the deep water! And Jayda believes that she will be provided for by the State, given healthcare by the State, supported in her retirement by the State – she has married Caesar. She is – bought and paid for, in perhaps the worst way…”

Iris turned to Keith. “Oh, this is what you were talking about? The men’s rights stuff?”

Keith shrugged, then nodded slowly.

Oliver continued: “‘Thou shalt not steal’ - and everything Jayda has is stolen! We pay, she takes! She knows we homeschool, but she would never support that we get any tax credits for that – she hates school choice, any competition… She is married to the Beast! I wish I could put it more gently, but the hour is getting – late.”

Everyone knew that Oliver was talking about more than the darkness of this particular evening.

Oliver leaned forward. “Jayda can’t reason with us because she is taking from us! We know how the Devil works – he offers everything for free, then takes everything you have. We are the golden geese, and she wants to – cut us open. She thinks that will liberate her, we know that it will end her – or at least her life as she knows it. The Devil hides that knowledge from her… Oh, he will reveal it when it’s too late to change anything, but until then she will be insufferable in her hateful suffering!”

Oliver stood up suddenly.

“I’m sorry, but I do feel very – strongly about this. Come on! We twiddle our thumbs and make plans and try to save enemies who hate us – but the point of forgiveness is to become safe! We get angry – as Jesus did, no sin – we confront, we expect apologies and restitution – if we get them, we are safe. If we are scorned, ignored – or attacked – we ostracize, and get safe that way! Listen, ladies – I love your sensitivity, I love your empathy, I love your warmth and concern – but we – we men are the ones who are going to have to fight if everything goes to hell… Save your tenderness for your children, we face predators in the world!

There was silence. Iris’s eyes were gleaming. She took Keith’s hand without looking at him.

Oliver’s voice softened. “We know who runs the world…” His eyes fixed on each person’s face, one by one. “And we sure as hell know who’s winning.”

Chapter 7

I’m not being petulant! screamed Rachel silently, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her shaking hands.

She had created a special folder in her inbox for responses from editors, and it had filled up with horizontal dark text, because based on the heading, she knew that none of the replies were worth reading.

“Thank you for your enquiry, but…”

“I really cannot believe that you proposed…”

“In future, only contact me through a reputable agent…”

“Please remove me from this mailing list…”

“I have no intention of giving oxygen to these…”

It just went on and on – relentlessly harsh, brutally cold.

Rachel had now spent a month researching the topic of men’s rights – wading through the vitriol – and occasional flashes of distant reason – on both sides.

Those opposing the men’s rights movement held little bacKRYSTAL:

“Men’s rights activists are raging entitled incels who believe that they have a right to a woman’s time, attention and body!”

“This is a male backlash against growing equality for women…”

“Men are losing it because their historical privileges are being threatened by women’s progress!”

“Men who want to subjugate women are outraged – and becoming violent – because women are finally speaking out!”

“Men are afraid of being humiliated – women are terrified of being killed!”

“Fragile men cannot handle a strong woman!”

The articles did contain shocking quotes from men, but Rachel knew exactly how the game was played -but was able to maintain a fever pitch of moral outrage nonetheless!

Men’s rights forums contained the following gems:

“Women have become tyrants – men are entitled to a revolution!”

“The new fascism is the combination of female sexual power and State coercive power!”

“Women flock to alpha men when they’re young – then use family courts to extract money from beta simps in middle age!”

“Women inevitably vote for socialism, which destroys male earning potential!”

“Women will always choose security over freedom.”

“Women only love us for our resources!”

“Women can be a human being; men have to be human doing.”

Buried in forums were some direct threats of violence against women, but those threads had endless replies underneath claiming that these were plants by a mainstream reporter, or some other generalised leftist agitator – or even: “FED, FED, FED!” They were quickly deleted by the admins.

Rachel had been around long enough to know that some reporters were perfectly comfortable with the idea that if you couldn’t get the quote that you wanted, it was fine to create an anonymous account, post the worst possible vitriol – then quote your own post to smear the community as a whole.

Ian had warned her about all of this – and extracted a promise that she would never do anything of the kind.

This was the query letter she had sent to editors and publishers:

Hello, my name is Rachel Hastings, and I am a freelance reporter. Please find attached a list of my published articles. I am interested in writing about the men’s rights movement, with a focus on the battle between a few genuinely wounded men versus the vast majority spewing rampant misogyny. I have been horrified by my research, and would like to propose an approach that could cool the escalating rhetoric.

I am certain that I could get the job done in 1,500 words – please let me know if you are interested in my topic and approach, and I would be happy to chat further!

Best wishes,

Rachel Hastings, B.J.

The feedback was swift and merciless. The typical response was some variation of:

“I find your email disturbing and offensive, please do not contact me again.”

From one editor she had worked with before:

“Rachel, I’m writing even though I’m sure this message will not reach you, because I’m absolutely certain that your email has been hacked – I can’t imagine any universe in which you would send me the above query, please secure your account!”

Rachel looked up from her screen. Arlo was looking over her shoulder as the responses poured in.

“Uh, babe, I think you better stop.”

Rachel’s skin was crawling under the whipping stings of rejection.

“I have no idea how to turn back now…”

He shrugged. “Just tell them you were hacked, and someone is trying to destroy your reputation – hell, you can tell them it was someone from the men’s rights community, that would be a perfect fit!” He gestured. “You know: they found out that you are writing an article, and decided to burn any bridges you might have… It’s what I would do.”

Rachel snorted, despite herself. “You? You’re about as confrontational as a koala bear on quaaludes.”

Arlo smiled. “I’m not a big fan of drama, this is known…”

Rachel’s long fingernails drummed the desk beside her keyboard. “I could say I was hacked… It’s worked for others. But what if – what if they want an article on how I was hacked, how I reported it, what the police did?”

Arlo shrugged. “What if an earthquake swallows us up tomorrow? What if my teeth fall out over lunch?”

Rachel scowled. “Come on, you’re not helping.”

Arlo sighed. “I hate to be that cliché, but I did tell you…”

Rachel whirled on him in her chair. “Yes, I know, you said it was a bad idea – you said so repeatedly, knowing all the while exactly how I respond to being told what not to do!”

Arlo stared at her for a moment. “I just – I really dislike these guys.”

“Yes, you have made that abundantly clear, I have no – uncertainty about your feelings.” Rachel’s face crumpled suddenly. “I’m going to be 28 in a month, Arlo – what have I got to show for more than half a decade? A slightly more comfortable chair, a couple of thousand dollars – and half a dozen bylines.” She bit at a cuticle. “It’s like – now or never!”

Arlo sat in the soft armchair next to her desk. He frowned slowly. “I don’t know if you want me to just listen or – give feedback…”

Her eyes flashed. “Stop asking me what I want! Just be a – partner!”

Arlo paused for a long moment. Rachel knew that the purpose of his silence was so that she could see some crazed reflection of her own actions in his perfect features, his blank lack of response.

“You know that blank stare just makes it worse!” she snapped.

He pursed his lips. “Makes what worse?”

“What are you, a goddamned therapist?”

He smiled maddeningly. “I’m just being a – good listener.”

Rachel was tempted to abandon her outrage. For once, she was good at resisting temptation. “I could have just torpedoed my entire career!”

Arlo’s lips made a tiny ‘o’ - and Rachel was shocked to see the beginning of his potential sentence: “What career?” His lips closed again.

“What were you about to say?” she demanded, her heart pounding.

He shrugged. “Just pursing my lips.”

She stood up suddenly. “All right, let’s talk about you.”

“O – kay…”

Don’t do that! Rachel wanted to scream – but again, surprisingly, resisted temptation. “I mean, you were gonna be some kind of big biologist or scientist.”

“That’s true,” said Arlo, without offense.

“And?”

He took a deep breath. “And – and it turns out I’m pretty happy without – that kind of ambition.” He shrugged “Maybe that’s why I am happy.”

“But – for what? In order to do – what?

He stared at her, then shrugged again.

Rachel jumped up and started pacing back and forth. “Our life is supposed to have some kind of – shape, you know. My mom had two kids when she was my age! Okay, maybe we’ll have kids later, but… It just feels like we are living this – day-to-day – not ‘nothingness’ - but no progress in anything! We still rent, we have one beat-up car between us… My dad asked me yesterday if we have life insurance, and it hit me with a real – wallop, Arlo. How can we have life insurance? We don’t even have a life!

“We don’t have a life?” echoed Arlo – again, without offense, in that neutral tone that she knew was designed to highlight her hysteria.

“Of course we’re alive!” she cried. “But what are our goals?

Arlo smiled suddenly, radiantly. “Oh man, let’s get it on, let’s talk about that! I’ve got whole bookmark folder full of plans! I want to ski the Alps, I want to surf Cape Town, I’d love – us – to climb Grays Peak in Colorado. I want to…” He laughed giddily. “Wouldn’t it be fantastic to be a yoga instructor in Bali, even just for a couple months? We’ve never even been to Australia, babe! How can you sleep at night, knowing you’ve never been punched by a buff kangaroo?” He jumped up out of his easy chair. “I’ve never been arrested in Bavaria, I’ve never run out of air scuba diving – I’ve never crossed myself on a falling aeroplane… We could live ten lifetimes, Rach - and never even scratch the surface of all the things I want to do!”

Rachel exhaled rapidly and sagged into her work chair. Her cheeks prickled with stress. “It… All that’s just – gathering experience, like – Pacman chewing up dots!”

Arlo imitated the video game sound. “Waka-waka-waka… That’s what life is, Rach,” he said simply, sitting down again. “Your mom had the experience of – two kids…”

Rachel knew she was being frantic, but could not drop the topic. She leaned forward. “We haven’t talked about this in forever – but – Arlo – what do you want to be?”

He leaned back in his easy chair, laughing too loudly. “You mean – when I grow up?”

You play with monkeys for minimum wage! Rachel wanted to scream – and felt genuine shock at the strength and depth of her reaction.

“Hey, hey!” Arlo said tenderly. He jumped up – always seeming so weightless – and hugged Rachel’s rigid sitting form. “This is partly why I didn’t want you to go down this ‘men’s rights’ rabbit hole, babe – you’re so… You’re very sensitive, Rach – you get raw from whatever surrounds you. This is a messed up, toxic community. It’s getting in your head, rent free…”

A cursed tear escaped Rachel’s eye. Against her will, she leaned into his chest. Goddammit, he is so seductive!

Arlo let her go, stepped back and jumped up and down, letting his arms dangle loosely. “Come on, shake it out – shake it with me, baby!”

He half-squatted and shook his butt from side to side. “You’re all wound up, babe - time to flop! Wiggle, wiggle!”

Rachel laughed.

“Drop into the monkey brain – enough of this higher reason! Oooga ooga!”

Arlo made hooting ape noises. He danced over to the fruit bowl and grabbed a banana. Gripping it from the bottom, he chewed at the pasty goo that erupted from the top.

“Arlo, the carpet!” cried Rachel, jumping up.

“All I see is jungle floor!” he cried, banana phlegm flying from his red lips.

Although laughing on the outside, Rachel felt a sudden, wrenching burst of fury. With a titanic effort of will, she pushed down any surface signs of her murderousness.

Arlo, it seemed, caught a faint echo of her rage-quake. He stopped dancing immediately, lowering his forehead and looking at her with great seriousness.

“Are you thinking about – kids?”

“What?” cried Rachel, exasperated. “Why?”

Arlo shrugged, tapping his temple. “Well, you know my view… Nothing happens accidentally.” He gestured at her computer screen. “Maybe you did just – blow up your whole career. Maybe it’s because you want something else, but don’t want to admit it.”

Rachel raised a warning finger. “Don’t project on me, you himbo! Are you thinking about kids?”

He sank into the armchair again. “Haha, himbo,” he muttered. “Been awhile since I heard that one…” He slowly raised his blue eyes to Rachel. “I do think about kids, from time to time – you can’t escape it, they’re everywhere… But I always think of them – you’ll laugh, but I think of holding them up like Simba from the Lion King, yodeling about my lineage to all the beasts kneeling below. We’re always outside, high in the sky or deep in the water…”

“And then? But then?”

He looked at her curiously. “What you mean – but?”

“Well, clearly you want children, but there’s something about me that makes you – hesitate.”

Arlo’s lip curled in slight disgust. “Ha – now whose projecting?”

“You know a woman’s greatest feaRachel: that we have children, and end up with a father who is just another kid!

His eyes widened. “Gosh, I thought a woman’s greatest fear was losing her career!

Rachel could see that he immediately regretted his statement. Normally she would push for an apology, lever her power over him for dominance, but she suddenly felt very weary.

“So – you don’t – want children?” she said, staring the gritty carpet.

Arlo smiled – a little sadly. “I do and I don’t. I think of them like snapshots, like cool selfies and Instagram posts. I think of the highlights. Like when you have a great climb, and you can see the mountain tops coming up through the clouds. I don’t – think of the everyday. I’m not sure I would be great at that…”

But you love your monkeys, thought Rachel, and again clamped her mouth shut.

She sat heavily in her desk chair and gestured at the black screen.

“There is no way for me to – stop now. Can’t be done…”

“Why not?” There was genuine curiosity in his voice.

Rachel raised her shoulders, then forced them back down again. “I have to – write a balanced piece. I owe it to Ian – and Cassie. And myself.”

Arlo laughed harshly, and Rachel was amazed to see a flash of bitterness cross his perfect face. “You see a lot of – balance in the world these days, babe?”

She said nothing.

“Rach – come on, you don’t have to be a meteorologist to know when it’s raining. Everyone in the middle gets torn apart.”

Rachel pursed her lips. “And – where are you?”

“I’m not even on the spectrum. I’m just – hiding out…”

His words were simple, sincere – and they broke her heart.

“Dinosaurs,” he murmured.

She waited.

Arlo raised his blue eyes to her. “Lot of big dinosaurs out there. Big teeth, man… We are just little mammals. Let them fight…”

Rachel sat, silent.

Arlo continued, looking past her. “A lot of forces forcing everyone apart – the only thing that unites the extremes are those in the middle. Pick a fight, or stay out of the way… Don’t try and – bridge any gaps. That’s just an endless canyon…”

It was like he was speaking in riddles – but riddles that connected to her very core.

“Where does it end?” whispered Rachel.

Arlo suddenly jumped up, laughing. He took her two hands and pressed them to his belly, his abs. He leaned down and kissed Rachel on the forehead. “It ends with us together, babe, having adventures - free..!

So damn seductive! thought Rachel, turning her head and resting her cheek against his belly.

“Listen,” murmured Arlo. “I totally understand what you want to do, you are a wonderful woman, full of talents and insights and – brilliance. And a couple years ago even, this article might have been possible… But things are – nuts right now, I don’t have to tell you – look at these terrible replies from these idiot editors. I think – well…” He stroked her hair gently. “I think – things will – work out, we just need to lay low… You know, I love a challenge, but things have to be – possible. Who would come with you – on such a journey? Of course I would,” he added rapidly. “But – it was like what we saw with the vaccinated and the unvaccinated… Everyone is just, like – a hair-trigger away from burning everything to the ground. Us too… It’s not forever, babe – everything is a pendulum, it will come back, but now is not the time…”

Rachel’s eyes slowly closed, hung with the accumulated weights of his little words.

“Don’t you have any – fight in you?” she murmured.

His stroking hand paused on her hair. “I just – told you.”

She took a deep breath. “What am I supposed to say to Ian?”

She could feel Arlo shrug. “Just – that you couldn’t find a publisher…”

“I could just – publish it myself.”

Arlo took a step back from her. “Rachel…” His voice was lower now, slightly dangerous. “Seriously, don’t. You know how photogenic I am…”

“What?”

“People click on pictures of pretty people – we are those people… Throw beauty in with scandal, we’ll end up like – like that woman who got on the plane to South Africa, and stepped off with no life at all!”

“I didn’t know how – scared you are.”

Arlo spread his hands. “You’ve lived a – pretty protected life, Rach. I came up from – slightly rougher climes. I’m not gonna tell you what to do, of course…”

“And – what if I go ahead?”

“I’ll be with you,” he said simply. “But it won’t be the same. We won’t be the same…”

Rachel took a very deep breath and exhaled mightily.

Arlo said: “Look – Rach, if you want to change your life, don’t just - blow it up. There are better ways…”

“And you – you just want our life to – continue, as it is?”

“I am a man of the moment. I’ve never hidden that.”

“Our days are like a – string of beads, Arlo. They’re lashed together, but kind of – identical…”

He smiled. “See? It’s that kind of poetry that should totally get you published, babe! But there’s no need to decide everything right now. Let’s go for a workout, clear our heads.”

Rachel knew that this was going to be the end of the topic.

Arlo always promised to circle back, but forever fell in a straight line.

Later in her life, when everything had become clear – or, at least, as clear as things ever get in life – Rachel ascribed her response the next morning to being sleepy, or startled, or hungry, or being rudely awakened from a terrifyingly seductive blonde dream.

Whatever the cause, the effects became blindingly clear over time.

Her phone pinged with a text message in the ghostly predawn light.

Jumping awake, Rachel unlocked her phone, swiped down and turned off audio notifications – noticing that she had received two emails informing her that the products she had ordered were unavailable for the foreseeable future.

She tapped on the text from her brother-in-law Ian:

The texts were coming fast and furious; Rachel knew that Ian must be dictating by voice, and waited for the inevitable homonym confusions.

Underneath this message was a shortened URL.

Rachel sighed. Her finger hovered over the link, hesitating before the eternal online mantra: Is anyone tracking what I tap?

Everything is defensible, I haven’t done anything yet… she thought, pushing down decisively on the link.

A website opened up, with a picture of – oh my word, a strong jawed lean cheeked male face that seemed to be staring directly into her – soul, or whatever.

It looked like a face from another time – the 1950s perhaps, cracking jokes at a three-martini lunch, the secretaries fighting over who got to take his notes… A man never to be seen in an undershirt, who wore long striped pyjamas to bed and without a doubt had a smoking jacket hanging on a hook behind his door.

It was a black and white photo, of course, because he was an old style of masculinity that colour could never capture.

Rachel literally felt her uterus twitch, and reminded herself that her hormones pointed her at more masculine man when she was ovulating, which was right about now.

Almost hypnotised, she flicked down, and was just about to tap a video when she grabbed her headphones, leapt out of bed, and scurried to the bathroom. Sitting on the edge of the bathtub, she inserted her headphones and watched.

Oliver was standing behind a podium on a vast stage, blue lights shining up from behind him, illuminating thick velvet curtains. From various camera angles, occasional blinding white lights appeared over his shoulders as he talked, like distant electric suns.

Rachel could not hear him, so clicked on the crossed out audio icon. Oliver’s voice filled her ears – far too loud – and she immediately dialled down the audio – then had to dial it back up, because his voice had vanished completely.

“…and I appreciate the invitation. Most of us here in this room have a unique view of the global supply chain crisis – and I’m going to call it a crisis, I’m not gonna mince any words – but I’m sure we’ve all noticed how tough it is to get the word out there… The current administration has no interest in complex issues that don’t immediately affect their voting base – but we know all the challenges – disasters, some would say. Diesel shortages, increased regulation, the hostility of certain governments to the free movement of goods, endless union issues, labour shortages, port congestion, COVID lockdowns and – well, war of course, the ultimate strangler of supply chains. The scarcity of goods is not something to come, but something that is already happening, and is going to get much, much worse…”

Rachel paused the video. Supply chain issues? she thought in a daze.

She tapped a message to Ian:

Rachel scrolled down further, and saw another video - another speech, in a different venue, smaller, darker.

So… The men's rights movement - like a lot of movements dominated by men - is founded basically on skepticism - and in particular on moral skepticism. There is this moral argument that has been around, I mean, really, since the days of Cain and Abel - but it really crystallized in the mid-19th century – and the argument goes something like this: that anytime there are statistical differences in outcome between men and women, it can only be because men are oppressive - and of course we think about things like the wage gap and STEM enrolment and income - and yes, various things, life savings and so on… So we look at these things and we say, well wherever there is a difference between men and women, and the difference favours men - that is because men have used their power to rig the game in their own favor. I mean - when we look at a casino and we see that the casino makes money, then it's fairly safe to say that the casino has, to some degree, rigged the game in its own favor. Or, if you don't like that, and you say well, casino dealers just have more experience in the mathematical certainties of things like blackjack and poker, you can say: if you take your kids to an arcade and you get these points and you trade them in for toys – well, clearly the arcade is making more money off you buying access to their machines or games, then they’re losing in giving you toys, right? So whenever there is a difference in outcome, then the people who are making the money are profiting from the situation. Now this of course occurs in men's rights - between men and women - but it also occurs in a larger context, you know… I mean, I am a businessman, and have been for gosh, well over a decade as an entrepreneur by this point in my mid-thirties – so when you have an economic difference in outcome between the manager and the worker, then the argument from the Left is that the game, the system, the market is rigged in favour of the manager because the manager is making more money than the workers!

So: every difference in outcome, where one party benefits - is the result of exploitation, of rigging the game of basically a kind of theft based on power. So that is an argument that has been around for a very long time… It is the argument of envy, to some degree. It is one of the reasons why the Bible says: thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, his house or even his donkey – because the world runs on envy, it doesn't run on greed. Or rather the world runs on greed and the subsection of greed called envy is when you're greedy to take things from other people rather than, say, greedy for experience, greedy for muscle - so you go to the gym or whatever - greedy for dates so you ask women out, but you are greedy for some things that other people possess, and that's called envy.

So that is the argument that is used to beat men over the head and frankly take our stuff, right? So they say: women earn - it depends where you look, depends on the math you use – 67 cents on the dollar, 70 cents, 75 - it rarely gets close to 80 - but women earn, give or take, between two thirds and four fifths what man make.

So that’s a difference in outcome - and I don't disagree, I’m sure that the math is fine regarding that difference in outcome. I'm not a mathematical genius, but you have to be pretty good at math, to work in my field, and I've looked at the math and it seems fairly solid. So yes, women make less than men.

So of course the argument goes: that women make less than men because men are using their power to exploit the system in order to improve and increase their own wages - just as the capitalist does and – and never seems to happen with politicians, but it, it happens with men and women. That's the general argument.

Okay, so if we accept that argument, then it has to be a universal argument, otherwise it’s not a moral argument at all - morals are not just something that one person gets, but the other person doesn't… Like if you said, well, tall people can steal, but short people can’t, that wouldn’t be morality, that would be just: well, tall people are more likely to get away with it because they’re bigger and can intimidate others or something like that.

So this principle that wherever there are disparities in outcomes between men and women that favour man it’s because men are using their power to exploit the system in order to gain resources unjustly from women who are underpaid, women who are undervalued - and of course you have you seen a million movies where the poor, sweet men, the poor, exploitive, confused and dazed men are always just kind of ridiculous and foolish - but boy those women, they really know how to run things and it's the women who really run the shop and run the ship and they just let the man do their thing. I mean “Working Girl,” “9-to-5” - I'm dating myself with these references, well actually I’m dating my dad with these references- but yeah, that's the general issue…

Okay, so we say this as a principle, right? What is the principle? Sorry to repeat myself – it’s important because that the Big Bang is coming in a sec. The big gotcha, the boom drops in a second, right? So, we say: So this principle where if there are disparities in outcomes between men and women that benefit men, it must be because men are using their power to exploit and take from women.

Okay - well, clearly this should work in reverse as well, if it's a moral principle - otherwise is just male bashing under the guise of morality, which, you know, we wouldn't have any respect for even if you're not - as I am - a staunch Christian… You wouldn't have any respect I think for exploitation in the guise of morality…

So, men got suspicious about this, right? They said: look, there are situations where men are more harmed or do worse than women - so if the principle is universal that any differences between the sexes that favour one sex over the other results from exploitation and theft - then clearly where women benefit disproportionately to men that must also be because of exportation and theft!

And so there is a skepticism - is this a general principle that is applied equally to the sexes, or is it actually a manifestation of exactly what criticizes?

So, if you say that all disparities in outcome that favour men are the result of exploitation, but any disparities which favour women are not the result of exploitation, then you have a sexist standard that is used to take resources from men - to take additional pay, to get jobs, to get particular political favours, to get redistribution of income… In other words, if they say: well, men do better because there are sexist principles that take resources from women - they use their power to do that - but then when you reverse it, that's not valid for some reason - like if it’s women exploiting and taking from men that’s not valid - then you have, in modern feminism, a manifestation of exactly what they are accusing men of - exactly down to the last comma and dot.

You have a direct manifestation of exactly what men are accused of - but it's being enacted by women!

Now I want to make this clear - and it is really clear – the use of power to take resources from the opposite sex is exploitation! But if it's only one way, then the sexism comes from the feminists and the exploitation is from the women to the men through the mechanism of cultural propaganda and political power.

So - if somebody lies to a court and says I owe him $1,000 when I don't in fact, owe him $1,000 - and uses the court’s power to take the $1,000 from me - then he is using the court to take resources from me unjustly and give them to him or her - I guess in this case her – that’s wrong. So if you say all differences in income are the result of theft - but there are situations where women make more than man, but that's not the result of theft, then you using a moral principle and a sexist ideology to steal resources which is exactly what you're complaining that men are doing – but you're actually doing it yourself… So some very serious stuff. Very serious stuff!

And of course whatever brings hostility and a lack of love or increased skepticism and anger between the sexes is in a way kind of civilizational ending vitamin… I mean, don't think it’s any accident that we notice that the birthrates have plummeted across the West – and there are many reasons that – but one the reasons is: if you constantly tell women that men are exploitive sexist jerks who just want to rob them blind, it's going to be pretty tough to pair bond and pretty tough to trust… If you can't trust a man with your income, your paycheck, your job security your, you know, whatever - then it's pretty tough to trust him with a baby, right?

So yeah, it’s very, very serious stuff that we are dealing with here…

So, the men's movement came out of a certain kind of innocence in many ways - I mean, some were skeptical and cynical and knew that the game was gonna play out this way, but some men were genuine – like ‘oh, we’re all using this principle, that disparities in outcomes are result of exploitation – great, okay, well, let's give women jobs, let’s give women raises, let's do whatever, right? Give women preferential treatment in university admissions and preferential treatment in hiring – because, you know, we’ve got to make up for all these terrible injustices, right! Okay…

So then in all naivety man strode forward with great confidence and moral resolution and said: okay, well listen – we’ve dealt with a lot of the stuff that women complained about – and good, good for you, ladies for complaining about that, for standing up for yourself, for getting what's yours, for getting what's due - we love strong women and good for you, right?

And then men said okay listen – a little asterisk here, a little addendum, little footnote here… There are a number of situations wherein boys and men are doing much, much worse than women, girls and women obviously… We all know them - since the girl power revolution in education, girls are doing much better and boys are doing much worse – I mean the amount of ADHD meds that are being inflicted on boys is four to five times higher than that which is inflicted upon girls - and so there are situations where there's kind of rampant sexism that is occurring right in schools… And of course we all know that if a gender-identifying name is taken off a test or a report or an essay or something, then what happens is the boys get marked up, right? The female teachers mark up the girls if they know they’re girls - if they don't, they they end up marking up the boys…

The boys are having a tough time in education – there are whole books about that, so - so that – that’s bad, right? So, boys are doing worse than girls in education, so we need to change the educational system – and they’re like: NO, THAT WE CANNOT DO! IF THE BOYS ARE DOING WORSE IS BECAUSE THEY'RE REFUSING TO CONCENTRATE, THEY’RE REFUSING TO FOCUS, THEY’RE REFUSING TO DO THE WORK - THEY’RE LAZY, THEY’RE UNMOTIVATED, THEY’RE DISTRACTED AND IT’S THEIR FAULT!

Oh! So - if women earn less than men, it's not their fault, it’s male exploitation. But if boys are doing worse than girls, even though they’re children - the boys are children - it's 100% the boy’s fault and nothing to do with any injustices within the system!

Wow…

So: boys are 100% responsible for doing worse than girls, but adult females are 0% responsible for earning less than men.

Wow, okay!

So people got a little goosed, and said: okay well I mean, you know, kids have historically not been treated too well in societies as a whole, so maybe that’s… Well, you know that 90+ percent of workplace deaths are men!

Now, I think it's fairly safe to say that most people would rather get paid less – you know, 20% less or 25% less in a job - than die on the job! Like - it's better to have slightly less pay than to get a steel beam through the head and die…

So, I think it would be fairly safe to say that death is worse than being underpaid, or having a comment about your appearance being made by some boorish fellow in a boardroom - or some guy asking you out that you don't want to have ask you out! That death is worse than a comment about how nice your dress looks or how nice your lipstick is, or what a lovely perfume you're wearing today… So death is worse than compliments you don't want to receive – I think it’s fairly safe to say, it's fairly clear…

All right - so man said, okay, maybe the boys things a bit - a bit hard to grasp and, you know, it's government schools, so they’re really tough to change - but let's at least talk about workplace deaths – you know, 90+ percent of workplace deaths are men…

Okay - so death being just about the worst thing that can happen to someone, surely we should talk about that and try and try and find out ways that this can be addressed…

Ah, no.

Now it's tough to say - and I’m some people did try and say – look, the problem with male deaths is that men are careless in the workplace, like you’ve seen these videos ‘here’s why women live longer than men,’ where a man is doing some goofy silly stuff and so on, right? But it's a little tough to say that man dying on the job is 100% men’s fault - but women getting paid less is also 100% men's fault…

Looking for these deviations, it starts to get pretty suspicious, I think.

So that didn't work either… So it was kind of tough to make the case that men were just killing themselves on the job because they’re killers - so then it was pointed out that, as far as dangerous jobs go, there are more man in dangerous jobs, right? There are more man in oil rigging, there are more men in gold panning and exploration, there are more men who are hunters, there are more men who are doing heavy machinery work, there are more men doing dangerous jobs. So there are more men doing dangerous jobs - and that's why there are more men dying!

Okay, so the question would then be: how is that right?

So - it's because men choose the dangerous jobs that men are responsible for being killed on the job…

Okay, but if women choose to accept less pay, they’re not responsible for the effects of that at all - but if men choose to work dangerous jobs, then they are 100% responsible for the resulting deaths? Again, it's a deviation from any rational or universal standard…

Rachel found that she was not breathing.

Her heart thudding painfully in her chest, she touched the email link and tapped out an impulsive message:

Dear Mr. Christian:

My name is Rachel Hastings, and I am an independent reporter interested in writing about the men’s rights movement. I got your information from my brother-in-law Ian Elam, and I would like to interview you, at a time and location of your convenience. He has informed me of the hostility of most reporters towards your movement, and I promise you that I will write a fair and balanced piece. Please call me at the number below so we can talk further.

After rereading it four times, Rachel hit ‘send,’ and everything began to change.

Chapter 8

Rachel sighed deeply as the doorman pushed the button that let her into the building. The entrance was all flawless glass and brass finishes – the shallow brown scars in the marble looked as if they had been left by the claws of a giant predator.

The soft beige carpet led her around the corner to the deep mahogany elevators, which were so recessed that they looked like a row of hollow coffins.

In the elevator, narcoleptic jazz fell slowly around Rachel as she checked out her reflection – thanking the designers for the two-facing mirrors, so she could review herself from the back.

The penthouse corridor was as silent as a body buried in an abandoned library.

Rachel’s own community was loud – dogs barked, children cried and the heartbeat bass of rap music often pounded its lost way through the streets.

This penthouse floor, though, was a mausoleum of soundless success. Not even faint strains of classical music, a highbrow nature documentary or a podcast complaining about majority privilege could be heard through the tall wooden doors.

PH-4…

Rachel tapped on the door, even though it had a knocker. She half-expected every other door to open at once, so the bodies could check out the solitary rare visitor to this soft hallway of sky silence.

What sort of heads would pop out of the doors, craning to see the intruder?

Old heads, for the most part – querulous women with tight buns, bald men with horn-rimmed glasses, constellations of liver spots, and shapeless bodies in baggy ancient clothes.

And everyone would disapprove, thought Rachel, for no particular reason – perhaps just in the hope of making their day a little brighter by setting a stranger against herself

This was the floor where people came to fade out. This was the last stop before convalescence, where life savings would get burned up on the altar of endless extensions of a miserable existence.

Rachel suddenly remembered a phrase she had heard in her teenage years, from an old woman talking about her own sick father, who had gone to the Home for Incurables…

Home for Incurables…

Even then, Rachel had shuddered at the thought of decades long past, when buildings could be named according to frank reality. Truth had not been deemed brutal; it was inconceivable that facts would be considered abusive, and things could be named for what they actually were.

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names…

Rachel sighed.

Nothing could be named any more – everything had to go through the filter of brute inflicted consequences.

The heavy wooden door opened slowly, a chain widening at eye height.

Rachel’s Aunt Crystal stared at her in the nervous manner of a woman who has lived alone for far too long. Rachel’s first impulse was to remind her aunt of the many layers of security that stood between her and the wild world outside.

“Rachel!” cried Crystal in joy, closing the door and fussing with the chain.

She could hear the tears in her aunt’s voice – suddenly regretted coming.

Aunt Crystal had once been Crystal Pavlovich, a world-striding reporter of legendary dimensions. She had covered dissidents in China, rebels in Africa, the Arab Spring in Syria – she had interviewed warlords in Afghanistan, drug dealers in Hong Kong, and human traffickers working the deep blue of the Mediterranean. She had intermittently gusted through Rachel’s childhood like a blowsy hurricane, bringing her strange ornate gifts containing convoluted rattles, odd scents, and hidden compartments.

Crystal was a wonderful storyteller – as befitted her profession – and could hold a dinner table spellbound for upwards of 20 minutes.

Crystal had been briefly married to a Russian of aristocratic descent, but the marriage had detonated in epic fireworks of rage, betrayal – and rumoured drug abuse. Crystalhad thrown herself immediately into an expose on anti-abortion forces.

She was, to put it mildly, larger-than-life – and had fastened onto Rachel like a gasping mother determined to blow up a thousand balloons for a birthday party.

“Life is an adventure, young Rachel,” Crystal would say – taking an occasional pinch of snuff, as if she had stepped out of the yellow pages of an Agatha Christie novel. “Never wait for other people to tell you what to do! I would tell you to take life by the horns, but that is terrible advice, because you and the bull are one! Be the bull, be the horns, be the wild muscly meat of your own explorations!”

And Crystal was no hypocrite – she did live unimaginably large. She won awards, wore combat gear and evening gowns, made glittering speeches, and had an entire old-fashioned rotating card-wheel of famous people. She took and discarded lovers like a woman with infinite allergies at an endless buffet.

She had no children, of course – “It would be cruel to have children, just to have other people raise them!” - but had enough generosity of spirit to praise the “breeders” (as she called them). “Where, oh where would I get my readers from, dear people, if others weren’t out there making them from scratch? Somebody has to give birth to the people I end up interviewing!”

Crystal had general liberal views, but had little to no patience with lengthy abstract definitions. She viewed the world as containing an endless series of bipeds with either excess or deficient “resources.”

“I was born with an excess of energy – thank heavens there was no such thing as ADHD when I was a kid – I never could sit still – still can’t – and that’s like being born with an excess of money! I didn’t earn it, I just inherited it from good, kindly nature – but it’s impossible not to notice that there are many people out there with a serious deficiency of resources – you know, the monotone folk whose words drop out of their mouths like exhausted soldiers on a death march. I bound from treetop to treetop - but most people seem to have a tough time getting out of bed!” Crystal would shrug. “It’s the way of the world… If I were a good Christian, I would feel blessed by God, but I lack the vanity to think the entire universe revolves around my thyroid gland! I have an excess, most people have a deficiency – and so they have a right to my energy! I can burn it all up – since it is inexhaustible – to stimulate them, and get them out of their – prison of the doldrums, or whatever. Now you, Rachel – you are poised between both worlds… You are ambivalent – which is not what most people think it means – they think it means you don’t care either way, but the word actually means that you have very strong feelings in both directions! I saw that in a movie, but I knew it before… And it is my goal to get you on the right path, my dear, so that you too can burn high and bright enough for the lost souls of humanity to navigate by!” Crystal would laugh. “My God, I would never get such a florid line past an editor, but that’s why I enjoy conversation even more than writing – my inner poet can stride free of all restraint!”

Crystal had mentored Rachel, got her into the right school, tried to point her in the right direction, gave her the right contacts – but Rachel had been raised with the hyper-caution of modern youth, and lacked the giddy panache to dance over the landmines of post-modern ideology.

For all of Aunt Crystal’s supposed originality, she was in fact something of a cliché – the wild woman who scorned criticism, strode the world like a colossus, and blew through people’s lives like a random illness, or addiction. From her occasional snuff to her endless scarves, her braying laugh to her unkempt hair, Crystal was so ambitious that she had carved her personality into an impressive air siren, rather than a natural conversation. She perceived herself to be unequalled, and so could never find love.

Crystal’s energy was far higher than normal, but refreshingly short of manic. She made good decisions in her career, cultivated the right relationships, pursued reasonably correct stories – and had enough momentum of prior fame and achievement to carry her through her occasional politically incorrect scandals. She had once referred to Ugandans as ‘you people’ - which drew scathing attacks, and an attempt to de-platform her – but she judo-reversed the criticism by claiming that she was referring to the letter – ‘U-people,’ as in people who lived in Uganda – “It’s what they say locally,” she lied – and that any suggestion to the contrary showed blanket bigotry on the part of her critics.

Also, because Crystal had “paved the way” for the next generation of female reporters, she was given a fair degree of latitude – “She’s going to say the wrong thing from time to time, because she had to ignore all criticisms just to break the glass ceiling for us!

Her energy did begin to flag in her 50s, however. Crystal was so sure that she was actually shaping the world that, when the world suddenly changed beyond her comprehension, she became dazed and disoriented. Many prominent public figures feel that they themselves can move mountains – it can shock them deeply to find out that there is a tectonic energy far below their surface words that moves the world from place to place – and rarely from a worse place to a better place.

She began to run out of assignments – she had worked for a major network in her early 30s, but had been freelance for over 15 years – and because her wanton energy shielded her from the grim passage of time, she had barely noticed that she was ageing out of camera-friendliness.

“That doesn’t happen to men!” she railed - as if women have never ever benefitted from double standards.

The usual complaint of a camera-facing woman in late middle age – that the world only judges women by appearances – was easily echoed by young male reporters with bad chins and mediocre hair – who couldn’t get any camera time because they weren’t physically appealing enough – but Crystal’s immunity to feedback prevented her from listening to such “lowbrow whining.”

Oh no – although her physical attractiveness had paved the way for her, as it faded, suddenly being judged by looks was shallow and petty

Also, because Crystal was ungovernable – which had its good and its bad aspects of course – she could not be fashioned into a useful tool for the increasingly agenda-driven style of reporting, in which all public activity was judged relative to the goals of decreasing inequality, or increasing state power (to do good of course!) – and furthering other, more hidden and sinister goals, the tentacles of which reached so deep into the hidden underworld that few mere mortals dared explore their roots.

It was the pandemic that did Crystal in.

Naturally sceptical – of authority, which was good, but also of morality, which was not – Crystal opened her heart, mind and cameras to those unconvinced of the safety and efficacy of the new mRNA shots.

Crystal had a minor specialty in pharmaceutical corruption, having exposed various corporations – particularly in the Third World – for putting profits above people.

Over the course of 2020, Crystal researched and interviewed major players on conflicts of interest, the suppression of alternative treatments, and suspicious rehearsals for what was occurring.

When she tried to air her reporting, she found herself instantly smashing into invisible brick walls – the kind of which she had never before seen over the course of her long career. She was dropped, ghosted - and utterly exiled from the spotlit center of her glossy world.

This was a deep, enormous shock for Crystal. Prominent public figures – particularly in the media – imagine that they have become famous for their ability to tell the truth – when they find out that they became famous only because they served the hidden powers of the world – which they quickly discover whenever they accidentally stop serving those powers – they go from prominence to invisibility literally overnight.

People can achieve a lot if they feel irreplaceable – when they find out that they are in fact utterly replaceable – totally unimportant to the deep physics of hidden authority – they take a blow to the ego from which few ever recover.

Crystal tried to feel her way around the sudden invisible walls that stood between her and her public - she had vaguely sensed them rising with the 2020 election - then escalating intensely during the pandemic - but she couldn’t find any purchase, any feedback – anything! People clammed up, they refused to engage – calls to colleagues of 30 years went unanswered – and it all felt like a fever dream of flailing inconsequentiality.

And then – and then, Crystal had gotten sick…

It started with a certain – fatigue. Nothing major, nothing that couldn’t be ascribed to simple aging – except it kept increasing. First her eyes closed a little in midafternoon, then she had to sit down, then she had to lie down, then she had to have a nap – then the nap got longer. Then she had the worst curse of late middle age, which is to sleep badly at night – if at all – and then be exhausted throughout the day.

For decades, Crystal had been suspicious of the entire healthcare industry – the inevitable result of scepticism and study – and she knew well how female complaints were dealt with by impatient male doctors. So she persisted – tests were run, theories were explored, diet and exercise were altered, but nothing seemed to help.

The closest Crystal was able to come to a diagnosis was Gulf War Syndrome – she had spent time in Iraq and Kuwait, following up on the aftereffects of the invastion – but no toxins or viruses could be found in her system. Her life was bleeding away, with no measurable or tangible cause.

The fact that her illness coincided with her loss of professional status was not lost on her, but Crystal tended to crawl to self-protection by saying that her tiredness – no, exhaustion – had led to her ejection from her industry. Highly incentivized memories can be produced by the unconscious seemingly at will, and the cause and effect became at first muddled, and then clear. Her health had failed her, she had made mistakes, and then she had fallen from grace. She was a victim of the patriarchy’s impatience – first with honesty, then with female sensitivity and faltering vitality.

It is certainly true that women’s bodies tend to be more enmeshed in unconscious conflicts than men’s – more prone to failure through misery and contradiction. The infinite wisdom of nature prefers that women outlive men, and in order to achieve that, most men remain blissfully ignorant of internal conflicts until their hearts explode in their chests.

In other words, women may malinger, but they certainly linger.

Aunt Crystal opened her door and almost pulled Rachel through.

Vague smells hit her nose as she entered. One thing Rachel had noticed was that – at some point in life – people just gave up trying to impress others. Teeth faded to yellow, stains remained on clothing, hairy moles remained unmolested – and rooms fell into a slow spiral of decay.

Crystal’s various abodes had always been chaotic, since she fell solidly into the center of the cliché that people with organized thoughts rarely have organized environments.

Like the traditional professor of physics who has an organized universe in his mind – while half buried in a blizzard of random papers in his office – Crystal had a magical ability to keep stories well structured in her thoughts, but could easily spend half a day hunting for a receipt.

Rather than attempt any kind of regular maintenance, Crystal tended to let things slide, then spend a whole weekend organizing everything, labelling everything, and promising to God and man to do better in the future.

Now, however, it had been about six months since her last cleanup, because she had become anxious – and increasingly hopeless – from her fatigue, and contractual obligations. She had also gained weight, which had buried the glamour from her bones, covering it with standard-issue middle-aged pudge.

“Rachel, great to see you, thank you so much for coming!” she cried, marching Rachel to an orange couch and half-pushing her down.

“How are things? How is that gorgeous slab of man-meat you call a boyfriend?” She laughed. “It’s a shame he couldn’t make it – I cleared a whole section by the end table so he could do his sit ups – I assume he doesn’t go more than an hour or two between… Sorry, I’m babbling, how are you?”

“I’m – well,” said Rachel slowly, attempting via contrast to put the brakes on her aunt’s pressured speech.

Crystal sighed. “I’m sure you know that I have asked you here with intent – but there’s no reason we can’t have a nice chit-chat before the hammer comes down! How is your career going?”

Rachel took a deep breath, her heart churning. She looked around the condo, at the slivers of mahogany shelving peeking out from under the mountains of files and books and papers. She could see the green velvet base of some award facing her on a shelf. There was a wooden box of framed pictures by the front door. The vertical Venetian blinds were half open, draping the slightly claustrophobic room in soft vertical bars.

An ancient laptop sat on a desk – as Rachel looked, the screen saver kicked in and covered up the title “Chapter 3” - the screen underneath was empty, a blank white pixel desert.

“My career? God knows, it’s a mess.”

“Well, the best careers always are!” said Crystal encouragingly. “What in particular at the moment?”

“Have you – heard of the men’s rights movement?”

Crystal snorted. “Men’s rights? Ha - I assume that’s pretty much all of recorded history, my dear!”

