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, May 20. See the full schedule here.
Hot bubble gum breath tickles his wide forehead. Tim groans and rolls over. He sniffs the air and smells spring: unfurled leaves drying in a new breeze.
Tim opens his eyes. A round brown face over him, coarse black braids straddling his cheeks.
Mister? Hey mister? Are you alright?
It’s a girl.
Tim feels the cool forest floor pressing against his back. Behind the girl’s concerned, frank stare, the tree—his tree—fills the void of the sky, stretches out of the gorge toward the sun. Suddenly remembering, Tim jerks into a sitting position. He almost butts heads with her. She jumps back just in time. Tim examines his arms and legs, his joints creaking. Nothing broken. He’s fine. How can he be fine?
He doesn’t know. He must have climbed down out of the tree somehow. Otherwise, he’d be—
Tim looks around him. What does he expect to see? Piles of spotted bones? Some weird totem warning in the form of branches bundled together to conceal a wet, warm heart? Carly says he spends too much time getting high and watching movies.
He was supposed to drive home last night. She wasn’t even going to notice he’d been gone. Guilt surges through him. He was in the tree. His tree. He saw—and smelled—and most importantly, he felt. He felt her. Something. Someone. Not someone. It was my—Tim shakes his head slowly. He can’t think that. Jump up, run back to the car, put the key in the engine. He’ll apologize, explain as much as he can. He’ll tell her what happened. He doesn’t know, of course. Something happened. Carly, he thinks. Carly will know. He’ll tell her: a sweet hot smell; a touch ever so gently curling down the arc of his chin; then a light; that woman—
That woman. She was digging. It was the middle of the night and she was digging. What was she digging, out there in the dark and the rain?
The girl, her eyes wide, the whites highlighting dark brown pupils, is backing away. She looks at him warily, preparing to flee.
Hey, he calls. You got the time?
Charlie stops, a startled doe caught in the headlights. There are deer in the gorge, she knows, she’s seen them. Lots of them.
Tim inspects the girl now. Pudgy and shapeless in a red parka meant for the dead of winter. She wears cheap gold-wire glasses, small for her face, ridiculous braids accentuating her bulgy brown-red cheeks.
It’s cool, he says as she resumes her slow retreat, her back edging out of the clearing into the underbrush. I just wanna know the time.
The girl pulls out a cell phone. She looks at the little screen.
4:22, she says shyly in a voice just hinting at a lilting accent. After school, she adds.
Tim nods. After school. Okay, it’s coming back to him. He climbed down the tree. Must have. He doesn’t remember that part. But he remembers it being morning, late morning, probably. He remembers reading the letter. He paced around the clearing. He refolded the letter, put it in his pocket, then unfolded it and read it again. He smoked up. He lay down on his back to watch the branches and the sky and the clouds. I must have—closed my eyes, for a bit, there.
You go to school around here?
The girl nods. Christopher Columbus.
Yeah, huh? I went there.
The girl takes a step closer. You did? she says in a small voice.
Yeah. Like. A long time ago.
The girl stares fiercely.
The breeze pushes through. The late afternoon sun dapples down, forms patterns of light and dark. Two chipmunks chase each other through the dead leaves, kicking up a dust of decay. Tim feels the urgency of last night seeping out of him, ache becoming lassitude.
Hey, he says casually. Aren’t you a little young to be down here?
I’m allowed. Charlie blushes.
That’s cool, Tim says. No problem.
The girl’s glare softens.
I used to live around here you know. He points to the top of the gully. Up there. You live around here too?
Charlie blinks, plays with her hands.
Whatever. It’s cool. I’m Tim, by the way.
I’m…she hesitates. But there’s something about him, this guy, Tim, his broad open face and pale blue eyes. He doesn’t look dangerous. Not even a little. I’m Charlie.
Cool. Cool name. Charlie.
That’s not my real name. What’s your real name?
Doesn’t matter, right?
So, uh, Charlie. You, uh, got anything to eat?
Charlie looks at him doubtfully.
I, uh, forgot to bring food and I’m on, like, a camping trip here. I’m just trying to, clear my head, you know?
And you’re not eating?
Uh…yeah…kinda, I guess.
Like the Natives! I read a book all about it! They would go out into the woods and pray and stuff. They wouldn’t eat for a whole month! Not until they had a vision.
It’s called a vision quest.
So…what were they trying to see?
Charlie takes a step closer. Their animal totem! Their spirit animal!
Huh. Tim considers the girl, framed by the giant tree above them both. Her pudgy face, her eyes in coke-bottle blurs. A vision. Is that what he had? Some kind of—
But uh, like, you know, of what exactly? Charlie shrugs.
So…Tim tries. You’re…Indian?
But, you’re, uh—
We’re from In-di-a. It’s totally different.
Oh. Right. Cool. That’s cool.
Charlie looks down at her knock-off sneakers. She’s embarrassed now.
Hey, Tim says. Don’t worry about it.
The girl sneaks a hand into her coat pocket.
I’ve got these. She proffers a roll of Lifesaver candies.
Wild berry blast.
You want one?
Charlie walks to where Tim sits, his knobby knees pulled into his chest. She crouches, extends the roll.
Can I have two?
She stares balefully. Alright.
Tim rolls the candies around in his mouth. Their sticky sweet coats his tongue. That other taste—the sour lingering of fear—recedes. What’s there to be scared of? It’s all starting to make sense. He gets it now. He’ll tell it all to Carly. This is what he’s come for. It’s like the girl says: a quest, a vision. He clicks candies against his teeth.
You’re not supposed to bite them, Charlie protests.
