Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town
By Cory Doctorow
Public Domain Books
Alan walked past his study, past the tableau of laptop and desk and chair, felt the pull of the story, and kept going, pulling his housecoat tighter around himself. The summer morning was already hotting up, and the air in the house had a sticky, dewy feel.
He found Edward sitting on the sofa, with the sheets and pillowcases folded neatly next to him.
“I set out a couple of towels for you in the second-floor bathroom and found an extra toothbrush,” Alan said. “If you want them.”
“Thanks,” Edward said, echoing in his empty chest. The thick rolls of his face were contorted into a caricature of sorrow.
“Where’s Frederick?” Alan asked.
“Gone!” Edward said, and broke into spasms of sobbing. “He’s gone he’s gone he’s gone, I woke up and he was gone.”
Alan shifted the folded linens to the floor and sat next to Edward. “What happened?”
“You know what happened, Alan,” Edward said. “You know as well as I do! Dave took him in the night. He followed us here and he came in the night and stole him away.”
“You don’t know that,” Alan said, softly stroking Edward’s greasy fringe of hair. “He could have wandered out for a walk or something.”
“Of course I know it!” Edward yelled, his voice booming in the hollow of his great chest. “Look!” He handed Alan a small, desiccated lump, like a black bean pierced with a paperclip wire.
“You showed me this yesterday –” Alan said.
“It’s from a different finger!” Edward said, and he buried his face in Alan’s shoulder, sobbing uncontrollably.
“Have you looked for him?” Alan asked.
“I’ve been waiting for you to get up. I don’t want to go out alone.”
“We’ll look together,” Alan said. He got a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, shoved his feet into Birkenstocks, and led Edward out the door.
The previous night’s humidity had thickened to a gray cloudy soup, swift thunderheads coming in from all sides. The foot traffic was reduced to sparse, fast-moving umbrellas, people rushing for shelter before the deluge. Ozone crackled in the air and thunder roiled seemingly up from the ground, deep and sickening.
They started with a circuit of the house, looking for footprints, body parts. He found a shred of torn gray thrift-store shirt, caught on a rose bramble near the front of his walk. It smelled of the homey warmth of Edward’s innards, and had a few of Frederick’s short, curly hairs stuck to it. Alan showed it to Edward, then folded it into the change pocket of his wallet.
They walked the length of the sidewalk, crossed Wales, and began to slowly cross the little park. Edward circumnavigated the little cement wading pool, tracing the political runes left behind by the Market’s cheerful anarchist taggers, painfully bent almost double at his enormous waist.
“What are we looking for, Alan?”
“Footprints. Finger bones. Clues.”
Edward puffed back to the bench and sat down, tears streaming down his face. “I’m so hungry,” he said.
Alan, crawling around the torn sod left when someone had dragged one of the picnic tables, contained his frustration. “If we can find Daniel, we can get Frederick and George back, okay?”
“All right,” Edward snuffled.
The next time Alan looked up, Edward had taken off his scuffed shoes and grimy-gray socks, rolled up the cuffs of his tent-sized pants, and was wading through the little pool, piggy eyes cast downward.
“Good idea,” Alan called, and turned to the sandbox.
A moment later, there was a booming yelp, almost lost in the roll of thunder, and when Alan turned about, Edward was gone.
Alan kicked off his Birks and splashed up to the hems of his shorts in the wading pool. In the pool’s center, the round fountainhead was a twisted wreck, the concrete crumbled and the dry steel and brass fixtures contorted and ruptured. They had long streaks of abraded skin, torn shirt, and blood on them, leading down into the guts of the fountain.
Cautiously, Alan leaned over, looking well down the dark tunnel that had been scraped out of the concrete centerpiece. The thin gray light showed him the rough walls, chipped out with some kind of sharp tool. “Edward?” he called. His voice did not echo or bounce back to him.
Tentatively, he reached down the tunnel, bending at the waist over the rough lip of the former fountain. Deep he reached and reached and reached, and as his fingertips hit loose dirt, he leaned farther in and groped blindly, digging his hands into the plug of soil that had been shoveled into the tunnel’s bend a few feet below the surface. He straightened up and climbed in, sinking to the waist, and tried to kick the dirt out of the way, but it wouldn’t give – the tunnel had caved in behind the plug of earth.
He clambered out, feeling the first fat drops of rain on his bare forearms and the crown of his head. A shovel. There was one in the little coach house in the back of his place, behind the collapsed boxes and the bicycle pump. As he ran across the street, he saw Krishna, sitting on his porch, watching him with a hint of a smile.
“Lost another one, huh?” he said. He looked as if he’d been awake all night, now hovering on the brink of sleepiness and wiredness. A roll of thunder crashed and a sheet of rain hurtled out of the sky.
Alan never thought of himself as a violent person. Even when he’d had to throw the occasional troublemaker out of his shops, he’d done so with an almost cordial force. Now, though, he trembled and yearned to take Krishna by the throat and ram his head, face first, into the column that held up his front porch, again and again, until his fingers were slick with the blood from Krishna’s shattered nose.
Alan hurried past him, his shoulders and fists clenched. Krishna chuckled nastily and Alan thought he knew who got the job of sawing off Mimi’s wings when they grew too long, and thought, too, that Krishna must relish the task.
“Where you going?” Krishna called.
Alan fumbled with his keyring, desperate to get in and get the keys to the coach house and to fetch the shovel before the new tunnels under the park collapsed.
“You’re too late, you know,” Krishna continued. “You might as well give up. Too late, too late!”
Alan whirled and shrieked, a wordless, contorted war cry, a sound from his bestial guts. As his eyes swam back into focus, he saw Mimi standing beside Krishna, barefoot in a faded housecoat. Her eyes were very wide, and as she turned away from him, he saw that her stubby wings were splayed as wide as they’d go, forming a tent in her robe that pulled it up above her knees. Alan bit down and clamped his lips together and found his keys. He tracked mud over the polished floors and the ancient, threadbare Persian rugs as he ran to the kitchen, snatching the coach-house keys from their hook over the sink.
