Clement didn’t exactly believe in karma, but life hadn’t gone the way he’d hoped since the night he killed Puck.
Flying in from Boston, Clement caught the ferry from the island airport to the transit terminal at the bottom of Victoria Park Avenue, built around the still-operational R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant. After the 2028 Olympic Pandemic turned the overstuffed streetcars and subways into wildfire disease incubators, the city started using the lake to relieve downtown gridlock. Passenger ferries — and a few allowing vehicle transport — now brought hundreds of thousands of commuters to a dozen stops along the Toronto waterfront from as far as Hamilton and Oshawa.
On deck, Clement gawked at the transformed shoreline of the neighbourhood now known as Lakeside. Nobody called it the Beaches anymore, because there were no beaches anymore.
The neighbourhood was originally built on top of a network of underground rivers and, through the 2020s, unprecedented rainfall swelled those subterranean waterways, quietly hollowing out the area’s sandy substrate. As the easternmost Great Lake, Lake Ontario experienced the most excess flow, regulated by the Moses-Saunders Dam between Cornwall, Ontario and Massena, New York. Except that Lake Saint Louis, where the Ottawa River meets the Saint Lawrence, floods at a ten-to-one ratio with Lake Ontario — a one-foot drop near Toronto means a ten-foot rise near Montreal, along with swaths of fragile Quebec agricultural land and New York’s overburdened river system.
In 2026, the American government refused to permit any drainage, and the Prime Minister, already facing a shaky re-election bid, chose to protect Montreal over Toronto. Most of the city’s homes were far enough from the lake to survive the flooding, but in the Beaches the loosened substrate dissolved, and the neighbourhood sank into Lake Ontario.
Among Doctor Mayor’s first acts of office were expanding the Leslie Spit to bulwark Toronto Islands and the Port Lands and pushing through construction of a reinforced concrete barrier along the south side of Queen Street East from Victoria Park to Coxwell, saving everything north of the Boardwalk Barrier from being submerged.
Everything south of the barrier wasn’t so fortunate, including Clement’s family home on Leuty Avenue.
After multiple class-action lawsuits, Clement’s dad secured ownership over the land — up to thirty metres above the surface, however high it rose — with enough funds to build a stilt-house on the original property. South of the barrier was now threaded with walkways and rope bridges, motorboats and dinghies tied to bobbing docks.
His dad refused to move during the lawsuits to maintain primary residence in the flooded property, living only on the second floor and then in a houseboat moored to the chimney. It was the last straw for Clement’s mom, who left for a condo at Danforth and Broadview with a view of the elevated tracks of the monorail shuttling passengers up and down the Don Valley. She loved being so close to the subway, even if it was hot and crowded, because she could get around the city so easily. She was infected soon after the Olympic Pandemic hit. A sixth of Toronto’s population died in 2028, including his mom.
The South American Unification War sent Canada waves of refugees, and by 2033 Toronto’s population bounced back to eight million. Among them was Lis, the Venezuelan woman his dad had married two years ago. Clement attended the wedding in Caracas, interested in visiting the new United South American Republic, but he hadn’t seen them since. He finally agreed to visit for his dad’s retirement party after thirty years at RBC-Bell&Tire.
But his real purpose was buried inside the cement foundation of the old house’s extension, now under Lake Ontario.
Leaving the ferry terminal, Clement strolled along the top of the barrier, which was outfitted with a wood-slat boardwalk and lined with vendors. After last year’s coronation, a handful of local seniors had petitioned to rename the barrier after Queen Catherine, stringing up homemade “Queen Kate Wall” banners from their condo balconies. Queen Street East was typically choked with vehicles, but more orderly since the streetcar tracks had been upgraded so drivers could switch on their cars’ self-driving function along the rails, everyone too busy tapping on devices or watching screens to bother honking and weaving around each other.
The retirement dinner was scheduled for six o’clock. His dad and stepmom would go directly from work, so Clement had four hours to locate the remains underwater and dig them up with the portable high-frequency excavator he’d borrowed from the MIT geology department.
