6520 words, short story
Such Thoughts Are Unproductive
The woman whom I sometimes believed to be my mother flickered. Once. Twice. Her face—smiling—froze in a cloud of pixels, while her arm—the wide, emphatic gestures that were as much a marker of her identity as the color of her eyes or her fingerprints—swept the screen, leaving blue eddies, whirlpools of information. Then silence, but her mouth moved, leaving a flesh-colored smudge across the top half of her head.
“You’ve cut out again,” I said.
The picture reset. She was saying something that made her laugh.
“Your hair looks really good,” I said.
I waited. Repeated myself.
“Yes,” she said, suddenly clear, “I cut it myself because the guy they get in is terrible. He let me use his scissors, at least. So chic and DIY. If it was 2015 I’d pin it—”
Slideshow, for which I was paying five dollars a minute. Figures in black pacing against the yellow cinder block wall of the common room. I tried not to look at them because it was always better not to look at them. It was better when I could see the windows and get a look at where she was.
“We’re running out of time,” I said. “I only paid for fifteen minutes, cause last time you had the drill and I thought maybe—”
The hand, now trailing pixels. It was definitely her face, but I searched her jawline for the suture where her appearance had been attached, virtually, to this body, a scrim of pixels over the person that was—as far as anything was these days—my mother. Her smile. Her expressive hands. No matter how empty the content of our words, there was comfort in seeing her speak.
I could not, though, let go of the suspicion that this face I was searching—hanging again, lag deforming the number on her gray uniformed shoulder—was not my mother, so much as the collected fragments of her from a hundred thousand hours of CCTV footage and intercepted video conferences and Google hangouts and whatever other material had streamed through the state’s huge filter-feeding machines, snuffling all traffic—dark and light, private or public—for the information it required on problematic—
—Such thoughts are unproductive.
This woman I speak to, who is my mother, and may not be by mother, but who fills the space in my life called mother. I will continue to chat with her when I can because the illusion—if it is an illusion—is so close to reality that sometimes I am taken in and relax into daughterly affection.
The black silhouettes in the background of the common room do nothing to interfere with our conversation because no part of our conversation can be hidden from the eye that watches us all, which is not an eye, but the hundred thousand eyes of a filter-feeding behemoth made entirely of information. She sends me messages at night, long discourses on the problem of making the food palatable, or the solitaire she plays, or the scrabble tournaments she organizes. I can hear the powerful gears of her mind grinding against the cinder block walls of the place, finding things to put in order, to make, to fix. Her resources are limited: games and other companions, the discussions and lectures and regular chastisement that she undergoes, but which she does not mention, but which is always implied. I can imagine her turning that mind toward the problem of 2 + 2 being 5, producing the right answer for the individuals who ask her—daily, hourly, by the minute—to repeat this new truth. A problem of philosophy? Perhaps of language, she would say, from the perspective of neo-radical-orthodoxy, or post-Platonism. One needs only to adjust the definitions in that portion of one’s brain that is cordoned off from reality in order to comply with the ideologies of the state. That’s how she could give the “right” answer without dying of it.
She never says these things. The mother who exists in my mind—which might or might not align with the mother on the screen, or in my messages—would do such things. It would be necessary for her survival, once the small collection of paper books had been arranged by the Library of Congress system, with gaps on the shelf for “critical theory” and “resistance” and “escape plans.”
But what kind of escape could she possibly need? The enclosures are beautiful, despite the yellow cinder block walls. I’ve seen them when her back is to the window, trees and mountains framed in bulletproof glass. When I was a kid, we often drove through the Rockies and stopped at Banff. Once we stayed in a massive château on Lake Louise. There were men and women in lederhosen outside, playing alphorns. The air, when we left the sticky lowland fug of our car, was so fresh and lovely I wanted to laugh. The glaciers had receded, but you could still see the blue-white glow of them up high, far beyond us.
I think—I’m not sure—but I think I have seen similar mountains in the brief moments she directs the camera over her shoulder and out the window. The time zone can’t be far too different, but the summer nights are bright there, so it must be farther north. Toad River, I think. One of the big provincial parks. I have looked at maps—antique ones on paper, tearing at the folds—and seen the gaps in the satellite images, and I have wondered, is she there? Close to 60?
This winter I’ll watch the angles of sunlight and track the darkness behind her. I’ll hope she picks up on my questions: I’ve had trouble with my nasturtiums again. Are you growing anything? And hope she turns her camera toward the window, talks about what she’s planted in the gardens that are supposed to be so therapeutic.