Like this. Charlie sucks slowly. Tim copies, pulling in his cheeks.
Charlie giggles. I’m not really allowed to have candy, she announces.
She shrugs. I still get it, though.
But, I mean, at all?
She shrugs again.
Your parents are crazy strict, dude.
I guess. Charlie inspects the colourful striped wrapper.
Hey, Tim says quickly, these, uh, Indians. They ever see anything like…really weird?
What do you mean?
Like, uh, you know, I dunno, like…ghosts or stuff?
Charlie jumps up.
Sure! All the time! Sometimes they wouldn’t see animals at all! They’d see the water spirit, the fire spirit, all kinds of stuff. I bet they even saw stuff right here.
Sure! There were lots and lots of Natives who lived right here.
This is where they lived? The Indians?
Sure! I’ve read all about it. Only you’re not supposed to say Indians. I’m Indian. You’re supposed to say Naaa-tives.
Okay, but, I mean, they lived right here?
Sure, they had their villages all along the river. I read about it in the library.
And they saw ghosts and stuff?
All the time!
Like, what kinds though? What kinds exactly?
I told you! Spirits! Fire spirit, water spirit, wind spirit. Sometimes they saw the spirits of their ancestors.
Their mom and dad and stuff?
No! Like way older than that! Like their great great great grandfather who would come in the form of an eagle, but they would know right away that it wasn’t an eagle; it was their ancestor who was a great and powerful medicine man!
Not their parents?
No! You go on a spirit quest when you’re my age.
Yeah, but, I mean, what if, like, their dad was like a great warrior or something and he, yeah know, got killed in a big battle. Then maybe they’d see him? What if they were, like, dead, your parents?
Tim crunches the last bit of thin crystalline candy between his teeth. I’m just asking, he says. You’re the one who’s going on about Indians.
I told you. You’re supposed to say Naaa-tives.
Natives. Alright. Whatever.
The Natives lived down here for hundreds and thousands of years. And anyway, I know where—Charlie stops. She puts a hand over her mouth.
What? You know where what?
Nothing! Forget it!
Okay. Chill out. Don’t have a shit fit.
A what? Charlie giggles.
A shit fit.
I’m not saying that!
Why not? There’s no one else here.
Wind rushes through the upper branches of the giant maple.
I gotta go, Charlie announces.
The girl disappears into the woods.
Tim flops back on his back. He stares up at the tree. Its branches are dotted with leaves emerging from their bud cocoons. Winter is over. The sun in patches on his face. He’s exhausted. He closes his eyes. He has to get going. Call Carly. Go see his father. Then leave this place. Leave it forever. But he doesn’t move. His bones want to stay here. A change of plan, he thinks. The girl—Charlie. Nerd type. Making up a bunch of stuff. Indians. Trying to impress him. What’s she doing down here anyway? Indians. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Indians didn’t live here. I never heard anything about that. I mean, wouldn’t there be a museum or something? But something about what she said rings true. Visions. A quest. Last night. Something was revealed to him. A great big shimmering piece to the puzzle of his life. Whatever happened—to him, to his mother—finally within his grasp.
Tim sits up. He opens his eyes. His legs are stretched out in front of him. His body seems wrong, an occupying presence, an anomaly. He should be dead. Or at least broken.
I climbed down. Somehow.
His clothes are still damp, almost wet. It rained last night. A lot. At least it’s warm. I was high. I was really fucking high.
He’s remembering now: he was up in the tree. The rain was coming down hard. His entire body was shaking. Different kinds of cold. Varieties of cold. He never thought there were so many ways to be cold. That’s what he remembers most. How cold it was. Then it got colder.
Late. It was really late. I feel asleep. I woke up. It was—
The rest of it comes back to him, spill-over ferment filling him like some internal upchuck. A cold in his chest, in his heart, a slow cold spreading up his veins. It was so cold he couldn’t breathe. Then there was that smell. It’s still with him, familiar the way absence becomes familiar. Something touched him, his face. Yeah. Sure. A leaf or something. Something touched his chin, his cheek, his throat. Gently.
His heart pounding.
It wasn’t a leaf.
Tim feels his throat. He swallows his bobbing Adam’s apple. Stubble demarcation of a nascent beard.
Dead Indians. Why not? Maybe they did live here. Maybe they’re still here, drifting around, waiting, waiting for someone to give a shit. Sorry. Too late. Nobody cares around here. You’re in the wrong suburb. Try downtown, try Queen and Cowan, where Tim and Carly live— it’s so sad, Carly always says, referring to the bums out there on the street begging for change. Yeah, Tim agrees, shrugging. But there’s nothing particularly special about them. They’re just another bunch of addicts—white, red, brown, yellow. This has nothing to do with—
Tim touches his throat, grazes skin with the tips of his fingers. Last night, what he saw. It wasn’t a ghost. It was more like—what that girl said—
Carly believes in visions. She believes you can see things that aren’t there. The forest floor, all soft putrefaction. Leaves and pinecones and ants and beetles and branches slowly slumping into clay. That shovel flaring in the storm, reflecting lightning, reflecting a face lost in backlit glare. Someone digging in his old backyard. Digging into the perfect patch of grass his father laboured over all that hazy, humid, endless summer. So now what? Now what are you going to do? Of course it was just his imagination playing tricks. Some kind of weird wishful thinking burbling up from his subconscious. Carly’s got half a degree in psychology. Tim’s going to help her. He’s going to pay her tuition so she can go back to school and make something of herself.
But right now he needs to clear his head. And he should call Carly, tell her where he is, tell her he’s okay.
But first he just needs to…take the edge off. A relief to have such an obvious relief. He pulls out his stash.
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.