The lake splashed against the concrete barrier and, underneath the rows of stilt homes, Clement could see the roofs and chimneys of the sunken houses. Most of his old neighbours, the ones who stayed instead of cashing out when the settlement cheque arrived, built sleek modern boxes on stilts, with lots of reflective glass, solar arrays, and modular components for easy reconfiguration. But Clement’s dad chose to basically recreate his old house above the original structure, rebuying the furniture he couldn’t salvage, so it felt like a surreal dream of his childhood home, but with enough differences — like Lis’s colourful Venezuelan art and her skimpy undergarments drying on the stairway handrail — to make it discomfiting.
Clement trotted up the floating walkway and unlocked the front door with a thumb-scan. In the foyer, he changed into the wetsuit he’d packed, along with the luminescent goggles, air regulator, permeation scanner, and excavator.
He dropped into the lake and shimmied down the old roof, the slope mottled with quagga mussels. As a teenager, Clement had once snuck out his second-floor bedroom window and broken his leg when the trellis came loose. But now the glass had been removed, and Clement wiggled into his old bedroom. The furniture, clothes, knickknacks, and books were gone, but traces of his adolescence remained. He wiped away a slick coat of algae and, sure enough, the graffiti mural he’d sprayed on the wall with a stencil was still there, depicting Drake in a Raptors jersey elbowing aside LeBron James to sink a basket, the net topped by a miniature CN Tower. Clement shuddered with humiliation and considered using the excavator to destroy this evidence of his teenage lameness.
Clement swam into the hall and down the stairs to the first floor, snaking through the kitchen — wood rotten, paint flaked, fixtures rusted — and gliding down the basement stairs. It was colder in the basement, darker. Quick, slimy things darted out of sight. Plastic toys and waterlogged stuffed animals hung in the murk. An old bike caked in algae sat in the corner.
He remembered exactly where he’d buried Puck, but he brought the scanner in case the sandy soil below the house had shifted. The spot was under the basement bathroom, installed when the extension was built, still largely intact below layers of sludge.
Clement engaged the scan, which emitted electromagnetic pulses to detect subterranean formations. Fifteen years of hating himself for the worst thing he ever did, and he was finally going to make amends.
It was the last weekend before high-school graduation, June 2018, when he’d snuck out after his parents went to sleep to go to a classmate’s disastrous house-party. The place was trashed — neighbours furious, drunk teenagers sprinting down Balmy Beach to get away from the cops — but for Clement it was a more personal catastrophe: Ava dumped him.
Clement had been gushing about getting into UBC and out of Toronto, clueless that Ava had found out two weeks earlier she’d been rejected by all the west-coast universities. Her parents would never let her move to Vancouver to live with Clement if it wasn’t for school. Buzzed on a couple of beers, Clement was insensitive, and the whole thing escalated into a furious break-up.
Coming home through the backyard, wobbly from the beer and upset from the fight, unsure how to fix it or if he even wanted to, Puck surprised him by scrambling out of a bush, yipping and yodelling with happiness. His dad must have let the dog out for a nighttime pee and forgotten about him.
He’d just wanted to quiet Puck before his parents woke up. In the fifteen years since, Clement had replayed that moment ten thousand times and he still didn’t understand why he’d kicked the dog so hard. But he had.
The pug was named after his favourite character from the Alpha Flight comic series, although his mom had liked the Shakespeare reference, and his dad had assumed it was about hockey. Pugs have abnormally narrow nasal cavities and chronic breathing problems. The impact likely collapsed the fragile nasal cavity and, after being knocked unconscious, Puck would’ve suffocated. Clement might have been able to save his pet’s life, but he was too busy having a panic attack, shaking and crying and begging the dog to wake up.
His parents were building an extension at the back of the house. The workmen had dug the hole for the foundation, but wouldn’t pour the cement till Monday. Clement grabbed a discarded shovel, scooped out a shallow grave, wrapped his pet in a plastic bag from the shed, mumbled a prayer for forgiveness, and buried the dog.
