by Neil Smith
Sophie Laframboise wasn’t scared of monsters. Vampires, zombies, ghosts, and lizard-like aliens populated the land of make-believe, a place she could slip into as any ten-year-old could, but its inhabitants didn’t haunt her dreams at night. What haunted her dreams were people.
“Homo sapiens,” Pop would tell her. “That’s the bogeyman you have to watch out for.” He’d cut out newspaper and magazine stories about the horrible things humans did to one another. He’d highlight the monstrous bits in yellow (about, say, dismemberment or acid thrown in faces), date the clippings, and then put them in scrapbooks. In their garage were filing cabinets filled with these scrapbooks. He’d also save other articles—rightwing editorials about the evils of welfare and public housing, the burden of immigrants on the country, the wrath of Muslims and their wicked plan to take over the world—but those topics bored Sophie. Despite the nightmares the story would spawn, she preferred reading about a dapper cannibal who dined on his victim’s biceps and calves.
On a Thursday morning in mid-June, she helped her mother throw out dozens of the scrapbooks. Pop was at his office downtown, and her sister and two brothers were also at work. “Sophie,” Ma called from the detached garage next to their brick house. “Come help me clean up after Monsieur Joyeux?” Mister Happy was her ironic nickname for Pop.
Sophie was sitting on the front porch reading Les rockeuses, a novel about twin sisters who became rock stars. She set her book down and skipped across the lawn in her jean shorts and oversized ladybug T-shirt. The garage door was slid up, and Ma was inside, wearing the sweatpants she often jogged in. The garage was so cluttered it couldn’t fit their car, a yellow hatchback that sat in the driveway. That morning, Pop had walked to work over the gentle mountain, more a big hill really, in the middle of the city. Her older brother Hugo, a trainer at a gym, had persuaded Pop to start walking to trim down his fat gut.
Ma opened a drawer of a filing cabinet and leafed through the scrapbooks. Their contents always made her glum. “He never even rereads these stories after he files them,” she said. She passed her daughter a few of the books and instructed her to check the dates. “Anything more than five years old we throw out.”
Sophie sat on Hugo’s weightlifting bench to flick through the yellowing, mildewy articles. In the margin of a clipping on global warming, Pop had scrawled a note in his jagged handwriting. “ ‘We’ll all kill each other before the seas ever get us,’ ” Sophie read aloud.
Ma glanced at the clipping. She sighed, pushing her old lady out of her eyes. The “old lady” was what she called a lock of pure white hair growing from her left temple. “No reading the articles,” she said. “Garbage pickup is at noon, so let’s get cracking!”
One article was about a lunatic who killed homeless people and fed their bodies to pit bulls. Sophie shook her head in disbelief and muttered, “What’ll Homo sapiens do next?” to Raton, their fat tabby sitting atop a lawnmower.
After tackling the scrapbooks, they went through Pop’s other collections in the garage and whittled them down. He had towers of old newspapers, plus a bucket filled with the rubber bands that had encircled those papers. He kept dozens of empty jars of peanut butter, mustard, spaghetti sauce, and the like. He kept stacks of aluminum pie plates. He even had hundreds of plastic clips from bags of bread. The Laframboises had the most neglected recycling bin on the block because Pop hung on to almost everything. Putting out recycling was a waste of time, he argued, since most of it just became landfill.
By eleven thirty, Ma and Sophie had filled a half-dozen trash bags. While they were dragging them to the curb, one split open and left a trail of silver pie plates along the driveway. Giddy, Ma picked up a few plates and twirled them at her daughter. “Watch out, Sophie,” she cried. “Flying saucers!”
Around noon, a garbage truck smelling of decaying vegetables drove down McDougall Avenue. After the truck collected their trash, Sophie suggested going for a picnic in the big park at the end of their street. Ma couldn’t. She had a painting to pick up from an artist. “Oh, honey, you’ll love this one. It’ll make your heart sing.”
