I spent my childhood imagining a life I saw in magazines. I poured over the pages in every magazine we received in the mail. Families in matching PJ’s sipping cocoa. A bride in a wedding gown, about to marry her dream man. I was ten when I started making elaborate collages of my dream life, taping the photos all around my room. I would fall asleep after staring at those photos, wishing desperately for a perfect life.
We purchased this century- old house three summers ago. After several attempts at IVF, I needed a break. Nothing seemed to be working. I felt a wedge being driven between Matt and me.
“Let’s buy a house. The universe needs to know we are serious,” I said one night, as we laid across our creaky double bed in the tiny condo on Queen Street.
Matt scoffed, “You and your universe garbage.”
“I believe in manifesting what I want in life,” I replied.
“That is a bunch of nonsense,” he laughed.
“You think that because you have no imagination. The world is beautiful because of imagination.”
We argued like this for awhile. I am a dreamer, after all; he’s a realist. But I always end up winning in the end. So, the next day, he called a realtor. We searched for months and miraculously ended up winning the bidding war on this dilapidated Victorian home. It was meant to be.
I spent one afternoon in the staff room at work, meticulously cutting photos from garden magazines to reflect the oasis I was striving for. Our backyard would contain majestic ferns, festoon lighting, a pergola with dangling wisteria. I tacked the photos to a corkboard alongside the other photos I had been accumulating since childhood for my dream life. I was so immersed in the project that I barely heard the bell ring. I quickly gathered up my things and sped off to teach my AP Psychology class.
The lesson was about the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is ‘the brain’s conductor’ my notes said. It lets the brain manage your body. The biggest difference between humans and other animals is that we have a functioning frontal lobe. To highlight this, I used an example of the raccoons that were abundant in our yard. They were highly intelligent, evolving new behaviours to adapt to city life.
“Trash pandas?!” laughed Max, a pimply 15-year-old in the front row, as I explained how racoon’s brains have evolved.
“Those things are dumb as hell!” He tossed a paper airplane. It sailed through the air and landed on my desk. That night, while lazily stirring a Moscow mule with the tip of my finger and watching a raccoon scale the fence tenuously above the sprouting ferns, I told Matt about showing a documentary to my class detailing how the creatures’ little hands were made.
“They have human-like hands that allow them to open and close things with expert ease,” I said.
Matt, as usual, was only half- listening. He was unraveling the hose, twisting the nozzle to the hardest setting and taking aim. The racoon trudged off. I knew that more of them would return the next night, edging their way down the rooftops, clinging to the siding.
“If they had smarter brains, they’d take over the world,” I said. “But not in the way Max thinks they will.”
I pulled out Max’s crumpled-up picture of a ninja raccoon, blood dripping from his teeth. Matt glanced at it, rolled his eyes and took another sip from his beer.
“The kid has good drawing skills,” he laughed.
It was several months later that we saw the first news story. Masked bandit makes its way into someone’s kitchen… look who’s cooking dinner tonight!” The reporters chuckled their way through the story, rolling footage of a racoon in the kitchen, rifling through cupboards.
Soon the stories became more frequent. Reporters’ concerned faces detailed ‘yet another’ home invasion by the creatures. Animal control was swarmed with phone calls. Rat poison flew off store shelves. On the evening news, the mayor pleaded with everyone to remain calm but to board up their doors and windows, just in case. Those were the early days, when we were shocked but not truly frightened. And then the cars began to disappear. We slowly began to realize that there was orchestration to the creatures’ behaviour.
Some time later, a team of researchers managed to kill one and dissect it in the dying light of the university’s boarded-up animal research unit. What they found was astonishing. Its brain was the size of a human brain, lobes that implied the development of intricate motor coordination and the beginning of language skills. The researchers got the word out over the radio for those still tuned in to hear it. People would have to stock up, hide out, stay hidden until the authorities regained order. But help never came, and the radio programs stopped airing. In a week, the power went out and never came back on.
We spent those days guzzling beers, working our way through our old board games by candlelight while taking turns peering out the slats in our windows, looking for signs of life. Matt reported to me as if he was telling a news story.
“On the noon program, we hit the streets to interview Mr. Baxter’s wife, who has been inside their home for thirty-seven days, slowly going mad. Find out what happened when Mr. Baxter decided to go for a walk a week ago. Spoiler alert – he never returned.”
I spit out a mouthful of beer on the kitchen floor, howling with laughter. I never liked the Baxter’s. That’s what I told myself anyway, every time I peered out the window at their house across the street, my eyes slowly trailing past Mr. Baxter’s body as it lay, bloodied and maimed, rotting on the sidewalk.
One day, I awoke to the sounds of kitchen drawers being opened and closed. I stumbled out of the bedroom rubbing my eyes, and saw Matt, dressed in his old goalie gear taping a large kitchen knife to the end of a hockey stick. He turned to me, his eyes wild.
“The world is collapsing. Maybe together we can build the future.” He clasped my face to him as all the breath exited my body. He muttered into my hair. “This is our paradise; this could be what we imagined. We get to make it our own.”
Mustering a face I’ve never seen, Matt placed a goalie mask over his head and straightened up. “Off to battle!” he screamed.
Before I could say a word, he charged out the door, hockey stick in hand. It took roughly eight minutes for the first strangled screams to reach my ears as I sat with my face in my hands at the table. It took six days for me to venture the nerve to look outside, through the slatted window, at the backyard.
I still see Matt in my dreams. It’s always the same. Everything feels right except for one nagging thought that keeps slipping out of conscious reach. Matt is ambling ahead of me down the centre of our deserted street. I feel uneasy. I remember what I want to say and sprint to catch up, but he keeps walking faster until he is running. I can’t keep up. I holler to slow down, but he puts his hands over his ears and zig zags down the street, like an out-of-control skier racing down a hill. I scream, trying to warn him but realize that he can’t hear me. I wake up, sweat- drenched and moaning.
Today, upon waking, a nagging thought lingers in the space between consciousness. Mustering some energy, I crawl over to my bedroom. The door is open. A ray of dusty light stabs through the film on the window. I stare at the wall where the corkboard containing our visions for our home still hangs. Standing up, I walk over to the board. It is covered by a crinkled jumble of photos. Photos of our garden ideas, the paint chips from the colors we painted the walls in the baby’s room, now eternally empty. I notice a few extra pieces of paper tacked on the board, just behind the photos of the deck stain we chose. Peering closer, I recognize my own handwriting. I can see glimpses of the words ‘developed brains’ and ‘dexterity’. Behind this, faded and worn, Max’s drawing. I hear my screams as I crumple to the ground.
Occasionally, I allow myself to indulge in the memories of the before times. Today, sunlight hits the slats of the boarded-up window at the right angle, and shadows of the leafy green canopy dance across the floor where I lie, waiting to die. I close my eyes, wishing hard, and I begin to conjure summer nights on the patio, twinkling lights above, weaved gently between leafy vines swaying slightly in the breeze.
Jennifer Kapler writes short fiction, poetry, and creative non fiction. She practices psychology in her day job, and her writing is often inspired by dualities: resilience/suffering, life/death, humor/sorrow. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two young sons.