On January 12, 2020, the nuclear power plant in Pickering, Ontario, accidentally leaked tonnes of radioactive energy into the surrounding area. An alert went out across the country, but the media claimed that it was merely a false alarm. The people of Pickering knew different. Many locals predicted that anyone living within five-kilometres of the plant could have been affected. Several bird species were immediately eradicated, their plump little torsos dropping to the streets, either to be collected by curious teenagers or smushed by speeding vehicles. A family of deer were spotted walking on their hind legs. The water in Glum Creek turned green and sludgy. All plant life turned purple and slumped downward. Like most other human beings in Pickering, the Quill family had been acting strange, too.
Before the nuclear incident, they were a regular upper-middle class family living in Shady Acres, a cookie-cutter suburban development on the outskirts of town. They had a four-bed, two-bath detached with a plush front lawn, a yellow front door, a grey stucco façade and a rectangular backyard pool—just like all of their neighbours. There was Angelika, the mother. Arthur, the father. And Andy, their son. Arthur made good money as an insurance salesman at a nearby brokerage. On weekends, he drank beer and hung out with the guys from his fantasy football league. Angelika was the consummate homemaker. She made blueberry muffins from scratch and hosted weekly meetings for the local Oprah Winfrey book club. Andy mostly stayed in the basement and played Fortnite.
When Angelika and Arthur got married, in 2013, they dreamt of having a big family. After Andy was born, in 2013, they tried desperately to get pregnant again, but nothing seemed to work. They experimented with positions that were said to increase the likelihood of conception (doggy style), tried fertility treatments (IVF) and even visited a palm reader (a woman named Celeste, who ensured the worried parents they would eventually have another daughter). Then, finally, after enduring five years of disappointment—and an excess of doggy style—Angelika got pregnant again. Once they confirmed the gender, they picked out a name for their soon-to-be arriving baby girl: Ophelia Rose Quill. But Angelika miscarried shortly after the nuclear incident.
After that, a shadow seemed to be cast over the entire neighbourhood. Arthur’s hair started falling out in clumps and he stopped hanging out with his fantasy buddies. Angelika’s blueberry muffins never seemed fresh and her chronic nosebleeds made cooking quite difficult. Sometimes her muffins had a metallic flavour. Andy, who was about to turn eight, appeared to prematurely hit puberty. He could grow a full beard and suddenly lost interest in video games altogether, preferring instead to read dense books about 18th-century political philosophy.
On a grim Saturday morning, the family piled into their grey Chrysler Pacifica. Angelika had a few things she wanted to pick up at Walmart. They pulled out of the driveway and onto Dreary Lane, where most of the neighbours stood watering their front lawns. It was typically that way in the early afternoon. As the SUV crept down the street, one of the neighbours (a 40-year-old man named Bill) pulled down his pants and started urinating onto his petunias. He waved with his free hand. Another neighour walked on all fours, barked like a dog, lapped up water from the hose, then gave chase when the Quill’s vehicle went past. Andy turned around, clutched the top of the backseat and smiled as the man tried to keep pace.
The Quill’s drove for a bit and eventually stopped at a red light beside a Honda Civic, just outside of downtown Pickering. The woman in the vehicle had a cigarette jammed into each nostril and had her right foot on the steering wheel. Her fists were banging against the roof. When the light turned green, the Honda sped forward and jumped from lane to lane, skidding off the road and barreling into a tree. The woman stepped out of the vehicle, seemingly unharmed, then pulled a cigarette from one of her nostrils, unscrewed the gas cap, flicked the cigarette into the tank and started sprinting down the street. The Quill’s could have called the police. Instead, Angelika clicked on the radio. “…. is 1045 Talk AM. I’m your host, Jacky Buzzsaw. We just heard an absolutely faaaaaantastic tune by Korn. Man, I love that song! Now, we’re gonna hit you with something a little harder. Here’s “The Beautiful People,” by Marilyn Manson.”
Angelika stuck her tongue out and started thrashing her head from side-to-side. Arthur opened the sunroof, popped his upper body out of the top, then flopped his arms back-and-forth in a crazed trance. In the backseat, Andy pulled down his trousers and pressed his hairy, man-like behind up against the window. They drove with the music blaring, singing along the way a Christian family might proudly belt a Josh Groban ballad. Eventually, the vehicle screamed into the Walmart lot. There were clear paint lines marking the parking spots, but all of the vehicles were parked haphazardly. Some were slanted. Others were left running with all of the doors open. The Quill’s drove their vehicle right through the front doors and parked it near the check-out counter. Inside, sheer anarchy. People climbing the shelves, leaping from aisles to aisles. A family of five, all of whom were covered in pulsing red boils, feasting on raw chicken in the deli aisle. A woman smoked a cigarette near the pharmacy. Angelika pulled a neatly drawn shopping list from her purse, grabbed a cart and began clawing items off the shelves. The boys stayed in the car and rocked out. She grabbed anchovies, pickled cabbage, duct tape, soy milk, diapers, a hockey stick, a jumbo pack of peanut M&Ms. Then Angelika budged to the front of the line, shoved everything in the trunk and they booked it for home.
On the ride home, police surrounded a burnt-out Honda along the side of the road. As they drove past the scene, Andy gave a middle finger to the police officer. They kept driving. An Amber alert came over the radio. “Missing child, Pickering. A young girl with blonde hair has been taken from her family. If you see this girl or can provide any other information please call the OPP.”
“Turn that off please,” said Angelika, glancing at her rear-view mirror. “A friend once remarked that those Amber Alerts don’t even help recover children. In some cases, they cause the abductor to freak out and murder the kid. How the heck are we going to help with that, anyhow?” Arthur obliged, changing the station. They drove home, one big happy family, listening to “Toxicity” by System of a Down. The car pulled back onto Dreary Lane, where only a few neighbours remained out front. It was getting dark.
The SUV pulled into the driveway. Arthur popped out and moved toward the trunk to help unload the groceries, but Angelika told him to go inside and relax. “Oh, stop it Hunny. You boys go watch some football or something,” she said. The boys filed through the front door, while Angelika popped open the trunk. Everything was there. Anchovies, a hockey stick, a five-year-old girl with a strip of duct tape across her mouth. Angelika whispered to her, “Welcome home, Ophelia.”