We live in an age of infinitely preserved information, so it’s not actually odd that I saved every video call on an external hard drive. At night I turned off the Wi-Fi and studied my mother’s face for evidence of fakery. I didn’t search for “ten ways to spot deepfakes” because that left fingerprints, and I’m already a problematic citizen, confirmed as such by my associations, rather than any action I have taken. To be visible meant you have done something to deserve visibility, after all. And if our exploration of the human genome means anything, it’s that my genes matter. I am treacherous.
You could inherit treachery, or be infected with it, by the people who waited in government offices, slouching from hard blue chair to hard blue chair, sharing between them the rumors and possibilities regarding what happened to the missing. Camps. Education centers. Wilderness highways that stopped dead on the other side of the great divide. The blank spots that are slowly overtaking our digital maps, even archived versions I thought I had kept safe. No more news from Fort Mac, not for a couple of years now. The pipelines never leak. Silence accompanied any disruption of gasoline, or the regular oil slicks up and down the Salish Sea, where all the fish are dead. There’s another dam on the Peace River to celebrate, but the blackouts got worse.
When I had thoroughly and silently examined the information available (is that a tamarack? A black spruce? Is that a mountain?) It occurred to me that as the woman I talk to might be scrimmed with my mother’s face, so might be the room in which she sat. The darkness and light I have so painstakingly tracked, the faint, blue line of a mountain, and a pink winter sunset at three in the afternoon? That may well mean nothing. Worse than nothing: deception.
At work I was also a watcher. I was part of a team that sanity-checked the AI that surveils traffic errors in the western provinces. I looked for anomalies and found ways to integrate them into the AI’s understanding, slowly eliminating my own job, as the anomalies grew rarer and the world more perfectly known. I thought, sometimes, following on my father’s philosophical leanings, that this was the goal of our state: perfect knowledge of landscapes and people and relationships. So perfect that the simulacrum we saw on the screen was more perfect than the territory we possessed. The woman on the screen was my mother, as was the woman in my messages, so perfectly had she been synthesized by the state that also slit—
“Have you heard from da—”
“—He’s okay. Did you get that? You’re a slideshow.”
I was a slideshow, too. Maybe she didn’t even think it was me. Maybe there was another woman she spoke to midweek, and she believed that was the real daughter, and she only spoke to me because the system required her to maintain the fiction. Maybe she had a million daughters asking her leading questions. Maybe.
Still smiling, in case we connected, I wrote on my tablet and held it up to my phone: HE’S STILL WORKING ON THE SOLAR PANELS. Dad withdrew from the city to our old cabin in the interior (is she near there? Farther north and east. The forests I have seen out that window are deep and green), when Mom left, or disappeared, or was taken, whichever mode you choose to use for description. Dad and I just say “when Mom left” like it’s the only date that matters. He hasn’t come back to the city since. I took two weeks off work to help him chuck their things, and carry what was important—photographs, old books, her clothes, her jewelry—to the cabin. We couldn’t afford to take much, with the cost of gas. The house was requisitioned later, for a nominal fee that didn’t cover the time or gas it would have taken him to get the papers signed. I don’t go by there anymore. I don’t like to see it.
“Do you remember when we camped at Banff?”
“When you graduated from high school? Or are you talking about before Sophie’s wedding?”
“Sophie? Piano teacher? At Banff?”
“Aunt Sophie, not piano Sophie. We were roommates all through grad school. If you were going to have a godmother, she would have been your godmother. You were pretty little that trip, though.”
I remember Banff, because we went right up to the glacier and Dad showed me where it had been each year, walking backward through time, saying this is when you were born and this is when I was born.
“I was like five? Four? I thought that was Emily’s wedding.”
“No, Sophie. And I was maid of honor so I had to be there three days early, and you and Daddy just ate junk food and went on the swings until you threw up. You hated Fudgsicles for a year after that summer. I should have done that with more junk food. You’d be vegan now.
