Nela’s Dad started the thought. “So they’re calling you Twens? I read an article in The Atlantic about how you’re a generation without a future—”
“—No, they can’t conceive the future, linguistically, that was the point—” her mother, correcting.
“—okay, yeah. It’s linguistic, not, you know, terminal. Something about preferring present tense, on twitter and things, like there’s no future—”
“—so are you a Twen, Nela?”
Across the kitchen island they held hands, and Nela could not help thinking that their skin’s sweat and sebum commingled as their words often commingled in conversation, starting and finishing one another’s thoughts in stereo, the way they left traces behind on one another, and on her, with each word, each touch. Until she was old enough to make her discomfort known, her hands, too, had been held. There had been tickles and enforced cuddles, and she had watched The Muppets with them in the basement, her heart beating all rabbity because she was trapped in their arms. Twenty years later, The Muppets still filled her with dread.
Tonight, though, she was an adult and could refuse their touch, could disinfect the granite countertop of the kitchen island, which she kept between them. She could politely decline their meal and eat white rice from the white bowl she always carried with her. She could wear—without comment—moth-eaten cashmere and fingerless gloves and though her mother had asked twice if she wanted to take off her coat she had preferred not to. She ate her rice grain by grain with steel chopsticks and it had almost been okay—almost—that across the granite they dismembered a chicken swimming in ochre-colored curry, fat smeared, garnished with a mucilaginous swirl of green-speckled raita.
“I don’t like ‘Twen,’” Nela said, “but it seems to be sticking.”
From the safe side of the island she thought of a quiet and empty room, pale light at the windows, and the scent of spring.
“Totally,” said her mother, “I hated absolutely hated ‘Millennial’”
Nela’s stainless steel chopsticks at six o’clock. Six hours until midnight, she thought, and then, what’s at midnight? Across the island they indulged their happy, carnivorous natures, masticating the dead, their lips glossed with fat and saliva, as she had seen them glossed with bacterial films, yeasted fermentations and the compostal rot of wine, mold colonies, cheesemites, Hákarl, stinky tofu, and Garum.
Her thumb had left a smudge on the chopstick. Sweaty palms. She didn’t like sweaty palms. She pulled a wetwipe from her bag and cleaned until no trace remained.
As good as new, she thought, as though I had never been here and touched it at all.
Somewhere far away, another Twen—one of the youngest, for whom Nela and her kind feel both affection and sisterly anxiety—dreams about a room lit by spring rainclouds. As he wakes all but the sensation of water leaves him. He searches the dark behind his eyelids as though the rain will return to him. This is the beginning.
Say thank you for a lovely meal. Say goodbye. (They drilled her in the appearance of good manners.) Say I love you.
They said the same, sort of like people in a real family do. She knew they loved her, but wishes they didn’t, sometimes. Or maybe just that they loved her differently. She had escaped as far as the sidewalk when Dad called out, “Just wait, stop—Nela, you should have a ride. It’s not safe.”
For a moment Nela couldn’t speak, because she just wanted to go just go just go, and she felt the keening, panic-note of her childhood rising in her throat, the one that meant without words no no no.
In her pockets, her hands shook. She looked back at their waiting faces, their perfectly reasonable requests.
“No, thank you,” she said. “I want to walk.”
“Don’t be silly—you can’t!” Then—Nela tried not to listen—something about the girl and the hypodermic, and the boy who ran down Bloor with the boxcutter.
It was hard to explain that she preferred the open street and boxcutters to the subway and the moist heat of winter coats, or to half-an-hour enforced intimacy and conversation in the car.
“No,” she said, no longer sure what she was declining. “No. No.”
But her mother was still talking, and now Dad was talking, too, and they wouldn’t be quiet, and how to explain better than no no no? The words rose in her chest, and then it spilled out her mouth in the childish keen she hated. That was too much. She fled from their yard down a city block haunted by suppers from the neighborhood’s huge Victorian houses: onions fried, curry, cabbage, then a dense, meaty scent that clutched her stomach into a knot, though maybe it only clutched because, somewhere, her disappointed parents were calling out their plaintive goodbyes. Then the chime of her phone, and a message she did not listen to because its content was too familiar: what had happened, what had triggered her, was she okay, they were sorry.
