Dark House

The gush of water from the Eaton Centre fountain turns wispy at the top, stops ascending and seems to consider its options, and then falls back down in a scattered mess of drops, exactly 59 of which land on Vida’s head.

“My father?” she says. “You were my father in a former life?” Vida sits on the edge of the fountain while she waits for the dishevelled man in front of her to explain the unexplainable.

“Yes,” he says.

“Yes?” Vida replies a little too loudly, startling some of the people around her who are not focused on last-minute shopping. “That’s the best you can do?”

Vida awaits a clarification, an expansion, that doesn’t come. Fifteen seconds pass, a minute, and this time she shouts the first words much too loudly, “Let’s get this straight,” and they whiz around the ears of the desperate teenaged boy who is proofreading the gigantic card he just got for his girlfriend, and Vida looks behind her and hopes that she hasn’t startled Snow’s Canada geese.

“Let’s get this straight,” she repeats in a more civil tone. “I get an email from a doctor named Boo who may be the devil, and now he’s telling me—now you’re telling me—that you are my father? Is that right? Like Star Wars brought to life, Mr. Vader?”

Boo laughs. “It’s not quite that simple, but, yes, you’ve got the basics right. Perhaps we could sit somewhere a little away from the crowd and I could explain?”

Vida looks around at the frenetic shoppers. She feels like she is on a set for a movie with an incredible premise, while the production crew and various extras mill around her. She adjusts her backside on the edge of the fountain and invites Boo to sit next to her.

“Here’s a compromise,” she says. “You sit here with me now and start talking, and if it seems like you’re making any sense at all, then we can go and sit somewhere a little more quiet and away from the masses.”

Boo stands there for a moment trying to make up his mind about what to do. He relents and sits beside her.

“OK, let me have it,” Vida says.

“Nothing is ever what it appears to be, Vida. That’s probably something you’ve learned over the years yourself. I could tell, for example, that when you first saw me here you thought I was just bumming for money, and though you were kind enough to be one of those people who actually is generous to the less fortunate, yet it was all for nothing, so to speak. I am not a panhandler. I am not some crazy person. I am not here to hurt you or to try to get anything from you. I am here to help you.”

“Help me?” Vida asks. She feels herself stiffen a little. “Why do I need help?”

Boo rotates his body so that he is facing Vida directly, and he looks straight into her eyes. She smiles tentatively.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Boo continues. “I wouldn’t single you out as if you are in blatant need of some intervention or something.” He laughs. “We all need a little help some time. We all need a reminder from people who love us and care about us.”

Vida smiles again and decides that she will listen to this person. The fountain gushes again behind her and she settles in for information.

“You’ve had a turbulent time lately. I was as sad as you were when your mother died and I felt so sorry for you, felt I wanted to reach out to you immediately, when you moved in with your sister. I wanted to help you—yes, that word again—wanted to let you know that things would work out fine, that you just needed to make it through these upheavals and then your life would be set on a different course.”

“So, where am I headed?” Vida asks glibly. “What exactly is it that I’ve got wrong in my life and how do you think you could help with that?”

“Don’t be angry at me, Vida. I’m not judging you, I’m really not. As vague as this sounds, it’s just all about your direction. Or maybe I could say lack of direction. I see such excellent traits in you, and I’m just here to nudge you so that you succeed in all the ways you can, and become happier than you have been in the last couple of years.”

Vida shifts a little on the hard seat. She realizes that she trusts this person, whoever he is.

“I know what you mean. ‘Nudge’ is a good word: just spin me around and tell me where to go! It’s all very positive and encouraging, everything you are saying, but all these positive vibes seem a bit, well, surprising from someone who edited a book called The Anatomy of Despair.”

Boo wrinkles his brow. “I don’t follow you.”

“Well,” Vida says, “despair, as in lack of hope. That’s not much of a picture of a positive future.”

Boo laughs loudly. “That’s a good one,” he says, “and a great illustration of my point. The title is actually The Anatomy of This Pair—this pair, and the reference to us, to this pair right here, is the most important one. The copies of the book that you have seen were of an early, faulty printing. Damn those electronic files! Life is always the story of relationships between people, of pairings of one sort of another. You and your mother, you and your sister, you and me. Everything is a pair of some kind. Everything is—”

But before he can finish, things go very dark in the Eaton Centre. There is a booming clack, like thunder would make if it happened indoors. The sound echoes, reverberates around the shops and up to the high ceiling, and then seems to echo again. The total darkness is replaced by the eerie pinpoints of the emergency lighting, and for the briefest moment there is absolute silence.

Then the screaming starts, a voice like an older woman’s, and then a child just crying and crying.

Vida stands up, but Boo remains seated, watching her. She looks around, up at the heights and down at the gleaming floor. She listens for something, moves her head one way, and then the other. Finally, she just nods slowly, looks down at Boo, and says one word: “Electrical.”

Before Boo can respond or ask her what she means, Vida is off running. He sits and waits. And waits. And waits. There are two pools of activity around him. Most people are sitting or milling about quietly, realizing (or hoping) that this is nothing very serious and that they should just wait out the repair so that they can get on with their shopping. Another group, smaller, is panicked. They’re thinking about terrorists and the evil appropriateness of ruining the most prominent holiday of the West. Security guards appear out of nowhere and start whispering reassurance to the vocal and the distraught. They also do a lot of pointing, showing one man where the brightest light is, showing a child where his mother has gone, showing a group of teenaged girls the way to the washroom (“This is like totally” something or other, Boo hears).

Things settle eventually. The panicked take a seat and start talking to each other, and the already-calm get even calmer. Laughter, conversation—and the lights come back on in all their glory.

Spontaneous applause erupts. Store owners emerge from the back where they have been guarding the cash registers. People start shopping again. The teen with the big Christmas card decides that it’s time to reward himself with a slice of all-dressed pizza.

And in the distance Boo can see Vida returning to be with him at the fountain.

“Where were you?” he asks. “I was starting to get a little worried.”

“Oh, just fixing a little problem,” Vida replies elusively.

“You fixed the blackout?”

“I won’t tell if you don’t tell,” Vida says. “Let’s just say that someone who used to work in mall security, loves shopping, and has a degree in electrical engineering is a good person to have around at a time like this.”

Boo relents. “OK, fair enough. How about this: you tell me all of your details and I will tell you all of mine. I will tell you how I am your father, and you will tell me how you took this dark house, and gave it back its life.” Boo pauses. “Vida,” he says. “That means ‘life,’ and I named you well.”

“Deal,” Vida says and moves forward to give him a hug.

Vida looks around at the crowd one last time while she hugs her father closer to her. The fountain behind her spurts yet again, but on the way back down this time it’s all snowflakes, which fall gently and melt on her upturned face, revealed by the sparkling lights in all colours.