After the plague, everything went silent.
It didn’t happen all at once, of course, but over the span of weeks, even months. Television was the first thing to go, disintegrating from panicked news reports into non-stop Seinfeld reruns, followed by the soothing white noise of static, and then finally nothing. The internet was next; websites went dead one by one, until the frantic hours spent hunched over my laptop brought up nothing but error messages. Not long after that the phone lines were down, and then a few days later the lights flickered suddenly and went out, leaving those of us still alive in the dark.
It’s not as frightening as you’d think. Even now, more than a year after those bloody, terrifying days, the absence of shrieks and sirens and bright flashing lights is still a relief.
John died. He was one of the first, actually. He came home sick from work, and then two days later he was gone. The baby died the day after that. I knew she was going to; from the moment the telltale rash started creeping up her fat little legs, I knew it wouldn’t be long. After both of their bodies had been taken away, I waited impatiently for my turn. I just wanted to die, wanted to hurry up and get it over with already; I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything so badly in my life. The rash was supposed to start on your feet, a network of fine red lines that traced their way up to the heart, and I must have taken my socks off a dozen times a day. I kept squinting and prodding at the space between my toes, looking for something, anything, but my skin stayed stubbornly clear.
About a week after the burial I had a fever and a cough and I thought, finally, but it turned out to be just a bad cold. A cold – can you believe it? The whole city is vomiting blood and pus around me, and I catch a cold.
John worked on Bay Street, which the media insisted on calling “Ground Zero”. The official story was that someone had come home sick from a business trip, then gone to work and infected everyone who walked by their cubicle. The disease spread quickly throughout the downtown core, jumping from building to building, pumping through the vents with the stale recycled air. For a while the news outlets were trying to figure out who this mystery businessman had been, as though having a scapegoat would solve the problem, but when everything really started going to shit they stopped caring.
It was lucky that John and the baby died so early, because in those days there were still government clean-up crews to take care of their bodies. The city had these big black vans, corpse-mobiles we called them, and they would cart off dozens of the dead at a time. My husband and daughter are numbers 37 and 38 respectively in Prep Fields East at Upper Canada College. The city bought the school’s grounds for an unheard of amount of money, and used its fields to dig a series of mass graves. You’d think that somebody would have complained, started some kind of campaign against it, but most of the people likely to do so had left Toronto by then. On the news they showed clips of the wealthy being flown out in chartered planes, their eyes darting and fearful, their mouths swaddled in those useless paper masks.
After John and the baby were buried, I didn’t see anyone for a long time. I stayed inside, eating, sleeping and reading. Hiding. Once everything edible was gone from my cupboards, even the barely digestible stuff like uncooked pasta and dried beans, I moved into the apartment next door, and then the next one. I drifted through my building, my body as light and intangible as smoke. John and the baby started to seem like something that had happened in another life. My sadness and emptiness began to change, mutating into a strange sense of calm.
I slipped inside the lives my neighours had shed, taking advantage of everything they’d left behind. I wore their clothes, ate their food, rifled through their personal belongings. I discovered that the man two doors down had had a passion for hunting and I spent an afternoon cleaning and oiling his rifle, lifting it to my shoulder and admiring my reflection in his mirror. I pulled on a pair of his threadbare jeans and lounged in his green tweed armchair, sipping stale beer and flipping through girlie magazines. I learned that the polite young man on the fourth floor had fancied himself an amateur artist, and I spent a few days painting still lifes of the toaster, the light fixture, the bowl of clementines mouldering on his table. After that was the apartment of the wealthy retiree on the floor below mine, where I lay for two dreamy weeks in a decadently wallpapered bedroom, wearing silk night-gowns and pearls, reading Jane Austen. I kept the heavy curtains drawn the entire time. Going outside seemed pointless, now that everyone else was dead.
That wasn’t true, of course. There were plenty of other survivors, and while I was squatting in my draughty old brick fortress, many of them were camping out at the university, in Trinity College, no less. Their little hive buzzed with activity as they organized committees and planned for the new society that would be born out of the ashes of the old one. Life would be better now, they told one another. We would finally be able to purge everything distasteful from our past and start completely fresh. The human spirit would triumph over adversity! The plague could be a blessing in disguise! They would go on like this, jollying themselves with proverbs and trite clichés, ad nauseam.
