Hurry Up and Wait
By Holly Schofield
I DUG MY LEFT TOE FARTHER into the loose dirt of the cliff and gripped a scraggly salal bush. The cell phone had landed on an outcrop a full meter away, beyond a patch of tall, yellowing grass. Western fescue. Slippery stuff, this late in the year. My right foot dangled above a large rock, slick with Oregon moss. A seagull shrieked far below, wheeling over the ocean. Don’t look down. I eased onto the inner edge of the rock, shifting my weight off my aching left leg.
“Mike! Have you got it yet?” Darren’s voice drifted down the tattered edge of Lovat’s Bluff far above me. Trust a salesman to say my name when there were only the two of us on the island.
The wind tugged at my shirt and dead leaves whirled past me then were whisked away toward Alaska, several hundred kilometers to the north. I carefully put my foot in the divot the rock had left behind, and stretched across the grassy vertical slope, pretending I was thirty years old, not sixty. I snagged the cell phone and shoved it in my jeans.
My arm muscles were trembling with fatigue by the time I hauled myself over top of the cliff. I gripped a near-horizontal arbutus bole and staggered to my feet before handing Darren the phone. He danced around me, his filthy dress shirt neatly tucked into his pinstriped pants and his hair smoothed in place, chattering away—something about the phone and the photos on it.
I tuned him out and looked out over the ocean. A few small islands, green hummocks dotting the grey white-capped sea, then nothing—all the way to Japan. I’d bought my little bit of paradise three decades ago: a cabin and five acres of second-growth Douglas fir—just prior to the remainder of the island being legislated as a provincial park. Long before everything went to hell.
Darren was still caressing the phone’s buttons like he was stroking a rosary. He looked sheepish. “Mike, you know I would have tried to go down the cliff myself.”
“Sure, kid, you could have—before.”
Darren still had fluid in his lungs and some muscle loss. The supernovovirus had hit him hard and there had been days when I thought he wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t think most Canadians had. Probably. Or Americans. Maybe. The whole world might be gone. Possibly. All I knew is a month ago, when CBC radio had gone silent and Air Canada stopped leaving contrails overhead, things must have gotten bad out there.
Just my luck. To be alone on a tiny island with a scrawny ex-insurance agent who couldn’t tell blackberry from skunk cabbage, didn’t know how to cut wood, and valued that stupid thing called social interaction.
I slapped down my cards. “Gin.”
“No, it isn’t.” Darren snapped out of his reverie and studied my hand. “Cheater.”
“Just wanting to see if you were paying attention.” I smiled a thin smile, the only kind I knew how to do these days, and stretched my legs out under the kitchen table. Darren scooted his chair back a bit and put his feet on the chair rungs. He knew he crowded up my cabin.
I’d gradually been turning the cedar-sided bungalow into my retirement home, every holiday I could spare from my plumbing business in Vancouver. From where I sat I could feel the heat radiating from my nicely restored Selkirk woodstove. It squatted in the middle of the west wall, framed by two big curtainless windows overlooking the cove. A fir-plank coffee table and a very comfortable sofa, where Darren now slept, faced the stove’s glass door. Behind me a small galley-style kitchen, now almost useless without propane, opened out to a wood porch. A short hallway led to my bedroom, my sanctuary from Darren.
“You know I ain’t much for card games. We could be reading something if you charged a couple of batteries for the LED lamps instead of your phone.” Darren’s palm-sized solar-powered phone charger had been a Christmas gift from his girlfriend. She’d put it in his briefcase when he’d left that day: the day his plane had gone down in the storm. She’d been in Toronto when the bombs hit. He never mentioned her to me after that first time but sometimes I heard him sobbing in the night.
“Maybe we could capture the methane in the outhouse and use it to run the generator so we could try the radio?”
“Yeah, good idea, Darren. And then we could MacGyver the old log splitter into a submarine and go south to Mexico.”