No painting had ever made Sophie’s heart sing. The canvases Ma bought were just blobs, streaks, and swirls of color. For Ma’s sake, she pretended to adore them. She’d call them “splendid” or “forceful” or “glorious,” words from her thesaurus. Hélène Laframboise was artistic. She wrote poetry, painted watercolors, and sang in a women’s choir that had put out a compact disc. The cover shot on the disc was even Ma’s idea: planet Earth projected on a pregnant lady’s bare stomach.
Nobody else in the house was into art. The closest was Sébastien. He played the wisecracking son of the owners of a convenience store in the television series Ça dépanne. Sophie’s sister, Manon, claimed that he wasn’t artistic, just narcissistic. “That boy just likes seeing his pretty face on TV.”
Sophie went to the kitchen to make a peanut butter and jam sandwich to take to the park. She spread on a slab of chunky peanut butter although Manon had warned her it was fattening. “You’re chunky enough as it is,” she’d said.
Ma came to say goodbye wearing the clothes she’d bought at Libellule, the shop where Manon worked part-time. It sold durable cotton pants and shirts in beiges, grays, and creams, plus wide-brimmed hats. In Pop’s opinion, the well-to-do wore pricey safari clothes to pretend they were on an exotic adventure in deepest, darkest Zimbabwe, even though they were just zipping around their white-bread neighborhood to buy toilet paper and shampoo.
“What’s on your agenda this afternoon?” Ma asked.
Sophie took a can of cream soda from the fridge. “Nothing much.”
“There aren’t many times we have freedom to do nothing much,” Ma said, grabbing her purse from atop the breadbox. “So bask in it, honey.”
Ma always had a poker face, so Sophie never knew if she was teasing. As Ma headed out the back door, she called in English, “See you later, alligator.”
Sophie was too busy licking jam off a knife for her crocodile comeback. She put her sandwich, her soda, and a chocolate bar in a tote bag with her novel and then headed outside. Ma was driving away. Raton was chasing a squirrel across the lawn. The sky over the city was clear blue.
The air now had a bad smell. Was it from the garbage truck? No, it was from the pigs. Somewhere out in the country were slaughterhouses where pigs were butchered. If the wind blew a certain way, the air stunk of their manure. Whenever she carped about it, Manon, a vegetarian, said, “Well, stop pigging out on ham and bacon then.”
Their house, number 127, was a big red-brick box, which Pop proudly called the “ugliest house on the block.” It wasn’t ugly. It was just plainer than their neighbors’ more lavish homes. When the Laframboise kids wanted to spruce up their place by, say, laying down pink paving stones, Pop would remind them that “well-off” didn’t mean “show-off.”
On their front lawn stood a tree whose long tapered fruit looked like green beans. McDougall Avenue was lined with big, leafy trees (“deciduous” Sophie had learned in school). She walked up the street to the park. At its entrance was a slab of stone the size of a garden shed. Its facade read GLORIA VICTORIBUS. The statue of a woman, head bowed, a cape around her shoulders, stood before the monument. Her name, Sophie assumed, was Gloria.
In the middle of the park was a shallow oval pond longer than a tennis court. Several seagulls floated at one end where Hasidic sisters flung scraps of bread into the water. The girls all wore black and white striped pinafores, along with floppy bows in their hair. The youngest girl’s hair was orangutan orange. Behind them stood their parents, the father in a top hat and a housecoat-like black robe, the mother in a pageboy wig and a pair of stockings that were greenish beige, a color that Sophie only ever saw on Hasidic ladies.
Sophie planned to sit on the bench behind them and spy on the Hasidim. Hugo called them freaks. Manon called them prehistoric. Pop called them anti-Semitic (“Those morons oppose the state of Israel!”). Sophie found them utterly fascinating. She’d been upset to find out not all Jews spoke Yiddish or dressed like the Hasidim. Their rabbis should force them to, she thought.
Before she could sit behind the family, an older girl from her street, Nadine Brochu, spread herself across the bench, her feet up. Sophie’s brothers and sister had nicknamed the girl La Floride. Two years ago, she’d run away to become a movie star, but by mistake she headed to Hollywood, Florida, thinking that was where movies were made.
