Thursday, May 31, 2012

Snow Globe Slowdown

Julian was working intently on a sketch one afternoon.  An artist by aspiration and otherwise unoccupied, he had turned his attention to drawing out what he could see through his window.  Today he saw more of what he'd been seeing a lot of lately: unseasonably cold and cloudy weather.  In a modern, unpredictable era of climate change, the word "unseasonable" didn't carry the same meaning: winter long past winter was the order of the day.  But Julian found something to admire in that, something worth sketching.  Something worth looking at later.

As he worked, Caleb rolled into the apartment they shared, projecting an air of depression and defeat.  He tossed a little bag into the corner and stumbled, almost blindly, to the dilapidated couch at the center of the room.  He stood blinking, for a moment, seeming to consider his options for interacting with the furniture.  And then he fell.

“I'm never going out there again,” he boldly announced, tumbling face first into the seedy couch.  The pillows gave him a cool embrace, and the confidence that he could stay there forever.

“You'll have to eat.”

“I don't have to eat.  I've eaten my fair share.  You could bring me food anyway.”

“For sure.  Why are you never going outside again?”

Caleb raised his face from the pillows, unwillingly, resentful.  “I said I'm not going out there again.  Our neighbors are rude and hostile and I don't think they like me very much.”

“Not with that attitude,” said Julian, his eyes barely moving from his busy sketch pad. 

“Not with any attitude.  Jerry's been a jerk to me since grade school.  Anna looks at me like a cockroach asking her to a formal ball or something.  Everyone else just can't seem to stand me.”

“Because you won't look them in the eye.  Jerry's always been OK with me.  If you don't act like a scared little mouse all the time, people actually treat you kind of decently.”

Caleb buried his face in the pillow again and pouted.  “Can't look anyone in the eye if they won't look at me.”

“I can't really hear you.”

“All I wanted to do was find out whose socks they were.”

“Can't really hear you.  What about the socks?”

Caleb tossed the pillows in frustration.  “Those socks I found in the dryer.  They weren't in there when I put the load in, but they aren't mine.  They must have gotten mixed in there somewhere from someone else's load.”

“Or they're your socks.”

“Julian, I know my own socks.”

“Well, maybe they're my socks.”

“I don't mix your laundry with mine,” he said, pointedly.  “I always do my own.  Besides, you aren't missing any socks.”

“No, I guess not.  You know what else doesn't really endear you to people?  Knocking on their doors and shoving their laundry in their face.”

The cell phone started ringing; Julian and Caleb couldn't afford individual cell phones, so they shared one.  Every incoming call was handled differently, since there was no way of knowing ahead who the call was for.  It was usually for Julian, but Caleb was often less meaningfully occupied.

“I'm not going to get it, Caleb,” said Julian.  His pencil moved steadily over the pad.

Slouching in frustration, Caleb groped across the coffee table for the phone.  He put it down much faster.  “It's my parents.  I'm in no mood.”

“Gotcha.  So we're just going to let it ring over and over, huh?”

Caleb got the point, and reluctantly reached over again to see if he could silence the ringing, without accidentally answering the call and inadvertently inviting his mom or his dad into a rare moment of relative peace.  But it wasn't necessary; the phone stopped ringing, even before it could go to messages.  Mom or dad or whoever it was had hung up on him.

“They're so impatient,” he said, disgusted.  He stood up and put the phone by Julian's chair.

“By the way,” said Julian, “how do you expect to go outside again if you aren't going into the hallway?” 

“I don't know.  Maybe I'll just walk through really really fast.”

“Well, that'll keep the neighbors from noticing you,” Julian said, flatly.

“And I didn't shove them in anyone's face,” he said indignantly.   “I just... I just asked them if the socks were theirs.  I just asked.”

“I know, Caleb.  I know.”

“I want to get rid of them.  I don't want them in here.” 

“Just put them back in the laundry room.  Whoever left them there will probably go looking there anyway.  You should have just left the socks in there in the first place.”

“Fine, I guess.  I'm going downstairs.”

Julian didn't watch him go, but he heard the door slam petulantly as he left.  “What a kid,” he said, chewing on a couple of sunflower seeds.  He used to eat them all the time on sunny days, but it didn't seem like the sun shone very often anymore. 

The doorbell rang, and Julian got up to answer it, half-expecting to find Caleb had locked himself out.  But Caleb wasn't back yet; it was only Jerry Stewart, blonde and burly and seemingly aware (yet unconcerned) that he wasn't particularly welcome.