“Hey, be nice to me. I’m pretty vulnerable right now.” He rubbed his forehead and snuffled a bit.
The fire was almost coals again. I got up and added some rather green fir, putting in a handful of paper just to give it a boost. The rain spattered on the south window and a sudden huge gust of wind made smoke billow out just as I closed the woodstove door. The weather was growing more and more unpredictable. Maybe because of the quake, or the European bombings, or the slow ebb and flow of climate change. I’d given up trying to list all the events that had led up to the world going silent—a sort of perfect storm that Darren had named “The Wipe.”
“Mike, what were you going to do all day, living here, if things had worked out?” Darren bit his lip and leaned forward. “I really want to know.”
“It would have been peachy keen, buddy, peachy keen. No throngs of irritating whiners, no lowlifes, no waiting in line at the grocery store, no mowing a lawn. Civilization sucks. It would have been heaven.”
“Would have been?” Darren pounced on the words.
Eventually, there would be no white sugar, no flour, no milk powder. What would I do when the soda crackers ran out? Why hadn’t I worked a bit harder, earlier, faster, to make this place self-sufficient? A dozen things needed to be done, but without tools and basic supplies and, most importantly, without power, they would be almost impossible. I’d had twenty solar panels, an inverter, and AGM batteries all on order from a Vancouver supplier. I’d planned to pick them up five weeks ago, right when the quarantines were announced. A week or so before the huge storm that had ripped both of my boats off their moorings and had blown Darren’s seaplane off course.
Darren’s cell phone chimed as I crossed the tiny living room. He grabbed it.
“It’s an incoming text,” Darren said in a funny voice and he bit his lip again. He sat down, rocking his chair a bit.
“You’re shitting me.” I tried to peer at the tiny screen but couldn’t see a thing from across the room. The cell phone towers had lasted a couple of days after the commercial radio stations had died, during my final weekend visit here. My land line had died a week or so after that. I’d spent a full day phoning every number I knew and listening to silence or endless, unanswered ringing.
Darren’s sweat smelled raw and new. This was for real.
“I’ve got half a bar of signal. And a text message,” Darren said. He gently tapped the screen.
ANYONE OUT THERE? TEXT BACK AT DUSK EACH DAY. MARIE PROULX.
Darren read it slowly out loud, again and again, until his voice was hoarse, long after the cell signal had disappeared. My bum knee had begun aching from the unaccustomed climb today, and I’d finally sat back down.
“Time for a beer,” I announced and got two from the stash under the sink. “After all, if we’re not the last two people on Earth, this might not be the only remaining six pack.” I popped the caps off the Big Rock bottles and set them down on the kitchen table.
“Marie Proulx.” Darren said, as if that was the most significant part of the message.
“The name rings a bell but I can’t place it.” I savored the bitter taste of the dark ale on my tongue.
“Yeah, you probably read about her in the news, the billionaire real estate woman who had her fingers in all sorts of Vancouver projects. A real venture capitalist. If anyone can save the world, she can.”
“But a cell phone message?” I tried to think it through. “It’s a big operation to run the things, isn’t it? Generators, power plants, towers ...” This was one subject where Darren might actually know more than me.
“There’re these things called COWs, cell-on-wheels, like portable cell towers. I saw them at a concert once. Solar panels could be enough to power them. Maybe.” He picked at the label on his bottle.
“But could the signal reach all the way from Vancouver?”
“Let’s see. It’s, what, about sixty kilometers? I seem to recall the range of the COWs was about thirty-five kilometers.”
“And even if she got a tower up and running, why direct it this way? There’s no one on these islands, never has been.” Which is exactly why I’d chosen to retire here.
“Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense but it’s pretty awesome that she’s done it.” Darren put down his beer, still almost full. His eyes were shiny with emotion.
I drained my bottle and stood up. “Tomorrow, we’re gonna work on those gutters. And we want to get the water barrels hooked up better before the late winter rains come. Carry us through the summer droughts.”
