We think we seek ends, but those come to us unbidden. No, what we search for, all our lives, are beginnings.
'Talbot says if the holy war goes on much longer, people will start chucking nukes,' I told my family. That sounded like the end of the world to me, or a good enough approximation. Still, I bit my tongue, angry at myself. Tal had walked out on me fully three months earlier. Just left me high and dry. So why the hell did the bastard's miserable little obiter dicta keep popping out of my mouth? Actually I knew why. If a major global conflict really did happen -- and the newspaper editorials, not to mention trash television, made it sound certain -- the whole world's burning would somewhat approximate this last year with my ex-boyfriend. I shuddered, and spread canola margarine on another wholemeal roll.
Certainly my father was convinced the world was about to end, and he wasn't shy about saying so. Grace told him primly that he shouldn't talk about such morbid topics at the dinner table.
'I don't believe in hiding the truth from our daughters,' Hugh said, 'no matter how grim it is. That's how we got into this goddamned fix in the first place.'
'Hugh, I'd rather you didn't use that kind of language in front of Suzanna.' Mom pursed her lips, then grinned and punched him in the arm. 'With Natalie, of course, you can say whatever you fucking well like.'
She was a great kidder, but I could tell that she really didn't like any talk about the end of the world. She said it made her nervous and spoiled her appetite. Grace was so lean and muscular from aerobics and Tai Chi classes that she didn't need to be put off her food, because she always ate twice as much as me, which was saying something even though I'm on an endless diet and, okay, a few pounds overweight. But I don't care. I'm not a slave to fashion, like Suzanna. That's my sister, the young beautiful one. And no, I'm not all twisted up with envy and jealousy.
When I was a child, I'd given myself nightmares by skimming the books Father left lying around the living room. Hair-raising stuff from the 1980s when people like Hugh and Grace D'Anzso were expecting to be totaled at any minute. Anyway, that's the impression you get. Awful, blood-curdling rhetoric. Let the words creep into the back of your mind and nestle there in the night: Ground zero. First strike capability. Hardened targets. Megatons of explosive nastiness in the multiple-warhead nose cones of missiles launched from attack submarines deep under the Arctic ice or cruising the Pacific. Plus the more recent nightmares: monstrous acts of terrorism, genomic engineered viruses, probably, and god knows what the military were doing in their containment labs with nanotechnology.
I'd woken up whimpering that winter morning, too cold to go back to sleep, scrunched up under the non-allergenic comforter. What I wanted was a warm body next to me; I lay shaking in my misery and anger, tears running down my face. It was too early to get up and light the old wood stove. The solar panels weren't powerful enough, of course, to warm my parents' house, so all they had were basic services like lighting, television -- and the computers, naturally. Cooking and hot water were handled with a blend of 21st century retrofitting -- ugly big drums of water to absorb heat during the daylight hours, rational placement of windows and bushes to catch or shade the Sun's heat -- and 19th century tried-and-true. My parents didn't believe in using the public utilities, like gas and electricity, because you could never tell when the government might decide to turn them off or there could be a drastic oil shortage at any moment. Talbot had agreed for the sake of peace and quiet that these precautions made perfect sense, but my dearest friend Deb often insisted over a cheerful coffee latte and pastry that this was mad bullshit and I suspected she was probably right, but what would I know? (Ha!)
It still scared me. Other people weren't forced to suffer this urban survivalist crap. Suzanna and I'd had to put up with it since I was small and she was smaller; it had quickly become apparent to me that if other kids' parents took such precautions nobody talked about it in the playground, or after school. On the other hand, Suzanna and I hadn't talked about it much either. It's no fun if everyone thinks you're some crazy loon geek with nutso olds, and when you crawl back to live with them at the age of 23 with your tail between your legs after your guy has taken the Toyota and your best friend to a new apartment, and you think you're going crazy with sorrow, it's even less fun. Still, there were the occasional moments of hilarity in the madness.
