By Terri Favro
A literary, genre-bending novel full of heart
Cult comic book creator Debbie Reynolds Biondi has been riding the success of her Cold War era–inspired superhero series, Sputnik Chick: Girl with No Past, for more than 25 years. But with the comic book losing fans and Debbie struggling ... Read more
A literary, genre-bending novel full of heart
Cult comic book creator Debbie Reynolds Biondi has been riding the success of her Cold War era–inspired superhero series, Sputnik Chick: Girl with No Past, for more than 25 years. But with the comic book losing fans and Debbie struggling to come up with new plotlines for her badass, mutant-killing heroine, she decides to finally tell Sputnik Chick’s origin story.
Debbie’s never had to make anything up before and she isn’t starting now. Sputnik Chick is based on Debbie’s own life in an alternate timeline called Atomic Mean Time. As a teenager growing up in Shipman’s Corners — a Rust Belt town voted by Popular Science magazine as “most likely to be nuked” — she was recruited by a self-proclaimed time traveller to collapse Atomic Mean Time before an all-out nuclear war grotesquely altered humanity. In trying to save the world, Debbie risked obliterating everyone she’d ever loved — as well as her own past — in the process.
Or so she believes . . . Present-day Debbie is addicted to lorazepam and dirty, wet martinis, making her an unreliable narrator, at best. A time-bending novel that delves into the origin story of the Girl with No Past, Sputnik’s Children explores what it was like to come of age in the Atomic Age.
Raised in Niagara wine country, Terri Favro grew up with an electrician father who worked with the first factory robot and built his own robots at home. The experience fueled Favro’s lifelong love of science fiction, comic books, and space exploration. A novelist, storyteller, essayist, and graphic novel writer, Favro is also an award-winning advertising copywriter who worked on campaigns for emerging technologies that changed the world. Terri lives in Toronto.
One: A Tale of Two Timelines
Sputnik Chick was a child of Atomic Mean Time, different from the past you think you know. (FYI, you’re living in Earth Standard Time, which you snobbishly regard as “Real Time.”)
Up until the middle of the twentieth century, time was simply time: a single arrow flying through upheavals, bloodbaths, renaissances, revolutions and all the boring bits in between.
Then, in 1945, that self-described destroyer of worlds, Robert Oppenheimer, split the atom. Pow, crash, bam! Sub-atomic cracks and fissures appeared, shattering time’s arrow into a quiver of alternate realities. Atomic Mean Time was calved during the Trinity nuclear test in New Mexico — the first parallel world, but far from the last. Every detonation since then has created a new timeline, peeling away from the one before it like a stock car burning rubber at the start line.
In this vast spectrum of histories, Atomic Mean Time and Earth Standard Time existed side by side — weakly coupled worlds, the pipe-smoking quantum physicists like to call them — separated by the thinnest imaginable membrane of dark matter.
(How do I know this? Patience, true believer. All will be revealed in due course.)
Despite quirky differences from Earth Standard Time — rogue viruses you’ve never caught, odd hem lengths, the sour-apple taste of Neutron Coke — if you were dropped into Atomic Mean Time, you would not feel totally out of place. You might even find it pleasantly nostalgic. All of the cultural touchstones of the pristine, pre-atomic age carried on undisturbed into Atomic Mean Time — Superman, Buster Keaton, Blondie & Dagwood, jazz, Casablanca, Mickey Mouse, the novels of Virginia Woolf, The Wizard of Oz and the Great American Songbook. Even after the split, many of the same cultural milestones popped up in both timelines: The Silver Surfer comics. Fins on cars. Disco. Beetle Bailey. Those smiley-face buttons that told you to Have a nice day! Sean Connery as James Bond, until he was imprisoned for attempting to overthrow the Scottish Parliament.
Everyone on Earth — correction, almost everyone — existed in both worlds. Some lived very different lives, while others unconsciously thrummed to the same sympathetic harmonies as their alt-time doppelgängers. In moments of distress or ecstasy, a few sensitive souls, like my friend Bum Bum, could sense the actions of their alt-time selves, naively chalking up the eerie sensation to déjà vu. A select few, however, were keenly aware of their existence in parallel worlds, David Bowie being an obvious example. But of course, Bowie was an Exceptional. (Not the kind of degraded Exceptional portrayed by Crusty and Gooey, known as Twisties, but a shape-shifting mutant gifted with the ability to explore a full spectrum of diverse possibilities. How else could he be both the Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust?)
