Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 37

“Francis isn’t going to be happy that we ran out of rivets,” said Phil as he and Gary approached the workshop door. 

The noise from Gary’s mouth dismissed any notion of concern. “So what? We’re moving into the tunnels in two days. After that, someone else can fix the holes. If this place falls apart, we’ll be fine.”

Phil looked at Gary. “A lot of people’ll get hurt if things aren’t fixed.”

“People without shares. Means less mouths to feed, more space for us.” 

Phil looked at the people scattered at the edges of the hallway. “That’s not right, Gary. I don’t know why Carl—“ 

“It doesn’t matter, Phil!” Gary shouted back. “Carl’s the leader, these are his rules. If none of these rejects have it in them to earn shares, then they don’t have the right to be in the tunnels!” Gary made sure to speak loudly enough to be heard. “You had your chances!” He spied the body chained to the rock wall, its face scratched and bloodied, hands hanging from a loop over its head. “Go tell Francis that the fix is done.” 

“Where are you going?” asked Phil hesitantly. 

Gary smiled noxiously. “I’m gonna pay the the kid a visit.” 

“Leave the kid alone, Gary!” Phil pleaded. “He’s suffered enough.”

Gary wheeled around and went nose-to-chest with Phil. “You wanna join him?” Gary sneered. “I can make that happen.” 

Phil put up his hands. “Hey, now…”

“Just do as your told!” Gary shoved Phil in the shoulder towards the workshop door. Phil nearly lost his footing, but managed to stay upright long enough to slide into the metal. “Go!” Phil took out a key for the door. An otherwise ordinary key, he looked at it thoughtfully a moment, looking at the pointiness, the sharpness. He looked up at Gary. “What, you’re going to come at me with a key?” Gary laughed. Phil’s stare fell away. “Do you feel stronger holding that? Think you’ll stick me with it? Think I’ll cry and give up?” Gary faked wiping tears away. “You’re pathetic! You’ve always been pathetic!” Phil’s eyes widened. “You’re barely an errand boy, you never once went along with the plan! You don’t deserve your shares, you shouldn’t even have any!” Phil smiled. “That makes you happy?? What kind of freak are you…” Gary’s voice trailed off as he saw the body he thought beaten down and tied to the wall rise up next to him. He turned and looked at the face. “You’re not the kid.” There was a half-beat as Gary recognized “Robert!” 

“I was going to wait for you to hit me first,” said Robert. “But…” He slammed a rock into Gary’s jaw.  

Jo hobbled into Kelly’s examination room, Donner half-slung over her shoulder.   

Kelly caught the sight and immediately rushed over. “Good god, what happened to him?” Kelly asked, looking carefully at Donner’s wounds. 

“Some of the Engineers have been beating him,” said Jo. 

“Goddamn it,” muttered Kelly, as she inspected the swelling and bruises. “What is gotten into those assholes? They’ve really gone over the line.” 

“Is he going to be okay?” 

“He’s dehydrated,” said Kelly, “but you got him here in time. He’ll need some rest.” She looked at Jo. “You could use some rest, too.” 

“I know,” said Jo. “Not yet. I’ve got some work to do.” 

“Are you helping or hindering?” 

“Hindering? You mean the Engineers, don’t you?” Jo asked. 

Kelly looked a bit stunned. “Have you been hiding somewhere?” she blurted. “Or trapped in a cave-in or something? You certainly look the part, no offence.” 

“Worse,” Jo replied. “How bad have things gotten?” 

“Go look in the room next door. I’ve got a dozen that are a few steps from dead. The Engineers have all lost their minds, I swear. It’s no longer about saving lives, it’s saving themselves. The Professor never would have allowed this. Or Erik.” 

“Why doesn’t someone stop it?” 

“Someone tried. I heard they banished her,” said Kelly, who looked knowingly at Jo. “Or am I talking to a ghost?” 

“The souls of the wrongfully dead are restless,” said Jo. “They demand justice.” 

“And what about those still living?” asked Kelly.

“Keep them alive.” 

“I’m not going to lie, Robert, this is a little weird,” said Dawn as she and Robert headed towards the tunnels.

“You still think I’m guilty?” asked Robert. “After all that’s happened?”

“Well… no, I guess not, but…” 

“It’s what you were told. It’s what you came to believe.” 

“Yeah, I guess.” 

“Can you trust me?” asked Robert.

Dawn walked in silence for several steps too many. “Yes.” 

“You don’t want to betray Frank.” 

Francis,” said Dawn. “And yes. He’s still my husband, Robbie.” 

Robert,” he grinned back. 

“Point,” smiled Dawn. “I don’t want him to get hurt. He might be a complete idiot and an ass, but…”

“You love him.”

“Most of the time.” 

“Just make sure that you talk to him after you speak with Carl.” 

“I will. I just don’t know what to tell him.” 

“Convince him to lock the workshop and don’t let anyone else in or out. Use pliers if you have to.” 

They rounded a corner and headed towards the tunnel entrance. Jo held back as Dawn went ahead to the ever-present guards at the doorway, both brandishing ever-present spears. 

“Getting to Carl isn’t going to be easy.” 

“I know. We’ll make it work.” 

“That’s not reassuring.” 

“What part of any of this is reassuring? We have to do something.”

Dawn didn’t answer, walking up to the entrance as she always had. The guards both nodded and muttered something to Dawn, who nodded back and passed through without issue. Robert walked past the entrance and down another hall. He counted to ten, then yelled: “Everyone, run!” 

The population of hallway, startled from their dismay, bolted up and ran in the direction of Robert’s hand, back towards the tunnels, without considering what danger there might have been.  Robert followed them. 

“Carl!” Dawn called as she approached her target.

“Not now,” Carl responded with a hand, not looking in Dawn’s direction. 

“We have a problem!” 

“We have lots of problems, Dawn,” he said. “You couldn’t have anything more important than—“

“Jo’s back.” 

Carl turned slowly. “What?” 

“Jo. She’s here.” 