He ran back across the street to the little park, clutching his shovel. He jammed his head into the centerpiece and tried to see which way the tunnel had curved off when it turned, but it was too dark, the dirt too loose. He pulled himself out and took the shovel in his hands like a spear and stabbed it into the concrete bed of the wading pool, listening for a hollowness in the returning sound like a man thudding for a stud under drywall.
The white noise of the rain was too high, the rolling thunder too steady. His chest heaved and his tears mingled with the rain streaking down his face as he stabbed, again and again, at the pool’s bottom. His mind was scrambled and saturated, his vision clouded with the humid mist rising off his exertion-heated chest and the raindrops caught in his eyelashes.
He splashed out of the wading pool and took the shovel to the sod of the park’s lawn, picking an arbitrary spot and digging inefficiently and hysterically, the bent shovel tip twisting with each stroke.
Suddenly strong hands were on his shoulders, another set prizing the shovel from his hands. He looked up and blinked his eyes clear, looking into the face of two young Asian police officers. They were bulky from the Kevlar vests they wore under their rain slickers, with kind and exasperated expressions on their faces.
“Sir,” the one holding the shovel said, “what are you doing?”
Alan breathed himself into a semblance of composure. “I...” he started, then trailed off. Krishna was watching from his porch, grinning ferociously, holding a cordless phone.
The creature that had howled at Krishna before scrambled for purchase in Alan’s chest. Alan averted his eyes from Krishna’s shit-eating, 911-calling grin. He focused on the cap of the officer in front of him, shrouded in a clear plastic shower cap to keep its crown dry. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It was a – a dog. A stray, or maybe a runaway. A little Scottie dog, it jumped down the center of the fountain there and disappeared. I looked down and thought it had found a tunnel that caved in on it.”
The officer peered at him from under the brim of his hat, dubiousness writ plain on his young, good-looking face. “A tunnel?”
Alan wiped the rain from his eyes, tried to regain his composure, tried to find his charm. It wasn’t to be found. Instead, every time he reached for something witty and calming, he saw the streaks of blood and torn clothing, dark on the loose soil of the fountain’s center, and no sooner had he dispelled those images than they were replaced with Krishna, sneering, saying, “Lost another one, huh?” He trembled and swallowed a sob.
“I think I need to sit down,” he said, as calmly as he could, and he sank slowly to his knees. The hands on his biceps let him descend.
“Sir, do you live nearby?” one of the cops asked, close in to his ear. He nodded into his hands, which he’d brought up to cover his face.
“Across the street,” he said. They helped him to his feet and supported him as he tottered, weak and heaving, to his porch. Krishna was gone once they got there.
The cops helped him shuck his drenched shoes and socks and put him down on the overstuffed horsehide sofa. Alan recovered himself with an effort of will and gave them his ID.
“I’m sorry, you must think I’m an absolute lunatic,” he said, shivering in his wet clothes.
“Sir,” the cop who’d taken the shovel from him said, “we see absolute lunatics every day. I think you’re just a little upset. We all go a little nuts from time to time.”
“Yeah,” Alan said. “Yeah. A little nuts. I had a long night last night. Family problems.”
The cops shifted their weight, showering the floor with raindrops that beaded on the finish.
“Are you going to be all right on your own? We can call someone if you’d like.”
“No,” Alan said, pasting on a weak smile. “No, that’s all right. I’ll be fine. I’m going to change into some dry clothes and clean up and, oh, I don’t know, get some sleep. I think I could use some sleep.”
“That sounds like an excellent idea,” the cop who’d taken the shovel said. He looked around at the bookcases. “You’ve read all of these?” he asked.
“Naw,” Alan said, falling into the rote response from his proprietorship of the bookstore. “What’s the point of a bunch of books you’ve already read?” The joke reminded him of better times and he smiled a genuine smile.
Though the stinging hot shower revived him somewhat, he kept quickening into panic at the thought of David creeping into his house in the night, stumping in on desiccated black child-legs, snaggled rictus under mummified lips.
He spooked at imagined noises and thudding rain and the dry creaking of the old house as he toweled off and dressed.
There was no phone in the mountain, no way to speak to his remaining brothers, the golems, his parents. He balled his fists and stood in the center of his bedroom, shaking with impotent worry.
David. None of them had liked David very much. Billy, the fortune-teller, had been born with a quiet wisdom, an eerie solemnity that had made him easy for the young Alan to care for. Carlos, the island, had crawled out of their mother’s womb and pulled himself to the cave mouth and up the face of their father, lying there for ten years, accreting until he was ready to push off on his own.
But Daniel, Daniel had been a hateful child from the day he was born. He was colicky, and his screams echoed through their father’s caverns. He screamed from the moment he emerged and Alan tipped him over and toweled him gently dry and he didn’t stop for an entire year. Alan stopped being able to tell day from night, lost track of the weeks and months. He’d developed a taste for food, real people food, that he’d buy in town at the Loblaws Superstore, but he couldn’t leave Davey alone in the cave, and he certainly couldn’t carry the howling, shitting, puking, pissing, filthy baby into town with him.
So they ate what the golems brought them: sweet grasses, soft berries, frozen winter fruit dug from the base of the orchards in town, blind winter fish from the streams. They drank snowmelt and ate pine cones and the baby Davey cried and cried until Alan couldn’t remember what it was to live in a world of words and conversations and thought and reflection.
No one knew what to do about Davey. Their father blew warm winds scented with coal dust and loam to calm him, but still Davey cried. Their mother rocked him on her gentlest spin cycle, but still Davey cried. Alan walked down the slope to Carl’s landmass, growing with the dust and rains and snow, and set him down on the soft grass and earth there, but still Davey cried, and Carlos inched farther and farther toward the St. Lawrence seaway, sluggishly making his way out to the ocean and as far away from the baby as possible.