Suffice it to say that in Atomic Mean Time, we had many of the same hit TV shows, movies and comic books you knew and loved and most of the postwar world events that you slept through in history class, with one important exception: in Atomic Mean Time, the second great war of the twentieth century never ended, even after the surrenders had been signed. GIs segued from battlefields to factories. Their mission: the ceaseless manufacturing of nuclear weapons. As if the Cold War of Earth Standard Time was a flash-frozen fish stick that took thirty-odd years to thaw.
Atomic Mean Time saw no peace movement in its 1960s, except for a furtive, floundering one that wormed its way deep underground and stayed there. The few young radicals who attempted to organize a Ban the Bomb protest march in Washington, D.C., in 1965, were arrested as anarchists and swiftly exiled. Nothing would be permitted to get in the way of our world’s highly profitable march toward self-destruction.
Fortunately, in the event that the superpowers blew up Earth, we were prepared to colonize the moon. By 1969, unmanned rockets were sending geodesic domes and lunar life-support systems to the Sea of Tranquility, ready for the first batch of refugees from Earth.
I liked the idea of moving to the moon, even if it did mean my home planet had to be nuked first. I longed to be shaken out of the monotony of a childhood where the biggest challenge was deciding which flavour of Pop-Tart to warm up in the toaster oven. Whether on a flying saucer or an intergalactic surfboard, I was determined to escape from Shipman’s Corners. Population: 126,000. Economic activities: cross-border smuggling, the cultivation of local grapes into a sweet, bubbly wine known as plonk and the manufacturing of atomic bombs. Occasionally, rusty drums of radioactive leftovers heaved their way up out of vacant lots and construction sites where they had been dumped without much thought — until someone noticed things were a little off in those parts of town. Like kids being born with three ears and an extra set of teeth.
It was my father’s job to make sure nobody decided to build a school or playground or subdivision on the hot spots before the drums could be quietly whisked away to the deep, distant waters of Hudson’s Bay. Problem was, you couldn’t stop kids from playing hide-and-seek on contaminated land. Dad had barbed wire fences put up, but as he pointed out, there was only so much you could do.
Every year at back-to-school time, he took Linda and me on his sweep of a decontaminated landfill known as the Z-Lands, just before the annual Labour Day company picnic. Dad’s boss encouraged him to bring us along. Good public relations for the company’s community cleanup program, he said. People were comforted knowing that Dad wasn’t afraid to take his own kids to a former nuclear dumpsite.
The cleanup of the Z-Lands was one of Dad’s big successes. A year earlier, he had been promoted to Senior Decontamination Supervisor, a really important job. The local newspaper took a picture of him with Linda and me, smiling over bouquets of mutated wildflowers. The story’s headline read: “Z-Lands soon safe enough for underprivileged children to play in, ShipCo Decon Chief promises.” Dad told us later that he’d promised no such thing, but the company framed the story and stuck it in the foyer outside Dad’s office. His boss said that maybe now everyone would relax and stop writing letters to the big shots in Queen’s Park, who really couldn’t do anything about the dumpsites, anyway. We were answerable to a higher authority: the ShipCo Corporation, managing body of the North American federal jurisdiction officially known as the Industrial Nation of Canusa, a fertile peninsula that hung like a ragged tooth between two Great Lakes with the world’s most potent waterfall leaking out of its tip. Canusa was a murky grey zone where territorial and commercial interests merged. Canadian laws were observed, as long as ShipCo didn’t mind. When a new warfront opened up in Korea, quickly followed by Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, New Guinea and New Zealand — a series of linked conflicts known as the Domino Wars — American draft dodgers were as welcome in Canusa as they were in Canada. ShipCo considered them useful. If they wouldn’t fight, they could still build bombs.
* * *
In the summer of 1969 (A.M.T.), I was a couple of months shy of my thirteenth birthday. Linda was sixteen. We arrived in the Z-Lands at sun-up, the daisies already turning their monstrous heads toward the sticky, honey-coloured sky. Dad’s plaid clip-on tie dangled like a noose as he ran his Geiger counter over the hard-packed dirt. Linda hovered beside him in her skort and Keds, her volleyball-hardened arms crossed. Waiting for the verdict.
While Dad and Linda watched for the jump of the red needle, I wandered through Queen Anne’s lace and black-eyed Susans the size of trees, to an iron ship’s bollard squatting pointlessly beside the abandoned canal. I didn’t need the bollard to warn me of the thirty-foot drop ahead. The stench of industrial chemicals floated up from the bottom of the canal, where wrecked cars sat half-submerged in a frothy sulfate soup the colour of day-old dishwater.