“Yes, you’d think so,” said Rachel distractedly. “But there is this whole – movement… Men who say they are hard done by in the modern world, and are looking to – get their grievances redressed. That’s my understanding…”

Crystal leaned back and rubbed her face. Rachel was shocked at the deep wrinkles that radiated out from under her aunt’s pressing fingers. “So you’re doing – bless you, the Lord’s work… You’re kicking over rocks and taking pictures of what wriggles underneath!”

Rachel sighed. “Well, yeah, that was one of my original ideas, but Ian – Cassie’s husband – has been swallowed up by this – wriggling thing – and he wants me to take a – softer approach.”

“Uh, uh, uh,” said Crystal, wagging her finger. “Journalists can’t do favours for family, my dear! Unless its the Statin presidential family! I’m kidding… Not really…”

“Well, I’ve been getting the most – savage responses from editors.”

“If the editors aren’t savage, the article will probably be total crap! What did you send them?”

Pulling out her phone, Rachel found her query email and turned it over to her aunt.

Peering through her glasses, Crystal read rapidly.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me! Why on earth don’t you run things past me? This is total amateur hour!”

Rachel’s cheeks turned red. “What do you mean?”

“Oh God, it’s right here – right here! You literally say that these men could have legitimate grievances! Saying it’s a great idea to listen to Nazis is not any way to sell an article!”

“Ian is not…”

Crystal interrupted her with the wave of a hand. “That’s your problem, right there – forget about Ian! Family crap just – always clouds your judgement. It’s as clear as day – sorry for the cliché, I’m tired – that you aim to – massage this article into something that appeases your brother-in-law! What editor is going to want to get involved in that? They would have to fight for a month to get you to see the light, and what if – God forbid, and the devil too – some hint of sympathy made it into the published version?” Crystal sighed in exasperation. “Rachel… You know - everyone’s hanging by a thread these days… Riches and fame await the conformists – pain, exclusion and your own personal cardboard box under a rainy bridge await those who poke at the orthodoxy.” She sighed. “Readers used to be curious, back in the day – now they just want their own beliefs reflected back at them in seventh grade language. You want to challenge people? They feel that like a death threat – and react accordingly. I wish – I wish you had asked me beforehand – it’s so frustrating, I can’t get what I need done finished, but I sure as hell can help you not screw up in this kind of way!”

Crystal was almost panting at the end of her speech, her eyes glaring.

Rachel almost shuddered, but suppressed the impulse. “I’m sorry, you’re right…”

Crystal paused, holding her gaze, then nodded slowly. “To hell with Ian. What’s going on with his motives? He trying to sabotage you, dearie?”

Rachel started. “What?”

“Say: excuse me,” said Crystal reflexively. “Oh, he’s quite the corner store patriarch, that one. He got Cassie pregnant again, right?”

Confused, Rachel nodded.

“Yeah, he hates to see a successful, ambitious woman. He just wants to use you for his own ends… But hey, what do I know, I’m just snarling from the sidelines… How are we going to fix this?”

“I’m going to… Go on.”

Crystal snapped the fingers of both hands rapidly. “Good, good, don’t let the bastards keep you down… I can put in a good word or two – not that I’m drowning in call-backs these days, but I still have some clout… You going to rip them a new one, eh?”

“Auntie, do you think..?” Rachel took a deep, sudden breath. She desperately wanted to ask her aunt if it’s possible that feminism had gone too far, that the revolution never knew when to stop – at least, as long as there was money and power in it – but knew that the postmodern, new-found Arctic chill would descend upon their relationship, and cut the flow of any and all comfort.

“Well, we’ll sort it out,” said Crystal abruptly. “You’ve always had great instincts – a great nose, as they used to say back in my day – not that my day is over, but it’s currently on – pause, or hold… And now, to my agenda!”

Rachel wrinkled her nose. “Aunt Crystal – when did you get rid of your cats?”

The older woman blinked. “Oh, it’s been – six weeks, two months?”

“Is that – the litterbox?”

Crystal glanced over her shoulder. “Yeah, but it’s mostly empty. I’ve been tired!” she snapped.

“Yeah, I know…” But – the word died on her lips. “For heaven’s sake, hire a maid or something!”

There was a long pause. Crystal was not offended, but her eyes did sharpen. “Are you any good with money?”

“Why?”

“I’m not,” said Crystal simply. “It would be ridiculous at my age to have no idea of my strengths or weaknesses… I’m a good strong writer, got a great instinct for a story, pretty good at negotiation, I can do Tom Waits songs with eerie accuracy, but I’m bad with money.” She laughed sadly. “Of course, in planning my life, I didn’t expect to be turned into a semi-invalid in my middle age. I thought I had at least another ten years…”

“Don’t you have – insurance?”

“Of course!” snapped Crystal. “But they won’t pay a damn thing until I get some – actual results that – indicate what might be wrong with me. ‘Malingering.’”

“Did they say that?”

“Oh, honey, you don’t get to be a famous reporter without knowing how to read between the lines! To them, I’m just another crazy Karen in a sky box - childless, loveless, causing problems for goodhearted executives in innocent insurance companies…” Crystal scowled. “If I had more energy, I’d eviscerate the bastards in an article, or a lawsuit… But they know they’ve got me over a barrel, that they can just – wait me out… Either I get better, or I die – either way, they won’t have to pay a penny.”

“Are you – financially..?”

“Well, I’m not starving – as you can see!” Crystal’s voice caught suddenly, with exquisite vulnerability. “I can sell this place – not that it’s paid off much, but there would be something… But here’s – here’s what I wanted to ask you about, Rachel. I promise I will help you with your article, help you with your career, I will not leave you hanging…”

“What is it?”

“Help me up.” Rachel helped wrestle Crystal up from the couch. Her arms and shoulders were doughy, sloping – even the buried bones felt soft.

Crystal brushed the touchpad on her notebook, and the screen jumped back to life.

“That’s it,” she said, pointing at the text.

“Yeah, I saw that, coming in – Chapter Three?”

“Chapter Three,” repeated Crystal decisively. “Oooh crap, get me back to the couch – quickly!”

Almost falling, Crystal took three steps and plunged face down onto the faded orange couch. Rachel saw the cloud of dust pump into the air, and shuddered as she imagined breathing in skin particles and cat fecal matter. She took an involuntary step backwards.

“Oh God!” cried Crystal, bursting into tears.

Her heart pumping with grief and horror, Rachel reached forward, awkwardly patting her aunt on the thigh.

“God, everything is so hard!” sobbed Crystal.

She cried softly for a minute or two, then wrenched herself to a sitting position, dabbing her eyes with her sleeve. “Well, self-pity won’t pay the bills!”

“What – do you need?”

Crystal gestured at the computer screen.

“It’s all that goddamned blank space under the title!”

“Is it – your autobiography?”

“Well of course!” snapped Crystal. “You think I’m sitting around pissing off editors with inappropriate articles?” She sobbed again. “God, Rachel, I’m so sorry, I’m just not myself, haven’t been for – ages…”

“No, that’s okay,” murmured Rachel. She suddenly wished she had brought Arlo – but Crystal was right, he did want to go to the gym. He always found Crystal depressing, and God forbid any clouds mar the sunshine of his damn days!

“You want me to – proofread?”

“Oh God, it’s more than that… I’ve under contract, I been looking for it for two days… I’m too – nervous to ask for another copy, that would send up all kinds of red flags… I’m overdue, I’m… I know it - but it’s more an instinct than anything – measurable or practical. I’m afraid to open my emails, Rach – guess you have that too… I got two chapters done – those were pretty easy, in a way, because they’re just about my childhood, and I can get your mother to double-check things – but it’s nothing – objective, nothing that needs notes or cross-references – and everyone’s… Well, there’s not going to be any defamation in there, they were all pretty great, in their way…”

Rachel frowned. “Well, I’ll be happy – I’d be happy to read them, of course!”

“NO!” snapped Crystal loudly. “I don’t need anything for those, I just told you! It’s the next part, about my – that damned marriage, how I got started, what happened after school, when I covered the – near coup on Gorbachev, the Iron Curtain stuff, all the Stasi files in East Germany… God, it’s a monster of a story – so many stories - and I’ve got notes! I knew – at the time – that it was all going to be important, that I was going to write about it later – and now it is later, and I know I have everything, but it’s all over the place… I’ve got some kind of zip drive that Olaf set up for me, and I don’t even know where to plug it in, there’s nothing on the laptop…”

Rachel nodded fearfully.

“You don’t have to look like that!” cried Crystal. “I’m not asking you to move in and rub my feet!” Her voice cracked again. “I couldn’t even take care of my cats, and I’m supposed to – organize my whole life?”

“But – you must know proofreaders, editors… Can’t you afford an assistant?”

“An assistant? Are you really going to humiliate me in this way?”

“I don’t – mean to…”

“Rachel,” said Crystal in a soft, dangerous tone. “I am facing bankruptcy and homelessness – and living on your couch – if I don’t get this book done. I’ve been surviving on the advance, and I’m pretty sure they'll want it back if I don’t give them something pretty damn soon. I know I would…”

“But they – surely they – care that you’re sick…”

“Of course they care,” said Crystal heavily. “But they have their bills to pay, and so do I…” Her eyes narrowed. “And I am very happy to lean on your youthful wisdom and vitality, so you can just tell me what to do, dear Rachel. I am in your hands, putty in your fingers. Save me. I am yours to command.”

“Oh, I don’t…” started Rachel uneasily.

“Hey!” cried Crystal suddenly. “You remember that time that I stayed up with you all weekend, to finish your final essay in that philosophy class? I became quite an expert in logic trees… And how spots on the edge of my vision form when I’m over-caffeinated.”

This was such a transparent ploy that Rachel did not know how to respond.

“Yes.”

Crystal laughed in a brittle manner. “Oh, I’m not trying to ‘pendulum’ you – I’m just trying to remind you that we can have a lot of fun working together, we always did!”

Rachel tried to move her legs, but felt stuck to her chair. “I know…” Her voice faltered, and she cleared her throat. “I know we did, I just – need to know – what you need, because I’m not sure I can – provide it…”

“Ha! Most delicately put! Look, I just need – things to be organized. I know Cassie’s a little – better at that stuff than you, but she’s – busy, with – everything. Everyone’s got something…”

Exceptme, thought Rachel, with a bitterness that surprised her. If I told her I was pregnant, I would be off the hook!

That thought crushed her heart with a desperate sadness.

“I don’t have – any experience with memoirs…”

“But – you have experience with me!” retorted Crystal. “You know me better than anyone!”

I haven’t seen you in months, thought Rachel, and her sadness intensified, mixed with a new rich vein of guilt.

Crystal laughed again. “Here’s the part in the negotiation where I would normally say – very passive aggressively mind you – that I will just find another way… In the hopes that you - you know… But Rach - I am out of options. I have nowhere else to turn.”

What about one of your old boyfriends? thought Rachel with sudden bitterness. But there was no point…

“Listen, I love you – of course I will do my best to help,” she said with great heaviness.

“That is some rather – thin applause,” said Crystal slowly.

“Well – I’m facing a bit of a crisis myself…”

“Haven’t I always taught you that helping others is the best way to – get over your own stuff?”

Rachel frowned. “I’m not sure I remember…”

“Well, it wasn’t explicitly, but it was certainly by example!” snapped Crystal. She leaned her head back against a faded cushion. “Look, I’m… I hate to be rude, but I’m just about all done in. I hope you will help, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen in life. With your vitality – you have all these resources… I’m just – running on empty. I know it’s a big ‘ask’ – not a huge one, but not a tiny one. Talk it over with your pretty boy, that lovely man… If the book does well, I can cut you a slice…”

“Oh no,” said Rachel automatically. “I couldn’t take any…”

“If it does well, what am I going to do, buy more throw pillows?” said Crystal bitterly. “You take the money, buy off some editors.”

“One step at a time…”

“Yeah, yeah… I’ve put a box by the door – just look it over… Listen, I’m really fading, call me later, please forgive me…”

“Of course,” said Rachel. She stood up, leaned over and pressed her lips to her aunt’s cold and clammy forehead. She could almost feel the thoughts scattering under her soft touch.

The elevator ride down seemed to go on forever.

Chapter 9

Rachel awoke with a start from a meme.

Am I cheating if I only dream about someone?

The modern world being what it is, moral questions only came in two extremes: unsolvable “trolley problems,” and semi-violent mob-based attacks on nonconformity. Morality was either impossible, or far too easy.

Yawning – to signal to Arlo that she had woken up in a relaxed state of mind, so he would not ask any questions – Rachel checked her phone. No reply from Oliver, no emails of interest – except for three informing her that her orders had been cancelled for lack of availability.

Rachel cocked her head as she heard a strange wailing sound coming from the street – like a combination of a speeding ambulance and a dying whale. Jumping quietly out of bed – Arlo was generally grumpy for the whole day if he was awakened too early – Rachel pulled back the edges of the blinds and looked down.

There was a thrift shop and a deli store across the street below, as well as an electronics store on the corner. A flash mob of hooded youths were streaming in and out of the electronics store, running off with boxes of every size. As she watched, three men in blue T-shirts – she could just see their nametags in the distance – ran out of the store, the tallest one yelling at a cell phone. The wailing of the mob, the sound of breaking glass, the screaming of the manager – all this combined into a whirlwind of panicked social decay.

Rachel shuddered. She waited for the sirens, the chaos, the scattering crowds and outraged business owners – but only the strange dim wailing continued. It was like the creak of a giant hinge unoiled for decades.

Gazing at the scene, Rachel felt both horror and a strange kind of distance. In her mind, she knew that she was only a few hundred yards from rampant criminality – but in her heart, she felt strangely disconnected, safe in her high perch – as if she were watching a movie. Her father used to love horror movies when she was a child, and constantly reminded Rachel that the actors just washed off the blood, collected a paycheck and went for drinks.

Now, looking down at the rampant thievery, Rachel felt the same detachment, as if the young men and women running off with the manager’s life savings were just extras in the background of a movie called – appropriately enough – Rachel.

“What’s going on?” complained Arlo, turning to her and squinting at the slight light.

He always complains as if everything is my fault, and I have just failed to fix it! thought Rachel – but her sudden bitterness was quashed by her memory of her early morning dream about…

“That’s a weird sound,” commented Arlo, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. He always slept naked – au naturel was one of the two French phrases he knew – because, as he said, being a paramedic was a tough job, and if he died in his sleep, at least they could get a kick out of his body.

“Flash mob,” said Rachel – then added, in a petty manner, “…and good morning to you too!”

“Yeah, yeah,” grunted Arlo, in the manner of one who is too beautiful to be polite.

He walked over to the other side of the window and pulled open the blinds.

“Arlo, put something on!”

“It was good enough for the garden of Eden, it’s good enough for the neighbors!” He gazed down at the street. “I guess they’re not here to dance…”

Rachel shuddered. “We’ve got to move.”

No justice, no peace…” murmured Arlo. Then, in a slightly more concerned tone, “No police either.” He shrugged. “Well, it’s only property, not worth shooting someone…”

After a moment when neither of them had anything to say, Rachel was startled by the volume of her phone as it rang.

“Holy crap!” cried Arlo, clapping his hands over his ears.

“Yes, I know, sorry,” muttered Rachel, grabbing it. “I had to turn it up at the gym, you know! Hello?”

“Rachel?”

“Hey, Ian, hi.” Rachel always liked to immediately identify male callers to Arlo, because she wanted to avoid his utter lack of jealousy.

“Sorry to barge in so early, have you heard from Oliver?”

Only in my dream, thought Rachel. “No, I’ve sent several messages.”

Ian sighed. “Yeah, he’s pretty battle scarred. Hang on, let me add him…”

Rachel felt a deep spasm of panic. She wished they had at least a tiny balcony for her to escape to – she thought of running up to the roof, but feared she might lose the connection.

“Arlo, could you grab me a bagel, I’m dying for one,” she said rapidly.

He cocked his golden head to one side. “Uh, babe, it’s a bit ‘Mad Max’ out there at the moment…”

“Right, right,” she muttered, wanting to thump her head and get it started somehow, because her infinite excuse generator seemed suddenly on the fritz.

There was a click on the line.

“Hello, this Oliver,” said a deep voice.

Rachel impatiently waved Arlo out of the room. He shrugged again, and went into the bathroom.

Ian said: “Hey, Oliver, sorry to jump you, but I did mention that my sister-in-law was interested in writing about the movement – and she’s pretty cool, she’s taken a lot of heat for this, and I just wanted to – connect you two, just in case you might break precedent and actually talk to someone…”

Pause.

Oliver said: “Me not responding to messages – wasn’t that clear enough?”

Ian said: “Look, I know it’s a favour, and I appreciate that, but – just a few minutes, that’s all. She’s on the line – Rachel?”

Rachel nodded dumbly, then answered.

Oliver sighed. “Rachel, nice to meet you – nothing personal, I’m sure you have the best of intentions, but frankly, watching reporters try to write about this movement is like – wait, is this being recorded?”

“No,” said Rachel. She heard the shower start up in the bathroom.

“Is this a working conversation, or just – introductions?”

Rachel cleared her throat. “If you’re asking whether this is off the record, then yes – this isn’t even deep background.”

Rachel was suddenly shocked by a shriek from the bathroom. Due to his almost complete lack of body fat, Arlo was ridiculously sensitive to changes in his environment, and had clearly misjudged his water temperature by a tenth of a degree.

Rachel frantically tried to cover the microphone.

Ian said, “Rachel – what’s going on? Are you okay?”

“Oh, nothing, it’s just the TV…” Rachel smacked her forehead with the heel of her hand, imagining how it sounded, her watching horror movies at dawn. She half-ran out of the bedroom, into the cramped living room, and flopped into the easy chair by her work desk.

Ian was saying, “She’s independent, she doesn’t have an editorial board or shareholders or – other stakeholders.”

Oliver said, “Ian, we can’t be having this conversation with a reporter on the line. Call me back privately. Encrypted.”

Click.

Ian said, “I’m so sorry, Rachel. He’s been burned a lot. We all have…”

“Yeah, I get it – but it’s gonna be kind of tough for me to write an article without any sources.” Rachel struggled with a sudden tension in her heart. “You tell him – you tell him that this article is going to go ahead with or without him, and if he doesn’t talk to me, I’ll just have to – cherry pick from the online forums, and report on that!” She was almost panting.

Pause.

“Yeah, I’m not gonna tell him that.”

“Well, that’s your – choice. I just wanted you both to know the – lay of the land.”

“So – you’re really going to go through with it?”

“Absolutely.”

Rachel heard the low whistle.

“And it’s not going to be just a – hit piece?”

“Well, it would be infinitely easier to make it more balanced if someone would talk to me!”

Ian paused. “Do you know what – a threat that sounds like?”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, you guys know exactly how much power you have. ‘Talk to me, or I’ll write whatever I want!’ But if people talk to you, you just cherry pick anyway – but it sounds like they’re participating!”

Rachel took a breath. “How is the pregnancy coming along?”

Pause.

“Did you hear what I said?” asked Ian.

Rachel sighed. “I don’t know how to get into media power dynamics with – family.”

“Cassie has decided to stay home.”

“What? Wow – that’s… When did she decide that?”

We decided. Cassie is staying home, and I am not passing along any messages to Oliver.”

There was a click. Rachel had a sudden view of herself as one of those idiots in movies who keeps yelling at phones after a hang up.

She felt a wrenching shock inside, as Ian broke loose from his low status moorings in her pantheon of power, and burrowed up half a dozen layers, breaking bones and bile in the process.

Rachel was still sitting in the easy chair when Arlo padded in, his lean form wrapped in a thin towel of dubious colour.

“What drama started your day?” he asked mildly.

Wrong number, Rachel was about to say.

“Nothing, just – had a feeler out, got another rejection.”

“Oh, I thought that was your brother-in-law Ian.”

What if he checks my phone logs? thought Rachel in a sudden panic – but then remembered his elemental lack of curiosity about her life. She now loved what always bothered her.

Arlo’s job was leading children’s encounters with lemurs at the local zoo, and he left wearing his – well, he always called it a ‘uniform,’ but Rachel always referred to it as an ‘outfit’– soon after. Rachel had found it cute that he always wore his outfit on the way to work – but this morning, she had the distinct impression that her gorgeous boyfriend just looked like an overgrown Boy Scout.

As soon as he had left, Rachel dove to her computer and started stalking.

Of course, if pressed, she would have referred to it as research, but no – in the subterranean under-vaults of manipulative femininity, she was, in fact, studying her prey.

There wasn’t a massive amount online about Oliver. He ran an import/export business which seemed to be doing quite well – there was no mention of a wife or children – or even a girlfriend – which had her growing esteem for him falter. No matter how attractive a man may be, how much can he be worth if no other woman wants him?

After 30 minutes of research/stalking, the sirens finally arrived outside. Rachel barely heard them, buried deep in a forum thread speculating about Oliver’s history.

Fortunately for Rachel’s vanity, a number of female posters – she had to assume female, based on the name and picture – expressed their deep attraction to Oliver, along with a manic thirst to find out more about his background.

I wonder how he keeps his business going despite all this activism, thought Rachel – but then realised that most of his focus was overseas, where the straitjacket of political correctness was far looser, if it even existed at all.

Thinking of the levels of risk that Oliver was taking, Rachel found herself thrilled to the core. She was as enthralled with cancel culture as anyone, but since she was currently crawling under the whips of ideological rejection, she found the idea of someone blazing through life indifferent to petty opposition deeply appealing.

Rachel found out that Oliver was speaking at a business conference upstate, three days from now. Her heart began pounding again – and she suddenly felt the urge to stand up in his audience and scream out his ideological betrayals to everyone present, and everyone on the live stream, and everyone in the eternal future – and imagined all the people who had scorned her query letter turning on Oliver, contacting his family, contacting his suppliers and his bank and his payroll company – and nuking him entirely from the social and business landscape!

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned… So what if he just hung up on me, what kind of reporter would I be if I let that stop me?

I will get him to talk to me, thought Rachel grimly, before logging into her various business and social media accounts, and deleting her profile pictures.

I know, I know – I’m still tagged in other people’s photos, but it makes it slightly tougher…

Then, she called her hairdresser to make an appointment.

Chapter 10

Nothing about the way that Rachel presented herself at the conference was accidental. She was in a heedless state of pursuit, utterly without conscience.

The only chance Rachel had to notice her bad conscience was to realize she sought advice from no one – not even her sister, her closest confidant. (She did think of consulting Aunt Crystal, but found herself recoiling at the possibility that the chaotic older woman might approve.)

There is a certain style of business outfit that radiates salacious appeal, and Rachel aimed squarely at that bull’s-eye – and, in her estimation, hit it perfectly.

Like the backup dancers in the Robert Palmer video Addicted to Love – but without the kabuki makeup…

Through her experience reporting on the business world, Rachel knew that there were two types of successful conferences – the first, which attracted thousands – and the second, which attracted only dozens – but dozens of the most powerful and influential.

“Supply Chain Challenges” was not the sexiest title in the known universe, but Rachel could tell that the attendees were wealthy and powerful. The most successful people she knew never showed off anything but their own comfort in their own being. They were easy, convivial, positive, pleasant – and ruthless when needed, of course – and wore comfortable clothes over comfortable skin.

She paid the exorbitant entrance fee, then introduced herself as ‘Rochelle,’ which was duly written on the white sticker she placed just below her left collarbone. She mingled pleasantly, claiming to be an “observer.”

She went to a few presentations – which both alarmed and excited her – and then went to go and see Oliver speak.

Rachel expected thunderbolts, but got only light rain. Oliver was businesslike, mildly humorous, efficient and precise in his language – and wove endless streams of data into his speech. She had images of being carried along by an undulating sinewave, far off the chart into unknown blank whiteness.

She did ask a few well-researched questions, which were received politely. Standing up, she felt her heart falter at the possibility that he might recognize her, but there was no sign he did.

Over the lunch break, busy men – and a few women – dove into the glowing mini-portals of their cell phones to manage unimaginably complex and distant business affairs. Oliver sat alone in a corner of the sunlit cafeteria, staring mildly around the room, his phone nowhere to be seen.

Her heart pounding, Rachel boldly walked up and sat down in front of him. The conference was being held in a science centre, and the cafeteria was on the ground floor, with geographically-improbable plants leaning up against the giant windows, which in turn were plastered with silhouettes of birds.

“Good afternoon,” he said.

Rachel was somewhat disoriented by the fact that he did not give her the usual masculine ‘up and down’ – checking out her figure with the blinding speed that men imagined was unnoticeable by women.

Disappointingly, he looked directly into her eyes.

Her tongue froze in her mouth. She felt a sudden surge of temper as her wit and charm utterly vanished.

Radiating struggle, she expected Oliver to jump in and calm or comfort her in some manner.

Nope – he just gazed at her.

“You came to me,” he said eventually.

Rachel blinked, then cleared her throat. “I did,” she said in an artificially low tone, thinking – why on earth am I trying to sound like Elizabeth Holmes?

He laughed. “Do you want some of my food?”

She glanced at his wrap and salad. What?

“No – er…” Rachel tossed her head, suddenly nervous that it might fall off. At least that would be a conversation starter…

“You seem to be – the most free-market oriented speaker I’ve seen so far.”

He gazed at her. “Thank you.”

“It’s a compliment – I mean, it’s an observation, not a compliment…”

“I’ll take it as a compliment.”

Another silence. For a spasmodic moment, Rachel thought she saw Arlo with his back to her, talking on a phone, but on second glance, the figure was just a young woman wearing too much makeup.

Oliver was exciting her immensely, because he was not responding to her mere presence. He was not hostile, he was not curious – he was not interested. Just – neutral. Waiting, it seemed…

But for what? thought Rachel.

Oliver looked around the room again.

Rachel had a sudden urge to grab his wrap, and bite half of it off.

“There’s a lot going on inside,” said Oliver.

Does he mean – inside the conference, or inside me? thought Rachel. Oliver’s tone was the tiniest bit intimate, but he was just gazing around the room.

Rachel thought: I bet he would respond to honesty, but I cannot be honest…

“You know, it’s kind of rude…” said Oliver.

“Me?”

Oliver smiled. “Well yeah, you, a little – but I mean only giving us forty-five minutes for lunch. Most of us here grab like nine bites between phone calls – and now they’re just rushing us again. But of course most of the speakers here are just advertising themselves, and pay to come, so the organizers have to jam more in, to make money… You’re not speaking, are you?”

Rachel shook her head, realizing suddenly how accurately she was manifesting his statement.

After a moment, Oliver leaned forward. “Are you looking for a job? I’m not sure what’s going on here…”

Rachel felt a sudden urge to blurt out everything, confess everything – and eat his salad.

She leaned forward. “What are most of the people here – like?”

“In what way?”

“Socially? Do you – do business with them?”

“Are you from California? Most young women from California phrase just about everything as a – question?”

Rachel laughed. “Don’t you know? It’s rude to answer? A question with a question?”

Oliver smiled. “Got to be from the Valley.”

Rachel’s voice grew serious. “I don’t socialize with businesspeople, as a rule.”

Oliver considered her statement. He chose to say nothing – or had nothing to say.

Rachel’s words came out in a rush. “I think it’s crazy, how much we’re all taught to despise businessmen – and women, though that’s rarely mentioned – but we rely on – you all – for, like, everything!”

Oliver’s eyes sharpened, and she felt the first hint of curiosity.

“Why would I be interested in what everyone else thinks?” he murmured. “What do you think?”

“I think it’s a kind of death wish,” said Rachel immediately. “Killing the goose that lays the golden egg, that sort of thing. Setting fire to the crops you need to survive the winter. Or maybe like a drug addict burning his stash, knowing that the withdrawal will probably kill him…”

Oliver pursed his lips. “That’s quite a pile of analogies. Is that what you think, or is that what you think other people think?”

“Oh, I’m paid to be… I’m an observer.”

Oliver nodded slowly. “There are a lot of better views than an import/export conference. Just about everyone here sits all day and sees the sun like twice a month. We’re all in danger of turning into curly fries, posture-wise…”

Not you, though… thought Rachel. Her lips were suddenly bone dry, but she steadfastly refused to lick them.

The words erupted from Rachel’s heart. She did not even try to stop them. “My sister is having a baby, and she has decided to stay home.”

Oliver cocked his head. “Listen – Rochelle…”

She felt a sudden shock as Oliver approximated her name – he had absorbed it through peripheral vision perhaps, or with a glance so quick that she had not in fact noticed it.

“I don’t really know what’s going on here, perhaps you will excuse me. I need to make a few phone calls…”

Rachel felt an urge to grab his wrist. “I’m so sorry, I must be sounding crazy. So unprofessional…” She extended her hand. “You know my name. I work for – well, I’m self-employed, and I have an uncle in the business, and he suggested that I come here, to find out more about these – issues, in the supply chain. You know, import/export. I think there is a storm coming – or a vacuum, to be more precise. I want to know, for the people I care about… Everyone’s noticed the shortages, everyone thinks they’re just – temporary. I know it was crazy to blurt that out about my sister, but – I’m worried about her, and the baby of course… A friend of mine was trying to bottle feed her baby during the infant formula shortage crisis – it was actually pretty terrifying. I’m noticing that more and more of my orders are getting cancelled… I can’t get taxis, grocery stores are starting to look very post-Soviet. This conference is incredible – you’re all basically talking about the end of the world, but no one’s – panicking. I liked what you had to say – I’m not an expert, in no way, but I’m a pretty good judge of – character, and I think that there’s more that you could say, but for some reason – none of you are saying much… Except to each other, and in places like this…”

Rachel could see that Oliver was a very good listener. “You’d expect that reporters from mainstream publications would be all over this conference – but…” He sighed deeply. “We are trying to get the word out. No one cares,” he finished simply.

“Why not?”

Oliver shrugged, and she felt faint tremors of bitterness radiating off his frame. “Death wish?” He murmured. “Maybe you’re right…” He inhaled through his nose. “How far along is your sister?”

“Six months.”

Rachel could see various calculations racing through Oliver’s mind. She knew he had reached a conclusion long before he opened his mouth.

“Do you live in the city?”

“They live in the suburbs.”

“And you?”

Rachel nodded.

“With whom?”

Rachel swallowed. “No one.”

“Do you have a family cottage? Your parents?”

Rachel nodded.

“You need to think of…” Oliver blinked suddenly. “I need your phone.”

Without hesitation, Rachel handed it over. With an expert motion, Oliver popped the case and back off, then removed the battery.

“Nothing personal,” he said flatly, placing the three pieces in front of her.

“That was like watching a soldier with a gun.”

“A lot of weapons in the world… Okay, Rochelle. You need to think about – a backup. You didn’t get this from me, ok?”

“Backup? Like a – generator?”

Oliver smiled. “Well, that wouldn’t hurt either, but no – just another – way to live. In case the trucks stop rolling.”

“For how long?”

“Did you watch ‘Game of Thrones’?”

Rachel nodded.

“A long summer, followed by a long winter. We’ve had free stuff – paid for by money printing and debt – for two generations. The winter will be very long…”

“Are you…” Feeling short of breath, Rachel leaned further forward. “Are you a – survivalist?”

Oliver shrugged, picking at the remnants of his salad. “We all are. That’s what animals do.”

“What about – everyone else?”

He suppressed a smile. “That is a very – female response.”

“Excuse me?” said Rachel sharply.

Oliver was utterly unimpressed. “Come on – you tell me about your sister, then immediately pivot to the – world at large. You don’t have any children, right?”

Rachel looked down, shaking her head, then gazed up at Oliver. “Not yet.”

Oliver swallowed his last olive. “You can parent your real children, or you can pretend to parent the world. The two are total opposites.”

“Do you have any children?”

“No.”

“Because of – what’s coming?”

“Because I haven’t found the right woman.”

“Maybe she hasn’t found you.”

Oliver shook his head. “It’s my job to – look.”

“No luck on the dating apps? Why not? You’re well over 6 feet.”

Oliver’s lip curled. “Women want six – six – six. 6 feet tall, sixpack, six-figure income. It’s pretty demonic really. Dating apps are just advertisements for degeneracy. The end…”

“You are – religious.”

He shrugged, holding her gaze. “There’s no escaping that.”

“What do you mean?”

“We all worship – something. To be more than the animals. You either worship something bigger than yourself, or you worship yourself. Humility to a higher power, or rampant narcissism. That’s all we get.”

Rachel shivered. “That’s…”

Oliver laughed suddenly. “Entirely too deep for a business conference. Sorry, you went through the portal into my – other personality.”

“I like that – personality.”

Oliver’s smile faded. “Oh, everyone loves all that – when it’s interesting, and different, and they just get to be – curious. When it becomes real, and they have to make – tough choices, they usually run for the hills. Or the dungeons…”

Gazing at him, Rachel imagined him sporting a medieval beard, and striding through a hail of arrows.

She smiled. “Well, you’re a little – different.”

He smiled back. “You have no idea.”

The blonde woman who had reminded her of Arlo walked up. She greeted Oliver warmly. He stood and shook her hand.

“Are you coming to the next talk?” she inquired.

Rachel felt her heart swell with excitement as Oliver turned down to look at her. “I’m not sure,” he said slowly.

“Stay,” said Rachel – drawing a ferocious look from the blonde woman. “You can watch me eat.”

Rachel was fascinated to watch a man torn between the will of two women. Normally she would see alternating flashes of fear, pride and desire. She expected Oliver to defer to whoever was the prettiest, or the most aggressive – or the most insistent.

But – none of that happened. Oliver just closed his eyes for a moment, then said: “I’m staying. Please give Rick my apologies.”

The woman laughed tensely. “Oh, you and your projects!” she said, glancing down at Rachel.

She lingered for a moment, perhaps hoping to be asked to join them.

Oliver sat back down.

“Well – take care, Ollie,” said the blonde woman, obviously planting ownership in the form of a nickname.

After she left, Rachel exhaled.

“Well, she likes you!”

“She does,” said Oliver in a neutral tone. “But I’m not sure she really wants to get to know me.”

“Oh, poor dear!”

He frowned slightly. “What do you mean?”

“Well, she’s very pretty – and smart, to be here. What’s wrong with her? Do you have a problem with – women in general?”

Oliver’s frown deepened. He said nothing.

“Please, rush to your defence. It’s expected.”

Oliver grimaced. “I’ve never been a big fan of – what is expected.”

“Oh, a rebel, my my!”

Oliver stood. “I’ve just told you about – real dangers to your sister and her pregnancy. What’s with the stupid baby talk?”

Rachel’s cheeks colored. “Gosh, you’re right, you’re right. I’m sorry. Frivolity is – a defence, I guess.”

After a moment, Oliver sat down and said, “What is your email address? I only send to encrypted providers.”

Rachel told him.

“Okay. I’m going to send you a list. Essential supplies, everything you need. Pass it on to your sister – or her husband, even better.” Oliver glanced up sharply. “She’s married?”

Rachel nodded. “Very happily. To her high school sweetheart.”

“That’s – good…” murmured Oliver. “Don’t mess around – it’s really important she gets this.”

“What did the woman mean – your ‘projects’?”

“Stacy? Oh, she thinks I’m a total – player.” Oliver sighed in exasperation. “She thinks I – scare women into – bed. Tell them about the end of the world, harvest their desperate desires.”

“I can’t imagine that,” said Rachel with simple honesty.

She was rewarded with a genuine smile.

“Are you religious?” asked Oliver suddenly – and held up a warning hand. “And please don’t give me any mumbo-jumbo about ‘spirituality.’”

Rachel nodded. “I suppose I am not allowed to talk about being a ‘seeker’ either?”

Oliver laughed. “God no!”

“Or who I think I was in a past life? Or my eerie psychic abilities? Or my endless sympathies towards the marginalized? Or my love of democracy? Exactly how many clichés would you like me to manifest, friend Oliver?”

It was the first time she had used his name. He threw back his head and laughed.

“So you just – sit down here and tell me that your sister is – pregnant, but then when I ask you a direct question, you give me the run around? Exactly how mad are you?”

Rachel smiled. “You have no idea…”

They stared at each other for a moment, lost in the shock of a surprising conversation.

A door opened, and a fat janitor entered the room wheeling a supply cart. He had a thin beard across his cheeks that struggled to imitate a visible jawline.

Rachel said: “Tell me about this – other personality.”

“Are you a feminist?” replied Oliver instantly.

In Rachel’s jumpy heart, in that most ancient of human dances, desire battled ideology. Slightly short of breath, she shrugged. “I don’t know what that – means, anymore. I like equality.”

“I like…” echoed Oliver. In that moment, he reminded her of Arlo, who seemed to be constantly trying to get her to listen to herself.

“I like – as in I prefer. It is superior to – inequality.”

His eyes narrowed. “What do you mean by – inequality?”

Rachel waved her hands. “Well, when there is a certain – disparity of outcomes, in society, it tends to destabilize things, creates a lot of resentment – and this may very well be due to a kind of bigotry or hostility on the part of – those in charge, those with the most resources…”

Rachel almost trailed off. The usual energetic insistence behind the words faded on her tongue.

Oliver pointed at the pudgy janitor emptying a garbage can. “Would you date him?”

Rachel smiled. “I wouldn’t automatically – exclude him.”

Oliver stood. “Shall I bring him over? You said you were single.”

Rachel stared at his belt buckle, then looked up. “We’re just having a – conversation.”

“I know,” murmured Oliver. “I’m afraid that’s all this – is.”

“What do you mean? Sit down.”

He sat, and brushed his dark hair back from his broad forehead. “Everyone loves the idea of – equality, until it affects their own choices…” Oliver exhaled deeply. “You and I both know that you would never give that janitor the time of day – and would consider it a real insult if he asked you out! You are looking for a high-quality man – I’m fine with that, good for you – which means you have to reject the vast majority of men. I can see that half-smile by the way… I know that you love the idea – the compliment – that you are in a position to choose, with regards to men. Women always talk about equality, but the bassist never gets any groupies. Have you ever been in a polyamorous relationship?”

Rachel shuddered slightly. “God no – though I don’t oppose them in – the abstract…”

“So, you prefer a monopoly with your partner – monogamy. You don’t share him, he doesn’t share you.”

Rachel laughed in a brittle manner. “Oh, but that’s just – sex. Not – property. Or money. That kind of redistribution.”

“But money is sex for men.”

“What? Excuse me?”

Oliver’s eyes seemed to have lost the ability to blink. “Men exist to provide resources for women and children. The more resources we can provide, the higher quality woman we can attract. Taking away a man’s…” Oliver changed course without warning. “Look – there are women out there who have no hair – would you be willing to shave your head to provide wigs for them?”

“But then I would be a woman without hair!”

“Cut it very short then.”

“I would do that for – a family member.”

“Right. You would not be willing to give up something attractive about you in order to – help someone else.”

Rachel smiled. “I would consider it…”

Oliver laughed. “Oh – come on! You haven’t done it, and you won’t do it – and I don’t blame you! I’m just pointing it out.”

“I don’t get your point.”

“If I said the government should cut off your hair, and hand it out to less attractive women, you would consider that a grave violation – a great evil, right?”

Rachel shrugged. “Let’s say that I would, so what?”

“This is what men face, in society. Women vote to take away our sexual market value – our money, our resources, our income – and consider that moral and right! But if men were to vote to take away women’s sexual market value, that would be – horrifying, evil!”

“Are we really going to open this can of worms?”

Oliver leaned forward. “Oh, it’s already open.”

“You don’t think women pay taxes?”

He snorted. “Women get about half a million dollars more out of the government than they pay in. For men, it’s the reverse.” Oliver smiled. “Sorry, didn’t mean to imply that you are bad at math.”

“But women do the vast majority of – unpaid labour! Housework, childrearing – you name it!”

“Rochelle,” said Oliver softly. “If it is truly unpaid, how do the women survive?”

She blinked. “I don’t follow…”

“If housework – women’s housework – is truly unpaid, how do they afford the house?

Silence.

“How do they pay the bills? Who pays the bills?”

Silence.

“Your sister - she’s going to stay home with the baby – you call that unpaid labour, but who pays her bills then? Her husband… Her husband, yes?”

“But – some women work, and some men stay home with the children, and do the housework.”

“So?”

“So, that’s – the opposite of what you are saying.”

Oliver tilted his head forward slightly. “How so?”

“Well, because… Because the roles are reversed!”

“Again – so? How does that alter the principle?”

“It…”

“If I throw a ball up, then it falls down, has the principle of gravity been reversed?”

“Well, no – but women are underpaid!”

“Change of topic. Sign of defeat.”

“I concede nothing!”

“You are young and pretty, why should you?” smiled Oliver.

A brief silence.

Despite herself, Rachel glowed. “You’re saying that men – defer to me, because I am – as you say – pretty?”

“I’m saying that men who refused to defer to women, over the course of our evolution, tended to reproduce less. There were times in history when ten women reproduced for every one man. You joked earlier about telepathy and past lives – and it was funny – but those silly beliefs generally exist in the female population, because men want to reproduce more than they want to correct silly beliefs in women.”

“This is called the Gish Gallup…”

Oliver waved his hand. “I know, we have a lot of topics – let’s talk about income inequality. Women make seventy cents on the dollar, and that’s a sign of sexism and patriarchy, right?”

“I wouldn’t put it that way.”

“How would you put it?”

“Because women do the majority of – housework and child raising, they are less available to the marketplace. Because employers are nervous about women getting pregnant, they tend to hire men. Because women are perceived to be overemotional and intellectually inferior, they – we – go to the back of the line at hiring time. When children and relatives – especially parents – get sick, women end up taking care of them. Women perform more community charity, have generally more demands outside of work, and don’t get enough sleep in this modern utopia we call society. Men get to be single-minded, women have to juggle about a thousand balls – of course that has an effect in the workplace…”

Oliver nodded slowly. “In your family, growing up, who paid most of the bills?”

“I’m not privy to the financial records of my parents.”

Oliver sighed. “If you had to guess.”

Rachel pursed her lips. “My father.”

“Who mostly paid for your mother’s food, shelter, healthcare, clothing, vacations, meals out, and so on?”

“My mother worked damn hard, thank you very much!”

Oliver was unruffled. “That is not what I asked. Can you repeat my question back?”

“This isn’t kindergarten!”

“Then it should be easy!”

Rachel sighed in exasperation. “Who paid my mother’s bills? Well first of all, she was very frugal – and second, yes, in return for all the work she was doing, my father did pay the bills.”

Oliver’s tone was soft, almost gentle. “Did you father thank your mother – show appreciation, for all the work she did?”

Rachel smiled thinly. “He was pretty good at that.”

“So, he – thanked her for the meals, and raising the kids, and running the household…”

“Yeah. Yes, he did.”

“How often?”

“Well, most days, as part of – grace – he thanked her for the meals. When he was looking for something – which happened a lot – she would always know where it was, and he would thank her for that. When I was a baby, she got sick, I had to go to daycare… But she kept going, kept things together – he thanked her for that, and for living… He really praised her for visiting his mother in the hospital – she almost lived there, for a while, when…” Rachel’s voice caught in her throat.

“She was appreciated,” murmured Oliver.

“Yeah…”

“Have you also – thanked your mom for everything she did?”

“Yes… Not as much as my father did… I should – really tell her… More.”

“What happened to your grandmother?”

Rachel blew out a breath. “She had a long illness. Drained the life right out of us, for a while… Quite a while. Death is kind of a vampire.”

Oliver nodded. “It can be. I’m sorry…”

Rachel shrugged. “Long time ago, now…”

Oliver took a deep breath. “I’m glad your mother feels appreciated. That’s important, right?”

“For women, it’s pretty much everything.”

“So…”

“So?”

Oliver’s face was very still as he spoke. “Rochelle – how often have you thanked your father for going to work and paying the bills?”

Silence.

Silence, and shock.

Oliver said: “How often did your mother thank your father for going to work and paying all the bills?”

Silence.

“You claim to like equality, but you and I both know that your father barely heard a word of praise or gratitude for his decades of hard labour…” Oliver’s voice grew even softer. “We also know that your dad risked divorce if he did not appreciate your mother – but your mother had no fear of him leaving her if she failed to appreciate him – at least, as far as you know, out in the open.”

Rachel frowned. “Oh, he knows that we – appreciate him.”

“How?”

“Well, his wife – loves him. We all – love him. I do say that, we all do!”

“Do you also say that you love your mother?”

“Of course!”

“So – if saying that you love someone is enough for her to feel appreciated, why do you also need to tell your mom how much you appreciate her housework?”

Rachel’s brows knit together. “It’s like – women need to feel a reason as to – why they are loved. Men just accept love without – needing more… I think…”

“What you think is…” Oliver sighed. “How do you think your father would react if you told him how much you appreciate him getting up and going to work for decades, to provide for his family?”

“I don’t know…” Rachel’s voice was honest, and openly curious.