I actually am vegan. I do not remember having an aunt named Sophie. I’m pretty sure it was Emily’s wedding. Dad and I played on the merry-go-round until we were so dizzy, we stumbled across the soccer field toward the edge of the forest, collapsing on the grass until the world stopped spinning and we’d expelled all the Doritos and gummy worms we’d eaten. That afternoon, Mom—woozy and white-faced after a late night—got ready in a blue dress I had never seen before, her hair up high and her makeup all pretty. She carried me into this old lodge halfway up the mountain and shouted over my shoulder to friends I had seen in pictures, but never met, making jokes about things I didn’t understand. Dad and I left during the dancing, but she came in long after that, laughing. She slept in late, grouchy, cuddling a water bottle to her pillow, while we went driving in search of coffee and hot chocolate. “And what do you say to more Doritos, Mar?” Dad asked, and I pretended to throw up.
She said other things that left me watchful and adrenalized. I didn’t draw attention to the discrepancies because her memory might be flawed, but so was mine. So was everyone’s, except the filter-feeding behemoth that follows us all, and while we didn’t seem to possess the same past, it possessed us equally. We found an equilibrium. For more than a year I didn’t even hear from her, not even to confirm she still existed. I waited patiently in offices, both virtual queues and in person, and I went to Victoria to line up with all the others at the Ministry of Information Management and Retrieval. The answers were always the same: here’s a chit with a number. We’ll be in touch. Said with a synthetic smile by an AI phone tree, or a tired clerk behind glass. They will always get back to you.
I am patient and consistent, also better connected than a lot of people, so I have pushed further than most. I also know the system better, and know when to leave things be, keep my head down, be grateful that I know my mother is alive. I am the model supplicant, waiting in dovelike patience outside the walls for the emergence of her mother, whose radical spirit has been (will be) corrected by the benevolent ministrations of the state.
You got to know other people because you saw them at the offices and in the spillover corridors. Which wasn’t to say you know them, just that you were familiar with their faces and concerns. Julie’s looking for her brother and nephews. Chris wants to find his wife. Chris thinks she’s in the foothills somewhere. Alberta has a few sites. You avoided the ones with loud voices who talked too loud about what was happening, even the explanations you really shouldn’t say out loud: they have been replaced by bots of some description; their minds are being damaged beyond coherence by electroshock or DBS. Uncommon, but appealing: discrepancies are coded messages that only family will recognize, and thus communicate important information about location, and security movements, and the details of what’s happening inside, in preparation for a massive action. We should all pool the discrepancies, and see what picture they show us, if we stand far enough back. We should talk. We should organize.
I have never contributed to these efforts. In lineups—the sorts of lineups that involve standing up every fifteen minutes to move one spot down in the long row of hard blue chairs—I listened, but said nothing, only thought, you don’t know how loud your voice is why don’t you care that the walls are full of cameras and your face is so well known to the machine no one you love can ever be sure it’s you talking to them.
I didn’t need specifics regarding what happened inside, because what happened inside is what’s happened inside such education centers since they were first invented. Repetition and regulation. Rote recitation of truths regarding the nature of the society to which we belong. The principle being—I knew this, because Mom told me—that the surface recitation has a transformative effect on the mind, even if the mind resists the meaning of the words it says.
And then the culturally-specific humiliation, and the strategic application of pain—
“—Recite platitudes that deny climate change,” she said, “or the refugee crisis or ethnic cleansing or forced sterilization or eugenics. The perfectibility of the human animal in an ideal society. Repeat it and eventually you believe it. Or act like you believe it, which is just as good as far as they’re concerned.”
That was near the end, when she said those sorts of things out loud, and in text, and every last fragment collected and shared them across whatever the network is now. Five Eyes. Nine Eyes. Ten Billion Eyes. In collaboration, those systems extracted meaning and implication from the marks she made on the screens and the sounds from her mouth—rarely out of range of a microphone—cross-referencing those patterns with other patterns. They flagged her profile. They saw the outcomes, and identified my mother as a point of vulnerability. In her terms: an imperfect citizen.
Me too, probably, and Dad, though we’re less threatening. We don’t talk often anymore. It was difficult to have a conversation when most of what matters is dangerous to say out loud. Dad mentions that he’s repainting the garage. I talk about how I want to do a bike trip through Oregon. Dad says he thinks he’s got a rat in the basement. I say I had some decent wontons at a new place that opened around the corner. Hanging over our conversation, a list of things we don’t mention: droughts (unless historical); disappearing island chains; climate refugees; the rage associated with rising temperatures and food prices; the—
—But this isn’t productive. We both know. We talk about whether he can catch the rat with a humane trap. We talk about how smart rats are, and how deftly they have adapted to human landscapes. I say I’ll make a trip to help. He says no no, no need. I’m fine. I say, you should come visit me, do city stuff, and he says no no no, no need. I’m fine. We’re both fine. As you can see, I am now good at lying.