They were always sorry, all three of them, over and over again. But it was better now, because she was clear of the neighborhood and the streets were safe and empty, whitened by a brief, heavy snowfall. In earlier years it would have been arctic, but climatic shifts have given Toronto milder winters. The summers are thunderous and often the streets are flooded with rain as warm as bathwater, but the winters are short, temperate, punctuated by polar vortexes, sudden ice-storms that descend overnight, and then lift. Every winter people freeze to death.
It came over her on the empty street, the thought of time standing still in the scentless cold, then starting again with a rasp and a groan, flowing toward some new state and bearing her forward as though in the bed of a secret river. This was, though she did not know it at the time, the beginning of the end.
The first time she knew she was disappointing her parents, though not the first time she had disappointed them: at the table, refusing the hotdogs her father had prepared special, just for her because all kids like hotdogs, right? Nela, four, pushing fleshy pink lumps across her plate. She used her words like they said to do and asked please can I go please please, but no—just one bite because you don’t know until you try, but that was a lie because you did know even if you didn’t try, you knew by the unutterable knot in your stomach.
What started with words—no no no—stretched into the keen until they said again and again use your words and she couldn’t, not before the insurmountable hotdogs, dripping their greasy fluid onto the plate. So she sat and sat and sat, and after two hours the meal was as repulsive as the faint, moist texture of a human hand holding hers.
They let her leave the table that time, but hotdogs were only the beginning, and her resistance stretched to handholding, scented soap, tap water, new clothes, mayonnaise. Then no kisses, no hugs, none of the damp and constant attentions native to human children.
She had been diagnosed: sensory processing disorder or bullheaded picky eating, selective mutism, socially avoidant personality disorder. Finally, that catch-all for her kind: Bartleby’s Syndrome, named by a researcher with a literary education. He wrote the first bestseller on the subject, and then produced a collection of workshops and TED talks about the strengths and strangeness of this new type. After that there were cures: meds and tough love; CBT and ACT and Art Therapy; talk through your feelings; speak up, Nela, and look at me, use your words; Family counseling, play therapy, mindfulness.
Despite years of treatment, Nela and her kind still could not bear the touch of skin. They loved the smell of gasoline. They look like refugees, the way they dress, whole wardrobes on their back and everything precious they own pocketed or sewn into the linings of their coats. They did not carry mortgages. They didn’t own cars. Their student loans in six figures. Their hands fluttering, their eyes downcast, their homes bare, their possessions secondhand.
The lucky ones—the ones who survived—lived such constrained lives. Nela remembered a moment when she was fourteen, and her father was enraged that she had, once again, barricaded herself in her room, refusing to eat Easter ham with the extended family. (Ham—repulsive, glistening, pink—how could they bear it?) He hit her door with the heel of his hand and she had seen it bend inward just a hair and that had been dreadful, to see the room breached by his rage. He had shouted through the door, “Do you know what’s been happening to kids like you? Do you know how lucky you are?”
no no no no no
Fourteen was old enough for Nela to recognize the way his voice cracked, and to sense something worse than admonishment in his words, worse than tough love. Fear, perhaps, or maybe dread. She wished she could say to him, there’s no reason to be afraid, not really.
He hit the door once more, then his rageful footsteps fleeing, and she was again in silence, wondering how she could be one of the lucky ones.
Nela, among the oldest of the Twens, was also among the first to notice the Room, or that constellation of false memories and sensations that came to be known to her kind as the Room.
Perhaps she dreamed it, or perhaps she saw it on her tablet during the mesmeric hours of the night, the sort that might be dreams, or might not. It happened as she lay on her narrow bed in darkness—or dreamed she did—with the only light in the room shed from the luminous square in her hands. She was online, as she was most waking hours, watching words and pictures flood the glass, and staring through them to her room’s window and the brick wall across the alley. Her hands in fingerless gloves, her body swathed in sweaters and shawls, scarves wrapped around her brittle, dark hair.
A new frame opened, temporary like an advertisement, bleeding pale grey through the page she read and she thought of a room in spring, the luminous windows, the rainy sky. She held it in her mind until it collapsed into darkness, whether her dreaming mind or the web.
The next morning she was working to deadline, sitting on the floor, translating the manual for a coffee maker into French when she stopped her work and thought: it was like you find yourself looking into deep water, but then an eye winking up at you where you thought you were alone.
Nela could not speak her parents for two weeks after the night she left them calling out to her on the front step.
