The Rosemont Retirement Home
Chapter 4: Shawshank Redemption
They had frosted the glass but as she had seen the tree beyond it before, the year before they frosted all the windows in the school, she could see through it as if it were clear — she saw the tree, the sunlight on its browning leaves, and the little twit squirrel who was now taunting her with its chirping and squeaking and boasting about being outside while she was inside; it would chirp away for the next six hours and again, tomorrow, for another 10 hours, on and on all summer and all next fall and winter and spring, and the next year and the year after that, because it’s not like she had a choice, did she?
The squirrel threw something against the window, and is lid down the glass — rotten. It was literally throwing its garbage at her. Maybe it was out of food. Maybe its short squirrel life was coming to an end.
A voice, made of metal, sent her a reminder: Focus. Startled, Lisa ran her hands over her temple, feeling for the ridge in the soft valley where the capsule that pretended to know her had been injected. Even the new generation the school purchased had that gap between the capsule’s syllables, that sliver of foil between the lukewarm pieces of plastic that were the fake, programmed voice — a little metal man in her mind, conjuring text and pictures and holograms in front of her to teach her everything she would never need to know. At least they didn’t have the generation that could turn your eyes off, but since the last upgrade, Kyler’s distract code had stopped working — in Grade 8, it allowed the entire class two weeks of unlocked browsing across all modules and the cloud — and since the incident last year, her favourite old movie The Great Escape had been removed from Early Screen Studies. Kyler was transferred and the programming modules temporarily shut down; then they went and frosted the glass. Lisa watched the frost crystal back over the wet spot where the squirrel had angrily flung its refuse. She guessed that if the squirrel threw the same material maybe 1,000 or 1,200 more times at the same velocity, the window would break, the fractal wouldn’t be able to grow it back quickly enough, and she would be able to run the fuck out of there. If Nathan, in the row behind her, didn’t stop blowing a cool tunnel of air on the back of her neck, she would have to punch him in the face. This was only one of his awful habits: he had taken to calling Lisa glitter girl, after she made the mistake of wearing her grandmother’s antique pink barrettes to school. The two clips had real metal backings, not recycled, and said “Made in China” in engraved letters almost worn away. Glitter girl, glitter girl, she could hear it in the air running through the hair on the back of her neck. The students’ panels would report even the quietest whisper to the roomadmin, who dozed about twenty rows in front of them. Lisa had no tickets, but Nathan had accumulated seven since September; in May, he would likely be transferred to a praxis program for his sedition, and the strands on her neck would lie still and unbothered during class.
Plastic, the metal man repeated. Panicked at her lack of response, he began its litany of desperate typed entreaties: Did she want to learn more about the first plastics factory? Would you like to go inside the first plastics factory, the Celluloid Manufacturing Company? That’s when the metal man started his ingenuous reaching. Discover the revolutionary Ada Lovelace did at (metal pause) 14. The syllables fell on Lisa like a stream of ice cubes. Dis. Dis.COV. Cov.ER. DisCOVer. Every word trying to batter its way through the gates of her mind was like a spelling lesson that she didn’t ask for from a governess that she hated. She learned that one in her last module.
Desperate, he turned her contacts into characters in a short narrative about the first steam engine and railroad, and when that didn’t catch her attention, he tried the first graphite-powered steam engine and the failed tunnel network. Her mother and father, both oil programmers, had been cast as sooty pre-bot construction workers, wearing blue overalls and faces from their earliest videos, then recast in a clingier pair of overalls that looked like they were made of graphene itself. Story, for loop, wordmap, timeline, array — Lisa was not only uninterested in the last two hundred years, no matter how they were presented, she was disinterested (would that earn her a percent in her English 197 module?), despite the metal man’s overtures and magic spells he cast on the panel in front of her. She was only two units into her 113 module History course, entitled The Digital Industrial Revolution. She did not know what the word digital meant, but she did know that it was the most boring thing that had ever happened to her in her entire life. The passeriformes paradisaeidae paragraphs on the panel pulsed and grew in size, then added pictures spinning backward and forwards, attempting to draw her attention like some tropical bird in heat. Nathan, too, switched tactics and breathed heat on the back of her neck in short ahs. He was in the praxis stream, too jejune for science and art and math; this would be the last year that she’d have to endure Glitter Girl and the unwanted neck fan.
