Fiction

Cause = Time 
Time = God 
?

Presenting the winner of the Broken Social Scene Story Contest

Arts & CraftsBroken Social Scene, Cause = Time (2002).

“The universe is infinite,” says the woman on television. She is a doctor of some kind. “It’s like the monkeys flipping coins. Eventually, one monkey will flip tails one million times in a row. Anything that can happen will happen. The cause is literally time itself.”

The woman is holding a clear glass jar with a beta fish in it. The camera zooms in on the fish. It’s blue. The woman’s hand is shaking. The fish used to be this woman’s husband. He was one of the first to turn. That was four or five months ago now. Reports of people turning into fish were sparse at first but have steadily been increasing. That’s to go along with everything else that’s been happening.

The camera pans out to show a man in a white robe sitting across from the woman.

“Science cannot explain this away,” he says. As he speaks, he seems to grow larger. “This is the undeniable wrath of God. Revelation 1:7: ‘Behold, He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced Him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of Him.’”

“With all due respect,” says the woman with the fish, “I’ve seen nothing but rain and spoons fall from the clouds—oh, and a tin soldier coming down clipped my ear the other day. Where are tin soldiers falling to earth in your book of Revelations? ”

Anna switches off the news. Her clothes are still in her suitcase or else in a pile beside her suitcase. She’s been living in this apartment for seven weeks, and she hasn’t unpacked. She sleeps in the bed that came with the place on the sheets she bought at a store that’s now closed. The sheets are bright green. They were on sale.

Anna tries not to think about who used to sleep in this bed. She didn’t ask what happened to them. There are places on the coast where people have been going to pray. Most likely, whoever was in Anna’s apartment before her went there. That or they were turned. There have been 1,258 cases of turning in the city so far; 1,258 out of half a million.

All that’s left of the person who used to live in Anna’s apartment is a box of VHSs Anna found on the top shelf of the closet.

*

Outside, it’s not raining, but there’s a thick mist as if the air is rotting. Anna kicks a few spoons away from the entrance of her building. Some of them have already started to rust.

“The constant rain and the people turning into fish kind of go together,” Anna overheard someone say in the grocery store earlier this week. “But what the hell is with all these spoons falling from the sky? ”

There are barely any cars on the street anymore. Gasoline is hard to find, and all the city buses are being used to take people to the coast. Up ahead, there are boys having a fight with the debris on the ground. It’s mostly spoons, but also tin soldiers, house keys, and lockets. The boys are twelve, maybe thirteen. They don’t have their hearts in the fight. They stand together, joking and occasionally flinging spoons at each other.

It starts raining again. Anna and the boys run for cover under the awning of the Argentinian restaurant at the end of the street. Inside the restaurant, almost all the seats are filled. Everyone at the windows glances out at the rain to see what, if anything, will come with it. Sometimes it’s just rain.

Anna notices them first. She thinks snow. It’s too warm for snow, but that no longer seems to matter. White orbs drop onto the street. They look soft. Anna steps from the awning and catches one in her hands. Tulips. All around her, the heads of white tulips fall with the rain. She stands in the middle of the street to catch them. The boys follow. They run through the street, getting soaked with their hands cupped and their palms up. The sound of their boots crashing through the metal spoons on the pavement echoes back at them. They catch the tulips then throw them into the air again. Rain drips from their coats and faces. Anna has petals in her hair.

*

The bell on the bookstore door rings as Anna enters. She pulls a resumé from her bag. She tries to make herself look tall and confident. Her resumé is damp.

“How can I help? ” asks the man behind the counter. He has a blond moustache and reading glasses. Anna’s stomach hurts. There’s no one else in the store. Only half the shelves have books on them.

“I’m wondering if you’re hiring,” she says.

The man looks at Anna as though this is stranger than her turning into a fish would be.

Anna hands him her resumé. “I just moved here. I need a job.” It’s started raining again. She has to raise her voice over the sound of spoons hitting other spoons already on the ground.