Her father texted her the way the counselor said to text her, which Nela knew because the apology was unqualified, the tone accepting and light, and ended with an invitation Nela did not decline nor accept: Sorry about calling the other day kid just checking in what do you think about dinner next Sunday? White rice if you have to no olives promise!
The Room emerged in fragments, often domestic, often ephemeral: a color, a scent, an advertising jingle, a child’s chant ringing out from a playground as Nela walked past.
She discovered—as many of her kind did—that the Room was painted a pale grey, its floor made of old boards. She knew, though she couldn’t see, that somewhere outside standing water reflected the sky, turning the gravel drive blue-grey. There were daffodils.
She and her kind collected its constituent parts on dedicated private forums, and password protected blogs: rain and the many sounds of water; the word “spring” and the word “daffodil”; crocuses in grass; the crackle and squeal of short wave radio; the flat, AM tones of the National Research Council’s Official Time Signal: the beginning of the long dash following ten seconds of silence indicates exactly ten o’clock, Pacific Standard Time.
Meanwhile her parents worried because she’d never had a boyfriend. Because she lived alone in a tiny room, unrolled a single futon each night and slept with her knees drawn to her chest. They worried about her diet. They worried as every year added a layer of fabric to her body, so even she did not know the hiding places in her clothes. Once she had found a thumb drive in an inside pocket that had photographs from her nineteenth birthday, which meant, her mother pointed out, that hadn’t cleaned the coat in nearly a decade, and how was that even healthy?
She would like to tell him the truth the Twens all seemed to suspect: that some day you might have to leave suddenly. The clock will strike midnight, and you’ll be out the door, into the dark, with nothing but the clothes in which you stand.
Nela often saw her kind alone, on a street corner, in a lineup for the train. In the middle of the city, on Queen West, in the summer crowds in Trinity Belwood, she would see some boy—thin, or tall, or cowering—raise his head and listen, and she would listen, too, as though to a sound at the very limits of sound, some instruction, some message. She knew what he was looking for when he searched the crowds, the glower-green sunset and Nela smiled at him, even if she didn’t know him, and he didn’t see her smile, because he was of her tribe.
So she wasn’t really surprised when others found their own ways to the Room. Someone in Buenos Aires built a Theremin and posted the attenuated sounds he made in his own attempts to delineate the rooms’ spectral qualities. A woman who ran an ASMR community posted videos that described the room in hushed, glottal whispers. Some preferred recordings of comet O’Hara-Pak, heating and cooling on its passage around the sun. Someone else found a recording of nightingales and Lancaster Bombers from a spring morning in 1942. Someone curated vast fields of grey swatches in Pantone. A jewelry maker in New Zealand used silver-grey beads to make bracelets that cuffed the arm from wrist to elbow in grey tear-drops and Kanagawa waves. Someone in Australia found a Fabric Refresher called Pacific Yew that smelled—for a brief moment—like the Room. He was generous and shipped it internationally, so Nela had a bottle. It was an unstable trigger that worked once or twice before one was again returned to a narrow single bed in a highrise box in Los Angeles, or Nela’s room in Toronto.
It was good to know a Twen could find their way there when the world was so strange and brightly colored, and filled with noise. When they often felt the stares of mistrustful strangers, knew they were thinking of the stories that had filled the popular press for years: the boy with the boxcutter, the girl with the hypodermic, the murder-suicides in suburban houses. A headline like Do you trust this face? and a portrait of one of their own kind.
On a day she felt brave she called her mother, but made no mention of the room and its pale, springtime light.
“I saw the prettiest bracelet online today! Just. Ohmigod, so pretty.” Mom spoke easily and volubly about how original it was, how delicately it had wrapped the raveled black merino sleeve of the girl who wore it, how fluid, how like liquid in the arrangement of grey glass drops.
Grey, Nela thought.
“How,” she began, “did it make you feel?”
“It looked like tears. Like, exactly. You’d think that was a bad thing, but it’s not.”
It was good to talk about the bracelet, Nela thought, enjoying the unusual sensation of harmony. She didn’t want to wreck it so she said, “Yes, they’re just like tears” and felt the Room’s nearness, and was sad she could not explain it better to her mother, so impervious to the other world, even as it engulfed her, slowly, as though the lake rose around them and they could not see it.