Carl looked at Dawn carefully a moment. “How do you know?” 

“Because she just talked to me.” 

“You’re sure it was her? She ran away after she killed Erik, I don’t know why she’d be stupid enough to return. She knows we’d put her on trial for her crimes.” Carl paused, seeing the look on Dawn’s face, somewhere between nonplussed and expectant. “Why do you think Jo is a problem?”

“For fuck’s sake, you really can be dense sometimes, Carl! Jo wouldn’t come back unless she had a reason. After what Francis told me, she can only be here for you. Whether or not you and I get along or ever will isn’t important. If Jo gets her way, she disrupts everything: without you, we don’t get our shares.” She jabbed her finger into Carl’s sternum. “And I want. My. Share.” 

Carl’s mouth moved wordlessly.   

“What, you think my husband and I don’t talk? Francis has told me everything, Carl. I’m just smart enough to keep my mouth shut most of the time.”

“Where is she?” Carl asked quietly. 

“She told me to tell you some stupid story about how there’s a problem in the atrium — like you’d give a shit — and I had to convince you to go out there so she could ambush you.” 

Carl mulled a hundred thoughts.

“She can stay out there. The guards won’t let her in. We’re safe in here.” Carl nodded his own approval.

Dawn folded her arms. “Really? You think that’ll keep you safe?” 

“It keeps us safe—“ 

We are safe, it’s you at risk, Carl!” Dawn yelled. “Jo wants you. If she wanted me dead, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. These walls won’t save you. She’ll sneak in here and you’ll have nowhere to run. Most of these people hate you and the rest will probably help her.” 

“She can’t get past the guards!” 

Dawn laughed. “After all the things you’ve done, you think she’ll care?” Dawn leaned in close. “Don’t give her the chance to plan something. Take the guards with you, go the atrium, and make sure she never gets back up.” 

Carl’s surprise was met with a sudden admiration. “Friendship doesn’t mean much to you, does it?” 

“I saw the plans for my room. I want my own bed, Carl.” 

Carl nodded again. “Atrium.” 

“That’s what she said.” 

“And you’re not going to give me shit for it later?” 

“I get my own bed, you’ll never have to worry about me.” 

“Keep them working,” he said as he headed towards the tunnel entrance, passing by a plethora of refugees still lining the hallways. He glowered at most of them, still irritated that they were occupying what was meant to be pristine space. 

As he exited, he saw the sea of people crowding at the entrance. One of the guards stood there with his spear, holding people at bay. Carl stopped and frowned, then ordered: “Go away, we’ve got no room for you yet!” He took a step, then stopped and looked. One of the guards was missing. “Where’s the other one?” 

“In there, somewhere!” said the other guard. “All these people came out of nowhere. He’s trying to get rid of them.” 

Carl grumbled. “Don’t go in the tunnels! There’s no room!” he shouted to the crowd. He turned to the guard. “Follow me,” he said. “Bring the spear.”

The atrium was as ruined as when the structure had slipped days before. The hole at the roof had only barely been fixed, the patches rattled and weaved as the winds tried to tear them away. Drifts of sand fell in twirls in the breeze, landing on the broken bedframes. The smell was dry and dusty, with wafts of putrefaction from remains still trapped under the collapsed metal. The lights were few, most of them having either been broken or ripped out entirely during the cave-in. 

The shift bell, having somehow avoided the events that destroyed the atrium, tolled. The sound was the same, yet unhappy, it’s immediate audience having departed. 

“Keep an eye out for… someone,” said Carl as he and the guard entered the space. “Be ready for anything?” 

“Like what?” asked the guard. 

“What do you think ‘anything’ means?!” Carl snapped. “Stay close.” Carl pulled out a fold-out knife and withdrew the blade. 

They crept into the space, Carl in front with his knife, the guard following up with the spear held threateningly back, walking as if to prevent popping bubble wrap. The area was largely free of obstacle, a result of the previous recovery efforts, and soon found themselves in a maze of bent framing.  

Nearly thirty feet into the atrium, Carl stopped. It had been a muster point during the atrium rescue operation, debris piled to create paths, and a few tools, still uncollected, remained. “Footprints.” He bent down and inspected the depressions in the sand. They were smaller than his feet, clearly made by well-worn boots. He could see the heel separate from the toe. What he couldn’t tell with any certainty, was their age. He looked up at the falling sand. “They can’t be that old.” He pointed in the direction of the prints. “This way.” 

They continued deeper into the atrium, following the marks in the sand. A few times, they seemed to go down a path, only to double back out to the path. They turned right once, then left twice, before they found themselves nearly in the middle of the atrium, almost directly under the shift bell. The footsteps became so many that it was impossible to see which way they went, or even if they went anywhere.

“Hola, chicos,” came a voice. 

Carl whipped around in a circle and saw nothing but the wreckage. “You survived.” He scanned again more slowly. “I suppose that was my mistake. I should have just killed you.” 

“What did you have against Erik?” asked Jo.

Carl spotted the location and pointed. The guard nodded. “He was old, like Rich. He wasn’t going to change. He wasn’t going to see change.” 

“And what are you in this? Are you change?” 

Carl motioned to the guard, pinpointing Jo’s location behind a wall of metal frames. He indicated the most classic of tactical moves: they would go around each side of the wall and catch her in the middle. The guard nodded silently and they parted, walking towards opposite ends of the short wall. “I’m the future, Jo. We figured out how to restore society as it was! We’ll bring back all the normalcy we ever had. All we had to do was bring down a dictator.” 

“Rich wasn’t a dictator. He was a teacher.” 

“He was a pompous ass!” Carl retorted, shouting back in the direction he had come, hoping the sound wouldn’t give away his position. “Everything he did was to support himself. He didn’t want democracy, he wanted complacency!” 

“You’re right, Carl, he was a bit of a dictator,” said Jo. “Which makes you a real hypocrite!” 

Carl stepped around the edge of the wall. “Me?” 

“You accused me of murder, gilipollas,” said Jo, “meanwhile you’re piling up the bodies.” 

