The Fiction

The Archaeologists, Chapter 8

Susan—Friday, April 11th.

Published On-Line, May 20, 2016

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This chapter is part of the ongoing serialization of The Archaeologists, the new novel by Hal Niedzviecki, to be published by ARP Books in fall, 2016. The Archaeologists is being serialized in its entirety from April to October, with chapters appearing on a rotating basis on the Web sites of five magazines. View the schedule with links to previous/upcoming chapters, and find out more about the book.

Susan Proudfeather watches through a dirty window as the bus crawls up Hurontarion toward the Middle Mall. Outside is overcast and distant, a crowded rush-hour scene framed by bumper-to-bumper traffic and adorned with a low grey sky. Inside, there are the inescapable confines of the bus slowly pressing in on her: the wheeze of air vents, the sickly surges forward, the pulling whine of brakes. A baby cries over the faint murmur of her mother. Somewhere behind her, a man snores loudly. Susan’s fingers twine around the off-white cord of her headphones, no longer attached to the iPod that lost power somewhere around Thunder Bay. Keep still, she tells herself, trying to repress the surges of anxiety jolting through her heavy limbs. Abruptly, Susan draws a deep breath and exhales. It’s okay, she tells herself. You’re almost there.

This image—of the end to the endlessness—doesn’t help. She imagines disgorging into the bowels of the sprawling Middle Mall, still trailed by pale flickering light the colour of exhaust and overwhelmed antiseptic, colours seeping into smells, her senses dulled and rendered pointless. The whole scene fraught with the same sapping melancholy she’s been struggling to leave behind since departing the far coast five days ago. Five days on a bus, Susan thinks. That will do things to you.

But that’s not it. Not all of it. Shane came to see her off. He’d wanted her to stay. Suggested that they set up together in a squat he knew of, Downtown Eastside, of course, rough but roomy, he joked—and rent-free! He smiled his I’m-broke-but-who-cares broken grin, and Susan couldn’t help but smile back. She’d told him all along that she wouldn’t be staying, that she wasn’t looking for a long-term thing. Of course he hadn’t believed her. She’d seen it enough times to know how it was going to play out. What she said wasn’t taken at face value, was seen as some kind of protective mechanism, a default masking of her inner vulnerability. Eventually, thought whichever man she was bedding at the moment, she’d let down her guard, let him scale the perfectly understandable wall and saunter into the inner sanctum where he’d find the girl who really did need a man, even if she didn’t want to admit it.

Only, this time, maybe Shane really had known what she needed. Like the song goes, Susan thinks bitterly: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Shane, inexhaustible optimist despite being a refugee from the flat apathetic middle of a big apathetic country. Shane, whose Cree mother still lived on a reservation “back home,” as he put it, and whose white father had long since absented himself. In the months out West attending the endless series of protests, meetings, hearings, and—hardest of all—depositions of the families of the dead and missing women, Shane had been her solace. She could still feel his lean chest against hers, his rough palms—hardened by years of tree planting and casual construction work—running over her body. Not to mention his quick wit, his refusal to believe that things couldn’t be helped, his encyclopedic knowledge of the people’s struggles all over the world. And of course his smile, so big and bright—too big and bright.

So she missed him and she didn’t want to miss him. But that’s not it either, she impatiently tells herself. She’d been out West for almost a year. The government had finally caved, a commission announced, her group’s depositions and files submitted to the courts and entered into the permanent record. She’d racked her brains and talked endlessly with Shane and the rest of the ad hoc collective—what else could they do? They couldn’t find them. No one can find the dead. Sitting in meetings, twirling her finger in a paper cup of weak lukewarm coffee, she’d begun to feel that familiar swirling restlessness: knock back your drink, read the grounds, what’s left at the bottom, auger up the future, keep moving toward whatever’s coming next. You’re a restless soul. She’d heard that more than once. Most recently, May, a woman she’d met—the cousin of one of the disappeared—took her to meet her aunt, a shriveled elder living alone in a tiny house several long bus rides away and out of the glittering emerald pacific city. May’s aunt gave them tomato soup and, eventually, took Susan’s hand, looked into her face at length, and said kindly through gummy lips, Where’s your place girl? May—face pockmarked by hard living, lover of heavy metal and loud powwows—had burst out laughing. She doesn’t have a place auntie! Susan’s cheeks had burned, from shame and revelation.