Birds of paradise.
Lisa, you have completed all available biology modules. A1 work! Fourteen chemistry modules remaining.
Whenever the metal man read her, Lisa wondered how deep he could see. His eye was sharp, but was it penetrating? He didn’t really know her; Lisa knew that at least.
DNA. Did he understand her, or had her mind only been trained to cue it properly?
Lisa, as I said, you have completed all available biology modules. Great work! Fourteen chemistry modules remaining. She had been trained, she was being trained all the time — she felt it in the tiny nudges, all day, every day, that tidied the front rooms of her mind — but she liked to think that the metal man could only enter those mental parlours, that living room her father did not allow anyone to sit in; he couldn’t walk into the kitchen and open the fridge, or sit in the backyard, and hopefully he would not ever be able to climb the stairs to her room. He could observe, she thought, from the front hall, taking what he observed there as the truth, adding it to the cloud and the hourly reports he sent her parents.
New sounds of scraping and tapping behind her; she refused to turn and look. She gazed around the classroom, reading the rows of students sitting and standing, their pupils focused down to pinpricks, arms waving or writing, staring into the panels in front of them. Directly in front of her, Alynn was shaking her hair out of her ponytail while flicking the game in front of her. She wore a newly printed silver shirt with monogrammed buttons down her spine, so smooth you couldn’t see the spray layers. She was made of sugar and glass; Lisa was made of blood and dirt. Incomprehensible to Lisa, Alynn lived in a bought house, with bought furniture, and bought clothes, bot delivery of everything she needed and at least three capsule implants. The one in her wrist, Alynn had told her that first afternoon in September, was the newest MedFix model: a thin web in her bloodstream caught biometric data like fish, and dispensed medication as needed. Alynn was never too hot, or too cold, she never had a runny nose, her skin was scarless, her mind, spotless, and her buttons were always turned the right way, letters facing up — A. L. D.. Her father was a developer and her mother stayed at home, presumably spending her time delegating to their bots and designing monogrammed buttons for her daugther’s cardigans. Lisa had invited Alynn to the hilltop behind her subdivision, where she sometimes liked to go to stare at the exhibition grounds or watch the searchlights trace the low haze that sank into the town past midnight. The ferris wheel, over 100 years old, lit up in blue and red, radiating outward from a white centre in lines, an endlessly exploding star. Alynn had already purchased a band to the exhibition, and she would be riding on the stuttering firework that night, inviting Lisa to wave if she could see her going around from the hill. Lisa trailed her by one module in their bracket rankings; a new sweater or set of buttons at the pod in front of her usually provided ample motivation for Lisa to push ahead, truckling after every inane, twisting, dead-end step the metal man took. Inveterate, Alynn repeated her hourly routine, twisting her hair around one ringed finger and let it fall back between her shoulders. Falling with her hair, Lisa sank to the nadir of boredom.
Lisa, as I said, like pushing a button, she retriggered the panel. Lisa did not like being scolded by thin air.
Chemistry of DNA.
The metal man missed the thin air thought, which could have landed her in an endless wellness module. Outside, she thought she heard a breeze in the tree’s leaves, and she felt Nathan’s breath on the back of her neck. Sometimes she dreamed that the metal man was physically there, in the classroom, sitting in front of her — shining, seamless, impenetrable, silent. She would run him off — run him around the rows of desks, unseen by her classmates, who would stare ahead at their panels blankly as they always did, she would chase him out of the room and down the hall, through the security screens and past the doors, across the lawn — she would run him down and catch him and swallow him whole.
Lisa stared at the window.
She was going to do it.