Despite a fence topped with barbed wire and a DANGER: NO TRESPASSING sign, a couple of new wrecks had been pushed over the edge since our last visit: a banana yellow school bus and a pickup with the truck bed ripped off.
Something else I hadn’t seen down there before: a trespasser, crouched on top of the bus in the glare of the rising sun. At first I thought I was having a vision, like those kids at Lourdes. The figure slowly came into focus like a television picture tube warming up. An old man, with white hair to his shoulders. He was stooped over, his hands on his knees. He straightened himself up slowly and, it seemed to me, painfully. He couldn’t catch his breath. As if he had been running a long, long way.
In the distance, Dad’s Geiger counter started to click, no doubt picking up background radiation.
The Trespasser looked up at me, chest heaving. He was tall and as skinny as a twig, his face pink and peeling with something like a bad sunburn. He was dressed in a silver shirt and tight trousers that belled at the hems like a flamenco dancer’s.
“Debbie?” As if he knew me.
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” I told him.
“I’m not a stranger. We know one another very well.”
Weirdly, I believed him, even though I’d never met anyone who wasn’t from Shipman’s Corners. Weirder still, I noticed that parts of his body were starting to shimmer and run like watercolours. Pink globs of flesh fell from the end of one arm into the frothy scum at the bottom of the canal.
“You’re melting,” I told him.
He looked down at himself, his mouth falling open at the sight of his liquefaction. Lifting his remaining hand, he pointed at me.
“You’re it, Debbie. Never forget that.”
I didn’t know what to say so I stuck out my tongue. He responded by holding up two dripping fingers in the shape of a V — a lopsided one, because his middle finger ended at the knuckle.
Sunlight bounced off the roof of the banana bus, blinding me for a moment. When I could see again, the Trespasser had vanished. Mingled with the stench of the chemical soup, I caught a whiff of something pleasantly spicy. As if, in liquefying, the Trespasser had turned into cinnamon.
Before I could decide whether he was what Dad called “a Fig Newton of my imagination,” the Geiger counter went nuts, chattering away like a set of wind-up teeth. Dad’s voice came loud and sharp and even a little scared sounding, telling us it was time to get a move on.
“But Daddy, we just got . . .” I heard Linda say.
Dad was already striding toward the gate, windmilling his arms to hurry us up. Linda moved toward me through the field of flowers. No time to tell her about the Trespasser. The two of us sprinted after Dad, Linda dragging me by the hand.
At the gate, a tendril of barbed wire, draped over the fence like a forgotten scarf, snagged my ponytail. The barbs clawed at my scalp as I struggled to free myself. My yelp of pain brought Dad rushing back.
“Hold still, Debbie, you’ll only make it worse,” he said, tossing my sister the car keys. “Linda, start the engine.”
I could feel him breathing hard behind me, his fingers fumbling with my hair. He grunted a quiet swear as the barbs pricked his fingers. “You’re hooked like a fish. I’m going to have to cut you free.”
He gripped my scalp with one hand while he sawed at my hair with the jackknife he always carried in his trouser pocket. My ponytail, still in its elastic band, bobbed from the barbed wire like a foxtail. Warm air licked the back of my neck as Dad and I ran for the car.
In the driver’s seat of the Country Squire, Linda was singing along with the radio. Dad shoved her over into the passenger seat as I jumped in back.
“But you said I could drive home!” she protested.
“Not this time.” He threw the car into a fast reverse.
As we tore along the dirt track, kicking up a fog of probably radioactive dust, Linda said, “Mom’s going to kill you, Dad. You made Debbie look like a boy!”
“It’ll grow back.” The station wagon hit a rut, bouncing me to the car floor. “There’s no margin of safety for the levels I was getting. They’ve been going down steady as she goes, year after year. Now it’s higher than it’s been since ’55.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Linda.
“No, it sure as hell doesn’t — pardon my French,” said Dad.
I got up from the floor and draped my arms over the front seat, my chin on top of Linda’s elbow, while Dad tore out of the Z-Lands. I’d never seen him drive so fast. In the rear-view, I imitated the V sign that the Trespasser had made.
“Don’t do that,” said Linda, slapping my hand. “It’s rude.”
I stared at her through my fingers. “What’s it mean?”
“It’s how anarchists say hello to one another.”
I frowned. “Anarchists? Like spiders?”
“You’re thinking of arachnids,” said Linda. “No. Like Yammers.”
A drop of blood rolled off the tip of my nose and lazily hit the beige upholstery. Linda pulled out a crumpled tissue and spit in it. She dabbed at the bloodstain, then pressed it to my forehead. The tissue came away all bloody.