Sophie chose a bench beside a lamp post. As she unwrapped her sandwich, a squirrel with a twitching nose sidled up. “Beat it!” she shouted. The thing didn’t dash away till a blind lady walked by with a golden retriever, a seeing-eye dog with a sign on its back that said DON’T PET ME. I’M WORKING.
On the other side of the pond was a fenced-in playground with swing sets, a jungle gym, and ponies on giant springs that kids could ride like bucking broncos. A toddler emitted a shrill squeal as she slid down a slide. A boy hooted like a chimp from atop the monkey bars. In Sophie’s mind, she shushed them: she needed peace and quiet to read. She took out Les rockeuses. Slowly the park noise faded as she floated into the glittery world of twin rock stars Annie and Audrey Boulerice.
There was no warning. Dogs didn’t howl. Gulls didn’t squawk. Car alarms didn’t ring. Lightning didn’t crackle across the sky. The breeze carrying the stench of manure didn’t even stop blowing.
Sophie was drinking cream soda when her bum lifted off the seat. She had her book in one hand, her soda in the other, so she didn’t manage to grab onto the bench. She felt astonished, but also light and free, as in her dreams when she’d suddenly learned to fly.
Shouts erupted across the park. Everyone was levitating. An obese lady rose out of her wheelchair. A cyclist, helmet on his head, pant cuffs tucked into his socks, rose off his bike seat. He let go of his handlebars, and his bike crashed into a bed of black-eyed Susans. A dog walker rose, as did his black lab, which growled and snapped at the air. A mother floated up clinging to her sleeping baby.
People rose slowly, almost languidly. Still, they panicked. “What the hell?” “My god!” they called out. “Françoise!” “Philippe!” “Mama!” They yelled for help. They shrieked and screamed. Cars in the streets came to a halt, as their drivers, strapped down in their seats, watched people outside drifting away.
As she rose, Sophie dropped her novel and soda. She paddled the air. She didn’t float straight up, but at an angle. She passed a tree and grabbed a twig-like branch, which cracked off. She rose higher and clasped a branch as thick as a softball bat. She was no athlete or tomboy, but she pulled herself in and wrapped her legs around it. She hung on tight. Though she was a girl who screamed seeing a spider or a wasp, she didn’t cry out. She was in shock, heart thudding, mind racing.
Through the branches, she saw what looked like a trio of acrobats. A man hung upside down from a bench. A woman circled her arms around his legs. A teenage boy held onto one of the woman’s feet. Her shoe came off, and the boy rose upside down. He dropped her shoe, which fell to earth. He cursed and hollered. He flapped his arms and kicked his legs.
Sophie shimmied down her branch till her feet touched the tree trunk. From her perch, she saw people caught in other trees like kites gone astray. Some were less lucky: they carried on past the treetops, waving limbs, fighting futilely against the tug. She could still feel that tug. If she loosened her grip even for a second, her body was drawn upward.
Something crashed down through her tree, shaking the branches. She squealed, glanced up. A purple handbag came to rest just out of reach. Its mouth yawned open and spit out its contents. A wallet, cellphone, bagel, pair of sunglasses, and more fell through the branches to the ground where a squirrel zipped back and forth and a seagull waddled around, their bodies too light to be sucked away.
Nearby, a Hasidic girl hung upside down from a lamp post, pinafore around her head, underwear exposed. When she lost her grip, she didn’t scream. Sophie did. She watched till the girl was a speck in a sky now dotted with specks.
Sophie had to pee. She thought she’d wet her pants. Who cared if she did? Earth was about to explode. The planet would blow up in a blinding flash like a supernova. She’d turn into stardust and rain down on Mars. “It won’t hurt,” she muttered to her tree. “I won’t feel a thing.” She wasn’t sure of this, but felt calmer saying it out loud.