“What?” Darren looked up at me, his voice shaky. “No. No, we need to build a glider or something. There’s people out there. We need to—”
I cut him off. “You’re forgetting something, Darren. I chose to be here. I bought this place with the intention of becoming self-sufficient. Off-grid. Technology’s a trap. The world was a house of cards waiting to fall.”
“Don’t BS me, Mike.” Darren was breathing heavily. He picked up the bottle opener and pointed it at me. “You’re not self-sufficient when you need seeds, axes, water filters, a hundred things. You’re not self-sufficient when the crops rot in the fields due to all this rain. Tell me, what you going to do when your shoes wear out?”
I kept my mouth closed. I had lists. Lists of seeds, tools, clothing, redundancy upon redundancy. If I’d stocked up, like I’d planned, it would have been enough. Enough for my lifetime anyway.
And I didn’t care about anything beyond that.
I put both hands on the table. “This doesn’t change anything. My two boats are gone. Even if we had them, we don’t have any fuel. We don’t have a sailboat. If we did, we don’t have any sailcloth. Since the quake, the tides are a meter higher than they used to be and the water in the strait is plain vicious.” I pounded it home. “Anyhow, that text could just be a hoax.”
“Bullshit! You just don’t want to admit that there may be people out there. You’d rather they all died.” Darren stabbed the bottle opener into the table so hard it gouged the surface.
I closed my bedroom door behind me and let the wind drown out his shouting. Stupid bugger. I should have told him to leave on his own, that the trip would be a piece of cake.
He wouldn’t make it but, that way, I could have some peace and quiet.
I heard the flapping before I entered the clearing. Like a hundred scoters taking off from the water or like a sailboat facing into the wind. I knew almost every inch of the island, from the new, higher shoreline to the marshy lake in the middle to the eagle’s nest at the top of Lovat’s Bluff. I was going as silently as I knew, down a well-used deer trail, rifle at the ready. Taking a buck would still leave a good sustainable population and fresh venison would be a treat. First, though, this fluttering noise. I stepped over a pile of fresh deer scat and edged around a huge Douglas fir.
An enormous rotting log, as high as my waist, dominated the clearing. A few stubby branches jutted up past leathery-leaved salal. On the far side, a white sheet billowed and snapped like a boat sail, high up near the crown of a cedar. I leaned my rifle against the log, the butt in a brown sludge of disintegrating maple leaves. Over the log and through some blackberries that tore at my jacket. The sheet was made of long narrow wedges of a thin synthetic material.
Like a parachute.
“Hello?” I called out, picturing a helmeted person impaled in the canopy far above me. Surely I would’ve heard a plane?
Only a varied thrush answered me.
I jumped up and grabbed the parachute, if that’s what it was. Even if nothing was attached, I could always use another tarpaulin for the woodpile.
There was far more material than I could carry. And it wasn’t a circle, like a parachute would be shaped, but more like a bag, a symmetrical bag.
It was a balloon. A large, rubbery balloon.
A corner of a something metal poked out of the shrouds at the base of the cedar. I dropped the bundle of material and reached through a clump of late-season stinging nettles. The sealed metal box was about the size of a large suitcase but triangular and too heavy to carry far.
Darren needed to come see this.
“It’s just over the next rise, almost to Lovat’s Bluff. It’s probably an old weather balloon or something,” I said, shortcutting through a dense patch of salal. Darren jogged behind me, winded but managing to keep up. I used the crowbar like a machete, knocking honeysuckle vines and other irritants out of the way.
“Slow down, Mike, it’s not going anywhere.” Darren stopped, bending over and putting his hands on his knees.
I grunted. He was right. Why was I so fired up about this? In fact, if I thought about it, I felt invaded. You’d think, at the end of the world, the hordes would cease intruding.
The casing on the triangular box came off with the first wrench of the crowbar. Inside were a battery and a tangle of wires and some other things I didn’t recognize.