“Hey, Jerry.”

“Hey, Julian.  Does, ah, Caleb still have my socks?”

“No,” he said, more than a little annoyed.  “He's in the laundry room.  He couldn't figure out whose they were, so he took them back.”

“Well, that's good.  He should have just left them there, anyway.”

“Honestly, Jerry, why couldn't you have just told him they were yours?”

“Well, I never said they weren't.  But he comes up to me with that lame old passive aggressive act, and what am I supposed to do?”

“You could try treating him with more respect.  He only wanted to help.”

Jerry threw up his hands.  “You know what, I don't have a lot of time to waste with a guy like that.  I had to put him in his place.  Always feeling sorry for himself, like the whole world's trying to persecute him or something.  Always blaming everyone else for his problems.  At least you're not acting like that all the time.”

“Yeah, I try not to let it get me down,” Julian replied.  He hoped that Jerry could taste the bitterness of his words, though he knew better than to expect it.  “But you know what?  Now you've gone and wasted everyone's time.  It's not your place to put him in his place, and I don't get why you think it is.”

“OK, I get it, I get it.  Hands off Caleb, right?  I won't pick on the little mouse anymore.  Hey, speaking of, here he comes now.”  Caleb was storming through the hallway; Jerry shot him a look of mock-compassion that was far from satisfactory for Julian.  Head down, Caleb pushed himself awkwardly between the two  and retreated back to the apartment.  Julian looked accusingly at Jerry, but he knew that there was little hope in mending his ways.  If only he could make him feel a little guilt.

“I'll see you later, Jerry.”

“Later.”  Jerry sauntered away without a hint of shame, just like he always did.  Julian watched him disappear down the steps, then shut the door.

He found Caleb on the phone as he made his way back to his seat.  “-yeah, and now everything downstairs is just flooded.  I don't know what to do. I think you should probably send some one out to take care of it.”  Then Caleb grunted a few affirmations and hung up, placing the phone back by Julian's side. 

“Sounds like things got a little weird downstairs?”

“Yeah, it started in the laundry room, and then it got really bad.  I had to open the door to get out, but when I did it all just started pouring out into the common area.”

“Did you do something?”

“No, I wasn't even touching any of the machines!  One of the pipes was leaking, and then it burst, and now it's everywhere.”

“And you didn't touch the pipe either?”

Caleb looked enormously hurt.  “No, Julian, I didn't do this!”

“Fine, fine, I believe you.”  Caleb sulked back to the kitchen rooting around for something to eat without really having any foods in mind.  Julian tried to get back to work.

The phone started ringing at his elbow, and Julian picked it up, squinting momentarily at the caller ID screen.  “Caleb,” he said, “just talk to your fucking parents already.”

The pipes in Caleb and Julian's building were not the isolated problem they had assumed.  At the very same moment, most of the other houses and apartment buildings in town were flooded, and soon tenants were streaming out like river rapids.  When Caleb answered the phone, his father sounded greatly agitated; not about their usual disagreements, but about the sudden transformation of the city square into a boggy marsh.  Caleb could hardly have cared less; a fire hydrant had just exploded like something out of a summer comedy.  The sights and sounds from outside his window were spectacular entertainment, and his foul mood was momentarily lifted.  Suddenly, it was a beautiful day.

Of course, it was actually something of a catastrophe.  Soon the evacuation orders were coming in over the television and the radio, and rugged trucks packed with panicking citizens were mobilizing for the highway.  The water table was saturated; the river was running over, and over and over.  A trickle of national guardsmen arrived against the tide, but they didn't seem interested in protecting the town, beyond stopping the occasional looters from taking any last-minute prizes.  They gave orders for everyone to evacuate, but when the vast majority had done so the troops no longer seemed inclined to stick around.  It wasn't obvious that anyone would be coming back.

The water got deeper and the people got fewer; most of the low-lying streets were submerged by nature's gradual reclamation.  Even on the second floor, Caleb and Julian's position was becoming untenable, and after half a day of amused observation they grabbed as much as they could carry and headed for higher ground.

"Anyway, that's more or less how it came to this," said Caleb, eyes fixed on the muddy mass of water now swamping Main Street.  Feeble swirls of snow would occasionally feed into it from the sky; otherwise, it was as if it had all just risen out of the Earth.  It flowed deliberately over the surface of all their old haunts, in a way that would have been relaxing were it not for certain apocalyptic realities.