Carl saw the guard not far away and waved to him to come forward. “It wasn’t that many,” he admitted, “just important ones. Are you looking for revenge?” 

“Maybe,” said Jo. “I haven’t decided yet.” 

Carl spotted a leg hanging nonchalantly out of a half-over bedframe. He jabbed toward it with his finger, then held his palm out to the guard and counted down from five. As his pinky disappeared, he and the guard lunged at the leg and found it attached to Jo. 

“¡Hola, cabrón! Took you long enough.” 

Carl brandished the knife blade towards Jo. “You’ve got some nerve coming back. You should have just stayed out there and let the banshee have you.” 

Jo displayed the scarring on her face. “Oh, she did. But her conversation got really boring. Besides, I found a sheep and realized that we all need to get the hell out of here.” 

Bewilderment has a spectrum that falls along a two-dimensional plane. One axis runs between bemused to abjectly baffled, the other from understandably to thoroughly lost. Carl found himself somewhere in the upper-right quadrant. “What the hell does a sheep have to do with this?” 

“It was alive, Carl. Domesticated. Healthy,” Jo sat forward, drawing herself closer to Carl’s knife. “People are alive out there. We need to leave, all of us. Find out where that sheep came from, that’s where we’ll find society, not here.” 

“You’re lying!” shouted Carl. “Nothing survives out there!” 

“I did.” 

“That was your mistake!” Carl sneered and plunged his knife towards Jo’s throat. He barely wound up before he felt a spear point pressing into his neck. His eyes veered toward the guard. “What the fuck are you doing?” 

“What’s it look like I’m doing?” the guard asked, pressing the point. “Drop the knife.” The knife fell from Carl’s hand and thudded into the sand. The spear backed off. 

Carl turned his head and cast a withering frown at the guard that fell limp almost instantly. “Robert.” He cursed under his breath. “That bitch Dawn!”

“No, you asshole, Carl,” said Robert. “You believed you had this all under control.” 

“The sheep is real, Carl,” said Jo. “It survived.” 

“Until the cougar ate it,” said Robert. 

“Well, yeah, until the cougar. But it got this far. Which means it came from somewhere safe. Somewhere we should all go, Carl. Let’s work together and save everyone.” 

Carl looked at Jo and Robert alternately. “You’re both insane! We take one step out that door and we’re all dead!” 

“We wait for a drop in the wind,” Robert offered. “A calm day would be more than enough time.” 

“We don’t know where to go! We’re safer here!” said Carl. 

“You’re scared,” said Jo supportively. “It’s okay to be scared, Carl.”

“I’m not scared,” he sneered back. “It’s a stupid idea! You can’t save everyone, Jo! Besides…,” he dived for the knife and rolled to standing before Robert could react. “I’ve worked hard to get where I am! And I’m not about to let the two of you get the better of me!” And he ran. 

Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 38

“So much for appealing to his humanity!” said Robert as he and Jo raced after Carl. 

“I had to try!” said Jo. 

“I could have stabbed him and saved us all a lot of trouble!” said Robert. “And I would have felt a lot better for it!” 

“Hindsight doesn’t help us now!” Jo retorted. 

“Neither does him running away and finding a real guard!” 

“I thought you got rid of the guards?!”

“Mostly. I’m sure they’re around some—“ Robert crumpled as a long piece of angle iron smashed him on the head. His body looked like it was breaking apart while remaining in one piece as he fell onto the floor and into a sandpile. 

“Robert!” Jo whipped to his side. She saw the metal flying again and she bolted to the side, scooping up the spear from Robert’s limp hands. She got up and lunged towards Carl, who was scattering up a pile of wreckage. “What is your problem?!” 

“You!” he shouted back. “You’ve always been my problem, Ms. Star Pupil!” 

Jo’s face broke into a silly surprised smile. “Are you kidding me?! This is about school?” 

“This is about how Batesworth liked you better!” 

Jo gaped. “You murdered him because you were jealous?!” 

“Robert was on your side!” said Carl, picking his way down to the floor again, away from Jo. “Erik was in your back pocket. And Batesworth! He never refused any stupid idea that came to your head!” 

Despite the seriousness, Jo could not contain the laughter. “Bateworth put you and I on the same level!” Jo gasped. “He hated the both of us!” 

“Bullshit!” Carl shouted. “He was always defending you!” 

“He defended the work, Carl. He hated my attitude.” 

“Everyone did!” 

“No, Carl, just you. Because I saw through your bullshit!” shouted Jo. “You were a terrible student. You’re a worse Engineer!” 

“Once I get another guard, we’ll see if you sing the same song!” Carl sneered and turned to run. He skidded having barely started and looked at Robert, who rubbed his head. 

“Hit me once, shame on me,” Robert grumbled. “Hit me twice…” 

Carl looked at his options. Going back up the pile of debris wasn’t just difficult, it was dangerous. There were too many sharp edges, too many places to get caught. Going toward Robert was likely to go poorly. Thus he bolted right at Jo, his knife slashing as he went. Even with the sound of the wind, Carl could hear Robert already behind, negating any possible retreat. Jo was initially surprised by Carl’s attack, but quickly drew her own smaller knife and dug herself in for the hit. Carl then twisted suddenly, hopping over the edge of a bedframe and ran back down one of the paths they had all come along. Robert was half a breath behind Carl, with Jo right behind Robert. 

Carl tried to follow the footsteps in the sand, trying to find his way back out. The prints Carl and Robert had left on the way in colluded with Jo’s original random pattern and quickly Carl found himself boxed in a corner, the framing rising several feet over his head. He turned as Robert rushed him. The knife fell from his hand at the sight of the incoming spear point. He clutched desperately, blindly, at anything behind him.

“Robert!” Jo shouted. Robert came to a sliding stop a body length from Carl. “Don’t hurt him.” 

“Why not?!” Robert shouted, not taking his eyes off Carl. “He owes me. He owes you. He doesn’t deserve anything else.” 