“No one’s moving except to the coast.”

“Some things happened. I had to get out.”

The man looks at Anna as though he’s trying to read her skin. She tries to make her face blank but also sad. This is how she got her apartment. It isn’t lying. People believe what they want to believe. Let them assume tragedies. It’s easier than explaining that she couldn’t watch this happen in her own town, the shops closing down, the houses boarded up. And if she went to the coast, everyone she knew would be there. She’d have to lose each of them, one at a time.

“Listen,” says the man behind the counter. “War and Peace, the complete works of Shakespeare, Ulysses—people are only buying the classics. They want to read them before…” He looks out the window at a group wearing white robes walking by. “I’m basically sold out, and the supplier isn’t getting back to me. I’ll let you know if something comes up, but I think I’ll close down, spend this time with my family, because, you know…”

Anna knows. She’s handed out twenty-one resumés already, and the price of food keeps going up.

*

The air outside the bookstore feels as though it’s pressing into Anna’s skin. It’s air she could almost swim through. If she leaned forward carefully enough, maybe she could float then coast through the city, kicking her legs behind her.

Her brain feels as if it’s got paper clips in it. She doesn’t have the heart to hand out any more resumés. She’s only got four left and the place she got them printed is now closed.

She walks through the city she doesn’t know. She came here to be a stranger. She changed her name and cut her hair short. If these things are happening in a strange place, she can contain them in her mind.

The street lights go on early now. There’s no sun anymore. It’s just lighter clouds and darker clouds. Up ahead, there’s something shining in the artificial light. It’s not made of metal like the rest of the debris on the ground. Anna takes a step back when she sees it’s a minnow. It’s flopping around in a puddle as deep as her fingernail. Anna tries to pretend it’s just a minnow, but how would a real minnow have gotten there?

Anna scoops up the fish. It’s cold and wet in her bare hands. Its tail flaps against her palm. It used to be a human, but that thought sits to one side of her brain. It won’t connect with the fish in her hands.

At the end of the street, there are four people in white robes kneeling. People only started praying in the streets a few weeks ago. Anna approaches them with the minnow in her hands. She holds it like an offering. The people speak softly with their eyes closed. It’s only when Anna is right beside them that she realizes they’re speaking in tongues. Their words come to her like music she might have heard in the womb.

One of the men has a jar on the ground beside him. There’s a fish in it. Anna opens the jar and slides the minnow from her palm into the water. It almost doesn’t fit. None of the people praying move. Anna steps back and looks at them all in white in a line at the side of the road. They’re kneeling in order from shortest to tallest. Anna doesn’t know if this was intentional.

The man beside the jar opens his eyes. He looks up at Anna then down at the jar that now has two fish in it. What will happen to these jars of fish when no one is left to sprinkle food in?

Anna is already halfway down the street by the time the man tries to call her back.

She walks towards a part of the city she’s never been to before. She passes houses without lights on. She passes houses with families gathered around television screens. The news reports are the same every night. Yesterday, 189 people in the city were turned. That’s more than ever before, especially when you consider how many have gone to the coast to pray.

It starts raining again. It’s just rain, but it could turn to something else. Anna still has the bruise where a spoon hit her last week. It’s a purple half moon on her shoulder. She presses her fingers to it while she lies in her bed at night.

The two houses closest to Anna have signs in their windows. Pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things, says the first one. Sudden destruction cometh upon them, and they shall not escape, says the second. Anna runs to take shelter under the porch of the third house. There’s a light on in the living room. Her feet make a hollow thumping sound on the damp wood floor of the porch. The street is still except for the rain.

Anna jumps when the front door opens. A man comes out of the house and stands beside her. He’s holding a cup of coffee and looks at the rain as though Anna isn’t there. The silver of his trimmed beard catches in the street light.

“Did you see the tulips today? ” asks the man. He’s still facing the street.