Oliver rapidly reassembled her phone and handed it over. “Why don’t you call him, and find out?”

Rachel laughed. “Oh, I can’t…”

“Because..?”

Her cheeks turned slightly red. “Oh, because – because…”

“He’s at work,” said Oliver softly.

“He’s not – he doesn’t like to be interrupted.”

“When he’s done work, you should tell him.”

Rachel’s head jerked back. “This has turned all kinds of – psychological, all of a sudden.”

“It’s not psychological at all,” said Oliver flatly. “It’s political.”

“Me – telling my dad I appreciate him is – political?”

Deeply political. It’s all about power.”

Rachel snorted. “What – power?”

“Thanking people is a sign of – equality, which you say you love so much. The mistress does not thank her slave. The king does not thank his peasants. Thanking people reminds them that they do not have to serve you, that you appreciate the – favours. Men are afraid of women leaving them – and taking half their stuff, or more – so we constantly thank and praise women. Women don’t have to worry about – men running off, or actually running out of resources. Women don’t have to show appreciation for men, because they can get men’s resources by force!”

Rachel paused. “Ohhh, this is the part of the conversation you talked about earlier, when people don’t like your second personality.”

“Yes.”

“But – okay, I’ll bite… How do women get men’s resources by force?”

“Well, through voting, of course. Women vote to take away men’s money. That’s the welfare state, socialized medicine, retirement pensions – cushy government jobs all over the place, mostly staffed by women.”

“Men use welfare, healthcare and pensions!” exclaimed Rachel.

“Of course. But in every country, they only came into effect after women got the vote – and women use them far more than men do. And…” Oliver held up his hand, to forestall her response. “The point is – when have women ever gotten together and thanked men for all the taxes that men pay, to keep women in comparative luxury?”

“What are you talking about?”

Oliver’s voice rose slightly. “Where is the appreciation? Everyone talks about the ‘wage gap’ – no one ever talks about the ‘tax gap’! Men pay far more in taxes than women do, and women take far more government benefits than men do. The State is a giant machine the transfers wealth from men to women. Are we ever thanked for that? No, because we are in a master-slave relationship with woman. All this talk about ‘the patriarchy’ is just a cover for what’s really going on – what is statistically verifiable. We live in a predatory political matriarchy. And all this – I can see – comes as a complete shock to you! And you would totally pass a lie detector test if you were asked to condemn the ‘patriarchy.’ Essential information has been consistently withheld from you, and false narratives have been implanted.” Oliver snapped his fingers. “The media is the matrix. You are hypnotized, my friend. You are sleepwalking. Wake up.”

Rachel shook her head slightly, shivering. “This is all so – one-sided!”

“It’s not one-sided – it’s just the other side, which you view as extreme because of how far you are from the truth!

She snorted. “Women benefit most from the government? Have you ever heard of the military-industrial complex? Who runs that, little old blue-haired ladies?”

“Oh, we’re going to talk about the military?” said Oliver scornfully. “When did you have to register for the draft?”

“Men start most of the wars, don’t…”

“No – factually false. Female rulers start more wars than male rulers. And how many men do you know who have the power to start a war? But most of the men you know can be drafted at a moment’s notice to go and die in a war started by the rulers! Is that ‘the patriarchy’? Do you really think that if men ruled the world, we would’ve designed a system where we pay most of the taxes, get few of the benefits, die sooner, get killed or injured on the job far more than women, lose custody of our children, have to pay alimony and child support for decades – and go to jail if we can’t, if we lose our job or get sick – do you really think that this is the best that male genius and ‘the patriarchy’ could possibly have come up with? The system that is supposed to ‘benefit men’ robs us blind, kills us younger, smashes our families, throws us in jail – far more than women by the way, for the exact same crimes – and you think that we actually invented this system that destroys us because – because – why? What is the evidence that the system benefits men at all?”

“More men are in positions of power!”

“Ruled over by female voters! And most men are exploited by political power, not in charge of it!”

“Then you all should take charge!”

“Ah,” said Oliver, his voice becoming soft again. “So – we are not in charge… And you see the dynamic here – I’m sure you do, you’re very smart… You have been trained to attack any complaints about inequality coming from men. We are not allowed to complain, we just have to go to work and pay the bills. Like livestock. Like cattle. Like slaves.”

Rachel rolled her eyes. “You think you are a slave? How much did you make last year?”

“$275,000. How much did you pay in taxes last year?”

Rachel swallowed. “Well, I’m self-employed, so I have a lot of – deductions.”

“How much?”

“I – got a refund…”

“So. I paid well over hundred thousand dollars in taxes – and you got a refund.” Oliver leaned forward. “From my wallet. And do you thank me? You do not. When I complain, you attack me. Because you own me. You exploit me. And everyone tells you that you are a victim. And you believe them!” Oliver’s words were angry, but his tone was sorrowful. “And I’m not mad at you – I genuinely sympathize with you. It’s a horrible situation, to keep reality away from people, to bury injustice in propaganda… It means that your conscience will get you – when you least expect it… That is why you are so nervous… It’s all so unfair, so wrong – you should never have been lied to in that way. But you have some responsibility as well, Rochelle – this information has been available for decades. But at this point, in your life, it’s too costly to turn around, to learn about true equality and sympathy and – simple gratitude…”

Oliver gestured at the room, the windows, the city.

“Everything around you is built by men. And – being appreciated is everything for men as well, and we are starving out here… And – to be honest – this is why the men here, at this conference, aren’t doing much to sound the alarm about what is coming. Half of them have been destroyed in family courts – and the other half saw their fathers going through the same machinery. Why would they work to save a system that destroys them?” He shrugged. “I’m afraid that most of the men here are in the ‘let it burn’ category.”

Rachel shivered. “And – you?”

Oliver shrugged. “I don’t – really think my opinion means that much. It’s burning either way.”

Rachel swallowed. “And your – point in telling me all this?”

Oliver smiled suddenly. “Don’t you ever just want to– tell the truth? It feels good…”

Rachel smiled back.

Oliver said: “Who is Arlo?”

She started. “What?”

“Arlo,” said Oliver patiently. “Before I turned your phone off, I saw the notifications.”

“Arlo is a – friend of mine.”

“Not a boyfriend?”

Rachel paused. “Sometimes, we are more than… We are friends with benefits.”

“How long have you been – friends with benefits?”

“A while…”

Oliver sighed. “That’s the issue – you have… You have been convinced that you are a victim, so your lack of conscience is – dangerous, to you and to others…”

He stood up abruptly. “Listen, I really have enjoyed the conversation. I’m going.”

Rachel’s sudden words erupted from a panicked corner of her heart: “What – what should I do?”

“For heaven’s sake…” said Oliver gently, leaning over her. “Go to church.”

Chapter 11

Ian shifted on the hard wooden floor.

“You seem distracted,” he whispered.

After a moment, Oliver blinked and turned around.

“I am…”

“Maybe this isn’t the best time to teach me how to shoot.”

Oliver took a deep breath. “You’re right, I’m sorry.”

“Where are you at?”

“There is a map in my mind,” murmured Oliver. “It’s always going on, from here to the Middle East, off the Cape of Good Hope, circling by China, coming into California. It’s like the thump thump of a heart. Bringing us everything we need to live – in the style to which we have become accustomed.”

Oliver’s middle brother David grunted softly. “Yeah, you were a total space-case at the barbecue. Gapping out completely.”

His brother-in-law William said nothing, but nodded slightly.

A slight breeze ruffled through the deer blind – a raised wooden structure about 15 feet up in the woods. Two fake deer stood across the clearing about 100 feet away.

The men had come out early in the morning, climbed up into the deer blind, and had been sitting for almost three hours. They had only seen a line of young turkeys winding their way across the clearing.

“Was it Jayda?” asked David.

Oliver shook his head. “Yeah, she’s a hassle, but too much of a cliché to worry much about…”

“Lot of her type around these days, though,” murmured William.

Oliver shrugged slightly, the movement of his shoulders barely visible under his thick camouflaged jacket. “We have always been sent out as lambs among wolves…”

“Diane is not having the best pregnancy at the moment,” whispered William.

Ian said: “Should we bother whispering? I’m not sure anything’s… coming.”

“We’ll never know if we raise our voices,” murmured Oliver.

David said: “This would be totally easier if we were drinkers - I think that’s why most men do it.”

“This is not recreational,” snapped Oliver.

“Well, I agree with that!” shot back David. “My ass went to sleep an hour ago, now it’s going to be up all night!”

“All right, keep it down, bro.”

There was a pause. The endless circling crows croaked from the whirlpools of air above them.

“Seriously, though - she’s looking for comfort,” said William eventually.

Oliver shook his head tightly. “Can’t give that.”

William exhaled. “Hell of a time…”

Oliver stared across the clearing at the slow blowing treetops. “We been waiting for this – since the day we were born.”

William shuddered. “Wish it wasn’t my time.”

Oliver snorted. “Would you have preferred World War II? Vietnam? The Civil War? World War I?” Oliver gestured at the grey clouds, the ashen landscape around them. “This has always been the devil’s playground. We are to the gods as flies to wanton boys – they kill us for their sport.”

“Or us to absent dear,” smiled Ian.

“Look, Ian,” said Oliver impatiently, “hunting is a game of waiting. We’re not at the damn grocery store!”

“Sorry, man.”

The older man shook his head. “No, that’s me, I’m sorry. It’s kind of – important that we get something today.”

“Why today? In particular?”

“It’s all – stopping…” whispered Oliver. There was enough latent horror in his words to halt the breath of his companions.

Everyone knew his business. They waited.

“I’m trying to get some parts to repair some high-end ovens – one part, just a motherboard. I’ve been waiting three months. Normally you just jump on ‘Ali Baba’ and you can find whatever you need – someone always has something… And things have been – jammed up at the ports forever – strikes, Covid, quarantines, mandates – and then, things get off the ships finally – after thirty, sixty days – and then get stuck in a warehouse because the trucks aren’t rolling. But that’s just – moving things after they are already in the country… Things are – slowing down, stopping – at the source, not just the destination…”

Oliver’s eyes were distant.

David cleared his throat. “Yeah, but do..? We can survive with what we make in America. Who cares about cheap drones from Taiwan?”

Oliver shook his head grimly. “We don’t make our own pharmaceuticals anymore. We get most of our fertilizer from overseas. Oil drilling has been shut down for years…”

“But we can just – start that up again. If we have to…”

“Normally, I’d agree. We’re problem solvers, that’s our heritage… But government has totally jammed up the works – more than ever. Everything needs a license, everything is paperwork, everything is delays… I counted the other day – almost half my colleagues over fifty have taken early retirement. Their new hobby is scrambling for second passports. Renaldo is trying to track down the birth certificate of his grandfather from New Zealand. They’re joining the super-rich, buying up compounds and survival bunkers at the ass-end of the world…” Oliver’s right hand descended slowly in front of his face. “And families are just – cut in two. Hacked into opposing camps. We only have Jayda, but most families are just – staring across this burning trench of - belief. Ideology… Vaccinated and unvaccinated, left versus right, racism versus diversity, men against women… And we’re just doing this weird – dance, right at the edge of the volcano. And it’s rumbly, and hot as hell down there…” Oliver shook his head rapidly. “I’m not making much sense…”

“Shhh!” hissed David, pointing out of the blind.

Three deer stood across the clearing, noses towards the fake deer. A father, a mother – and a baby, a foal…

“Oh, we can’t – the baby…” whispered William.

“Ever eaten veal?” asked Oliver grimly, raising his rifle.

“Can I try?” asked Ian, his voice shaking with excitement.

“We’ll do it together,” winked Oliver. “Anything that hits comes from me… Remember the recoil…”

The four men lifted their rifles, rested them on the low wooden wall of the blind, closed one eye, and gazed down the sights with the other.

The deer stood rigid.

“Which one are we aiming for?” whispered Ian, his lips barely moving.

“The dad,” murmured Oliver. “Three, two – one!”

In a clap of staccato thunder, the guns erupted in smoke. Ian’s rifle skidded backwards against his cheek, and he cried out in pain.

Two of the deer – the foal and the doe – leapt into the air, fell awkwardly and then skidded off on their impossibly skinny legs into the tangled brown brush. Oliver reloaded quickly, shooting twice more.

“Holy crap!” cried Ian, his eyes ablaze, his hand cupping his cheek.

Lowering his gun, Oliver turned to him. “Let’s see – open up… Yeah, that’s gonna leave a bruise… Just tell people that your wife beat you up for watching anime – it’s less embarrassing than losing control of your gun.”

Ian laughed. “Holy hell, my heart is pounding like a rabbit!”

David tried jumping up, but lurched sideways against the wooden wall. “Well – aargh!” he cried. “Maybe I’ve been sitting too long..? Hard to tell…”

Oliver and William stood up slowly, carefully – and then helped Ian to his feet.

“Let’s go get ’im,” said Oliver. “Let’s not repeat last year, and have to track a wounded buck for half a day…”

“God no,” agreed William fervently. Oliver shot him a look.

“Gosh, sorry,” corrected William.

The four men lowered themselves down the ladder, and made their way across the clearing.

The buck was lying on its side, its legs moving slowly, its breath rasping.

“Two clean hits,” said Oliver, pointing at the neck and hind leg. “Eeny meeny miny mo, I hit the deer in the neck fo’ sho’…”

“Dibs on the haunch-hit!” cried David.

“Dang!” laughed Ian. “You say whatever you want, I’m telling Cassie I blew its head off!”

Oliver trotted slowly into the bush, ducking low under the brittle brown pine branches. He scanned left and right.

“I don’t think I hit anything else – look around, let’s check…”

The men fanned out, searching as best they could – raising their hands, to keep the dry pine branches from scratching their eyes.

After a few minutes, they returned.

“Well, that is a fine set of meals, right there!” grinned David.

Ian frowned. “Uh – I never really asked about the next part. I’m guessing it’s kind of like a horror movie?”

“Only for the deer,” grunted Oliver. He opened his backpack and pulled out a large knife. Kneeling down, he swiftly slit the neck of the dying deer. Its forelegs scrambled madly as it bled out in red splashes on the sparse grass.

After a minute, Oliver handed the knife to Ian. “Okay, virgin, you get to cut the ass.”

Ian blinked. “We start with the – ass?”

“Yeah – the ass, then up to the neck – but don’t pierce the abdominal wall, whatever you do.”

Ian made a retching sound.

“Welcome to nature’s pantry, brother!” said David, patting him hard on the back.

Ian looked vaguely seasick. “Can’t we just – throw it in the back of the truck, pay someone else to do it?”

David laughed. “Sure, and we can pay someone else to eat it, and make sweet, sweet love to your wife at the same time!”

“All right, all right…”

“Spread its legs like it’s your wedding night,” grinned Oliver.

“Okay, this is all kinds of – Lord of the Flies,” grunted Ian, squatting down and opening the buck’s hind legs.

Oliver knelt down easily beside him. “You will be absolutely shocked how easily this comes to you. And how much you will learn to love it!”

After the deer was gutted, the men sat cross-legged around the circle of blood.

“Oliver,” said William softly. “I need you to – tell us the truth. I feel like you’re always – beating around the bush. Trying to spare us. Me, perhaps. But your sister is pregnant, man. What is going to happen?”

Oliver nodded slowly. He suddenly inhaled deeply.

“Well – it’s been a roller coaster, before… Way up and down, but you’re still on the track… Like the housing crisis – or even further back, the Internet bust – that one hit dad like a ton of bricks…” He shrugged. “This isn’t like anything I’ve ever seen. It’s all coming down, all coming apart… Like that old saying – how does a really rich man go bankrupt? Well, very slowly – then very quickly… It’s the same thing with countries. Cultures. We refuse to suffer through any recessions – necessary realignments of capital and labour. We’re like addicts – we want to avoid the little suffering, so we end up with a really – big suffering…”

“Ollie,” said William slowly. “You know I love you, brother, but you really have to learn how to get to the point!”

Oliver stared at him, then gestured at the remains of the deer. “Get used to it.”

There was a long, wide silence as the men stared down into the earth – and deep through the tunnel of time, to the watching faces of their ancestors.

Oliver spoke very slowly. “Every human life on this planet is propped up by $30,000 of debt – and that was the last time I checked, heaven knows what it is now…” He held each man’s eyes. “And we are Christians, we know that every debt has to be paid… The devil came to us in the 1920s – and again in the 1960s – and offered everything for free.” Oliver shrugged sadly. “And we grabbed at it, as we always do, because we are fallen. And we lacked love, and we lacked integrity – and morality. We did not love our children enough, so we buried them in debt. We sold our integrity, so we bribed the less fortunate rather than help them up directly. We scorned virtue, so we participated in theft. And morality is based on scarcity…” He snapped his fingers. “When we could just – print money, there was never any need for any – discipline. We evolved in the cold, but mad money heated our greed like the tropics, so we lost our history… Yeah, I know – be direct…”

Oliver took a deep breath. “We don’t have long – maybe two – maybe a month.”

Ian swallowed. “A mon… A month for…”

Oliver stared at him. “A month to get what we need to survive for a long time without the supply chain. Without grocery stores. Without running water. Without electricity… We all know that cities are forty-eight hours from anarchy – always, all the time. Come on, don’t give me those faces – I’ve been nagging you all for months about this. Look – mathematically, whatever can not last will not last! I’m not taking you hunting for the fun of it. You need to learn this stuff!”

“In a month?” cried William.

Ian’s eyes were wide. “Hey, my wife is pregnant too!”

Oliver jumped up. His cheeks were red. “What on earth are you getting upset with me for? Who did your wives vote for? Did you ever talk to them about giving up free healthcare, insane pensions, the welfare state?” He took a deep breath, struggling to calm himself. “I know, there’s no point blaming people – we are the fallen, this will always happen – unless this is the end, and we all get to go home finally…”

David suddenly laughed. “Dude – you need to get a girlfriend!”

Oliver smiled sadly. “I love you guys, I love your kids – and I hope to hell that you don’t regret having them. I’m being straight! Get the food, get the supplies, and get out of the city!”

“A month?”

“Check your emails. Remember the barbecue, remember the picnic last summer, I’ve been all over this forever!”

Ian shook his head in a daze. “Surely this would be – there would be more – word about this!”

“For what? To save things? You’ve told me what’s been happening with Ben. How hard it is to have any kind of – authority with your wife. Any credibility. That’s all the result of all of this – violent excess, this drug, this cocaine of debt and money printing. Why the hell would anyone want to save this – crap-show?”

William murmured: “Gabriel, blow the trumpets…”

Oliver’s voice was thick with emotion. “I’ve never felt closer to the Bible that I have over the last six months… God is bringing us closer… We are always at our best when we are being persecuted – when we remember what we are supposed to live for. For Him, for heaven, for – the afterlife…”

“Then – why fight it at all?” William’s voice was hollow.

“You’re going to become a father again, Bill,” said Oliver softly. “That choice is out of your hands.”

David suddenly began doing jumping jacks. “Holy crap, I’m like drowning in adrenaline!” he cried. “Blow it off!” He danced over and punched his older brother’s shoulder. “Come on, what the heck, let’s wear the asses of animals and live in caves!”

Despite himself, Oliver smiled. “Yeah, we’re going to need a court jester!”

Ian stood up slowly and turned all the way around. “Oliver, with all respect, we’re supposed to just – abandon everything?”

“You’re not understanding,” said Oliver slowly. “Everything is stopping – there won’t be anything to abandon. It’s not a diet if you can’t get food!”

William said: “How common is this – knowledge?”

“As I said… Go read the news – half the billionaires are buying bunkers in New Zealand. There’s a whole canyon of information out there that you don’t know, that I don’t know – only a few people have access to it… Watch them, what they do. They are the canaries in the coal mine…”

“It’s going to be a race war,” asked William slowly.

“Who cares what it is going to be?” cried Oliver. “The whole point is to just – get away from it all! We all need to be at least two gas tanks away from the city. Arm up – legally. Get your food, get your seeds, get your rain barrels – get your medicines. Why do you think I’ve been telling you all to work out and stay healthy? Going to be kind of tough to get insulin after the apocalypse!”

“My God,” murmured Ian. “What are the women going to do?”

“Women have been through all of this before…” Oliver saw their expressions, and shook his head. “Not past lives, I’m not a blasphemer – but we’ve evolved to change rapidly – pivot – when circumstances require.” He smiled suddenly. “You wouldn’t believe how popular I’ve become with the ladies. One stalked me at a conference. They know what’s coming, deep down…”

“What – what will they do?”

Oliver laughed. “Well, first thing they’ll do is drop all this pathological altruism. They’ll stop sleeping around. Wasting time… They’ll stop being so – picky. They’ll stop pretending that they can vote a provider into existence… But who cares, that’s all just – theory.”

He gestured at the carcass, the bullseye of blood around them.

“We’ve been out for a hunt, we got good meat – now we are going to get in the truck and drive to the feed store. Because this time next month, it will all be gone!”

Ian swallowed, and said: “And then – to church?”

Oliver clapped him on the back, laughing heartily. “Of course, brother! I’m not just hunting deer today!”

Chapter 12

When Rachel and Arlo went on their first dinner dates, they would see older couples staring off into space, or at their phones, instead of talking – and they would ridicule these proximate disconnected statues, vowing of course to never be like that!

Then, over the course of their relationship, they went through phases of intimacy and distance – like a lengthy heartbeat, they got close, then recoiled or drifted apart. It was like they had two separate lives that spread apart, then came together, like train tracks in a wilderness. When they were in the same mood, or facing the same issues, or had mutual problems to solve, they stayed up late talking. Then, when life took them in different directions, they didn’t even wave goodbye as they drifted apart. They considered this to be mature, that they wanted each other, but didn’t desperately need each other.

The night they went for dinner at Rachel’s parent’s house, each was struggling to find a way to connect before the socializing began.

Arlo’s parents were gleefully “burning up the inheritance” – as they put it – via endless travel. They were both embroiled in the high-end art world, and had what seemed to Rachel to be a rather suspicious amount of cash lying around the house. Arlo’s father had been a model; his mother a curator and auctioneer. In the arid, often creepy, world of modern art, they had moved like glass sharks through the clear waters of cultural catastrophe. All the people in Arlo’s childhood photos had some strange attribute – blue glasses far too small, obviously-fake beehive hairdos, giant black hoops embedded in their earlobes – and always held their heads slightly to one side or the other, like quizzical owls regarding a corpse. They were all atheists, all left-wing and used endless elaborate terminology to cover up their fetish for destruction.

His parents had offered Arlo use of their townhome, which was blindingly white, barely furnished, and with art on the wall that Rachel always found deeply unsettling. Portraits of doughy blank-faced people surrounded by oversized dogs with bloody teeth, family portraits with misshapen people in 1920s outfits, a birdcage covered in bloody feathers, dead-eyed children with hands tied over their heads and so on.

Arlo refused to spend a single night in the townhouse, and only visited it twice a month, to flush the toilets and clean up the mail. He never mentioned any particular trauma, but his avoidance was absolute.

Rachel’s parents were solidly lower middle class. Her father was a foreman at a factory that produced custom T-shirts – a job he had held for almost 30 years – and her mother was a part-time bookkeeper. They went bowling, visited their church twice a week, did charity work for the elderly, and had sensible hobbies. Rachel’s father had built an elaborate model train set in the basement, and Rachel’s mother loved collecting duck ornaments, and crocheting.

They had none of the anxiety that drove Rachel. Visiting them was like trying to run through thick Jell-O – they existed in a peculiar state of timelessness. The ambition to change the world and be recognized and noticed was as foreign to them as a Kurosawa film in the original Japanese. To Rachel’s mind, they plodded along – or rather, round and round, in a revolving door to nowhere – with no real sense of time or growth or decay…

Arlo loved them, though. He shared a similar sense of humour with Rachel’s father, and took deep pleasure in her mother’s homeliness. They recognized his looks, and gave him occasional compliments, but also tried to reach past the glare of his beauty, to reach his – soul, or something…

He visibly relaxed in their presence – and their home was relaxing, with its occasional chirps from the dark wooden cuckoo clock, the linoleum tabletop in the kitchen, and the rows of duck ornaments on every windowsill. It always seemed darker than outside, yellow-lit and womb-like. The solid unflappability of Rachel’s parents was like a deep anchor in a wide storm – the shivering storm of modernity.

Even their names – Bert and Ethel – seemed like musty exhalations from the cellar door of the distant past.

Rachel and Arlo said very little on the drive. Their random pendulums were currently at their most distant arc. Up until as recently as a year ago, they would strive to find topics to bridge the gap, but now they simply sat in silence – comfortable silence, they said to themselves.

They parked their creaky car in silence, stepped out in silence, walked up the mossy stepping-stones in silence. Only their knocking broke the quiet.

As always, Rachel’s mother opened the door.

“Rachel, Arlo, great to see you, come in, come in!”

She beamed, wiping her hands on a tea cloth, her slightly stained apron draped over her wide hips. Arlo leaned down, and she kissed his cheek. He gave her a big hug. Rachel stepped forward and held her as well.

“I never know your schedule, so I made food that we could eat – anytime, no rush.” She called over her shoulder. “Bert, they’re here!”

Rachel’s father had a habit of appearing around corners as if he had been beamed in. Arlo was aware of this, and so did not crash into him. Bert shook Arlo’s hand warmly, then reached around him and hugged his daughter.

“Traffic all right?” he asked.

Rachel shrugged. “Nothing too bad, nothing we can’t handle.”

“Well, mother is the proud possessor of a brand-new crockpot, so we all get to see what wonderful meal she has for us today! Come in, sit down – Arlo, you want a beer?”

Arlo only broke his ‘no carbs’ rule in this house. “Yes, thank you!”

“So – how are things at the zoo?” asked Bert, handing him a bottle.

“Pretty good, thanks. How are things at the factory?”

Bert stretched his lips backwards, baring his teeth. “Things are bad, not gonna lie.”

“How come? What’s up?”

“We can’t get anything,” said Bert simply, taking a swig of beer. “We’re doing all this ‘just in time’ manufacturing – we reach for a part, and it’s supposed to just – get handed to us. We don’t store anything – saves a fortune, but it means that if we reach for something, and it’s not there, we’ve got nothing! Empty factory. I’m going over things with Randall, the boss, and he’s pulling out what little hair he has left!”

“Why can’t you get anything?”

Bert shrugged. “Eh, that’s above my pay grade. It’s just like this – what was the name, the phrase in that article we read, hon?”

Bustling in the kitchen, Ethel threw a look over her shoulder. “Can you narrow it down a little, dear?”

“About how everything is just – slowing down…” He snapped his fingers. “The Great Slowdown, that’s it… Good article, I’ll give it to you. World is increasingly full of – heck, I don’t even know the word to use anymore. People who are slightly less – rapid, you know, upstairs.” He tapped his temple. “It’s like our new employees – they show up – well, when they show up – and you have to tell them the same thing three times – and even then, it’s only 50-50 they get it right. They think working is some kind of – option, like they’re doing you a big favour by showing up and pushing a broom.” He sighed, leading them into the living room. “When I was a kid, you worked – that’s just what you did. I got my first job when I was eleven. How are they supposed to put food on the table? I don’t know…”

Arlo sat down in a wide tartan easy chair. “We get these kids at the zoo – hah, listen to me, in my twenties, talking about ‘kids’ – but they come in without any sense of – I don’t know, urgency or need. Some are good, mostly immigrants – but most of them are just – totally lazy. They think life is like a conveyor belt that just brings you good things, no matter what. I didn’t start as early as you, Mr. Hastings, but I’ve had a job since I was in my mid-teens.”

Ethel came in with a plateful of crackers and cheese. “It’s the phone that’s driving me crazy these days. My ear hurts half the day because I’ve got the phone jammed against it for hours. And my neck, my shoulder… I know, Rachel, I should use the speakerphone - radiation, yeah – but I can't hear people, it’s too tinny. And no one has any answers, and no one calls you back – and I don’t mean to complain about accents, but it’s so hard to understand people sometimes…”

“I think we’re going to have to shut down,” said Bert abruptly. “I haven’t missed a day of work in – what, ten years? I think… But we can’t – Randall can’t afford to pay people to just – stand around. What did I always say, Rachel, about getting things done?”

Rachel smiled. “‘Do it, or tell me you won’t.’”

He grinned, snapping his fingers and pointing at her. “Exactly! These chuckleheads won’t deliver, and won’t warn me – and act all offended when I chew them out! And I'd be fine getting another job, I really would, but it feels like everything is the same at the moment. Like some zombie movie…”

Arlo nodded. “They had to operate on one of the lemurs, but they couldn’t. Do you know why?”

“Because it’s a lemur?” asked Rachel.

He shot her a slightly annoyed look. “No, because they couldn’t get any lidocaine. Please, please take care of your teeth everyone. My dentists said the same thing.”

Ethel rubbed her hands. “Even getting aspirin is a bother…”

Bert took a swig of beer. “My dad talked about the war – the big one, the second – and if he were still around, he’d think it was pretty damn – familiar. You remember, hon, that time he showed us his ration book?”

“Gave me the chills!” smiled Ethel, patting her thick belly. “I do like to stay warm!”

Arlo said: “I remember, when I was a kid – you’d remember it better than me – when it was supposed to be the ‘end of history’? Remember that?”

Ethel shook her head.

Bert nodded slowly. “I do…”

“We’d won. Democracy, free markets. It was all supposed to be…” Arlo gestured vaguely. “…trending upwards from there.”

“Like the space shuttle,” said Bert, turning to his wife. “Remember when we first saw it take off, and I said I wanted to save up for a ticket!” He whistled. “Whoo, did I hear about that one!”

“You stay safe for the people who love you!” said Ethel simply.

“Ah, that reminds me. Did you call that insurance broker, young lady?”

Rachel nodded. “I left a message.”

“When?”

“Couple of days ago.”

Bert tsked between his teeth. “Are you being straight with me?”

Rachel’s cheeks colored. “Yeah, why?”

“Because Harold is a good friend of mine, and I told him all about you and – Arlo. And he would never in a million years wait a couple of days before calling you back.” Bert raised a warning finger. “If he did, he and I are going to have words.”

Rachel cocked her head. “I called the number you gave me.”

“And you got the right voicemail?”

“Oh, dad – no one has time for voicemail! I always just – bypass it and leave a message…”

“And you didn’t think it strange that he didn’t call you back?”

“I don’t think it strange when…” Rachel laughed. “I think it strange when anyone calls me back.”

Ethel said: “Well, I’m glad it’s not just old broads like me…”

“You guys need life insurance,” said Bert, leaning forward. “Anything can happen. Anything. My buddy Edwin - you know that story?”

Everyone nodded.

“No insurance. Three kids. The man died with two months savings in his bank account. His wife had to go to work, his kids had to go to daycare… Now I know that your jobs are not as dangerous – but even in the car, accidents happen, every day… Please, for my peace of mind, talk to Harold.”

“Daycare…” murmured Rachel.

There was silence for a moment.

“Mom?”

“Mmm?”

“I was talking with Cassie the other day – and she reminded me of something. You stayed home with her, but I was in – daycare, right?”

A slight pause. “Yes…”

“What happened? Why?”

It is always amazing how quickly old wounds erupt.

Ethel frowned. “Well, that’s digging up some old news!”

“I’m just curious.”

“Why?”

Rachel swallowed, her mouth obviously dry. “I’m not sure…”

Ethel’s eyes widened suddenly, and she gestured at her belly again. “Are you..?”

“Oh, mom, no!”

“Well, it’s not a curse!

“I know that, but I’m not – pregnant.”

Bert laughed suddenly, too loudly. “You thinking of putting Arlo into daycare?”

Arlo smiled, but thinly.

Ethel stood up as rapidly as her knees permitted. “Who’s hungry?”

This was the moment of the power play – the topic dropped conspicuously, like a shattering plate everyone was expected to just – step over.

“It’s – Ben,” said Rachel.

Ethel froze.

Bert’s eyes narrowed. “Is he okay?”

“Not – not particularly,” said Rachel.

“What? Why?”

Rachel took a deep breath. “Ian’s going to… He’s convinced Cassie to quit work and stay home with the new baby. And they’re pulling Ben out of daycare.”

“Oh, that’s quite a thing!” said Bert. “We were never sicker than when you were first in daycare. You brought every bug and its cousin home!”

Rachel’s voice was tense. “It’s not because of – bugs, dad. Ben’s kind of freaking out at daycare.”

Her mother turned. “Freaking – out?”

“I think – acting out is the right term… Not listening, not sharing. Fighting, hitting. Biting. And – I think his language skills should be – further along.”

“What does – what does daycare have to do with that?”

“Well, Ian sent me a bunch of links, and – and there are some studies…”

Ethel frowned deeply. “Oh, studies! If there’s one thing the last couple of years have taught us…”

“We’re not talking about that, were talking about Ben!

Bert held up his hand and leaned forward again. “Wait – you’re saying that Cass and Ian think that daycare is – not good for Ben?”

“They’re need to try – something… Cass says he’s becoming – quite the terror.”

“Oh, that’s just the age!” snapped Ethel.

Her husband stared at her.

“What?” she demanded.

Bert turned to Rachel. “Your mother did… She did work, when you were little. A baby. She read all these magazines… It was expected, I guess…”

“Oh Bert, stop it!”

“Stop what?”

“You know.”

“I don’t.”

“The food is – well it’s not getting cold, but it’s better when it’s fresh. Come on, let’s go eat!”

Ethel reached forward and pulled at her husband’s arm.

He sighed and started to get up.

Rachel felt a thunderous charge of horses in her chest, pulling her towards the past, towards – what? Truth? Revelation?

There was no way to know.

“Wait!” she cried passionately.

Arlo turned to her in shock.

“Babe? You okay?”

Rachel leaned over and took her father’s other arm.

“Dad, I want to ask you something – it’s nothing about daycare, or anything like that…”

He looked at her quizzically. “You can ask me anything, you know that…”

Ethel sighed and sat back down. “I guess the food can wait,” she said with vague bitterness.

Rachel’s hands were trembling, and she closed them on her lap. “I’ve been – working on this – article about something called ‘men’s rights.’ It doesn’t matter, the content is unimportant – but this man I interviewed – sorry Arlo, I never mentioned it – he asked me something that I’ve been thinking about – a lot. To do with you, dad…”

Me?” Bert’s surprise was almost comical.

“Well…” Rachel gestured at her mother. “We all know how always thank mom for her cooking – and you’re going to thank God for your food – and even the farmers. Anyway, this man…” Rachel laughed rapidly. “He thinks that…”

Arlo said: “You want some water?”

Rachel shook her head and wiped her left eye suddenly. “Dad, I’m not much of a morning person, never was of course – but I remember waking up and hearing you getting ready in the dark – to go to work… You just said you haven’t taken a day off in over 10 years…”

Bert’s eyes were deeply alert. “No, I said I haven’t missed a day of work…”

“What was your longest vacation, dad?”

Bert frowned and glanced at his wife. “New Jersey?”

“No, Orlando. Ten days. Twelve years ago.”

Bert smiled. “What she said…”

Arlo whistled. “Mr. Hastings, you’re like a machine!”

The old man shrugged and smiled. “It’s my generation. It’s our way…”

Rachel said: “And I remember – I remember you always telling me to thank mom, show appreciation, and – praise her. You used to say: ‘It’s like mother’s milk to her’… Always thought that was – funny.”

Ethel raised an eyebrow. “Really? All these years, all these compliments – just – fake?”

Rachel shook her head rapidly. “Dad – this man wanted me to ask you something…”

Her father’s eyes were dark pools of expectation.

Ethel laughed suddenly. “Well, this is all very mysterious! Have you been keeping a mistress, my dear?”

“Yeah – under the couch. She helps me with my train set in the wee hours. In a bikini.”

Rachel shook her head again, as if to clear water from her ears. “Dad – I know it’s your generation, this emotional talk is like – it gives you hives, I think. But – Dad – did you feel – appreciated, for all the work, all the money, getting up in the dark…”

“Appreciated…” echoed her father mechanically. There was no emotion in his voice.

“Well, we thank mom all the time… ‘Mother’s milk.’ I’m – I’m ashamed… It’s so stupid! I saw a documentary the other day about a band, and the bassist wrote all the great songs, and the drummer – well the band broke up, right at the height of their fame, and the drummer – years later – said that he never thanked the bassist for all of the great songs that made them famous… I’m sorry, this is…” Rachel fixed her eyes on her father’s very still face. “I don’t remember a single time when I thanked you for getting up in the dark, for going to work… For paying all the bills.”

“Your father wasn’t the only one who worked in this family!” snapped Ethel.

Her eyes full, Rachel turned to her mother. “I know, mom,” she said softly. “But you got thanked, you were appreciated – we all – we all made sure of that… It’s almost like we – had to – I’m not saying that you demanded it, or anything like that, but…”

Rachel trailed off.

She looked at Arlo, who was staring at her father.

Bert’s eyes were narrowed. His face lowered slightly, his cheeks darkening.

“Don’t upset your father!” cried Ethel automatically.

Bert spoke with some effort. “Your – your health and happiness was all the thanks I needed… You and Cassie… And mom…”

“But why?” asked Rachel. “Mom’s not a child – if she needs appreciation, why don’t you?”

Bert shook his head in a daze.

“That time you burned your hand on the printing press… That must’ve hurt like – like heck. And when you had that manager, the bald guy with the beard, the screamer – what was his name?”

“Oh… Wesley…” murmured Bert, his eyes full of pain.

“I mean – that went on for years…”

“Three and a half years…” murmured her father. “I could give you that in minutes, if you have a mind.”

“And you couldn’t quit…”

Her father shrugged. “It was a recession…”

Rachel took a deep breath. “Well… Dad, I’m not saying you need it, but I’m really sorry that I never said anything.”

There was a moment of silence. Arlo was staring at Rachel. Ethel stood up again.

“Well, now that that’s…”

“Mom!” cried Rachel. “Haven’t you thanked him?”

Ethel’s eyes seemed to freeze over. “My relationship with your father is our business!”

Arlo suddenly said: “You haven’t thanked me!”

Rachel opened her mouth, and her face froze.

Bert said: “For the zoo?”

“Hey, I make a good base, and great tips! I give kids a great show! I know you shouldn’t talk money with – family – but I made one heck of a lot more than Rachel did last year!”

Ethel said, uncertainly: “That’s – good…”

Bert widened his eyes and cocked his head. “To be honest, we always wondered…”

Arlo pursed his lips. “Well, Rachel is trying to get her career going, and there’s not a mess of jobs out there for me, so I've been – hanging in… To be supportive. I think she’s a great writer… But I think you – I think you look down on me for that, Rach.”

“We should leave you two alone,” said Ethel decisively.

There was a pause. No one moved.

Rachel’s hands were on her clavicle. “My God, my chest is… Sorry. Why can’t I get these words out?”

“What – words?” asked her father slowly.

Rachel burst into tears. “Dad, you worked so hard for us – you still do… I’m pushing thirty, you shouldn’t be reminding me about life insurance! I don’t think I made that call – I’m sorry, I don’t want to make that call, because I’m not sure what kind of life we have…” Making a tight fist, Rachel thumped herself hard on the forehead. “Damn it, stop making it about yourself!” She raised her eyes to her father’s waiting face.

“Dad, I’m so… I thank you for – so much. You are a great father… I know you would rather have been home with us – you always told us how much fun we were…” Rachel held up a warning hand as her mother started to speak. “I’m not saying you didn’t work mom – God, can we just make it about dad for five minutes? Dad, I know you didn’t like your job. I know you saved up money so that – so that me and Cass could get an education. And I know you’re a smart guy, you could’ve done – better than me, I think. And I know you really disliked – hated – some of that stuff you had to print at the factory. It was pretty – degenerate, I heard you and mom talking about it a couple of times… And that screamer, he was a – real pill… And you did it – you did it all for us, and we just – swallowed it up… Mom, this is not about you! And here you are, surrounded by three women, who take all your money and don’t even give you the time of day! God, it’s wretched! Thank you, dad, thank you, thank you, thank you!”

His eyes full of tears, Bert leaned forward and embraced his daughter.

Ethel glared, then leaned forward and stroked Rachel’s hair.

Arlo leaned back, pouting ever so slightly.

Chapter 13

There was grim silence in the auditorium as Oliver stepped off the stage.

He was normally a solid speaker, who would get respectful sustained applause – though never standing ovations – but today, the mostly male audience was too stunned to respond.

Even the master of ceremonies looked nervous to approach the podium.

Some men grabbed their phones and fled the room.

Others had tears in their eyes.

Eventually, the master of ceremonies took the microphone.

“Well, thank you for – that,” he said awkwardly. “For those of you with any remaining optimism, there is an open panel on surviving the family court system at 1pm, right here. If you still have the stomach for it, a lunch buffet – seed oil free, no soy of course – is available across the hall…”

Oliver stood by the stage, his hands clasped behind his back.

A heavily bearded man came up to him. “Dude, are we really that screwed?”

“I’m just giving the facts,” replied Oliver. “We always knew this was coming…”

The man nodded energetically. “Yeah, but – man, right now?”

Oliver nodded slowly. “It’s kind of like dying. We always know it’s going to happen; I guess it always comes as a surprise though… For some…”

Rachel pushed her way forward through the crowd. She was so used to male deference that the hard-to-pass bodies and annoyed glances surprised her.

“Oliver!” she cried.

“Rochelle?” His voice was neutral.

She was pleased that he did not need to glance at her name tag.

Rachel leaned forward, smiling “I think I’d better buy you a coffee. You totally killed the vibe.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I came to see you,” she said, in what she hoped was a disarming manner.

He cocked his head to one side. “No, thank you.”

Rachel blinked in confusion. “For what?”

“For – why you are here.” Oliver’s eyes sharpened. “I will be more explicit, if you want.”

“I actually came to apologize. Wait your turn!” she said, to a man on her right who started to speak.

“You’re cutting off this man – at a men’s rights conference.” Oliver turned to the young man. He had a pale face that seemed to be trembling. “What’s up?”

“That was – that was, I don’t know, something else… I just wanted to – thank you for all the work that you’ve been doing, it really has meant the world to me. You’re not old enough to be my dad, but it does – feel that way… I’m the single son of a single mom, you know how it is…”

The young man seemed on the verge of tears. Oliver stepped forward and embraced him warmly.

Rachel leaned in to hear him murmuRachel:

“Thank you for coming, thank you for your words.”

Oliver stepped back. “How did you find my work in the first place?”

“Well, I had a pretty – a monk phase in my mid-teens… You know, burrowing out from the bottomless feminine to some stereotype of masculinity. And I had a real sense I was going in a very bad direction, but I didn’t know how to stop… So I tried going the pickup artist route, but that never felt – right. But then one of your videos was linked under the one I was watching, from Monsieur Manley, and I liked the way you looked – no homo – so I watched it, and everything just – clicked, I don’t know… It was like when I got my first pair of glasses – snap, everything is in focus…”

“It’s close to criminal how little society talks about the problems of single motherhood.”

The young man laughed nervously. “Yeah well, gotta keep harvesting those leftist votes!”

Oliver nodded. “I think you’re right, but there’s also a darker aspect, the weaponization of immature sexuality…”

“That’s it, that’s exactly right! My mother had all this…” The young man paused, glancing nervously at Rachel.

“Forget about her,” said Oliver, waving his hand. “Talk to me.”

The young man’s face trembled slightly, and he leaned closer to Oliver. “My mother had all these – boyfriends. None of them were ever – totally mean to me, but they all seemed – dangerous, in a way… They were only there for her, and I was just – in the way. When you talked about how the male lions kill the offspring of other lions before mating with a single mother – that hit me in the gut like a hammer. I hated that feeling of being – extraneous? Superfluous?”

Oliver laughed. “I’m glad you took my advice about reading a thesaurus!”

Complex thoughts require complex language,” quoted the young man.

“Well, listen – I really appreciate you coming by, and I hope you will take my speech to heart.”

The pale man nodded rapidly. “I wouldn’t want to be the next speaker…” He paused. “I can’t believe you just – threw away your whole speech, the prepared one. When did you decide that?”

“On the plane, coming back from Vietnam.”

“How come?”

“Vietnam was always my port of last resort. If they can’t provide it, it’s not to be had – and they were running out of everything…”

“What are you going to do?”

“Listen, I appreciate the concern – but you need to figure out your own strategy… I don’t want to talk about my plans in public – no offense brother!”

“No, of course not!”

They shook hands. The young man turned to go.

Rachel touched his shoulder. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have snapped at you. My apologies.”

The young man smiled and ducked his head.

Other men clearly wanted to talk to Oliver, but stood behind Rachel.

She turned to Oliver.

