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 websites of five great magazines. Read the first installment here. Next week's installment will be up at Taddle Creek, Friday, August 19. See the full schedule here.
Pizza and Coke Zero, the TV turned to Scott’s favourite hip-hop video hour, thugs pimped out for primetime. Just another Thursday night. Hal, back from changing out of his chinos and oxford, surveys the scene, watches Scott chew on a slice.
So, how was that road meeting thingy? Sit down, have some pizza. Scott, who’d gotten into the habit of coming over after work and letting himself in, pats the spot on the couch beside him.
Hal stands there. How was the meeting? His mind is overfull, there’s too much to think about. Replays from the last few days, slo-mo and fast-forward, he keeps stringing them together like a trailer for a movie—a thriller, Hal thinks, complete with conspiracy, cover-ups, and all the mad truth anyone could hope for. The Wississauga politicos, the angry crowd, the shouts and questions. And then, out of nowhere, that protestor, whoever she was. And the woman, June, Rose’s pal, she was there too, though she didn’t look very happy about it.
Hello? Earth to Hal? Earth to Wississauga’s favourite kid reporter?
Scott’s grinning at him, his big brown eyes laughing.
Sorry, he mutters. I’m—and then, before he can stop himself: I’m on to something. Something big. He says it loudly, defiantly. It’s true, isn’t it?
You can’t tell anyone.
I won’t. I won’t. Who’m I gonna tell?
It’s about the road.
The expressway, Hal says, suppressing his impatience. The one they want to build along the river.
Oh, oh yeah. Scott’s eyes wander back to the TV, but Hal plunges on.
It’s this woman I talked to the other day. I went over to her house. I’m pretty sure she’s discovered some kind of…site. You can’t tell anyone. It’s in her backyard, for Christ sakes. Some kind of…Native site.
She’s hiding it. That’s why it’s so weird. She lives right beside the river. They’re going to run the new road behind her house. And she’s got this ancient grave there. She could have a whole village buried back there. Who knows?
Wow. Did you see it?
No. She’s wouldn’t let me see it. She’s hiding the whole thing under a tarp in her backyard. But get this: the professor who I sometimes interview when there’s an archaeology angle on local stories or whatever, I called him up and he’s met her! He said she came to see him. She was asking all kinds of weird questions about who lived here thousands of years ago and stuff like that. And he told me that they find ancient burial grounds and that kind of thing all the time in Wississauga. He says they’re going to pave over stuff that could be a thousand years old.
Scott munches on pizza, his eyes moving between Hal and the preening bodies bouncing inside Hal’s hazy TV.
And then, at the meeting tonight, there was this…woman. Some kind of activist…
Hal trails off. How does she fit into this? What does she know? It’s like he’s got the puzzle all figured out, but the last piece doesn’t fit.
Dude, Scott says enthusiastically, this sounds awesome!
Yeah. Hal can’t help but smile. Awesome. It could be. But I’m just…I’m not sure, you know? What if I’m wrong?
Scott takes a swallow of beer. You’re not wrong, he says, smiling brightly at Hal.
I’m not wrong, Hal says, mostly to himself. It all makes sense. He can feel it. Out with the old, in with the new. But it’s not that easy, right? Everything has consequences. That’s where he comes in. His job is to let people know what’s really happening. There’s no wrong or right. Not really. That’s not what this is about. Scott gobbling pizza, slice after slice, not an inch of fat on him. You take what you can get. Make your own rules.
Will you go over there with me? Hal blurts.
Like…tonight? Scott’s finally paying attention to Hal, not the TV.
Yeah, Hal mutters. Maybe. Maybe it’s a bad idea. What if we get caught?
What if we get caught? Scott smiles mischievously. We won’t get caught. I mean, it’s just a backyard, right? They’ll be asleep and we just sneak in. It’s barely even illegal. When I was a kid we used to sneak into people’s backyards all the time. We’d even swim in their pools and stuff.
Hal and Scott both grew up in what were then the suburbs of the city. Hal’s parents still live there, halfway between downtown and Wississauga. More city than suburb now, there are high-rises and a subway station. Hal drives over to see them every second Sunday. They eat lunch and smile tightly at each other, and then Hal leaves feeling frustrated and refusing to acknowledge exactly why.