“We aren’t the judge or jury, Robert. It’s not for us to decide,” Jo reminded him. 

“Those were Rich’s rules!” Robert said. 

“No, Robert,” said Jo, “they were yours. You’re the one who convinced Rich to have a Council, to conduct tribunals. You brought civilization here. Don’t let this pedazo de mierda ruin your civility.” Jo could hear Robert’s strained breathing. “Por favor, amigo. Por su humanidad.”

“Él no merece tu compasión,” said Robert. “No se le debe nada.”

“¿Qué te hace eso, entonces? No eres un asesino, Robert, eres un sobreviviente. Sobrevivir a esto! Muéstrale que eres más digno.”

“He never spared you or I any dignity.” 

“Be better.” Robert remained trained on his prey, his spear unwavering. He felt Jo’s hand on his shoulder. “Please.” 

Robert blinked away a dry tear. He dropped the spear point and unraveled his stance. “Fine.” He looked to Jo. “But if he even thinks of trying anything—“

“CARL!” Jo screamed

Carl had wrapped his hand around a smooth handle. Not even knowing what he held, he lunged  at Robert and swung whatever he’d happened to grab. His arm was slow to react, the weight of his acquisition holding back his motion. Forcing himself to react, he drew up his strength and swung what turned out to be a sledgehammer. The swing missed Robert, the shift in mass shot Carl forward, slamming him into his target instead. Robert stumbled backwards, falling into Jo, sending the both of them to the floor. Carl gathered his balance and strength and heaved the sledgehammer up with confidence, then swung it towards Robert’s head. Not seeing the chunk of iron coming toward him, Robert might have died, had Jo not kicked Robert in the shoulder. The hammer slammed into the floor, rattling Robert and Jo, and the wreckage around them.

Jo scrambled to her feet and tried to tackle Carl. Seeing Jo’s approach, Carl dodged, still holding onto the hammer’s handle. Missing Carl’s body, Jo stumbled and fell in a slow arc into debris. She saw a skewer formed from a cross-brace seem to rise to meet her. Jo threw out her hand to block it, instead piercing the soft part between the metacarpals of her thumb and forefinger, running straight through. Jo screeched and tried to push herself off, only driving her hand further down the rod. The action moved the pointed end away from more vital parts of her chest, allowing herself to crash into the pile without further injury. 

The sledgehammer flew again, this time for Jo. Unable to scramble backup, she tried to roll out of the way. The hammer glanced off her shoulder blade and dug itself into the tangled metal. Jo completed her roll as far as she could, her hand twisted and locked onto the skewer. Crying in pain, she tried to untwist her hand and remove it. 

Robert threw himself at Carl and managed to separate him from his weapon. Carl barely saw Robert’s charge and was only able to turn to face Robert before being pushed downwards. Carl’s rear caught on a stumped support, catapulting him over, and throwing Robert further; Robert sailed free of Carl and landed headfirst into a sand pile. Carl scrambled to get back to his feet, grunting at the slash into his lower back. 

Jo, now free of the skewer, ran for the sledgehammer to get it away from Carl. She gripped the handle and pulled, but the head was firmly stuck in the tangles. She took the handle with both hands, one smearing blood, and tried to pull. Carl slammed himself into Jo, and her grip slipped from the spilled blood. She flew backwards from the combined efforts of herself and Carl, and landed hard on the floor. Carl wrenched the hammer free, and came at Jo. 

“I’m done with you,” he growled as he approached. He swung the hammer back, then with both arms brought it forward with every ounce of fury and hatred he had sewn into himself over the previous decade. 

As the hammer head passed the halfway point, Carl’s shoulder was shoved hard by Robert. Carl’s balance was lost again and he stumbled to keep it. The hammer swung wide, missing Jo entirely. Carl’s forward momentum from the push combined with the hammer’s mass threw him into another debris pile. But unlike the other piles, this one was formed around one of the support struts that held up the ARCH’s roof. 

The head struck the strut with a considerable CLANG that rattled the roof panels and caused the shift bell to warble. Had that been the only effect of the hammer hitting the strut, Carl would like have resumed his attack. However, that same strut was one of the struts that Jo had been repairing, extending from the atrium all the way to the floor of the canyon. From the side of the strut there was a girder that Jo and Donner had attached, which had connected to a shackle in the reservoir wall. With the partial collapse of the atrium’s roof days before, the ARCH’s structure had slid, putting considerable strain on the girder and the shackle mount. The hammer strike sent a wave of resonance down the strut, into the girder, and into the shackle.

The metal that had made up the shackle, as Jo had previously identified, was impure, laced with gold that had not been properly removed from the smelter. The vibration combined with the stress caused the metal to fracture where the gold failed to bond with the steel. 

The shackle exploded. 

The shift from the strut snapping back to a shape demanded by material physics was pronounced, causing additional vibrations along other girders and to other struts. The second shackle, which had similar defects, also failed, causing a second wave of vibrations to cascade about the structure. Multitudes of crunch-crackles echoed from the edges, where the anchors that went into the rock walls finally broke free. 

A lurching sensation gripped the three as several main struts, still anchored to the canyon floor, bent and sheared at their bases, causing them to tilt steeply in a downhill direction, bringing the rest of the ARCH with it. Still a rigid structure, far more solid than the tenuous support of a card house, floors began to slide transversely, rending orthogonal s angles into the diagonal. 

The shift bell rang wildly, desperate to cling to its place hanging from the ceiling. But the movement of the ARCH and ceiling’s inability to hold itself together offered no solace. In a final toll, the bell broke free and plummeted to the atrium floor. 

Carl, having fallen to his back, had watched the bell’s final moments. Especially the moment as the bell hurtled towards him, and one of the tines of the fork impaled Carl through the chest in a heavily muted tone.   

