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.
Charlie’s class mills about the school bus. It’s Keep Wississauga Clean day, the last day of school, and they’ve been bussed out to the riverfront park. The cool kids giggle as Ms. Kiddell passes out garbage bags. Charlie doesn’t get what’s so funny. She takes her bag, emblazoned with the logo of the phone company. She puts on the plastic gloves, provided courtesy of the local pizza chain. Charlie quickly separates herself from the group. She moves off toward the river where the wind blows cardboard coffee cups into the weeds that line the bank. She can feel the other kids looking at her, then turning away. Well, so what?
She doesn’t care what they think.
It’s been strange, this spring turning into summer observed mostly from the confines of her room. Her parents are taking turns coming home early. They watch her carefully. She can be alone, but never actually alone. Charlie’s dad had a new security system installed. It sounds an alarm whenever Charlie opens her window. To keep her in, or him out? She sits in her room and stares out into the falling night. Where is he? Will they ever find him? She doubts they’re even looking. She hadn’t told them much. Or anything, really. She just sat there, arms crossed, watching them, silently playing the role of little girl victim. Should she look for him? She pictures him in the gully, skinny and boyish, permanently lost under the hot asphalt of the new expressway. Where would she look for him?
On Saturdays, her mother takes her to the library. She reads books about world wars, palaeontology, ontology. She borrows DVDs of old black and white movies, luminescent actors swaddled in elegance breaking into song at the slightest provocation. And so the spring is going, quickly and yet slowly, too, the season hurtling past even as the days move with near intolerable lassitude, dun sun hanging in the sky, air conditioner cycling on and off, world wars blurring into theories of being and nothingness.
Another month of school left. Actually, Charlie doesn’t mind school that much anymore. The kids are just as cruel and vapid, but Charlie is no longer affected by their rolled eyes, disgusted grimaces and abrupt silences. She’s still getting used it—the feeling of not caring. They can say what they want. Charlie blinks up at the sky then looks back at the group. It’s warm out and Katie Mills sports a short white skirt and tight pink T-shirt. Her bare legs are somehow already tanned golden. Charlie pulls garbage out of the weeds—cups, cans, bottles, take-out containers. Why so much garbage? The cool kids will spend their summers at camps and cottages and tours of Europe. They’ll go swimming, canoeing, sailing, horseback riding, waterskiing. Charlie’s not jealous. She’ll do things too. Next year, she’ll start high school. Only three more years until she goes to college. In the city, she thinks.
Lost in thought and the act of pulling a cracked Starbucks Frappuccino cup out of the thorned limbs of scraggly bush, Charlie doesn’t notice him. He has his head down too, walking hunched over, assiduously filling his bag.
They bump hips.
Sorry, Charlie says quietly.
The new kid looks up at her. Actually, he joined the class in January, but everybody still calls him the new kid.
New kid’s wearing dress pants that he has to keep hitching up because they’re too big for him. And a dark blue turtleneck, despite the weather. And brand new shiny black running shoes lacking swoosh or any other kind of identifiable marker.
Yes I am sorry, the boy says in response, furrowing the pale brow below his nearly shaved brown hair. His accent is thick, Russian or something like that.
It’s the first time she’s heard him speak. It’s the first time anyone has talked to him. The new kid has cobalt blue eyes. He stares at her.
They gather garbage. They are near enough to each other to know, now, that they are working together. Charlie gets her bag caught on a branch. The new boy pulls it off for her. Charlie nods thank you, snares a mustard-encrusted napkin.
Slowly they follow a trail of detritus toward the grassy centre of the park. They ignore the background noise, the other kids long since settled into a prolonged loiter, randomly shrieking insults and, when Ms. Kiddell isn’t looking, feverishly fingering their smart phones.
At the park’s centre, they bump hands while both reaching for a crushed cigarette pack sitting on the base of a commemorative plaque nobody seems in a hurry to read. They look up. Shyly, they ponder each other.
What’s your name? Charlie asks. Even the teacher just calls him the new kid.
New kid hitches up his smooth, tan polyester pants. My name is Roman, he says.
Oh, Charlie says. Like the ancient Romans?
The boy smiles, shrugs.
My name is Charlie.
Ah, the new kid says. Char-lee. He frowns, confused.
Charlie’s a boy’s name, Charlie offers.
The boy nods regretfully.
They stand there awkwardly, looking at the grass, at the sky, at their feet. Charlie scans the plaque. in memory of rose mccallion. Hey! she cries. I knew her.
You. Know. Her . . . ? the new kid repeats slowly.
I knew her. She was at the rest of home we visited. Remember? In the Spring? Her name was Rose and she was the oldest lady in Wississauga.
The boy carefully scans the plaque.
She died, I guess, Charlie offers.
She was one hundred years and four years old, the new kid confirms.
Yeah, Charlie agrees.
She was very wise? the new kid suggests.
I guess, Charlie says.
Roman nods thoughtfully.
Ms. Kiddell claps her hands and yells something about the bus.
Together, the two of them head over to the parking lot, bulging bags of garbage bouncing against their knees.
This was an excerpt from The Archaeologists, to be published by ARP books in fall, 2016.