“I am sorry for the other week.” She leaned closer. “It’s all so ridiculously – new… But I did – talk to my father, about what you said…”

Oliver just gazed at her.

“It was crazy – he broke down, I’ve never seen that before, he’s – much older, it’s not his way at all… And my mom kept running interference, like I was going to set off some kind of bomb just by – thanking my father. And they totally love each other, I don’t know what was going on…”

Oliver smiled faintly. “And – Arlo? How did he handle it?”

Rachel frowned. “I don’t want to talk about him, I just want to – thank you – really, totally, from the bottom of my heart… I guess I was doing a kind of A/B testing – your worldview is crazy to me, so I think I kind of did it as a joke, just… I never really expected the response I got, but my dad and I have never been closer. We are actually exchanging letters – real ones, on paper. He’s got this whole life going on, in his head, in his heart, in his history – and the doors are just – open now, and you were totally right. And if you are right about that, with my dad, I guess I have to consider that you are – you could be – right about other things, I don’t know…”

A bald-headed middle-aged man behind her said: “Hey, you even listen to his speech? This isn’t Doctor Phil, lady.”

“Yeah, go pick up some freeze-dried food, to hell with your feelings!”

Oliver held up a hand. He leaned over Rachel. “I’m glad – for his sake. Good for you, that showed some real guts.”

Her brown eyes were wide and vulnerable. “Thank you.”

He leaned closer. “But here’s the thing, Rochelle… You are at the start of a journey that takes years at best. You don’t have years. You might only have weeks. You can’t afford to lose your – family, not right now. Go home, Rochelle. Promote Arlo to a boyfriend. Get married if you can. Right away. There’s no point starting anything new…”

“I didn’t tell you the truth,” murmured Rachel.

Oliver blinked. “You don’t owe me the truth. We’ve only met once.”

“Why – why did you tell me to go to church?”

“Because – whatever you call your community - it’s going to disintegrate very soon. ‘Friends’ will scatter. You are going to need spiritual brothers and sisters. There’s still time, but not much…”

“Where do you – go to church?” Rachel’s hand was clutching his elbow.

“You’re panicking,” said Oliver gently. “I’m sorry you were lied to – but it wasn’t me.”

Rachel took a deep breath, summoned all her courage, and opened her mouth to speak the first deep truth in her young-ish life.

“Rachel?” asked a voice.

She turned in a daze. “Ian?”

Her brother-in-law’s utterly baffled face loomed close. “What on earth..?”

Oliver laughed suddenly. “Rachel? That’s your name?”

She whirled back to him. “They must’ve – got it wrong…”

“Rachel, come with me,” said Ian urgently.

Oliver snapped his fingers. “Oh my gosh – she’s the reporter!” he cried. He straightened up and raised his voice. “Reporter here, everyone step BACK!”

“I’m not here – in that way!” exclaimed Rachel, holding her hands up.

“You’re here under false pretenses,” growled Oliver, then raised his voice again. “Security!

Two burly men walked up from the entrance to the hall.

Oliver caught their eyes, and gestured at Rachel. “This young lady is a reporter, who lied her way into the conference. Probably paid in crypto.” He turned back to her. “Please – you’re not welcome here. You will get a full refund.”

“REPORT-ER! REPORT-ER!” The chant went up among the men – and scattered women – in the auditorium.

“Come on, lady,” said the taller security guard. He kept his hands up, at his shoulders, where everyone could see them.

“Please – don’t film!” cried Rachel weakly, surrounded by the inevitable electric eyes.

Ian said, “I’ll take her – there’s no need for this.”

He put his hand gently on her elbow, and started guiding her towards the exit.

“REPORT-ER! REPORT-ER!”

In a daze, Rachel let Ian lead her out of the hotel. The late afternoon light faded through the darkening clouds; the parking lot was grey, gritty, and covered in the first scattering of autumn leaves.

Rachel suddenly wrenched her arm away from Ian’s hand. “For God’s sake, Ian, stop with the drama!”

“What the hell are you doing here?” demanded Ian. She felt once more the sudden and deep immovability of his character – such a new experience!

She put one hand on her hip. “I came to – expose the whole mess!”

Ian paused, struggling to overcome his automatic responses.

Her eyes narrowed. “What sort of cult have you gotten yourself into, Ian? This is what – this is what Cassie is going to stay home for? To rely on? This band of tattooed apes?

He shook his head slowly, as if dodging tiny arrows. “You – lied your way in!”

“I was undercover, bro! Look into it, it’s standard practice!”

They stared each other, panting slightly. A red leaf blew between them.

“You’re freaking out,” said Ian after a moment. “It happens – well, it happened to me for sure…”

“Don’t give me your pity!”

“Listen – Rachel,” said Ian with sudden urgency. “You really don’t want to get caught in between these two worlds. There is no time left – do you understand?”

“Oh, all these Chicken Little paranoid fantasies,” cried Rachel recklessly. “Does Cassie know that you are all going to squat in the woods and pray for the end of the world? Is Jesus going to jump down from a cloud and scoop you all to salvation?”

Ian’s eyes were unblinking. “I have accepted Jesus in my heart.”

Rachel’s mouth dropped open in shock. “Does – Cassie know?”

“She was there,” he smiled. “I’m born again.”

Rachel staggered back a step or two. She raised her hands to her temples. “Oh my God I’m going crazy – I’m stuck in some trashy ‘Left Behind’ airport novel!”

Ian’s face was very sad. “What do you live for, Rachel?”

They both took a few steps backward as a grey SUV drove too fast between them, chased by more swirling leaves.

They stayed at a distance.

Her lips white, Rachel gestured at the air. “Well I certainly don’t live for – this!

“But – for what?”

“Why would you get her pregnant if it’s the end of the world?” demanded Rachel.

Ian fixed his grey eyes on her. “Despair is the greatest sin, sister. I can see it, right now…”

She shuddered. “Oh God!”

“You’re a – daycare kid. Don’t tell me you haven’t read the studies – I know you have…”

Rachel seemed to glitch, like a stuttering online video. “So?”

“You can’t bond,” Ian said simply, sorrowfully. “Like – Ben…”

“I don’t know what – what does that mean?” She raised her hands. “No, forget it, don’t answer that!”

A low police helicopter passed by at great speed, ruffling their hair. Distant sirens echoed through the concrete canyons.

Rachel’s fists were white, clenched. “I’m going to – I’m going to write this article!”

“Are you going to be honest?”

“About what?”

Ian shook his head. “An honest person would never ask that. There wouldn’t be two categories…”

“I’m going to expose all these – apocalyptic ravings. I’m going to write about – how I was thrown out!”

“You weren’t thrown out. You left, with me.”

“Under threat!”

“My – gosh, Rachel!” cried Ian in great frustration. “You can’t be serious – all you ever do is threaten others! You’re threatening me right now!” He gestured at the hotel. “You’re going to take down my – whole community. You’re going to humiliate me – you’re going to set my wife against me! And why? I find meaning here, Rachel – and brotherhood. And it’s good for me – you know that! It’s why we’re having this – conversation.” He took a step towards her. “And Cassie is happier… You’re going to roll a grenade into our whole tent – and why?

Rachel’s face was pale, taut. “Because it’s all – so crazy!

His face softened. “Rachel…” he murmured.

She sighed in exasperation and took a few steps towards him.

“Rachel…” he repeated. “I heard what you were saying to – Oliver. Please, I don’t mean this with any disrespect… Maybe you are lying to him as well, but I don’t think so… You wanted to go to church. You want to find meaning. To – recover your soul… To stop – living this way…” His voice lowered, and she leaned in. “And – and – what if we are right?

“Oh, Pascal’s Wager!” Rachel exclaimed scornfully. “Philosophy 101 – I was waiting for that!”

“No, I don’t mean about – heaven and hell – although that is pretty important… I mean…” He took a deep breath. “Look, I like Arlo a lot – he’s a lot of fun… But – he’s not going to wife you… He’s not gonna make you a mother… He’s a boy, and you’re a toy.”

“How dare you!” cried Rachel, her white teeth bared.

Ian shook his head, his eyes wide. “You’re just – burning bridges in every direction. You threatened Oliver. You threatened me. You’ve never once come by to help out Cassie. When was the last time you – took Ben for a day? You’re not that busy, I have you on web alerts…” Ian’s voice caught in his throat. “It’s tough, two people working… And Ben misses you, but you say you have no time… It’s a fact. You abandoned us, Rachel…”

Rachel shook her head. “No – that’s not what Cassie thinks.”

“You’re like – we can’t be too honest, or you’ll vanish…”

Rachel bit her thumbnail. “Dammit!”

“What – what are you thinking?”

She took a deep breath. “This is my – big thing, Ian.” She raised her eyes to his. “I can’t just – drop it. There’s power in these meetings… I need to make my mark!”

Rachel suddenly imagined that Ian was about to say: the mark of the beast…

Ian took another step forward. “I’ve learned to read – these things, Rachel. You like Oliver, and you feel rejected – so now you want to hurt him. But it will hurt me, and Cassie. And Ben. And the baby to come!”

Rachel shook her head again. “Everything can’t be so – tangled.”

“But it is,” said Ian softly. He reached out and took her cold unwilling hand. “Why don’t you..?”

“What?”

“You could really help to – save people. Not for Jesus, not for church… Just – write about the men’s rights movement being a – response to these growing shortages…” He sighed. “I guess you could – condemn us a bit, but why not – just – help get the word out? There are going to be some very hungry children in two months time… Or less.”

Rachel snatched her hand back and waved him away. “I don’t believe any of that!”

“Don’t you see? That’s your attraction to Oliver!” cried Ian.

“Oh – don’t be ridiculous! Everyone flirts to get what they want!”

“Okay – but listen – really think about it, Rachel! You could write about how we meet to discuss the end of the world – and that’s what drives our ideology – and you don’t have to judge our predictions, or the movement as a whole – but it would totally help get the word out. It’s really important!”

“Why?” said Rachel, but knew that her query was automatic, empty.

“God wants us all to have free will,” said Ian softly. “That’s why He made us – what He made us for! And the bad forces in the world – could be just evil people, could be the devil – take away people’s – free will – by keeping information from them. Censorship is – demonic. You can’t choose what you don’t know! It would be a personal favour to me… I want to know I did everything I could. If people know, and choose badly, that’s on them – if they don’t even know, but I could have helped, that’s on me! Do you understand?”

Almost against her will, Rachel nodded. She laughed sadly. “I never thought of you as an… As a do-gooder.”

Ian smiled. “It’s – kind of a new phase.”

Rachel exhaled. “If I write something less – less – I don’t know, whatever you’re talking about… If I do that, will he talk to me?”

“I can try,” said Ian encouragingly.

Her eyes narrowed. “It might be a – condition.”

“You have your free will – he has his… But Rachel – what is going on with Arlo?”

“I don’t know…” murmured Rachel, with the kind of emptiness that often precedes great emotion. She suddenly wanted to tell him all about Aunt Crystal, and a lost life, and a pointless project – and the whirlpool of useless family demands. But it felt disloyal…

“What?” asked Ian.

Rachel took a deep breath. “Nothing… Nothing. Arlo is fine, we are fine… I’m just getting – really sucked into this story – which is a good thing I think…”

“Balance in all things…” said Ian.

“Oh for God’s sake Ian, you’re a coder, stop trying to be a fortune cookie!”

Her voice was not malicious, and Ian laughed.

Rachel said, “You should probably get back…”

He shook his head decisively. “No. We’re going to talk.”

Half of her rebelled, and half of her melted.

Chapter 14

The assault began in darkness.

Rachel was ripped from sleep by a demanding electronic summons, burping and whistling and beeping.

It was a two-slam of consciousness – the first, leaving a dream of dangerous dogs – and the second, waking to a wild suspicion of the demons behind the screen…

Arlo groaned even before he awakened, and Rachel wondered for a moment if he experienced significant self-pity and entitlement even in his dreams…

“What the hell…” he murmured.

Rachel rolled over, tangling the wires of the headphones she used for audio as she fell asleep.

She picked up her phone and switched it to ‘vibrate.’

She had received over 100 messages, all in the last few minutes.

Her shaking thumb scrolled through a fiery waterfall of rage and contempt. Her heart pounding, she skimmed up the messages like a lost soul sprinting across thin ice, cracks widening at the heels…

Arlo’s breathing softened. Rachel glanced over, tilting her phone screen so she could see him. His blonde hair poked out above his sleep mask – he needed to wear one, he said, because he was so lean that even his eyelids were too thin to keep out the morning light.

Rachel logged onto her blog. She normally got a few hundred visitors a day - over 50,000 had arrived in the last six hours.

She checked out her various social media accounts, hunting for text responses in between the most vile memes she had ever seen in her life…

More messages came pouring in, jarring her hand – the vitriol was breathtaking.

They were mostly from women…

Rachel realized she had stopped breathing.

What about the patriarchy? she wondered. I wasn’t exactly defending men, just showing the tiniest sliver of sympathy…

Quotes from the article she had published last night were all over the Internet – ripped out of context of course.

“Men are the real victims” according to Rachel Hastings, the latest apologist for rampant misogyny…

Feeling nauseous, she did a search on her blog.

The actual sentence was:

“Within the men’s rights movement, the argument goes, men are the real victims, because they receive little to no sympathy.”

I’m talking about their perspective, not what is true!

Rachel’s hands were shaking. She felt the urge to leap out of bed, find everyone lying about her, and scream the truth into their stupid faces!

“Women are the real oppressors” writes self-described ‘reporter’ Rachel Hastings…

She searched again.

“Men who had been dragged through what they perceive to be a one-sided and unfair family court system make the argument that – in certain areas of law – women have the capacity to be the real oppressors.”

“Women constantly lie about rape!” Rachel Hastings doesn’t even bother using a dog whistle for her latest justification for male hatred.

Rachel shook her head slightly. Her ears were humming.

Latest justification? I’ve never written about this subject before…

The actual sentence:

“Women lying about being raped is under-acknowledged, according to some extremists in the men’s rights movement…”

What the hell?

Rachel almost cried out as her phone shook again in her hand.

A call…

“Rachel!” groaned Arlo.

“Sorry,” she gulped, throwing the covers aside and racing to the living room – returning in a rush to gently close the door. She had a sudden impulse to put a wet towel on the bottom, as if to keep deadly smoke from her slumbering boyfriend.

She put the phone to her ear.

“Rachel?” snapped Aunt Crystal. “Please tell me this is you, it’s no time for voicemail!”

“Yeah – yeah, it’s me.”

“I can’t sleep – I never can – and I have these alerts set up for your name – what the hell?

Rachel laughed nervously. “I seem to have – hit a nerve, I think…”

“What was the one thing you promised me?”

“I – I don’t remember…”

“First of all, I told you not to write this article – but if you did, I absolutely expected you to run it by me first! I am a goddamn veteran of this industry, Rachel – twenty years – no, more! You don’t just wander into this kind of minefield if you have people screaming from the sidelines for you to just – step away! What the hell were you thinking?”

Something in Rachel snapped. “Oh, and did you just – follow orders and do what was expected, to start your career?”

“This is not then!” snapped Crystal. Her energy suddenly seemed to falter. “This is a new world… People could vaguely handle conflict, when I was your age… Different ideas were – stimulating, we had good humour about it. This is – I don’t know, something else entirely…”

“I expected some controversy, but…”

Crystal’s brittle energy returned with a vengeance. “How the hell am I going to explain you working on my memoirs now?

“Ex – cuse me?”

“I can’t have your name associated with – my life’s work now! Why don’t you – do you ever think of others before you act? Has Arlo just – turned you into him?”

“What?” Rachel sat heavily on the soft armchair by her work desk. “You like him!”

“I like candy too, doesn’t mean it’s good for me!”

“So – you don’t want me to work on your – boxes?”

“Oh no, get that done… I’ll set up some LLC for you, so that it stays – anonymous.”

“But I’m not getting – paid!”

“Right, right…” murmured Crystal. “But still, just in case…”

Rachel took a deep breath. It seemed impossible, but the messages were coming in faster now. Someone walked down the hallway outside her front door, and she suddenly felt that the Internet was very, very close.

Rachel said: “Okay, my bad, I messed up. Maybe… What do I do?”

There was a pause. Rachel had an insane vision of Crystal enjoying the wait, the younger woman’s agony…

“I don’t know…” Crystal sighed. “You can survive these things, over time, as long as you have at least one group in your corner. I pissed off the military-industrial complex with my reporting on Kuwait – and Syria – but at least I had the antiwar leftists on my side – at least until Trump… Is there any group – outside of these men’s rights nuts – that is sending you any kind of sympathetic messages? Or anything not crazy hostile?”

Rachel put the call on speakerphone, and scrolled through the messages.

“There are a lot of people in the world hungry for the death of strangers…” she murmured.

“What?”

“I’m looking…”

There was a slight pause.

The tinny voice from her phone said: “Well, that’s not good…”

“I know…”

Pause.

“Dear God, nothing?”

“Oh, here’s one! It’s an email – oh, it’s some guy just out of prison for – failing to pay child support – oh, for a kid that isn’t even his…”

Crystal’s voice was sarcastic. “Great, well we have the deadbeat dad demographic locked up!”

“Wait – a woman! Her son was falsely accused of – oh God… Never mind…”

“Are you getting any interview requests?”

“Nothing that I can see – a couple of podcasts I’ve never heard of… Not super keen on the names…”

“Anything from – anyone important, from the actual media?”

“Oh, here’s one – Laura Joseph, you know her?”

Crystal tsked between her front teeth. “Stay clear that one, she’s not gonna do you any favours…”

“But I can – record the interview, publish the whole thing, so they can't slice and dice!”

Crystal laughed harshly. “Oh come on, kiddo! You can’t really think that’s how the game is played… She’s got a half million viewers easy, you maybe get a couple of thousand people at best to listen to your – the actual interview. You know the old saying, a lie travels twice around the world while the truth is still getting its boots on…”

Rachel’s heart was thudding in her chest. “So – what can I do?”

“Now? Lock the barn door after the horse has stampeded over your entire damn future? I don’t know – get married, have some kids, move to a farm, plow your phone into the ground…”

Rachel laughed weakly. “Oh, come on… You’ve read the article. I’m really critical. It’s like – 3% sympathetic.”

“My God, Rachel – please don’t pretend to be this naïve! And don’t talk to me about ‘balance.’ Nazis and angels, that’s all that is left these days. And you don’t give 3% sympathy to Nazis!

“I can’t – I can’t generate that level of hatred…”

“Well, don’t write any damn thing until you can!

“That seems – horrible.”

Crystal scoffed so loud the speaker crackled. “You’re like a surgeon fainting at the sight of blood – if you can’t handle it, choose another profession!”

“But – you were – cancelled…”

Crystal’s voice rose. “What the hell? I wasn’t cancelled – except by doctors, who refuse to listen to women! Sickness took me down – not damn stupidity and a total failure to take any advice at all!

The bedroom door opened, and Arlo shuffled out, naked as always.

“What’s going on?” he mumbled. “Is that Crystal?”

Rachel nodded.

“Crystal? Everything okay? Why are you disturbing my beauty sleep?”

There was a tiny pause.

“You don’t know?”

“Nope,” said Arlo without concern. He lifted his right leg, crossing his ankle over his left knee, and sat into a runner’s stretch.

“Well, your lovely lady has written herself into a bit of a pickle.”

Pause.

“Not sure I get it…”

“Well – the article she put out last night…”

Rachel suddenly said: “I’m sorry, I’ll call you back…”

Without waiting, she disconnected.

Arlo brushed his hair back and looked at her quizzically.

She said, “Well, I did – I did end up – publishing the article… On men’s rights…”

He stopped mid-stretch. With almost balletic grace, he untangled his legs and sat on his haunches. Absurdly, Rachel once again envied his ability to sit on his own heels, with his whole feet actually touching the floor.

“Okay…” he murmured cautiously.

“I didn’t – know it would be any kind of big deal…”

“Nope,” he interrupted.

She waited.

Nothing.

“So – it turns out to be quite a – big deal…”

“Which you absolutely expected. And didn’t consult me on.”

Rachel swallowed. “I thought – maybe a medium deal. Enough to get some recognition – some leverage. Some – edge. But it’s like – like this giant machine has caught me, and is slowly pulling me in…”

“And?”

“And…” Rachel’s eyes suddenly filled with tears. “I’m really – scared, Arlo…”

Arlo said nothing. He did not move.

“Say something!” she pleaded.

“Such as?”

She raised her hands. “I need a hug!”

Arlo jumped lightly to his feet. “Well, I needed some goddamned communication from you, but I didn’t get that either!”

“Arlo!”

“You researched this without telling me…” He paused, cocking his head. “Where were you last weekend?”

“At a – at a men’s rights conference…”

“So, you lied.”

Rachel nodded miserably.

“And you gathered all this data, and you wrote your article, and you put it up on your blog, and you edited it, and you hit the ‘publish’ button – while hiding and lying and keeping everything from me!”

“I want to make a mark…”

“Well congratulations! You’ve made a mark – an entire freaking crater.” He reached for her. “Give me your phone.”

“Why? You don’t want to read…”

Rachel was genuinely shocked when Arlo’s hand whipped forward and snatched the phone from her grasp.

“Hey!” she cried in outrage.

“You lie to me, forget about having privacy,” he growled, scrolling through her messages. “Ho – ly crap! What the hell did you write? Jesus God above, I’m going to get fired!”

“This is nothing to do with…”

Arlo sighed deeply, and somehow this stopped her words.

Rachel said, “Please, just – read the article!”

He looked up in confusion. “Why?”

“They’re – lying about it!”

“So?”

“Read the article, just – see!”

“Why do you think they’re lying, Rachel?” Arlo’s voice rose. “Because it works! God, you can’t have studied journalism for years – and tried to be a journalist for years – and have absolutely zero idea how the entire machinery works!”

“You play with lemurs for a living!” cried Rachel.

“You live off those lemurs – and me, too!” Arlo raised his hand – and Rachel was suddenly very afraid that he would throw her phone at her, but then he twitched his wrist and tossed it onto her desk. It clattered against her keyboard.

“What are we doing?” asked Rachel emptily.

The question seemed so much bigger than both of them, trapped in this tiny dark room.

“You don’t get to screw up other people’s lives without even asking them first,” said Arlo. He started to walk – hoping to pace perhaps – but the room was too small and tangled. He sat back down on his heels.

“What did – Crystal say?”

“That I’m screwed,” said Rachel, then held up a conciliatory hand. “We’re screwed, I guess…”

Arlo’s voice was soft. “I don’t understand – any of it, at all…”

Rachel raised her eyes to his. “We’re not getting married, are we?”

Arlo’s eyes widened. “What? Is there some kind of – connection?”

Rachel shrugged, sinking back even further into her armchair. “That’s my answer…”

“To what? When the hell did you ever talk about wanting to get married?

“Do you love me?”

“Don’t ask me when I’m this angry!”

Rachel said nothing.

Arlo sighed deeply, rubbing his face violently. He jumped up again.

“I’m not going to comfort you!” he snapped.

“Did I ask you to?” she cried.

More silence.

Arlo suddenly put his hand to his chest and began breathing slowly, deeply.

His voice became utterly different. “Rach – get me a paper bag, now!

The urgency in his voice propelled her out of her chair. She half-ran into the kitchen, and started pulling open drawer after drawer.

“Rachel!” croaked Arlo, in agony.

“We don’t have any – paper bags!”

“Get – something!”

She heard a thud from the living room.

She ran back in.

Arlo was lying on his side, his face discoloured.

“What’s happening?”

Arlo closed his eyes and reached for her.

Rachel strode forward, fell to her knees, and cradled her lover’s soft blonde head.

“Pillow…” he gasped.

Twisting around – her back hurt, deep in her spine – Rachel grabbed a pillow and handed it to him.

He crushed it against his face, taking deep shuddering breaths.

Holding and comforting him, Rachel felt with terrible clarity the sensation of cuddling a giant naked muscular baby.

This is what I get, instead of…

She cut the thought off, leaned down and kissed Arlo’s head. In the shadowed light from the desk lamp, she saw the deep creases of his ribs as his chest rose and fell convulsively.

The phone buzzed again, drifting towards the edge of the desk.

Arlo screamed, his voice muffled by the dusty throw pillow.

Leaning back, Rachel half-caught the phone as it trembled on the edge.

It was her mother.

Rachel did not answer.

With shaking hands, she silenced her phone and locked it.

The screen winked into darkness, promising to be back…

Returning to her boyfriend, Rachel found him still gulping air, his hands shaking.

“Arlo, do I – call an ambulance?”

He shook his head violently.

“What do I – do?”

“Oh God, nothing!” he cried out. “Just wait and – hold me…”

She stroked his side. His skin was cold; she could feel his bones trembling under his paper skin.

After a while – a long while – Arlo’s breathing began to slow. For a wild moment, Rachel thought he would fall asleep. His eyes had been shut tight for so long that her own face muscles ached in sympathy.

Eventually, Arlo opened his eyes. The distant sunrise lit the grey walls outside the yellow pool of lamp light.

He seemed to be staring into nothing. The sheen of blinding beauty that always eclipsed the dark moon of his hidden soul seemed to fade to nothing in the early light.

No sentences in Rachel’s mind could be assembled into any remotely coherent thought.

Rachel waited, possessed by an inner stillness she had never experienced before.

With a gentle pat on her arm, Arlo disentangled himself and sat heavily against the arm of the couch.

“Can I…?” He cleared his throat. “Can I get a blanket please?”

Silently, Rachel rose, went to the bedroom and returned.

Still shivering, Arlo wrapped the eiderdown around his shoulders – then pulled the top over his head like a woollen hoodie.

“So…” He smiled thinly. “I think I just had a panic attack… I had one, years ago, on my graduation day… After the ceremony… No, two… Also, after that terrifying environmental conference, when I…”

“Jesus..!” Rachel murmured, closing her eyes. “Why?”

“I never knew…”

“And – tonight?”

“This morning…” He took a shuddering breath. “I just saw everything – falling apart…”

“Because of my article?”

He nodded.

“Nothing else?”

He shook his head.

Silence.

Rachel said: “So – all this – freakout because of one article?”

Arlo took a deep breath. “God, Rach – they’ll get me fired! They’ll just – take us – apart! Pretty people doing bad things – it’s what the world gets out of bed for! This is our last day of being – unknown… And good luck getting a job in the future – either of us… The internet is forever…”

Rachel waved her hand. “For God’s sake, calm down babe! Nothing might happen!”

“It’s already happening – look at your phone!”

“Yeah – to me, not to you! And I’m not panicking…”

He laughed harshly. “You’re in shock.”

Rachel shook her head. “We – I can turn this into a positive!”

“Let’s call Crystal back,” said Arlo suddenly. “Where’s your phone?”

Rachel hesitated. “I know what she’ll say…”

“How?”

“She already said it.”

“What?”

“That – we’re – I’m screwed…”

Arlo said slowly: “They never stop with just – one person.”

Rachel took a deep gulping breath. “I’ll – I can just, pull it down, apologize, disavow – appease them. I don’t care…”

Arlo shook his head slowly. “That’s worse than useless – then, what was the point of any of it? You just – poke them, then show weakness? The blood is already in the water, babe…”

Rachel said nothing.

Arlo rubbed his face. “Oh, it doesn’t matter… What’s the point of getting angry? It’s out of our hands now. We’re going down…”

Her eyes were wide. “No…”

There was a long pause.

Arlo said softly: “Why did you really do it, Rach?”

She lowered her head, silent.

Arlo said: “Is there someone else?”

Rachel’s face froze. She said nothing.

“I want to see your phone, Rachel.”

Without hesitation, she reached up to her desk, felt around, and passed it to him.

Arlo gently took her thumb, then pressed it against the screen.

Turning it to him, he scrolled for a few seconds.

“I’m guessing it’s – this dude,” he said, turning the screen towards her.

Rachel looked at a text message from Oliver.

It read:

WELCOME TO THE MIDDLE

“Who is that, Rach?” asked Arlo.

“He so – he’s just this – men’s rights guy…”

“Why is he texting you at this hour?”

“He had no interest in me – in my article.”

Arlo did not seem to notice her slip.

“What does it mean?”

Rachel leaned her head forward, massaging the back of her neck. “I don’t know, probably that – he said that the hour is getting late, and I should choose a side, and there was nothing worse than being stuck in the – middle.”

“Rachel, you’re not making any sense.”

“Sorry, I’m tired… And totally strung out.”

There was a pause.

Rachel saw impulses of movements in Arlo’s muscles, but he remained where he was.

“Are you interested in – him?”

“Oh God, Arlo,” Rachel replied, without energy. “Yeah, I found him interesting. You don’t – well, you know what it’s like, to be chased your whole life. Like dogs after you. Like a piece of meat…”

“And he didn’t – chase you…”

Rachel laughed, despite herself. “He kind of – chased me off. You’ll see, when you read the article… He got me kicked out of the men’s rights conference.”

Arlo’s eyes widened slightly. He pursed his lips, but said nothing for a moment.

“He sounds like a – pretty dominant guy…”

Rachel sneered slightly. “Oh, he’s a total ‘Darcy.’ Smug, immovable – inscrutable. Wasting his life! And not a big fan of the ladies, I can tell you that!” With effort, she controlled her tone. “But he thinks that this…” She gestured. “All this – is going to fall apart. No, not us Arlo, but our – economy. Our way of life. He thinks that women vote for – security over freedom, and don’t really care about debt, because they can always – sleep with men, to get it paid off… But that doesn’t work at the national level, I think. He’s a businessman, something international… I don’t know anything about the supply chain, but apparently it’s this conveyor belt that keeps everything coming into the – cities. People overseas are dumping US treasuries, which drives down the value of our dollar, which means we can’t – buy anything overseas – but most of our manufacturing is overseas, so nothing is coming in. I don’t follow a lot of it…”

“The zoo…” whispered Arlo. “We’re just waiting for – everything.”

For a crazed moment, Rachel imagined that he was going to leap up, throw on some clothes and sprint off to rescue his beloved lemurs from shortages. Wall-to-wall parkour, no doubt…

“You had an affair,” he said simply.

“Arlo, no – what are you talking about?”

“An emotional affair. Maybe physical, but I don’t think so…” He sighed deeply, and took her hand. “Rachel – come on. You’re wrapped up in this guy’s – mindset. Hundred percent. He’s telling you about the end of the world – telling you not to do this article, I assume – and you’re keeping – all this from me… And lying about where you are. And publishing this – mess – without talking to me…” His voice lowered to a whisper. “But – we had fun, didn’t we?”

She yanked her hand back. “Arlo – that’s – insane! You’re talking about breaking up with me over – a text?”

He suddenly leapt up and towered over her. “Have you been pursuing this guy, Rachel?”

“Yes – for my article!”

“Show me his picture.”

“Oh – because of you, you think I’m only into looks?

He stared down at her. His eyes suddenly widened.

“Do we even have what it takes to go through a – crisis?”

“I don’t know… I have no idea what we’re talking about half the time!”

Arlo gestured at the space between them. “Our life is like – hanging by a thread… You’ve got – more than one foot out the door. Keeping secrets, hiding, making massive decisions… Are we just – roommates who share a bed?”

“No, Arlo – I love you!”

His eyes narrowed. “What do you love?”

“What?”

He gestured at his heart. “What – do you love about me, Rachel?”

“You – your sense of fun, your intelligence… You’re beautiful, inside and out!”

Arlo’s lips curled in disgust. “That’s just – generic. Like a birthday card.” He squatted down, adjusting the eiderdown around his waist. He raised his face to her. “What – in particular?

“What do you love about me?” she challenged.

“I loved our – life together,” he said simply. Then his voice began to rise. “But then I get dragged out of bed at dawn to a screaming phone, a lying girlfriend, a wrecked life, a damned future – and a whole other world you live in that you’ve hidden from me! Did you think I was going to be too – judgemental? Have I ever done that to you?” Arlo’s voice caught in his throat. “I have only ever been totally and completely supportive of you, Rachel! You don’t think I’ve ever asked myself if your – if this career of yours – is just vanity, a total waste of time? Come on! You’ve been at this for – half a decade. You make – nothing. You publish – almost nothing. How much time do you spend on your ‘craft’ every week? You don’t have a career, you’re not really a writer, you don’t do anything in the community – God forbid you touch charity with a 10-foot pole… What do you do for anyone except yourself? You’re not a wife, not a mother – you’re just – three pounds of makeup, scrolling through her phone and pretending she’s alive!

Rachel jumped up. “Okay, gloves off, right? What about you, Arlo? You think sit-ups are going to make you immortal? God I wish you would be judgemental once in a while! Then at least you would have some kind of – definition. Some – opinion that I wouldn’t – that I wouldn’t – that I couldn’t totally predict before it came out of your – mouth! You’re – you’re just a fortune cookie with abs! You don’t – play with monkeys, babe! You are a monkey. You live for now, you don’t care about the future – and what the hell have you ever done for society, other than flesh out the useless fantasies of women passing you by? Take away your looks – what are you? Nothing! A boy whose mother was too busy, whose father was too pretty… And my career? I see the bank statements, kiddo! You’re still taking money from mommy! Just like your dad. Two kept boys, vanity pets with golden chokers!”

There was a pounding on the wall, and muffled demands to keep it down!

Arlo and Rachel stood across from each other, muscles tense, panting, feral.

Their eyes had finally adjusted to the growing light.

Chapter 15

Rachel drove slowly, half blinded by tears.

The sun gleamed off every broken shard embedded in every piece of concrete she drove on, every piece that surrounded her, that rose above her. Her phone kept vibrating on the seat beside her. She didn’t even want to touch it.

Well, at least that addiction is cured! she thought with great bitterness.

Her car politely informed her that she had only 20 miles of driving left on her diminishing tank of gas.

Thinking about Arlo’s viciousness, Rachel wondered why she had never seen any sign of it before.

He had always been so chill, so easy going… Does every visible personality trait hide its total opposite? she wondered – avoiding self-knowledge, as always, by endlessly theorizing about others.

A car horn sounded behind her, startling her out of her distracting dawn-dream. She saw that the traffic light had changed, stamped her foot down, and lurched forward.

The unseen man trying to sell her oranges leapt back in fear. His black dog growled and snapped at her passing.

Pounding at the door, Rachel noticed that she almost never rang doorbells. Aunt Crystal’s doorway to death floated through her mind.

After a minute or two, Ian opened the door wearing clothes obviously grabbed at random.

“Rachel – what’s going on?”

Rachel noticed that it took him a long moment to step back and let her in. She felt a sudden stab of fury.

“Where’s Cassie?” she demanded.

Ian stepped aside, compressing his lips into a white line.

Rachel half-charged into the townhouse.

“She’s – upstairs. Sleeping…”

Rachel said nothing, biting at her thumb.

She glared at Ian. “You – don’t know?”

He cocked his head.

“You – turn your phone off at night?”

“I’m not on call.”

“What if – there’s an emergency?”

Ian shrugged. “That’s what 911 is for.”

“I mean – a family emergency!”

Ian turned away from her and walked into the living room.

Rachel paused for a moment, then stormed after him.

“Shoes, please,” he called over his shoulder.

Using her heels, she violently pushed her sneakers off her feet, without untying them. It gave her satisfying bursts of pain.

Standing in the entrance to the living room, Rachel snapped: “Well? Can you go get her?”

Ian shrugged. “She had a rough night, let her sleep. What’s up, Rachel?”

Rachel sighed explosively and threw herself into a loveseat. Turning, she disentangled a small wooden toy train set from her back and dropped it on the floor.

“Arlo and I… I don’t know, we had a big fight.”

“That’s tough,” said Ian, without much pretense at sympathy.

“This is why I need to talk to my sister,” exclaimed Rachel.

Ian sighed, rubbing his new medieval beard. “Okay – what did you fight about?”

“As if you care!”

“I care if it helps my wife sleep… Seriously, what happened?”

“I…”

Rachel paused, narrowing her eyes at her brother-in-law. He had known her for over ten years – since he had started dating Cassie in grade 11.

Her tongue felt frozen in her mouth. She was suddenly not sure what she could get away with, and so had nothing to say.

“Do you want me to call him?” asked Ian.

“Why?” demanded Rachel, with exaggerated bafflement.

“Well, sometimes – man-to-man…” He shrugged. “It could help.”

“I’m supposed to just – sit here, and watch you…” Her throat seemed to close up slightly, and she sagged in her seat. “I’m sorry, Ian. I’m being a total witch with a capital ‘B’…” She leaned forward. “It’s about – Oliver.”

Ian nodded slowly, significantly.

“And the shortages,” he said.

“What?” snapped Rachel – then immediately smoothed out her tone. “No, I – I ended up publishing that article on the men’s rights movement – last night… It went out to all my subscribers – and then it went – totally viral – like, overnight… I left my phone in my car. You can imagine why…”

There was a pause. Ian’s face was comically shocked, then he burst out laughing. He jumped up, leaned forward and hugged Rachel tightly.

“Wow, holy crap! God be praised! What a move!”

Rachel allowed herself one sob, clutching his shoulders.

After a moment, Ian patted her arm, then sat on the sofa kitty corner from her.

Ian smiled broadly. “It’s like you’re – bathed in this – light. Charging right into the ranks of the persecuted, wow…” He frowned suddenly. “Oh – Arlo – you didn’t – tell him? Before..?”

I forgot… The absurd phrase flitted through her mind, vanishing like a moth flickering past firelight.

“No.”

Ian blew through his lips. “Well, I guess it’s pretty clear to him where your loyalties lie…”

“I don’t – I don’t get men at all,” said Rachel helplessly.

Ian laughed. “Not that you’ve ever had any trouble getting men.”

“Ian!”

He held up his hands. “Sorry, out of line, my bad… Man, he’s gotta be – angry as hell.”

“I – didn’t know he had it in him…”

“Is it – over?”

“We’re – well, circling the drain…”

“What’s happened with the – article?”

“That’s the craziest thing – it wasn’t even that – bad… Sorry, you know what I mean… I just showed – the tiniest shred of sympathy for what just – a few men are going through…”

“Like Daniel?”

“Yeah…”

“Five years in prison for refusing to support a kid who wasn’t even his…”

Rachel shrugged. “I mean – who couldn’t have sympathy for something like that?”

“Most of the world…” murmured Ian. He stood up again, leaned over, cupped her cheeks and kissed her forehead. “That’s the whole point – kill men’s motivations with cruelty, so much easier to take over… Welcome aboard, sister!”

She twisted away from his embrace. “I really don’t like all this – tribalism.”

Ian sat down again. “I don’t like gravity either. Fact of life though…”

The conversation paused as they heard the tread of steps from above.

After a moment, Cassie came down in her nightgown – the soft fabric hanging over her extended belly.

“Rachel, my God, what’s up?”

As Rachel paused, Ian said: “She and Arlo had a fight.”

Cassie sat on the couch next to her husband and stretched her hands out to her sister. “Rach, you come here by me – Ian, go sit on the loveseat.”

Everyone obediently rearranged themselves.

Rachel put her head on Cassie’s shoulder.

Cassie murmured, “Let’s do some hair rubs, your favourite…”

Her fingers played with Rachel’s hair part.

There was long silent moment. Everyone who was not Rachel could see the struggle between her discontent and her desire to be comforted.

Eventually, Cassie murmured: “Tell me all about it…”

“I’ll go - check on Ben,” said Ian, jumping up.

After he had vanished upstairs, Rachel disengaged and stared at her sister.

Cassie said, “What are… What happened?”

“I don’t know,” whispered Rachel.

“Is it – over?”

“One phase, for sure… Not sure if it’s the – only phase.”

Cassie paused delicately. “I think – it’s for the best.”

Rachel said nothing, staring at the floor miserably.

“What were you going to do – play ‘house’ forever?”

“We weren’t just – playing ‘house’!” snapped Rachel.

“I don’t mean to be… I’m not trying to insult everything…” She cradled her belly. “This heart rate isn’t good for the baby…”

“How is – that?” asked Rachel distractedly.

Cassie smiled radiantly. “‘That’ is going to be a boy – is a boy, I mean! We didn’t want to know, but the doctor let it slip. Three boys – and me!” She laughed delightedly. “Just think how much I can nag them about the toilet seat! I’m going to be worshipped – a goddess!”

“That’s – that’s wonderful…”

Rachel felt a sudden queasy belly-drop of terror. “I’m not trying to make it about me – I promise – but I did – end up – publishing that article. Last night…”

Cassie nodded slowly, rubbing her belly with her left hand. “That article?”

Rachel nodded.

“Is that what you and – Arlo fought about?”

“Mostly, yeah…”

Cassie’s eyes widened suddenly. “Please God – tell me you didn’t mention Ian!”

“Not by name…”

“How then?”

“Just as – my brother-in-law…”

Cassie shrank back. “God, Rachel! It would take people about – five seconds to find that connection on Facebook!” She took a deep breath. “Okay, it’s… Just – go and edit the article… It just went out last night, right?”

“I – don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“What? Why not?”

“I left my phone in the car…”

“Hah, you without…” Cassie’s face froze. “Wait – it’s not – gone viral?

Rachel nodded. “And – if I change anything, it just – highlights. More blood in the water…”

Cassie reached over to the side table and grabbed Ben’s tablet. She touch-typed rapidly.

Her face went pale in the light of the screen. “Oh my – God…”

“I – haven’t checked in a while… I assume it’s not – calming down.”

Cassie’s jaw hung slack. “It’s good – that you are here. Don’t go home. You might want to tell – Arlo to get out…” Her voice was hushed with horror. “They’ve got your address… Oh Rachel, how could you?”

“I didn’t think it was – that bad!”

“But without – without giving us a chance to look it over first?” Cassie was not angry – at least, not yet – but seemed genuinely bewildered.

Rachel shook her head slightly – it looked more like a shiver. “It was just a bit of – sympathy. For men…”

Cassie suddenly frowned. “Oh, is that why dad has been – well, so not-dad? Did you talk to him?”

Rachel nodded.

Cassie took a deep breath.

From upstairs, they heard the sudden sound of Ben crying.

“In a sec…” muttered Cassie, thumbing the tablet. “‘Sympathy for the Devils?’ By Rachel Hastings…’”

Rachel watched in obvious agony at her sister rapidly scrolled through her article.

After a minute, Cassie threw the tablet aside.

“Totally reasonable,” she said evenly. “Are you insane?”

“What?”

“Totally reasonable is – the end of the world these days… In a moment Ben!” she called up the stairs, then turned back to Rachel. “I just don’t – understand why.”

“I don’t… I want to make a mark, I want to have a – better career…”

They heard sirens, and Rachel had a sudden vision of being dragged off by uniformed arms.

“Why?” asked Cassie with preternatural perceptiveness. “Is it so bad to just – have children?”

Rachel laughed harshly. “Oh, that’s not… I wouldn’t be a good mother – especially not to someone like Ben.”

Cassie paused, pursing her lips. “Wow, you really are determined to burn every bridge today…”

“I didn’t mean that…” Rachel shrugged. “I’m just not – mother material. I never really had the urge…”

Her sister took a deep breath. “I’m really struggling to stay Zen at the moment, Rach. You’re like this giant – bowling ball, just smashing up everyone’s lives… You’re not a kid – you’re certainly not dumb. What’s with the wrecking ball?”

“I just…” Rachel frowned fiercely. “I just – need a change, Cass… You know?”

Cassie leaned forward. “Then – make a change! Don’t do… Don’t just – blow everything up! Especially when there are innocent bystanders… How can we have a relationship if you take a hammer to my whole life?”

“You are barely mentioned! Ian I mean…”

“You keep talking – as if facts actually matter!

Rachel put her hand over her mouth, then immediately took it away again.

“I can just run away, hide in a hole…”

“Rachel – I swear to God, if you start another sentence with the word ‘I’ – I will slap you silly!”

A puzzled look froze Rachel’s face into an inaccessible mask. “I don’t know… Sorry, it’s hard to understand – what everyone wants from me…”

Ben’s crying increased. With a dark scowl, Cassie levered herself up.

“I’ve got to go… And then I’ve got to make breakfast. And then I’ve got to get into my car and get to work. And then – and then I’m going to tell my boss that I’m not coming back. That I’m done… You see how interesting a conversation can be when other people get to talk?”

“Cassie!” cried Rachel. “Con-gratulations!”

“So, my job is not at risk… We just have to hope – and pray – that Ian doesn’t lose his now. Otherwise, it’s back to living at mom and dad’s, back to being a teenager…” Cassie paused for a moment. “And we all end up like you.” She raised her hand. “No, that’s not the start of anything… Just – go home, Rachel. Get Arlo, get your things – and get out.”

“I’m – I’m sorry, sis…”

“Me too,” said Cassie, with heartbreaking sadness.