We were well away from the gate, bouncing along the dirt road at high speed, when we hit a pothole. A big one. The car listed to one side, engine revving and back wheel spinning.
Dad made a swear again — twice in one day! — then got out, slamming the door so hard it made my teeth rattle. He stomped around to the back of the car and groaned. When he stuck his head in the window, his face looked as saggy and white as a dead trout.
“Blew the tire right down to the rim. You’ll have to get home on your own. Debbie, tell Mom to draw you a decon bath right away. Linda, you scrub down over at Nonno’s. Use those emergency kits in the basement I bought at Canadian Tire during the last missile crisis.”
Linda groaned. “I hate that stinky old shower in Nonno’s cellar. And I just set my hair, Daddy.”
“Do as I say, for once, Linda. And make sure your clothes go in the incineration bags.”
“But Daddy, how are we supposed to get home? It’s five miles, at least. Debbie’ll never keep up.”
“Carry her piggyback if you have to. Now go!”
We got out of the car and started running, first on dirt, then on gravel. By the time we reached the second gate with its PRIVATE PROPERTY: NO TRESPASSING BY ORDER OF SHIPCO CORPORATION sign, we had slowed to a walk; Linda had a stitch in her side and I had a stone in my sneaker. Standing on one foot to shake it out, I looked back down the roadway. I could see the car but could barely make out Dad. I’d never seen him look so small before.
We started walking toward a hydro pole at the end of the gravel road, marking the beginning of Zurich Street — civilization, sort of. The pole reminded me of the lamppost at the entrance to Narnia. Maybe Mister Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe would be leaning against it, enjoying a cigarette and waiting for the floating craps game to start.
I rubbed the barbed-wire cuts on my head with my grubby fingers, trying to send germs into my skin to do battle. Linda slapped my hand away.
“Stop that. You’ll get infected.”
“I’m invulnerable, like Superman,” I told her.
“Says the doctor, after he gave me the Universal Vaccine. ‘This little lady’s generation might just live forever, if the Ruskies don’t drop the Bomb on us.’ That’s what he told Mom.”
Linda snorted. “He was making a joke, Debbie. The Universal Vaccine is just a polio shot with some immunizations for other stuff. That does not mean you’re invulnerable.”
“You’re just jealous ’cause you’re too old for the U-shot.”
“Change the subject,” she said. “Better yet, don’t talk at all. We should be saving our breath to find help for Dad.”
For the first time, it dawned on me that Linda was worried about him. That we actually should be finding someone to rescue him. That he was in trouble and so were we. It hadn’t occurred to me to be afraid for him, or Linda, or even myself. Nothing bad had ever happened to us before.
We had reached the cracked pavement of Zurich Street — or Z Street, as we liked to call it. End of the alphabet, end of the line. Wedged between the railway tracks and the canal, it was a neighbourhood of cottage-sized houses crammed haphazardly between grease-pit garages, butchers with skinned raccoon carcasses hanging in the windows and sad-looking groceterias with half-empty shelves. No trees, gardens or front yards. The houses squatted hard against the sidewalk, so that anyone passing by could look inside if the curtains weren’t shut.
Dad told me once that the tiny homes had been thrown up on swampy ground as temporary shelters for troops of ShipCo workers during the ’50s. After they moved on to bigger houses in the suburbs, poorer families moved in, insulating the walls with cardboard and sawdust and, if they had the cash, covering the wood frame exteriors with cheap aluminum siding.
Nothing was built to code on Z Street. If the city ever bothered to send in a fire inspector, most of the neighbourhood’s houses would be condemned. Luckily for the Z Streeters, the city couldn’t be bothered. There were even rumours that some of ShipCo’s waste was buried deep under the basements of certain houses.
Linda and I held our noses to block the stench of urine as we walked past leftovers from the night before: broken beer bottles, cigarette butts, a discarded bra, a few wrinkled plastic sleeves that looked like transparent leeches. It was just past sunrise.
In the distance, the dignified whitewashed facade of an old church marked the part of Z Street where Shipman’s Corners’ oldest families lived: the Sandersons, Kendals, Smiths and Bells, all of them descended from escaped slaves who’d come from the U.S. on the Underground Railroad, guided by Harriet Tubman herself. Shipman’s Corners prided itself on kindly taking in these refugees from the slave-owning Americans, then immediately pushing them to the edges of town.
Here, at last, we saw signs of intelligent life: a boy, sitting on the front stoop of a green-doored cottage, built in the narrow space between the big white church and a tiny wreck of a house, the front steps caved in as if karate-chopped by a giant.