The last time she had tried, three years ago, she only had to say the word in her mind and the panel would believe — too easy to trigger, after at least 20 false alarms, the school upgraded to a more skeptical, discerning model. Of course, Lisa had never travelled beyond her family’s rented house in their rented town of Parry Sound, a suburb of Toronto so quiet that it could not be ignored — because to ignore something is to acknowledge it and then assert one’s disinterest, and Parry Sound was so still that no one could acknowledge it, because no one knew that it existed. For Lisa, Parry Sound was a punishment for a crime she could not name and did not commit. The town squatted imperceptibly on the edge of a large bay, dotted with sunburnt granite shoulders. People simply missed Parry Sound as they drove through en route to their cottages in the summer or the pipeline in the winter. One school, 2,397 students. A convenience store, rusting railroad tracks, a printing shop, and a grocery hub. A sign that whimpered: “2 hot 2 cook, pizza Special deliv. 5min+ Free.” The highway with 24 lanes that Lisa was not old enough to drive on, never mind that driving was so simple that even Nathan had managed it two years ago in Grade 7, hacking and reprogramming his family car to steal a weekend in North Bay. She had looked at the setting of his adventure through the panel — video panoramas of a little town, perched on a bigger bay. When Nathan was transferred to her class the Monday after and said the air smelled different there, saying “I can’t describe it,” Lisa suddenly and for the first time considered leaving. She could hack her family’s rented car, disable the capsule, and follow the train tracks to someplace without drone cover or the network; someplace with wires and radios and computers. She would grow vegetables and buy (or grow?) a chicken; in the old days, people always grew their own vegetables and had chickens. She learned this when she watched The Squid and the Whale, a classic about the Boomers’ failing quest to compensate for their near total destruction of the Earth — which has now recovered, of course. That was, at least, how the panel had described it. Lisa doubted the supposed recovery she had been taught over and over, and watched the movie for the chickens.
She hushed the voices and concert halls and highways in her mind, and stared toward a single point on the panel. She pulled out a memory from childhood, the last summer the park allowed campfires — the last summer there was a park — and thought about the flames. She thought about them until she could see them in her mind, rising from her desk. The little metal man didn’t say a word. Lisa knew that she was the only one in the class who could do this; the only one who could focus enough to game him. The last time she had done it had been in equally dire circumstances, two years ago in Grade 6. Lisa closed her eyes and begged her brain for stillness, the lucid calm that would suit her furious purpose.
The metal man continued to fumble. Would you like to watch a short music video about (metal pause) deoxyribose sugars?
After a few false starts, Lisa lit a match in her mind and dropped it on her desk. She added sparking, the sounds of the plastic on the desk curling and cracking. The next steps would not be so easy: she had to raise her heart rate out of panic. She closed her eyes and imagined the sparks of the fire flecking her arms, smoke filling her nostrils, the panic as 200 students leapt towards the door, which wasn’t working for some reason — the door was closed, they couldn’t get it open, and the smoke was getting thicker and thicker. Her pulse rose. Pinpricks lit up the nerves on her arms. She fought to keep the separation required: the plans upstairs, the fire dancing in the front window for the metal man to see.
She tried to retrieve the smell, ushering it forward toward those front windows in her mind. What was it? Full, it burned her nostrils, but what was the smell made of? Charcoal, she remembered, but what was charcoal? Smoke smelled like dry, dirty heat. She tasted it on the roof of her mouth. The fire grew; her toes got hot. Her desk legs melted in front of her, the hot metal underside touching down on her thighs.
Fi. Fi-ER. Er-HAZ. Haz-ARD.
The smell of smoke filled Lisa’s lungs. The metal man’s stilted contralto was calling the main network.
Lisa’s panel glowed red, and in a ripple around her, every panel in the room followed. A delicious, deafening siren sounded in the hallway. The roomadmin, Mr. Barkley, startled, and scrambled to his feet. A plangent chorus of metal men said Lisa’s favourite words: Evacuate. Remain calm. Use any exit necessary. Evacuate. Walk, don’t run. Mr. Barkley tried to scolding and dissuading in equal turns, failing: “Whoever did this is going to get a double capsule, the new module — we will find out who did this!”