She laughed suddenly.

“Well, if Ian is right – if Oliver’s right – and we’re all toast anyway, maybe it doesn’t matter one bit… Go out with a bang, right? That’s always been your style – I guess it’s mine too, now!”

There was an awkward pause in the face of this strange détente.

Cassie turned and went upstairs.

Rachel heard Ian’s deep voice combining with her sister’s softer tones.

Ben stopped crying almost immediately.

Rachel felt as if the ghost of his tears had jumped from his tiny body to her broken chest.

She went into the hallway, and slammed her feet into her tight sneakers – refusing to open the laces.

She wrenched open the front door.

It seemed that there were sirens everywhere

Chapter 16

Traffic was a nightmare. Streets had become parking lots. To distract herself from her growing panic, Rachel played mental games with the license plates in front of her, turning the four letters into acronyms for short sentences – but every sentence became a harbinger of doom in her mind, and she quickly gave up.

She turned on the radio.

A man was speaking. “…and of course, the Republicans are seizing on this to basically attack our fine President…”

A woman interrupted with a harsh laugh. “You know how these people are – right after they get out of bed, they start hearing conspiracy theories in the hum of their electric toothbrushes!”

The man sniggered. “Who imagines that they even brush their teeth?”

“Right, right – their teeth are as yellow as their journalism!”

“It’s some kind of life, imagining that the walls are constantly closing in on you, and hysteria and attack are the only rational responses! Sheesh – talk about wearing yourself out!

“I’m sure, though, Danny-boy – that, at the end of their life, as the light fades from their eyes – and the last thing they see is a faded orange poster of their glorious once-leader – that all they can think about is how wonderful it was to ignore friends and family and spend your life making lame memes online, picturing yourself as some kind of green-frog superhero!”

Rachel could almost hear the man nodding energetically. “Yeah, they always say – the left can’t meme – and you know why? Because we’re out there going on dates and meeting with friends and staying up late talking about things that matter! We’re not going all ‘Gollum,’ scrawling Pepe memes at three in the morning for our glorious six followers!”

Rachel changed the station blindly. A deeper voice, far less frantic, more measured…

“Everyone gets sick, and every time – except one – you get better. You know, folks, there are two days you never live fully: the day you are born, and the day you die… Each one has less than twenty-four hours, for you… And the shortages, well folks – before, they got better… And everyone in power keeps telling you – hey, you have nothing to worry about… But they’re not doing you any favors, friends! They don’t exist to do you favors – you exist to pay them, to serve them! So, I hope you've been listening to my good advice, and the words of our fine sponsors, and you’ve got some resources, some food in the basement, some ammo… Sure, it took the Roman Empire 500 years to fall – but then it did. And every time you get sick, you get better – except for that one time, the last time… One of the greatest mistakes in life is looking at the past and thinking it is a permanent guide to the future. It’s not – we know this, in our hearts, in our souls, but still we think that somehow life and decay – of ourselves, of our civilization – will somehow pass us by… Countries last for about 250 years on average – particularly powerful countries, with empires – and don’t fool yourself, we have one, folks! We are one. Where are we in that timeline? You know. Look around, you know – you know, in your heart… As it goes for people, so it also goes for countries… Civilizations… If you think of the national debt, the dumbing down of the population, the escalation of propaganda and surveillance technology – do you really think that our freedoms, our way of life will…”

Rachel stabbed her finger at the power button, turning the voice off. Her heart was pounding, thudding in her chest like a boxer punching a wall in a burning room.

Everything is designed to stress me out

Being in a rush, being stuck in traffic – Rachel suddenly thought of a pimple she had gotten on her upper left lip right before her grade 12 prom.

Every day, I think my life is a total mess – and every next day, I would give everything for the problems I had only the day before

The bad haircut she got before going to Morocco; her skin reaction to that cheap foundation from China; the time she thought she was losing her hearing because her eustachian tube got clogged; the time Arlo took too much protein powder and thought he had bowel cancer; the time she missed an exam, and had to fight like hell to retake it; the time her bank misplaced a large check – and that time early in the pandemic, when she thought that everyone might die…

What she would not give to return to those ‘problems’ – they had all worked out, everything was fine… But the calm radio voice came alive in her head: Everything is fixable, everything is fine – until it’s not…

Rachel was startled out of her reverie by a sudden raging horn from the car behind her.

THERE’S NOWHERE TO GO! she wanted to scream.

She decided to turn her car off, because the gas warning chime was driving her crazy. She could see the gas station, just a couple of blocks down the road.

A group of hooded young men ran screeching and hooting past the front of her car. She saw a flash of dark eyes glaring at her from above a black bandanna - an arm swung down and smashed into her hood, leaving a dimpled dent. His tongue extended in a manic lick of air – then the gang swarmed to her left, disappearing into an alley.

The last siren stopped. It was strangely quiet.

Rachel saw the man ahead of her get out of his rusty car. He was bald, with a ridiculous comb over – he wore khaki pants, and a loud Hawaiian shirt so cheap it made Rachel’s skin itch just to look at it. He shaded his eyes, leaning forward – as if the few extra inches would clarify whatever he was trying to see ahead. He pulled his phone out of his side pocket and raised it to his ear. He suddenly looked to his left and his right, obviously alarmed. He turned back to Rachel, and stared at her directly through her dusty, bug-spattered windshield – and she suddenly remembered her father, years ago, turning to her in the car as an insect hit the glass and saying: “I bet he doesn’t have the guts to do that again!”

The man suddenly jumped back into his car. Rachel watched him lean over, locking all the doors and rolling up the windows. Afterwards, he sat frozen, his shoulders tense. His car shuddered slightly as he turned it off.

Rachel’s phone buzzed again, and she glanced at it.

Seeing the name, she grabbed it, answering breathlessly:

“Hello – yes, hello, Oliver?”

“Rachel – are you all right?”

“That’s a – big question!” she laughed.

There was a slight pause.

“Where are you?”

“Stuck in traffic…”

“How far are you from home?”

“Maybe – twenty minutes? Why?”

“Twenty minutes by foot, or by car?”

“By foot? I’m driving!”

“I know – but you’re stuck.”

“Well, I can’t just – abandon my car, what are you talking about?”

“Is there any way off the road you are on?”

“I have like… I’m driving on fumes right now…”

There was a pause. Rachel could faintly hear Oliver tsking between his teeth.

“What’s – what’s going on?” cried Rachel. “When the calmest person you know is panicking, that’s – really freaking me out!”

There was another pause.

“Rachel, did you lie to me?”

Rachel nodded, then whispered: “Yes…”

“How many times, and about what?”

“Am I in confession?”

“Stop joking!”

“It’s my job to – get what I need…”

“Okay,” said Oliver flatly. “Good luck to you.”

Click.

Rachel suddenly experienced the strangest and most wrenching moment of her life. Her eyes widened, and she noticed that the rust-bucket ahead of her had a bumper stickeRachel: “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned!”

She didn’t have a sunroof, but imagined her mind suddenly erupting like a geyser through the top of her car – flying up and over the city – and she could see every vivid detail of every building, every street – she could read every sign, every advertisement, every store name – all at the same time… She inhaled sharply, and could feel the tiny pinpricks of each particle of dust and vapour charging into her lungs… From the sky, she looked down, and could see the various hairstyles and hats of everyone running through the city, every loosed pack of dogs roaming the gas stations – and each ground-up bottle cap and wobbly mis-painted line on every intersection…

Rachel grabbed her phone and dialled.

In this moment, she would have given anything and everything to ensure he picked up.

“Oliver here, how can I help you?”

Business tone.

“I lied – I lied about my name. I lied about my boyfriend. I was cruel to – that man who wanted to talk to you… I lied about – why I am doing what I am doing. I am very attracted to you. I know – I know I’m not supposed to… You might have a girlfriend. I’m just a child, wearing makeup – you would never be attracted to… I want to become a better person…” Rachel was in tears. “I don’t have a life, I don’t have a future, there’s nothing appealing about… that. I’m terrified of turning into my aunt. She is the final stop on these – train tracks…”

To forestall his response – and not even sure he was still on the line – Rachel plunged on.

“And I know – I know I am a cliché. A total stereotype. I care about heels and cheekbones and status and being – appealing, like an ape. Like a piece of meat. And I also know that I’m a – female cliché. That I’m ‘monkey branching’ to a more – to a higher status male, a man who can actually protect me from what’s coming, rather than a pretty boy I can show off… And I know I sound hysterical, total Blanche Dubois, and that’s about as off-putting as I can imagine – but I feel like a fictional character, floating in nothing – but you have a – soul. Oliver… I don’t know how you live without wanting to please others… And I’m lying about that, too, right now, because I know that I don’t show any – evidence of wanting to please people. To control them, maybe…”

Rachel willed herself to stop.

Oliver said: “It’s nice to hear from your soul.”

Rachel wept openly. “I thought I did everything right, but everything turned out wrong…”

“Rachel… Nothing can turn out right if you just – manage people…”

There was another slight pause.

“How does it feel to tell the truth?”

“Bloody ’orrible!” cried Rachel in a sudden mock-British accent, laughing despite herself.

“How have your friends reacted to the article?”

“Please don’t tell me you actually have to ask me that!”

She could almost hear him smile. “No, I don’t.”

“I lied to you, cheated you, betrayed you – and you still take my call!”

There was a pause.

Rachel said: “I lied to you, and you are kind to me… I told my friends the truth, and they – and they…” She burst into tears again.

“Do you know why?”

“I don’t…”

“Being attacked for telling the truth is the foundation of – everything we believe in. That I believe in. Your friends think that the world can be made perfect – if you interfere with that fantasy – well, you’re just an enemy, to be attacked… Condemned. Cast out…” His voice lowered, and she pressed her phone closer to her ear. “But I know – I know, Rachel – that human beings… We are fallen creatures, we all fall prey to evil and betrayal – that is the animal nature we are cursed with as a condition of existence, of survival… I do not condemn you for lying because that is the natural state of mankind.

Rachel took a deep, shuddering breath. “So – you have lied to me as well!”

 “Yes.” There was no pause before his word.

“About?”

Oliver sighed. “Well, I do find you – interesting. And attractive. My flaw – well, one of them, one of the many – is that I am very impatient with – manipulation. Because of my… But how could you do otherwise, given what you believe?”

Rachel smiled. “Attractive?”

Oliver laughed. “Yes, that would be the word you pick out… You are intelligent, and passionate – and pretty, which will always mean something as long as the devil rules this world!”

“I don’t feel pretty,” said Rachel softly.

“No… I think you are right at the root of – yourself. You probably love striding confidently – in high heels no doubt – but you are just now only learning how to walk…”

“Death by analogies…” smiled Rachel, rubbing her eyes. “You can’t be… You can’t want to… If I’m such an infant…”

“You asked me to be honest with you, so I was – it’s not a proposal!”

“Oh no!” exclaimed Rachel. “Not that…”

Oliver’s voice grew suddenly serious. “I don’t mean to train you like a puppy, but here is your reward for being honest. Where is the closest place you can take shelter?”

“What – is there a storm?”

“Rachel. You’re not getting any gas.”

There was a pause.

Rachel looked up, and saw that the rusty car ahead of her was now empty.

Chapter 17

Crystal jolted awake at the pounding.

In the half sleep of a dream drugged by exhaustion, she had been hiding in the basement of an ex-pat hotel in Syria – in Damascus. Men in black combat gear were sprinting down the hallway outside the supply closet she crouched in. She had no idea where her cameraman had gotten to, and had vague memories of her elderly producer spiraling off a balcony.

She stared at the cleaning products around her, certain that she was going to die with the full knowledge of the Arabic word for “bleach.” Dust dropped in wide plumes around her as the building shook. She had a wild thought of recording a selfie video, to be found later, and receiving a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for reporting from beyond the grave…

Even to the end, Crystal Pavlovich was dedicated to her craft, her profession

There wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house – at least until people started laughing over the suggestive shapes of the dessert

Having faced mortal danger many times, Crystal had ample evidence about how she felt in the presence of death.

She always felt a strange weariness – and a profound sense of relief – when buildings began to shake around her, or planes wobbled dangerously in the sunrise, or interviews turned suddenly violent, or youthful crowds seized at her while she was being filmed.

The last time, when she was savagely yanked into a boiling crowd of protesters in Egypt, she felt her entire body go limp with submission – and the distinct phrase ‘Thank GOD!’ echoed in her mind. She also had a sudden zooming out of perspective, and realized with a deep shock that everything she was reporting on was at best a towering wave into a seaside wall – a crash, a thunderclap, a high splash back – and then a slow recession, and return to normalcy – all that sound and fury signifying just a blip in the general evenness of the ocean. Even an earthquake that topples buildings is eventually forgotten – the buildings go back up, life goes on, and the first-hand stories fall slowly to the grave…

Crystal had pursued such wild stimuli over the course of her life that the idea of death coming as a relief was so foreign to her that it took her quite a long time to understand it. She had taken enough therapy to know that people on the run are always being chased by something – that ambitious people are fleeing from failure, at least in their own minds – but she had no idea what was pursuing her, so made no progress in fighting the growing depression she felt after that moment.

Crystal had been grabbed at, beaten – and rescued by her security team, before any deep and permanent damage was done to her – but she had great difficulty getting back on the horse, so to speak. She had started obsessively reviewing her old footage – something which was anathema to her in the past – all the way back to the beginning – she had to buy a used VCR player and slide in grainy tapes from the late 1980s…

Her young, angular face – when she could have definition without looking haggard – speaking confidently, shrinking only slightly in the face of explosions and flames (just enough to make the men want to protect her) – her seeming obliviousness to her own great looks (another male fantasy) – all combined to launch her into the stratosphere of her profession.

Crystal had started off apolitical, but had gradually drifted leftward – both because it became exhausting to fight the ridiculous undercurrents of her profession, and because she started to believe that government was the only social agency capable of rapidly helping people in desperate need.

Like everyone, she was aware of the strange and growing physics of her environment – the endless rip tides in one direction, the pauses and frowns at any hesitation or – heaven forbid, counter-narrative. Who got promoted, who got demoted – who got cast out entirely… Crystal felt like a puppy figuring out how to hunt – she could not conceptualize the physics, but she sure knew where her food was dangled.

When she was a kid, she enjoyed opening the top of a banana a tiny bit, then pushing the gooey fruit out by squeezing the bottom. This began to feel like her life – she had outstripped the energies of her youth, and was now driving forward based on willpower and – and, something, whatever she was running from…

When Crystal was ambitious, she climbed to the top – when she was at the top, with nowhere else to climb, she turned to fending off – not competitors, exactly, but something… Decay? Obsolescence?

She got to the top by focusing on the future – when she arrived, she turned to the past. Obviously – at least, obviously to an outsider – Crystal turned to the past out of fear for her future – the last third of her life, when she couldn’t be waving a microphone and chasing insurgents down blind sandy alleys…

The great invisibility was beginning to swallow her up – the great invisibility that awaits single women post fertility, past career peak, past youthful energy, in the grip of hot-flash menopause, bone loss and the grim choice between having a more attractive figure, but a less attractive face – or vice versa.

Crystal was running from her future, which overtakes everyone, if they are lucky…

She jumped up as the pounding switched to a sharp knocking.

Peering through the peephole, she saw Rachel’s sweaty face and unkempt hair.

After Crystal unlocked the door, she jumped back as Rachel shoved it open.

“Hi – there…” Crystal’s voice was slow, to express her disapproval.

“I’m sorry – for barging…” panted Rachel. “Can I get some water?”

“Not for coffee I hope!” laughed Crystal.

“No, no…” Rachel half-ran through the living room into the small kitchen. “Where do you keep the glasses?”

“Top left shelf, by the fridge… Don’t use the plastic ones, they’re too hard to clean.”

Rachel grabbed a glass, got water, and gulped it down.

Crystal said: “Rach, I’m sorry about – last night, or this morning, I can’t tell any more… I tried reading the article, but passed out. Your knocking woke me.”

“I’m sorry too,” said Rachel distractedly.

“I know we should talk, but maybe – a nap first? You, I mean!”

“I couldn’t sleep, not a chance,” said Rachel, sitting heavily on the faded orange couch. She ran her fingers through her hair – not to tidy it, but to air out her wet forehead.

Crystal sat down gingerly in an armchair – broadcasting for an invisible audience her belief that she had to move slowly in order not to startle the obviously crazy person in her living room.

“Sooo - you want to tell me what’s going on? Other than the obvious…”

“I’m sorry – again. I just needed a place to – hole up.”

“From the media?”

Rachel blinked in surprise. “Oh no, not that. I haven’t really checked…”

Crystal frowned. “Something with – Arlo?”

“Well, things aren’t too great there…”

“But – not that either?”

“I don’t know… How much food do you keep here?”

Crystal laughed incredulously. “How long are you planning on – staying?”

“I don’t know that either…” murmured Rachel.

“Okay, getting a little alarmed here… You are really going to have to tell me what’s happening.”

“Do you wish you had ever married – again?”

When you’ve known people for a long time, surprise is the only way you can stall obvious and necessary questions. In accordance, Crystal blinked comically.

“Married? I’d have to crawl down the aisle!”

“No, I mean – before, after…”

Crystal shrugged. “That kind of thing was never for me, not really – it was kind of cruel to marry Pavlov in the first place… I liked his hyper-masculinity, but he in turn wanted me to be more – feminine, more girly, and that’s just – really not in me at all!”

“Lessons learned…” murmured Rachel, obviously lost in her own thoughts. “And – when you were in danger, you turned to men?”

Crystal cocked her head in annoyance. “My security detail was men – yes, because that is more respected in patriarchal cultures – which is to say all cultures, as you know!”

Rachel gestured at the air. “And – this building… Built by men. The tap, the water, what quenches my thirst… The sewage system, the roads – the cars – the food, mostly grown by men. We live in a man’s world…”

“Only because we are excluded!”

“Who stopped you from becoming an – engineer, or a construction worker?”

“Are we really going to try and relive an alternate resume from when I was a girl?” snapped Crystal. “And you’re not telling me what is really going on!”

“Do you think that Arlo and I have a – future?”

“What would it matter what I think? What do you think?”

“I don’t have a clue…” said Rachel simply, sadly.

“Hm,” said Crystal, doing a poor job of covering up some strange satisfaction. “Well,” she said briskly, “in my experience, you can’t do anything halfway if you want to do it at all well! Pavlov interfered with my career, he wanted to baby me up, turn me into some kind of broodmare – and I had this flash, every time he begged for it, of ending up like Cinderella, on my knees, in a dirty puffed-out house coat, for the rest of my life… Ending up like one of those prune-faced Eastern European great-grandmothers, scrubbing endless underwear by an outhouse until you just – keel over into the dirty water. Buried and forgotten, just like everyone else…”

“So – no regrets?”

Crystal jerked forward suddenly. “See, that’s why I want these – memoirs to get out! I don’t want to sound – overly vain, although I know that’s a weakness – but I think that my life could be – inspiring for other women. Like it was for you – maybe it still is – I hope so!” She shook her head rapidly. “Much though I love to talk about myself – you’re still not telling me what’s going on. The reaction to the article?”

Rachel shook her head. “No… I mean yes, but not primarily…”

“You could always take a break from your career, help me with my memoirs – I’ll find a way to pay you…”

Rachel shuddered. “I don’t think that’s – going to matter too much.” She jumped up. “That’s a terrible way to put it, sorry. Where’s your remote?”

“Over – there, on the table.”

Rachel turned on the television.

“How do you get regular TV?”

“Damned if I know,” muttered Crystal.

Rachel stabbed buttons randomly, switching through various empty auxiliary inputs. After a few minutes, she gave up.

“Unlock your phone,” she said.

Crystal shuddered. “God, I’m getting 9/11 flashbacks – please don’t tell me there’s been another attack…”

“No…”

Crystal scrolled through the news on her phone. “Nothing too major, just some – shortages. The usual.” She glanced up. “Why are we using my phone?”

“I’m not touching mine…” She too a deep breath. “I abandoned my car.”

“You did what?” Crystal’s voice was sharp, shocked.

“I left it – I’d been in traffic for two hours, nothing was happening – I couldn’t even get to a gas station right within sight, and I was basically out of gas.”

“So you – walked here?”

“Yeah, the subway is closed.”

“Oh come on, they would say that,” snapped Crystal, gesturing with her phone.

“Look out the window!” cried Rachel.

Rolling her eyes, Crystal walked around the tiny dining room table – still holding last night’s delivery food remains – and opened the thick curtains.

Looking down, her mouth dropped open.

“I wish I could open this window,” she said urgently. “What the hell?

Rachel joined her, lowering her eyes.

Athletic youths were swarming back and forth like a multicoloured churning sea through the rocks of the stationary cars. Even from their high perch – even through the sealed windows – they could hear the occasional gunshot.

“Where the hell are the police?” whispered Crystal.

“I don’t know…”

“Well, today is a fine day to stay home then!” Crystal’s voice was brittle with false bravado. “That’s gonna take a while to clean up…”

“Oh my God,” murmured Rachel.

Far below, someone was pulled out of a car by a swarming gang. There was a flicker, and then a slightly delayed bang. The gang fell back. Half stumbling, the victim backed through the sea of moving bodies. The original group fanned out and circled. As they watched, a golden door to a condominium building opened up, and dark arms pulled the figure inside.

Crystal said: “That’s just – feral!”

Rachel turned to her. “As I said, how much food you have?”

For some reason, Crystal looked furtive, almost guilty.

“I have – well, I haven’t had any real energy to cook, so – I have some frozen meals, but I’ve mostly been ordering – take out…”

Rachel sighed.

Crystal took a deep breath, and colour seemed to return to her cheeks. She gestured at her condo. “I’ve been holed up in worse places…”

“Do you have a radio?”

“God – no, don’t think so.”

Rachel tried getting a television signal again. Both of them suddenly felt acute feminine helplessness.

“We’ve gotta get – out of the city…” muttered Rachel.

Crystal nodded, slowly absorbing the sentence. Her energy seemed to deflate again. “I’m – I don’t have the energy to go anywhere…” She half-collapsed on the couch.

Rachel was biting at her thumb. Grabbing her phone, she dialled.  “Nothing? God, they’re always home..! Okay – okay… I’ve got to get to mom and dad’s…”

“Why..?” Crystal bit her tongue, but they both knew the end – why them and not me?

Crystal said, “They have each other – Cassie and – Ian, just down the street…”

“They’re both at work – and Ben, Ben is in a daycare!

Crystal turned to her, eyes wide. She opened her mouth, then closed it again.

Rachel tried dialling a few more numbers. “Now I can’t even get a…” She glared at her phone, shaking it. “I have bars, but nothing is – going through. Or coming in, thank God! What am I going to do?

Crystal raised her hands. “Okay, whoah Nellie! So, there are a couple of riots going on outside, big whup! Couple of summers ago it was even worse… Life went on.”

Rachel murmured, “At some point, it does end though…”

“What does? What ‘ends’?” Crystal’s voice was brittle, sarcastic. “Don’t tell me you’ve become one of those ‘end of the world’ doom-and-gloomers…”

“Everything can just be – mocked away, right?” snapped Rachel. “Everything you don’t like – every objection – can just be…” She snapped her fingers. “Wished into oblivion?”

Crystal looked at her quizzically. “You’ve – you haven’t had any sleep. You’re misfiring on all cylinders…” She leaned forward and opened her thick arms. “Come to Auntie…”

“No!” cried Rachel. She sat on the armchair, running frantic fingers through her hair. “This is a…” She gestured bitterly, and Crystal suddenly smelled the sick scent of her own abode – the endless lying around, the lack of cleaning. A tomb?

“I need to use your car,” said Rachel.

Crystal’s eyes widened. “Now? To go see your parents?”

Rachel shook her head angrily. “Not to – ‘see them’ Crystal - to check on them!”

Crystal sat back in the deep couch. “Not – totally comfortable with that, to be honest. It’s kind of crazy out there…”

“It’s going to get crazier though.”

Crystal sighed explosively. “And then – and then, it will just get better. I’ve been around the block a few times, you know! Things always return to – normal.”

Rachel stared at her. “Have you?

Crystal blinked. “Me?”

“You’ve been lying on this couch for six months – have you ‘returned to normal’?”

“Rachel!” cried Crystal in horror. “Where is this – coming from?”

Rachel looked away. “You worked yourself too hard, and in the wrong way… Like that summer I was shucking corn – all the guys were fine, but I ended up with a bad back for like two years…”

“It’s not my fault I – got sick!” cried Crystal, raising her hands to her face.

Rachel’s eyes narrowed. “What is wrong with you?”

Crystal gestured helplessly. “Oh, you know, all these doctors, the patriarchy – they don’t care about women’s issues!”

“What if…” Rachel took a deep breath.

“What?” snapped Crystal. Colour had returned to her cheeks. “What?

Rachel exhaled. “I really – need your car.”

“No! It’s going to get – torn apart – and you, too! Just – just wait!

Rachel shook her head rapidly. “I’m tired of – waiting!” she cried wildly. “My whole life, I’ve had this – tension. In my chest, in my belly… Why aren’t you ever aware of the danger?”

“What – danger?”

“God, everything!”

“Rachel, you’re frightening me! Are you – did you take any drugs?”

“Our whole – country is falling apart! You can’t get anything, crime is through the roof – I bet those are daycare kids, out there…”

“What are – daycare kids?”

Rachel shrugged in frustration. “It doesn’t matter… Please, God above, lend me your car!”

“I need it – to get to – appointments!”

“I’ll bring it back! You said it yourself, things are going to – return to normal. Try – calling your sister!”

Shrugging, Crystal did as she was told. “Nothing…”

“Aren’t you – worried?”

Crystal sighed. “I’ve been through too much to – worry about things. You’re young, you’ve had a bad night. You’re taking a – personal disaster and trying to turn it into something – societal.”

“Yeah, psychologizing, great,” muttered Rachel. She stood suddenly.

“Crystal – Aunt Crystal - I’m going out there. I’m going to get to mom and dad. I’m going to find out what’s going on with Ben. I’m getting out of the city. I really need your car. You can – lend it to me, or I can go out – on foot.”

“God – if I had the physical strength, I would restrain you!”

Rachel stared at her.

Crystal whispered: “What if you are – what if you are right? What if things are – falling apart?”

Rachel held out her hand. “I will not leave you here.”

Crystal wiped away a tear. “I – I don’t want you to go. I try to be brave, but…”

Rachel sat slowly. “But – what?”

Crystal sobbed. “It just feels like – a grave in here, Rachel! I used to stride the world like – like that colossus… Your friends – they just – turned on you, last night – and for ever, I think… And my friends – my colleagues – they just – strolled on, like I was – nothing! ‘Crazy Crystal, whatever happened to her?’ No one comes back, no one checks on you…”

“I want to go and check on mom and dad!”

“I know, I know – but they have each other, what do I have?”

“You have your memories…”

“I could – I could have another thirty years on the planet…” said Crystal miserably. “Why would I – even want them?”

“And what was the plan, huh?” demanded Rachel. “You see a lot of female reporters in their 70s?”

“That’s not my fault!” cried Crystal.

“Who – who cares whose fault it is? You always told me – life isn’t fair! Fight your way through, isn’t that what you always said? Tough girl…”

“It’s not my fault I got sick!”

“Maybe – but it is your fault for…”

“For what? Spit it out, dammit!”

“For – not living a life where if you got sick, you would have someone to take care of you! No, not ‘if’ – when! Did you imagine that you were never going to have any problems? I can’t – I can’t be your nursemaid, I can’t be your assistant, I can’t be your – archivist! They are your memories, Crystal – and if I… When do I get to have my vivid memories?” Rachel laughed bitterly. “Well, today perhaps…”

“You think I – I have just lived my life all wrong…”

“Mom has dad. Cassie has Ian…”

“You have – Arlo,” said Crystal coldly.

Rachel frowned.

Crystal said: “You never thought to – call him, did you?” She shrugged. “We are not so different…”

Rachel stabbed at her phone, then shook her head. “He’ll be fine…”

“He can always – sell himself,” murmured Crystal.

“Crystal!”

“He’s – pretty, you know… It’s just a joke!”

“For that – joke – I get your car!”

Crystal reached forward, clutching at Rachel. “In return – in return, if everything goes back to normal, I get you for my memoirs?”

Rachel hesitated, then nodded.

“If we have a future, you can use me for your past.”

Chapter 18

“Hey kiddo,” murmured Ian, gently shaking his boy awake. “You ready to go on an adventure?”

Ben’s arms automatically wound around his father’s neck as his eyes slowly opened.

Ian touched his forehead to his son’s pale skin.

“A – vent - yure?” murmured Ben.

“Yeah, buddy – were going on a trip!”

Ben frowned. “Where?” he asked with some suspicion in his voice.

He had been fooled before.

“No daycare today. Mummy quit her job, and we are – going on an adventure.”

A kaleidoscope of emotions spiralled across Ben’s face.

“It’s like – camping… We’re gonna visit some friends. In the woods. Campfires, marshmallows – maybe some s’mores. You can shoot a bow and arrow, if you want!”

Ben’s eyes narrowed. “But mom – mom is…” He lifted his blankets and cupped his hands over his belly.

“Yeah, I know,” smiled Ian. “We’re still going…”

“How long?”

“Pack everything you need. Don’t leave anything behind…”

“Don’t like it,” said Ben in a flat voice.

“Why not?”

“Dunno…”

“Well – do what you can, grab what you need.”

“My… horsie?” Ben gestured towards a brown rocking horse in the corner of his room.

Ian sighed. “No… But there are real horses, where we are going. Would you like to ride one?”

“Too big…” sniffled Ben – then burst into tears.

“Oh buddy, okay…” murmured Ian, hugging him tightly.

From downstairs, they could hear Cassie’s tense voice. The words were indistinct.

“What about my friends?” sobbed Ben.

“I hope that they will – join us…” said Ian, before feeling guilt at his falsehood. “But it’s not – likely… New kids, though – new friends, I promise!”

Ben wailed. “The party…”

Ian swallowed. “I don’t think that’s… I’m afraid it got cancelled. Sorry, forgot to tell you…”

Ben sobbed even louder.

Cassie’s voice rose. “Just – just trust me, dad! You’re going to be locked inside, there won’t be another chance!”

With his sobbing son clinging to him, Ian could not get up and demand that she keep her voice down. He ground his teeth in frustration.

He patted Ben’s tiny shoulder. “I’m sorry to wake you this way, buddy. It’s okay, everything’s gonna be – okay…”

“Put mom on!” cried Cassie.

There was a pause.

Ian could not tell if his son’s crying was slowing, or deepening.

A scatter of sirens screamed in the distance.

Ian’s heart was pounding.

Cassie’s voice escalated. “Mom – I know you don’t want to go… I know you’ve got your garden, and your – your bridge club or whatever. But you know that Ian has… Yes, I know that… Appointments, medicines – got it…”

Absorbing his mother’s tension, Ben’s sobs spiralled to a scream.

Hammering exploded on the wall they shared with their neighbour. A dog barked madly.

Feeling a sudden panic, Ian hauled his son up and walked out of the room.

“Cassie!” he cried, striving hard to keep his voice even. “Take it outside – please, I’m begging you!”

Without glancing up the staircase, Cassie yanked open the front door and stepped out onto the front steps. A glaring square of sunlight widened on the hardwood in the hallway, then closed as she shut the door.

“Ben, I really need you to – stop crying. This is no time…” Against his will, Ian’s voice broke.

Ben took a deep breath, then twisted his head in his father’s arms and saw the suitcases in the front hallway.

He burst into tears again.

“Where we GOING?” he screamed.

The sirens circled closer.

Through the stained glass of the tall windows by the door, Ian could see his wife moving in strangely-coloured shards.

“Ben…” murmured Ian, reaching deep into a banned parenting tactic. “Granola bar for breakfast, what do you say?”

Ben’s wailing halted, as if hitting a speed bump. He hiccupped.

“Gra – nol – ee?”

“Yeah, you got it buddy…”

“With – cotch – you – late – chips?”

“Yeah – all the bad stuff, just for you!”

Ian carried Ben into the kitchen. He opened the snack drawer, but it was empty.

“Where the hell..?”

“Heidi!” cried Ben.

It was a family joke – Cassie moved things so often that Ian had nicknamed her “Heidi.”

“Yeah, Heidi’s been hard at work…” said Ian, opening various drawers and cupboards.

“Hell – een!” cried Ben, twisting in his father’s arms.

Ian looked down. In a lower drawer was an orange pail filled with Ben’s Halloween candy.

He sighed. “Special treat, okay?”

Without answering, Ben climbed down his father’s tall body. He lifted out a variety of chocolates, candies and tiny boxes, then spread them on the floor, and began organising them. From above, Ian could see the still-vivid scar that cut through the whirlpool of his son’s hair. The stitches had left red footprints on either side of the wound.

“Be right back,” said Ian, and headed out the front door.

Cassie was gesturing frantically on the front walkway.

“Guys, we were lucky to get an exception… Just come and see it, check it out! If everything turns out – fine again, you can just come back and chalk it up to us being completely insane!”

She put a hand over the receiver – despite many lectures, she still didn’t know how to mute a phone call – turned to Ian and hissed: “You’re so lucky your parents are overseas!”

“Cassie, we’ve got to go!” hissed Ian. “Just – give them the location.”

“I’m not – dropping this phone call Ian! You scared the hell out of me – I believe you!”

Ian shook his head slightly, turning to go back inside. “Okay – keep talking… I’ll load up the car.”

After glancing at his son, who was lining up candy obsessively on the kitchen floor, Ian began wrestling the suitcases and boxes into the minivan. He caught snatches of his wife’s conversation, and knew from her tone that she wasn’t making any headway.

“Who cares about the plants if…”

“You’ve only got enough food for…”

“They’re good people, you won’t feel…”

“We’re not getting you into a cult!”

“I just need you to trust me…”

After loading up the car, Ian turned off the water, unplugged everything and made sure all the lights were off. Checking the back door lock twice, he finally got Ben into his car seat, and led his wife by the arm into the passenger side of the minivan.

“My glasses!” she cried.

“I didn’t see them – check your purse!”

They were there.

“Did you check – everything? I should go in, go back!”

“No! The announcement could come at any moment. We’ve got to get on the road, Cass. We’re not super-far. Odds are everything blows over, we’re back by the weekend…” Taking a deep breath, Ian turned and winked at his son. “Pretty exciting, eh?”

Ben was arranging his candies in vertical columns in his little Halloween bucket.

Ian half-listened to his wife as he pulled out of the driveway and drove north, up the empty tree-lined street.

“Yeah, mom, I’m still here… What do you want me to say, I’ve tried everything! I don’t know about Rachel; I can’t get through… I know what you’re seeing on the news, that’s not… You read their lies about Rachel, why would you believe them… Mom, take a breath, let me get a goddamned word in! Yeah, sorry, sorry, I know… Listen…”

There was a pause. Ian slowed the minivan to a complete stop at a street corner. He saw some bundled-up teenage boys playing basketball, their breath fogging as they lunged. Their mother opened the front door and screamed at them to get the hell inside!

“Mom?” cried Cassie, no hope in her voice. “Holy – crap…” She said, turning to Ian. “They – hung up on me!”

“Check my phone.”

She looked at it. “You have bars…”

Iain sighed. “That doesn’t mean – much. Try calling someone…”

“I’ll call Rachel…” She held down a thumb on the screen. ‘Call Rachel.’”

I can’t find any contact by that name.” replied the phone.

Ian smiled. “I have her down as ‘Flight-Risk.’”

“What? Why?”

Ian couldn’t help but smile. “Because she’s flighty – and risky.”

“Ian!” scolded Cassie. “‘Call Flight-Risk’”

There was a beep. “Calling ‘Flight-Risk’”

Silence. Not even a recording that the call could not be completed.

“Phones are done…” whispered Ian.

“Why no phones?” cried Ben.

“Oh!” replied his mother airily, “the computers that – well, the towers are…”

Ian interrupted her. “They ran out of power, bud. The people we’re calling.”

“Nana and – W-achel?”

“Yeah… Great job not eating all your candy!”

“Gotta – be right…” said Ben, staring into his bucket. “Color, size…”

“Sounds like a party!” grinned Ian, glancing over his shoulder.

Cassie screamed at the top of her lungs.

Ian stared wildly around, then saw the crimson blur of a low-slung red sportscar flashing in front of their hood.

“More!” screamed Cassie, pointing.

Ian hit the gas hard. Their car staggered forwards through a thankfully-empty intersection. A blue blur raced by behind them.

Ian hit the brakes. They stopped hard.

Ben stared in mute shock for a moment.

Cassie’s breath was coming so hard that it rasped in her chest.

“Get back there!” muttered Ian through clenched teeth.

Cassie nodded dumbly. She buckled her seatbelt and began climbing over the centre console.

“No – use the door!” snapped Ian.

Ben started screaming. Cassie wrenched her door open and half fell out as the car warnings started chiming. Holding her heavy belly, she scrambled to the back door and opened it.

Ian turned the car off. He reached over to close her door.

They heard the sound of another car engine, and flinched.

Ian had a vision of a racing car riding the sidewalk, tearing off the open passenger door.

His heart was pounding so hard that his vision shook slightly.

Cassie was crawling over Ben, trying to soothe him with her voice. Somehow the orange bucket spun into the air, scattering chocolates and candies all over Cassie, the back seat, and out onto the road.

Ignoring the shrieking, Ian checked three times both ways, then got out and slowly went around the front of the car and closed the passenger door. Dropping to his knees, he scrabbled on the concrete, grabbing the scattered candy, numbing his fingertips with gritty abrasions. Leaning into the car, he put the candies in the Halloween bucket, then closed the rear door.

Returning, Ian closed his own door, put his hands on the black wheel, and tried to slow his breathing.

Ben was inconsolable. Cassie frantically stroked his sweaty blonde hair above his purple screaming face.

“We are okay, we are okay…” muttered Ian.

His temper finally arrived. He turned around. “BEN!” he thundered.

The screaming escalated.

“BEN!” Again, louder.

Cassie looked at him in shock. “He’s already upset!” she cried.

BEN!” This broke through. Ben’s screaming faltered.

“Ben, buddy – I’m so sorry. What a day, what a way to wake up, what a frightening drive. Could you do me a favour and get your candy, I’m dying for some sugar!”

Ben stared at him, his eyes rimmed with red.

“You want…”

“I know, I’m not supposed to have much, but that car – those cars – really scared the pants off me! I am almost without pants. Sometimes I think sugar makes me feel better, what about you?”

“Better…”

“What do you think I should have? What’s my – favourite?”

“Peanut butter…” said Ben without hesitation.

“Yeah, that’s right… Do you think that..? No…”

Ben’s eyes sharpened. “What? What?”

Ian shook his head. “Nah, it’s dumb…”

What?” Ben’s voice was excited.

“Well – I don’t know how mommy feels, but I… I think we should have just one day where we can eat all the sugar we want.” Ian shrugged. “Like I said, it’s dumb…”

All?” echoed Ben, his voice thick with wonder.

“Well, it’s – quite a day. When I had my tonsils out – I was in the hospital – my parents let me eat all the ice cream I wanted.”

“Did you…” Ben pointed at his red mouth and made a gagging sound.

Ian winked. “Yeah, but with a big smile on my face!”

All…” repeated Ben, staring at the scattered candy on the seat and the floor.

Cassie pulled some wrapped toffee out of her hair.

“Do you want mommy to sit back there with you, while you eat?”

Ben’s face darkened furtively. He wiped his eyes. “No…”

Cassie laughed suddenly. “So I don’t – check on you?”

“Dad said – all!” cried Ben.

“Mommy didn’t agree yet,” said Ian, turning to her.

“Yeah, what the – heck…” Cassie smiled at her son. “Go for it!”

YAY!” sang Ben, gathering his treats together.

As she climbed back into the front passenger seat, Cassie murmured: “I’m so glad we agreed to stop bribing him…”

Ian smiled and shook his head. “We – okay to drive again?”

Rustling and chewing from the back seat.

Cassie nodded, dialling her phone once more.

Ian pulled out onto the road.

“Nothing…” murmured Cassie. “I’ll try yours again… Whoah!”

She half-cried out as Ian hit the brakes.

“Car in the road…” he said.

There was a black SUV parked at 45 degrees in the middle of the road. The doors were closed. As they pulled closer, Ian could see that the sunroof was still open. They could hear the faint clicking of the hazard lights – which were barely visible in the bright cold sunlight.

“Let’s not – wonder where they went…” whispered Ian, glancing back at the chocolate minstrel show of his son’s face.

A movement in the rear-view mirror caught his eye.

“Crap! Cops…” he murmured, his voice thick with tension.

“Well – we’re not doing…” started Cassie, then stopped suddenly.

The police car was approaching from a few blocks away, back in the odd ripples of winter light.

“Ben – lie down!” commanded Ian. “Hide and go seek! Now!”

Ben’s eyes widened, then he immediately dropped to the floor and curled into a little ball.

Very slowly, Ian pulled in front of the black SUV.

Both parents lay as low as possible in their seats. The emergency brake dug into Ian’s ribs.

“Real quiet…” he murmured.

Hardly breathing, they heard the crunchy purr of the police car sliding past.

It slowed briefly.

Then drove on.

“Great job Ben…” whispered Ian.

“I’m the BEST!” he whispered back.

They all smiled.

The family lay still for another minute, then Ian slowly lifted his head.

The street was empty. The houses all silent.

Ian started the car, driving on slowly.

“Cass, do you have any data? Can you get any news?”

She checked her phone. “Ungodly slow… Sorry… Nothing new…”

“Check my libertarian sites…”

She grabbed his phone. In the silent whir of the car’s passage, they could hear Ben’s chocolate-stained humming from the back seat.

“Is it – in a folder?”

Ian’s fingers itched to take the phone, but he kept his hands on the wheel, slowly accelerating.

“In the bookmarks, there’s a folder…”

“Oh yeah, I see… Which one?”

“The first one…”

“Okay…” Cassie scowled. “Man, it’s slow… Like when everyone started working from home, remember? Here… Got it. Want me to read the headlines?”

“Very quietly…” murmured Ian.

“‘Welcome to the New Normal…’ ‘Buckle Up, There’s No Turning Back…’ ‘The Fed Has Finally Killed the Dollar…’ ‘Bartering 101: How to Get What You Need From What You Only Want…’ Uhhh… ‘How to Get Out of Town Without Gas…’” She glanced over. “Want me to keep going?”

“No…” whispered Ian.

There was a pause. Ian signalled and turned right.

“Ian…” Cassie’s voice was agonised.

He sighed. “I know…”

“What?”

“Your parents…”

“We could have gone there!”

Ian nodded. “And what? Dragged them off?”

“He…” She swallowed. “It just drives me – crazy! My whole life, my mother complains that my father is just – such a pushover… Now, at the end, when it really matters…”

“Boomers…”

“Stop it!”

“Why?” Ian demanded suddenly. “You know the wages of sin…”

Cassie’s eyes widened – her hand covered her mouth. “Ian!”

“What? You think I can – that we can break the laws of physics? It’s just math, nothing personal… Money in, money out… They wanted more out than they were willing to pay in!” Ian shrugged, checking his blind spot as he changed lanes. He lowered his voice. “They were willing to – I know, super nice people, nothing personal – but they were willing to – have Ben born into a million dollars in debt – owned and operated by foreign banksters… Rather than just – accept their mistakes. So, they killed the dollar through greed, and now – here we are. On the run.”

“They are not – political.”

“Sure they are. Everyone is. Until it’s convenient to claim that they’re not… I went over the numbers with them – remember, before Ben was born, when I got all primal and fatherly..? They weren’t willing to let anyone touch their pensions. Their benefits. Remember? ‘We paid into this!’ As if basic math cares about that!

“Mistakes should not be a – death sentence…” cried Cassie.

Ian shot her a warning look, but Ben remained consumed by his treats.

“My dad lost half a finger when he was a driller in Dubai. He didn’t even make a mistake. Just – bad luck. It was good, got him into a desk job… Net plus.” He turned to his wife. “Did he ‘deserve’ to lose a finger?”

“It’s… not the same,” said Cassie, without conviction.

Ian’s eyes returned to the road. “It doesn't matter. It’s a male thing… We don’t get the excuse called ‘intention.’” He pitched his voice higher. “‘I didn’t mean to…’ Can you imagine how long I would last at my job if my code didn’t compile? Would my boss care if I said: ‘Well I meant for my code to compile!’” Ian laughed bitterly. “SpoileRachel: he wouldn’t.”

“It’s the same at the hospital! Don’t make this some – male – thing!”