After his first birthday, David started taking breaks from his screaming, learning to crawl and then totter, becoming a holy terror. If Alan left his schoolbooks within reach of the boy, they’d be reduced to shreds of damp mulch in minutes. By the time he was two, his head was exactly at Alan’s crotch height and he’d greet his brother on his return from school by charging at full speed into Alan’s nuts, propelled at unlikely speed on his thin legs.
At three, he took to butchering animals – the rabbits that little Bill kept in stacked hutches outside of the cave mouth went first. Billy rushed home from his grade-two class, eyes crazed with precognition, and found David methodically wringing the animals’ necks and then slicing them open with a bit of sharpened chert. Billy had showed David how to knap flint and chert the week before, after seeing a filmstrip about it in class. He kicked the makeshift knife out of Davey’s hand, breaking his thumb with the toe of the hard leather shoes the golems had made for him, and left Davey to bawl in the cave while Billy dignified his pets’ corpses, putting their entrails back inside their bodies and wrapping them in shrouds made from old diapers. Alan helped him bury them, and then found Davey and taped his thumb to his hand and spanked him until his arm was too tired to deal out one more wallop.
Alan made his way down to the living room, the floor streaked with mud and water. He went into the kitchen and filled a bucket with soapy water and gathered up an armload of rags from the rag bag. Methodically, he cleaned away the mud. He turned his sopping shoes on end over the grate and dialed the thermostat higher. He made himself a bowl of granola and a cup of coffee and sat down at his old wooden kitchen table and ate mindlessly, then washed the dishes and put them in the drying rack.
He’d have to go speak to Krishna.
Natalie answered the door in a pretty sun dress, combat boots, and a baseball hat. She eyed him warily.
“I’d like to speak to Krishna,” Alan said from under the hood of his poncho.
There was an awkward silence. Finally, Natalie said, “He’s not home.”
“I don’t believe you,” Alan said. “And it’s urgent, and I’m not in the mood to play around. Can you get Krishna for me, Natalie?”
“I told you,” she said, not meeting his eyes, “he’s not here.”
“That’s enough,” Alan said in his boss voice, his more-in-anger-than-in-sorrow voice. “Get him, Natalie. You don’t need to be in the middle of this – it’s not right for him to ask you to. Get him.”
Natalie closed the door and he heard the deadbolt turn. Is she going to fetch him, or is she locking me out?
He was on the verge of hammering the buzzer again, but he got his answer. Krishna opened the door and stepped onto the dripping porch, bulling Alan out with his chest.
He smiled grimly at Alan and made a well-go-on gesture.
“What did you see?” Alan said, his voice tight but under control.
“Saw you and that fat guy,” Krishna said. “Saw you rooting around in the park. Saw him disappear down the fountain.”
“He’s my brother,” Alan said.
“So what, he ain’t heavy? He’s fat, but I expect there’s a reason for that. I’ve seen your kind before, Adam. I don’t like you, and I don’t owe you any favors.” He turned and reached for the screen door.
“No,” Alan said, taking him by the wrist, squeezing harder than was necessary. “Not yet. You said, ’Lost another one.’ What other one, Krishna? What else did you see?”
Krishna gnawed on his neatly trimmed soul patch. “Let go of me, Andrew,” he said, almost too softly to be heard over the rain.
“Tell me what you saw,” Alan said. “Tell me, and I’ll let you go.” His other hand balled into a fist. “Goddammit, tell me!” Alan yelled, and twisted Krishna’s arm behind his back.
“I called the cops,” Krishna said. “I called them again and they’re on their way. Let me go, freak show.”
“I don’t like you, either, Krishna,” Alan said, twisting the arm higher. He let go suddenly, then stumbled back as Krishna scraped the heel of his motorcycle boot down his shin and hammered it into the top of his foot.
He dropped to one knee and grabbed his foot while Krishna slipped into the house and shot the lock. Then he hobbled home as quickly as he could. He tried to pace off the ache in his foot, but the throbbing got worse, so he made himself a drippy ice pack and sat on the sofa in the immaculate living room and rocked back and forth, holding the ice to his bare foot.
At five, Davey graduated from torturing animals to beating up on smaller children. Alan took him down to the school on the day after Labor Day, to sign him up for kindergarten. He was wearing his stiff new blue jeans and sneakers, his knapsack stuffed with fresh binders and pencils. Finding out about these things had been Alan’s first experience with the wide world, a kindergartner sizing up his surroundings at speed so that he could try to fit in. David was a cute kid and had the benefit of Alan’s experience. He had a foxy little face and shaggy blond hair, all clever smiles and awkward winks, and for all that he was still a monster.
They came and got Alan twenty minutes after classes started, when his new home-room teacher was still briefing them on the rules and regulations for junior high students. He was painfully aware of all the eyes on his back as he followed the office lady out of the portable and into the old school building where the kindergarten and the administration was housed.
“We need to reach your parents,” the office lady said, once they were alone in the empty hallways of the old building.
“You can’t,” Alan said. “They don’t have a phone.”
“Then we can drive out to see them,” the office lady said. She smelled of artificial floral scent and Ivory soap, like the female hygiene aisle at the drugstore.
“Mom’s still real sick,” Alan said, sticking to his traditional story.
“Your father, then,” the office lady said. He’d had variations on this conversation with every office lady at the school, and he knew he’d win it in the end. Meantime, what did they want?
“My dad’s, you know, gone,” he said. “Since I was a little kid.” That line always got the office ladies, “since I was a little kid,” made them want to write it down for their family Christmas newsletters.
The office lady smiled a powdery smile and put her hand on his shoulder. “All right, Alan, come with me.”
Davey was sitting on the dusty sofa in the vice principal’s office. He punched the sofa cushion rhythmically. “Alan,” he said when the office lady led him in.
“Hi, Dave,” Alan said. “What’s going on?”
“They’re stupid here. I hate them.” He gave the sofa a particularly vicious punch.
“I’ll get Mr Davenport,” the office lady said, and closed the door behind her.
“What did you do?” Alan asked.
“She wouldn’t let me play!” David said, glaring at him.