He looks close to sixty, at least thirty-five years older than Anna, but she is aware she wants to have sex with him. If this man were to invite Anna into his house for a cup of coffee, she would say yes. She would let him pull the clothes off her slowly. The rain would beat against the windows, and maybe there would be a hole in the ceiling. Cold drips of water would fall on them while they wrapped themselves around each other, and that would be the only indication that what was happening outside was happening.

Anna reaches into her pocket. She pulls out the head of a tulip. It’s as though someone has tucked it in there for her. She offers it to the man.

It’s wilted and squished in the man’s hand. Looking at it, Anna feels as though she’s being dragged down into a smooth black pond without a bottom and without a name. She feels how she should have felt looking at the minnow she found on the street today.

“Yeah, it was fucking beautiful.” The man says the word fucking like he’s tasting it.

The man hands the tulip back to Anna. They stare at the rain again.

“It’s been raining like this all over the world,” says the man. “They sent up planes, and there’s a cloud covering the whole earth. The oceans and lakes are flooding. All those people that went to the coast to pray have had to come further and further inland.” He looks straight ahead. It’s like he’s talking to the rain. There are no spoons or tin soldiers or tulips tonight. It’s just water in a steady stream.

“I used to be afraid,” the man says. “I still am, we all are, but my fear is somehow smaller. I just keep thinking, if this is God, then maybe it isn’t punishment. Maybe he’s returning us back to the ocean. Maybe the earth is flooding on its own, and God is turning us to fish so that we’ll survive.”

*

When Anna gets back to her neighbourhood, it’s after eleven. Everything is dripping in the thick mist. The only lights on are at the Argentinian restaurant at the end of her street. All the customers have gone home. The staff sits together at a long table. Everyone is there, waiters, cooks, the manager in a grey suit. Each of them has a steak dinner. Some of them are talking with each other. Most are silent. They stare at their plates and eat their steak. They eat a steak dinner together every night. It could be because of what else has been happening, or maybe this is how it always was. How many of them used to dream about getting to eat a steak dinner every night? They should be the happiest people alive.

When Anna gets home, the doorknob to her apartment falls off in her hand. A new one grows back in its place. This happens four more times before the knob holds. Anna steps into her apartment. Her pockets are full of doorknobs. Everything else about her place looks the same.

*

Anna eats rice for breakfast. She spent the last of her money two days ago, and she hopes this food holds out. Some of the abandoned houses were left with their doors wide open, but Anna can’t bring herself to go into them. She wants everything to be the same for when the families come back. She wants them to say, Here’s that can of beans, right where I left it. My favourite kind of soup is still in the cupboard.

Anna looks in her own cupboards, then her closet. She sees the box of VHSs the person who used to live here left. The VHSs are shows taped from television. Their names are written in black marker on white labels, Friends, Ally McBeal, Conception, Seinfeld. Anna recognizes almost all of the titles from a time she’s supposed to be forgetting. She makes herself more rice and slides the second season of Will & Grace into the ancient player. All the commercials say it’s still 1999.

She stays like that for three days, sitting on her bed, eating rice and watching videos. One night, it rains lit light bulbs. She closes her blinds and turns the volume up louder against the sound of glass breaking against asphalt.

Anna is starting new again today, though. She’s watched almost all the VHSs. The only ones left are the ones with titles of television shows she doesn’t recognize.

Last night, Anna got a call from the bookstore owner with the blond moustache: “I’ve got a friend at a TV station. His employees are all heading to the coast, or else… Could you go for an interview? ”

Of course she could.

Anna flattens her short black hair in the greasy bathroom mirror. She couldn’t find a salon she could afford. She cut her hair herself with the rusty kitchen scissors she found in her cutlery drawer. It’s uneven, but maybe in a punk rock sort of way. Anna nods at her reflection then heads into the street.

The TV stations are some of the few places still open. The TV stations, the hospitals and the Argentinian restaurant at the end of Anna’s street. It’s lunchtime. Almost all the tables are full. Waiters run with plates of steak and vegetables. They refill water glasses and write down orders. Up ahead on the street, there is a group of women in white robes chanting. There are broken light bulbs under Anna’s feet.