Ian paused. “That’s true… But you’re still dealing with people, not – things. Objects. Facts. Math…”

“You don’t think what keeps people alive is – factual?”

“Well, that’s more of the… doctor’s purview, no?”

Cassie sighed explosively. “Let’s not get into – that quagmire!”

“Your parents…” Ian reminded her gently.

A sudden tear escaped her eye. “I can’t just – abandon them…”

“See – this is why you have me.”

“What?” Cassie’s voice was sharp.

“You know the math. There are only a certain amount of calories to be had. That’swhat everything is – calibrated for. How much could your parents produce?” Ian raised his hand. “It doesn’t matter. They’re not coming. You tried – forever. I heard you. I wish it were different. You can’t save people who won’t – listen. And…”

“What?”

“Well… There is a reason they won’t come…”

“You?”

Ian barked out a surprised laugh. “Me? Go-sh no. Their own conscience. They have to believe that – everything will go back to normal, so they don’t realize that they – screwed up the whole world.”

“Oh, come on! That’s a little – Old Testament…”

“That’s the male Testament…” said Ian. “My favorite! Look – I love the fact that you care, Cass, that you’re so – sentimental – and I mean that in a good way. But it’s not – objective.”

Cassie snorted. “You don’t want me looking at you ‘objectively’ right now – trust me!”

Ian shook his head, as if to clear his ears. “Okay, let’s do it. He’s asleep.”

“Do – what?”

Ian pulled into a shaded leafy side-street and turned off the car.

“Ooh,” said Cassie nervously. “Mr. Serious!”

“No really – let’s do it. Why do you want to save your parents so much?”

“That’s a weird question!” cried Cassie, then glanced backwards and lowered her voice. “Why are you even asking?”

“Because they’re helpless and dependent and – need you, right?”

“Well – yeah!”

Ian’s eyes narrowed savagely. “Then why did it take me over a year to get you to pull Ben out of daycare?”

There was a shocked silence in the car. From outside the safety glass, the caw of a raven echoed through the bare treetops.

Cassie opened her mouth, then shut it.

Ian’s voice was low, dangerous. “Ben’s way more helpless and dependant than your parents, but he doesn’t have the power to make you feel as guilty, so his needs are just – poof, gone… It’s not about caring, or – even love, really. It’s just a hierarchy… Who has the power to push your buttons…”

Ian glanced in the rear-view mirror and stopped speaking.

“Ouch…” he murmured.

Cassie’s face was white. “What?”

He gestured. “Look…”

From behind them, from the heart of the city they had fled, a massive pillar of thick smoke rose high into the bright blue sky.

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

The rattling was faint, and came from the window.

Ethel rolled slowly out of bed, felt with her toes for her slippers, and walked to the glass.

She saw a dark figure on the cramped front lawn, a moon-pale face turned upwards.

“Rachel!” she cried out, startling her husband awake.

Ethel wrestled with the window lock, to no avail.

“Come round the front!” she cried, gesturing, then pulled on her dressing gown and went downstairs as fast as she could. Bert was behind her.

Opening the front door, they saw Rachel standing there, staring at them.

Her father said: “Rachel, my gosh, get in here!”

She stood motionless for a moment, then he grabbed her elbow and half-pulled her into the house.

Rachel shook her head slightly. “Sorry, I’m totally beat… Is everything – okay here?”

“How did you get here?” demanded her mother.

Bert raised his hand. “Everything’s fine.”

Rachel leaned forward slightly. “I couldn’t get through – on the phone.”

“They’re all dead,” said Ethel.

“How did you get through – the lockdown?” asked Bert.

“Ohhh – let me come in and sit…”

“Sorry, sorry…” said Ethel, leading her to the brown couch in the living room. “What do you want? What do you need?”

“Just some – water. I usually keep some in the car, but I was in – Aunt Crystal’s car…”

“Crystal?” exclaimed her mother. “Where is she? Is she all right?”

“Fine, fine… I was at her condo, I couldn’t get through, I wanted to come and – check on you guys.”

“I really wish you hadn’t,” said her father. “I don’t think it’s very safe out there, from what I’ve seen.”

“I had to do – something!” snapped Rachel, rubbing her grey-shaded eyes.

“We know, we know,” murmured her mother, shooting her husband a look. “I’ll go get that water. Ice?”

Rachel shook her head in annoyance. “But a blanket, please. I don’t think I’ll ever feel warm again…”

Her father sat beside her. “What happened?”

“Oh my God,” exhaled Rachel mightily. “It’s completely – insane…” She glanced at the kitchen and lowered her voice. “So I got in the car – it had a full tank, all good… I get out in the street, and there are these – swarms of – people… I was attacked, the window was smashed – and I had to – hit the gas… I totally panicked… I was driving up the sidewalk… There were all these gunshots – my shoulders were up around my ears, I kept expecting every bullet to… And there were no cops! The traffic lights went dark just north of Midtown, I guess the power was out. A lot of people had boarded up their windows. I wasn’t the only person trying to get out of town… Everyone was terrified to stop – or even slow down, so we were just – driving like mad…”

“Why didn’t you go back?” asked Bert in wonder.

“God, it seemed worse to…” Rachel shuddered. “I couldn’t…”

“But – Crystal?”

Rachel waved her hand. “Oh, she’s fine, up in her perch…”

Her mother came back with a glass of water and a knitted woollen blanket.

Rachel touched it in wonder. “My – blankie!”

Ethel smiled. “I just grabbed the first one - yes, your baby blanket…”

A tear rolled down Rachel’s cheek. She pulled the worn blanket around her shoulders, wriggling forward on the couch. “Thanks, mom…”

Bert laughed suddenly, clapping her knee. “You’re like a salmon, swimming back upstream… Your mother and I are fine. That was one heck of a dangerous journey, young lady!”

Rachel nodded blankly, shivering in the blanket’s ancient embrace.

There was silence for a moment.

“You need some sleep,” said Ethel decisively.

“You’re not wrong about that!” said Rachel. “I don’t know though, I’m pretty wired…”

“Where’s your – stuff?” asked her father suddenly. “You know, purse, phone, that…”

“I had to – I had to leave it in the car.”

“Oh my gosh!” whispered her mother, her hand on her mouth.

“Where is the car, Rachel?”

“I had to…” Rachel laughed in a sudden, broken manner. “I – left it. I was chased out… I had to…”

Another moment of silence.

Rachel shrugged. “So I ended up getting stuck, and that was when the window was smashed. I had nothing, I thought I was – you know… But some men chased – whoever – away - and said they were the good guys, and it was total suicide for me to stay in my car… And you can tell, you know, sometimes, from the faces… And they were right. Someone smashed my window, I just – jumped out… And I don’t think I ever hated being pretty before, but it felt like – total danger… I smeared what was left of my lipstick, mussed my hair… But they were good guys, they didn’t care…” Rachel laughed. “There was a whole – tribe of us, gathered together… Strength in numbers. People who just – had to get out. We moved together like this – what was the word, from Rome, the box of soldiers…”

“Phalanx,” said her father.

“Yeah, phalanx. And some people had – weapons, you wouldn’t believe it.” She laughed again giddily. “One guy had a toilet brush. And we moved pretty quickly, and the men rotated around the edges, and scared off the – thugs. Although there were some – there was some rough stuff out there for sure. Gunshots all around…” She wiped a sudden tear. “I never – I’ve never felt that helpless before – except maybe the last time I was in this blanket… Everything that used to give me strength was now dangerous… At least I had sneakers on. I offered to go to the edges, to help protect the group, but – the men just laughed. These guys – I wouldn’t have given them a second glance, half of them looked like accountants, but they were totally amped up…” She shook her head in wonder. “Full of joy, I don’t get it… Purpose. They kept making these whooping sounds, daring the – criminals or whatever… It was a moving pitched – battle. They shielded us, the women – and we shielded the kids. You make really quick friends in an emergency – I was just – striding through the fire with a baby on one hip, and a toddler on the other… Like a warrior-queen…” Rachel laughed. “I think I hate civilization now. And – and people kind of thinned out, as they got to their destinations, or wherever… And some got taken down by - the outsiders. But not many, those guys were great – they had some kind of instinct, I don’t know… I couldn’t do it. I gave the kids back to their mom, but they clung to me…” Rachel’s eyes filled once more. “What have I been doing with my life?”

Her mother put her palm on the back of Rachel’s hand. “You don’t have to say anything, honey…”

Bert nodded. “Maybe get some sleep – we are all locked down, lots of time to talk…”

“I’m kind of relieved,” said Rachel abruptly, waving her free hand. “I’m not proud, but – my article – that seems a million years ago – it was going to get me into a lot of trouble, but that’s all – that’s all nothing, now…” Her eyes widened slightly. “Talk about dodging a bullet…”

Bert and Ethel exchanged a glance.

“What about – Arlo?” asked Ethel.

Rachel’s eyes widened again. “Oh my God… It’s all just – one night…” She took a deep breath. “We had a bad fight, about my article…” She laughed sadly. “I went to Cassie’s, then to – Aunt Crystal’s.”

“Quite the gypsy!” said her father with forced heartiness.

“Yeah… I – I kind of just – didn’t have time... I wanted to come here,” she said, her voice wobbling.

Her mother stood up decisively. “Okay, that’s enough story-time! Time to get some sleep.”

Wrapped in her old blanket, Rachel allowed herself to be led up to her childhood bedroom, and her mother had to hum her to sleep after a while.

Chapter 21

Oliver awoke to the sound of birds, which had not happened since his childhood.

He knew that he had a ridiculously full day, but always enjoyed the twenty minutes or so that he got to – well, he called it ‘meditate,’ but it was really more half-dozing…

He stretched his arms over his head, enjoying the muscle tension that radiated from his shoulder blades down to his lower back.

Worked myself so hard yesterday… he thought with base animal pleasure.

He inhaled the slightly musty atmosphere, looking forward to the purer air outside.

Oliver had spent the previous day checking the insulation throughout the house, stuffing pink clouds into every available crack.

He was still surprised how little he missed his computers.

This is better, this is more natural… Civilization is domestication, and we are designed to run like wolves!

His mind drifted back to the city, to the paroxysms of violence and flight that now characterized the last incarnation of the ancient human zoo. He probed his own soul – delicately, like a tongue in the gap of a missing tooth – to feel out his empathy and compassion for the people left behind.

Not even God above can shield souls from the consequences of their choices

This thought felt mildly blasphemous, so he went over the theological implications.

Can God forgive someone who does not repent?

The answer, of course, was the God can do anything He wants to – but God never wants to do evil, and forgiving someone who does not repent would be doing evil to all the people who do repent, and gain salvation thereby…

But aren’t people so propagandized that they have lost their free will?

Oliver shivered. That thought certainly was blasphemous – not evil, for he deeply supported the principle of free speech in his own mind – but one that would lead him down the path of viewing people as mindless livestock.

There have always been lies in the world – we are given by God a thirst for truth, and every sensory and rational capacity to achieve it. But God loves us enough to give us free will, for He desires nothing more – or less – then the expansion of virtue in the universe. If He forced virtue upon us, it would be destroyed, and He would become…

Oliver yawned, feeling as always the slight crackle beneath and below his inner ears.

I should get up and get to work, but what better labour is there then the contemplation of virtue?

He smiled, enjoying what he knew to be a self-serving justification.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown…

He sat up in bed and laughed aloud.

In their community – inevitably called New Eden, though many railed against the cliché – Oliver was a kind of leader, but had no direct authority.

He had designed the community from scratch, drawing detailed maps and blueprints covering the 105 acres his parents owned. He had planned the irrigation, the solar panels, the electrical grid and heating systems. Of course, he was not an engineer, so had to outsource most of the work, burying various contractors under stern nondisclosure agreements that he knew would be unenforceable when the time came. He got them to do the planning, but never disclosed the location.

Learning farming was the toughest part – finding the delicate combination of predators, prey and enforcement that coaxed the most crops out of a stubborn land. Fortunately, his brother William had worked on farms during his missionary phase, and Oliver was very happy to let him take the lead in those matters. The winter crops were in, and everything was being readied for the spring.

It was fascinating to figure out the skills and abilities most necessary for survival in the relative wilderness.

God be praised, we don’t need any lawyers, or accountants, or social media managers, or programmers, or marketing specialists – or modern teachers, heaven help us! No gender specialists, no reporters, politicians, financial advisors or SEO specialists. We know we live in New Eden because there is no Human Resources department – and never will be..!

It was a good life – a clean life, a real life. A life without the 10,000 mosquitoes of predatory thought-sucking that darkened the minds of those in the city.

And the children… Oliver stretched his neck and smiled. The children were full of simple, wild joy! The boys threw themselves into the manual labour they were capable of – teaching and learning among themselves. The girls mothered the animals and their calves and babies with great joy and deep feeling.

The fantasy that every able-bodied man has of disappearing into history, into a community of like-minded people, of wrestling simple sustenance from strict nature – to wake up every morning living that fantasy, free of spreadsheets and tax forms and manipulative dependants – the armour-gaps of mental health widened and infested by endless Internet sociopaths – it was all so good!

Wholesome, one of his brother’s children kept repeating…

The only screen time the children pursued was using a few old gold panning sifters to look for treasures in the creek.

Civilization is predation, thought Oliver. Wealth brings parasites like fatty food brings gout and diabetes…

He was just pulling on his work shirt when there was a soft knock at his door.

“Come in.”

“Open the door,” said his mother’s voice.

Oliver did so, and saw his mother standing in the hallway, holding a breakfast tray.

Uh oh, he thought.

“Good morning, child of mine!” she smiled.

“Well, this is very nice of you…” he frowned.

Marie came in and set the tray on his nightstand. Eggs and sausages. “You always forget to eat until mid-afternoon – and I know you’re not doing any intermittent fasting, you’re just – focused, which I admire – but malnourished, which I do not! You shouldn’t have to wait until you feel dizzy to get something to eat!”

“I appreciate that,” smiled Oliver. “I’m not that hungry in the morning – at night, I’m ravenous, but…” He kissed his mother’s cheek. “What is this – bribery for?”

Marie laughed. “Such a narrow-eyed, suspicious child!”

“Yes, and occasionally – for good reason.”

“Please eat that before it gets cold! You can sit on the bed, there are legs under the tray.”

“Really going to trap me, eh mom?”

She nodded. “Sit and eat!”

“I obey,” said Oliver, getting back into bed and spreading the tray over his legs. “Mmm - good silverware, this is going to be a big ask…”

“I – may have overplayed my hand,” admitted his mother.

Oliver speared a sausage with his fork and took a bite. He waited for a moment, so as not to speak with his mouth full. “So – what’s up?”

“Is it – good?”

“You’re stalling!” he chided.

“You grow the food, I bribe you with it,” sighed his mother. “I got a message from – Karen, my sister.”

Oliver felt a tiny pit open up in his stomach. He swallowed. “And?”

“They are trapped. She and Jayda…”

“Where?”

Marie shrugged, radiating a wave of sadness. “In their apartment.”

Oliver nodded slowly. “They were both on the mailing list I sent out reminding everyone to get food.”

“Yes, I know,” murmured his mother. “They have – some… Not much. And water is – a real problem.”

Oliver put down his fork. “I included that in my emails.”

“Yes, but it’s all… They have fallen from grace, you know that…”

“I do.”

“They – they need to get here.”

Oliver sat very still for a moment. His mouth was very dry. He chuckled suddenly, without humour. “You’ve really got me pinned down here, mom.”

His mother’s words came in a rush. “I know – I’m asking for an exception… I know what you believe – and I’m not criticizing you for any of it, you’re the reason we’re safe! But she’s my sister, Ollie! That’s my niece we’re talking about! They are family…” She took a deep breath. “They’ve made mistakes – terrible mistakes, I know… But we are commanded to forgiveness – and charity. And love.” She gestured, her eyes gleaming. “I think this would be – the one – kindness – that would really turn them around. Save them…” She laughed suddenly. “Put Jayda’s hair back into a human colour…” Her voice lowered. “I’m terribly afraid that Karen will end up – on drugs again. They’re going through tremendous stress, and what – and what might she do to save her daughter? They are hanging on the edge, Oliver. We can save them!”

“I am not in charge…” murmured Oliver, staring up at her.

His mother sighed in exasperation took a step towards him. “Yes, but you are – the leader. If you welcome them, everyone will… If you reject them, they have no chance…”

Oliver was silent for a long moment.

“I want to, of course… Yes, they're family. But – you know how carefully this is all been – calculated, right mom?”

“Oh I know!” said Marie rapidly. “They will work – hard, I know! Karen used to get up to deliver papers at 5 in the morning, rain or shine!”

“Mom,” said Oliver, in a low, warning tone. “Your sister has been on welfare for twenty years. Jaden has never had a real job, to my knowledge. In the free market.” He snapped his fingers. “Oh yeah, she worked in that fish and chips shop for a couple of days, until she got fired for yelling at customers. They don’t have any – work ethic. Either of them.”

His mother’s face half-crumpled. “Please don’t call them ‘useless eaters’…”

“No, I would never do that…”

There was a pause.

“I can't handle – the guilt,” said Marie simply.

Oliver nodded. “I’m sorry. I get it. I have to – unfocus my mind from their faces – from many people’s faces – just to get through the day, sometimes…”

“Please, I’m begging you!” said his mother with a sudden force. “You can – you can take from my rations, and give to them! I’m terrified that we are doing a great – evil!”

“It’s not just about the rations, mom,” said Oliver slowly. “You know that. If we take rations from you, you just end up weaker and – less able to work yourself.” He paused for a moment. “And – and we have some single men here… Gosh, I totally hate to talk about this…”

“I know…” murmured Marie. “They’ve both – got a few notches in their belts…”

“It’s just inviting chaos…” Oliver breathed deeply. He took his mother’s cold hand. She sat on the edge of the bed.

“Let me step you through my – reasoning, see if that helps… I’ve thought about them both, of course. Jayda called us racists and exploiters. She’s never wanted to… participate. She was half-dragged to every family gathering by her mother. She’s used drugs, of course. Those tattoos are – well… She thinks we are – evil, mom… Why would that change now? Imagine we were just – inviting her to a family gathering, without her mother dragging her… Would she come? We both know the answer to that…”

Oliver’s mother looked away, a tear spilling from her eye.

“Why would she come now? Only because we have – food. And security… Nothing has changed within her. She will always bite the hand that feeds her… And we could probably find a way to feed and shelter them both – but we are…” Oliver’s hands gestured helplessly. “…an ecosystem here, mom! Everything is just – calibrated and calculated… If we break precedent, and bring destructive people here – and they’re family, I get that, I feel that – deeply – well, then everyone gets to bring family members, no matter how messed up they are! That is going to swell this community by – what, a couple of hundred people – at least! Atheists, relativists, socialists – the whole modern mess will come and squat in our front yard, screaming at our evils while demanding our handouts…”

Oliver held up his hand as his mother was about to speak.

“And – we’ve worked really hard to keep this place a secret. Right? That’s why I never told them… If word gets out where we are – you know them, no boundaries, no loyalty, no – discretion… We’ll have a total swarm here within a day or two. We’ll be buried.”

“But – if it’s just her, and Karen… You’re the leader…”

“Mom,” murmured Oliver. “Come on… That’s just – remaking the outside world, right here. ‘Rules for thee but not for me…’ If we start exempting ourselves from what is best, we just end up right back where we started. The whole point here was to have a community where everyone was subject to the moral law. I know we – want to… I want to as well - but we can’t… If we bring them here, we are inviting more than… The whole hypocrisy of the outside world will just come – pouring in, and then – what was the point of running at all?

Marie withdrew her hands and closed them into tight white fists. “That’s – heartless! We have a duty to help, we are Christians!”

Oliver cocked his head. “But why – why just them? Everyone here has family members on the outside.”

“It’s – your community!” cried his mother. “Your father and I own the land! Ask everyone – ask them! They will absolutely grant you this one – little privilege!”

“Privileges never stay ‘little,’ mother!” snapped Oliver. He lifted his tray and handed it to Marie. “Man alive, I feel like an invalid!” He kicked off his covers and stood up on the far side.

They glared at each other across the wide expanse of his rumpled king bed.

“I expected temptation – that’s the nature of life – but not from you!” exclaimed Oliver.

His mother jabbed a finger at him. “Oh, don’t portray me as some kind of – serpent, in this little psychodrama of yours!”

“Then stop demanding that I break my rules – our rules, everything that everyone has agreed to!”

“Oh, so now I’m supposed to stop talking because you don’t – you can handle the conversation?”

“You can say what you want – it’s a free Eden! But I’m saying no! Not for me, not because of my preferences, but because of – our vows, what we all agreed to, which was a community of equals – equal laws, equal rules, equal morality!”

“Don’t lecture me! I’m your mother!”

“Well act like…” Oliver’s voice stalled.

“You must honour me!”

“If you act honourably, that is the debt I pay…” whispered Oliver.

“Oh, so now I’m – dishonourable? Because I love my sister and my niece?” His mother turned to go, her face red. She glared over her shoulder. “I can always just – text them our location. Where we are.”

Oliver took a deep breath and whistled. “Don’t do that, mother…”

“And why not? What if that helps you remember your better self, your higher self?”

“Because… We’ll just – leave.”

“We? Who is – ‘we’?”

“All the able-bodied men. This is not entirely – unanticipated.”

His mother paused in the white doorway and turned slowly around.

She said nothing.

“I love you, mom,” said Oliver, taking a step towards her. “I love your – passion, your sentimentality, your empathy… But you are demanding that I pay for your empathy. Look – you could have ordered extra food. Then there would be no… It would be less of an issue… But there is no food for them. Maybe me and the boys could put in an extra hour or two of work every day – but that would mess up the soil over time… But you’re demanding that men pay for your – feelings. And frankly, we’ve had enough of that over the last century! Stop demanding that I fix your feelings with my muscles! My work!”

“Oh, so now we’re back to this – men’s rights stuff!”

Oliver took another deep breath, obviously fighting for self-control. “This ‘men’s rights stuff’ is the only reason you have a place to land when the world has gone to hell!”

“You wouldn’t – you would never just – abandon us…” whispered his mother.

“I will do what it takes for this community to survive. You inviting in all kinds of dysfunctional refugees – opening that endless gate – well, we all know where that leads… You are in fact going to have to manage your emotions. Be as Jesus…”

“Don’t presume to lecture me on…”

“BE AS JESUS!” cried Oliver with sudden passion. “Offer every chance at salvation, and accept the results! You’ve been begging Karen to grow up for – what, twenty years? You’ve tried mothering Jayda for almost as long! We have a good, honourable, wholesome family – and Jayda spits at us every chance she gets, and Karen just – sits there, and takes it! I told them to get food, I told them to get out of the city… Do you remember that time when no one got my messages for two months – well it turned out that Jayda had reported me for spam! She – her pettiness could have gotten people killed!”

Oliver paused, pursing his lips.

“And I love her potential, just as I’m supposed to – but I can’t make up a different reality, I can’t…” Oliver’s hands spread apart. “…fork things based on what she has done! The empiricism of her actions is all I have to process! The only reason she would come here is because she wanted to – survive. Not because she had learned one single good thing! That kind of – person…” His voice lowered. “We know what motivates her, who her real Master is… They just view kindness as – weakness, mom! We would just be her livestock, her crops, to be a used and abused as she sees fit! And she would come in here, and she would sleep around, and she would trigger jealousy and aggression, and she would fall pregnant – and probably not even know who the father was – and we would be – it would become – hell, right here! We might as well have taken our chances in the city! And again, mom…”

“Stop talking!” cried Marie, raising her hands to her ears uselessly.

Oliver stood in silence, bowing his head slightly.

Marie took a deep, shuddering breath. “How am I supposed to – live with this?”

“It’s our only chance to live…” Oliver walked forward and hugged her stiff form.

He took a step back, his hands on his mother’s thin shoulders. “Mom – seriously – do you think you could have done anything differently?”

She would not look into his eyes.

“You tried – we all tried… How many times have you wept over them? They are… They just live on attention, and sadly they get attention for being – both of them – total messes. When has your sister called you up and asked you how you are doing, and paid attention to you?”

Marie’s voice was suddenly bitter. “Oh, she thinks my life is just – perfect!”

Oliver nodded slowly. “Like you – stole hers… Never mind. It’s been a one-way street for almost as long as I’ve known her… Other than the – general state of this madhouse of a world – isn’t she the only real unhappiness in your life? Her and Jayda?”

Marie paused, then nodded slowly. “It kills me that I can help them…”

“It could be that trying to help them has…” Oliver’s voice faltered.

“What?” snapped his mother with sudden suspicion.

He took several steps back and sat on a turquoise armchair by the window. He rubbed his face slowly.

“I don’t know…” he murmured. “I’ve wondered this for – a long time… It’s a female thing, I think…”

Marie stood by the doorway in silence.

“Why… Why do you keep doing things that don’t work? It’s not much of an option for – men. You’ve tried for decades to fix your sister…”

“I’ve tried more than one thing!”

“It’s the trying!” cried Oliver. “Every time you try to fix her, you’re just communicating that she – can’t fix herself!”

“What am I supposed to do, just let her rot into nothing?

“It’s all about you!”

“I’m trying to help her!”

“No!” exclaimed Oliver in frustration. “You’re trying to – not feel bad about not helping her!”

“That’s just – circular!”

“Maybe…” he said, his tone softening. “But tell me this, mom…” He raised his eyes to her. “You are asking that I go against everything I believe in – to create a moral exception for myself – and you’re not at all concerned about how that affects me, or hurts – me…”

“I am concerned…”

“No. You’re not,” murmured Oliver with chilling finality. “It’s not even – part of your calculation… You feel bad about your sister – and Jayda. All you want to do is fix that bad feeling. You don’t care what it does to me, to this community…” He paused for a moment, caution on his face. “It’s… You might not be the only sibling suffering from addiction…”

Marie gasped. “As if you know what it’s like to – care about people, in that way… You have no children, no wife…”

“Maybe I’m scared of being – manipulated, mom…”

“Like your father?” She sneered. “Go on, you can say it, get it allll out!”

“How dare you say that I don’t care! Without me, you’d be eating your cats right about now!”

Marie opened her mouth, then closed it again. “I’m sorry. You’re right.”

“Look – you remember how Karen got during that intervention…”

Marie shuddered. “Vicious…”

“You don’t really have a mean bone in your body, mom – except for this. God help the man who stands between you and your – rampant altruism.”

“My – what?

“You feel absolutely terrible when people are in danger, or sad. Or lost. Or broke. Or they can’t find their keys. Or they stub their toes. Or they are a bit gassy. Or…”

“Yes, yes. I get the point.”

“But you don’t feel at all bad asking me to betray what I believe in! What you believe in too, mom! Everyone gets your compassion except – the good guys. You’re just afraid of how you will feel. You’re managing yourself, your self-attack…” Oliver stood and stepped towards her. “Listen to me. I respect Karen. I respect Jayda. I respect their choices. I honour their free will… You’ve been trying to help them for decades. And it has cost you. And cost me… You were less available. Less present. It’s not your fault I’m not married, mom. But I…”

Oliver took a deep breath, standing in front of his mother.

“I’m not sure I would ever have a woman’s true loyalty… Messy people seem to claim you all. Something can always come between you and me. Every sad and broken soul in the world breaks us in two…” His voice thickened. “And I love that you care, mom… But you care too much, and that’s the truth. And people use your caring to exploit you – and me. You’re just a target, a mark… But this is my community… It’s your land, I know, and I thank you for that… But this community is my responsibility… And very soon – even now, maybe – the only things we will be able to possess is what we can physically defend…” Oliver’s voice was barely above a whisper. “Respect the choices your sister has made… Turn away from the broken world, mom… Turn to your grandchildren… Love them. Protect – them.”

Marie burst into tears and clung to her tall son.

Chapter 22

Pause

Rachel enters the chat

Pause

Pause

Pause

Pause

Pause

Pause

pause

pause

pause

pause

pause

Pause

pause

pause

Chapter 23

Oliver had almost forgotten that his cell phone existed.

He came across it one morning, while looking for an old notebook. It was abandoned in the general detritus that gathers in drawers over the course of a long life lived in the same place.

He untangled it from his black headphones and turned it over, concerned about scratches on the glass, even though he saw no chance of using it in the foreseeable future.

I used to live my life on this thing, he thought with faint wonder. Screaming at screens, the modern disease…

Lying dead in his hand, it was no longer a portal to the half-deranged collective hive mind – it was just a flat black thing.

For a moment, Oliver thought about finding the charger and plugging it in. Probably some old photos, he could look at old emails at least… And old text messages.

Oliver thought briefly of all the people that used to enter his thoughts through that little black portal – how that screen could rearrange his emotions, make and dissolve loyalties and change his mind on a thousand topics. He thought of old friends, business partners, allies and enemies – all scattered to the wind by the shattering of the electronic web that bound everyone together – half net, half noose…

He remembered Rachel…

An odd woman, it’s wild to think what she might’ve achieved if she had been raised in a different age… There was an empiricism in her heart that was struggling to break free – a willingness to surrender, to face down her own vanity, to subsume her ego – but my Lord, what a battle she had in her heart! Reality or status – facts or praise. True beauty or – mere prettiness…

Oliver sighed, sitting heavily on his king bed.

So many people had vanished into abstractions – into memory and history and un-plumbed inconsequentiality.

It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that caring won’t give me any – facts. I can wonder until the end of time what happened to everyone, but they have all been sucked down into the tomb of the unknown soldier… Most people’s stories will never be told in this beyond-the-end-times…

It reminded him of an old friend’s stories about his mother in the Second World War – how he had been snatched out of the city by his father when the air raid sirens sounded, but his mother had been working for some important dignitary, and felt she had to stay… And the city was bombed by a thousand planes that night, for the first time in history. And because it was the first time, everything flammable remained poised to burn, undisturbed by any prior fires. And the only thing his friend had found of his own mother was the metal clasp of her purse – everything else had vanished into vapour, the entire street…

And if they had never found that clasp, they might have imagined her still alive, lost in shocked memory, bandaged and faceless in some muddy field hospital, waiting for the past to return so she could return home…

As it was, they could at least bury her in their minds, though they could not find her on the walls…

How many hundreds of millions are gone now? wondered Oliver. The number will never be counted…

When he was a child, he had sometimes thought of the numbers that could be counted, but never would be – and would be mostly useless, even if they were… The numbers of dust motes above a field at noon last Thursday; the amount of bacteria on the toilet seat you were about to sit on; the numbers of belly laughs a man who just died had experienced over his whole life; the numbers of illegitimate children over the entirety of human history… The abstract math that existed only in reality, never in anyone’s mind – and who would know what to do with such numbers, even if they could be gathered?

When he Oliver very little, he had an old and very slow computer. He once imagined that the entire universe was being run by that ancient machine – just as the computer could calculate the arc of a bomb in a two-dimensional game, so it could also calculate the movement of every neutron, proton and atom…

He smiled at the ancient memory.

And we wouldn’t know a thing – the slower the processing, the slower that time flows. We could be embedded in the mind of an infinitely fast God – or every tiny movement could be calculated by the digital sweat of an ancient abacus. It wouldn’t matter to us – the billion years between every breath would be utterly unknown…

He shook his head slightly. Heavens above I am ruminative this morning!

In the past, Oliver had been much given to introspection. Since learning how to work the land, however, introspection seemed largely a self-indulgent waste of time. To rise early, work your muscles hard, produce real things, laugh and eat with friends and family, sleep well, do it all again – what needed to be examined, what needed to be fixed?

Occasionally, he would have dreams about his old life – in the city, on airplanes, waiting for his luggage, lining up for endless government paperwork, the dusty tang of air pollution sticking to his nose hairs…

He would then awake in visceral horror, imagining that his current life was a kind of dream, and he was waking back up into his historical nightmare… But then it would all fade into the silence of the country night – the faint sounds of insects in the summer, the distant howling of wolves in winter. The dawn bird songs that woke him with joy in his heart.

It was amazing how quickly the community had adapted to country life. It had taken some people a few months to cool down from the hyper mania of old modern life – a half dozen women had grumbled about ‘depending on men’ – until they realized that men and women are designed to work together, each with their own areas of expertise and specialties. Codependence had been quickly transformed into interdependence, and the balance of nature – and deep happiness – was restored.

They had all lived in a matrix of misinformation, programmed and nudged and bullied and bribed into physical and mental slavery – now, in this land, on this earth, the simple clarity of sensual reality told them no lies, punished carelessness, and rewarded labour without favour. There was no nepotism in planting and hunting. There was no politics, no de-platforming, no manipulation or cry-bullying – people just – spoke their minds, had their arguments, took their lumps and learned their lessons.

People also took better care of their health, because fistfuls of compromised medication and white-walled rooms walling in dubious treatments were nowhere to be had… People lost weight, ate simply, worried less and raised children in the natural manner. Immune systems grew robust under the polishing assault of challenging bacteria; teeth stayed rooted in the absence of sugar; bones and circulation grew strong under the flurries of constant necessary movement.

Occasional brutal violence erupted as indifferent punishment to distraction – one man lost his hand to a scythe; a woman lost her dog to a coyote after failing to secure a latch.

Everyone quickly realized how little they had been living in the present, in the moment – in the past. The blackboard calculations of calories and food were the only physics they could rationally guide their actions by – the coming of winter, the illness of animals – the need to de-worm the goats that ate the dirt, to fix the limps of the ducks lacking niacin – these activities organized their days, yanking them into the present, back from the abstract realms of distraction that had swallowed them up in decades gone…

The community had survived two attacks so far. The first was a yelling daylight raid – chaotic and impulsive, driven by the wild bellows of visible ribs and sunken cheeks. The gang was so hungry that they had no energy to retreat after their first attack was repulsed, but just sat in the tall grass, staring at their feet, waiting to be killed…

Since they had attacked, but did not run – but did not surrender either – Oliver had led a council to figure out what should be done. Clearly the gang was desperate, and on their last legs – but feeding them might just embolden their return, and another attack.

It was finally decided to give them one day’s worth of food and water. The inert invaders were blindfolded and led – some half-carried – to a distant field in the middle of the night – and released. With some mumbled thanks for the food, the members of the gang had sat down on the bare cold earth, again just staring at their feet.

The men had returned to New Eden, and the gang had been heard of no more.

The second attack was more challenging. Half the population of New Eden had gotten sick, and a well-coordinated assault had landed on the remainder, who were struggling to take care of the unwell. Long-hoarded ammunition and weaponry had been rapidly unpacked and used – the invaders had well-crafted bows and arrows, and a few pistols, but not enough firepower to resist the assault rifles and semiautomatic weapons of New Eden.

That attack had been costly, and once it had been discovered that some wells had been poisoned in advance of the attack, a perimeter fence had been erected, and night guards stationed in high trees.

Some of the middle-aged men were more curious about the outside world, and would cover themselves in dense camouflage – Gilly suits really – and range for miles at night, spying with binoculars as dawn brightened the sky.

There was precious little to see.

The towns looked mostly uninhabited, and were often infested with snarling packs of dogs. Some empty cars remained on the side roads – the paved roads had been cleared, and occasional army trucks could be seen speeding in various directions.

Three times, drones had been seen in the distance – these were left unmolested as everyone took cover.

There were no airplanes.

They had solar power, and listened to radios – and would occasionally hear crackling snippets of threats, orders and promises from metallic, authoritarian voices. People were being encouraged to stay home, and await deliveries – or gather in central areas, to await relocation – or stand by, to await further instructions.

Apparently, surviving a dying civilization required a whole lot of waiting.

They had also seen distant flares of red and orange lights on the horizon, through the stained-glass dividers of the bare tree branches. Counting the seconds between the flashes and the thunderous roars, estimates were that the rockets or bombs were landing about a hundred miles away.

Every day, Oliver expected the tanks to roll up, the helicopters to land, and everyone to be hauled off to the re-education camps.

He had a vivid dream one night where an ancient bald man with a half-melted face and a strange European accent spoke to him in an oddly silent flying helicopter.

“Well, what could we do? They would not listen to reason… They vote everything for free, they don’t care about the debts, you can’t talk math to them, they know nothing, they read nothing – they are just like baby birds with the open mouths – just as mindless, just as greedy… Normally we would wage war, but science has made war impossible – it takes out the high and the low with equal abandon… We used to separate the wheat from the chaff, and send the chaff into the trenches – now, we tell people to stand still, and those who do stand still, we let them fall… They want more and more, so we have to create robots to satisfy their needs – but the robots mean we don’t need them anymore, so again I ask you – what are we to do? You are a farmer, you understand… In the past, nature would remove people who refused to think – in the present, it falls to – us.” The ancient man sighed, the wild air from the half-open window blowing the white remnants of his hair. “Everyone thinks we are the bad guys, the super bad dudes – as you Americans would say – but everyone would have to make the same decisions, in our position.”

Oliver had sat up on his elbows, feeling great pain in his vibrating joints. “But why not just – let them be free?”

The old man had waved his hand, reminding Oliver of Paul Scofield as the ghost in Hamlet. “You set them free, they just riot… The only freedom they want is freedom from consequences… This is much more humane… And we have inherited this mess – the worst messes are always inherited. No one alive created these terrible schools, these awful cults of rage and jealousy and greed and hatred – that everyone who does better than you wins only because he has stolen from you, and you are fully justified in rising up with your empty fists and beating the ideas of gold out of his broken skull! The corrupt laws, the red tides of ‘income transfers’, the monstrous teachers, the money changers and printers that infest the temples of our holy hearts – these all predate us… We are just trying to survive the bloody tsunamis that the accumulations of history have unleashed upon us!”

The ancient face shook sadly, slowly.

“And there was a chance, for a moment – we actually hoped… We wanted that chance, we thirsted for that chance – the chance that a free economy could produce enough wealth to keep even the most greedy in relative comfort… But no, they listened to the Sophists and the liars and the cheats and the scoundrels – just as they have always done, I’m sad to say – and they killed the geese that laid the golden eggs, and sucked their greasy fingers and pounded their fat feet and screamed for more and more and more! They spit at the gods, who withdrew and ceased to protect them from their own mindless fury…”

He sighed in sorrow.

“Yeees – as a toddler must expend his tantrum, so must fools taste their own follies… So we tell them to wait, that we are coming, and they will be taken care of, and that they never have to grow up, and that they never have to listen to reason, and they never have to fend for themselves – they can just scream and cry and threaten and beg, and the skies will open up and shower them with everything they want…”

The old man shrugged.

“They believe their emotions are the physics of the universe – but the universe respectfully disagrees, and we echo that opinion… So they wait and complain and panic and rage – and by the time they realize that no one and nothing is coming to save them, they are too weak to save themselves, and merely sit on the ground…”

A liver-spotted finger rose and wagged in Oliver’s horrified face.

“And before you think this is all about intelligence, it has little to do with that my friend! It is about initiative, and empathy – and maturity. Many of the most foolish are also the most intelligent – which we have the least sympathy for. The shield of natural ignorance excuses many from harsh criticism – but natural brilliance that refuses to recognize reality – refuses to sacrifice one calorie of unearned food – well, how should we feel about them?”

The wizened face looked to the horizon, below the silent blur of blades.

“We feel sad, of course – but moral responsibility demands that that sadness come with an eternal shrug. ‘Come now, our good friends – you must listen to reason… There is not enough money to pay for everything you voted for, what sacrifices are you now prepared to make? Why are you screaming? Mathematics is absolute, you learned that when you were five years old! We shall give you options – kindly tick the boxes of what you are willing to give up… Ach, please – no crying, no shouting – we are trying to reason together… We cannot pay your pensions, so perhaps you can go and live with your children, and help them out… What, you put your children in daycare, and they don’t want you to come and live with them? Well, my friends, all you must thus do is apologize and take ownership and responsibility, and in deep humility ask them to take you in – as a favour, in humble Christian charity… Ah, of course, you are not believers, and so believe you never have anything to apologize for, never have any amends or restitution to make… No universal principles can restrain the wild greed of your animal egos! Well, then we must withdraw some healthcare – oh, you are too sick to give that up either? Do you realize that most of you allowed yourselves to become sick because you expected free healthcare forever? Very well, let us look at foreign aid… Oh, you cannot stand seeing children suffer? But your own children are suffering, they cannot afford to start their own lives – oh, that is less vivid for you? They are not actually starving to death in a foreign desert, right before your eyes? But you realize that those children are herded into the desert in order to get foreign aid, you see? They are hostages – your hostages, to be frank. Ah, you will not listen to that? Very well, perhaps we can reduce all of the useless paper pushers who infest the bureaucracies of the modern age. Haha, oh, we see that this is where you are employed… Well, you can go and get another job, which actually provides value, rather than getting in the way of… Oh, you are not trained for anything else, and you will not retrain? Ah, very well, let us see… Perhaps we can ask adults to pay for their own education. Oh, that is also unjust? But you do realize that these government subsidies produce barbaric activists who attack the very basis of your… Oh, your children will be – sad? And they will get angry at you as well, because you got educated for free? But nothing is for free, don’t you see that yet? Can you not handle their sadness? Can you not apologize for being in the wrong? Oh yes, right, you can never apologize for anything, because your animal will is forever unrestrained…”

The ancient man had leaned back, below the blur of the silent blades above. He gestured helplessly.

“So you see – everything is unsustainable, because no one will restrain themselves. And we care about the future, about the generations to come – who will have no trees, no clean water, no economy, no housing or education or moral wisdom – all so that fools can indulge in their own anti-rationality! What kind of justice is that? We speak for the generations to come, who are hated and exploited by the greedy mouths of the present. We speak for a world being raped and eaten by the childish appetites of those born with giant mouths, and no ears at all…”

The old man shook his head slowly.

“And we would have moved heaven and earth to help everyone – all they had to do was listen, and decide. We scream at a man standing on the tracks that a train is coming, but he laughs and insults us. Our throat becomes raw from shouting – but then it is too dangerous, the train is too close… What would you do, my friend Oliver? Would you risk your own life to save a man too stupid to step off the tracks? Should two die for the sake of one? Should those who cry of the danger sacrifice themselves for those who refuse to listen?”

The ancient face leaned lower, down, towards Oliver’s wide and staring eyes.

“It is so easy to criticize, when you don’t have to make the decisions. And you are making these decisions, my friend. You think we are so – different? When people wanted to bring their elderly sick parents, what did you say? You did the cost-benefit calculation – as all living things must, if they wish to survive. Why is Jayda not with you? Oh yes, I know her name, for I am you… We are one. And you are alone because you have not leaned to love the need for harshness – you have not embraced the absolutism of life! You feel guilt. You feel that you should have done more. You carry that cross, just as He did. You want to save people by becoming them, by turning them into yourself. Possession, like a demon of reason! But that will not save them – that will only erase them! That quote – they made a desert, and called it peace – that is about you, my friend, my mirror… You wanted to save everyone, but they would not listen. And you own that, as if you own others, as if you can displace their sovereign minds with your reasoned statements. But language is not possession – it is only persuasion. When people choose death, that murders your heart, a little, my friend – let us be honest, let us be frank, it is time… But there is no life without the choice of death – that is one of the few clichés that contains great power. You must detach yourself from the effects of your words – your words you can control – the effects, not at all… Let them live, even if they choose death – especially so, perhaps…”

As the old man spoke, leaning closer and closer, the sound of the helicopter began to rise – to a mad thwacking hum, and the edges of the blades began to brighten, into a perfect whirring halo around the ancient man’s tragic broken face – and Oliver awoke with a start to the sound of the coughing generator outside his window…

Chapter 24

The day she came to life, Rachel awoke with a raw throat.

The previous night had been full panic mode.

The television was dark, the radio intermittent and terrifying. The lockdowns were enforced with seemingly random brutality. Everyone was being told to wait – army trucks roamed the streets with loudspeakers on the roof, commanding everyone to stay inside, to be patient, to wait for food…

Her parents’ attitude was incomprehensible to Rachel. They sat in lethargy, staring at the walls, gripped in a distant mental fog. Their self-care had fallen away – they smelled, their hair was greasy, their breath foul.

“Dad,” she would whisper. “What’s going on?”

He smiled in an empty fashion. “Oh, just – waiting, you know… Like they say…”

They were running out of food, but didn’t want to ration.

“They’re coming, they’re coming…” her parents would repeat.

They fell to stories of ancient days – their own childhoods, their courtship, their early marriage… Rachel learned more than she wanted to know, and was reminded of the glow of meteors as they burn up in the high atmosphere – a bright light, an illumination, then an ending…

It’s almost like they are handing me their memories before they go…

Rachel pleaded, she begged, she cajoled – she commanded – but it was like wrestling with fog, or anxiety. They did not fight, they did not obey, they did not agree or accede. They nodded slightly, or shook their heads in such a tiny manner that it looked like shivering.