“A girl! She had the blocks and I wanted to play with them and she wouldn’t let me!”
“What did you hit her with?” Alan asked, dreading the answer.
“A block,” David said, suddenly and murderously cheerful. “I hit her in the eye!”
Alan groaned. The door opened and the vice principal, Mr. Davenport, came in and sat behind his desk. He was the punishment man, the one that no one wanted to be sent in to see.
“Hello, Alan,” he said gravely. Alan hadn’t ever been personally called before Mr. Davenport, but Billy got into some spot of precognitive trouble from time to time, rushing out of class to stop some disaster at home or somewhere else in the school. Mr. Davenport knew that Alan was a straight arrow, not someone he’d ever need to personally take an interest in.
He crouched down next to Darren, hitching up his slacks. “You must be David,” he said, ducking down low to meet Davey’s downcast gaze.
Davey punched the sofa.
“I’m Mr. Davenport,” he said, and extended a hand with a big class ring on it and a smaller wedding band.
Davey kicked him in the nose, and the vice principal toppled over backward, whacking his head on the sharp corner of his desk. He tumbled over onto his side and clutched his head. “Motherfucker!” he gasped, and Davey giggled maniacally.
Alan grabbed Davey’s wrist and bent his arm behind his back, shoving him across his knee. He swatted the little boy on the ass as hard as he could, three times. “Don’t you ever –” Alan began.
The vice principal sat up, still clutching his head. “That’s enough!” he said, catching Alan’s arm.
“Sorry,” Alan said. “And David’s sorry, too, right?” He glared at David.
“You’re a stupid motherfucker!” David said, and squirmed off of Alan’s lap.
The vice principal’s lips tightened. “Alan,” he said quietly, “take your brother into the hallway. I am going to write a note that your mother will have to sign before David comes back to school, after his two-week suspension.”
David glared at them each in turn. “I’m not coming back to this motherfucker place!” he said.
The rain let up by afternoon, leaving a crystalline, fresh-mown air hanging over the Market.
Andrew sat in his office by his laptop and watched the sun come out. He needed to find Ed, needed to find Frank, needed to find Grant, but he was out of practice when it came to the ways of the mountain and its sons. Whenever he tried to imagine a thing to do next, his mind spun and the worldless howling thing inside him stirred. The more he tried to remember what it was like to be a son of the mountain, the more he felt something he’d worked very hard for, his delicate normalcy, slipping away.
So he put his soaked clothes in the dryer, clamped his laptop under his arm, and went out. He moped around the park and the fountain, but the stroller moms whose tots were splashing in the wading pool gave him sufficient dirty looks that he walked up to the Greek’s, took a table on the patio, and ordered a murderously strong cup of coffee.
He opened up the screen and rotated around the little caf? table until the screen was in the shade and his wireless card was aligned for best reception from the yagi antenna poking out of his back window. He opened up a browser and hit MapQuest, then brought up a street-detailed map of the Market. He pasted it into his CAD app and started to mark it up, noting all the different approaches to his house that Davey might take the next time he came. The maps soothed him, made him feel like a part of the known world.
Augusta Avenue and Oxford were both out; even after midnight, when the stores were all shuttered, there was far too much foot traffic for Davey to pass by unnoticed. But the alleys that mazed the back ways were ideal. Some were fenced off, some were too narrow to pass, but most of them – he’d tried to navigate them by bicycle once and found himself utterly lost. He’d had to turn around slowly until he spotted the CN Tower and use it to get his bearings.
He poked at the map, sipping the coffee, then ordering another from the Greek’s son, who hadn’t yet figured out that he was a regular and so sneered at his laptop with undisguised contempt. “Computers, huh?” he said. “Doesn’t anyone just read a book anymore?”
“I used to own a bookstore,” Alan said, then held up a finger and moused over to his photo album and brought up the thumbnails of his old bookstore. “See?”
The Greek’s son, thirty with a paunch and sweat-rings under the pits of his white “The Greek’s” T-shirt, sat down and looked at the photos. “I remember that place, on Harbord Street, right?”
Alan smiled. “Yup. We lost the store when they blew up the abortion clinic next door,” he said. “Insurance paid out, but I wasn’t ready to start over with another bookstore.”
The Greek’s son shook his head. “Another coffee, right?”
“Right,” Alan said.
Alan went back to the map, realigning the laptop for optimal reception again.
“You got a wireless card in that?” a young guy at the next table asked. He was dressed in Kensington Market crusty-punk chic, tatts and facial piercings, filth-gray bunchoffuckinggoofs tee, cutoffs, and sweaty high boots draped with chains.
“Yeah,” Alan said. He sighed and closed the map window. He wasn’t getting anywhere, anyway.
“And you get service here? Where’s your access point?” Crusty-punk or no, he sounded as nerdy as any of the Web-heads you’d find shopping for bargains on CD blanks on College Street.
“Three blocks that way,” Alan said, pointing. “Hanging off my house. The network name is ’walesave.’”
“Shit, that’s you?” the kid said. “Goddammit, you’re clobbering our access points!”
“What access point?”
“Access points. ParasiteNet.” He indicated a peeling sticker on the lapel of his cut-down leather jacket showing a skull with crossed radio towers underneath it. “I’m trying to get a mesh-net running though all of the Market, and you’re hammering me. Jesus, I was ready to rat you out to the radio cops at the Canadian Radio and Television Commission. Dude, you’ve got to turn down the freaking gain on those things.”
“What’s a mesh-net?”
The kid moved his beer over to Alan’s table and sat down. “Okay, so pretend that your laptop is the access point. It radiates more or less equally in all directions, depending on your antenna characteristics and leaving out the RF shadows that microwaves and stucco and cordless phones generate.” He arranged the coffee cup and the beer at equal distances from the laptop, then moved them around to demonstrate the coverage area. “Right, so what happens if I’m out of range, over here –” he put his beer back on his own table – “and you want to reach me? Well, you could just turn up the gain on your access point, either by increasing the power so that it radiates farther in all directions, or by focusing the transmissions so they travel farther in a line of sight.”