Novels Science Fiction The Banshee

The Banshee: Chapter 39


Dawn stood near the northern tunnel entrance. Shortly after arriving at the workshop, she had laid into Francis in a way he had never thought possible, threatened to emasculate most of the men, and might have thrown Gary in the smelter had he not been bound and unconscious, hanging from the wall outside the door where he had once left Donner. The ARCH’s slide send waves through the rock, causing a partial cave-in in the backend of the workshop, and panic among the workers. Dawn wrested authority from her husband and sent out everyone in search of survivors. 

Behind Dawn were a few of the survivors, once again crammed into every possible space in the tunnels. Some were injured, some of them dying. Coughs came from several places, fitful and polite, clearing and cautioning, as everyone waited for news of a next step. 

The lighting flickered and pulsed as the remaining battery charge waned, the main electrical supply having been severed as the ARCH’s roof had shifted. The air fans were cranked with hand power, the stale stench of the ARCH wafting out from deep inside the manmade caverns. 

“What’s the news?” Dawn asked as Phil, Robert, Jo, and a handful of other Engineers approached. None of them looked hopeful. “That good, huh?” 

“We’ve lost most of the anchors in the canyon walls,” said Robert. “There’s almost nothing to kep the rest of the structure from slipping down over itself.” 

“The lower struts are bent, the cross members are bent, the floor girders are bent…,” said Phil, rhyming off all the things he’d investigated. 

“Between the two of you, we’ve got nothing left structural, right?” asked Dawn. 

“Nope,” said Phil.

“What’s keeping it all up?” asked another Engineer. 

“Sheer force of will,” Jo laughed.

“Can we fix it?” asked an Apprentice. 

Dawn shook her head. “We’d need a fleet of cranes up on the ridge to pull all this back into shape. We’re lucky it hasn’t completely collapsed.” She turned to Phil. “Can we get into the greenhouse?”

Phil looked sullen. “I don’t think so. The ceiling buckled all through there. I had to climb down the stairs to even get in the area.” He took a deep breath. “Even if we could, it looks like the reservoir wall broke open.” There were a number of gasps. “There’s not much water left, the creek is running free down the canyon.” 

Dawn’s gaze dropped to the floor. “Just to be clear: we’ve lost our water supply and we’ve probably lost our food supply. That’s what you’re saying, Phil?” 

“Uh, yeah, I guess,” he said. 

There was a long pause before someone swore. A few others grunted in agreement. 

“Where’s Smiley?” asked Dawn. 

“Checking out the rockface,” said Robert, jerking his thumb up the canyon. “He’s worried that shifting might push the fault.” 

“Can someone go find him, please?” asked Dawn. “I want to know if we’re going to have to get everyone out of the tunnels that we just got them all into.” 

“And go where?” asked someone else. “Where can we go? The wind is up! We go out there, we’ll all die.” 

Robert nudged Jo. Jo looked at him and saw the unspoken idea. She nodded. “We leave the canyon,” said Jo. 

Once the deathly silence died down, Dawn spoke: “I know you’re serious, Jo. You’re going to have to guide us through this one.” 

“Robert and I survived in a cave a few hundred yards down the canyon—“

“We can go there!” came a shout, followed by a few others. 

“—WHICH WON’T HOLD MORE THAN A FEW PEOPLE!” Jo shouted above everyone else. “While we were there, we saw a cougar. It had killed and was eating a sheep.” She held up her hand before someone else spoke up. “A domesticated sheep, probably got loose and wandered off. How it got down here, we don’t know. But someone took care of it, and it couldn’t have come too far.” 

The deathly silence continued. 

“We can’t stay here,” said Robert. “Our only hope right now is to get out before it’s too late. We won’t last long without food or water. Jo and I will go north. It’s the only direction that sheep could have come from. If we’re lucky, we’ll figure out where it came from.” 

“And if you’re unlucky?” asked Phil. 

“At least you’ll know which way not to go.” 

The sky was barely a discernible beige above blackness when Jo and Robert climbed their way up the canyon to the top. The wind fought against them, desperate to keep them from rising out of the gorge. They leaned into the gale and stepped forward carefully until they were many paces beyond the edge. 

Jo waved at Robert, indicating a sense of “now, what?” Robert confidently pointed northwards. The ground sloped east to west, almost featureless save for low bumps marking where stands of trees had stood, cut down for lumber a decade earlier, the stumps worn down by the sand. In the middle of the slope was a level space about thirty feet wide that wound, following the contour of the terrain. Robert picked a line in the middle of the space and started walking; Jo followed closely. 

Their footsteps dug into the loose sand, catching on a firmer surface underneath. The sand blasted their helmets and scoured their suits, making only physical contact the only way to attract each other’s attention. They plodded ahead slowly, following the steadily brightening flatness as it led away from the canyon. The route seemed to twist to the left then back to the right, alternating again until the terrain slipped into a shallow valley. The valley’s sides rose and fell, channeling the wind upon them in bursts, knocking them periodically from their feet. Each time, they rose and continued. 

After nearly two hours of walking, the valley fell away to a wider plain. The bumps that had characterized the deforestation rose taller, though still significant blunted from their original forms. The winds lessened and walking became less strenuous and progress came much more quickly. They approached a large mound slightly taller than them. Looking at it briefly, Robert held his hands over his head, peaking his fingers. The mound had once been a structure, house-like. He dug into the leeward side, removing the sand until he touched the wood that had once formed the North Rim Entrance Station. Jo dug in as well and they both dug out enough sand until they could sit in relatively calm. 

Taking a break, they took out a bottle of water from a sack Jo had slung over her shoulder and drank cautiously. They each took a potato, one of a dozen they had managed to salvage from the greenhouse. The raw potato crunched loudly in their heads as they gulped it down, each hoping their meagre provisions would be enough. 

Their walk was a gamble. Somewhere to the north was a farm that raised sheep. They had no map, no compass, no known bearings. The flat strip was the road that led from the North Rim to Kanab, a route they had not traversed since all the vehicles had been cannibalized for the ARCH’s structures and supports. The sheep could not have come far without severe injury from the winds, nor was the sheep well-suited to long distance travel. Robert had estimated a maximum of 50 miles  — any longer and it was possible that they would not be able to return. 