'It won't be nuclear, Natalie,' Hugh assured me absently, cutting the leafy head off a green crisp stick of celery and eating it without salt. I know salt is bad for your blood pressure, but I can't stand raw vegetables without at least a bit of salt to bring out the flavor. On my 18th birthday I'd been informed by Grace (graciously, of course) that it was my choice henceforth. I might kill myself by slow poison at her table if that was the way I wanted it, since I was now an adult and got to make such vital decisions without any further interference from them. My dear best friend Deb, my really reliable best friend Debbie, had thought this was big of them, and I guess from their point of view it was a remarkably liberal concession.
'What will it be then?' Suzanna said sulkily, not looking up from her copy of Rolling Stone which featured the Big Spew on the cover. She was twirling one golden springy strand of magical hair with her index finger, and I knew she didn't really care about the end of the world, as long as she got to the Xmas dance with gorgeous Andy Compton who was only a year and a half younger than me for crying out loud, already finishing his engineering degree. What was a hunk like that doing with my kid sister? Why weren't my parents throwing conniptions about the cradle-snatcher?
'Don't encourage him,' Grace said warningly to Suzanna, but it was too late. It was always too late.
'The ozone hole is still on the increase,' Hugh said in his calm, prophetic voice. He never got wildly angry about the end of the world, just relaxed and determined to do something about it and fix the poor goddamned world up, as he'd say, before the jackasses and buffoons ruined it altogether. 'The population explosion might be slowing, but the sheer weight of human numbers is still considerably above the planet's optimal carrying capacity. Genetic engineering of crops is setting us up for the most horrendous food production crash in history, once some mutant insect or viral predator appears and wipes out the cloned crops in one foul swoop--'
'One fool sweep,' I said.
'One fell swoop, dear,' Grace said simultaneously.
'Fell?' said Suzanna. 'How can you swoop if you fell?'
'Fell?' Hugh said. 'I'm talking about factory fowls, all those poor chickens genetically bred for maximum tasteless flesh and big eggs and no brains. One swipe and those fowl are gone.'
I was indignant. 'You didn't say "swipe",' I cried. 'That's a foul!'
By then we were all falling about laughing, and Hugh got a bit of celery caught in his windpipe, and started choking and we stopped talking about the end of civilization as we knew it. But the topic was never far away. It lurked in the shadows at night, in my weepy bereft dreams, and our parents made their strange plans during the day, although Suzie and I actually knew nothing about that, even if we suspected that something pretty disturbing was afoot.
Hugh had sold the Subaru sedan a couple of months ago, which was one of his more insane moves. He claimed the family didn't need three cars, since the Ferguson Institute was within walking distance and Grace worked at home. Not long after Hugh did this mad thing, my ancient Fiat bit the dust and Tal decided he was rightful owner of our Toyota (okay, he'd paid the deposit and it was registered in his name, but I'd dutifully shelled out half the monthly installments), or at any rate that his need was greater, so we were down to Grace's sturdy old Volvo. It sat in the drive when I wasn't using it to drop Suzanna by school and get myself to work.
Nonetheless, Hugh started securing the old-fashioned wooden doors of the garage with a heavy chain and lock. I knew there wasn't anything inside except for all the usual tools neatly lined up along one wall in the wooden shelves that Hugh had built to hold them when we moved into the house five years earlier, a bit after Suzanna's twelfth birthday, hammers and wrenches and cans for nails and screws in various sizes and handyman lengths of timber and metal pipe strung overhead out of the way, and along the back wall a rack of electronic gadgets with dials and monitor screens torn out of obsolete computers and wired together and none of us had the slightest idea what it was all for, except that Hugh refused to let us touch any of it. I had the idea, or maybe the romantic delusion, that he'd wanted to be a freelance inventor when he was a boy, but had to give up his dream when he married Grace and quite soon found himself saddled, perhaps to his surprise, with an expensive daughter and then, a few years later, with another. Luckily they came to their senses and stopped at that point.