The students stared around, smiling, looking for clues as they stuffed themselves out of the room’s tight doorways; they would line up in front of the school, and then the drones would start counting, over and over, for at least an hour. Alynn was too focused on her panel, and when her eyes finally blinked upward, the room was empty. She leapt out of her chair so quickly that her buttons caught on its back, ripping out the spine of her sweater, and sending the tiny, identical metal pieces skittering across the floor like marbles. Lisa sat still, watching Alynn scramble skate out of the room, turning at the door to fling a gelid glare at her, nearly frigid enough to extinguish the fire climbing up the walls of her mind. The sirens doubled and the hallways emptied. Lisa left hand skimmed the floor until it found one of the impeccable metal pins and closed around it. She flattened her right hand against the cool window beside her, stood up, took a step back, and threw her shoulder against it — breaking through. A dull cracking sound fell around her as she hit the grass outside, clawing forward and up to drag her feet out before the glass grew back behind her. She stood up as the boy who breathed heat landed on one foot beside her, his right ankle dragging across the lower edge of the glass as it climbed back up, finally closing around his shoe. The squirrel squeaked from the top of the tree, surprised at the sudden company.
“So,” Nathan said, swaying. He tried a few assertive tugs, but the window only pressed closer around his shoe.
Lisa and the squirrel looked at him, unmoved.
“It’s not going to crack back open now,” she said. “I’ve got to get going.” Lisa walked a few steps in front of him and ran her hand up the tree’s lowest branch, thin enough to snap in the wind, dragging the leaves between her fingers; they were small, grey-green ovals that shone in a sort of quiet way, despite the overcast sky. The children’s singing shouts from the parking lot floated over the building around them; they had evacuated the elementary grades too. Ashes, ashes! We all fall down. The oil well heads bowed and straightened sleepily across the meadow in front of her, stirring the earth. It would take her maybe five minutes to cross it, and then she’d be in the forest. I had a little bird, his name was Enza.
“Where are you going?”
“Everywhere,” she said.
Nathan leaned forward, pulling against his trapped foot.
“I’ll never call you glitter again, despite the fact that you obviously love glitter.”
Lisa took a few steps backward and scanned the sky. All the drones were out front. She found a camera looking down on her from the roof, and stared straight into its eyes.
“I take that back,” he said, “I’ll only use your actual name from now on.”
The sound of shuffling from inside. “Lisa,” he was getting desperate.
“Nathan? I knew it was you,” Mr. Barkley said. “The drill is over. We just have to count everyone. We can do the second capsule injection this afternoon.”
“I really did smell smoke,” Nathan shouted over his shoulder. “I think the new wireless power install is acting up again. I saw a flame.” And now she was in his debt.
“Are you deaf, young man? You’re getting that capsule.” The thickening glass muffled the admin’s voice.
“What’s deaf?” Lisa didn’t know either; it was an old, empty insult from an old, empty man.
“I do not understand,” Mr. Barkley said through the frost.
Lisa watched Mr. Barkley’s shadow approach the glass. Before he could drag his errant ward back through it, Lisa untied Nathan’s trapped shoe. As the two stumbled away from the concrete building, Nathan pulled a scrambler out of his pocket — homemade the week before — and ran it across his temple. Lisa caught it and did the same, killing the metal man where he stood. The consonants falling like hail skittered into silence, blown away by the warm wind singing through the trees. Mr. Barkley’s voice scraped at her heels as she sprinted away from the school. Nathan ripped off his second shoe, and followed her barefoot toward the trees ahead, grass burning the soles of his feet. Lisa heard her teacher’s voice fade behind them, repeating: “I do not understand.”
The sensation was new and unfamiliar to them: uneven ground. Someone had stomped on the earth when it was soft; it lilted, tilted, it was missing bowls and shoes worth of earth in random places. Lisa and Nathan ran on the insides of their feet and jumped over fallen logs as best they could when they passed the first trees, having never been required to run and jump at the same time. They brown haze fell from them like a cobweb, and they fell together into a crepuscular quiet they had never known. Wrapped in the cool blanket that descended on them in the trees, Lisa unclenched her fists and let the air stream between her fingers and across the thin skin where they met at the base. Branches reared up under her feet and bit their ankles. Nathan spread his arms. They were breathing and touching and eating the border forest, the circle of thin and shrinking green buffering between their suburb and the next. Lisa had pointed their course parallel to its endless edges. They ran.
// Copyright Tye Kraimer 2014. All rights reserved.