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When I see the tweet that breaks the world open, you are not standing next to me. You are up the escalator in another part of the store, pulling a water gun from the shelf maybe. I scootch my cart against a rack of potato chips and stop in the middle of the aisle, squinting:
Taxi Stan @shiftingtense • 4:39
Active Shooter. Vista Mart, West Kent Mall, Oshawa. @OPP_News. Evacuate Now!
Yes, it says “Active Shooter.” And we are definitely in the West Kent Mall. I picture the curve of your ignorant shoulders as you reach for a toy, your back to the danger. But when I look up, there is no panic. On my phone the world is collapsing, but around me there are no sirens, no chaos of wild haste. I hear a woman tsk and divert around me, her cart brushing the hem of my dress as she reminds her friend she needs nail polish. Why is no one scared, why is no one running? Is it a hoax? How can the shooter only exist on Twitter? I realize I am still holding a bag of the sour gummies you remembered Peter likes, so I drop them into the cart and call you
And while it rings the distance feels infinite, as if you have ascended into the sky. For months I have not cared what you did and for at least six weeks you haven’t slept next to me. But I have not felt far from you either. We have been clawing at each other, trying to get out of our marriage, first slowly and then quickly and then nicely and then decisively. And that has left bits of you under my fingernails. Today you offered to come with me to Vista Mart to get what we need for Peter’s visit, and I wondered if you wanted to start a fight on the way to the store, but instead you sat in the passenger seat googling kiddie pool prices. You were on your best uncle behaviour, reminding me of other things Peter likes, as if we were bringing my nephew a grand finale visit. Only then did I think to wonder if this would be the last time you’d ever see him.
I asked if you remembered my story about how my earliest memory was being yanked from a kiddie pool by my mother and carried away in protest, screaming I’m not ready. You said, Sure, a lot of early memories are about fear.
Your phone goes to voicemail, so I hang up. I tap to refresh Twitter
And the tweet is still there. So I text you, Word of a shooter. Where are you?
And again: Leave store in case please.
I watch for the little dots that would tell me you’re typing back, but nothing yet. I expect you will say that hoaxes are likely after yesterday’s news.
Yesterday it was women, really girls. A mall down in Alabama with a dance competition, teenage bodies springing into air. A man not much older than the girls. We are told he was rejected a lot. The weird and toothsome detail that he called his mom a slut in a tweet. He had a manifesto of sorts, and the only punctuation was commas, clause after clause of breathless rage. Before we left for the mall it was hard not to think that a copycat could read the manifesto and do the same, the rage resuming the next day after a pause, a life of horrors with no full stop.
Not for the first time, I try to imagine raising a daughter. I would tell her she could do anything: be President, go to space — I don’t think I’d be the warmest mother but I think I’d be good at the parts where you tell them to take no shit. But then I think of men with military grade cannons who arrive to your dance competition. You can be anything you want my dear, until one of the boys gets fractured down into the shrapnel of a person and decides that you can be precisely nothing.
The existence of such men is hard to reconcile with five-year-old Peter, who is arriving tomorrow during the heatwave, who my sister tells us will settle down immediately if we put on something called Paw Patrol. Last summer when he visited he ran in the sprinkler, but we can’t find that sprinkler now — we probably threw it out as we were taking turns packing our things, because soon neither of us will have a lawn. At one point Peter picked the sprinkler up and pointed it at me. When I shouted Hey! — more out of surprise than anger — he looked guilty and stunned. But he was released again into bubbles of joy only when I pointed it back at him, restoring permission to play.
Still nothing from you, so I open Twitter again and tap to refresh
And I see the Tweets from 2h ago. From 41m ago. From 16m ago. But then it’s there again: “Active Shooter.”
Taxi Stan seems to be @mentioning the OPP, but when you click through to the OPP, nothing. I google, but there’s no news about West Kent Mall.
I go back to the tweet. Why are there no likes, or responses? No one saying Stay safe, no retweets or demands for sources. If I can’t confirm the news, why do I keep wanting to make sure it’s there? This is a new level of doomscrolling! I chuckle, and I make a plan to tell you about it.