I moved aside so Darren could see. “What do you make of it?”
“Well, it’s not a weather balloon, there’re no instruments.”
Oh. Right. I really was rattled or I’d have seen that.
“You know what? Mike?” Darren paused and looked at me. I stared back until he caved.
“I think it’s a cell tower. Like, a portable one. Launched like a weather balloon. Hell, it may even be modified from one.” He started talking faster. “Think about it. The balloon would go up thousands of feet. That would extend the cell reception range for miles, it would pass on a signal better than a tower. It’d be awesome!”
“Until the battery ran out.” I kicked the metal box. The battery was a tiny little thing.
“Yeah. This must be a few days old. Marie must be launching one each day. Hey! That’s why she said to respond at dusk! That’s when there might be a signal!” He jerked his head up to look at the cloud-blurred sun. It was just touching the tips of the tallest firs. “We gotta head for Lovat’s Bluff! That’ll be the best reception! Quick!”
I didn’t want another jog through the brush, especially toward a cliff top in the dark. I didn’t want to go without dinner. And I didn’t want to get home to a cold house.
I looked at his retreating figure, kicked the box one more time, and turned the other way toward home.
The rain started right after I’d gotten back to the cabin. When Darren came in, I realized I’d been staring at the black rectangle of the living window for quite a while.
The firelight made his face seem more gaunt, older, but his eyes were bright. He sank into the far end of the sofa.
He grinned at me.
“Mike, I texted back and forth with them! Like, five or six times! Here, read all the texts!” He thrust the phone at me.
“Just give me the Reader’s Digest version,” I said. Whatever he’d found out, it wouldn’t change anything.
“Marie is alive. She’s got a team of about ten people, all techy types. The balloon thing we found is a portable cell tower with a range of about a hundred klicks. She was trying to send them inland where more people might be but the wind, you know, it’s always from the southeast these days.”
“And she just happened to have your number?” The fire had some handsome flames, putting on a show, all orangey and golden.
“She was sequentially dialling and texting that new area code that my phone uses, two-three-six? And she started with my exchange, you know, the first three numbers? The ones that fresh accounts are currently assigned to? That way, it would reach the newer handsets.”
That almost made sense. It was how I might have done it. With automated equipment, it wouldn’t take too long. Anyhow, it made a good story for a rainy night.
“She’s asking every survivor she reaches to come to the university campus in Vancouver. She figures that if we all got through the flu this far, we’re immune or it’s mutated into a weaker form or something. One of her team is a professor, an epidemiologist.” He stumbled over the last word. I got up and poured him a cup of herbal tea from the pot on the stove, adding a scant teaspoon of sugar from my stockpile.
“Thanks, Mike.” He took a sip even though it was scalding. “She’s trying all the ways she can think of to contact people, ham radio, land lines, even flares and fireworks. And these floating cell towers, as she calls them. Of course, even if people out there have cells, very few of them are keeping them charged.” He looked up at me from under his eyebrows, waiting for a compliment.
“Huh.” I got out my knife and a baggie of hawthorns. I began scarifying them, readying them for planting tomorrow. In ten years or so, I’d have a small grove of them. Crataegus monogyna: not strictly native but naturalized enough that I figured it wouldn’t upset the wetland ecosystem down by the well. Alright for eating, plus a good source of ax handles.
“I told her we were coming.” Darren put down his cup. “I told her we’d find a route. Build a sailboat. Find a way.”
“Listen,” I said, scraping a jagged cross on the blossom end of the small apple-like fruit. “Even if you got across the strait, there’s the mountains on the coast. There’d be a long, long journey ahead.”
He snorted. “You’re not thinking outside your tiny little box. Why can’t we fix the balloon and fill it with, I don’t know, propane?”
“You kidding? Do you know anything about anything? The flammability ...” I took a breath. I didn’t even have to get technical to make him understand. “The balloon is only three meters in diameter. It can’t lift more than a few kilos. And we only have the propane left in this lantern.” I threw down my knife and picked up the lantern by its wire handle, nearly burning my fingers, and waved it, sending wild shadows arcing over the shelves and their jumble of books and papers.