But doing a Fort Knox on the garage was not what bothered me, not per se, I'd had plenty of time to get used to Hugh's little eccentricities. Besides, Tal had explained to me that men prefer to have a redoubt of their own, well away from the domesticity of the household, especially one infested with three women. (Double ha!) It had started earlier than that, when the crazy man bolted on a substantial lock inside the garage doors.
Grace had put up a fight when that bolt was first screwed into place, saying that one of us might lock ourselves in and then faint from chemical fumes or hit our head and no-one would be able to retrieve us, and dear rational Daddy pointed out that this was a wildly unlikely eventuality since Suzanna and I were hardly children any longer.
Grace exploded. 'Of course they are not kids any more, Hugh. I have observed my own daughters growing up.'
Hugh seemed to think he'd won the argument. And in a way he had. Mom just said, 'Oh for heaven's sake, Hugh,' and left the room looking angry.
The point was, of course, that she couldn't bring herself to express what she was really feeling. Or, at least, she couldn't say it in front of us. Pretty weird for a card-carrying feminist of the old school, but somehow I'd managed to assimilate this behavior without questioning it deeply. What she really felt, I saw now, was the same thing that I felt: Hugh was starting to act batshit. Grace hated the idea of the bolt on the inside of the garage door because it was frankly insane. Who'd want to lock himself into an empty garage? Some sort of raving fruitcake, it seemed to me.
I tried to raise the matter with her that evening. She was helping me with some loan amortization calculations I'd been having trouble with. I had been studying fairly ineptly for my realtor's exams, using an old HP 12C calculator of Dad's. Grace is a whiz at math; her Ph.D. was computer science, but she could add and subtract without using either her fingers or an abacus. Me, I can handle the greater and lesser obscurities of Jacques Derrida, Paul De Man and Edward Said, but I could never get my head around a simple calculator. We were alone, sitting at the kitchen table, which years ago had been one of my favorite places for doing homework, and the ambience remained comforting. Grace was wearing warm-ups, loose and comfortable, the kind of easy clothing she always wore around the house. On the rare occasions when she went to a publisher's office, she groaned but reluctantly did herself up, so she left the house looking like one of those classy blonde anchor women on the news. You could tell in an instant that Suzanna was her daughter, and I was Hugh's. Ah well, the mysteries of the genes -- which was one of Mom's other technical interests, since her thesis work had been in supercomputer computation that ultimately fed into the Human Proteomics Project. I shook the machine in frustration.
'This thing must be defective, Grace.' In a minimal attempt to salvage my dignity after retreating to the ancestral home, I'd taken to using her given name, something I'd done as a small child then abandoned when I found it didn't upset her. 'Look. I put in 12 plus 5 and it says 252.20.' I felt like throwing the damned thing through the window.
'Relax, Natalie. The HP 12C uses reverse Polish notation. That means you have to load your first number.' Grace calmly entered the number twelve. 'Then you put in your second number. Now you tell the calculator what operation to perform.' She touched the plus sign. Looking over her shoulder, I saw the number seventeen on the display. Oh. Feeling like a fool, I scribbled it down, then took a deep breath. Carefully, I said, 'Mom, don't you think Dad's maybe a bit, well, you know, obsessed -- like with the bolt on the garage door...' I trailed off.
'No, I don't think your father is obsessed. He's just...' Grace paused, laid down her pen, obviously looking for the right word, the safe word. 'He's just cautious.'
I made a farting noise. 'Give me a break. There's nothing cautious about a bolt on the inside of the garage door. It's absurd. Does he think the car's going to escape? Oh no, that's right -- no car any longer.'
I could tell Grace was about to deny that there was anything out of the ordinary about Hugh's antics, but she seemed to check herself. 'Hugh sees the world in a different light,' she said. 'Everyone sees the world differently. You'll get over Talbot and Deb sooner or later, Nat, and you'll fall in love again--'
I repeated the noise.