That’s what you’ve been accusing me of lately — doomscrolling. I suppose you’re right, except that you say it to hint that I’m nervous and burdensome and that it’s a miracle that anyone wanted me, even Aaron, who you clearly think isn’t as handsome as you. I’m not as pretty as Kim either, I get that. You can see how little I care. I’m only 43 and I already look like a sour fruit around the mouth but at least I’ll have my own place soon. Nothing’s ever really surprising; people already know what they’re going to do, what each other will do. I knew you were serious about Kim, just like I know Aaron will be part of my life but only for a while. The last thing I can imagine is us shocking each other now.
I’m walking past soup and pickles. No message back from you.
This idea that you’re the even-keeled one is a figment of middle age. In college you were desperate to be told you weren’t dumb, weren’t slight and weak and ugly. All the sex we had and the books and the staying up late talking Leonard Cohen — what else do you do in college? — and you fixed yourself into a man with some swagger. If you want to decide I’m the burdensome one now then have a ball buddy, you forget everything. I don’t even think you remembered Leonard Cohen had died. But then one day you tried to claim my story about it, told me that you were the one who called it, the whole weird coincidence — that you had seen news of Cohen’s death on November 7, 2016, and listened to his last single, and said, That’s it, that’s the graceful exit, Trump is going to win tomorrow. You thought you saw the disaster before it was over. And I told you, That was me, I said that. I called the election the day before. You told me I was an idiot and I should read the polls.
Why do our memories blend and blur like this only now, when it’s over? Our foundational memories sure don’t line up. For years you prized the story of how we got together, going out in your uncle’s dinghy as college friends. We were dating other people, but clearly interested in each other, you always said. And then we capsized in the storm and had to be rescued, stared at each other for thirty breathless minutes in the cabin of a stranger’s boat. But I want to tell you that I wasn’t interested at all, I was getting bored until we fell in the lake, and can’t imagine anything happening if we hadn’t fallen in. I could say you got lucky and stole years of my life — but then I’ll just look uselessly mean, like I played my best card.
I tap the button to open your texts
And nothing. I triple check that the ringer is on and push my cart out into the big central aisle. I haven’t seen an employee yet. A family of four passes me with a large child riding in the belly of the cart, and I want to tell them they should barrel for the exit rather than packing their goods around the kid. But how can you raise the alarm until the world is actually on fire?
When you called me a doomscroller it was because you found me on the couch at 2am, a blanket over my bare legs, refreshing the Twitter feed. You asked, Are you afraid that you won’t know about the disaster until after it’s done? Maybe we should leave the victims alone for a few minutes instead of beating them to the punch! But your tone was charming and twinkly, so I growled and said, If we don’t sleep in the same bed I might as well be out here with the catastrophes. And you looked at my jeans on the floor and suddenly the possibility of having sex again was real. But neither of us was certain, and then it was gone.
No disaster is ever the disaster you plan for. Two days ago you sat in the office and played an REM song we used to listen to when we were dating. Aaron had just sent me a photo of himself after working out, because I let him think I wanted to see that, and I guess I like that he wanted to send it. But I heard the music and came to listen. That’s a real blast from the past, I said. Do you remember? And you said: I remember everything. But I’m glad it’s over.
I was glad too, but I ran for the laundry room and wept, heaving over the basin, wondering why I couldn’t have signed a lease that started earlier.
You haven’t answered yet so I tap to refresh
And I find it again. But there’s still no interaction, no retweets at all. As if it’s a private message for me. So I look again.
Instead of saying 3m ago or 8m ago, I realize there is a time listed — the doom pinned to an absolute clock. 4:39.
I look at my phone’s time. It’s 4:35.
And now I know. My doomscrolling has paid off after all, and I’m ahead of the curve.
It hasn’t happened yet.
What am I supposed to do with these four minutes?
I call you again and it rings
And goes to message. I can see an employee at the electronics desk talking to a mom about video games. If I have four minutes then someone has to be told.
I want to call you again — but maybe I shouldn’t make your phone ring. Are you in another time zone, a shifted orbit up the escalator, where the shooter has already arrived? Is there someone who might hear the ring while you crouch inside a giant Rubbermaid tin?
I get halfway to the electronics desk before I realize I can ditch the cart.