The brightness continued as they continued, the sunlight only enough to cast a hazy, dim shadow. The wind’s direction became more erratic as the terrain flattened back out again, its force lessening. 

The hours plodded on, their feet weary. Twelve hours after starting off, they approached another set of ruins, ones that Jo recognized before Robert — the remains of the Kaibab Plateau Vistor Center, including the inn and service station. The wind was still strong, but light enough that they could take off their helmets. 

“Y’know, this is almost comfortable!” Robert shouted, then sneezed. “Except for the dust, anyway!” He sneezed again. 

“I could do without all the sand in my underwear,” Jo yelled back, silently thankful that she’d managed to retrieve them from the Engineer’s Office. She took a sizeable bite out of a third potato. “How much farther do you think we have to go?” 

“We’re about forty miles out, give or take. If we take the fork here and head towards Fredonia, we might get lucky.” 

“You mean we won’t die.” 

“Hopefully.” He popped in the last bite of his potato. “I’d suggest we rest longer, but that light isn’t going to last. You have your lamp?” 

“Sí. Winding and walking is hard, though.” 

Robert patted his head and rubbed his belly. “Can’t be that hard.” Jo stuck out her tongue, then put on her helment. 

It was dark only two hours later.  Jo’s lamp provided at best a feeble glow and they lost track of the road several times, each time having to walk back to where the road was lost, scratching at the surface, and trying again. Progress slowed, as did the wind. 

And then, it was still. It was quiet, the wind was gone. 

Jo pulled off her helmet and looked around. It was dark, but it was much easier to see without the scratched visor over her eyes. She tapped Robert and indicated it was safe. He removed his helmet, sniffed the air, and sneezed. 

Jo gasped. “Robert!” She pointed wildly into the sky. Her knees wobbled and she fell to her bum. “¡Estrellas! Stars!! Dios mío, I thought I’d never see them ever again.” 

“They’re still there,” Robert said, somewhere between admiration, relief, and knowledge. He looked around at the horizon. Much of it was hidden behind the terrain to the east and south, but the northwest was wonderfully dark, at the edge of the starlit sky. He noticed another light below the stars. “Jo!” He reached down and tapped her. “Look!” She took his hand and stood up, and followed his pointed hand to a flickering dot. 

The didn’t move, frozen in disbelief. 

“It’s fire,” Jo said unsuredly. 

“It’s the wrong color for fire,” said Robert. “That more orange. That’s white.” 

“Electric light,” whispered Jo. “Other people.” Their breathing quickened. “We should go!” Jo took a step, but was held back by Robert. 

“That’s at least another twenty miles, Jo.”


“I want to be there as badly as you do. We need to rest.” 

Jo looked at the distant light, willing herself to leap the distance in an instant. “Bueno. Tienes razón.” She looked around them. For the first time, she noticed that there was scrub brush. She walked over to it and touched it. She quickly took off a glove a felt the firmness of the short, stubby leaves. Gravity seemed to double, triple, quadrule, and her weight of her heart crushed her into the ground. “It was all a mistake.” 

“Jo, come on,” Robert picked her up. “There’s a shelter over there. For the night.”  

Jo awoke not to the banshee, her pager, or the shift bell. It was a song, a particularly loud one. Her eyes blinked open to bright, direct sunshine which she instinctively shielded from her eyes. She rose from the stone bench on which she had laid to witness a landscape of low scrub and small trees, perched on the edge of rise that fell away to the west across a wide plain before running into a distant mesa. The aged gray asphalt of the road they had walked on curved away, turning into a hard line that ran northwest across the plain. The song came again and Jo looked to see a small bird perched on the top of the shelter’s worn, but intact roof.

“Rock wren,” whispered Robert.  


“It’s a bird common to the southwest. I used to know them all. It’s a called a ‘rock wren’.” 


“It’s beautiful.” 

“The bird?” 


Jo wanted to agree but found her mind wildly trying to avoid processing the imagery, the warmth of the unfiltered sun, the smell of trees and soil, the bird call. All of it was beyond her comprehension, beyond her experience, beyond her belief. She wanted to put the helmet on and shelter herself. She found Robert’s arms around her. 

“Hey, you alright?” 

Jo realized she was shivering. “I… I don’t know.” She looked at Robert and saw her own terror in his eyes. “I’m not ready for this.” 

“Me, neither.” A determined grimace crossed his face. “Which is why we’re going to do it, anyway.” He reached down and picked up the sack of provisions. “It’s going to be a much easier walk than yesterday.” He started out of the shelter. Jo remained frozen in place. “Jo, you can do this. We need to do this.” 

“So much…” 

Robert took Jo gently by the hand. “One year or one hundred, it doesn’t matter. We’re alive, Jo. There’s a lot of people depending on us to keep them alive, too.”

“I can’t fix this.” 

“No, you can’t. This is a hole that we’ll bear for the rest of our lives. You can press on. Move beyond this, into this. Look at the life that’s here. That’s hope, Jo.” 

“Hope,” she said. It felt hollow and formless like fog, not the sturdy shell that had given her shelter for so long. There was only blue sky above. 

“We can do this.” Robert tugged gently on her hand. “You can save everyone.” 

“Para todos,” whispered Jo. 

“Para todos,” Robert echoed. 

They wandered down the concrete path to the exposed asphalt. As they approached a parking pullout, they saw a figure, dressed all in flowing off-white robe from a hood all the way to the ground that rippled gently in the morning breeze. The figure looked away from them and turned only when Jo gasped. 

“Oh, hello,” said the figure. It was a woman, younger-looking than Jo or Robert, with dark hair. She pulled back her hood. “Sorry, I was…” The woman looked at them, then looked around. “How did you get here?” She pointed to their worn motorcycle suits.

“We walked,” said Robert, and pointed south. 

The woman’s face fell. “You’re from the canyon! You walked all the way in that wind?” 

Robert and Jo looked at each other. “Yeah,” they said. 