The boy was reading a book, his head in one hand. As we clomped along the pavement, he looked up. That’s when I recognized him: Bea Kendal’s son, John. He came along with her when she visited our house once a week to sell Mom cleaning products and chicken soup base. Mrs. Kendal was a tall thin black woman who wore a plain grey dress with a little badge pinned to one shoulder and a matching hat that looked like a man’s fedora. She always arrived with a hefty sample case lugged around by fourteen-year-old John. I had the feeling that John Kendal noticed everything, although when Mrs. Kendal was taking Mom’s order over a cup of tea, he sat quietly at the kitchen table reading books that looked suspiciously like the Sunday colour comics.
“You girls are up early,” he said.
Linda paused in front of the stoop to push her damp hair off her forehead. Now that the sun had fully risen, the day was getting steamy.
“Could your mom give us a lift, Kendal? Dad got a flat on a back road.”
Kendal shook his head. “She left at five this morning to pick up her orders. Want me to ride out on my bike to help your dad? I’ve had lots of practice changing flats on my mom’s car.”
I could see Linda struggling with how much to say. She didn’t want to admit to what we had been doing or where. One of Dad’s rules was that nothing he did on the job was discussed with anyone but family.
“That’s very sweet, but Dad can handle the tire himself — he just wants Debbie and me to get home safely. Would you mind if I use your phone to call our mom?”
John Kendal shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
As he showed Linda into the house, I picked up the book he’d been reading: Tintin and the Shooting Star. I flipped pages full of flat, bright primary colours. Red, yellow, green. On one page a boy in short pants and his white dog were dancing around, singing, “Hooray! Hooray! The end of the world has been postponed!”
For someone born and brought up in Shipman’s Corners, John Kendal was unusual in a number of ways. First of all, he was black. And unlike most boys, he liked to read. Third, most people called him by his last name — Kendal, not John. And maybe most important of all, his father was dead. I only knew that last fact because Dad was summoned to the plant the night that Mr. Kendal fell asleep on the job and was pulled into a press by his shirtsleeve. He bled to death before they were able to get him out of the machine.
Dad talked about it afterwards at the dinner table, shaking his head and saying what a shame it was that safety mechanisms would slow down production. He pointed out that guys like Mr. Kendal, who were willing to work double shifts, often got sleepy and sloppy, and the next thing you knew, boom. They were minus an arm or hand. He said Mr. Kendal was a smart guy — maybe too smart for his own good, rabble-rousing among the other men, talking about banding together to start a union. He should have known better. Ever since then, Mrs. Kendal came around to our house once a week to sell bleaches and detergent and a powder made from chickens that had had all the water sucked out of their bodies.
While Linda called Mom, Kendal and I sat together on the stoop.
“Where were you with your dad at the crack of dawn, anyway?” he asked.
I was a notoriously bad keeper of secrets. “The Z-Lands,” I said, flipping through the Tintin book. “Ever been there?”
“Sure. I go there all the time,” said Kendal. “It’s one of the few places around here with enough space for football. Last week Bum Bum went for a pass and almost fell in the canal.”
He shrugged. “It’s not hard. The ground around there is like sand. We tunnelled under the fence.”
“I saw a trespasser in the canal, standing on a bus. Just before Dad’s Geiger counter went off,” I told him. “He must’ve gone in through your hole.”
Kendal frowned. “The Geiger counter went off? You mean, it’s still radioactive out there? I thought it’d been cleaned up.”
Violating Dad’s rule again, I nodded. “Yeah, Dad was surprised, too. That’s why we left in a hurry. He was driving so fast, he blew a tire.”
“I’ll bet the Trespasser had something to do with it,” suggested Kendal. “In comic books, it’s always visitors from some other dimension that cause gamma rays and solar flares and mutations and stuff. Maybe he ripped a hole in the time-space continuum and let in a blast of radioactive dust. Did he say anything?”
“He told me I’m ‘it.’ Like in a game of tag.”
Kendal thought this over. “Maybe you’ve been picked for something. Like he has a mission for you. I wonder if you’ll meet again.”
I shook my head. “Negatory. He’s dead. Melted away before my very eyes like the Wicked Witch of the West.”
“So you think,” said Kendal.
I put my head in my hands. “I shouldn’t have told you about the Geiger counter. I’m not supposed to talk about Dad’s job.”
Kendal leaned close to me. “It’s okay. You’re a kid. You shouldn’t be trusted with grown-up secrets.”