I’m getting faster now down the main avenue of the store, not quite breaking into a run. I start to murmur Get out, get out of here, but I don’t know how loud I can be before I break the surface tension and make it all real.
I catch a glimpse down an aisle and catch the word Seasonal hanging from the ceiling. That’s the section we were looking for. You never had to go to the second floor.
I’m almost to the counter now, so I pull out my phone and tap to refresh
And there’s a panicked moment where nothing will load. But then it appears, my disaster reporting for duty.
The girl at the electronics desk is maybe eighteen, younger even than we were when we met. Can I help you? she asks. And I know that as I am showing her it is becoming real and time is going to catch up to us. I straighten my arm like a pole and hold it in front of her face. She steps back in surprise, and seems about to ask again how she can help me. And then her eyes spring wide. Tell everyone, I say. She is fumbling for her radio. She is too young, she needs the authority of others.
And what will I do next? When I look left and there is a door to sunshine outside, and when I look right there is an escalator.
And I know I will have nothing from you but I tap to open our texts anyway
And I text again, just in case: Get out of the store now.
But do you know already? Have you seen them?
If my phone is in the future, can it reach you?
Can my body?
There was a moment when we both knew it was over. You were about to say, Kim — she might be big in my life. But our eye contact did all the work, and before you even got there we knew that the disaster had crested and real life would be outside our house now.
And I believed it was that simple, until yesterday. When I saw the Alabama shooting on the news. I stood in the middle of the living room and thought about calling Aaron. He would say it was horrible, but after that he would have nothing to say. Probably, given time, he could cheer me up — new relationships are like that.
But there was a horror that I didn’t want to dodge. I don’t know what got me about this shooting when shootings happen every day. But somehow the repetition had hit a full stop. You walked in and saw it on my face. With your hand on my back, we stood at attention before the TV, posed like the couple in American Gothic before a wilderness of senseless hurt. And you were with me, like nobody would ever be with me again. There was a jump cut in my mind, to two kids treading water in a lake.
People already know what they’re going to do, what each other will do. We would each want the other to run. But neither of us would do it.
I am starting to turn my body, move toward the escalator, with a falling momentum, like a person turning to find themselves alone in bed, like the day Leonard Cohen died rolling forward into the next day. I refresh your texts
And scroll up to see the last thing you texted me, two days ago: Sounds good: that’s the plan, you wrote.
I don’t remember the context. I know nothing except that people make plans and the plans fail and they make new plans, and I am moving forward, stupid with a child’s bravery. You don’t share two decades with someone just to leave them to die, standing safely in the parking lot wondering who it was you were given four minutes to save.
When they rescued us from that lake we sat in the bosom of the boat, chests heaving for half an hour in silence, staring at each other’s rescued bodies in our bathing suits. I could never look anyone that long in the eyes without speaking or kissing now, I would have to look away. I could never breathe with such patience. And that’s the hard part: the shared breathing, the time it takes for things to pass between us. We fell into this a long time ago. If I could reach you, up there in the future, with all of your life, you would beg me to run. You would say, We didn’t get rescued from Lake Ontario in 2002 for this. You would say, Hug your nephew.
And I would look at your slight frame curled on the shelf and say: I remember everything too.
And I am pulled and running, shouting at people to get out of the store, I am as loud as the whole mall and faster than fear and I am coming, because if hate can heave with commas then love can too. I can reach you while we are both alive, and you will live down the street, you will live across town, for years. I run like a blur, my hair billowing behind me like a woman in a movie, I fly into the open space of the escalators, and it is silent, like all the air has been sucked out of the air, like the upper floor has evaporated.
At the top of the escalator there is water spilling over, cascading down the steps. The escalator leads into a pool and the edge of the pool is blue with a picture of a turtle. The water is warm. I am in the pool. My mother’s arms reach for me but no, I’m not ready to get out.
Glenn Clifton (he/him) writes fiction, plays and academic articles. His short fiction has appeared in Prairie Fire, On Spec and Freefall. His short plays have been produced in the United States and Canada, including in the Boston Theatre Marathon, the Times Square Arts Centre Playwrights’ Lab and the Toronto Fringe Festival. He teaches Creative Writing at Sheridan College. More: Twitter @Cliftong_Actual + Instagram @glenn.clifton.5