The rolled-up topo map was just where I remembered it. I spread it on the coffee table, using hawthorns as weights in the corners.
“You’d land here.” I jabbed with my knife at the green-colored British Columbia shoreline right where the contour lines crowded together.
“Big deal! We get there and then we can hike to Vancouver,” Darren said, too tired for his usual politeness.
“Okay, look at these elevations. Some of the ruggedest terrain in the world. Never had a highway because it’s a jumble of mountains. About a hundred and fifty kilometers of steep, steep rainforest.” My knife creased a line down the map, almost cutting through. “It’s not gonna happen. We’re better off staying here.” I sat back and folded my knife.
“Here? So we can grow old and die?” He was practically sputtering.
“Drink your tea, Darren. What would you do in Vancouver anyway? For that matter, what would you be doing if the Wipe hadn’t happened?” I pointed the knife handle at him. “Grow old and die, that’s what. That’s what life is for.”
“Old man, you can rot here. I’m heading out in the morning.” He lurched to his feet.
“Get us some firewood, there’s a good lad.”
He banged the cabin door so hard books fell off the shelves.
Darren was still there the next morning, huddled on the sofa, my old quilt wrapped around him. He had big circles under his eyes and his hair stood up in awkward tufts. A square red patch covered the knee of his now-dry suit pants, one of my old handkerchiefs. The stitches were precise and stitched as evenly as a machine would do it. It had probably taken him all night.
I put down the tool belt I was carrying. “Want to give me a hand with the gutters? A rush job before the rains come. You know the expression hurry up and wait? That’s how most chores are out here.”
Winter on the island used to be a joy. Lashing storms and howling winds are harmless and fun when you’re in a cozy cabin with a good book. This year, when each piece of firewood had to be sawn by hand, when each bite of bread meant there was less flour in the bin, it was like the cabin itself was cringing when the rain beat at the windows and flooded over the roof like an endless, spiteful river.
Late January, it was cold enough to see my breath by dusk, cold enough for the rain to hurt when it hit. The drops thundered against my hood when I went out to fetch firewood before it was completely dark.
I stood in the driveway for a while, watching streams of water flow over the sparse gravel, forming deltas and islands, shaping the silt into patterns that blended and changed every minute. I’d got what I wanted, hadn’t I? The world was leaving me alone. So, what was my problem? Darren finally stuck his head out of the door and waved the lantern at me through the sheets of rain, like some kind of skinny worried lighthouse keeper.
Spring came, right on schedule. I was a bit surprised, in spite of myself, to see crocuses perk up the scraggly grass in the front yard and vanilla leaf lay its carpet along the creek bank. Winter had been a trial. We’d lost a few treetops on the Bluff, the crowns battered right off in the violence of the wind. A heart-stopping whump had woken us one night when an old growth fir had blown down, kissed the cabin roof, and smashed the kitchen porch. Darren took over the gardening, such as it was, and the baking, too. He was a surprisingly good cook. And I’d taught him to whittle. Once, I caught him leafing through my battered copy of Walden Pond. He rarely bothered to charge up the cell phone any more. The maps gathered dust on the shelf and our talk was mainly food and weather.
One particularly warm March day, I went down the shore trail to what was left of the dock. The thick planking had taken a beating in January and listed badly to one side. We’d spent a long day dismantling the kitchen porch, salvaging most of the wood, straightening the bent nails and I wanted to soak up the very welcome sunshine. I sat against a post, resting my sore knees, and admired the rocky shoreline and brilliant blue ocean. I’d bet it hadn’t changed much in a thousand years.
“Cup of tea?”