“Right,” Alan said, sipping his coffee.
“Right. So both of those approaches suck. If you turn up the power, you radiate over everyone else’s signal, so if I’ve got an access point here” – he held his fist between their tables – “no one can hear it because you’re drowning it out. It’s like you’re shouting so loud that no one else can carry on a conversation.”
“So why don’t you just use my network? I want to be able to get online anywhere in the Market, but that means that anyone can, right?”
The crusty-punk waved his hand dismissively. “Sure, whatever. But what happens if your network gets shut down? Or if you decide to start eavesdropping on other people? Or if someone wants to get to the printer in her living room? It’s no good.”
“So, what, you want me to switch to focused antennae?”
“That’s no good. If you used a focused signal, you’re going to have to be perfectly aligned if you’re going to talk back to your base, so unless you want to provide a connection to one tiny pinpoint somewhere a couple kilometers away, it won’t do you any good.”
“There’s no solution, then? I should just give up?”
The crusty-punk held up his hands. “Hell, no! There’s just no centralized solution. You can’t be Superman, blanketing the whole world with wireless using your almighty antennaprick, but so what? That’s what mesh networks are for. Check it out.” He arranged the beer and the laptop and the coffee cup so that they were strung out along a straight line. “Okay, you’re the laptop and I’m the coffee cup. We both have a radio and we want to talk to each other.
“We could turn up the gain on our radios so that they can shout loud enough to be heard at this distance, but that would drown out this guy here.” He gestured at the now-empty beer. “We could use a focused antenna, but if I move a little bit off the beam” – he nudged the coffee cup to one side –Doesn’t “we’re dead. But there’s a third solution.”
“We ask the beer to pass messages around?”
“Fucking right we do! That’s the mesh part. Every station on the network gets two radios – one for talking in one direction, the other for relaying in the other direction. The more stations you add, the lower the power on each radio – and the more pathways you get to carry your data.”
Alan shook his head.
“It’s a fuckin’ mind-blower, isn’t it?”
“Sure,” Alan said. “Sure. But does it work? Don’t all those hops between point a and point b slow down the connection?”
“A little, sure. Not so’s you’d notice. They don’t have to go that far – the farthest any of these signals has to travel is 151 Front Street.”
“What’s at 151 Front?”
“TorEx – the main network interchange for the whole city! We stick an antenna out a window there and downlink it into the cage where UUNet and PSINet meet – voila, instant 11-megabit city-wide freenet!”
“Where do you get the money for that?”
“Who said anything about money? How much do you think UUNet and PSI charge each other to exchange traffic with one another? Who benefits when UUNet and PSI cross-connect? Is UUNet the beneficiary of PSI’s traffic, or vice versa? Internet access only costs money at the edge – and with a mesh-net, there is no edge anymore. It’s penetration at the center, just like the Devo song.”
“I’m Adrian,” Alan said.
“I’m Kurt,” the crusty-punk said. “Buy me a beer, Adrian?”
“It’d be my pleasure,” Alan said.
Kurt lived in the back of a papered-over storefront on Oxford. The front two-thirds were a maze of peeling, stickered-over stamped-metal shelving units piled high with junk tech: ancient shrink-wrapped software, stacked up low-capacity hard drives, cables and tapes and removable media. Alan tried to imagine making sense of it all, flowing it into The Inventory, and felt something like vertigo.
In a small hollow carved out of the back, Kurt had arranged a cluttered desk, a scuffed twin bed and a rack of milk crates filled with t-shirts and underwear.
Alan picked his way delicately through the store and found himself a seat on an upturned milk crate. Kurt sat on the bed and grinned expectantly.
“So?” he said.
“So what?” Alan said.
“So what is this! Isn’t it great?”
“Well, you sure have a lot of stuff, I’ll give you that,” Alan said.
“It’s all dumpstered,” Kurt said casually.
“Oh, you dive?” Alan said. “I used to dive.” It was mostly true. Alan had always been a picker, always on the lookout for bargoons, even if they were sticking out of someone’s trash bin. Sometimes especially if they were sticking out of someone’s trash bin – seeing what normal people threw away gave him a rare glimpse into their lives.
Kurt walked over to the nearest shelving unit and grabbed a PC mini-tower with the lid off. “But did you ever do this?” He stuck the machine under Alan’s nose and swung the gooseneck desk lamp over it. It was a white-box PC, generic commodity hardware, with a couple of network cards.
“It’s a junk access point! I made it out of trash! The only thing I bought were the network cards – two wireless, one Ethernet. It’s running a FreeBSD distribution off a CD, so the OS can never get corrupted. It’s got lots of sweet stuff in the distro, and all you need to do is plug it in, point the antennae in opposite directions, and you’re up. It does its own power management, it automagically peers with other access points if it can find ’em, and it does its own dynamic channel selection to avoid stepping on other access points.”
Alan turned his head this way and that, making admiring noises. “You made this, huh?”
“For about eighty bucks. It’s my fifteenth box. Eventually, I wanna have a couple hundred of these.”
“Ambitious,” Alan said, handing the box back. “How do you pay for the parts you have to buy? Do you have a grant?”
“A grant? Shit, no! I’ve got a bunch of street kids who come in and take digital pix of the stuff I have no use for, research them online, and post them to eBay. I split the take with them. Brings in a couple grand a week, and I’m keeping about fifty street kids fed besides. I go diving three times a week out in Concord and Oakville and Richmond Hill, anywhere I can find an industrial park. If I had room, I’d recruit fifty more kids – I’m bringing it in faster than they can sell it.”
“Why don’t you just do less diving?”
“Are you kidding me? It’s all I can do not to go out every night! You wouldn’t believe the stuff I find – all I can think about is all the stuff I’m missing out on. Some days I wish that my kids were less honest; if they ripped off some stuff, I’d have room for a lot more.”