Linda was back, shaking her head. “No answer. Maybe Mom’s already gone to Plutonium Park to help set up for the company picnic.”
I looked at Kendal. “You going?”
“Natch. The ShipCo brass invite me and Mom every year. We get free hot dogs and everything.”
“That’s nice, Kendal,” said Linda. “I mean, after what happened to your dad.”
Kendal’s smile faded. “I wish they’d shove their hot dogs up their fat asses and give me back my dad.”
Linda’s face turned pink. Kendal picked up his book, pretending not to notice her embarrassment.
“Look, how about I ride the two of you home on my bike?”
Linda and I nodded, relieved we’d both worn skorts that morning. Kendal told us to wait out front while he grabbed some water to carry with us. Before he went inside, he squinted at me. “Want something for those cuts on your head, Debbie? Iodine, maybe?”
I shook my head. “I just got the U-shot. I’m invulnerable.”
“Delusional, more like it,” said Linda.
“Watch out for Red Kryptonite,” said Kendal. “It won’t kill you, but it’ll sure confuse you.”
“I think she’s already been exposed,” said Linda, circling her finger next to her ear.
Kendal grabbed a rusty CCM bike from the alley between his house and the church. With Linda in the saddle, me on the handlebars and Kendal standing up on the pedals, we started to wobble toward home just as a boy came out onto the smashed-up stoop next door to Kendal’s. I recognized him as one of the no-hopers who were bussed to my school out of a sense of Catholic duty: Pasquale Pesce, the bookie’s son, better known as Bum Bum because when he was a little kid, his mom dragged him from house to house, trying to use his skinny little body and pathetic starving-baby face to help her bum cash and food off the neighbours. Still deceptively baby-faced at fourteen, he had the sketchy reputation of a kid who spent a lot of time on the street and the lingering body odour of someone living in a house without a bathtub, Mr. Pesce having gambled away everything except the four walls around them. Bum Bum had come barefoot onto the stoop that morning with what I guessed was his breakfast: a slice of bread, a can of Neutron Coke and the end of a cigarette.
Bum Bum scratched under one armpit, squinting at us as we wobbled past. “Want I should take one of them girls on my bike?”
“We’re okay, BB. I just got us balanced,” said Kendal.
“Maybe I should ride shotgun?”
“Roger that,” agreed Kendal.
I swivelled my head to see Bum Bum toss his cigarette butt into the gutter and run to grab a child-sized one-speed from behind an overflowing garbage can beside what could generously be called his house. He quickly caught up with us, his knees pumping crazily on the too-small bike. He hadn’t bothered with a shirt and was wearing a pair of hot pink capris with a side zipper. Probably his mom’s.
The rest of Z Street was waking up, too. Curtains twitched aside. Blank faces stared at us from windows and stoops. An empty bottle flew over our heads, smashing on the road ahead of us.
“Watch out, someone’s trying to hit you, Kendal,” said Linda.
“Not Kendal they’re aiming for,” pointed out Bum Bum, who stood up on his pedals and shouted a string of swear words in our wake. A few more bottles exploded around us like grenades. I put one arm over my head, almost losing my balance. Kendal pulled my hand firmly back down onto the handlebar.
“Sons of bitches don’t know when to give up on a grudge,” he muttered.
“Probably just the fuckin’ special forces retirees carpet-bombing to scare the chicks,” said Bum Bum, glancing backwards. “Or one of them Twistie assholes. Don’t know friend from foe anymore.”
“Watch your language, gentlemen, please,” suggested Linda primly. “Can you go any faster, Kendal?”
With a grunt, Kendal pedalled harder, picking up enough speed to edge past Bum Bum.
“Eat my dust!” shouted Bum Bum, overtaking Kendal. The ride began to feel like a race.
At the end of Zurich Street, we sped around a corner onto Tesla Road, passing a graffiti-spattered billboard with the shadow of an ad for a cereal that hadn’t existed since the ’50s, the words SHIPCO KILLS a ghostly scrawl under a thin coat of whitewash.
We rode past an orchard where a woman and a man stood on ladders, filling quart baskets with plums. The couple looked as weathered and twisted as the branches around them. Grey faces, grey hair, grey clothing. They could have been man and wife, brother and sister, even mother and son. The woman said something to the man in a language I didn’t understand. The man nodded and spat on the ground. Their way of letting us know Linda and I didn’t belong there, tear-assing down their road with a couple of Z Streeters.