A taxi in the street drove over the curb. It inched forward across the lawn and parked alongside a bench that an Indian lady in a yellow sari was clinging to. The driver swung his door open. Still buckled to his seat, he pulled the woman in clumsily. She screeched and flailed. “Calm down, Madame!” he yelled as if she had no reason on earth to be alarmed. She scrambled across his lap. Then the taxi moved on to another bench where a man in a yarmulke was calling for help. The cabbie, it seemed, was still on duty, still picking up passengers.
Something fell from the sky. It landed in the pond with a splash. Sophie thought it was another handbag, a pink one. When the thing floated closer to her tree, she saw it wasn’t. It’s just a doll in pink sleepers, she lied to herself. It was no doll. It was a dead baby, face down in the water.
Sophie squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t want to see anymore. Around her, people moaned, yelled, prayed to god. A lady in a nearby tree cursed somebody named Benoît. “Where’d you go, Benoît? You dumb bastard, don’t you leave me! Benoît, you stupid asshole, get back here!”
To keep calm, she pictured the faces of her family over and over. Sébastien, Manon, Hugo, Ma, Pop. Sébastien, Manon, Hugo, Ma, Pop. Sébastien, Manon, Hugo, Ma, Pop.
A Bouvier floated above the octagon of a stop sign. It hovered upside down, dogpaddling the air, waving its rudder-like tail, and emitting strangled barks. It crapped and its turds plopped to the ground. As the tug on everyone in the park grew weaker, the leash tethering the dog to the pole slackened. The Bouvier descended. It inched toward the ground, dragging its leash down the pole.
Across the park, a boy followed a similar descent. He was hovering above the playground, arms wrapped around the seat of a swing. The metal chains of the swing were first taut, but they buckled as the tug waned. The boy floated down.
Sophie relaxed her grip on the branch she’d been hugging for almost an hour. There was much less tug now. “It’s stopping,” yelled the lady looking for Benoît. A minute or two later, the Bouvier and the boy touched down on the ground.
People hanging from garbage cans, monkey bars, and benches eased their grips. They tested their foothold on the ground. But in case the float returned, they kept one hand clasped to something solid. They trod carefully as if the earth might crack open. They scanned the skies. Were those who’d floated away coming back?
Some people were trapped so high in the treetops they couldn’t get down. Sophie wasn’t very high. She climbed down two branches, keeping near the trunk. Her knee scraped the bark hard enough to draw blood, but the pain didn’t register. A squirrel scrabbled past her, a chunk of bagel clamped in its jaws. She was afraid of squirrels and of heights, but she stayed calm. She just wanted down.
The bottom branch was still a good ten feet up. She made a feeble cry for help. Nobody heard. Sébastien had once jumped from their garage roof, which was higher. She hung down from the branch, swinging her feet. She counted to five and let go. Maybe the float lingered because she fell slowly, the way a swimmer who stops paddling sinks to the bottom of a pool.
Though her paperback novel and canvas bag lay nearby, she didn’t stop for them. She darted past Gloria and out of the park. The other survivors walked around almost on tiptoes, shouting to people in the trees, squinting at the sky, and pleading to the missing to return.
“Oh, Marc-André, come back! Please, please, Marc-André!”
In the nearby houses, people were emerging on their porches. A lady in a muumuu held her front door open and called to Sophie, “Honey, come inside where it’s safe!” The girl didn’t stop. She kept running. Her heart pounded louder now than it had while she was in the tree.
She turned the corner and dashed up McDougall Avenue. Parked on the sidewalk in front of a stone A-frame was a stroller with a baby strapped in. The baby had its eyes closed. Was it dead like the infant in the pond? No, no, it was asleep. She had to save it. She grabbed the handles of the stroller and pushed it along, rattling the baby awake. It started sobbing. She couldn’t see it over the hood of the stroller. “Don’t cry, baby!” she shouted as she ran. “Don’t cry!”
Up ahead a man fell out of the sky. He fell at the same slowed-down speed as when Sophie had jumped out of the tree. He crumpled on the sidewalk like a scarecrow untied from its post. Sophie screeched. She swerved the stroller around the man. He lay on his stomach. He was wearing spandex shorts and a cycling jersey, but no helmet. It was Monsieur Talbot, the old man next door. His head was twisted sideways. His eyes were open and blank. His tongue stuck out.