I ran into an aunt at some event, and she said, “I haven’t heard from your mom in ages, how is she?”
“Oh. She’s doing better.”
“Better? What happened?”
“She contracted one of the antibiotic-resistant strains of TB, and she’s taking some time to recover.”
“I’m so sorry to hear it. Where is she?”
“One of the new sanatoriums. She’ll be in for a while.”
“Oh, Mar. She’ll be in my thoughts. Pass that on, would you? Or maybe I’ll email her.”
This was the safe response. An innocuous message passed on. No further inquiry. No possibility of betrayal.
I set my keys on the little shelf by the door and sighed, the way you do when you take off high heels or get somewhere quiet where you can cry. Then I heard someone shifting on my couch.
She squealed. “Mar! Mar! Look at you! The last time I saw you was at your mom’s fiftieth. When was that? Oh god don’t tell me. That means we’re old.”
I have an Aunt Sophie. She was a thin, athletic woman, honey-brown hair, not Mom’s pixie cut, but of the same vintage, choppy, with playful silver highlights. She was dressed in elegant athleisure. And you know, at that moment she could have been an aunt, one of the women from Mom’s PhD program, or a second cousin, or someone from the Elder college where she talked political philosophy.
“Where did you—?”
“—I’m just going to be in town for a couple of weeks, and I’m going to be nearby while I deal with a contract. I saw your mom, you know.”
“Last week. That’s why I’m here. I knew you were in the city, but I didn’t know where, obviously, and—okay, I was a little embarrassed that I’ve been so out of touch with everyone. It’s these short contracts. They’re disorienting. I travel. So. Much.”
“You heard from Mom?”
“Yes. And I realized how much I’ve missed of your life these last years. Remember when I lived on Elm Street and you guys used to come over and we’d go to that one park with the splash pad, and then we’d get ice cream on the drive?”
I found myself nodding. It’s what you do. Lie.
“Anyway.” My new aunt said. “I thought I’d come over and I had your mom’s key so. I brought you dinner, too. Are you still vegan?”
“Yes,” I said. “For five years now.”
“Good. You know, while I was waiting I remembered how much you hated cooking when you were a teenager—remember how your mom tried to teach you to make, I don’t know, spaghetti sauce, and the fights. Oh God. I heard about the fights.”
I had not remembered those fights in years. “The Bolognese,” I said. “I still can’t make it. On principle.”
“I brought pakoras. They’re off the fucking hook—I ate like two of them waiting for you. Let’s go eat the rest.”
The pakoras were excellent. The rice she also brought was fragrant and nutty underneath the curry. The beer delicious, bubbling out of our glasses and over the rough table on my back deck, which just had room for four people. Sophie talked about grad school and Mom, about parties they threw together, about staying up late crying over deadlines and supervisors, about graduation, and how Mom had blown hers off for the government job, but been there the next year for Sophie’s, already pregnant with me.
“So you were at my graduation. Good luck charm.”
I slid into this the way we slid into so many things: the loss of cities to the encroaching waters and deserts, the swamps and the Zika virus creeping north along the Mississippi, as the days grew hotter and the mosquitoes adapted. A kind of compliant quiet—pleasant, safe—overtook me as I thought yes, of course I had an aunt named Sophie. Of course.
She slept that night on the couch. It was the obvious thing to do. Curfew.
That night I lay in bed and recited the facts of my life: I do not have an aunt named Sophie; my mother did not have antibiotic-resistant TB and was not in a sanatorium on one of the quarantine islands. My mother is in an internment camp with yellow cinder block walls, somewhere in the mountains, far enough north that she’s surrounded by tamarack, maybe by black spruce. At the end of the road with no exit. Britney is gone. The dam on the Peace River was bombed last year. Gasoline shortages are worse.
In the dark I texted Mom, or the Mom-function of some bot, or the person assigned to be my mom that shift, while my real mom—the internal enemy—underwent her daily reeducation, which wasn’t happening but was happening all the time. Maybe, I thought, as I typed, these words are shuttling right out to the living room, where my aunt Sophie was not sleeping, but surveilling the various fictions of my family relationships. I wondered how many nieces and nephews she had.
Sophie is here.
