I remember the first freeze like it was yesterday. It was a March day of unseasonably warm temperatures, but we wouldn’t notice the connection until much later. The office building where I worked was buzzing with excitement. People were going for long walks and offsite meetings just for the chance to go outside and feel the warm sun on their faces. It had been a brutal winter, so the sudden heat wave felt like a long awaited reward. It was a day to leave the coats behind and roll up our sleeves and order cold, sweetened drinks from the expensive coffee shop by the park.
It was my dear friend, and colleague, Sophie who heard the news first. She stood up slowly in her cubicle, frowning down at the cellphone in her hand. Dan called out to her, cracking some joke about ‘brightening up’ like the weather, but Sophie was scrolling away on her phone as her mouth gaped open and her eyes bulged. By the time I stood from my desk and called her name, Dan was bent over her shoulder, straining to read whatever was displayed on her phone screen. I watched as his eyebrows came together and his obnoxious smile wilted.
Dan frantically called for the TV to be turned on, drawing attention across the office. Channel 4, no 6. He debated with himself then yanked Sophie’s phone from her hand to confirm that it was in fact Channel 6. I exchanged a look with my colleagues. Debra looked like she was about to break into one of her rants about inappropriate behaviour in the workplace but then Sophie was scrambling just as much as Dan, fumbling with the remote until Channel 6 settled on the TV screen.
It took us all a while to realize we were witnessing a tragedy.
The television was a large but cheaply made Toshiba that had been thrown up years ago never really used. It’s colour was a little off so, at first, I wrote off the blue shade of the scene it displayed. The camera was slowly panning over an intersection, capturing a tableau of life I had seen so many times before. People were caught mid-motion crossing at a set of stoplights, talking on their cell-phones and walking their dogs as a line of cars waited full of drivers and passengers before the backdrop of city buildings and the edge of a green park. It was a piece of normal life from our civilized world, the sort of thing you see everyday but never pay attention to. What was odd, was that when the stop lights changed colours, no one moved from the positions they held. No one on the screen was moving at all.
The second thing I noticed was the birds. There were 5 or 6 lying on the hood of a car and in the middle of the walkway where the people were about to step. Their wings were still unfolded, some pushing down or sweeping up like plastic figurines designed to capture the motion of birds mid-flight. They lay resting on wing tips or beaks in some strange rigor-mortis as though they had stiffened in flight and died instantly. A silence was slowly falling over the office as more people turned to the television screen, then Sophie was thumbing the sound button on the remote, and the volume was climbing up, up.
To this day, Dan still claims he remembers every word the reporter said as she came into view before the tableau behind her, but I only remember one phrase; literally frozen in time. I found myself joining my colleagues as we converged on the television trying to hear and see more, trying to understand. The summer buzz was fading into the sound of questioning mutters and whispered confusion while, before them all, Sophie was standing too close to the screen, her breathless “oh my God”’s growing louder and louder.
I remember thinking “The reporters not blue.” Maybe it was because she was standing closer to the camera, but that didn’t make sense if the television was the problem. The blue tinge only fell across the people and the cars and the small, ridged birds. Then I noticed the street was gleaming and the windows of the cars were faintly spider webbed and the reporter’s eyes were filled with something like confusion and what I would realize later was fear.
“Are those real people?” Someone asked. Beside them, Sophie kept dialing the same number on her phone and no one answered on the other end. I stepped forward, stood beside her, said her name and she didn’t respond. I clutched at her arm, held tight to her shoulders, begged her to tell me what was wrong as she dialed the phone and waited and dialed again.
Are those real people?
No one could accept it at first. Not when the reporter confirmed that this was, in fact, not a stunt or when the scene slowly began to fill with ambulances, police cars and, much later, scientists whom the alternating news anchors described in detail for their great achievements before declaring that they couldn’t determine what had happened. They called it a Localized Flash Freeze. It encompassed 100 square meters in the city of London, Ontario, only a block from our office, and everything in it had frozen in time, yet no one could answer the question of how or why.
In the matter of a day, the incident was Global News but the frozen area of the city would be blocked off for much longer. Social media was skeptical, discrediting the images and footage that spread across the internet. Some called it a bad stunt to get the less significant London on the map while others were throwing around the word ‘terrorism’ despite the Prime Minister’s refusal to confirm whether it was or was not. The kinder, but more ridiculous, rumors suggested mass hysteria or a new airborne, viral disease, but were quickly debunked. I might have been among the skeptics if it wasn’t for Sophie. Her mother, a woman I had always looked up to, was one of the ones caught mid-step in the intersection.
Sophie never really got her mother back. Within 24 hrs, they put up large white tents around the entire scene. No civilians were allowed inside and just after a week, men and women in hazmat suits were seen carefully carrying the bodies from the tents into large stainless steel, medical transports. A crowd gathered when they tore down the tents and sent tow trucks for the frozen cars, some of which had been cut open so their passengers could be removed. Traffic didn’t returned to the area once they reopened the roads. Even though they weren’t there anymore, something of what had happened still was.
It didn’t help that no one knew where they had taken the victims of the Localized Flash Freeze, not even Sophie. She was in persistent contact with a lead member of the investigating officers, but they still refused to give her any details or answer any questions. Protests began, some were violent. Things only got worse when intelligence finally confirmed that the subjects of the freezing had no heartbeats. It was 3 months before Sophie was given a chance to see her mother through a thick glass wall and 13 months later when they finally released the bodies to their families. I was there with her that day, standing helplessly by her side when they wheeled her mother’s blue body out on a steel gurney.