The outside world makes everyone in the Argentinian restaurant seem artificial but heroic. The waiters are playing their roles as waiters. The customers are playing their roles as customers. It’s as though these people were recorded years ago and left to go on replaying their parts despite the world going down around them. They are eating steaks in the face of God, the Rapture, and time itself.

*

Anna passed a bus last week. There was a line of people getting on. Some of them were in white robes, and some were in regular clothes. Anna stood and watched them climb the steps.

“Come with us,” called a woman in jeans near the end of the line. “We’re going to the coast.”

“Why? ” Anna called back.

“Because everyone else is. We want to be together.”

Anna knew her family would be there, her old friends who knew her by a different name. They had been some of the first to leave. She imagined them standing at the edge of the ever-expanding ocean. They would hold hands and watch the water coming in. Anna’s dad always wore white socks, even with dress pants. She imagined the salt water soaking his toes then swirling around his ankles.

*

The TV station looks abandoned. There’s no one at the security desk, and the elevator is broken. Anna climbs the stairs to the third floor. There’s graffiti in the stairway, but Anna can’t make out what it says. She thinks it ends with a question mark.

A thin man, maybe forty-five, steps out of an office. His button-up shirt is wrinkled.

“Are you Anna? ”

She nods.

“Howard. Follow me. Let’s talk and walk.”

Anna follows the man past a row of offices. He is breathing heavily. Most of the rooms they walk by look empty. They enter a room where five or six people are sitting around a table eating lunch.

“Everyone, this is Anna.” Howard pauses. His face pales. He puts one hand on the table to steady himself. “She’s going to be—” Howard touches his neck then holds on to either side of it. He makes a strange gasping noise as though there’s air whistling through him.

“Water,” he manages. One of the men at the table rushes him his Coke. Howard takes a gulp. It dribbles through his fingers and out the sides of his neck. His eyes spread apart. His mouth widens and his teeth grow longer. Howard drops forward on the table in front of him.

“Oh shit, oh fucking shit,” says one woman still frozen at the table. She stands and backs towards the wall. “Is this? This can’t be…”

Anna’s blood feels as if it’s made of helium. She hears a bell ringing. She doesn’t know if it’s in her head or happening somewhere down the hall.

“Help,” she hears someone call. “Get a jar or a bowl or something. Put water in it.”

Someone rushes in with a jar, but then they all just stand there. This isn’t like when Anna found the minnow. A fin grows from Howard’s spine and breaks through his shirt. His skin turns grey and slick. The table collapses.

“A shark? ” Anna hears someone ask. No one is rushing around anymore. They all back towards the door. Everyone’s face looks as though it’s been ironed flat.

Anna is the first to leave. She doesn’t know this man. There’s no way they could get a shark that size out of the building without using a crane. Probably this will be the end of the television station. They will leave Howard in the room. Someone will call his family, and no one will ever come back.

Anna throws up at the bottom of the staircase.

There’s a group of people standing outside the door. They are staring at six people in white robes at the edge of the street. The people in white aren’t kneeling anymore. They are lying in the gutter. The water heading towards the drains washes around them. One of the people lying down is a kid. He can’t be older than twelve.

“Are they dead? ” Anna overhears one man ask.

“I think they’re waiting to turn,” says another. “They’re showing God they’re ready.”

The kid twists his head. He’s got mud on his face. He spits, but he doesn’t move his hand to wipe the mud away. The cold water washes around him. He’s shaking. Anna thinks she can hear his teeth chatter. This could be one of the kids from earlier this week, one of the ones Anna caught tulips with in the rain. The kid looks up at Anna. His eyes are green. She turns and walks away.

*

At her apartment, Anna pulls off seven doorknobs in a row. She throws them down the stairs behind her. They keep growing back. The door can’t hold them. The door is losing shape. Anna blinks. The door shifts from rectangle to perfect square. Rhombus. Triangle. Square. Triangle.