Who? The answer came too quickly. Maybe she wasn’t sleeping. She had trouble sleeping, she said, despite all the fresh air and exercise. Maybe she wasn’t Mom, maybe she was—
Sophie. My aunt.
Awesome. How is she? I haven’t seen her for ages. She asked about you, though. Not surprised she turned up. She just finished that contract in Halifax.
She’s great. She brought pakoras from the place on Main.
Oh man. I miss those.
They’re really good. We have leftovers. I wish we could send them.
I want pot stickers from Hon’s. And honeymoon rice. Then we should go for gelato.
Triple scoop. Then back for another three.
You should ask your dad if he’ll come into town and have gelato with you.
He’s so busy.
I didn’t write he hates the city now or he hates people now or neither of us can afford the gas if we want to eat. I wrote, he’s so busy and somewhere, the mom-function, or the behemoth, took note.
Have you heard from Britney?
And then I had to stop, because the question hurt so much it didn’t matter whether the woman on the other side was my mother, or a fiction, or some synthesis of true and false too complicated to understand.
You ask yourself as you read my record: why is she so compliant? Why doesn’t she tell the woman who keeps visiting daily, bringing food and asking questions about work and dating and Mom and Dad, why doesn’t she just say, you aren’t my aunt, I don’t have an aunt.
I answer: because this is what we all do. Because I don’t want to end up removed to a complex somewhere in the northern mountains, where if I escaped the hundreds of km between me and a highway would kill me before any of the guards had to. Because things can always get worse for everyone involved. Because they need someone on the outside.
But also. Also. Because she knows that I love honeymoon rice, and that I would like nothing better than to gorge on pakoras and gelato with Mom and Dad, and talk about inconsequential things, without reference to—or—or—but rather what we watched on TV and whether it was a Mac’s convenience or a 7-11 that we used to stop at on our way out of town for holiday road trips (it was definitely a 7-11). Whether the aphids are back on the nasturtiums. I talk this way with the entity who is/isn’t my mother, who may be my mother, who may be human. The entity behaves so exactly like my mother, and I like that, because then I don’t think about how she’s dead, or in solitary, somewhere, with the volume on prog rock or economic propaganda at 79 decibels for weeks on—
—But this is not productive.
My face betrays itself to the camera that is watching me, that also hears the catch in my voice when I thank the barista for my coffee. I use the drive-through because it offers marginally more privacy, since it can’t read your whole body, and because if you order with the app the drink is there and you don’t have to say anything and you have the pleasure of silence, though your face—the breathing, roughened by repressed tears—is still visible to it.
The girl who gives me her drink is impassive, but I think—a flicker of sympathy in her eyes? She can’t tell that I’m contaminated by my association with my mother, that I have an Aunt Sophie. But maybe she’s contaminated, too, and has an Aunt Sophie. Who knows? You don’t wait long enough to find out.
Sophie and I watch movies and go for walks, and sometimes I think how much I would like it if Sophie was my aunt. She clucks over me when I cough and asks whether I’ve tried turmeric and makes me tea of mint and ginger. It would be very easy to accept the gentleness of this state-sponsored intervention, ignoring the deviations I hear in conversation, and the fact that she is also someone else’s aunt. I like Sophie. That’s what I keep thinking. I like her. It’s such a relief to have someone like a mom around that I cry, sometimes, when she checks in to see if I ate lunch.
We walk past my neighbors who say, who’s that, Mar? And I say, this is my Aunt Sophie, and they all smile, and I don’t know—not really—if they believe me, or if Aunt has become code for them as it has for me, for something you can’t talk about, a person who is close to you like a missing lover, like family, but who is—
Dad called. Unusual, therefore treacherous. “It’s confirmed,” he said.
Sophie was on the porch. She’d waved yes yes when I got the call, take it, and she kept eating. I’d made us cold noodles with mint and basil from the pot I kept in the corner of the little deck.
“This morning. I’m going to head out tomorrow morning.”
“I could be there—”
“—No, you can’t. It’s contagious. You’ll have to get checked out. They’ll be in touch. Probably soon.”
“What do you need?”
“Nothing. Just to hear your voice.”
In the silence my throat shut and on the other side of the line, his throat shut too. I tried to think of safe things I could say, but what would that even be? All conversations are recorded. All expression is evidence.
“What is it?”
“TB.” He paused. “You know the one.”