Alan laughed. Worry for Edward and Frederick and George nagged at him, impotent anxiety, but this was just so fascinating. Fascinating and distracting, and, if not normal, at least not nearly so strange as he could be. He imagined the city gridded up with junk equipment, radiating Internet access from the lakeshore to the outer suburbs. The grandiosity took his breath away.
“Look,” Kurt said, spreading out a map of Kensington Market on the unmade bed. “I’ve got access points here, here, here, and here. Another eight or ten and I’ll have the whole Market covered. Then I’m going to head north, cover the U of T campus, and push east towards Yonge Street. Bay Street and University Avenue are going to be tough – how can I convince bankers to let me plug this by their windows?”
“Kurt,” Alan said, “I suspect that the journey to University Avenue is going to be a lot slower than you expect it to be.”
Kurt jutted his jaw out. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“There’s a lot of real estate between here and there. A lot of trees and high-rises, office towers and empty lots. You’re going to have to knock on doors every couple hundred meters – at best – and convince them to let you install one of these boxes, made from garbage, and plug it in, to participate in what?”
“Democratic communication!” Kurt said.
“Ah, well, my guess is that most of the people who you’ll need to convince won’t really care much about that. Won’t be able to make that abstract notion concrete.”
Kurt mumbled into his chest. Alan could see that he was fuming.
“Just because you don’t have the vision to appreciate this –”
Alan held up his hand. “Stop right there. I never said anything of the sort. I think that this is big and exciting and looks like a lot of fun. I think that ringing doorbells and talking people into letting me nail an access point to their walls sounds like a lot of fun. Really, I’m not kidding.
“But this is a journey, not a destination. The value you’ll get out of this will be more in the doing than the having done. The having done’s going to take decades, I’d guess. But the doing’s going to be something.” Alan’s smile was so broad it ached. The idea had seized him. He was drunk on it.
The buzzer sounded and Kurt got up to answer it. Alan craned his neck to see a pair of bearded neohippies in rasta hats.
“Are you Kurt?” one asked.
“Yeah, dude, I’m Kurt.”
“Marcel told us that we could make some money here? We’re trying to raise bus fare to Burning Man? We could really use the work?”
“Not today, but maybe tomorrow,” Kurt said. “Come by around lunchtime.”
“You sure you can’t use us today?”
“Not today,” Kurt said. “I’m busy today.”
“All right,” the other said, and they slouched away.
“Word of mouth,” Kurt said, with a jingling shrug. “Kids just turn up, looking for work with the trash.”
“You think they’ll come back tomorrow?” Alan was pretty good at evaluating kids and they hadn’t looked very reliable.
“Those two? Fifty-fifty chance. Tell you what, though: there’s always enough kids and enough junk to go around.”
“But you need to make arrangements to get your access points mounted and powered. You’ve got to sort it out with people who own stores and houses.”
“You want to knock on doors?” Kurt said.
“I think I would,” Alan said. “I suspect it’s a possibility. We can start with the shopkeepers, though.”
“I haven’t had much luck with merchants,” Kurt said, shrugging his shoulders. His chains jingled and a whiff of armpit wafted across the claustrophobic hollow. “Capitalist pigs.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Alan said.
“Wales Avenue, huh?” Kurt said.
They were walking down Oxford Street, and Alan was seeing it with fresh eyes, casting his gaze upward, looking at the lines of sight from one building to another, mentally painting in radio-frequency shadows cast by the transformers on the light poles.
“Just moved it on July first,” Alan said. “Still getting settled in.”
“The blue one, with the big porch, on the corner.”
“Sure, I know it. I scored some great plumbing fixtures out of the dumpster there last winter.”
“You’re welcome,” Alan said.
They turned at Spadina and picked their way around the tourist crowds shopping the Chinese importers’ sidewalk displays of bamboo parasols and Hello Kitty slippers, past the fogged-up windows of the dim-sum restaurants and the smell of fresh pork buns. Alan bought a condensed milk and kiwi snow-cone from a sidewalk vendor and offered to treat Kurt, but he declined.
“You never know about those places,” Kurt said. “How clean is their ice, anyway? Where do they wash their utensils?”
“You dig around in dumpsters for a living,” Alan said. “Aren’t you immune to germs?”
Kurt turned at Baldwin, and Alan followed. “I don’t eat garbage, I pick it,” he said. He sounded angry.
“Hey, sorry,” Alan said. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to imply –”
“I know you didn’t,” Kurt said, stopping in front of a dry-goods store and spooning candied ginger into a baggie. He handed it to the age-hunched matron of the shop, who dropped it on her scale and dusted her hands on her black dress. Kurt handed her a two-dollar coin and took the bag back. “I’m just touchy, okay? My last girlfriend split because she couldn’t get past it. No matter how much I showered, I was never clean enough for her.”
“Sorry,” Alan said again.
“I heard something weird about that blue house on the corner,” Kurt said. “One of my kids told me this morning, he saw something last night when he was in the park.”
Alan pulled up short, nearly colliding with a trio of cute university girls in wife-beaters pushing bundle-buggies full of newspaper-wrapped fish and bags of soft, steaming bagels. They stepped around him, lugging their groceries over the curb and back onto the sidewalk, not breaking from their discussion.
“What was it?”
Kurt gave him a sideways look. “It’s weird, okay? The kid who saw it is never all that reliable, and he likes to embellish.”
“Okay,” Alan said. The crowd was pushing around them now, trying to get past. The dry-goods lady sucked her teeth in annoyance.
“So this kid, he was smoking a joint in the park last night, really late, after the clubs shut down. He was alone, and he saw what he thought was a dog dragging a garbage bag down the steps of your house.”
“So he went over to take a look, and he saw that it was too big to be a garbage bag, and the dog, it looked sick, it moved wrong. He took another step closer and he must have triggered a motion sensor because the porch light switched on. He says...”