They prayed for acceptance.

Rachel felt as if she were going insane.

“Mom, dad, seriously! I don’t think anything – I don’t think anyone is coming – we are going to have to try and get to where Cassie and Ian are! And we have to do it before we run out of food, run out of energy – we have to have enough to bring with us!” Rachel paced, her hands gesticulating rapidly. “I have my university backpack, I found my old Adidas high school bag. Why don’t you get up, walk around, loosen your muscles a bit? You’re both healthy, it’s just a week and a half away! An adventure! Come on!” she urged. “What if no one is coming?”

“Oh Rachel!” chided her mother. “You’re taking this much too seriously! It’s a strange time, no doubt… But my mother went through the war in England, it was much worse than this! She had to hide in shelters – she peed herself one time, she was so scared, remember? I miss her… I like her advice at the moment. Not that yours is not – helpful, my dear – but you really don’t have much experience in this, so…”

Ethel’s voice trailed off, as it so often did these days.

Bert roused himself, slapping a knee. “Come on, let’s play some canasta, there’s no point panicking!”

They were sinking slowly, into the quicksand of avoidance – and not exactly pulling Rachel down with them, but – hypnotizing her with eerie patience…

And they would play canasta, and the cards would swim before Rachel’s eyes.

“Mom, dad, no offense but you really need to wash – and brush your teeth, for heaven’s sakes! You really don’t want to get a toothache right now!”

Her mother said: “I miss Arlo.”

This complicated statement hit Rachel squarely in the solar plexus. It was obvious misdirection – and a stated preference for him, rather than her – as well as a rebuke for her nagging. And – a veiled criticism of Rachel’s indifference to her… Boyfriend? Former boyfriend?

Bert said: “He’ll turn up. With Crystal in tow. You’ll see…”

They are shooting people! Rachel wanted to scream.

Rachel imagined her parents patting her hand and telling her that they had had a good life, but hers was yet to start, so she should go and – have her adventure… (Even in her fantasies, euphemisms were the only language.)

Late one evening, the electricity flickered and failed, and they sat in the pitch dark.

Bert got up and groped his way to the window – he pulled open the curtains, but no one could tell, it was so black outside.

“Probably just recycling the generators,” he said heartily – and it wasn’t even forced, it sounded totally genuine. “Be back in a moment…”

Rachel went and opened the front door. It was a deep cloudy night. She saw a few glimmers of what for a mad moment looked like wildly bright fireflies – then she realized it was cell phone flashlights waving around.

The only neighbours they had been close to were from Poland; they had vanished weeks ago.

“Everyone all right?” cried a male voice from up the street.

Silence.

“We’re at 189 – let us know if you need anything!”

No one replied.

The sound of doors shutting, people retreating back inside, echoed like slow applause up the street.

The power did not return.

The army trucks did not return.

The radio was dead.

Rachel panicked.

Her father tried to reassure her. “Rachel, we have relied on the – authorities, our whole life. They’ve never let us down… Checks come in every month. Roads get repaired. Mom gets her medicines – all for free. If it’s bad here, it’s not going to be any better anywhere else.”

“Dad – we are practically out of food – now the freezer is out! What is the plan?

“What is your plan?” he suddenly demanded. “Race all over hell’s half-acre trying to find some – compound in the woods upstate? How? We don’t have any maps, there’s no GPS – and people are supposed to stay home!

Rachel had a sudden savage memory of being grounded when she was sixteen, after she snuck out through her bedroom window to go to a party where frat boys threw toilet rolls into the tree branches.

Her father continued. “Think, Rach! We travel by roads, we get – caught, or worse. We travel off-road, we get lost. We don’t have food for ten days, not for three people – and we never did, you can’t carry that much, unless you want to hump a freezer and a generator on your back – not likely!” He gestured at the window. “We are all here, we are all in this together – humanity… People aren’t going to just – let us rot here.”

“What if – what if they can’t help us, dad?”

He shrugged. “Then – there’s no help to be had…”

“God above - we can help ourselves!”

Her father almost snarled. “Forget this – compound. I’m sure Cassie and Ian are fine, wherever they are… Where are we going to go? If there’s some place with – food, resources, then every jerk with a gun will be standing guard! The only unguarded places would be totally – empty. I had some training, in my youth, you know… We would just be expending energy for nothing. Plus the dogs…”

“They’re not coming!” screamed Rachel.

Bert was shocked, she could tell.

She said: “Why are you keeping me here?”

He said nothing. What was there to say? He couldn’t dare her to go, remind her she was a free soul, tell her to think for herself – that would be like demanding she do a gymnastics routine with no prior training.

“We talk outside,” said Bert grimly.

In the backyard, they stared at each other. The grey light from the boiling clouds reminded Rachel how old her father was – and reminded her father how tired Rachel looked without makeup.

“Why isn’t Arlo here?” murmured Bert.

“That wasn’t him…” said Rachel, looking away, her voice faltering.

“We saw him – or his body double – in the background of that newscast… Not many people have that hair…”

“It wasn’t him – or he was asleep…”

“Yeah, maybe… But he’s not here, my dear…” He sighed. “Who do you think is stronger, Arlo or your mother?”

Rachel said nothing, still looking away.

Bert continued. “He’s like a – what did he call himself, a gym rat? He did some martial arts…”

“He probably never left our place…”

“How much food did you have? You lived on take-out, you said so…”

“He doesn’t eat much…”

Her father’s tone was soft. “Rachel, he couldn’t have lasted there. He went out. I don’t think he – made it. If he was okay, he would be here. But he’s not. And I know you blame us now.”

“Blame – you?”

“I know you’re going to go…” said Bert, tears filling his eyes. “Come on, you have to… I think that’s why I’ve been talking about my life…” He laughed sadly. “Like Crystal’s stupid book…” He took a deep breath. “I just – don’t know how to tell your mother… We’ve had long lives, good lives… I think you should go… I’m not selfish… I just – don’t know how to explain it to…” He sniffed. “We’ve never been good at…” He laughed. “Nothing. But please – don’t blame us. We didn’t make the world…”

Rachel’s lips were quivering. “I don’t – get the blame part.”

“My dear – did you have the life you wanted?” asked her father, his eyes wide.

“I don’t know…” murmured Rachel distantly. “I don’t know that I had a – life. Just a lot of – experiences…”

“Somewhere, all the wheels came off… I never knew how to guide you in this world, it was too different… Your mother already had you when she was your age, we’d been married for three years… Every time we tried to – guide you, you got mad…” More tears came, spilling down his cheeks. “I don’t know why we never tell the truth until it’s too… It’s like the curse of the world… I love you. I’m sorry…”

He reached forward, and they hugged and melted into each other.

“Dad, it’s okay… We don’t make the world, we just try to – survive…”

Ethel opened the screen door and spoke in a singsong voice: “What’s going on? Who died?”

Rachel and her father clung to each other for another long moment, both silently cursing the world’s endless interruptions to honesty and intimacy.

They dried their eyes on each other’s shoulders, then turned to Ethel.

In the faded-fluorescent afternoon light, her face was grey and haggard. The subcutaneous fat that had formerly propped up her fading middle-aged face had vanished – her features hung like an old sail in stagnant air.

“Come on, we still have some tea left!” she cried, turning back inside.

Both feeling the oddness of the impulse, Bert and Rachel touched their foreheads together, regretfully parting to return and resume the dying theatre of optimism.

Rachel packed and readied herself in the middle of the night. She took as little food as possible. She wanted as much water as she could carry, but the taps had stopped working, so she took half a dozen bottles instead. She packed her cell phone, a solar charger, a small notebook and pencil, headphones… She had to push down any impulse to sentimentality – but still imagined dying alone in the woods, and had a strange and desperate need for future generations to know who she was, and what she wanted.

She had a strange smile in the darkness. Aunt Crystal wanted me to work on her memoirs, here I am planning to write my own epitaph on the road…

But she did not make it out.

Rachel possessed all kinds of fantasies about finding Oliver’s community, then rousing staunch male loyalties, and returning with a posse to retrieve her parents – but she could only sustain these ideas by refusing to probe any practical roots – or by picturing herself as a sky-high sexual demon who could possess men’s souls with a wink…

She remembered how she used to love striding into restaurants in high heels, pulling the eyes of men behind her…

Now she was simply hoping to make it through the wilderness without starving or being eaten or assaulted…

A sob caught in Rachel’s throat as she felt how desperately she wanted Oliver to be with her on the journey. He would know what to do, he would know how to fight, where to hide…

In her dreams, he arrived at her parents’ house in the middle of the night, confessing his love and devotion, then carrying them all somehow to his sanctuary.

But she knew – reality had invaded her vanity to the point where Rachel absolutely knew that while she was the protagonist of her own story, she was only a bit player in his…

That strange girl from months ago

Yeah, he might wonder what had happened to her, once in a great while…

(And, as she thought, her breath caught…)

But Oliver was doubtless deep in the woods, shirtless and chopping wood while his wife watched in admiration, cradling twins, one on each hip…

She would know how to surrender to a man – as he surrendered to her.

My whole life, I wanted to never be dependent on a man… Now this is where I am…

Most everything she packed had been made by men – even the backpack.

Rachel imagined all the junk made for women that she would have to leave behind…

Her makeup, her fake eyelashes, her ridiculous shoes, her push-up bras, her hair dye and volumizer. The under-eye cream she used her ring finger to apply – not too much pressure! – her blue putty face-masks – all the voodoo designed to defy the slow death of time – all would have to be left behind…

I am travelling for ten days to find the man I crave – and I will arrive looking like a deranged gypsy!

But Rachel knew – somewhere, deep down – that her journey would be the most attractive thing about her.

I must shed vanity to find love…

I am here to trade value for value, not to be admired from below…

And she imagined – there could be no babies for him yet, no wife, it was too soon – Rachel imagined letting go of her need for others – for their thirst and desire to prop up the nothingness of her self-regard – and to be seen and accepted for who she was, deep down – not the flesh thrown on her bones by blind nature.

Her soul, not just her skin…

And Rachel knew that this was what Arlo craved, too – but could not let go of his greed for attention enough to even acknowledge – let alone receive it.

And she thought of Arlo’s possible body, in the grainy background of a chaotic newscast, weeks ago… His blond hair blowing in the smoky wind, his impossibly flat frame barely filling the bottom of the fractal shadows of the black bag…

And I never told him where refuge was… thought Rachel, shuddering as she remembered his touch, his gaze in the candlelight…

Not the first man in history to be murdered by manipulation – not the last either…

Rachel knew that she had wanted to will his actions, and felt ashamed…

I never begged, never asked – only demanded and threatened and bribed with my body… The body I did not earn, and sold for a desire I did not earn either

As she packed, Rachel imagined a simple life of real work – being loved for nutrition and security, rather than merely desired for flash and flesh…

You can’t eat an Instagram…

She imagined returning with Oliver to rescue her parents, but knew that he would refuse. She had imagined – countless times – texting back and forth with Oliver, demanding that she be allowed to come with her parents, and him refusing, shielding his absolutism behind the calculus of calories…

Pause

Pause

And Rachel could never get him to agree, even in her own mind, which normally obeyed her like a trembling slave…

She felt her thoughts expanding as her vanity contracted – it was like walking up a seesaw, as a child, then tipping it from upward to downward. Unguessed potential glowed upward in her mind, lit by the hot sparks of necessity.

I will get to him, or die trying…

She knew it was madness, but it was a madness that matched the world, and so felt relatively sane.

As Rachel lifted the latch on the front door, her mother’s voice hit the back of her head.

“Where are you going?”

“To – get some food.”

“Why is your – backpack full?”

“Maybe I can – trade some things. I don’t know…”

Ethel sighed and crept down the stairs. Using the white banister, she slowly lowered herself to sit on the landing. She stared at her daughter.

Rachel felt a sudden urge to stop blinking.

She strove for something to say, but came up empty.

After a while, her mother slowly got up and walked down the final steps towards her. Reaching up, she pulled Rachel’s head down and kissed her on the cheek.

“I’m sorry…” she whispered.

“For what?”

“You never stop wanting to – protect your children. We’ve done a – bad job…” Ethel sniffed. “We drove home from the hospital with you at like five miles an hour. Your father child-proofed everything. When you fell down the stairs once I thought I would die. You and Cassie, my jewels… We work so hard to keep you safe, but I guess we missed – something…”

“I want you to be happy, mom.”

“I know,” she said gently. “Both ways. Both ways…” Her voice thickened. “Will you – come back for us?”

Rachel’s dark heart tore in two. Dual responses hung in her mind.

“I don’t see – how…” she whispered.

She felt her mother’s old head nodding slowly on her shoulder. “It never feels like the right time, I guess…”

Rachel wanted to ask her mother what she meant, but was terrified of the answer…

Ethel lifted her own head. Faint moonlight streamed in from the small square windows over the door. Looking down, Rachel could see the tiny gleams of her mother’s tears.

This is what is meant by Noah’s flood, she thought. The world drowns in old regret…

Ethel smiled suddenly. “You have your phone – when the power comes back, you’ll – tell us where you are?”

“Of course, first thing…”

“I want you to – tell Cassie, how much we love her… Give a hug to Ben, too – and the new one, when he comes. Because life goes on. Even without…” Ethel’s eyes suddenly sharpened. “Does your father know?”

Rachel hesitated. If I say yes, she knows we’ve been lying to her – if I say no, she might panic…

Oliver’s voice rose in her mind: JUST TELL THE TRUTH!

“Yes…”

Ethel nodded slowly. “It’s nice, he still protects me…” Her hands suddenly clutched Rachel’s arms, and she leaned forward. “Find someone who loves you, Rachel! Don’t end up – alone… Whatever you have to give up to be loved – give it up, it’s not worth keeping! Look at Crystal…”

“Thanks, mom… I love you.”

“Oh God!” cried Ethel in agony, bursting into tears. She immediately clapped her hand over her mouth, taking deep, shuddering breaths. “Go, go – I can’t stand it!” she whispered hoarsely. “No wait, stay!” She clutched at her daughter, hugging her tightly for a long, long time.

Don’t eat each other… The wild thought leapt unbidden into Rachel’s mind. She willed herself to avoid the future, where it led…

They held each other, regret, memories and time flowing between them. Rachel felt her soul filling up with love, charging it somehow for the hungry dark road ahead.

Chapter 25

Rachel felt her weeks of inactivity almost immediately. Her legs trembled from adrenaline and the fear of fatigue. She thought of the thousands of hours she had spent at the gym, posing, taking selfies, trotting with tight pants on the endless treadmill. On her first date with Arlo, they had taken an Ashtanga Yoga class together. He was daringly shirtless, and chatted with a few girls after the class, inviting them deep into his blue mirrored eyes. After the class, he was going to a movie with some friends, and invited her along – but reminded her to change quickly, because he was running late.

For some reason, Rachel had resisted this request – though agreeing to it in the moment. She had lingered in the shower, worked hard to touch-up her hair, popped a mild pimple on the back of her neck, and waited for her slight sheen of sweat to evaporate into nothing before heading out to the gym lobby to meet him.

Arlo had looked at her quizzically.

“It’s really late, what happened?”

Rachel’s brain-excuse-machine ran through many options in a blazing moment, as it always did…

“I’m so sorry, I got a call when I was just out of the shower, really important! Have we missed the movie?”

Arlo shrugged. “Everything’s endless previews these days, we probably won’t miss much…”

Somehow his indifference to her machinations and manipulations released Rachel from her own complexity, and she began to really fall for him in that moment.

Our relationship started with a lie, and ended with a body bag…

Rachel had been largely shielded from the darkness of the world by artificial light – men’s lights, she now constantly thought – and now, creeping up the midnight street, afraid to turn on her cell phone flashlight, she realized how far she had kept nature from her bronzed and bo-toxxed heart.

As a kid – like all kids in the cold – she had enjoyed hot-breathing into the bright sun of a streetlight, pretending to be a dragon, or a smoker. Everything she looked at afterwards was eclipsed by the dying ghost of the yellow light…

But now, I see no breath – except for a slight halo around the slivered moon…

Rachel scratched at the back of her head, annoyed by the itchy toque.

Wait, was that barking?

In the candlelit bathroom, at the end of her preparations, she had leaned toward the mirror and touched her own amber face. Every movement caused the thin light to flicker…

My beauty is a now a danger…

Her father had told her, when she was fifteen, that ninety-nine out of a hundred guys are thoughtful, respectful, and decent.

“It’s that one guy in a hundred you’ve gotta watch out for, kiddo. Ninety-nine people will find your wallet and return it – or at least try – but that one guy, that one guy, he’ll just – steal your life…” He wagged his finger. “That guy won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. You’re really pretty, Rach, but don’t have too many boyfriends… Because everyone you date is like a – countdown, to that one guy. You gotta stop before he shows up…”

Rachel had really wanted to ask her father how he knew about that ‘one guy’ - his speech had a strange pressure behind it.

Was my dad ever that one guy?

In the dark, on the road, Rachel almost laughed.

But he knew one, for sure…

Then, the thought came: If I die in the wilderness and my father dies in the house behind me that conversation will utterly vanish from the world, forever…

Rachel had a mad impulse to pull her notebook out and write down her father’s words, but just shivered and kept on walking, her steps slowed by the dangerous darkness.

She had once watched a cheesy Batman movie with her father, and when the line came, “Some men just want to watch the world burn…” her father had muttered, “That one guy in a hundred, he’s always trying to take over…” And she remembered his stories of his boss at work – the screamer – what was his name? Randy?

And then she remembered the night that she had thanked her father for all his life’s labour, and sniffed loudly, against her will.

The moon was a third, a sideways eyeless grin in the night sky.

For some reason, another childhood memory erupted – when she was very, very young, and looked at the moon, and believed that all the charcoal shading on its surface was actually the continents where people lived, like the ones she had seen on a globe…

People live in the sky, and I live on an unknown surface, just looking up at them

Rachel had shivered, as a child, sensing her unbelievable distance from the mass and mess of all the world’s souls…

Stepping lightly on the black sidewalk, Rachel saw occasional flickers of candlelight between the vertical lines of tightly pulled curtains.

Faint howls rose in the middle distance.

People have closed their curtains because they are afraid of the street, she thought, and her heart suddenly pounded at the image of a predatory phalanx of one in a hundred guys circling her, vaulting silently over the peeling wooden fences between the untended winter gardens.

This is me, in the world, without protection

Then:

Have I felt this my whole life, deep down?

Once, when she and Arlo had ironically watched a trashy ‘Woman in Peril’ movie – the usual tall, dark and haughty man was chasing his prey through an empty mall – Arlo had murmured something – and Rachel now realized, in the dark, that it was an invitation to something real, something deeper – but she had completely let it pass by, as she always did…

He said: “Friend of my dad’s once told me how to understand you all… ‘Imagine you’re half your size, running through life carrying a treasure that every man wants – and might kill you for’…”

Arlo had chuckled, sitting with the cheddar popcorn on his lap – which he never touched. Rachel always wanted to remind him to eat, but remembered some stupid video about how a girlfriend should never turn into a mother…

It was a real crack in their towering façade of vanity – a chance to talk about what was real in the world, in life…

And then, Rachel remembered her father saying that it was every little choice to turn away from depth that produced the ruin of the modern world…

If we don’t talk about anything, we quickly become nothing at all

But they did talk, back then, in those dead and distant days. They talked about which of their friends were actually mediocre dancers; they hated on the unvaccinated. They laughed at those who had gained weight, or whose skin had begun to sag, or who dated too much, or were too obviously chased clicks on social media – or who wasted all their money on Starbucks, while constantly claiming they wanted to start an online life coaching business…

They rarely mocked those who had graduated to marriage and children – except to replay – often in their minds – that old cynical mantra from Kramer on Seinfeld, about the emptiness and waste of family life – ‘How was your day?’ – ‘No, how was your day?’

We are superior because we stay interesting and attractive…

Once, Rachel had been utterly horrified – after the 1-2-3 punch of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s – to be in possession of a belly so distended that she looked almost pregnant.

Her feelings followed in a 1-2-3 punch as well…

Why he had let her gain weight was a question that had bothered Rachel for weeks. Didn’t he care about her? She had unlocked his phone and scrolled through his posts – realizing that, for the past few weeks, she had been absent from his endless photos…

Night after night, she had stared at him, as he shouted commands during incomprehensible shooting games, or did his endless girly leg lifts while she recorded white-ring makeup tutorials, her hands forcing focus by almost touching the camera.

He never told me to drop the camera and start writing..!

And now, Arlo’s long-lost motives would never see the light of day – as neither would his mirrored blue eyes, closed forever by her manipulations and demands that he prove himself to her by rescuing her useless Aunt!

I could be tracked by my trail of tears, thought Rachel, forging forward in the darkness.

Years ago, when data was expensive, Arlo had insisted that she download maps to her phone when she was on Wi-Fi.

Rachel had loved complaining about her cell phone bill online, though, because it made her seem very, very important. She would blur out the details, LOL-ing at the total.

She knew what it showed:

Rachel sighed wearily, leaning against a crooked corner STOP sign.

Ah, the old days and years of complaining about boyfriends – it was all vanity, stupid narcissistic need! To show how desirable we were by how much our men had to put up with…

Will I ever become pregnant?

Aunt Crystal’s demanding, querulous face rose in her mind.

She thought of the old Mike Tyson quote: ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.’

Right…

Everyone has a plan until civilization collapses!

Everyone is so independent, so in control, so in command – we can scorn, mock, consume the world in endless greed – we don’t need to build any foundations, any community, any honest relationships, any – families… We don’t need to share any values, pursue anything higher, subjugate our will to anything deeper – the only meaning is the moment – then the moment passes, and the meaning evaporates…

Rachel had never been a violent person, but she wanted to reach back with endless arms and shake the girl she had been…

I am doomed because of your mistakes

In this moment, leaning against the cold holed metal column, Rachel thanked the blind stars above that everything had crumbled…

The world falling apart has put me back together…

She scurried across the empty intersection to the dim gas station on the far corner.

The windows were broken, the pumps smashed in obvious frustration. Two hollowed-out cars lay abandoned beside them.

No gas, so there was no point coming out to get some for mom and dad’s car…

Of course she had started up that car, but it was out of gas; it had all been siphoned and stolen by thieves in the night.

Rachel walked forward, picking gingerly over the broken glass…

Why smash it? she thought. Maybe the door, to get in, but why everything else?

The broken store was like a shrine to the endless temper tantrums of entitlement…

The inside had been picked completely clean. One fluorescent light flickered incomprehensibly in a back corner.

The slim jims, the fruit, the not-quite-hot-dogs on the greasy rollers – all were gone… The drink cabinets were empty, the cracked doors hanging at crazy angles…

Now is the time in the movie when someone calls out from the rubble – from the toilet perhaps - and I gain a wisecracking companion on my dangerous journey!

Silence.

Rachel lifted the side of the countertop to get behind it. The cash register was also smashed. The cigarettes, gone of course – probably circulating as some kind of currency…

She tried to remember the last time she had seen one of the coil-bound yellow map books. She remembered Arlo lifting one up, years ago, asking if she had written it…

“Me, a map book?” she laughed. “What on earth..?

He had put on an outrageous southern accent. “Because – it’s Purdy, and you’re pretty!

Rachel had rolled her eyes – she always pretended that Arlo was never funny – only cheesy – cringe!

Secretly, she knew she did this so that he would remain unaware of his own value – and thus more under her control.

Afraid to use her full phone flashlight, Rachel turned off her screen dimmer and used the slight light to hunt around in the mysterious cabinets under the front counter. A garbage can, some replacement rolls of paper for the cash register, pens and receipts…

Rachel had no idea why she thought she might find an actual map book down there – they had vanished from stores years ago – but she was desperate, and thus addicted to made-up activities.

At first, she thought she was just hungry.

Growl

The hairs on the back of her neck knew better…

Rachel heard a slight snorting, and a dripping, breathy panting…

Rising slowly, her eyes straining the darkness, Rachel’s thumping chest seemed at war with her lack of breath – like her heart was punching at the walls of her lungs to get out.

Hands shaking, she fumbled to turn on her cell phone’s full flashlight.

For a single, split-second of silence, she saw the ring of dogs around her. Their eyes gleamed back like malevolent stars, set above bared saliva teeth.

As one, barking and growling and massive flurries of motion exploded ahead of her.

Screaming, Rachel turned and clawed at the shelves behind her.

She felt the heavy hot bodies of the dogs slamming into her legs, jaws snapping. Still screaming, she kicked wildly at the beasts, grabbing at the topmost shelf on the wall.

Her fingertips skidded on the papers and folders, which rained down around her.

Rachel fell backwards, dropping her phone, which turned wildly, illuminating the scene like a deranged rabid disco.

Rachel landed on the back of a large dog, which twisted underneath her, snapping at her ear, its breath foul.

Rachel’s phone landed face down, plunging the room into darkness. Dogs bit and scrabbled at it, and it turned over, casting their mad boiling shadows onto the white ceiling tiles.

More dogs leapt at Rachel – some jumping from the counter above.

In a frenzy, Rachel grabbed at the open drawer of the cash register, pulling it down upon the squirming mass of predation and prey.

The crash summoned more barking, more dogs, more lunging bodies…

Rachel struggled to her feet, screaming again as a large dog’s teeth crunched into her sneaker.

More teeth ripped at her back, and she twisted her shoulders violently, pulling off her backpack, which was immediately torn away…

Abandoning her cell phone and kicking wildly, Rachel lost her shoe, but was able to grip the top shelf and haul herself up. She twisted violently from side to side, somehow preventing the dogs crashing into her back from getting any bites in.

She was able to swing her leg up to the top shelf of the cabinet.

There was a moment as the dogs below reassessed the situation.

A few of them leapt at her, but were unable to gain enough height, even from the countertop.

Hands shaking, Rachel pushed hard at the soft white ceiling tiles, lifting them up from the metal strips separating them.

Her heart hammering painfully, Rachel climbed up, above the ceiling.

There was a wider, more solid beam between the metal strips.

Rachel coughed from the dust.

Looking down, half-blinded by her upward-staring cell phone light, she saw the maddened dogs swarming all over the convenience store floor, the counters, the remnants of the shelves – biting everything – including each other.

Doggos, she thought strangely.  That’s what my friends used to call them on social media – doggos…

She remembered a meme, a wolf saying: “Those creatures over there have fire and food, what could go wrong?” – and the next picture was of a pug who couldn’t breathe, dressed in a bonnet…

It’s true, we do nickname God’s creatures…

Shaking her head, Rachel lay tentatively on the wider beam, spreading her hands on the thinner metal strips to either side.

She tried to will her body to relax slightly, as the dogs howled and bit and rampaged below – maddened by a prey they could not reach.

Good thing they’re not bears, she thought, stifling a manic inner giggle.

I might still have to face those

Will they get bored and wander off? Rachel ground her teeth. Dammit, why don’t I know anything about this stuff?

For some reason, she suddenly remembered the waiter at the restaurant, months ago, where she had met Cassie, and Ian and Ben had shown up… Meat shortages – or was it fish?

I wouldn’t give him the time of day then, but I would happily bear his child now, if he would show up and save me!

But that waiter would have vanished into the general Niagara flow of people over the edge of death…

Look at me – life without men! Who needs ‘em?

Rachel suddenly thought of all the mothers in England – and Europe – whose children – mostly girls – had been captured and assaulted by immigrants.

None of them had turned into crime-fighting superheroes, rescuing their trafficked offspring…

They barely even complained on social media, afraid of political incorrectness.

Rachel shook her head violently.

I don’t have anything up here. Food, water… If it’s a question of who can wait out whom, I’m on the losing end… They can go and get water, come back and wait. I’m stuck on this weird metal spiderweb.

If this was a movie, my saviour would arrive just as I was about to die…

Like my dad’s belief in Jesus…

But it’s not a movie…

A metal corner was digging painfully into her pubic bone, but Rachel was too terrified to shift her weight.

I fall, I die…

Her backpack had been torn apart, her food scattered and eaten…

After a while, the dogs began to settle down. They sat slowly in concentric rings, exactly below where she hung in the air.

The light of her cell phone lit up their wet noses and bright eyes, like a choir of unholy hungry trinities.

Rachel closed her eyes – then opened them again, petrified of becoming dizzy.

If I had a gun, would I use it on myself?

If I get eaten, will I die quickly?

Why didn’t my parents have any weapons?

Well, she had a kitchen knife – nice and long and serrated, but it had been scattered somewhere below when the dogs disassembled her backpack.

What the hell am I going to do?

They are just waiting for me to fall…

Perhaps I can crawl to some other exit – a vent or something…

And then what?

Let’s say I can somehow make it out of this building – it’s cold out there, I have no food and water, only one shoe – and no cell phone, no source of light. Those goddamned dogs might even prefer that!

How do you get rid of dogs?

Bear spray?

As a little child, Rachel had once seen a man kick a dog that was trying to bite him – in her youthful sentimentality, she had sided with the dog in her heart.

Hell, I’d give him a child if he were here now!

Stupid nature documentaries don’t prepare us for anything… They just show us cute animals, then tell us our parents are killing them all by idling the SUV on cold mornings…

Maybe it would’ve been slightly more helpful to teach us how to disperse a pack of wild dogs…

Rachel felt a sudden body chill, as she remembered a meme that Ian once shared with her: You are the carbon they want to reduce…

Just someone else I owe an apology to, I guess. That I will never get to deliver…

She felt as if her body were in motion, flowing forward inexorably, as if on a swift river, to a boiling waterfall ahead…

The waterfall of death, of course – flowing to join all the other billion nameless bodies of this universal catastrophe… The great unnamed, to be dug up in a million years when we have all turned into useful oil – to be pumped through the veins of incomprehensible machines automating the visions of a few brilliant leaders in one-piece silver suits…

Rachel jerked her head up, shocked that she was about to fall asleep.

If I could dream my way through dying, I would, right now, I promise!

I must be on the crashing side of the adrenaline dump…

Her panicking mind raced.

Can I lure one dog up here, kill it, and feed it to the others?

But how?

There was a safe under the counter, but – I can’t open it. Maybe it has a gun, but it doesn’t matter…

What if they leave when daylight comes?

Don’t be ridiculous, they’re dogs – not vampires!

But I will have better sight…

I have to get to the roof – I’ll be able to see at daybreak what my options are. Maybe there’s a giant tree branch I can climb along, to get to a fenced-in backyard, someplace safe…

Well one thing for sure – I damn well can’t stay here!

Gingerly, Rachel lifted her left leg. The metal beam she lay on was about six inches across – wobbly, but not impossibly thin.

A scatter of growls raced through the throats of the dogs below. They could hear her movement, or sense it somehow.

She lifted her right arm, to balance her weight on the thinner beam.

She was able to inch forward slowly. Her cell phone’s flashlight pushed enough brightness through the ceiling tiles that she was able to see that the wider beam went straight across the whole store, radiating from left and right the smaller beams that seemed unlikely to support her weight… Fortunately, the fluorescent light structures were screwed onto the thinner beams, and so did not block her path.

Rachel moved slowly forward, knowing that she would have one hell of a set of bruises, if she were lucky enough to ever see the sun again.

As she crawled, she dislodged some of the ceiling tiles, and they dropped to the barking snapping pack below.

Occasionally, a dog, maddened by hunger, would scramble to the top of the slippery empty shelves, and try leaping Rachel. She would pull all her limbs as high as possible, hoping that the beast’s jaws were not large enough to clamp onto her around the metal beams. She imagined the dog’s hanging weight pulling her down, her blood coursing down its thick fur…

This is hell… thought Rachel.

Inch by maddening inch, she eventually made it to the center of the store.

As long as I keep moving, the dogs will stay here – but I can’t stay still, it’s too painful…

Either her eyes were adjusting, or faint glimmers of dawn were growing outside.

Rachel blinked hard several times.

Yes, she could see the faint grey light – that always used to depress her when she was – before, whenever – coming in through the shattered front windows.

Rachel felt out of energy.

She groped around behind her, upwards as far as her shoulders could accommodate. She felt more metal beams rising in angles to the roof’s peak somewhere above her. They were thinner than the six-inch one she was resting on.

What the hell am I supposed to do?

She suddenly remembered the countless video games that Arlo had thrown aside in frustration, unable to solve their puzzles, and unwilling to look them up online…

“Man, it’s supposed to be at least fair!” he would cry out – as if his own looks and athleticism were right in the middle of the egalitarian bell curve.

Rachel felt a wild, petty rage churning at her innards – it wasn’t fair, everything that had happened, everything that had fallen apart…

She felt unbelievably isolated, alone in the universe – the last human soul, about to become a manic dying meal for dogs.

Some of these have to be neighbourhood dogs – I should have been nicer, I should’ve befriended them, maybe one of them would save me…

The slowly growing light did little to pierce the gloom of Rachel’s position. She could not see more than two feet ahead. She was too terrified to try turning over – her bulk would surely shift to one of the thinner beams, likely breaking it and dropping her to her death.

Maybe if I keep crawling, I could find the bathroom or a storage room or a supply room or something on the other side of this wall…

A wave of bottomless sorrow slammed into Rachel, and she gasped, her eyes erupting in tears.

SHUT UP, STOP IT, GROW UP! she screamed at herself in panic.

Her body felt as if it were preparing itself for death, releasing all the emotions held in reserve for the rest of her life in one supernova of insane passion – like a man on his deathbed finally confessing his life’s longing…

To hell with fairness, just live!

Gritting her teeth, Rachel willed her arms and legs to move.

As the blood returned to her extremities, Rachel bit her tongue to stop from crying out.

The dogs below began barking madly, growling and – screaming?

Forward, forward, inch by inch…

Her bladder felt about to burst.

Her mind began to chant…

Get bored, get bored, get bored – no meal for you here, you sons of bitches!

Rachel almost laughed at the accuracy of her mental curse.

The dogs stalked her progress on their trembling legs.

When she got to the far wall, there was nothing.

She groped ahead, feeling only a gritty blank wall.

No opening, no vent, no access to another room.

dead

end

No relief from pain, no exit.

Only regret.

Why didn’t I just – throw myself at him? I could be with him now, safe in his embrace, holding his child while he holds back the world… What the hell was I saving myself for? Why did I waste time with that – now-dead man boy?

Because the world hypnotizes you, my dear, distracting you from your mortality until you die inside…

Who the hell is in charge, that it gets so bad, and I die in a dirty corner, pulled apart by pets?

Well, at least I’m not being eaten by cats in my old age… thought Rachel with a deeply bitter inner laugh.

She closed her eyes.

How am I going to face the end?

That most final of questions arose from her thudding heart.

I can’t face it well, because the end is so terrible…

When she used to occasionally think of death, Rachel had imagined a slow morphine fadeout, in a comfortable hospital bed, dispensing courage and wisdom and speaking of the satisfactions of a long life well lived. She was surrounded by – well, people of course – she wasn’t sure precisely who… Not her children exactly, but smiling faces who really cared about her for some reason she never really tried to fathom.

Who are you without – sex?

A piece of meat. Food for dogs, then food for worms…

Rachel ground her teeth in frustration.

What is the point of wisdom that comes too late?

Torture – nothing but torture…

Rachel supposed that new clouds must be shielding the rising sun, for the light began to dim again. As if fed by the growing darkness, the dogs began to leap back and forth, the anticipation of fresh meat – not so fresh, I’m actually 28! – causing swaying icicles of saliva to fall from their jaws.

They began to growl again – but it was different – joyful, eager…

Death is better than pain… was Rachel’s last thought, as she let go and fell…

The eruption of howls and growls and barks startled Rachel awake.

Her hips were in agony.

She had peed herself.

The light was bright below.

Looking down from her beam, she saw clustered pawprints, scattered through layers of feces and urine.

The dogs had disappeared.

She saw a last, slow – poodle, or something, scrambling over the low windowpane at the front of the store. She rejoiced, hoping it was cutting itself to death on the broken glass.

God, now, run, you idiot!

Having no idea of her salvation, Rachel yanked her legs to one side, gripped the six-inch beam - gasping as the blood fell into her feet again – and hung down.

I really, really hope they are gone, because there’s no way I could get myself back up again…

She hesitated before letting go, remembering as a girl, when she had dropped from a tree branch, and her heavy feet felt like they were about to explode…

She also remembered, as an new teen, watching a boy swinging over a shallow rocky stream, hanging from a giant rope which was tied to the underside of a railway bridge. She had felt hot pleasure, knowing that he was risking serious harm just to impress her – all that power, wasted on the young! I should’ve told him to stop, but I loved his subjugation…

The boy had swung two times – and on the third, had just dropped about 15 feet onto the rocks in the stream. Braving it out, he had limped back to shore. “Weird, my arms just – gave out…” he grimaced.

Payback… thought Rachel as her arms gave way.

In blind luck, her feet landed on tile, rather than slippery feces.

Her half-dead legs buckled, and she fell hard to one side, her knees crunching in agony.

With a will she had no idea she possessed, Rachel grappled herself up, pulling at the blank shelves – always and forever the dead colour halfway between brown and grey.

She looked up.

Outside, on the street, the pack of dogs had circled a heavily bundled figure – a man, it looked like - who was trying to hold them at bay with a walking stick…

Based on his movements, he looked to be in late middle age – Rachel could see a salt-and-pepper beard jutting out from under his hood.

Still mostly using her arms, Rachel levered herself around the shelves.

She slipped on more feces.

My God, did these dogs crap everywhere?

Reaching the front counter – her gaze still glued to the older man fighting for his life – Rachel knelt – almost crying out as her knees crunched again – and grabbed at her backpack and phone. Glancing down, she stuffed as many of her scant possessions as she could find into her backpack – making especially sure to grab the kitchen knife. Her phone was low on power. She thumbed it open and turned off the flashlight.

Rising, Rachel saw that the older man had been backed up to a fence – still swinging wildly as the dogs lunged at his legs. He kept screaming “YA!!!” – as if the cry had some power to command the beasts to leave him in peace.

Rachel stared, her eyes wide, as the crazed dogs began to leap directly at the man’s bearded throat.

Screaming wildly, he swung and punched.

After kicking one dog backwards, head over heels, he whirled around and tried leaping over the fence.

The dogs immediately leapt at his legs.

Rachel cried out, then covered her mouth with her hand.

The man screamed as the dogs latched onto his heels – the bulk of his body fell over the top of the fence, dragging two gripped dogs over with him.

The remaining dogs tried leaping over the fence.

The hysterical screaming continued.

He can’t die in vain, thought Rachel.

Too terrified to try going out the front of the store, Rachel ran to the back, shouldering open the door with the “Employees Only” sign.

More shelves, empty scattered boxes, a broken mop and bucket…

Reaching down, Rachel grabbed the long mop handle, which had been broken into a pleasingly jagged end.

Praying unabashedly, she slammed her hip into the horizontal bar that opened the heavy back door.

It creaked open, and she found herself in a small back parking lot, with a garbage dumpster to the right, and a motorcycle with one wheel missing lying to her left.

Ahead was a row of tall wooden fences.

Rachel realized that the old man’s screaming had stopped.

Her manic brain scanned everything around, sizing everything up for survival.

Have to get over that fence

Parkour boyfriend would have no problem with it…

The barking of the dogs increased, but Rachel’s crazed brain could not pinpoint any location.

Get over now!

Lurching back inside, Rachel grabbed the bucket.

Running to the base of the tall fence-line, she upended it on the ground.

Racing back to the door, she turned and sprinted towards the fence, gritting her teeth at the pain in her knees.

Dogs came pouring around the left side of the building.

Hurling her backpack over the fence, Rachel’s right foot skidded on the top of the upended bucket. Reaching up with her fingers – her shoulders still in rusty agony – she gripped the zigzag top of the wood and hauled herself up.

She felt ghastly vibrations in the fence as the dogs’ bodies thudded into it.

Twisting over the top, Rachel mostly fell onto the bushes on the far side, the bare branches scratching her cheeks.

Scrambling up, she saw a large overturned red toy car on her left, and a well-maintained swing-set to her right.

Please don’t let me find any children’s bodies, she begged the indifferent universe as she grabbed her backpack and sprinted up the back steps. And dear God, let this door be unlocked…

The back latch did not move under her half-frozen fingers.

I can’t break the windows, that will let the dogs in!

The barking of the dogs began to spread around her, like a viscous invasive liquid.

They’re trying to find another way to get at me…

Should I climb the drainpipe, get to the second floor?

What if those windows are locked as well?

SMASH THINGS! screamed a primal part of her brain.

Rachel unzipped her backpack, put her hand inside in, made a fist, and punched at the glass by the back lock.

After three tries, it shattered.

The barking was agonizingly close.

With her other hand, Rachel reached in, scrambling to open the lock.

She found the latch and twisted it, as the manic barking seemed to come from inside her brain…

Hauling open the door, she leapt in, spun and slammed it shut – slowing the speed just before it hit the frame, to make sure no other windows would break.

Dogs came racing around the side of the house.

A few of them had red mouths.

Didn’t they just eat?

“GOD DAMN YOU ALL!” screamed Rachel, pulling at her hair.

She sank against the white wall, her hands covering her ears as the dog’s bodies thumped into the door – one thought ringing through her brain.

Thank God my parents aren’t here…

After a while – she never knew how long it was – Rachel opened her eyes and committed to assessing the damage.

The sun was high in the sky when she checked the yard for dogs, then ventured out to retrieve her backpack.

Everything was silent.

Spreading its contents out on the kitchen floor, Rachel felt dread in her heart.

She still had her soap, a few changes of clothes, her cell phone, her solar charger, a toothbrush (have to have fresh breath for the destination!), the kitchen knife and a few granola bars – and three bottles of water – but everything else was gone.

Rachel tried to resist the feeling that she was right back where she started. She was unlikely to find enough food in this house to continue…

Rachel suddenly thought: What if I am not alone in this house?

She stared around at the décor, trying to picture the owners.

It was more of a bungalow than a house – a back split, decorated in Eastern European hominess. There was a motionless cuckoo clock on the wall, an optimistically large dining table – surely mostly occupied by only two elderly people – and cheesy snow-covered landscapes on the wall. Newspapers and magazines lay on the dining room table, covered in incomprehensible Eastern lettering…

Older couple, retired…

Rachel imagined them returning from the library with magazines and newspapers from the homeland two weeks behind the times – and striving and failing to install Skype in the hopes of talking with distant relatives.

What if they are still in the house?

They were the kind of broken old-world couple that might have accepted their fate without complaint – perhaps they had seen so much horror under the communism of their youth that they could not summon any real sorrow in the face of approaching death.

I will find them upstairs, lying in separate beds, holding hands like a tiny bridge across the gap…

Rachel pulled off her torn sock. Her right foot was blackened, bruised – she could feel her heartbeat beneath the tender skin. Taking a deep breath, she reached under, feeling around for wounds.

She had a vivid memory of being in her tomboy phase – just before puberty – and crossing a churning river in the woods. She had stepped on something sharp, reached down to feel her right foot, and her finger had slipped into a bleeding hole.

Her mother had rushed her to the hospital, where she had joked and laughed with the nurses.

Rachel had lain on her belly during the resulting procedure – the stitches were so excruciating that she was deathly still and quiet afterwards. As if she had been broken.

Why didn’t he freeze me better?

To her immense relief, no skin had been broken – her little toe was a very unpleasant colour, and she imagined that she would lose the toenail – and once more remembered being a kid, barefoot in a hotel, and having an elevator door close on her foot, and losing a toenail that way…

Rachel shook her head, shocked at the tsunami of early memories almost drowning her.

I never paid much attention to my past, because I was always paying more attention to how much attention was paid to me in the present!

This slow tumble of fortune cookie sorrow was becoming annoying…

Now that Rachel’s panic had subsided, her foot was beginning to swell and creak with pain.

She reached around, touching her entire body, probing for trauma.

Her inner right shoulder was sore – from reaching around on the beam, or hauling herself up the shelves, or jagged wooden fence, or something…

Her left buttock – some tendon, deep inside, by the bone, was complaining, but not too badly.

All those lunges for the bubble butt finally paid off!

Her wet groin had dried somewhat, perhaps from the residual heat left in the house…

Using the wall as leverage, Rachel levered herself up to standing.

After trying to put a little weight on her right foot, she decided to hop. It wasn’t too painful, but she didn’t want anything to get worse.

To her left was a small kitchen with a vaulted ceiling. Cheap imitation marble, painted wooden cabinets, an immortal fridge from the 1980s, a coiled-metal electric stove… Above the stove, a built-in microwave with the plastic still on the buttons.

The kitchen was clean, tidy.

So, certainly not bachelors then…

A sudden bleating cry to her right made Rachel jump and cry out.

A slow, wounded bird stuck its head out from the cuckoo clock.