"Thank God we're in hill country," said Julian, "or we might actually have had to evacuate like they said."  He was carrying a rough, heavy blanket from out of the tent, and as he sat down next to Caleb he wrapped it around the both of them to guard against the gentle cold.  He gave Caleb a small kiss; "as it is, I'd gladly trade losing all my earthly possessions for the most interesting camping trip of my life."

Caleb shuddered a little.  "I miss roofs.  And heaters."

"Yeah, I guess those were cool, as far as earthly possessions go.  By the way, are you sure it all really starts with those socks?"

With a sidelong glance, Caleb admitted the slightest appreciation of the joke.  "I just really wish I knew whose socks they were."

"They were totally Jerry's," said Julian, wistfully.  "He came by and told me himself."

"Well, yeah, that makes sense.  Now.  I'm going to go kick something hard."

"Don't get all uptight about it.  You were right about Jerry, and everybody like him.  Let yourself be right; and don't let him be right too.  The world's complicated enough as it is."

"Yeah."  Caleb looked down on the little sunken down, his eyes parsing the streets for the location of the abandoned apartment building.  "I hope they're halfway to the ocean by now."

"I think everyone ought to be by now."

"Say, Julian," said Caleb, "do you think the water is going to keep rising?"

Julian cast his eyes over the valley, not really knowing how to base his judgment, but determined to speak authoritatively.  "Well, it hasn't been for a while.  I figure, all the water that's coming is probably there by now.  Whether it stays or not; I guess that's up to the river now."

"I see."

"Any particular reason you ask?"

"Well, when I was a kid," says Caleb, "my dad built this really cool model town."

"What was so cool about it?"

"I don't know, I guess just because it was a model town.  It was really good, though.  It had these beautiful little houses, and these little trees, and everything was really good, and covered in snow.  I kind of wanted to live in it sometimes, because it looked like it was always Christmas in there."

"Well, that would be nice."

"Yeah.  It was great.  I miss that place."

"What happened to it?"

"Well, my parents always kept it in their room."  He bit his lip gently, staring down at his feet, and the dirty mix of soil and snow beneath them.  "I haven't really had a reason to go in there for a long time."

Julian turned to the summit of the hill, and the small tree (more of a shrub) they'd pitched their tent against.  It looked terrible; it was terrible to sleep in, too.  Neither one of them knew the first thing about tents or how to live in them.  But judging by their survival, they'd been successful.  They were even decently dry and warm, when the wind didn't blow too hard.  They weren't starving.  But they weren't happy either.

"Caleb," said Julian, "don't your folks live out on Log Cabin Ridge?"

"Yeah, but they're all gone," he said, making a swooshing arm motion toward the old highway.  "No way mom and dad would stick around for a nature show like this."

"Well, it looks like it's all dry between there and here.  How do you feel about taking a hike?"

"I don't really like the idea of heading for low ground at a time like this."

"Yeah," said Julian, "but I don't think that's the reason you want to say no."

"Well, maybe not.  But can you blame me?"

"No, I can't.  But I can say I'm tired of sleeping on rocks and roots.  And besides," he said, "this is just a house.  A house can't judge you or reprimand you, or make you feel unwelcome.  This is your house, Caleb, and for once I'd kind of like to see it that way."

Caleb looked out toward Log Cabin Ridge; his eyes traced the path through the woods and the old cemetery that led toward it, looking for any sign of impassibility.  "I do want to go home," he said, slowly.  "I'd hate to see that house get ruined.  Do you think it'll be alright?"

Julian smiled.  "It should be.  But we should probably get going soon; I don't want it to get dark."  It was dark already; the sun wouldn't shine through clouds and snow like that.

The walk itself took about forty five minutes, after the hour spent wrestling down the tent.  There was no fighting the approach of darkness, but they made it in time to view the old neighborhood under quiet, twilight desolation.  The streets of Log Cabin Ridge were not under water, though they curled around the shore of what was now taking on the appearance of a lake.  Two-story houses stood empty, their redundant rooms quiet and dark.  Wild animals (squirrels, deer, the occasional turkey) shuffled hesitantly through the leafy underbrush, in and out of abandoned back yards, always in the general direction that Caleb and Julian were coming from: up to the hills, away from the water.

"It's just like coming home," said Caleb, peering through windows as they strolled through the neighborhood, shouldering their gear.  Their feet crunched lightly in the snow, but they didn't feel especially cold.