I just…Hal says. His face feels hot, strangled, like his tie is way too tight. He isn’t wearing a tie. There’s something about that place, the backyard, the house…It’s a feeling he hasn’t been able to shake, it’s been sitting with him, in him, even since before he visited the woman, maybe ever since Rose started going on about ghosts and Indians. It’s not a pleasant feeling—like someone’s been following him, getting close, breathing on the back of his neck, but when he turns around, there’s no one there. He pictures June’s empty, creepy backyard. So he’s creeped out. Big deal. Grow up. This is it. This is the story. But you have to know for sure. Reporters do that kind of stuff. Sneak around. Deep Throat and all that. He wipes sweat off his forehead with the rough cotton shoulder of his T-shirt.
We’re going over there, Scott says, grabbing the remote and turning the channel to the network news.
Yeah…okay…Hal locks eyes on the stern-faced man staring out of the TV screen. They gaze at each other through the endless movement of bright light particulate, the new matter assembling its churning worlds.
Scott’s silver SUV cruises through the empty streets. Digital numbers on the dashboard glow 2:43 am.
It’s really quiet, Scott says. He yawns loudly. Like Hal, he’s not much of a late-night guy. They’re usually asleep by 11. Scott has 7 and 8 am appointments with the before-work go-getter types.
It’s almost three, Hal snaps. He cringes at the tight sound of his voice. Scott didn’t mean anything by it. He never means anything by it. Hal closes his eyes. Gotta relax. He tries to fall back into the leather bucket seat. The air in the car is settled, ordered, manufactured. New car smell. Let’s just drive, he thinks. Let’s just not have to go anywhere in particular.
Turn here? Scott asks.
Hal pops his eyes open. A street sign lit up by the glare of a lone halogen.
Yeah, he says. This is the street. Grove. Make a left.
Here we go, Scott says, giving the SUV just a bit too much gas. The tires squeal as they take the corner.
Scott slows down. The street is long, straight, gradually sloping up as it follows the river.
Is that the place? Scott wants to know.
Yeah, Hal whispers.
Hal ponders the hulking house, a typical faux colonial replete with columns framing the big double doors of the front entrance. The place feels vacant. All the houses around here do. But who knows? Who really knows who might be looking at who through dark blank windows? Hal represses a shiver, feels it inside, surging through him.
Scott opens his door and jumps out of the truck. Hal watches from the window as he moves quickly to the back gate with long fluid strides. The gate is half open and Scott looks back at Hal with a kind of told-you-so expression, the unlocked gate an invitation, a gift handed to them on a silver platter. Hal feels his face flush. He takes a deep breath and opens his door.
Scott steps into the backyard.
Wait up, Hal hisses. He creeps through after him.
It’s darker in the backyard, away from the streetlights hanging over the long straight road. The night is a grainy black. Clouds spill over the stars and the full moon is just a glow lost in the inky spread of the sky. Hal can’t see. He blinks, waits for his eyes to adjust. Then he steps forward, bumps into something, startles—
Quiet, Hal hisses.
They stand there. Gradually Hal’s pupils widen and he becomes aware of his surroundings. Behind him is the house, all closed windows and bricked-in bedrooms. In front, a dark tree emerges from the gorge, empty branches communing with the wind. And the pit, a spreading gash. Hal steps forward. He sees the pit now. It’s uncovered, the tarp thrown to the side revealing a misshapen hole, funnelling deep. Weirdly, Hal sees a gentle flickering light emanating from its depths. The wind gusts through branches groaning awake from winter. Clouds obscure a fragment moon, and the pale light from the hole intensifies. Hal grabs Scott’s thick arm, pulling him back.
Come on, Scott whispers. He moves near to the edge, dragging Hal along.
At the crumbling verge, the shaky light caresses their faces, a heat coming up out of the earth. Hal feels the hot on his cheeks. Then the wind dies and the world goes quiet. And Hal hears a scrabbling sound, fingers in dirt. And a murmuring, strangely atonal, a plaintive chant.
They look at each other. Scott grins weirdly, like a grave robbing ghoul coming across a freshly dug hole. Hal surprises himself, pulling out of Scott’s grasp and falling to his knees. He thrusts his head in and down.
The clouds part. The air fills with phosphorescent moonlight. Hal’s eyes, blazed open.
He sees him—it—then. Lying at the bottom. Ghost creature droning his tuneless lament and clawing at the silvery soil.
Hal Niedzviecki is a writer of fiction and nonfiction exploring post-millennial life. This was an excerpt from The Archaeologists, to be published by ARP books in Fall 2016.