I have to admit that they were never short of ideas. One of their first was to have a group of people going door-to-door looking for other survivors, which is how they discovered me. They convinced me to come live in the “community” they were building, a word which I was to come to loathe. We slept in “community halls” and ate all of our “community meals” together, plus we had other “community activities”, such as the mandatory “building a bright future” lectures. The other people there were cheerful and outgoing, overwhelmingly so. They reminded me of camp counsellors that I’d known as a child, always wanting to engage you with a craft or a song. They would often stop me in the hallway or on the sidewalk and ask me how I was doing. How’s it going? they would ask bracingly, gripping my shoulder so tightly that it left an angry red mark.
I went to the community meetings and soon discovered that while they were good at coming up with ideas, they were less adept at acting on them. In fact, it seemed that canvassing for survivors was the only plan of theirs to actually get off the ground. The talk at the meetings was endless and detailed, rife with idealism. They were going to have elections, they said, start a new government, start a colony, grow gardens. They were going to found a university so that our new society could have doctors, lawyers, thinkers. They made sketches, wrote proposals, enthusiastically dreamed up ways to save themselves, but in the end they actually did very little.
I moved out just a few weeks after moving in. Being constantly surrounded by other people was really starting to grate on my nerves. On top of that, I’d been sleeping with Gabe, one of the community’s leaders, and then all of the sudden I wasn’t.
Gabe was among those giving talks in the evenings, and one night I was interested enough in what he was saying to go up to him afterwards and ask a question. He smiled sort of shyly for a moment, his eyes blinking thoughtfully behind his glasses, and then told me that he had a book in his room he believed might have an answer. As he led me out of the auditorium he accidentally brushed up against the back of my hand and I jerked back, as though a bolt of electricity had passed through me. I followed him down the dim, echoing hallways, shivering in spite of the oppressively humid summer night.
As soon as the door to his room closed, his mouth was on mine, and then on my neck, and then in the well between my breasts. My hands couldn’t decide where they needed to be first, so they went everywhere at once. The very act of touching him, feeling his warm resilient skin against mine, was like finding a tall glass of water and suddenly realizing how very, very thirsty you’ve been. Afterwards, I wanted to feel guilty, because of John, because it was so soon, but the only thing I felt was gratitude. Gratitude to Gabe, of course, but also, for the first time, gratitude in general for the fact that I wasn’t among the dead.
Gabe and I didn’t talk much. We met up every few days, spent an hour or two together, and then went our separate ways. We didn’t sit together during meals, and in fact barely acknowledged each other in public. Because of the talks he gave, I was able to watch him without being obvious. I memorized the way he tipped his head to one side and pursed his lips when someone asked him a particularly difficult question, and the nervous habit he had of taking off his glasses and cleaning them while speaking. I listened attentively and began to notice a trace of an accent, something different but undefinable. When, one night, he told me that he’d come to Canada from South Africa when he was young, I felt a funny rush of pride at having sensed that he wasn’t a native Torontonian. I played every minute of our time together over and over again in my head – the way he liked to run his fingers through my hair, the vulnerable, almost frightened look on his face when he came, the way his breathing altered as he slipped into sleep. I felt strangely, buoyantly happy.
And then, just as suddenly as it had begun, our relationship was over.
“The thing is,” Gabe said, obsessively polishing his glasses on his threadbare t-shirt, “the thing is that I don’t really feel as though I get through to you. I think you’ve put up a lot of walls around yourself, and you’re not really ready for this.”
“It’s okay,” he continued, cutting me off as I tried to say something, “I know it’s hard for you because you were married before and had a kid and all. I understand. And the thing is, I just think that I could help you a lot more if we weren’t, you know, so involved.”
This apparently heartfelt speech didn’t change the fact that he’d also been sleeping with a girl named Nadia, a yoga teacher who was convinced that she’d survived through the power of downward dog.
“People don’t know the healing power of yoga,” she would say, her face glowing with earnest zeal, “they don’t even know. If everyone practiced yoga, no one would ever have even gotten sick. I’m going to make sure that yoga has a really special place in our new community.”
Nadia was not very good at keeping secrets (or maybe she just thought it was bad karma to be discreet) and it wasn’t long before everyone knew out about her and Gabe. When I asked him about it, he looked embarrassed and then said stiffly that he and Nadia had a very deep connection. He said that she had done a lot of emotional work and meditation in order to be with him, and it was because of that kind of dedication that she was going to be an important part of the cultural rebuilding. That was the day I knew I had to get out.
It wasn’t long before they were gone, too. Another former member, Jessie, told me that the community had moved east after hearing a rumour that there were more survivors in Kingston, maybe, or Montreal. Gabe’s plan was to gather as many other people as they could and head north to Ottawa, where they would take over the parliament buildings and start a provisional government. The community left from Union Station, walking two by two along the railroad tracks, like Noah’s animals in search of the Ark. I ran into Jessie a few months later, and she said that no one had heard from them since.