"How do you figure?"

"It always feels like this; this is just the first time it's really looked like it, too."

"I really don't know how much sense that makes."

The house that Caleb grew up in was not much different from the others.  It had the same grey paint and square windows, arranged in the same patterns and floor plans.  Some of them were mirror-flipped, with analogous rooms and doors oriented in opposite directions; Caleb never knew if there was a practical reason, or if the developers had just indulged in a strange case of symmetry.  But his house, his parents' house, always felt like the right one.  It was only natural that it would, but it felt more than natural to him.  The emptiness did not.

"There's a note on the door," said Julian, who reached out to take it.

"And it's probably for me," said Caleb, laying his hands on it first.  It was folded in half; inside was a house key, and about fifteen lines of neat, handwritten text.  Caleb eyed the letter quickly, taking care to hold it so that only he could see.  Without changing his expression, he refolded the note and slid it into a breast pocket.  He turned his focus toward the lock on the door, and fiddled with it for a few moments; it was notoriously difficult to open, and had been since he was a small boy.

"Well, what does it say?"

With a shrug, he continued fiddling.  "My parents.  They love me, they say if we need the place and it's still above water, we can use it.  That's why the key, even though I already have one.  I guess they forgot.  Kind of typical of them."  The lock gave with a satisfying turn.  "Let's go in?"

"I guess.  How'd they know we might be coming?"

"Well, when my dad was complaining about his office getting all swampy, I sort of implied I might stick around for a while.  He certainly didn't want to take the time to talk me out of it."

"Maybe," said Julian, fumbling out of habit for a light switch (and remembering when he found one that all the power had long since been turned off), "but at least he took the time to write you the note, and leave the place ready for you."

"Mmm."  Caleb looked wistfully up the carpeted stairs; his old bedroom was up there, shrouded in evening darkness.  He also put his finger on a switch, before scolding himself for lack of thought.  "Remind me we've got to empty out whatever's left in the fridge, it'll probably start smelling."  He disappeared past the staircase into a shadowy hallway, slamming the front door hard behind him.

Julian stood in half-darkness for a time, before laying down the camping gear and pushing it neatly into a corner.  He saw pictures on the wall, and looked for images of Caleb; very few were recent, and few of these looked happy.  His parents never lost their smiles, but they did appear to be losing their son, as he seemed to will himself gradually out of existence in each recent shot.  It was the first time he'd seen these pictures: Julian had never felt as if he were unwelcome in this house, but Caleb had never brought him there.  There was a side of himself that Caleb did not acknowledge easily, but Julian could see traces of it everywhere, and especially in those disappearing photographs.

He found Caleb in the master bedroom, which was now a pale grey-blue in the waning light of day.  There were no lights to see by, except one: a battery-powered lamp rising from the center of the little model town.  Caleb was sitting in front of it, seemingly lost in thought, until he perceived Julian's arrival.  He motioned for him to sit down beside him and admire the town his father built, lightly holding his hand.  "It's warmer in here, anyway; it always stays warm in this corner of the house."

It really was a beautiful town, protected by thin glass, built in neat grids that naturally accommodated the curvature of the artificial terrain with grace and rectitude.  Trees rose out of the tiny hillsides, crafted from plastic but authentically recalling leaf and bark.  The "snow" was pure and soft, sweet like cake frosting, too innocent to block roads in unseemly mounds, or melt in slushy puddles at every street corner.  It was the perfect snow of a child's imagination, capping the roofs of handsome houses and cars, bringing everything to a serenely lovely standstill.

"It does kind of look like Christmas," said Julian.

"Everyone's inside their little houses," said Caleb, "sitting at their fires and opening presents, probably.  Everything outside is just peaceful and nice."

"I kind of thought there'd be people outside, it looks like a great day for sledding or snowmen or something."

"No," said Caleb, happily shaking his head.  "No, that wouldn't be right at all.  People have a way of complicating things.  This is all about the town."

"I see."  Julian gave his hand a squeeze.  "Your dad did a wonderful job.  I want to live in this town, too; it's like the 19th century, only brighter and cheerier.  I hope they still have real places like this, somewhere."

"I'm just glad it's not all under water.  I hope it doesn't rise any more."

Julian stood up slowly, looking down on the sleepy, empty little town.  "I think it will be OK, for now."  He walked back to the entrance of the master bed room and gently shut the door behind him.

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