'And you'll find that your partner, that lucky man, whoever he is, never quite sees things the way you do. Then you'll have children and sometimes they'll seem like aliens from outer space, their values and their outlook on life will be so strange. Part of it's genetics. Some genes that express themselves in you can be recessive in your parents-- '
'Mom, I might be a klutz with a calculator, but I do know--'
Imperturbably, she went on: 'So you really inherit less than half your personality from each parent, at least of what's visible in them. And there are between thirty and fifty thousand genes, and they interact with each other in strange ways. It's a wonder we get on with each other as well as we do.'
I was enthralled, actually. While I'd never been terribly good at most of my math and physics and chemistry classes, not as good as Suzanna anyway, I love this weird science stuff. Grace told me about studies of identical twins separated at birth; it didn't seem to matter how different the environments were in which the twins were brought up, they managed to turn out remarkably similar. I could have listened all night -- she's really entrancing when she gets going on something she knows a lot about. But all this talk about twins and clones and genotypes and phenotypes was getting away from the problem of Hugh's behavior and my mother's compliance with it. I interrupted her.
'About it being a wonder that we get on with each other, I think you get on with Daddy as well as you do,' I said in a rush, 'because you don't contradict him very much.'
'Of course I do,' Grace said, taken aback. 'I'm always telling Hugh he's wrong about things.'
'I know,' I said, 'You tell him he is wrong and then he just claims that he's right. And then you don't say anything more, you don't argue.'
She sighed, and took our cups and plates to the sink to soak, since we don't have a dishwasher. 'You might be right, Nat. I deliberately chose not stress the argumentative side of my personality. When I was a kid, I was always in deep shit of one kind or another. Staying detached helped me get through my math degrees at a time when girls weren't encouraged to use their brains that way. The cost, admittedly, was unpleasant. However,' she said with a pained frown, 'I think I'd rather defer this conversation for now, darling. You've got to get all those really exciting numbers written down neatly or they'll take away your skeleton key.' And off she went to her computer to do some editorial work on some bigwig's text book, leaving me wrestling with reverse Polish notation and the carpet to order for a room 14 ft. x 20 ft. and amortization payments on 30 year loans.
I watched her for several weeks to see if my subtle pep talk had given her pause, but if she took to arguing with her husband, about the lock on the garage or anything else, it wasn't when Suzanna and I were present.
• • •
There's a small dirty window high in the rear of the garage that's obviously been nailed shut for years, covered in grime and strands of spiderweb. It was too inconvenient to climb up to from the inside and clean, and Hugh had powerful fluoro-lamps on his benches so he didn't care that there wasn't any external light in the garage when he shut the door. But I'd discovered something odd, shortly before I was permitted to gorge myself on salt if that was my chosen pleasure, when I clambered up with a sponge and pail of water to wash the dusty photovoltaic solar array mounted on the old outhouse built on the back of the wood shed behind the garage.
That should have been Suzanna's job, since she was lighter and nimbler, but she'd explained so convincingly that she was such a frail and artistic type that the chore fell to me, as usual. Grumbling and covered in suds, I noticed one time that I could lean over upside down and, without quite falling to my death, peek in through this little spyhole and watch my father at work on his inventions. He never caught me at it, probably because I only tried it a few times, and there was nothing much to see anyway, just this tall stocky balding man bent over a workbench watching fractal patterns in gorgeous light on his monitors and typing in code on his work station. Dull, really dull.
What made me climb up and peek in the day he disappeared? Some special gleam in Hugh's eye, I guess, some sense I caught of his intense suppressed excitement. He got in a little early from work, light still in the hazy autumn sky. Grace had just arrived home herself after an afternoon meeting with the publishers and had gone off to get into something more sloppy. Suzanna was in her room, and I had my heels up on the kitchen table with Kylie-sings-Eminem on the radio and a book about zoning restrictions under my nose. Hugh grunted a form of greeting, slung his jacket over the back of his chair, swigged down some filtered water, and left the kitchen. As I say, there was something about Hugh's expression that made me particularly curious. I heard him unlock the garage, open the doors just enough to squeak in, and push them shut from the inside -- with a distinct click of the inner bolt being snibbed.