We all knew what that meant. There’s nothing for us to say, because probably all the feelings, all the fear and anger, were exhausted that first year when we didn’t hear from Mom, and he went with me to the offices with the hard blue chairs. Now, though, it was just the familiar and inexorable creep of the end, as all us imperfect citizens were taken up, one by one.
Sophie started as soon as I hung up the phone, “What happened?”
I said nothing.
“Talk to me, honey.”
Mom used to call me honey. She still did sometimes, in text. Sometimes she didn’t.
“It’s your dad, isn’t it? I know how hard this is.”
I threw things into my pack. T-Shirts. Socks. Solar charger. Filter bottle. Fleece.
“You can’t go silent on me. Mar. Mar. Do you think this is what your mother wants? Seriously? You have to talk.”
Documents, hidden from her view by the closed door, on which she banged her fists, tucked into my waistband.
“It’s not good to bottle everything up inside. You need to learn to trust people.”
My backpack—the giant frame one that Dad got me for my first real solo expedition the summer I was twenty. It cost twice what I wanted, but he insisted, and he’d been right because here it still was. I checked my balance with Humanitas, the telecom provider for all the camps. Sanatoriums. Whatever. Ten minutes banked against next week’s call, and enough for a handful of texts, so I hit dial.
She didn’t answer. I rang again, just swallowing the five dollars. Then the woman appeared, her back to the windows.
“Hey, I didn’t expect—”
The image of my mother-not-mother hung, and reflexively I studied the margins of her face for the suture between reality and fiction, the faint betraying lines of an AI’s interference.
“You cut out.”
“I didn’t expect to hear from you. I heard from your dad yesterday, though, so both of you are off schedule. What’s up?”
The image hung. I picked up the jiffy I had ready in case, and began writing on the white wall of my bedroom. DAD IS SICK IM GOING TO VISIT HIM.
Her face—hanging in the moment when she understood what I wrote—was animated only by the shimmer of pixels across my screen. She might have dropped, but I kept my phone fixed on the wall so she had a chance to see it again. One way or another, they already knew, and if it was Mom. If it was. If. Then she had to know.
“Are you talking to her? Is that her?” Sophie shouted. “You can’t disturb her recovery, Mar. That’s just fucking selfish.”
She said other things in quick succession, about my being a bad daughter, about how I was a bitch, about how I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, careening from insult to affection in a split second in order to stop me from doing—something. I wondered if she’d try to hit me.
I locked up the apartment with Sophie still following me, talking about opening up, saying are you a fucking rock? Tell me what’s wrong with Bastien, he’s my friend too, you can’t shut me out. A thousand other platitudes about sharing the burden of pain.
I got into the car. She stood in front of it.
“Why don’t you just put a tracker on me,” I said, “and let me go. It’ll all be over soon anyway.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I inched forward. She leaned onto the hood and I thought, this may be the single stupidest moment of my entire life.
“We’re family, Mar.”
Maybe she told the truth, though not in the way she thought. We were family in the sense that we were bound to the same omnivorous machine.
“Please,” she said. “Please.”
I could hear her saying those words to someone else, someone standing behind me, someone looking out of my eyes, and I wanted to ask, who is it? Who are you talking to?
I unlocked the door. She got in, face full of rage-tears.
“You can’t rescue him,” she said. “You need to just trust that things happen for a reason.”
I thought about killing her. I thought about killing myself. I thought about driving into the roadblock at the exit for Needle Park, which was now manned by American uniforms, hazmat suits, trucks with Chinese plates. But while I often have those thoughts, I have never pursued them. It’s how I have survived as long as I have, why I haven’t been scooped with my parents, with Brit—
—But thinking of Britney would make things even worse than they were. So instead I thought about the roadblocks, and how the exits for Kingsvale and Brookmere and Coldwater were bulldozed, so you couldn’t leave the car to feel the air change as you climb into the mountains. I thought about what might now be on the other side of the torn up concrete and rock.
She talked. She laughed. She told the same stories about my mother in grad school, what a mess she was during her comps, cleaning the bathroom at midnight, smoking until dawn on their tiny, rotten front porch. Ha ha ha.
I thought of all the times we started our summer road trips on the Coquihalla, headed to the cabin, or farther north and east. Other years due south along the American coast, watching the beaches change from shingle to sand, to Manzanita and Tillamook, then farther south until we found our way to California. I thought of camping, and the dogs with me in the back seat.