She bounced the stroller across her front lawn, parked it near the porch, and tried wrenching the baby out. It bawled, its mouth a little cavern, its cheeks raw-meat red. She undid the clasps, hands shaking. She pulled the baby out. It was the length of her torso, but lighter than Raton the cat.
She lugged the baby up the steps, its bald head bouncing on her shoulder. She slapped one hand against the door, calling, “Ma! Ma!” She buzzed the doorbell. Nobody came. Their car wasn’t in the driveway. She laid the baby on their straw welcome mat with its raspberry motif. The baby’s eyes were wet and miserable. Its nose was snotty. It kicked and punched the air.
She rummaged in her pockets, found her key, and inserted it in the lock. The darn door wouldn’t open, but then it unstuck with a squeak. She slammed into the house and pulled the baby by the hood of his sleepers through the doorway. The sleepers were pale blue. The baby was a boy. He stopped crying and looked at her wide-eyed, astonished, as if she’d just kidnapped him.
She shut the door and turned the lock. “Is anybody home?” she shouted even though she knew there wasn’t. “Help me! I have a baby here!” Her voice sounded older, as though she’d aged ten years in that linden tree. What to do? Where to go? Where was safe?
Because of Monsieur Talbot, she thought people were falling out of the sky. Maybe they’d fall faster and crash like meteorites through the roof of the house. She’d be foolish to go upstairs to her room. The basement would be safest. She carried the baby down the basement stairs to the library. Pop kept all his books down there, bookcase after bookcase, the biggest library outside a real library she’d ever seen.
Off their laundry room was a full bathroom. She went in and laid the baby on the bathmat so she could pee. While she was sitting on the toilet, the baby calmed down. His face went from red to very pale, almost as white as the bathtub enamel. The Hasidic kids were pearly white like that. “Oh, poor little Hasid,” she said to the baby. He’d probably lost his mother. His mother had probably floated into the clouds.
Sophie thought of her own mother. Where was she? In the little girl’s mind, Ma floated away kicking and screaming in her beige and cream safari clothes. Sophie told herself not to cry: her tears would frighten the baby. “I need to be brave,” she said aloud, her voice quavering, her eyes tearing up nonetheless. “I’m the mother now.”
Sophie hid in the basement closet where her family stored its winter clothes. She fashioned a mini tent out of Pop’s parka and a ski pole. The closet light was on because she was afraid of the dark. Inside her tent, she held the baby in her lap. She whispered him a lullaby, the lyrics of a children’s song, Je cogne des clous, about a narcoleptic bear.
As the baby dozed off, she mulled over what had happened in the park. The Muslims, she decided, had to be behind the float. Pop had always warned they’d be back. “Those monsters want to finish the job they started,” he’d say. Before she was born, they’d knocked down skyscrapers and blown up subways. Now they were sucking people away, maybe with some kind of giant vacuum-cleaner device. They had airplanes high in the clouds to collect the floaters. They’d lock them away in concentration camps, an idea they borrowed from the Nazis.
The baby, his head in the crook of her arm, began to make wheezy sounds like the soft snores of a cat. She should give the baby a name. The Jews had names from the Bible. She’d never read the Bible, but the name Abraham sounded biblical to her. If the Muslims came back to attack McDougall Avenue, she’d have to protect little Abraham. The Muslims hated the Jews. She thought their conflict stemmed from how animals were killed, what meat could rightly be called kosher and what could rightly be called halal. “Killing each other over meat,” she muttered in disgust.
The ceiling overhead creaked: somebody was walking around upstairs. She held her breath. She pictured ladies in niqabs drifting around the house like black ghosts. She’d locked the front door, so how did they get in? Maybe through the cat flap built into the back door. No, that hole was far too small. They’d have to be real ghosts to wiggle through, and she didn’t believe in real ghosts.