Jessie and I weren’t the only ones who stayed in Toronto, but we were two of few. Those of us still here prefer to keep to ourselves, and I can go days now without seeing another person. This isn’t to say that the streets are empty – there are packs of dogs, formerly fat, contented pets gone feral. It’s not unusual to see them roaming around, or hear their howls as they suddenly catch the scent of their prey. There are cats, too, although I don’t see them as much. They prefer to skulk singly, their eyes luminous and huge in the dark. The rat population exploded after the plague, and the cats have all grown sleek and plump on their suddenly abundant food supply. The racoons and squirrels and chipmunks are more brazen than ever, and there’s an entire warren of rabbits populating the Eaton Centre. They’ve burrowed into piles of soft poly-cotton blends, shredding designer sweatshirts with their sharp little teeth, making nests for their young.
And then there are the horses. During the worst of the plague someone had the presence of mind to trek down to the CNE and throw open the gates of the Horse Palace, and they’ve been thriving ever since. They tend to stay around the parks and ravines, but I once had the surreal experience of seeing a herd of them out on the street. They were running at full tilt, weaving in and out of the abandoned, rusting cars, stamping, snorting, tossing their heads. The sun was low in the sky, and as they thundered past me one of them suddenly stopped short and reared up, lit from behind like some primeval god.
It’s clear that the city is taking its first few stumbling steps back to wilderness. Stately old stone buildings that once boasted a genteel tendril or two of ivy have been consumed with greenery. This past spring, there were flowers everywhere – not just on the ground, but growing out of the fare box of a marooned streetcar, spilling out of cracks in the sides of buildings. Since all its people have died, the city itself has become a living creature.
Gabe and his followers left in the autumn, and I spent the winter in one of the Rosedale mansions, huddled on a king-sized bed under a pile of hand-sewn quilts. I lived off of gourmet canned goods, crackers made from exotic grains and jars of locally-made preserves with labels declaring “Aunt Sarah’s Best Plum Jelly” in delicate, spider-like writing. I found jugs of filtered water in the basement, which I rationed until there was enough snow on the ground to melt for drinking. Burning antique furniture in the three enormous fireplaces kept the house warm until spring, and I found an unexpected satisfaction in taking an axe to the 19th century décor. When my substantial pantry began to look sparse, I started scavenging the neighbouring houses, stalking through the snow in a sumptuous fur coat. I liked its length and weight and also its smell, which was dark and warm and slightly musky. Sometimes I would spread it out across the bed and sleep on it, nestling into it the way a baby animal would curl up against its mother’s soft flank.
Now that it’s summer again I’m living in the Toronto Reference Library. The enormous windows let sunlight in long into the evening, and when I stand in front of the glass and look down Yonge Street, I feel like a sort of benevolent guardian spirit, sent to watch over this desolate city. I picture myself as a pensive old Notre Dame gargoyle, the one with the horns and the wings whose face is cupped in his hands. If I remember correctly, he’s sticking his tongue out. I imagine he feels much the way I do – thoughtful, foolish, not quite human.
I spend all of my free hours diving into the stacks, resurfacing for air only when necessary. At first I bounced from shelf to shelf, choosing books almost at random, gorging myself on the printed word. Lately I’ve been more selective. Last week I got on to this Chekhov kick and now I don’t want to read anything else. I’ve realized that The Cherry Orchard might be the most perfect play ever written, or at least the loveliest play about the inevitability of change and loss. I’ve read it three times already. Sometimes I feel guilty, as though I should be doing something productive, but other than making sure that I’m clothed and fed, I can’t think of anything else to be done.
I walked down to the shore yesterday, all the way to Queen’s Quay. I stood and looked at the boats left scattered in the harbour, rust slowly crackling and colouring their hulls. I looked out to the islands and thought how funny it was that even though they were so close, they were entirely unreachable. The air was grey and damp-tasting, and so still that I could hear myself breathing. Above me, the tall waterfront buildings creaked and groaned, settling themselves in for their long crumbling journey into decay.
I used to feel as though I was waiting for something to happen, as though I could be rescued at any moment. I pulled myself through my days, moving from activity to activity, determined to fill up my hours until normal life was miraculously restored. Now I carry on for the simple reason that I am used to carrying on, because I am better at living than I am at dying. If I can’t see the point of going on like this, then it’s equally difficult to see the point of ending it. I eat, sleep, read, write, watch and wait until the stars come out, until darkness impales itself on one of the needle-sharp skyscrapers and oozes through the streets and alleys, until every tiny bit of this city is consumed.