“What were you doing there?” 

“Surviving,” said Jo quietly.

The woman gasped. “In that metal building?” 

“You’re the woman on the cliff,” said Jo. “I waved at you.” 

The woman nodded. “I had never seen anything like that before. I didn’t know what you were doing. Is that some kind of mining operation?”   

Jo shook her head sullenly. “No.”

“It’s a long story,” said Robert. “Where are you from?” 

The woman pointed to the northwest. Along her direction, they spied a pickup truck and trailer parked at the roadside. “Out that way, near Fredonia. We’ve got a sheep farm.” 

“Blue mark, looks like a backwards question mark on a line?” asked Robert. 

“Yes,” the woman said slowly. “How do you—“ 

“We saw one of your sheep.” 

“I wondered if they made it that far. Stupid animals. That why I was there, looking for them. The fence broke and we lost the entire herd. Took us a week to find most of them.” 

“Did you walk all the way there?” 

“I followed the footprints,” said the woman. “About twenty were here. I went further down the road, found a few more along the way, saw more footprints, followed them.” 

“Saved by the sheep,” Jo smiled. 

“We need your help,” said Robert. 

“Anything I can do,” said the woman.

“We have a lot of people who need rescue,” said Jo, “quickly.” 

“How many?” asked the woman. 

Jo felt the warmth of the sun on her face, feeling it like for the first time. She closed her eyes and faced the brightness with a smile. “All of them.” 

The Soundtrack of my Life

Tweeter and the Monkey Man by the Traveling Wilburys

When I was in high school in Ontario, we still had “Grade 13”, which was our final year, composed almost entirely of Ontario Academic Credits (OACs), which were effectively prerequisites for attending university. This was something that friends I would later meet from other provinces (notably those to the west) would snigger at, as they left high school after Grade 12. (I would snigger back, only because they were usually only 18, where I was drinking age at 19 and could go places they couldn’t. Not that I did, but one had to take the advantage whenever it existed…)

Handle With Care was the first single from Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1, which came out in late 1988, and one that hit the charts quite well in Canada, topping out at #2. Although I knew of George Harrison, I was not yet well-versed in The Beatles, Bob Dylan was but a name, Tom Petty starred in that creepy Alice In Wonderland-esque video, there was some guy with curly hair (Jeff Lynne), and Roy Orbison only existed via the renaissance of 1950s music that had erupted during the 1980s.

Despite my general lack of knowledge of artists I now (in 2020) refer to as superstars, Vol 1. was an album that played a lot in my bedroom stereo, likely to the chagrin of my mother, though she never complained. I would use End Of The Line in my mental soundtrack of my trip to the Soviet Union in June/July of 1989, and I’m still searching for the “electric dumplings” mentioned in Dirty World.

It was Dylan’s song, Tweeter and the Monkey Man, that I both loathed and could not stop putting on repeat. Was it Dylan’s voice? Was it the imagery evoked by the (what I know now to be) hints at Bruce Springsteen’s earlier work? Unlike many of the pieces of music that end up in the Soundtrack of my Life, what has left it permanently written into my history wasn’t any specific event … it was a book.

A book I hated.

I struggle to remember the exact year I read Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers, nor can I remember exactly why. It was either Grade 12 or during my final year of OACs, and I know it was for one of my English classes. I think I had to do a book report, though I can’t recall for which teacher. I can’t even remember the time of year accurately. But I do recall how much I struggled with the latter half of the novel.

Stephen King isn’t exactly known for brevity. If you assume an “average” novel length of 320 pages (assuming about 80,000 words, with about 250 words per page), almost 3/4 of his novels are above average length (some significantly so); The Tommyknockers is 558 pages, and I argue the latter half is pretty much a sequel that got bolted onto the first half.

Okay, my memory of the specifics of that book are … well, old. I literally have not picked up that book since about 1989. Except maybe once, in a used bookstore, possibly with my wife, pointing out how much I disliked it.

I think, in all honesty, I felt more betrayed by it than just disliking it. The first half of a book introduces the characters, you feel for their plight, you get a sense of dread (which King is excellent at creating) as they determine something is going very, very wrong, and the moment when one character’s dog’s blind eye is suddenly glowing green had me up for half the night. That point, incidentally, is the most memorable point in the book, the rest of it largely forgotten, but involves an alien spaceship and possession and townsfolk uprisal (I think?) and it just seemed muddled. And hard to finish.

This is where Tweeter and the Monkey Man comes in. I can’t tell you why, but this song was on repeat while I was trying to push through the rest of the novel. (The only other novel I had this much trouble with — that I had to finish — was Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd, a novel I truly detest, which I only “completed” with my classmate Jano, by taking every other chapter and then comparing notes.) Maybe it was the tone of the song that matched the tone of the (second half) of the novel, maybe it was just comforting to have something to help me through the rest.

I’ve never read another Stephen King book as a result of that experience.

I also stopped listening to Tweeter and the Monkey Man because it became synonymous, even tainted, by having been played so much while reading The Tommyknockers. It actually got so bad that I had difficulty even listening to the album. When The Headstones covered the song in 1993, I hated it (whether due to it being an inferior cover, or just because I couldn’t listen to the song itself, I don’t know).

Today, thankfully, I’ve managed to extricate the song from its association with a book I disliked, and The Traveling Wilburys reentered my regular playlists a few years ago, much to my daughters’ dismay. And, somehow, despite all the pain associated with the song’s past, I remember my teenage bedroom, the built-in desk my dad made, the classroom-sized periodic table of the elements that hung on my wall, and the bed where I subjected myself to a novel, enjoying the music that has remained with me well into my own parenthood.

The Soundtrack of my Life

Paradise City by Guns N’ Roses

Let’s deal with one thing first: Appetite for Destruction came out three years before I went into my final year of high school. I knew several of the tracks from the album, because radio was very much a thing when I was a teenager, but I didn’t yet own the album. It didn’t really hold anything more for me than a catchy tune.