“He’s not very reliable. He says it wasn’t a dog, he said it was like a dried-out mummy or something, and it had its teeth sunk into the neck of this big, fat, naked guy, and it was dragging the fat guy out into the street. When the light came on, though, it gave the fat guy’s neck a hard shake, then let go and turned on this kid, walking toward him on stumpy little feet. He says it made a kind of growling noise and lifted up its hand like it was going to slap the kid, and the kid screamed and ran off. When he got to Dundas, he turned around and saw the fat guy get dragged into an alley between two of the stores on Augusta.”
“I see,” Alan said.
“It’s stupid, I know,” Kurt said.
Natalie and Link rounded the corner, carrying slices of pizza from Pizzabilities, mounded high with eggplant and cauliflower and other toppings that were never intended for use in connection with pizza. They startled on seeing Alan and Kurt, then started to walk away.
“Wait,” Alan called. “Natalie, Link, wait.” He smiled apologetically at Kurt. “My neighbors,” he said.
Natalie and Link had stopped and turned around. Alan and Kurt walked to them.
“Natalie, Link, this is Kurt,” he said. They shook hands all around.
“I wanted to apologize,” Alan said. “I didn’t mean to put you between Krishna and me. It was very unfair.”
Natalie smiled warily. Link lit a cigarette with a great show of indifference. “It’s all right,” Natalie said.
“No, it’s not,” Alan said. “I was distraught, but that’s no excuse. We’re going to be neighbors for a long time, and there’s no sense in our not getting along.”
“Really, it’s okay,” Natalie said.
“Yeah, fine,” Link said.
“Three of my brothers have gone missing,” Alan said. “That’s why I was so upset. One disappeared a couple of weeks ago, another last night, and one this morning. Krishna...” He thought for a moment. “He taunted me about it. I really wanted to find out what he saw.”
Kurt shook his head. “Your brother went missing last night?”
“From my house.”
“So what the kid saw...”
Alan turned to Natalie. “A friend of Kurt’s was in the park last night. He says he saw my brother being carried off.”
Kurt shook his head. “Your brother?”
“What do you mean, ’carried off’?” Natalie said. She folded her slice in half to keep the toppings from spilling.
“Someone is stalking my brothers,” Alan said. “Someone very strong and very cunning. Three are gone that I know about. There are others, but I could be next.”
“Stalking?” Natalie said.
“My family is a little strange,” Alan said. “I grew up in the north country, and things are different there. You’ve heard of blood feuds?”
Natalie and Link exchanged a significant look.
“I know it sounds ridiculous. You don’t need to be involved. I just wanted to let you know why I acted so strangely last night.”
“We have to get back,” Natalie said. “Nice to meet you, Kurt. I hope you find your brother, Andy.”
“Brothers,” Alan said.
“Brothers,” Natalie said, and walked away briskly.
Alan was the oldest of the brothers, and that meant that he was the one who blazed all the new trails in the family.
He met a girl in the seventh grade. Her name was Marci, and she had just transferred in from Scotland. Her father was a mining engineer, and she’d led a gypsy life that put her in stark contrast to the third-generation homebodies that made up most of the rest of their class.
She had red hair and blue eyes and a way of holding her face in repose that made her look cunning at all times. No one understood her accent, but there was a wiry ferocity in her movement that warned off any kid who thought about teasing her about it.
Alan liked to play in a marshy corner of the woods that bordered the playground after school, crawling around in the weeds, catching toads and letting them go again, spying on the crickets and the secret lives of the larvae that grubbed in the milkweed. He was hunkered down on his haunches one afternoon when Marci came crunching through the tall grass. He ducked down lower, then peered out from his hiding spot as she crouched down and he heard the unmistakable patter of urine as she peed in the rushes.
His jaw dropped. He’d never seen a girl pee before, had no idea what the squatting business was all about. The wet ground sucked at his sneaker and he tipped back on his ass with a yelp. Marci straightened abruptly and crashed over to him, kicking him hard in the ribs when she reached him, leaving a muddy toeprint on his fall windbreaker.
She wound up for another kick and he hollered something wordless and scurried back, smearing marsh mud across his jeans and jacket.
“You pervert!” she said, pronouncing it Yuh peervurrt!
“I am not!” he said, still scooting back.
“Watching from the bushes!” she said.
“I wasn’t – I was already here, and you – I mean, what were you doing? I was just minding my own business and you came by, I just didn’t want to be bothered, this is my place!”
“You don’t own it,” she said, but she sounded slightly chastened. “Don’t tell anyone I had a piss here, all right?”
“I won’t,” he said.
She sat down beside him, unmindful of the mud on her denim skirt. “Promise,” she said. “It’s so embarrassing.”
“I promise,” he said.
“Swear,” she said, and poked him in the ribs with a bony finger.
He clutched his hands to his ribs. “Look,” he said, “I swear. I’m good at secrets.”
Her eyes narrowed slightly. “Oh, aye? And I suppose you’ve lots of secrets, then?”
He said nothing, and worked at keeping the smile off the corners of his mouth.
She poked him in the ribs, then got him in the stomach as he moved to protect his chest. “Secrets, huh?”
He shook his head and clamped his lips shut. She jabbed a flurry of pokes and prods at him while he scooted back on his butt, then dug her clawed hands into his tummy and tickled him viciously. He giggled, then laughed, then started to hiccup uncontrollably. He shoved her away roughly and got up on his knees, gagging.
“Oh, I like you,” she said, “just look at that. A wee tickle and you’re ready to toss your lunch.” She tenderly stroked his hair until the hiccups subsided, then clawed at his belly again, sending him rolling through the mud.
Once he’d struggled to his feet, he looked at her, panting. “Why are you doing this?”
“You’re not serious! It’s the most fun I’ve had since we moved to this terrible place.”
“You’re a sadist!” He’d learned the word from a book he’d bought from the ten-cent pile out front of the used bookstore. It had a clipped-out recipe for liver cutlets between the pages and lots of squishy grown-up sex things that seemed improbable if not laughable. He’d looked “sadist” up in the class dictionary.
