Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Arto

          Clank. The dense metal door of the locker slammed shut. Henri pressed his body to the back wall to avoid being hit. As the combination lock clicked shut, Henri heard Roland’s dry laughter coming from outside. He pounded his rough fists on the insides of the door but succeeded only in bruising his knuckles. He sighed. If his father had been here, Roland wouldn’t have even looked at him. Unlike him, his father was quite tall. Henri had inherited his mother’s genes, or so his foster par- ents had told him. Before she had passed, she’d been short, only five feet and a few inches tall. But his mother didn’t matter right then. What mattered was that he get home before his foster parents did. Otherwise, they would find out about Roland and all the other children who had realized he was a good target for mockery and bullying, and just make it worse. They worked late, so no one was ever there to give him a ride home. He sighed. He wished he still lived in the perfect time where his father wasn’t in jail for some reason, and there were no lockers to be shoved in, and he didn’t have to wait for the head custodian to check the lockers almost every day. He checked his watch, barely glowing in the darkness. Ten minutes past five already. Mr. and Mrs. Muriel, his foster parents, arrived home around fifteen minutes until six o’clock. On Friday evenings, the building was thoroughly cleaned, the process starting before school finished. With this schedule, the custodians cleaning the floor reached his locker at five twenty, and he had a twenty-minute jog home. He could probably make it.
          One ten minute wait in the cramped locker later, Henri heard footsteps outside. He pounded on his locker, not caring about the pain that came to his hands. Seconds later, his lock clicked open. Darnell, the chief custodian, stood there.
          “Hi, Henri. Still doing your homework in your locker?”
          “Yeah,” he replied, “It’s really... cozy.”
          “If you say so. But you’ve gotta come out now. School’s locking up in a few-” Henri threw
himself out of the locker. He bolted down the dark hallway at the highest speed his short legs would let him, then pushed open the door to the street, his weight pushing him forward. Slowing to a run, he turned down the main street, swerving around a man walking with a stroller. He ignored the cross- ing guard, running through the intersection, earning a few shouts from some drivers. A few short intersections later, he arrived at the big intersection near to his house. He thought about running through but stopped when a large delivery truck, with some large logo painted on its side, swerved its way through the intersection. No way could he make it. He’d have to wait for the light. Backing up a little, Henri pushed the button, so rusty he had to force all of his weight into it. He glanced behind himself, checking to see if more cars were arriving. The road was void of cars, a rare occasion on a Wednesday afternoon, but he gratefully accepted. Turning his head, something caught his eye. A dis- tinct indigo Honda slowed to a stop at the intersection, coming from the left, engine roaring, fumes still spewing out of the spout at the back of the vehicle. Mrs. Muriel craned her head out the window, her dark hair spilling over the sides. She was staring at the traffic light. Still red, he realized. The only other fast way past the intersection was to go around the block. Time would be short, but he could probably make it. Henri took a long stride, pushing his weight forward. He tripped over a shallow fissure on the pavement, stumbling back into pace. A woman walked slowly on the sidewalk, hand in hand with another person. He skidded to a stop, letting them past, then proceeded. As another group of people came upon him, his patience expired. He jumped onto the road, then hopped back onto the curb as a car came near. He rounded the bend on the sidewalk. His house was now in sight, the second from the far corner of his street, Richter Avenue. There didn’t appear to be any cars in the driveway, or on the road for that matter. He picked up his pace, sprinting until he was less than a block away. Continuing at the speed he’d achieved, he kept going for ten seconds, until he arrived at the front porch. Henri fumbled for his key, and eventually, his sweaty hand grasped the sharp key. He tugged it from his bag, then slipped it into the keyhole, turning as he went. The door swung open when he pulled, and he returned it to the previous position with a quick shove.
          Now inside the house, he went to the kitchen and put his bag down. He unzipped it and took out a textbook. He put it down on the kitchen counter, grabbed a pencil from his bag, and returned to his book. He was safe now. Other than the sweat on his forehead, there was no indication of his hasty traverse from school to home.
          As Henri began his homework, he heard footsteps around him. His sister, Emma, came down the steps.
          “Henri,” she said, “you’re late!”
          “What do you care?” he replied, “I’m 3 years older than you!”
          “Yeah, so Mom and Dad will be even more worried if you’re late. You have to tell them
what’s going on.”
          “Not. Going. To. Happen. Same as yesterday, same as today. No.”
          “Fine.”
          As the last syllable of their argument was pronounced, the front door opened. Mrs. Muriel
walked in, followed by Mr. Muriel.
          Mrs. Muriel spoke first. “Why aren’t you hugging me, children? Do not disrespect your
elders!”
          Although she was quite talkative and loud, Mrs. Muriel was quite likable, at least in Henri’s
opinion. He embraced her and was followed by his sister. Next, they went to Mr. Muriel, who hugged him back. As the man scratched his boy’s head, he spoke.
          “Why are you so sweaty, Henri? “
          “I was playing some basketball after school,” he replied.
          “But you don’t like basketball,”
          “I was trying something new!” Henri said defensively.
          His foster parent let this weirdness slide and walked with his wife to the kitchen.
          Emma went up the stairs and, with almost nothing to do, Henri followed her. Emma went
into their parents’ office, where lay an ancient laptop. She opened it. Henri, realizing that he had a presentation to email to his teacher in a few hours, got anxious.
          “Emma, I need to use that thing right now. I have some schoolwork that I have to finish as soon as possible!”
          “Well, maybe right now is not possible for you. I need to check my email!”
          Emma began typing furiously. Henri stood behind her, waiting for his turn. He looked out the window, tapping his foot to the ground impatiently.
          “Could you stop?” said Emma, “I just wanna get this done.”
          As she returned her eyes to the screen, she let out a startled, “What?”
          Henri turned to her.
          “What’s wrong?”
          “I have a-a new message...”
          “So?”
          “Henri, the email account is Christina Arto Arlington. That’s our-our mom.”
          Henri looked at the screen. Sure enough, the name was there. Emma double-clicked on it.
The message was composed of a single embedded video, and some other documents. After clicking play, a woman came on screen, presumably their mother, and started talking
          Emma. I know this may come as a surprise to you, but I’m alive. I faked my death for reasons I can’t explain right now. For now, I have a task for you. You must deliver the text at the end of the email to the government office on the corner of 21st street. There is no signage. If they ask you who it’s from, say that Arto sent you. No one can know of this, only you and your brother. Emma, the reason your father is in jail is that the police force is corrupt. You cannot fail. And do not look for me. If you want proof I’m saying this, look at the rest of the email. My birth certificate is included. Now go. There is no time to waste. The best time to leave is at night. Don’t let anyone catch you.
          With that, the video ended. Emma took the first stunned word:
          “We have to find her,”
          “But she said no!” protested Henri.
          “She’s our mother and we have the right to find her! I’m leaving at 11:30. You can come with
me or not. But I’m going.”
          Henri watched Emma return to her room, so he took the computer to finish his project.
When they ate dinner, an invisible barrier stood between them. They both hid it but knew it was there. There was no denying for either of them what was going on.
          Hours later, when night fell, Henri lay in bed. His clothes were still on, second hand shoes on his feet. This was the second hour he had lain there. It was 11:30 now and 20 minutes ago, his parents had gone to bed. If his sister really followed through, she would be leaving soon.