“No pressure, but does Sunday work for you? Maybe a movie? How long has it been since you watched The Third Man?”
Once, with her mother, at night, in the kitchen. Nela was supposed to be helping with the dishes. She tried very hard to be good, but up to her wrists in grey dishwater she felt flickering past her skin bits of the meal just consumed, the slime and the rot. After that she couldn’t touch the grease-slicked sink, and the water cooled as she stood over it with her heart thunking.
Her mother sweeping the floor saying, “Please just wash them, it’s your job, Nela, we talked about it, how it’s your job, we agreed with the counselor.” Then again—now, her voice raised. “Just wash them. Wash the dishes. You’re too old for this!”
Nela did not say no; she did not say yes. The dishwater lukewarm now, a grey more dreadful than rendered fat, more awful than the slime of a lettuce leaf rotting in the fridge, or the smell of milk.
“What’s going to happen to you, Nela, if you can’t wash the dishes? What happens to people who can’t even do the dishes?”
She had been waiting for that, for desperation to raise her mother’s voice as it often did at night, when it was so dark outside in winter, and only a Tuesday, and already the week was too long, and Nela had refused to wear the itchy sweater, and refused to eat her supper, and had got angry and keened until they turned off the TV because she could only bear silence, and now refused to do the dishes, not even her own white bowl.
Then something new: a sob, without words or admonitions. Nela did not know what to do so she stayed in front of the sink, standing over the dishwater until her mother fled, and then it was blessedly silent.
But for the first time—when her mother’s voice cracked into wet, teary fragments—Nela thought she recognized something familiar there, and wondered why they did not simply listen to her when her voice did the same thing: the long, attenuated no no no no that rose in her throat when she could no longer speak.
Nela thought, for the first time, that she might go to her mother, and knock on the door that had slammed between them, and say something. Maybe just, I understand. She didn’t, though, and when her mother opened the door again, they pretended nothing had happened.
She got as far as letting the phone dial her mother’s number before she hung up, then let it dial again, then hung up again because even the thought of talking made her chest too tight for her heart. How to tell her mother that the reason she could not answer these objectively kind and newsy texts was that there was a tone between grey and white that slid inconstantly, no matter how often she stared at it, until she saw within its increasing depths the bright, serene calm of the Monday morning after a storm, when the wind has stopped lashing the branches, but the power is still out, and the house is silent, and you are seven years old and stay home from school without reason of illness or bad news.
Nela wondered how she could use her words to say that.
If she could dial her mother’s number and speak freely—Nela has never spoken freely—she would explain further that there were sinkholes in Siberia. Another white buffalo born in a zoo outside Melbourne, part of a genetically engineered subspecies with milky, opalescent eyes. The same technology returned the Auroch to northern Europe, the Tarpan to Russia, the Dire Wolf to the Americas. The Irish Elk and the Cave Bear were reclaiming their ancient ranges in western Europe, as the cities filled with people, not just Twens, and left the countryside dark. A grey whale who sang at an unnatural frequency found himself alone on the Pacific coast. There was a smog-wall in Shanghai so dense and humid that rainclouds form below the viewing platform on the 135th floor of the New Pearl Tower, and Nela’s tablet fills with aerial photographs of rainclouds, lightening-shot. Two stoners insisted they saw a mermaid in the winter twilight at Wreck Beach in Vancouver.
She would explain this to them if she could.
But she knew her mother would tell a different story: about the latest shooting in the suburban shopping mall, or the Twen who poisoned his family because they dragged him from his room and he could not bear the touch of their hands.
Nela woke up on the last day knowing it was the last day, so she finally called her parents and arranged to see them for supper. When she locked the door she knew she’d never see it again, and did not mind because she had what she needed: the white bowl and the chopsticks; the tablet; the silk scarves she wound around her neck; the thumb drive full of photographs. She had never owned much, anyway.
That night she took the subway out, walking again through the canyoned Victorian streets, wearing her heavy veils, her coat with its pockets, carrying her white porcelain bowl, the steel chopsticks. They were leaving her parents’ neighborhood. Twens, yes, to be expected, but this time Nela also saw their younger sisters and brothers too, alone, in little groups trailing down the middle of the street. Kids in heavy coats despite the mild night, who seemed prepared for some long walk, far away from the mega-city.
