A short story by Melissa Barbeau
First the bombs. Los Angeles and New York and Caracas and Dubai. A button push later, Beijing and Pyongyang and Delhi and Paris. Or the other way around. Buildings collapse, roads blacken and curl. Tidal waves of radiation. Breakers of ionized air molecules.
The sea of radiation reaches the island but buffeted by thousands of miles and the ancient rocky remains of the rumble tumbled Appalachian Mountain chain, it arrives as only ripples to lick and lap at the City. In other places skin is flayed from the bodies of people and dogs and horses. Hot air balloons and bicycles and airports spontaneously combust. Eyeballs burst like grapes in the microwave. In St. John’s a few song birds – robins and juncos and chickadees – fall from the sky. But the seagulls are unaffected. Crows continue to pick at plastic bags laid at the curb on garbage day. The rats don’t bother to cover their eyes. It will be months before kittens are born with six eyes and more months again before human babies are born with tails. Within days, though, the maggots joyously copulating in downtown takeout restaurant dumpsters will be wriggling in ecstasy as one after another they pop out primitive pairs of feet.
The City is already under attack when the bombs fall. It is steadily conceding to an incursion mounted by two story homes with a quarter acre of land and oak cabinets and three and half baths and a mud room and granite countertops and a front loading washing machine. Homes with ceramic floors in the kitchen and Berber carpet on the stairs and hardwood throughout and in floor heating as if luxury was something to be trodden underfoot.
The sprawl, the Sprawlers, occupy every habitable part of the city proper. Houses spring up at the dump at Robin Hood Bay and on the median in the middle of the Parkway. A shed with a snow blower and a skidoo and an ATV occupies the left turning lane in the middle of Kenmount Road and from there the contagion has spread across the mall parking lot. The Village is razed to accommodate six homes and twelve sheds, a Needs Convenience and an Irving gas station.
Businesses are dislocated to the very edges of the City, to the Ring Road and the Waterfront. Pipers Department Store bobs on a converted supply ship. Convenience store vendors push lottery tickets and cigarettes through the security fence on the apron of the harbour wharf. The liquor store operates out of the former Port Authority building and Goodlife Fitness occupies the parking spot once claimed by Ziggy Peelgood’s chip truck. The Metrobus is nowhere to be seen but taxi cabs concede not an inch and continue to buzz angry as hornets along George and Water, flying off to Paradise or Mount Pearl if disturbed before returning to idle and hum under their breath back at the nest.
There are few reports from the outside world in the days after the bombs. The news is local and gossipy. OZFM and NTV and the Newfoundland Herald head into the woods past Middle Cove but VOCM relocates its station to the newly rediscovered Lyubov Orlova; the ship has blown back into the harbour on radiated trade winds. The broadcast booth is situated on the bridge of the ship, overlooking Signal Hill and the Narrows. From the broadcast chair you can see the sea glowing Kool-Aid blue. Paddy is taking calls.
– Is that you Paddy?
– It is, Caller.
– Long time listener, Paddy. First time caller.
– Great to hear from you, Caller. And what can I do for you on this fine orange evening?
Gulls squawk outside the window of the bridge/broadcast booth. They perch on the rusted railing and take turns falling out of view as if they are stepping off the edge of the earth.
– What’s on my mind is this, Paddy. I know everyone is tied up in knots worrying about the boys getting the ferry in and Costco running out of toilet paper and Kraft dinner but we’ve got bigger problems over here in the Goulds than any of that. And the crowd down at City Hall should be doing something about it.
– Go ahead, Caller.
The gulls are taking turns. One clambers, panting, onto the railing and tags in another. The second bird launches kamikaze-style off the deck. An almighty Squawk!
– It’s birds, Paddy.
– Birds? Surely you can’t believe the city is responsible for the weird behavior the birds are getting on with since the bombs? Surely you can’t hold the city responsible for that? Do you think that’s really their jurisdiction or should the Department of Wildlife get involved, Caller?
– The provincial government should be stepping up and doing their part. Start issuing licences or hire a few part time students to wander the streets with pellet guns. Or set a few workers on the roof of the Mile One like snipers and take a few out. But elimination is not the problem I’m having today, Paddy.
There is a dull clanging against the hull of the ship. A low crack. A puff of smoke, a pop of feathers, as if someone under the line of vision is listening and taking the Caller’s suggestion seriously. The gulls appear to be running shorter line changes, returning to the railing only long enough to catch their breath before diving out of sight again. Paddy leans over the instrument console to peer through the window of the bridge. The rats have been mounting incursions. The curled cord of his headset stretches taut. The cry of gulls becomes cacophonous. He rolls backwards in his black leather office chair across the pebbled steel floor and pokes his head out the open doorway. The sea air is damp and heavy with smoke and the exhaust of fast food barges. The outside smells of brine and grease and sewage. Paddy throws the remains of a turkey sandwich onto the deck. A few gulls, winded and temporarily benched, dive for the crust, beat each other about the head with stiff wing feathers, peck at each other’s eyes.
– This is the thing, Paddy. These birds. They’re all over my lawn.
– All over your lawn. Again, Caller, isn’t this a problem for Wildlife?
– They’re all over the lawn, Paddy. All. Over. The. Lawn.
Off the starboard side a strangled cry, a frenzied string of squawks. And then a hook. A hook and a hand with most of its fingers. Catching hold of the rail. Pulling an arm along with it.
– Doing what, Caller? What are the birds on your lawn doing?
Paddy reaches under the console of the bridge for a .22 and eases himself out of the chair.
– They are being dead, Paddy. They are being dead.
Propped up in the doorway, sighting along the barrel of the gun.
– Caller, I’m afraid you might have to get out there yourself and take care of it. It might be time to just take care of it yourself.
Paddy cocks the hammer.