Shipman’s Corners was an old U.E.L. town — U.E.L. standing for United Empire Loyalists, New England settlers who stayed loyal to Mad King George and made their way to British North America after the American Revolution. We were in what was known as the ethnic quarter: giusta-comes, wops, Polacks, Lithuanians, Yugoslavians, Ukrainians, Displaced Persons (sneeringly known as DPs), what have you. Whoever washed up in Shipman’s Corners after the war, looking for work, ended up living in this end of town.
People tended to live with others who came from the same place. Italians, like my grandparents, settled on Fermi Road. The Ukrainians, Poles and other Eastern Europeans ended up on Tesla. Z Street took whoever didn’t fit in anywhere else.
Only one thing united the neighbourhoods: we were all outsiders, isolated on the far side of the shipping canal from downtown Shipman’s Corners. ShipCo believed in a certain order to its company towns. We were living examples of how their experiment was panning out.
Just beyond the plum orchard, we rode toward a dirty beige stucco bungalow with a scrap of a front yard covered by the roots of a giant peach tree. In the shadow of the branches, at a card table spread with bottles of various colours and sizes, a man with black slicked-back hair and a wide strong face sat in a white undershirt sipping clear liquid from a water glass — Mr. Holub, referred to as Mr. Capitalismo for his get-rich-quick schemes, the latest being a portable bomb shelter that looked suspiciously like an old-fashioned deep-sea diving suit with a Geiger counter stuck to it. Dad knew him from ShipCo. Nice enough guy, but a bit of a kook, he said.
As we braked to a stop, Mr. Holub ambled into the street, carrying his glass. I could smell something funny on his breath. Like onions mixed with rubbing alcohol.
“What you girls doin’ way out here this early in the morning?” His voice sounded mushy.
Linda slid off the back of Kendal’s bike and told our story in a rush — at least the part about Dad’s flat tire out in the Z-Lands. She skipped around what we were doing exactly, no mention of the Geiger counter or why our sudden need to leave.
I stood next to Kendal, who was holding his bike uncertainly while Bum Bum popped wheelies on the road, killing time while we sorted things out. With Mr. Holub taking charge, I was worried that Kendal would feel forgotten, until I realized that he was staring at the Holubs’ front door. A girl holding a broom was looking out at us through the screen, her long thick rope of black hair covered by a kerchief. I knew her from school: Sandy Holub, Mr. Capitalismo’s only child. Even though she was a year older than me, she was sent to our class because of her accent. Her real name was Oleksandra, but she changed it to Sandy because someone joked that her name sounded like a cat horking up a hairball.
Sandy and I got to know each other crouching side by side in the hallway during a surprise air-raid drill. As I faced the wall with my arms around my head, I sniffed a sudden bathroom smell and realized that she had peed herself.
“Don’t worry, it’s not for real,” I whispered, trying to reassure her.
When she turned to look at me, the fear in her pale blue eyes nicked me like a knife. As suddenly as it had started, the siren stopped, leaving a ghostly echo. “All clear,” our teacher called out, followed by rustling and laughter as kids readjusted to being among the living again.
“See?” I said.
We were officially friends after that. Not the kind who go to each other’s houses, but ones who stick together at recess and pick each other as partners for double dutch.
* * *
As Kendal stared up at Sandy, and Sandy stared back at him, I realized it wasn’t Kendal who had been forgotten. It was me.
Mr. Holub broke the spell by offering Kendal his hand to shake. “Thanks for the help, boy, I take the girls from here.” I could see Kendal wince at that word. Boy.
“See you around at the picnic, I guess,” he said to me, then glanced up at Sandy one more time before signalling to Bum Bum that it was time to pedal back to Z Street. I watched the two of them bike past the grey orchard, a dog in pursuit, while Mr. Holub backed his car out of his parking spot behind the house. He said he would drop us off at home, then drive back to the Z-Lands to help Dad. I could tell Linda was relieved to have everything in grown-up hands again, but I was disappointed not to be riding home on Kendal’s handlebars.
Sandy Holub stayed half-hidden behind the screen door. As the car pulled away from the curb, she lifted her hand to me in a wave, then turned away, vanishing into the darkness of the house with her broom.