“Aye,” she said. “I’m that.” She made claws of her hands and advanced on him slowly. He giggled uncontrollably as he backed away from her. “C’mere, you, you’ve more torture comin’ to ye before I’m satisfied that you can keep a secret.”
He held his arms before him like a movie zombie and walked toward her. “Yes, mathter,” he said in a monotone. Just as he was about to reach her, he dodged to one side, then took off.
She chased him, laughing, halfway back to the mountain, then cried off. He stopped a hundred yards up the road from her, she doubled over with her hands planted on her thighs, face red, chest heaving. “You go on, then,” she called. “But it’s more torture for you at school tomorrow, and don’t you forget it!”
“Only if you catch me!” he called back.
“Oh, I’ll catch you, have no fear.”
She caught him at lunch. He was sitting in a corner of the schoolyard, eating from a paper sack of mushrooms and dried rabbit and keeping an eye on Edward-Frederick-George as he played tag with the other kindergartners. She snuck up behind him and dropped a handful of gravel down the gap of his pants and into his underpants. He sprang to his feet, sending gravel rattling out the cuffs of his jeans.
“Hey!” he said, and she popped something into his mouth. It was wet and warm from her hand and it squirmed. He spat it out and it landed on the schoolyard with a soft splat.
It was an earthworm, thick with loamy soil.
“You!” he said, casting about for a curse of sufficient vehemence. “You!”
She hopped from foot to foot in front of him, clearly delighted with this reaction. He reached out for her and she danced back. He took off after her and they were chasing around the yard, around hopscotches and tag games and sand castles and out to the marshy woods. She skidded through the puddles and he leapt over them. She ducked under a branch and he caught her by the hood of her windbreaker.
Without hesitating, she flung her arms in the air and slithered out of the windbreaker, down to a yellow T-shirt that rode up her back, exposing her pale freckles and the knobs of her spine, the fingers of her ribs. She took off again and he balled the windbreaker up in his fist and took off after her.
She stepped behind a bushy pine, and when he rounded the corner she was waiting for him, her hands clawed, digging at his tummy, leaving him giggling. He pitched back into the pine needles and she followed, straddling his waist and tickling him until he coughed and choked and gasped for air.
“Tell me!” she said. “Tell me your secrets!”
“Stop!” Alan said. “Please! I’m going to piss myself!”
“What’s that to me?” she said, tickling more vigorously.
He tried to buck her off, but she was too fast. He caught one wrist, but she pinned his other arm with her knee. He heaved and she collapsed on top of him.
Her face was inches from his, her breath moist on his face. They both panted, and he smelled her hair, which was over his face and neck. She leaned forward and closed her eyes expectantly.
He tentatively brushed his lips across hers, and she moved closer, and they kissed. It was wet and a little gross, but not altogether unpleasant.
She leaned back and opened her eyes, then grinned at him. “That’s enough torture for one day,” she said. “You’re free to go.”
She “tortured” him at morning and afternoon recess for the next two weeks, and when he left school on Friday afternoon after the last bell, she was waiting for him in the schoolyard.
“Hello,” she said, socking him in the arm.
“Hi,” he said.
“Why don’t you invite me over for supper this weekend?” she said.
“Yes. I’m your girlfriend, yeah? So you should have me around to your place to meet your parents. Next weekend you can come around my place and meet my dad.”
“I can’t,” he said.
“It’s a secret,” he said.
“Oooh, a secret,” she said. “What kind of secret?”
“A family secret. We don’t have people over for dinner. That’s the way it is.”
“A secret! They’re all child molesters?”
He shook his head.
He shook his head.
“What, then? Give us a hint?”
“It’s a secret.”
She grabbed his ear and twisted it. Gently at first, then harder. “A secret?” she said.
“Yes,” he gasped. “It’s a secret, and I can’t tell you. You’re hurting me.”
“I should hope so,” she said. “And it will go very hard for you indeed if you don’t tell me what I want to know.”
He grabbed her wrist and dug his strong fingers into the thin tendons on their insides, twisting his fingertips for maximal effect. Abruptly, she released his ear and clenched her wrist hard, sticking it between her thighs.
“Owwww! That bloody hurt, you bastard. What did you do that for?”
“My secrets,” Alan said, “are secret.”
She held her wrist up and examined it. “Heaven help you if you’ve left a bruise, Alvin,” she said. “I’ll kill you.” She turned her wrist from side to side. “All right,” she said. “All right. Kiss it better, and you can come to my place for supper on Saturday at six p.m..” She shoved her arm into his face and he kissed the soft skin on the inside of her wrist, putting a little tongue in it.
She giggled and punched him in the arm. “Saturday, then!” she called as she ran off.
Edward-Felix-Gerald were too young to give him shit about his schoolyard romance, and Brian was too sensitive, but Dave had taken to lurking about the schoolyard, spying on the children, and he’d seen Marci break off from a clench with Alan, take his hand, and plant it firmly on her tiny breast, an act that had shocked Danny to the core.
“Hi, pervert,” David said, as he stepped into the cool of the cave. “Pervert” was Davey’s new nickname for him, and he had a finely honed way of delivering it so that it dripped with contempt. “Did you have sex with your girlfriend today, pervert?”
Allan turned away from him and helped E-F-G take off his shoes and roll up the cuffs of his pants so that he could go down to the lake in the middle of their father and wade in the shallows, listening to Father’s winds soughing through the great cavern.
“Did you touch her boobies? Did she suck your pee-pee? Did you put your finger in her?” The litany would continue until Davey went to bed, and even then he wasn’t safe. One night, Allen had woken up to see Darren standing over him, hands planted on his hips, face twisted into an elaborate sneer. “Did you put your penis inside of her?” he’d hissed, then gone back to bed.
Alby went out again, climbing the rockface faster than Doug could keep up with him, so that by the time he’d found his perch high over the woodlands, where he could see the pines dance in the wind and the ant-sized cars zooming along the highways, Doug was far behind, likely sat atop their mother, sucking his thumb and sulking and thinking up new perversions to accuse Alan of.