The bus jolts to a stop for a red light. Left lane, one last turn, and she’s back. This is your place. She knows how it looks. Like she’s failed. Like she’s coming crawling back. The strange doppelganger irony of it—her journey ending the same way so many of the girls and women started and ended theirs. Debbie, 19, last seen boarding the Greyhound bus to Lethbridge to stay with her best friend. No record of arrival. Eden, 26, boarded a bus to Surrey to visit her second cousin. No record of arrival. Dakota, 16, boarded a bus to Prince Rupert, was asked to leave the bus due to erratic, possibly drug-induced, behaviour. Last seen hitchhiking the Yellowhead Highway on a grainy afternoon gone prematurely dark. No record of arrival.

Of course, she’s not like them. She’s not running away. She’s not setting out into the night hoping against reason for a new chance, a new life magically free of centuries of genocide, institutional racism, and a legacy of poverty and addiction. She isn’t ruled by fear. She has, as a point of principle, always refused to be. Look at all the people in the world who live without jobs, without knowing where their next meal will come from, whose pension is a couple of crumpled bills and a handful of rattling coins dropped in a jar. But even with everything we have, she thinks, we are afraid. It’s an addiction, the desire to control our surroundings, to know where we’re going before we even get there. Where is she going? She never could get used to the misty wet weather of the Northwest Pacific winter; a feeling in her bones—time to go. Over the last few months of meetings and report writing culminating in that final Pyrrhic victory, snapshot images kept flashing in her mind: her old school—Columbus High; the ravine where they gathered on a Saturday night to pass around a bottle and a joint; the sprawling suburban colonial with its wall-papered walls and wall-to-wall carpeting, the ’80s haven she grew up in. There was nothing particularly notable about the images, the fleeting flashes of memory, except they repeated themselves with exponential intensity, seeped into her dreams and filled her with a sense of dread and foreboding. Eventually, she accepted it—something was pulling at her, pulling her East, pulling her home, of all places. Home. Or, at least, the place where she grew up. It was here where she came of age, where she fought and railed against her parents, her school and its stupid teachers, where she eventually drove away her few friends with her insistence on endlessly chronicling the evils of the Western world in general and the Wississaugan way of life in particular.

The bus lurches into that final left turn and moves down the ramp into its underground arrival point. Susan feels her stomach sink as they descend. This, she thinks, this is it.

Susan twists and untwists the tangled headphone cord around her fingers. She’s here, she tells herself, so that’s where she’s meant to be. Goodbye Shane. Goodbye vistas of mountains and towering cedars and tall buildings glittering in the mist. Goodbye parks blighted by needles, goodbye homeless addicts panhandling outside the EL, goodbye Eden and Debbie and Dakota, missing, lost, presumed dead—women written off almost before they were born. The bus ticket cost about a tenth of the total sitting in her credit union account. When the time finally came, she hadn’t hesitated. She never did. She’d bought the ticket, promised Shane she’d keep in touch, and climbed on board.

Her father picks her up at the station. He’s fashionably dressed, as always, in a sleek-fitting tan sports jacket and brown slacks. He’s greyer than when she last saw him—more than a year ago—but still trim and vital. He hugs her, his handsome face crinkling into a smile and she leans into him, her head on his shoulder. She feels herself relax for the first time since she clambered on board the first bus.

Susie, his father breathes in her ear.

They separate after a moment and she follows him through the underground parking lot to his car, a ruby red, leather-embossed Honda she hasn’t seen before and doesn’t remark on.

Thanks for coming to get me, Dad, Susan says as they coast smoothly out of the parking lot and onto the main drag. She fingers the automatic window opener and, unable to resist, rolls the window all the way down, letting the cold air wash over her face.

Of course, her father says. It’s great to see you.

You too, Dad.

They drive in silence for a few stoplights before her dad asks, Are you hungry? Should we stop for something?

Susan, who had eaten the last of her trail mix twelve hours back and had been unable to bring herself to buy any of the items they passed off as food at the suffusion of smoke break rest stop donut and burger joints that marked the final stage of the journey, nods. Let’s do that, Dad, she says softly. She sees his hand on the gearshift. It looks smaller than she remembers. She covers his hand with her own palm.