I guess it runs on batteries

Putting her hand on her heart, Rachel opened the first cabinet.

Obviously-unused formal glasses – not crystal, but nice.

Once a year, they break these out for traditional drinks – mulled something or other with vodka and pepper, perhaps an oyster…

Next cabinet – slightly mismatched side and dinner plates.

These people take care of things so well, that many of these are wedding gifts, forty years past! They don’t want to forget the wedding, so they spend hours scouring flea markets to find plates that match as closely as possible, because the original manufacturer closed down, or moved to China…

Rachel finally opened the pantry door – her other hand crossed its fingers, unknown to her.

Goldmine!

Cracker boxes with foreign languages – Russian?

Salted nuts.

Raisins.

Tins covered with pictures of staring fish.

Large bags of pickle and dill potato chips.

Bottles of a dark drink – Baukan?

Cans of herring and – onions?

Tins of what looked like condensed milk.

Bags of tiny hard bagels.

Rachel closed her eyes, relief washing over her.

She reached to open the bag of tiny hard bagels – the more colourful the packaging, the longer it lasts! – but then hesitated, realizing that she really had to search the house first.

What if they are dying in a room down the hall?

She shivered, then realized that the broken window by the door was still letting cold air in. Hopping over to the dining room table, she grabbed some newspapers, and stuffed them into the jagged hole.

Fortunately, there was a small handrail on the stairs leading up to the living room.

Tired pastel colours, two couches and an armchair covered in fabric that looked ripped from the seats of a 1970s Beetle.

The lamps had plastic on the ridged covers.

The kind of people who obsessively preserve their environment, but never exercise…

Rachel felt the old twinge of unkindness, of imagined superiority.

Pretty sure they got around to having children, kiddo, so maybe shut up a little…

Rachel could see faint squares on the wall, with picture hooks in the upper middle. On the liquor cabinet, slight variations of dust on the top.

So, they took their family photos…

She took another deep breath, certain now that the house was empty.

A sudden thought struck her, hard.

Were they the kind of couple to have two cars? Or, maybe their kids came to collect them…

Rachel had done the math obsessively in her mind, for weeks. She remembered her father telling her a story, decades ago, when he worked in a hardware store, and had his first calculator watch, and used it to repeatedly figure how many weeks he had to work to buy his first second-hand car.

200 miles.

8 hours a day walking.

2.5 miles an hour.

20 miles a day.

10 days.

Another thought struck her.

My God, what if they have maps? They are seriously old-school, they might prefer hard copies of everything… My mom wanted everything printed out, drove me crazy, the tree killer..!

Rachel felt a catch in her throat, and consciously willed herself to stop thinking of her mother in the past tense.

Would – would there be anything useful in the bedrooms?

What if – what if they are in there?

Maybe – maybe half of life is striving to avoid the impression of indelible horrors.

I need shoes – but nothing useful would be in the bedrooms, only formal shoes…

She looked for signs of any children – surely adults – living in the home, but there were none. The television was ancient – a total blasphemy to the media generation. There didn’t seem to be any Wi-Fi router.

I guess the backyard toys are for visiting grandchildren

Then, Rachel thought: What if there is a young man – an incel – praying in one of these bedrooms – “Please God above, deliver unto me a pretty, young and fertile woman..!”

Rachel smiled and half-shuddered.

She went to the front hallway and opened the door to the garage.

Dark, bright thin outlines from around the garage doors.

Two spaces.

One car.

Rachel cried out in relief, hopping forward.

There were cork boards on the far wall, with obsessively clean tools hanging on them, outlined in black marker.

It was an older car, a surprisingly fertile shade of red.

Clean, tidy.

Rachel peered in the driver-side window, hopelessly trying the door handle.

Locked, of course.

She hopped around the back of the car, trying every handle – even the trunk.

It was a Volvo. S70.

The far side of the car was very close to the clean workbench.

Rachel wriggled up and tried the passenger doors.

Locked.

Struck by a sudden thought, she hopped back – pausing by the trunk as her left leg thigh muscle spasmed briefly – then tried to pry open the gas cap.

Stuck, locked.

Rachel leaned down and sniffed at it greedily, but could smell nothing. No gas – at least, no odour…

Would they take the keys with them?

Leaning forward on the trunk, she took some of the weight off her throbbing left leg, trying to let it rest.

Snowblower, leaf blower, lawnmower…

Did they all use gas? Could it be siphoned off?

I don’t know – this is the price of never helping my dad with his chores

In a back corner, she could see the black square arch of what looked like a lawnmower handle.

Need keys, need keys…

If it’s full, I get over 300 miles – probably closer to 400!

Even half full gets me most of where I need to go…

Rachel crossed over the empty space, back to the couple of stairs blocks leading into the house.

Please God, let there be a key rack…

Inside, she looked to the left.

Bare wall, small side table. A few pieces of mail, a small drawer.

She avoided the mail, oddly averse to learning their names…

Lurching forward, Rachel put one hand on the top of the table and opened the drawer.

Nestled in green felt, there was a flashlight, a letter opener and…

KEYS!

Her heart soared – then froze, as another dying chirp came from the dining room.

Enraged suddenly, Rachel staggered down the hallway, down the stairs, turned and ripped the chocolate brown clock off the wall, and smashed it on the floor.

Surprisingly strong, it bounced, scattering cheap generic batteries over the imitation wood.

A sob escaped Rachel’s throat, and she suddenly felt faint.

She grabbed at one of the chairs, and used it to slow her fall as her vision went black…

Rachel awoke in bright sunlight.

She heard the distant din of dogs, and shuddered.

A beam of light was falling directly on her face, from just above the newspaper-stuffed hole in the glass.

Tasting an acrid stench, she realized she must have vomited.

Better to have food coming out than be food going in… she thought wildly, remembering the gruesome carpet of glaring dogs on the floor of the convenience store.

It was strangely pleasant to lie here – the warmth of the sunlight seemed to heat even the roots of her teeth.

Then something – most odd happened.

Within Rachel, and to Rachel…

Her whole life, she had felt a strange tension – in her belly, her chest. A sense of impending disaster, a lack of protection, a blindness to circling predators.

I always fiddled while Rome burned…

She remembered another meme that Ian had sent her – Are we the fall of Rome? - The answer: Nope, Rome had good roads…

God, how I rolled my eyes and called him crazy…

Rachel felt – at the strangest possible time, she thought – all her tension leave her body at once.

My life is not entirely my own, she thought.

She lay in the sunshine – the bright light of survival – and her animal will just – left her.

It’s migrating, back to my past, where it will hibernate, with my parents… she thought, barely understanding her own mind.

Her life had been delivered to her as a gift, lying on the fake wood of an abandoned dining room floor.

Vanity is the most fundamental lack of gratitude…

The unknown instincts that had saved her from the dogs – saved her from her parent’s lassitude – that were driving her to the only home she could imagine, with Oliver – she did not earn those instincts – she had no idea they even existed

I know that my home is with Oliver – and that is insane at a conscious level – he barely knows me – and does not approve – but I know it, against all reason, against all experience – because what is coming has nothing to do with what was past

Again, her thoughts churned beyond her comprehension…

Turning her head, Rachel saw a shiny something by her eyes.

A near-dead battery

The bird, beyond it, lashed by strange threads of metal to the dark opening of the clock, lay on its side, its beak wide in mute surprise.

I will never move again, entirely by my own will

What am I being kept alive for?

The idea of being kept alive – protected, nurtured – guided..?

Is it the mere animal within me, or something – beyond me?

And, even more deep and thunderous, like a giant bell dropped in the deep well of her soullessness…

Can I get to safety without God?

And…

Was Arlo the devil?

And…

Was I?

Look what it has taken for me to actually think about my life… The death of - everything, the attacks of rabid animals, lying in this house of the dead, coincidental sunbeams lighting up my eyelids…

What was I living for?

To glorify the great gift of existence?

No, to step on the sadness of others, in order to avoid my own

What can we will, as mere individuals?

And, most fundamentally…

Why do I want to live?

Why didn’t I just drop to the dogs, fall down to the mere mammal?

Because of the pain?

There is more pain in staying up, in surviving

A strange grace enveloped her – her mind glowed, her body fell away – and she had a vision of herself, in this house, without intervention, old and bitter and yelling at skateboarders, and hating children, and spending all her energy convincing herself that she was still somehow in the right, despite all evidence…

God above, Aunt Crystal in ten years…

And the idea – the very idea that something larger than herself had been trying to instruct her for decades – the concept that she was a protagonist in a story designed to elevate her – this both enhanced and crushed the remnants of her vanity…

Life is a school I refused to learn from

It can’t all be for me – but Arlo cut his testicles off, Crystal was left with nothing, Ben was turning feral in the absence of love, my parents’ guilt kept them locked in a house, falling to nothing… Cassie was learning her lesson – Ian was trying to teach me… Oliver did nothing but beg for me to be honest, and I just couldn’t stop – lying…

Maybe the only people who get to live are those who learn these lessons…

My God, it’s a new flood

Rachel shivered, despite the warmth. Her mother had pulled her to church when she was little, and she coloured in the animals going two by two, into the Ark…

When we take these gifts, and use them for our own vanity, God – God – doesn’t exactly get angry, but He no longer intervenes to protect us – from ourselves…

I was given the gift of life, and used it only to feed my own ego. Like an idiot child who inherits a fortune, and squanders it all on vainglorious garbage

Where was my gratitude? I claimed to love my life, but I would not pay it forward… I refused to make love, make life

I was a reporter? I never wanted to speak truth to power, or defend the helpless and the innocent – I wanted views and clicks, and red-carpet invitations. I wanted awards on the mantelpiece, not – not virtue in the heart…

And everything – and everyone – tried to tell me, in their own way…

Everything I alone decided was – crap.

I give up.

I surrender…

Rachel closed her eyes, and the light grew in her mind until it overwhelmed her identity.

When she awoke again, it was dark.

It was not a drug, her vision…

Drugs passed, but her strange relaxation remained…

And below that relaxation, the titanic bedrock of acceptance

I think this is the first time in my life where I am not complaining about something…

Yes, my foot hurts like hell. I haven’t found any water. I was almost killed by – doggos…

But I am alive!

Always be grateful for that!

Crawling over to the kitchen counter, Rachel pulled herself up.

A twinge of pain shot through her right shoulder. Rachel smiled, accepting it gratefully, as a testament to not dying…

She opened the first bedroom door without fear.

Neat piles of cushions, immaculately made beds, a Bible on the nightstand in the master bedroom…

Nothing.

She went through the closets, knowing that at least one of the bedrooms must have once been occupied by a child, a teenager…

In the last bedroom, with faded horse wallpaper, and a dresser covered with golden female basketball trophies, Rachel found a pair of sneakers in a box under the bed.

They were too big for her, but she found some socks in a drawer, and put three pairs on her uninjured foot – and one on the other.

Rooting around in the drawers, she found new clothes, and changed, deeply grateful to be out of her damp underwear.

Gritting her teeth, smiling at the pain, Rachel was able to wedge her blackened foot into the right sneaker.

Tying the shoe tightly, she got up and tested her balance.

Much better!

She half-hopped back into the kitchen, rooted around in the drawers until she found the one with all the plastic bags, then filled them up with as much food as possible.

She was not hungry, and decided to wait to eat until her body was ready.

Humming, she ferried the bags to the garage door.

She picked out the Volvo keys from the green felt drawer, then opened the door.

Pointing the key fob, she pushed the ‘unlock’ button.

Rachel laughed with joy as the Volvo chirped and flashed.

Rooting around in the garage, Rachel found a Purdy’s map – and another King James Bible.

She held both to her chest, and got into the car.

Chapter 26

The car humming beneath her, Rachel felt as if she were floating, like she was driving some science fiction transport that never had to touch the ground.

I am not of this world, I am not of this world…

The Volvo’s tank had been about a quarter full, but Rachel had been able to siphon off some gas from the lawnmower – enough in total to get her a good way towards her destination.

My destination…

She felt an unreal detachment from her physical environment – normally she would associate this with the mental affliction called dissociation, but it felt very – different from that.

The tension in her chest had been replaced by a glow in her heart – the God-glow, she called it in her mind.

Rachel drove awkwardly, pressing down on the gas pedal with her left foot – her right foot was too painful to use.

Getting out of the suburbs had been relatively easy. The roads were mostly clear – wherever they were blocked, an alternate route was easy to find. Thanking the ghost of Arlo, Rachel had found that her phone had downloaded maps, and the GPS was still working.

She saw occasional packs of dogs, and once gunned her car directly at one group, but the beasts scattered before she could hit them.

The time for sentimentality is past, she thought with a grim smile.

Once, she saw an army truck far ahead, perpendicular to her path, blowing through the inevitable stop signs.

The city ended on the precipice of one major highway, crossing east to west. Below were endless tracts of suburbs and strip malls – above were farms, coffee shops, homespun truck stops and bright child-entrapment candy stores.

Glancing at the fuel gauge, Rachel suddenly noticed that the engine warning light was on – which could  mean just about anything…

She was no longer afraid of consequences, though – her mind was humming with thoughts of an un-guessable future.

It doesn’t matter if I get there, it doesn’t matter if he loves me, it doesn’t matter – much – even if I live or die…

Rachel knew that she had first tasted real life the day before, after the dogs, when she had smashed the cuckoo clock, and woken with the sunlight streaming through her face.

Salvation

She could not call it ‘God’ – at least in her mind, though her heart felt otherwise. She certainly could not call it ‘Jesus’ because that was far too personal, far too historical, far too vivid and immediate.

I’m-spiritual-not-religious was the mantra of her fashionable set.

Rachel laughed. Let’s be honest – we wanted all of the comfort, but none of the rules…

She tipped an imaginary fedora at Arlo, and his science degree…

He only loved science because it was a shield against morality…

As he always said: “You just can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ babe…”

Rachel thought of all her friends, over the years – where were they now..?

Panicking, starving, being herded up and confined…

She imagined their strange-coloured haircuts growing out, the natural roots showing for the first time in years…

She imagined them removing their eyebrow rings, their nose studs – newly afraid of untreatable infections.

Would all my girl power feminist squads have organized themselves into hunting parties, rebellions, collective tribes of neighbourhood salvation?

Rachel laughed again.

The very idea…

They are finally free of the patriarchy!

She wanted to nestle into Oliver’s chest, and apologize until the end of time.

The devil frees you from reality, gives you effects without a cause – and then takes your soul

Rachel remembered one Christmas, when her father had received a text message from his doctor, informing him that he had a fatal disease – he never told her anything more specific.

It turned out that it was supposed to be a generic Christmas greeting, but had gone horribly awry – thousands of people had received the same message. It was just bad timing that her father had recently had a checkup, and blood work.

Bert got the message on a Friday night – and had to wait until Monday to clear things up with the doctor.

He spent the whole weekend thinking he was going to die.

Later, he told Rachel: “I’ve given up trying to figure out what is good or bad in this life, kiddo. That was the worst news I could get – but it gave me a new lease on life, which I’m truly grateful for…”

And – the change had really stuck! He worked less, spent more, traded in computer numbers for real experiences.

“The thought of death gave me back my life!” he said.

Of course, Rachel’s father sent a birthday card to his doctor, every Christmas, informing the elderly man that he had been diagnosed with a fatal illness…

Almost dying is infinitely better than almost living… she thought.

As she left the city behind, driving past the few remaining abandoned cars, Rachel could not help but think of her old life.

God I was insufferable!

She judged everything, all the time…

She compared herself to other women – and Arlo to other men. She compared her career to more successful people, and became depressed – or less successful people, and grew vain and complacent.

She had no plan, other than the success of the moment – always predicated on feelings of superiority, never genuine achievement.

She had no life, other than skipping and jumping from one dopamine hit to another. Her secret life of fielding direct messages from men – constantly reminding them that she was in a relationship, but loving the attention nonetheless – well, she would never have the chance to level with Arlo now.

Rachel felt great sorrow when thinking of him – but not because of his death. Rather, it was because he had no more life than a wondrous piece of art.

Arlo was an empty receptacle for the fantasies of others; a strutter and parader of his own unearned virtues… Of course, he constantly told Rachel that he worked very hard to maintain his physique – but she always knew that he put in the work only because it paid off so spectacularly for him! His pretty hair, his lovely features – his natural tendency towards slim-hipped leanness – these all made the work worthwhile. Exercise polishes beauty – but never creates it from scratch.

We starved to death, mining the unearned

A strange thought struck her then.

If this was a story, I would need to explain why I lived, but Arlo did not…

But it never will be explained – all I can do is live as well as possible, to honour this unexpected – and truly unearned – gift…

Why did the old man with the grey beard die, unknowingly giving me life?

Rachel felt a slight stab of remorse and guilt.

The dogs had only gathered in the convenience store because of me – the older man was killed as a direct result of me hiding in the ceiling…

To him, too, I owe endless apologies and a better life

Rachel had a sudden urge to name her future son – any of the many she now planned – after the older man, but of course she didn’t know his name.

And it wasn’t likely she could call any of her kids “Arlo”…

Perhaps just another kind of cheese…

Rachel drove automatically, lost in thoughts and reveries – and so did not notice the checkpoint until she saw the sign.

DRIVE FORWARD!

IF YOU TURN AROUND

YOU WILL BE SHOT!

The sign was hand-painted, on a white sheet nailed to a square wooden board.

Ahead of her was a police car, parked perpendicular to the road.

Its overhead lights were flashing pulses of red and blue.

Rachel’s left foot spasmed, and the Volvo accelerated.

I could just blast right through… she thought with eerie calm. No one is protecting me!

But a rapid series of consequences – instead of mere excuses – unfurled in her mind, like the online videos of falling dominoes she used to love as a tween.

I drive, they open fire…

I weave on the road, I lose control…

They finish me off in a ditch

All legal norms had evaporated in her mind – due process, one phone call, access to a lawyer – surely this had all been replaced by brutal frontier justice…

There’s no point surviving the dogs just to be finished off by the pigs

The caustic term for police officers floated up from some unknown recess of her brain, shocking her.

As a pretty young woman, Rachel had never had any trouble with the police – and had occasionally used them to threaten insistent men outside of nightclubs. Rachel would hold up her phone and dial nine, then one – and then would tell the man that he was only one digit away from jail!

“Don’t think I won’t!” she would cry, flushed with the adrenaline of midnight urban stalking combat.

The various men had always backed away, clearly imagining a distraught Rachel, crying and pointing at them, and a grim-faced white-knight officer stepping forward to protect her fragility, her eggs!

“Why are you bothering this lady – come with me!”

Rachel had always loved the police.

Now, she did not…

Even if I get away, they will follow me – and I bet they have more gas than I do!

And there are no rules anymore, what could happen if they catch me in the wilderness?

She expected to feel great fear – but she only felt a deep, still caution.

If there aren’t any rules, I sure as hell can’t try and flirt my way out of this!

Flirting only worked if the man would be severely punished for refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer…

Otherwise, it’s Russian roulette…

As she slowed down, Rachel used her free hand to grab the toque from the passenger seat, pull it over her hair, and tuck whatever strands she could handle underneath it.

Be ugly, be ugly, be ugly…

A young man – impossibly young – got out of the police car and waved her down.

Rachel drove up to him, stopped, and turned off her car.

He had no official hat, but was wearing what looked like the rolled-up top of a balaclava. His eyes were pale blue, his nose lightly freckled.

On either side of him were bright orange traffic cones, and what looked like unrolled barbed wire on the road – with savage spikes, designed to murder tires.

He gestured for her to roll down her window. His breath fogged in the brittle air.

“Sir? Ma’am? You’ve got to turn around.”

“Why, what’s the story, officer?”

He gestured at the inside of her car. “Look, I’m not gonna check your registration or anything like that, but you are going to have to turn around and go back to the city, ma’am. If you don’t have enough gas, I have a container.”

He gave a faint smile, nodding slightly, hypnotically.

“Rachel Hastings,” she said, sticking her gloved hand out of the window.

“Officer Reynolds,” he replied, shaking her hand.

She smiled. “Well, I guess there’s no line up behind me, can I have a minute?” said Rachel.

“I don’t…” He frowned. “You know the rules…”

“Actually, I don’t,” replied Rachel, realizing how tough it was to refrain from staring up coquettishly through her eyelashes. “I heard some trucks, with loudspeakers, but couldn’t make out what they were saying…”

“It’s the same thing everywhere, Miss. Go home, stay in your house, wait for food and further orders.”

Rachel nodded slowly. “But – do you think that food is coming?”

The officer shrugged. “That’s way over my pay grade.”

Rachel’s voice lowered. “Have you seen the – dogs?”

The young man nodded soberly, tapping the baton on his belt. “I have to run up my driveway swinging, sometimes.”

“They almost got me.”

He frowned. “What are you doing, out of your house?”

“I can’t stay there. I’m out of food.”

Officer Reynolds turned and squinted up the highway.

“So – where were you heading?”

“My parent’s cottage.”

“There is – food there?”

Rachel nodded.

The policeman paused. “Is it far?”

“If I can get some gas, just about – ninety minutes.”

He pursed his lips, then straightened and stood up. He whistled piercingly, pointed his finger up and rotated it quickly.

“Turn around, Miss.”

“Officer…” she murmured.

He leaned back down.

“I don’t know the state of – anything. There’s no one around, can you give me some information? Anything?”

He paused.

“If I do, will you turn around?”

Rachel nodded.

“Well, what do you want to know?”

“God, everything!”

He smiled faintly. “Well, that’s quite a conversation, and I’m freezing. Get into my squad car, we’ll talk there.”

Rachel got out of her car and followed the officer to his police vehicle.

“You’re not in trouble yet, you can set up front,” he said with a wink.

Rachel sat in the passenger seat. The policeman settled into the driver’s side.

She looked at all the various screens and keyboards and radios.

“I can’t believe you guys give us grief about texting…”

He grunted. “It’s mostly useless crap now, just gets in the way…”

Rachel shivered. “I’m freezing! I didn’t want to use the heater, I don’t have enough gas…” She cupped her hands and blew into them. “Lord alive, it’s toasty in here – can I stay just a few minutes?”

The officer nodded. “You had some questions…”

“Well – what is the state of the – law?”

He smiled slightly again. “Why, you thinking of breaking it?”

“I guess everyone wonders about the – end of the world…”

He barked a tiny laugh. “No zombies, least not yet.”

“Are you from…” Rachel’s throat was shivering with cold and tension. “Doesn’t look like you’ve been on the job long.”

Reynolds grimaced. “Eh, I’ve always had a baby face… My girlfriend wouldn’t go out with me at first, she thought I was underage.”

“Is she – okay?”

His face tightened, the freckles on the bridge of his nose drawing slightly closer together. “Nobody’s – okay…”

“I’m sorry.”

“We’re all sorry.”

There was a pause. Rachel could feel the officer’s formal personality beginning to eclipse his brief vulnerability.

“What’s going on, in the city?”

He took a deep breath. “Well, most people are staying home… It’s not just dogs – coyotes and wolves have come in as well – and a couple of bears, believe it or not. Some idiots opened all the zoo cages as well – I had to catch some – little monkeys, what are they called..?”

“Lemurs?”

He snapped his fingers. “Yeah, lemurs…” He turned to her. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” murmured Rachel, her voice getting softer. “Yeah…”

“And there are two tigers loose as well. It’s pretty crazy…” Officer Reynold’s laugh was tense. He drummed the fingers of his right hand on the top of his steering wheel. “We’re just – all holding the fort until we can get things back to normal.”

“You started – during the pandemic?”

He smiled wryly. “Do I have timing, or what?”

“Are your folks – in the city?”

He paused, instinctually aware that intimacy was being worked on. “They are – up north…”

“Cottage country?”

He nodded.

“Do you think things will – get back to normal?”

“Not sure what choice there is…” He took a deep breath. “My dad’s a history buff, thinks this is the fall of Rome.”

“Have you been able to talk to him?”

Officer Reynolds shook his head.

“Either of them?”

“No…”

Rachel smiled. “You must have… You must’ve thought of checking on them…”

“Oh, we’re not allowed to…” He sighed. “Sleep, crap, shave, shower, back out… Well, that should cure my baby face…”

In the resulting pause, Rachel’s mind worked frantically, trying to come up with a topic. She could feel the police officer’s rising impatience.

Then, words came to her that she did not understand – but spoke anyway.

“Officer Reynolds,” she said softly. “You’re living at the police station, right?”

“Yeah…” he said uncertainly.

“I had to leave my parents behind…” She took a deep breath. “There was no food, no one was coming… I almost got eaten alive by wild dogs – or dogs gone wild, I don’t know. A man got killed so that I could get away…”

Feeling the twinge in her shoulder, Rachel gestured at the road behind them.

“There’s nothing – back there, man. Just death. You’ve been – holed up. They're just telling you what… What works for them, not for you. Or me. Or your parents…”

His cheeks were flushing a faint red. He looked away.

“That world – it’s gone… I like the police, always have… You guys have – kept me safe, my whole life. I know you want to be the good guy – and I think you are, I know it’s crazy… And you’re keeping people locked up – and you’re locked up too! You’re guarding a – a graveyard…” Rachel’s jaw worked wildly, and she burst into tears. “My boyfriend – he’s back there, dead… And my parents, too, dying. And my aunt. And I have no idea where my – where my sister is. Maybe up ahead… But – my God, I don’t even know your first name - my friend, my brother in Christ – are you a Christian?”

He nodded slowly, dumbly.

“God above, hear my plea! I need to get ahead; I need to get to my… sanctuary. Everything is gone, do you understand? You’re locking people in their houses to – just die… And you have – a kind face, I see that, I believe that – I know that… But how many terrible things, the world over, are done by people only thinking they’re doing the – right thing? Please – for your soul – don’t be one of those – people…”

“I must render unto – Caesars, what is Caesar’s.”

“Not if – Caesar is commanding death!” cried Rachel wildly. The words just poured out of her. “If Caesar is a devil… My God, they promised us everything for free, my whole life… And now they just – he just – took everything from us, just as – expected. As told. As foretold… Imagine all the guards who kept people from their boats, during the flood… Please – I’m begging you – don’t be one of those – historical – figures… Like in Rome… You know, the ones who promise that work will set you free… ‘Staying home is your salvation’… But it’s not, it’s not! And you, keeping me here, keeping me from getting away –sending me back to my – death…”

Rachel gestured at the road ahead. “Please – go check on your parents, they need you – and you need them! Every structure has – fallen away. Every bill has come due, and must be paid!” Her voice lowered. “And think – my friend – what will happen when everyone is gone, and you are the only witness to their crimes, the crimes of those who… Will you be suffered to live? Just long enough to feel the regret – and my God, you do not want to feel that regret, not ever, death is…”

Officer Reynolds held up his hand. His neck was red, his voice tight. “My God, okay! It’s not like there are cameras here!”

There was a pause.

Rachel fought to control her breathing. “Okay?”

He waved at the windshield, at the snow-blown empty highway ahead. “Go – go on, go… You’re the first person to come by in like three days. I wasn’t even supposed to be here, this checkpoint was…” He scowled. “I don’t need to explain everything, just – go, if you have to.”

“Oh my God, thank you, thank you!”

Rachel grappled his surprised head with both hands, and kissed him on each cheek.

“All right – citizen!” he cried. “Don’t make me regret my – discretion. Just – we never met, all right?”

Nodding violently, Rachel wiped her eyes on her sleeve, opened the door and leapt out.

As she drove past, in the red Volvo, she saw the young man putting on his seatbelt, his face grim.

As she gunned northward, in her rear-view mirror, Rachel saw his red and blue lights turn off, as his car started up after her.

Chapter 27

Ben laughed and launched himself into his father’s arms.

“Ben!” cried Ian, dropping his shovel and catching his son. “Don’t jump without warning – especially with the sun behind you!”

Ben’s arms wound around his father’s neck. “You caught me!” he giggled.

“Yeah, kid,” smiled Ian. “Always will…”

The late afternoon sun had drifted behind the barn. The spiderweb fingers of the bare trees reached above the corrugated roof.

Hugging his son, Ian looked up and suddenly realized that he had not seen an airplane contrail for months. God’s clouds roamed freely – the fading lines of man’s ambitions had disappeared completely.

He looked up the line of his trench. In a sudden warm winter snap, he had decided to dig a draining ditch, so that the melting spring snow would not drown his house.

Although Ian’s muscles had begun to adjust to his daily labour, today had been tough. His lower back ached, and his shoulders pulsed with moving blood.

It had taken him weeks to start straightening out his posture from the increasing question mark he had curled into after years of working desk jobs.

I was barely a biped, he thought with a shiver.

“What do you want to do tonight, buddy?”

“Stories!”

Ian smiled. It was always the same answer. Ian would make up tall tales about his son having adventures – Ben would then choose what he did, and the story would unfold from his choices.

Sure beats falling asleep to Toy Story 4

Ian had been surprised how much creativity had been unlocked within him. In the past, he had only consumed stories – now, he created them with his son – and Cassie joined in sometimes as well.

Characters and descriptions and twists and turns flew up from unguessed recesses deep within his brain – it always seemed like a vague miracle that these stories came together at all – but they always did.

Ben threw himself into these imaginary worlds with great abandon, and zero self-consciousness. Ian loved watching his son’s little hands closing into fists during times of storytelling tension.

Our birthright, stolen from us by professionalsCan’t have us making up our own stories, when we can be so easily programmed by other people’s…

In the city, in the past, Ian had always been jumping from one phase of unease to another – an alarming letter from a bank, a tax collector – a performance review, a disgruntled colleague or irrationally angry client – a necessary confrontation with his wife, the fear of phone calls from his son’s daycare – he realized now, in the deep clean air of the country, that he could have very easily skated from one end of the cracking ice of life to the other, forever terrified of stopping and falling and freezing…

It wasn’t the end of everything – it was the beginning…

Sure, he sometimes missed the vapid candy floss distractions of the big screens – the infinite outrage hamster-wheel of scrolling through social media – the sugar, the fatty snacks, upgrading hardware – and the strange pleasure it gave him to update the apps on his phone by hand, even though he knew that it would happen automatically otherwise.

He recalled his vague unease whenever his phone offered an upgrade to its operating system… Was he getting some special flavour, with a back door for the intelligence agencies? Ian would even check online to make sure other people were getting an update as well…

Everyone knew that this could not last – this New Eden.

Oliver had said as much in the previous night’s council.

“Yeah, it’s calm for now, but for sure this is just a consolidation phase. The power junkies are just gathering steam, organizing themselves. Everyone knows we’ve got this whole – class of people who only live on the sweat of others. We’re sweating, and they’re coming…”

Oliver led them all in making plans to move further away, deeper into the wilderness.

“We don’t know how far we will have to go – we might be chased to the ends of the earth – but we’re still way too close to the city… If they’re strong, they’ll try to take us over; if they’re weak, turn us against each other. Or try…”

He gestured at all faces in the barn.

“We all know each other, trust each other – try scamming, good luck! But the city breeds exploiters… We all know those who fell into the pit of vanity – there are pretty people here, but we know everyone well enough to know if they’re pretty through and through. Only strangers respond to surface beauty…”

Cassie nudged Ian in the ribs, leaning over her distended belly. “He’s still thinking of Rachel, see that?”

Ian shrugged.

“She’s coming, I guarantee you. She’d never miss this birth!”

“I hope so,” replied Ian, hoping that it sounded true.

“Heck, Arlo was halfway to Tarzan as it was. He’ll be in his element, swinging from tree to tree, out of the city…”

Ian knew how important it was to keep stress away from his wife.

He never even told her about Aunt Crystal’s final texts.

They had come in a flurry, all at once, in the middle of the night, on her phone. Normally Cassie was a light sleeper – especially when pregnant – but she had somehow slept through the machine-gunning chimes.

Ian had scanned through them – they were spread over ten days, inexorably increasing in terror and regret. Lengthy rambles about people Ian didn’t know, apologies and promises, bitter dispensed wisdom concerning lessons Cassie had learned years ago… A desire for child to be named after her, since she had none of her own… Apologies to be passed along to Rachel – and Arlo – for seducing them into a life of eternal adolescence. Endless regrets for mere fame, material rewards, trophies and bylines and the heavy self-importance of first-class travel… A strange desire to pass her love and sorrow along to her first husband, for not being strong enough to save him from himself…

Ian felt sick as he scrolled.

All these people, all these regrets – but who is thinking of her, at the end?

And – oh God, the confessions

She had slept around, that was why her marriage had failed. One affair had resulted in a pregnancy, which had resulted in an abortion. Which was why she was so aggressively pro-choice.

Even now, near the end, she still relished her old decision.

  • Imagine my regret if I had brought life into this dying world…

The unbelievable blindness – for a writer, it was remarkable, at least to Ian.

She’s writing to her pregnant niece, thanking her ancient lucky stars that she killed her own baby decades ago, because babies are better off dead than facing – what’s coming, what is here

Ian ground his teeth in the dark, knowing with absolute certainty that if he could somehow communicate his moral horror to Crystal, she would be wide-eyed with surprise and genuine sorrow, holding up her hands and claiming with complete sincerity – that was the amazing part – that she never meant to offend!

And Ian knew that he could talk until he was blue in the face – he knew this from experience – and he would find absolutely no purchase on the slippery ice wall of the empty chamber her heart was supposed to live in.

Crystal would say the most horrible and offensive things – and then immediately back away in shock if confronted. It was always and forever the fault of her victim for being offended – but she was magnanimous enough to refrain from saying honest things that offended the hysterical sensibilities of those around her, how nice!

And she sure as hell got her hooks into Rachel, and that probably killed them both

After silencing the phone, Ian had sat on the toilet and spent over an hour individually deleting each of the hundreds of messages. Of course, he thought of deleting the entire contact history, but that would alert Cassie, and he had vowed to tell the truth about everything he was asked about.

Provide and protect, provide and protect, he thought. We can’t save her, so what is the stress for?

As he got to the last few messages, Ian paused.

  • I don’t want to die in here
  • I want the sun on my face when I go
  • I haven’t changed anything. I’m still an atheist
  • I hope the worms will enjoy my body as much as I enjoyed my life
  • if you don’t settle down, you just live in a cloud
  • I love you all
  • time to recycle

And that was it.

Ian suddenly remembered an argument he had had with Crystal, years before, about her rampant environmentalism.

“If you cared about the environment, the first thing you would do is get rid of central banking! Central bankers create money out of thin air, which they pump into the economy, which drives up consumerism, which destroys nature’s scarce resources. National debt – you want to get rid of that, first thing! All debt is just the consumption of things in the here and now that you can’t afford – that’s what’s killing nature!”

Crystal had just waved her hand in irritation and called him a “capitalist apologist.”

“What does that even mean?” Ian had cried.

“It means that you just – love the current system, and will make up any excuse to maintain it!”

“What are you talking about? The current system is built on debt, I want to eliminate all that debt – I have a kid coming – my first – and he’s going to be born already indebted a million dollars!”

“Don’t talk to me – having children is so bad for the environment, I can’t even tell you!”

“Oh, and all your first-class travel across the world, millions of miles, that’s just – tickling nature’s prostate?”

Crystal had laughed harshly. “Of course you think nature is a man, so predictable!”

“And you want your pension, right? Your Social Security? But you’re not having any children, who is going to pay for it?”

“That’s what immigration is for – and besides, I damn well paid into that system, thank you very much!”

“There’s nothing there! They take your money, they spend it on whatever they want, then they throw an IOU into a dusty vault – and that’s your pension, right there!”

Then Cassie had gone off on immigration, and the entire conversation had been derailed – and Ian’s knuckles had been white on his steering wheel as they drove slowly home, stuck in endless stalled traffic.

In the dark bathroom, Ian smiled sadly.

Well, at least we don’t have to worry about her collecting her pension anymore…

Aunt Crystal had loved vampire romance novels – trumpeting this deviation from her generally literate tastes as postmodern and ironic. But one day, when Crystal was leaning over Ben’s baby crib, Ian had shivered, seeing her as a literal vampire, inhaling the fluids of youth…

Her ideas – and greed – enslaves my baby

It seemed to Ian to be a peculiarly male trait to track the distant threads from concepts to realities. He would try and trace these subtle paths for the women around him – to show them how their blind beliefs were leading the world to ruin – but he had very little luck.

Over the years, he had given up on this Sisyphean task.

Lord knows women have real complaints about men as wellWe will just have to agree to disagree until time proves me right…

But now, today – twirling his son in the chilly late afternoon air, Ian realized that he would not go back and change one single thing.

The women realized that the system could not be saved, so they might as well get some virtue-signalling dopamine out of the crashing wreckage. They knew it could not last, so why stay sober for the demise?

If I had gotten them to agree, to see – then we would’ve all embarked on the futile quest of reformation – and if we had saved the system, I would still be sitting at a desk, my skin grey under fluorescent lights, typing crap until the end of time…

“Band-Aid off!” his mother always used to say, when he was a kid, gingerly pulling at one.

But she didn’t listen either…

Oliver had once told him why he had called their sanctuary New Eden.

“Adam and Eve didn’t have parents… So, it fits, because so few parents made it here.” Oliver had shrugged, his bearded face gleaming in the flickering firelight. “Judgement day is every day, Ian. They knew they had not earned a place here, and they were sick of taking the unearned – for once!”

Oliver was often cryptic, and Ian had turned the older man’s words around in his mind, more than once.

Everyone in the sanctuary was wrestling with shock and sorrow – the greatest shock being how little sorrow there was.

There was some shallow relief at not having to care for aging parents – and some darker, grimmer emotions centred around black karma, justice and retribution.

You tossed us into daycare, terrible schools, bullied us into self-lacerating universities – you supported everyone who hated our culture, our way of life, our history, our freedoms… You cheered on the contempt for boys, infected little girls with the mania of grandiosity – did not intervene when dating disasters arrived, refused to limit your appetites or accept any responsibility for your terrible choices – and we begged you to come with us, to be saved – but you scorned and sat and sighed and waited for the State to come and save you – as you always had…

There was also the strange silence of New Eden – there wasn’t even any physical mail, let alone instant messages or global updates from humanity’s hive mind.

There was the work in front of you, at your fingertips – the immediate environment, and potential dangers, both physical and animal – and then there was the world – beyond, out there – and it was amazing to everyone how quickly and easily it was all forgotten.

Oliver laughed at their amazement. “We evolved in tribes about this size, working the land, hunting and fishing and herding livestock and planting crops… Most people in history never travelled more than a few miles from the place of their birth – they had no idea of the world beyond. Most of them couldn’t even read – we have that advantage at least!”

Hidden talents were teased out of people by the general lack of outside stimulation. Some tried their hands at composing and singing – with some reasonably good outcomes. Others wrote and presented good-natured comedies about the community. Others experimented with the limited cooking ingredients, trying to come up with new dishes.

A few of the younger girls tried putting on a dance show, but no one really cared – dancing was in general considered just annoying – and often vainglorious – contortion. Musicians played, and the entire community danced, but very few people cared to only watch.

There was dating, of course – closely watched over by older men and women. People made decisions with surprising speed, and settled into domesticated life “like hogs into mud” as Cassie put it during one uproarious meeting.

The two midwives were kept busy, scurrying from house to noisy house. The baby-boom was so loud that it was referred to as the “sonic boom.”

In general, life was often hard – and harsh – but most people felt it was better.

When there were problems – as was inevitable – there was always something that could be done. The sense of being caught up in a slow grinding machine that took decades to disassemble one’s body had vanished – and people felt the lifting of this weight with deep shock and relief. Mental disorders such as anxiety and depression were revealed as mere premonitions of inevitable disaster – the disasters of the debt and exploitation of the old world.

Early on, men had gone on horseback to scout the surrounding villages and towns, looking for supplies – especially medicine of course.

Everything had been so picked clean that there was little point going out after a while. A few scouts still ranged the outskirts of the community from time to time – and there were still guards posted, even months after the last attack – but people’s perceptions retreated into the day-to-day of their own chores and needs.

And this was strange – people were, in general – better.

They had to fit themselves into a community – they relied on each other for just about everything; no one could really survive alone – and so reasonable rules were hammered out and – didn’t even really need to be enforced, they were just – followed.

People did not feel humiliated or enslaved by obeying rules such as showing up for work on time, contributing to a group with as much energy as possible, bringing aid to the sick and injured, watching each other’s children – these all became second nature to them, and they did not chafe against these guidelines, because they were created and imposed by and for themselves – not inflicted by some predatory outside agency.

The rules became second nature, obeyed without resentment – like gravity.

And this became true freedom – a freedom none of them had ever tasted in their lives before.

They relaxed into lives they could control, into rules they respected – into a world they could manage.

Until – until the day that the northernmost scout saw something from his tree perch.

A variety of semi-lethal traps had been set up around the perimeter of New Eden, to discourage any invading group. The policy of admitting individuals had been ferociously debated, and the vote had gone towards protecting solitary people from the traps. It was hard to imagine how one person could do much damage to the entire community – if they were sick, they would never make it this far into the woods. If they were armed, they would be insane to attack an entire community. It was decided that someone who wandered in could at least be evaluated. Maybe not allowed to stay, but at least protected from the traps.

Josiah was an old man – too old for much manual labour, but with eyesight still keen enough to be a decent lookout.

He was chewing on pine nuts when he saw the strangest movement in the woods.

Josiah had been an actor in his youth – one of his first roles had been as a soldier in Macbeth, disguising himself with tree branches in order to advance upon the castle.

He saw what looked like a moving bush.

Blinking with surprise, he found himself leaning forward, as if the extra few inches could make any real difference.

Lookouts were always assigned to the same place, so they could become intimately familiar with the view, and thus more rapidly notice any changes.

There was a new – bush!

As Josiah watched, it crept forward.

It was moving towards a pit trap – netting covered with leaves over a deep dug hole.

What the hell? thought Josiah. That’s the slowest, weirdest invasion in history…

Impulsively, he cried out. “WAIT! STOP! DANGER!”

The bush halted, then shrank back a few steps.

Josiah could see the distant pink pinpricks of raised hands.

“P-PEACE!” cried the high voice.

“STAY WHERE YOU ARE!” shouted Josiah. As rapidly as his old limbs could manage, he climbed down the metal rungs embedded in the tree trunk.

Counting his footsteps, he moved around each of the various traps, his eyes on the frozen ground.

After a few minutes, Josiah passed the last pit trap and raised his eyes.

He saw a young – young..? Not sure… Woman, at least, fairly sure of that

She had somehow attached a variety of leaves and branches to her clothing. For a moment, Josiah could not think of the word – then it came to him: dryad… A nymph of the woods, a fairy of the trees…

She stood motionless.

“You know I can see you, right?” said Josiah.

The woman smiled broadly. “Oh, I know I’m not invisible – I just had this – idea that all this might throw animals off the scent…”

Josiah nodded slowly. “Where are you coming from?”

“The city.”

He whistled. “Long way.”

She nodded. “I’m not so brave… It was mostly by car.”

“You must – know of this place.”

The woman nodded. “Yes. Do you know my sister, Cassie McMaster?”

“Sure, we know everyone here. Her sister!” He smiled suddenly. “Lord, you must be freezing – welcome, welcome! Let’s get some… Let’s get you inside, get some hot food into you!”

Rachel laughed. “Hey, strange question – do you have any halibut?”

“Fish! We don’t get a lot of fussy eaters here. We hook salmon…”

“Oh, I’m not fussy, I just thought it would be – appropriate, in a way. Not sure why. Sorry I sound so deranged. It wasn’t the easiest journey…”

“Well, it’s over now. There’s no place else for you to go from here. Welcome home. Heavens, Cassie will be so thrilled – we can take your name off the board! Sorry, it’s where we keep a list of people, we don’t know what happened to them…”

“Has she – had the baby?”

The old man laughed. “No, she’s holding out – for you maybe!”

“I’m thrilled…”

“There is – no one else with you? No one else on the journey?”

“No, I’m alone…”

“I’m – sorry you had to do that…” murmured Josiah, with deep feeling.

“It had to be done, and I’m better for it,” replied Rachel, raising her eyes to his.

He saw a real depth in her, and touched his cap involuntarily. He reached out his hand.

“Come on, let’s get you to your sister and Ian.”

Rachel hesitated.

“What?”

“I want to see her, of course, but…”

Josiah simply waited.

Rachel’s face was flushed as she leaned forward. Her lips were red.

“Actually,” she whispered. “I’m here for – Oliver!”

Blog Categories

June 2024
M T W T F S S
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930

Recent Comments

    Join Stefan Molyneux's Freedomain Community

    Become a part of the movement. Get exclusive content. Interact with Stefan Molyneux.
    Become A Member
    Already have an account? Log in
    Let me view this content first