Her throat raw with talk, she kept going, “Your parents love you so much,” she said, “they want what’s best for you, and what’s best is to let them get better.”
“We’re going to need gas,” I said. “Stop at Merritt.”
“Are you even listening? I’m here because I love you, Mar, and because I’m trying to convince you to move on with your life, and let them go. You can’t change this.”
Once, a year ago, when I still hadn’t heard from Mom, and Dad had just moved to the interior but was off the grid because of the fires, and the Coquihalla was still roadblocked because of the attack on the dam, and I had no idea about anything anymore, and Britney was—
—I had the opportunity to find an aunt, or a niece, or a cousin. This happened when you appeared to be as compliant as I did. Ashley—my direct manager—called me into a meeting with someone I’d never seen before, a woman in a sleek gray suit who talked about how I could help Britney and my mother and anyone else I cared to help, by telling them about my extended family, about those cousins I met sometimes on the hard blue chairs. I told them I didn’t have any cousins like that, but that I’d think about it. I wondered, later, if my hesitation was enough. Maybe we were all damned because I thought instead of saying, yes yes whatever you like I’ll find a cousin and tell you anything you need to know.
The lineup at the gas station was better than Vancouver. Thirty minutes. I thought of killing her again, my Aunt Sophie, who had grown so familiar to me, messenger from a childhood I had not had, a life I did not lead in a country that no longer existed, full of loving familiar bonds, and gentle teasing, and a father not slowly dying of TB, a mother not being tortured by—
—I said, “There has to be someone you’re protecting, right?”
“You, Mar. You’re my goddaughter,” she said it mechanically, and I could imagine the dialogue somewhere in the dossier that archived me, identified my vulnerabilities, cataloged my failures. I have no godmother, no aunt, no mother, no wife. “I swore at your christening that I would uphold the ethical and social bond of our relationship. That I would love you. I promised—”
—We moved a car length forward. You could smell the wildfires, and see last year’s burnout, overgrown with fireweed.
“Daughter?” I asked. “Your sister? Granddaughter?”
It was like a moonscape out there, Dad said when he drove through after the fires. On the other side of the mountain, the cabin was safe, but probably not for many more seasons. I had always thought that I could escape there, if I needed to, get the camping gear and walk out to some place no one will ever set foot. A mountain. A valley where I could wait until this was over.
“You should probably go see them,” I said. “Whoever they are. They’d rather see you than get whatever help you think they’ll get. Because you’re not helping. Not really.”
When we got to the pump I filled up, then we went in to pay and get some water, and whatever candy was available because that’s what you do in Merritt, you get snacks for the last two hours on the road, even if they were sparse and overpriced gummy worms.
She said, “You know I don’t have a choice.”
“She’s not your mother, probably, the one you talk to. You know where your mother is. You know what they do.”
“I did actually know your parents in grad school. I did. You were in utero at my graduation. That’s why they thought—and I was already doing. It. This. For her. I was doing it because if I don’t—”
—And I will grant her a little privacy here. It only takes a few words when it’s people like us, the imperfect citizens of this perfectly known world. She told me things I do not wish to know, because they hurt to know, then we both looked instinctively for cameras and drones and microphones.
She said, “I have to. I’ll just be. I have—” and she walked away.
I went back to the car and drank from the water bottle, then started the engine. A full tank of gas, the sunlight brilliant, and I pulled out of the lot. I had, I figured, a couple of hours before they got to me, and by then, I would be at Dad’s, and maybe we could talk for a few minutes before they came. I saw the signs for Peachland and Kelowna, and the sun was going down, and eating the gummy worms I could almost be on one of those other road trips, out from the city to the cabin for a week, or maybe past the mountains and somewhere else, north maybe. This time I’d make Britney come with us, even if I had to beg her to take time away from work. And—the image came to me, though I did not want it—Sophie with us, sitting up late to talk with Mom. I could imagine another lifetime in which she was my aunt, when she and her daughter might have joined us for a week on the lake, drinking beer by the water, and swatting at the mosquitoes together.
Rebecca Campbell is a Canadian writer and teacher whose speculative fiction has appeared most recently in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Shadows and Tall Trees. Her work has won the Sunburst and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and been nominated for the Aurora Award. NeWest Press published her first novel, The Paradise Engine, in 2013, and in 2022, Undertow Publications will publish her First World War horror novella, The Talosite. She mostly uses her PhD in Canadian literature to make up sad futures and weird fictions.