Over their meal—a large kale, strawberry, and pecan salad for Susan, curried butternut squash soup of the day for her dad—her father tells her about the educational cruise he’s about to take with his girlfriend. The boat, apparently, comes equipped with experts on everything from marine life to the local tribal culture. He chatters on, delicately avoiding the series of questions her parents inevitably and eventually put to her. The same questions over and over again ever since she’d dropped out of university a decade ago in the middle of her junior year. She’d helped organize her campus’s contribution to a massive rally, a protest against world leaders gathering to ratify yet another secretive agreement meant, Susan had come to realize, to further codify the systematic denial of the vast majority of people on the planet the basics needed for human dignity and liberty. She hadn’t actually meant to drop out. She’d woken up in a sleeping bag on the floor of someone’s flat in Quebec City, her eyes still oozing stinging tear gas ether and her mind reeling with images from the protest the police had seemed determined to turn violent. Her friends and accomplices had been clubbed, gassed, hauled off. Susan had been stunned. She was due back at school the next day. School! Her joint degree in women’s and native studies overseen by a gaggle of fussy professors with a collective fetish for social justice and historical grievances—talking talking talking while the world quite literally burned to the ground.

Her father had taken the departure from school in stride. Susan, at the time, had the feeling that he even supported her. But as the days turned into years, her dad fell silent in the face of her mother’s ardent disapproval—all this activism and caring is great, honey, but what about a career? What about settling down? Have you met anyone special, honey? How are you for money, dear? Taking care of number one, Susan thinks. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Hobby liberalism, token concern.

Are you still hungry? her father asks as Susan stabs the flecks of green at the bottom of her bowl. She’s avoiding looking at him, doesn’t want to give him an opening, doesn’t want to have to see the worry in his face. She’s skinny and her clothes are faded and rumpled and hanging off her, and she smells like stale sweat and bus bathroom and itinerant cigarette exhale. She looks older, she knows. She’s felt herself age this last year, her face etched beyond its thirty-three years, her pale orange hair starting to grey. So what can she tell him? Is she still hungry? Is she?

Finally, she wills herself to look up. Dad, she says, thanks for—all this. I hope I’m not—I didn’t mean to barge in and—

It’s no problem, he says. It’s been way too long.

She nods, smiling shyly at him.

So…her father says, delicately returning his coffee cup to its saucer. How were things out West? I read about some of it . . . in the papers.

He speaks, now, with a halting tone. Does he really want to know? Before he retired, her father supported causes, lent his graphic design firm’s talents to developing posters for Greenpeace and ads for anti-bullying campaigns. He isn’t bad, Susan tells herself. He asked. So he wants to know.

Dad, it was . . . it’s hard to . . . The plunge she felt in the pit of her stomach as the bus entered the underground parking lot beneath the Middle Mall abruptly returns. Oh! Susan gasps. Feeling the room start to spin, she drops her face in her hands.

Hey, she hears her father say lamely. Are you okay?

Susan isn’t a crier. All that time out West, meeting with the families of the murdered and the disappeared, looking at their fresh-faced pictures, their happy smiles and beaded dresses and glossy pigtails, she didn’t cry, not once. They cried. Susan could not—would not—cry. She didn’t deserve that. Not even in the end. They had cheered the announcement and some had cried. It was what the families wanted—I know she’s not coming back, a pale, grizzled dad had told her during one of the depositions. Clutching a picture of his daughter to his scrawny chest he addressed Susan with righteous intensity. I know that. I just . . . I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. The man had been crying, tears dripping on the snapshot of his little girl. Susan had felt like crying then and several other times, but had been able to push it away. What had they done? What victory had they earned?

I’m…Susan wipes her face with a napkin.

It’s okay, her dad says.

No, Susan says fiercely. It’s not okay.

In the car she apologizes to him. She feels embarrassed now amidst new leather bucket seats and a voice-activated Bluetooth-enabled satellite radio system. Their family has never been expressive. None of them are criers. When her parents split up seven or so years ago, they came to see her. They told her the news, and she’d nodded and murmured bloodlessly: If that’s what you think is best. Susan closes her eyes, leans back against the perfectly firm seat. She’s just so tired.

She barely remembers it happening—her dad leading her into the house she mostly grew up in. Showering in the spare bathroom, then wrapping herself in a plush towel and padding over to her childhood bedroom. Sliding into sheets tinged with a vaguely recognizable scent. Falling instantly asleep.

This was an excerpt from The Archaeologists, to be published by ARP books in fall, 2016.