“Funny, touching, genre-bending, and one-of-a-kind, this is an exuberant romp of a novel that is nonetheless unafraid of serious subjects.” — Publishers Weekly
“Sputnik Chick’s origin story is fun – a twist on pop culture and Cold War nostalgia, well paced with zero slack . . . Debbie is the girl with no past – a tragic fate; but for a character, an interesting place to start.” — Globe and Mail
“In this arresting debut novel, Favro (The Proxy Bride, 2012) has crafted a delightful, timey-wimey gem that manages to temper its phantasmagorical imagery with the authentic pain of losing everything that one loves . . . Favro walks an incredible narrative tightrope here, balancing present-day Debbie’s sad, inebriated reality with Atomic Mean Time Debbie’s frightening world of duck-and-cover exercises, DNA-enhanced ‘twisties,’ and imminent nuclear threats . . . A noodle-bending literary sci-fi novel that puts its hero in the box with Schrödinger’s cat.” — Kirkus Reviews
“Favro hits hard with political, feminist themes throughout, fearlessly bringing female sexuality and body image to the forefront. . . . There are no clear answers, but it seems as though that’s how Favro wants it, and that approach is perfectly matched to the curious, smart worlds and parallel realities that co-exist in Sputnik’s Children.” — Hamilton Review of Books
“It is a book so full of feeling, I thought that my heart would explode as I read it. I loved it. It comes with humour, insight, and cold war nostalgia as well. It’s a really great novel.” — CBC’s Ontario Morning
“Favro’s time-travelling comic book adventure narrative is fast-paced and entertaining.” — This Magazine
“Terri Favro captures a world that is equal parts filth, hope, humanity, lust, stainless steel and radioactive waste — an alternate reality that is both enticingly different and alarmingly familiar.” — Tom Allen, author and broadcaster
“A paranoid yarn with literary flair and real feeling, Sputnik’s Children combines broken families, fractured timelines, comic book trivia and radioactivity into a delightful, explosive read.” — Dominik Parisien, author of The Starlit Wood
“What a ride! A novel that makes you believe anything is possible in life as we know it. Or life as we don’t know it. A trippy, time-bending romp, filled with heart, humour and faith.” — Brian Francis, author of Natural Order and Fruit
“It’s not just Cold War Nostalgia, or the book’s one-of-a-kind genre bending, or how much fun this book sounds like it is. Instead, it’s all of that! We can’t wait.” — 49th Shelf
“You’ll love weaving your way through Debbie’s lorazepam- and martini-induced memories in this genre-bending ode to the unreliable narrator, with a touch of Cold War-era nostalgia thrown in for good measure.” — Canadian Living
“A unique, quirky story involving a comic book writer, parallel universes and growing up in the time of the atomic bomb . . . this genre-bender is definitely worth a read!” — Lindsay’s Library
“Exhilarating, so hard to put down, rich with comic book twists, explosions, villains, and familiar tropes that are fresh and surprisingly rendered. It’s A Wrinkle in Time meets Wonder Woman — with a literary twist of Madeline Sonik’s award-winning Cold War essay collection Afflictions and Departures. And easily one of my favourite books of 2017.” — Pickle Me This blog
“A dizzying ride through the time-space continuum held together by comic books and quantum mechanics. . . You’ll be turning pages faster than Space Shuttle Challenger in freefall. And if you read novels with a pen in your hand (like us), you’ll be underlining funny and clever passages throughout the book.” — SuperHeroNovels.com
“An audacious experiment in unreliable narration . . .Sputnik’s Children is one of those rare novels that starts out as one thing, and ends up being something else altogether – an impressive high-wire act that is also a cracking good story.” – Quill & Quire
“Terri Favro captures a world that is equal parts filth, hope, humanity, lust, stainless steel and radioactive waste — an alternate reality that is both enticingly different and alarmingly familiar. ” — Tom Allen, author and broadcaster
“A paranoid yarn with literary flair and real feeling, Sputnik’s Children combines broken families, fractured timelines, comic book trivia and radioactivity into a delightful, explosive read. ” — Dominik Parisien, author of The Starlit Wood
“What a ride! A novel that makes you believe anything is possible in life as we know it. Or life as we don't know it. A trippy, time-bending romp, filled with heart, humour and faith. ” — Brian Francis, author of Natural Order and Fruit
“In this arresting debut novel, Favro (The Proxy Bride, 2012) has crafted a delightful, timey-wimey gem that manages to temper its phantasmagorical imagery with the authentic pain of losing everything that one loves . . . Favro walks an incredible narrative tightrope here, balancing present-day Debbie's sad, inebriated reality with Atomic Mean Time Debbie's frightening world of duck-and-cover exercises, DNA-enhanced ‘twisties,’ and imminent nuclear threats . . . A noodle-bending literary sci-fi novel that puts its hero in the box with Schrödinger's cat. ” — Kirkus Reviews
“It's not just Cold War Nostalgia, or the book's one-of-a-kind genre bending, or how much fun this book sounds like it is. Instead, it's all of that! We can't wait. ” — 49th Shelf