The whole time, his cell had buzzed with calls from Ava. Maybe if he’d answered, they could’ve worked it out. But he’d just committed a monstrous, unforgivable act. Ava loved scratching Puck’s belly and imitating his excited snuffles. They’d planned to bring the pug with them to Vancouver. Ava would joke that they’d buy a stroller and dress him up like a baby to freak people out. She’d cradle Puck in her arms and pretend to talk to the dog in snorts and grunts. Clement felt he deserved nothing but heartbreak and loneliness.
Sunday morning his parents got into a huge fight when it turned out Puck was missing and his father couldn’t remember if he’d brought him in the night before. Coywolves had been sighted in the area. They thought Clement had been asleep upstairs. The family plastered posters along Queen Street East. The foundation was poured the next day.
Eighteen years old and roiling with guilt, Clement resolved to fix his terrible mistake — by bringing Puck back to life. That decision propelled him through undergrad at UBC and grad school at Stanford and a PhD at MIT, where he now worked. The biotech revolution of the late 2020s that exploded from the emergency science innovated to cure the Olympic Pandemic had made cloning safer and cheaper, but human experimentation was still illegal. You could clone a dog though.
The problem was cloning a dog from fifteen-year-old remains hastily wrapped in a plastic bag and buried in cement.
That’s why Clement had spent the past five years developing a technique to rebuild degraded DNA using an exonuclease-reversion enzyme that amplified traditional polymerase chain-reaction protocols. By sequencing the 2.8 billion base-pairs of DNA in the pug genome across the thirty-nine canine chromosomes, Clement had a 99.8% accurate genetic map. If he could get a pure-enough sample of Puck’s DNA to fill out that stubborn 0.2% gap, he could clone his dead dog by gestating a fertilized embryo inside the pug he’d adopted from a rescue shelter near his Cambridge apartment. His paper detailing the experimental process had been recently published and shortlisted for the Novitski Prize and the Brenner Medal, a huge boon to his tenure application.
Clement was sure he’d lose both awards. He didn’t exactly believe in curses, but he also knew a curse didn’t require your belief to mess with you. He’d been approached to sell his technique to a biotech company that wanted to clone beloved pets. The offer was generous, but Clement felt paralyzed, unable to move in any direction until he made things right with Puck. He felt a grim, burrowing stain on his life, with only one way to erase it.
Except Puck wasn’t there.
The scanner revealed a ghostly structural mesh below the herringbone tile his parents had argued about for months before his dad acquiesced to his mom’s taste. But he couldn’t locate the remains. He searched the basement for an hour. Nothing.
Wondering whether the soil had shifted beyond the footprint of the house, Clement swam upstairs and through the windowless patio door to what had been the yard, now a forest of greasy aquatic plants. Even after so many years, it had never occurred to him the body might simply not be there anymore.
And then he found it. Just behind the rotting shell of the old shed: a small, bent skeleton on the glowing screen.
But something was wrong. He’d wrapped Puck in a plastic bag and buried him just deep enough to be covered. This spot was a metre underground and, instead of a plastic bag, the skeleton was inside a box. It was hard to detect what material the box was made from, but as he adjusted the resolution Clement didn’t need the scanner. He recognized the plastic tub where they used to store Puck’s doggy treats.
Understanding surged into him. His goggles fogged over, eyes stinging with tears.
His father would’ve been enraged. There would’ve been punishment rituals, withheld forgiveness, caustic reminders. This discretion was beyond his father.
But not his mother. She must have found Puck, placed him in the plastic tub and buried him properly. It had to be her. His mother had known all along.
Floating in what used to be his backyard, Clement’s mind spun through years of conversations with his mom before her death. Despite his guilt and regret and disgust over what he’d done to Puck, he had never detected anything different in the way she treated him.
A panic attack clawing out of him, Clement kicked to the surface, spat out the regulator, ripped off the goggles and gasped ragged breaths. The cool lake water washed away his tears.