A fancy grew in her mind that she walked along the bank of a river, filled with a trickle that ebbed from the city, running counter to the rivers that flooded southeast into the lake. Or maybe it was a kind of run, maybe like salmon, people of her kind hung about in moth-eaten cashmere, in silk ties and bespoke shoes from charity shops, in runners and bunny hugs and Spiderman backpacks. A secret river that drained the city and terminated in some ocean she could not name, populated by her own kind, who were not her parents’ kind.
As she walked she fought the current, even on empty streets, thought of how lovely, how light, how free it would be to set out as the others had done, as they were doing now, to the lakes, to the shield—and to the far distant horizon, to the west.
One the other side of the street she saw one of her kind dressed in a heavy black coat. They walked in silence for three blocks until he she turned off to her parents’ street and he stopped and called out to her.
“Where are you going?”
“To see my parents.”
“You know that’s silly.” Not a question: a statement.
“Of course,” she said, “but I want to say goodbye.”
“Would they say goodbye to you?”
Without hesitation, she said, “Yes, they would. They would want to say goodbye.” It was good to say that, and to know it was true.
He seemed to consider this, then nodded.
“Okay. Catch up quickly if you can. You won’t want to be here when it happens.”
She arrived exactly an hour before supper, and sat separated from them by the disinfected granite countertop. She talk almost like a regular person, despite the sense that somewhere, far away, it was spring, there was rain falling, and the first stubby buds of crocuses slipped out of the earth, and the daffodils following, and the Room waiting for her.
It was harder and harder to listen as her mind wandered toward spring, but then her mother set a box on the table, open, spilling pages from a Hindi-language paper out of New Zealand. Nela hated the texture of newsprint, the grab of it like dirty silk, the smudge on her fingertips, so insidious she would have to cut the nails off to get her hands clean.
But then, as though she remembered about newspaper, Nela’s mother opened the box and took out a bracelet, strung with silver glass beads like tears. For the first time since she had arrived at her parents’ house, the pull of the invisible river eased.
Behind them Dad filled white bowls with rice, perfect cubes of grilled tofu, cucumber, a wedge of lemon, and—first sign of spring—mint leaves.
“Your Mom showed me on the website, and as soon as I saw it I thought—that’s Nela.”
It was a cuff made of grey beads that would wind up her forearm toward her elbow in Kanagawa waves and loops of wire. She held it and somehow even in the grill-heated, rice-scented kitchen, she smelled spring, and rain.
“I saw it on that girl, and she was like your twin. I thought, that’s so Nela. But I don’t know why.”
“The website says it’s tears,” Dad said, with a half-laugh in his voice, as though he knew what he said was both ridiculous and true.
“Yes,” Nela said, “and rain. It’s the color of rain in early spring.”
“Sometimes when I look at it—in pictures even, but more now—“ Her mother reached across the table toward it, and though Nela’s first instinct was to draw it back, she resisted.
Her mother picked it up. How like rain it was in her hands, how like teardrops running over her skin.
“It makes me feel weird. It makes me think—“
Nela waited, but her mother said no more.
After they ate Nela couldn’t stay. She said something about a new translation contract with a tight deadline, which was an uncomfortable but necessary lie because the noise was in her ears again and she found she could no longer hear them clearly. It won’t be long, she thought, it won’t be long now. Before she left she went upstairs and found an old coat of her father’s in a guest-room closet and put it on, the sleeves covering her hands to the fingertips. She put the bracelet on over top.
Her mother said it was too awful to donate, couldn’t she just get a nice coat that fit? But it was good she took it because when her father hugged her—she let him hug her—she had felt only the faint warmth of his body through the wool between them.
On their step she felt the current drag on her skin, pulling her away and out, along streets that were also riverbeds, running west to springtime. There were others nearby walking as she did, away from Toronto as though along the cradle of a glacial river.
“You text us when you get home, k—”
“—it’s because we love you. It’s just we worry.”
“I love you too,” Nela said, and tried not to observe the way their faces changed as she said it. “Don’t worry. It will be okay.”
Nela felt the current draw her in and then away from the suburbs and the highways. She walked until midnight, and when turned back the world behind her had gone dark. Without streetlights, it seemed to her that the whole city might never have been at all.
Rebecca Campbell is a Canadian writer and academic. NeWest Press published her first novel, The Paradise Engine, in 2013. You can find her online at whereishere.ca.