I went and stood outside watching the garage light. You could see it shining through the hairline cracks and gleaming through the high little window at the side. I heard my mother come in to the kitchen, switch radio stations to some horrible Golden Oldies station, and start rattling some crockery for dinner. I scaled the old outhouse and skinned over and stuck one eye against the dusty glass and looked down into the garage and no-one was there.
I mean it. The garage was completely empty, but the doors were bolted tight.
That gave me a small fright, because it meant he'd gone out again while I was climbing up on the roof of the shed, and when he crossed the back-yard to go inside the house he'd probably see my big ass stuck out over mid-air, if he paused to glance over his shoulder, and have a conniption and order me down and roust me for endangering my life & limb, climbing in this light, what's the matter with you, young woman, they allow people like you to vote, haven't you got more sense than that? I wriggled back, breathing hard, and got down with only one painful graze on my knee, and strolled into the house with a negligent air and the look, I hoped, of a young artist enjoying the evening air and the garden views.
Hugh wasn't in the kitchen. Suzanna was twanging away in her room on the electric guitar she'd borrowed from school, which always sounded to me more like an industrial accident than the latest in retro acid Goth ska or whatever the child liked to think she was playing. She only did it to make herself attractive to goddamned Andy Compton. Grace was peeling avocados for a guacamole dip, ignoring the horrible racket, and asked without looking up, 'Was that your father coming in just now, darling?'
'He went out back.' I grabbed half an apple out of the fridge and a bowl of ice-cream from the freezer and three muesli biscuits.
'Nat, don't spoil your appetite, dinner won't be long. Sold any mansions today?'
'Ha. If only. They don't let us rookies do the exciting face-to-face stuff. Credit this if you will -- they wanted us all to do aerobics at the gym. They'll have us singing a company anthem next.'
Grace shot me a look implying that I might do worse than aerobics. 'And?'
'Fat chance. I laughed at them in a heavily wheezy way.' I get asthma and for the whole of high school carried a doctor's certificate to spare me the boring two hours every week when all the other hearty creatures pounded around the cinder track in their Reeboks or pumped iron to make their sleek bodies even more beautiful, hoping to become stars of Sexe Island or whatever was the flavor of the month. I'm the artistic type, as I said, and prefer to exercise my mind (by taking a snooze in the back office -- there really just aren't enough sleeping hours in the day for a young career person on the way up, if you ask me).
I put out the cutlery, plates and glasses, and slouched off to the living room to watch junk TV, expecting to find my father already sitting in his favorite armchair reading some fat book about the hidden perils of the green revolution or the promise of aquaculture in the Third World or the evils of nuclear power. He wasn't there, and shortly thereafter I found he wasn't in the upstairs bathroom when I headed that way for a quick pre-dinner wash-up because Suzanna was in there in a foul fog of her own making. I grimaced, and held my nose. It had to be the junk food she gobbled on her way home from school. Mmm, junk food. So where was the annoying man?
Ferdinand the dog started barking like a lunatic out the front, and I went to the door to haul him inside. He goes for the neighbor's calico cat if the stupid thing is stupid enough to wander stupidly into Ferdy's path, which it does all the time, being as thick as a brick. But Mrs. Mahoney detests this amusing custom, and I suppose I can't blame her, although I'm sure Ferdinand would never actually eat the cat. Heaven knows, he's had plenty of opportunity to do so, because as I might have mentioned the cat is peculiarly stupid. Ferdy never bothered Talbot's cats, Mrs. Grundy and Daily Alice, when Suzanna brought him to visit our apartment.
I had to call three times and then go and grab the animal by the hairy scruff of his mongrel unpedigreed neck before he'd leave the shrubbery alone. I was halfway back to the front door when I realized that Hugh really wasn't anywhere to be seen, and the last of the light had faded from the sky. Maybe he was walking briskly to the store for a new bottle of cider vinegar for Mom's avocado dip.
No, actually. He was just... gone.
He wouldn't be back for three weeks, although we didn't know that. Twenty-five days and six hours, 31 minutes and 41 seconds, to be exact.
Copyright © 2003 by Damien Broderick and Rory Barnes