Numb, Clement walked along the barrier, vendors calling him by name as their client feeds picked up data packets from his phone. For fifteen years, he’d planned how to bring Puck back, not just to counteract the curse he didn’t really believe in, but to balance the moral scales. The whole time, he’d missed a more profound truth. What else had he missed while staring through a microscanner at gauzy wisps of DNA?
The afternoon sun felt too hot, too bright, as if the photons were worming into his skin like parasites. His brain felt oily from the lake, swollen inside his skull. He couldn’t handle this retirement dinner. He’d probably get drunk and cause a scene. He might punch someone just so they’d punch him back. It was going to get bad, and he wanted it to.
That’s when he saw her — Ava.
Trotting along the barrier with a bag of groceries in one hand and a yoga mat rolled up under her arm, hair plastered to her face, skin flushed with sweat. They saw each other at the same moment, so there was no way to pretend otherwise.
“Clem?” she said. “Hi. I, um, heard you were in Boston. Somewhere fancy. MIT?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, eventually everything feels like a job.”
They didn’t hug or kiss cheeks or shake hands. They just stared at each other, half-dazed.
“But you’re doing okay?”
“I’m doing great,” he said. “Really great. Uh, how about you?”
“I’m okay,” she said. “Never expected I’d still be living in the Beaches. Lakeside. They don’t even call it the Beaches anymore.”
“No beaches,” Clement said.
“No beaches,” Ava said.
She wiped her hair from her face, self-conscious. She looked away, making eye contact with a vendor, who smiled, toothy, eyes darting across the data stream behind his sunglasses.
“Hi Ava,” the vendor said. “British confectioners use only organic and hormone-free milk production in their chocolate. I know how important that is to you.”
Ava blushed across her collarbones, embarrassed she bought enough chocolate that it highlighted in her purchasing profile.
“I have, um, frozen goods” she said. “I should probably go. But so nice to see you.”
“Yeah,” said Clement. “There’s a retirement thing tonight. For my dad. I’d better get cleaned up.”
“I was so sorry to hear about your mom,” Ava said. “She was always so kind to me.”
“Thanks,” he said. “It was awful.”
“Those were scary times,” she said. “Glad they’re over.”
She reached out her hand and he shook it. The last time they’d touched, it was on what had been a beach not far from where they stood, holding hands, woozy from the beer, hoping she’d want to skinny-dip and make out. Now all that was underwater.
Clement gave an awkward wave as Ava continued along the barrier. He felt his insides folding up like origami, like snakes with broken necks, jittery and wrong. He wondered what would happened if he jumped into the lake. Maybe a wave would slam him against the concrete, and he’d lose consciousness. Maybe everyone would think it was an accident. Maybe he didn’t care what they thought.
He spun around to see Ava hurrying toward him, ankles wobbly in her sandals, tee-shirt stained dark at the armpits. She’d abandoned her grocery bag.
“Are you okay?” he said.
“I should’ve gone to Vancouver with you,” she said. “I was so embarrassed I didn’t get into school there. I told myself I was angry at you for leaving me behind. But I shoved you away as hard as I could. I listened to my parents and stayed home to go to York. They were both so unhappy. I don’t know why I paid attention to anything they ever said.”
“I wish you’d come with me too,” Clement said. “Everything in my life has gone wrong since we broke up.”
“But you’re doing so well.”
“I just ran into my ex-girlfriend in my old neighbourhood. What am I supposed to say? That I’m alone? That I’m lost? That I wasted the last fifteen years of my life? That I don’t understand anything and probably never did? I’m not doing great.”
“I’m not doing great either,” she said. “I make so many bad decisions. Over and over, the same ones. I can’t seem to learn.”
Ava wrapped her arms around herself, trembling as if cold, unable to look at him. Clement wanted to reach out for her, but he didn’t want to make another mistake when it seemed like mistakes were all he could make. Finally she looked at him, and he did reach out for her, and she lunged at him, seizing his body to hers. He held onto her, and she held onto him, and they stood like that, both of them crying in the sunshine.
Two ferries puttered by, one headed east, the other west, tooting their tinny horns in greeting. The people on deck waved at each other.