She gives up on getting the knob to stay. She covers her face and walks directly through the wood. She doesn’t know if this has been happening in other houses. She doesn’t watch the news anymore.

Anna’s hands shake on the VHSs. She doesn’t know what she’s looking for. She came to this city to be new. She wanted to be as pure and unmarked as a glass of milk. She wanted to have no memory but of a dark and murky womb.

Conception is at the bottom of the box. The tape clicks as it slides into the player. Anna sits on her bed. She is aware of an emptiness inside her. She doesn’t know when she ate last. It was probably breakfast. It was probably rice.

This video isn’t like the others. It’s a home video of a man and woman sitting on Anna’s bed in Anna’s apartment.

“Hello,” says the man into the camera. “I’m Nick. This is Corinna.”

The woman laughs. She is holding the man’s hand. The man’s lips curl.

“Stop, this is serious,” Nick tells Corinna. “We’re about to do something beautiful.”

The tape is grainy. Anna isn’t sure she should be watching this. She doesn’t turn it off, though. She already knows what’s going to happen.

She watches their faces instead of their bodies. There are no covers. The lights are on. They seem aware of the camera, but they are trying to act naturally. They just want a record of this. They want it to be beautiful.

The woman looks at the ceiling. Her mouth is moving. The man stops and looks down at her.

“What are you doing? ”

“I’m praying,” she says.

The man kisses her. She rolls over him to be on top.

When it’s over, the woman lies on her back with a pillow under her hips. The man turns off the tape. Now it’s just static like one million white fish swimming through a black ocean. The sound cuts in and out. It’s a sound Anna has forgotten about. It’s like heavy rain on a tin roof, or maybe waves. Anna hasn’t been to the ocean in a very long time.

Anna has thought about turning before, what it would feel like, when it would happen. She tastes metal and salt, and maybe it’s then that she realizes what’s happening to her. Maybe it isn’t until she touches her neck. She feels a slit growing just behind her ear. Air slides in and out.

The static on the television cuts out and the screen goes black.

Anna is surprised she feels so calm. She always thought she would try to fight it. Instead, she walks into her bathroom and sits on the edge of the stained tub. Walking is hard for her now. The air is barely getting into her lungs. Her blood has turned so cold she’s shaking.

Anna leans her head against the bathroom wall and waits. It won’t be long now. She watches her fingers and toes grow together. Then she sees the words in blue pen graffitied behind the toilet. She has to slide from the edge of her tub to read them. Her vision is already blurred. Her limbs are retracting into fins.

Anna leans forward:

Cause = Time
Time = God
?

The handwriting is the same as on the white VHS labels, and the phrase seems more familiar than the handwriting. It’s as if she read it in a dream once, or someone said it to her before she was born. Is the first part the name of a song she used to listen to? Or is it familiar because it’s the answer? Maybe she knew this all along. How many times has she looked at her toilet without noticing the graffiti behind it?

Maybe the cause of all this is time, and maybe time is God.

Only there is no time. Anna can’t breathe at all anymore. Her bones are becoming frail. She hears the static of the VHS crack back on in the other room. It feels as though her skin is being ripped off her as it turns into scales. Everything is burning and cold. It’s like her bones are frostbitten. With all her strength, she reaches for the handle on the toilet. She’s standing, but the handle is above her head now. Her fingernails disappear as she pulls. Her clothes fall from her body. Her legs are almost too short. She bends them. She hears the static in the other room. She hears the toilet flushing in front of her. She tries to take a breath, but there’s no air. She launches herself. She lands in the swirling water with a splash. She spins around and around and around, and then she gets sucked down.

And no one knows what happens after that.

This story is one of thirteen contest finalists published in The Broken Social Scene Story Project: Short Works Inspired by You Forgot It In People, an ebook available for purchase from House of Anansi Press.

Jane Ozkowski is a former synchronized swimmer. Her writing was most recently published in Poetry Is Dead.