I opened my eyes. I must have dozed off. Darren handed me the Perrier bottle full of cold yerba tea and sat, dangling his legs over the edge. He never liked it down here. I guess it reminded him of his plane crash. The storm had knocked the little Cessna into the sea like it was swatting a bug. His pilot had been killed instantly, the plane sunk a half a klick offshore and Darren had floated around for a while, clinging to his metal briefcase as it bobbed on the waves. He’d kind of come in with the tide, clutching the case against his chest.
“Thanks.” I took a long slug of tea and watched an otter bobbing just off shore. It was unusual to see one by itself. Now that was an animal perfectly adapted to its environment. A little sun, a little fish, and it had a happy life.
“Think we salvaged enough boards for a root cellar?” Darren squinted at me and brushed his hair out of his eyes. He’d taken to tying it back into a stubby ponytail. I studied him for a minute. His sharp cheekbones caught the sun and his forearms below his raggedy rolled-up shirtsleeves were hard, the tendons taut above his scratched and dirty hands. No one would recognize him as an insurance agent now.
“You were right.” I said, using the little speech I’d been rehearsing for a week or two. “We need to leave. Me choosing to be here is one thing. Stagnating here against our will is another.”
“Leave? Where? To Vancouver?” Darren shifted on the rough boards. “But there hasn’t been another text message. No more balloons. Nothing.” He swung his feet back and forth. “You know they’re probably all dead.”
“We don’t know that. We need to check it out.” I swallowed the last of the tea and replaced the cap on the bottle.
“No. We don’t.” Darren shrugged. “I’ve adjusted. We can make it here. We are making it here.” After a minute: “Why the change of heart?”
“I think I’ve adjusted too. I spent years wanting to be self-sufficient, wanting to blow off humanity.” I paused. “I was wrong. I need people, whether I like it or not.”
“So, I want to stay and you want to go. Kind of ironic.” He elbowed me and laughed.
“You know what my tipping point was?” I let out a grin. “I used the last of the toilet paper this morning.”
“Funny guy. Anyway, even if you got me to agree, how would we get there? Can’t swim, can’t sail, can’t fly. There ain’t no way.” He put his hands flat behind him and leaned back so his face caught the sun. The otter dived, surfaced, and dived again.
“The boards from the porch, the old nails, some plans from a book I have, and a whole lot of swearing, that’s how. Low tech wins the day. I build a little dinghy and some oars. It’ll get us across the strait, then maybe we can baby it down the coastline for a bit. Might not have to hike through the mountains at all.”
“Those dried up, splintery boards? They won’t bend worth a damn. And waterproofed with what? Seagull spit?” His laugh was more of a bark.
“Son, it’s for real. We’re gonna do this.”
“You, who never commits to anything?”
“Yeah, me.” I grinned again. It felt good.
“It seems kind of all or nothing. You’re sure a rowboat’ll work?”
“Not sure at all. But I know we have to try. Build the boat and wait for a weather window.”
“Hurry up and wait, eh?” Darren twisted his mouth. This was the point in my speech where I thought he might be cartwheeling down the dock. Guess he had changed.
He kept silent so I added, “There’re patterns that use flat boards. We’ve got two cans of contact cement to seal the hull with. If we layer on pieces of the balloon fabric I think it will work. We can do this, son.” I tried to read his body language.
“Well, at least it won’t be right away. I’ve got some cattail roots drying for flour. If I don’t keep turning them over each day, they’ll go moldy.” He picked a splinter out of the dock and threw it in the water.
“Well, yeah, but it shouldn’t take all that long. I’ve simplified one of the book’s plans—”
He lifted a hand and gave me a lopsided smile. “Okay, sure, fine. You go ahead. I’ll be here when you get back.”
The otter swam away, heading back to its companions.
We both watched the ripples spread out behind the otter, travel to the dock, and lap up against the pilings beneath our feet.
Holly Schofield has been published in “AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review” and in the forthcoming anthology, “Oomph: A Little Super Goes A Long Way.” She plans to save the world with science fiction stories and home-grown heritage tomatoes.