Then I met them. That might sound ominous, but the reality is that we had no name for our group. It was a clique of sorts — we regularly hung out together — though we weren’t exclusionary nor looked down on others (as many cliques in Oakville Trafalgar High School often did). How do I know that? Because they included me.

I ran in the geek squad. I spent as much time as I could in the computer lab. I wore duck-themed shirts with pun-filled slogans. I was a co-editor on the school newspaper. I was on the swim team for three years, but had since dropped out of all athletics to focus on scholastics. Hardly the kind of person that most high school circles would consider for membership.

And yet.

In Grade 10, I met Chris and Stuart. We sat next to each other in Mr. Gettsinger’s first-period math class in the portable outside. We hung out a lot, going mini-golfing as “Me, You, and The Udder Guy”. Chris, being the more performance art-focused of the three of us (I was decidedly on the opposite end of that spectrum) leaned in towards the theatre and music opportunities, which led him into the school plays, and eventually things like the Jazz Choir, which introduced us to a wider group of people: Theresa, J(QX), Ali, Hil, Eva, Kathryn, Linda, and James. (James I already knew from our days together on the swim team.)

The onzaine would come to be my best and closest friends for my final year of public school, my shelter and grounding for university, and touch points even up to today. The summer of 1990 through to September 1991 remains one of my most treasured memories, the multiple times we went to Canada’s Wonderland, from open to close (it was through them that I came to love thrill rides); the hours we would spend in the Blockbuster trying to find a single movie we could all agree on; quoting the entirety of The Princess Bride, our group’s favourite film (there’s something about having 11 teens all saying “Gently, gently! <grunt>”); watching Kids In The Hall and Saturday Night Live in each others’ basements; the New Years events, the Christmas parties, and that one Halloween where we haunted Linda’s house; that we all joined the music department so we could finagle our way to Florida for the annual music trip. The shared meals, the shared tears, the drama and pain of high school spread across a group that lived through it together, helping each other get through that final time and into the next phases of our lives. Though we’ve fragmented a bit in the years following, with parts having lost track of the others, I still remember them all dearly, perpetually thankful that they accepted me for who and what I was (and still am), not deriding my hobbies and personality.

We had a communal soundtrack, each of us bringing forth some of our favourite tunes, most of which were copied between us via mixtapes that we brought out whenever we drove to our next adventure, usually all singing (we would have definitely mimicked the Bohemian Rhapsody scene from Wayne’s World, had it come out the year before). I can’t remember all of the songs now, but those tapes featured Def Leppard, Run DMC, Kim Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, Sting, Iron Maiden, among many other bands, including Guns N’ Roses.

I wouldn’t ever call Paradise City an anthem for the group (maybe Welcome to the Jungle, but that’s predictable), but it was one that came up (I think) because there was a bit of harmony in there. Within our group, we had sopranos (Theresa, Hil), altos (Eva, Kathryn, Ali, Linda), tenors (J(QX), Chris, James), and basses (Stuart and I, though J(QX) had range). Singing “Take me down to the Paradise city / where the grass is green / and the girls are pretty” pretty much hit everyone of us, letting out our inner rock stars.

More importantly, it reminded me of those hour-long trips to Canada’s Wonderland, the music blaring as loud as we could stomach, singing loudly … and less so on the way home, at 11:00pm, exhausted and goofy (pondering in August when the Christmas lights would go up), still singing, though without the power of the morning.

Those are the times — the people — I often think about when I’m reminiscing about my youth and the fun we had. Without an accurate record of events, I know my memory will have blurred them a bit, but I don’t mind — sometimes, it’s more about the feeling that comes back when you hear a certain song.

The Soundtrack of my Life

Africa by Toto

Yes, I know the version in the playlist is by Weezer, not Toto. I like Weezer’s version better.

Many of the songs in my soundtrack remind me of specific events, some are for periods of time. This song, like a few in this cluster, are from high school, notably my final year. Africa holds a particular place in my memory — indeed, my heart — because it reminds me of my friends.

In that year, we all participated in music. While I was a bass singer (thankfully few notes) in the choir, I drew the line at pretty much anything else, as I had serious public performance issues (insert your own joke here) and didn’t want to have a panic attack. The others went on to do the school musical (which was West Side Story that year), those that played instruments (this excluded Stuart, Chris, and myself) went into the concert band, and a select few did Jazz Choir (Theresa, Chris, Hil, James, J(QX), Kathryn, and I think Eva). Jazz Choir was the best of our best singers (Jazz Band, similarly, the best of our best musicians).

Being in the music department (well, an adjunct, anyway), I got to see a lot of Jazz Choir’s performances. There is only one of their songs that I remember: Africa.

While I might prefer the Weezer version over the original Toto (let’s be honest, it’s because of the power chords), Toto had superior harmony. But Toto had nothing on our Jazz Choir. We didn’t have a full band backing Jazz Choir (most of the time), it was mostly them and their voices. The only time they ever sounded off was the first day of our Florida trip, when we’d all been up all night long before the flight, stayed up all day, for an afternoon performance. It was cringingly off-key. Fortunately, we played for an audience of seniors who probably couldn’t tell.

I wish I had audio of the Jazz Choir. I wish I had video of them performing. But then I’m also glad I don’t, because in my mind, they always sounded — and will always sound — perfect. They were aspirational, an example of true talent that we could only hope to see, let alone match. That they were my friends just made it that much more special, knowing that I’d sung (albeit poorly) with them whilst we were out driving around at some unforsaken hour of the night, windows down on some remote road (back when Oakville actually had remote roads).

I have a strange dream — more a desire, I suppose — to get the Jazz Choir together sometime and do another concert. Not just see my friends, but see them perform. Maybe they’ll bless the rains.


The Venerable Santas

I’ve had a fascination with alternate-view Santa stories for a good chunk of my life. This one came after I realized that it would be impossible to cover the globe in a single night. So what if a single Santa could only do one Christmas?

This is dedicated to my friend Scott, who is the model for the generosity and selflessness.