Sophie buried a ridged, stone-like version of her mother on a hot summer day with onlookers sweating in the heat. The coffin had cost her a fortune, as it had to be custom built to hold the body with its arms frozen mid-swing. I could tell Sophie was hopeful that day as we stood together in the graveyard. It was so hot, how could anything remain frozen? But despite the sweltering summer day the body of her mother remained ice cold.
A year past. People never talked about the Freezing at work when Sophie was around and after a while the tragedy somehow became old news to them. People lost interest in figuring out what had happened and the topic of the Freezing was left to the conspiracy theorists and elementary school speeches. Traffic returned to the area of the phenomena and the intersection filled with the chatter of life again. It seemed sometimes like only Sophie and I who were still searching for an answer. We spent endless nights rifling through all the theories online, reading articles and listening to podcasts, trying to understand what had happened to Sophie’s mother.
At first it was something that kept us together and gave Sophie some purpose throughout her mourning. Then I began to notice that late at night when I’d go to sleep, she’d stay up researching, or when I’d suggest we watch a movie or go for dinner, she’d remain constantly glued to her phone reading through things we’d already read and analyzed a thousand times. When I suggested that things had gone too far, that we needed to take a step back, Sophie stopped inviting me over and rarely answered my calls. I became lonely, so I would find a new article or a video of a crazy ranting conspiracy theorist and send it to her, and we would talk about her mother again.
It was 3 years and 6 days later that another Localized Flash Freeze was recorded in Macau, China. It swallowed a small office building that housed a law firm, a chiropractor, a small cafe and two or three rising start-ups.
When I heard about the news I was stunned. It had been easier for the world to write-off the tragic phenomena in our city as some sort of fluke, to forget that it happened without explanation or reason. It had been easier for them all to stop wondering what had happened, or what was happening to our city or the world and why. Forgetting had felt safe, but then 1000 square meters in Macau had frozen and, that same day, unusually high temperatures had been reported in the city.
A crawling terror began to spread. The interactions in our office had gloomy undertones and the reporters we watched on the company television were sullen as they reported the details in Macau that mimicked London’s Flash Freeze 3 years ago. Sophie and I were glued to our computers. Social media cried out about the end of the world. Aliens, greenhouse gases, modern ice ages, government conspiracies, terrorism; it didn’t matter what angle they took to explain what was happening because they all began whispering that it wasn’t safe anywhere anymore. There was a divide among people everywhere. Some stopped going into work, opting to work remotely jobs from their own living rooms and homeschool their children, like they would be safer under their own roof. Others did quite the opposite, travelling and partying, selling their homes and going on adventures like there was no time left to spare.
The government in Macau reacted quite differently then London had. They didn’t remove the people from the buildings or alter anything inside of it. Instead, they chose to study the scene as it was and then eventually turned it all into a museum. The news reported that the families were substantially compensated by the Chinese government for their loss and continued to receive royalties from the profiting museum. Each year, millions of people from all over the world gathered to visit the small frozen office to see the people locked in a moment forever. Until it wasn’t forever.
Two years after the Macau Freezing, Kazan, Russia experienced rising temperatures followed by a Localized Flash Freeze covering a 10,000 square foot radius that encompassed their Red Square. Nearly 1500 people were caught in the freezing. 13 months following that, Los Angeles, USA lost 100,000 square feet and 5500 people in an elite office building and the surrounding streets after a heat wave that caused 6 fatalities. Meteorologists we’re struggling to track the unexplainable events and the world was quickly falling into a state of confused panic when the first defrost occured.
It was the middle of winter when it happened. Everyone knew about the people who had kept their frozen loved ones rather then burying them with the hope that their freezing would pass. Like most popular media, Sophie and I had thought it both disgusting and disturbing and had never suspected that those people, the ones who kept their frozen loved ones rather then bury them, would be right. The first report of a defrost hit the news at 8:28 AM while I was on my way to work. The song playing on the radio station abruptly cut out, mid-chorus, and the radio host’s excited voice sputtered through the speakers. He reported that a man named Samuel Palar had rushed his wife to the hospital only an hour earlier when he had found her pale and shivering in the spare room where he had kept her for the last 7 years.
How could that be possible? How could she just freeze one day and seven years later come back to life like nothing had ever happened, talking about the things she was supposed to be doing that fateful day at the crosswalk as if no time had passed? How could she be okay like the doctors said she was? How could her heart continue beating when it had not for 7 years? Why had only four families refused to bury their loved ones and choose hope, and how could they have been right? I called Sophie a hundred times, a thousand times maybe, but could not get through to her. She wasn’t in the office and she wasn’t at home.
Later that evening disturbing footage appeared online. Of all of the things that happened in those last seven years this was by far the most horrific of them all. It was a video captured on someone’s phone of a woman and two men digging up a grave.
The diggers were already deep into the earth and their shovels thundered against something solid. Their voices were eccentric and muffled, yelling to one another as they pulled at something and the snapping sound of wood answered back. There was a lot of shuffling, the camera was dropped and picked up, more wood snapped somewhere in the grave.Then there was a wailing, an awful, terrible wailing as the woman was dragged away from the hole by the two men and the person videotaping the scene rushed over. The camera peered down into a hole where inside a woman in her early 60’s lay dead. Her body had not decayed nor aged since the day Sophie put her in the ground but her hands were covered with blood and some of her fingernails were missing. There were gouges that looked like scratch marks on the inside of the open, coffin lid.
Sophie stopped coming to work, stopped answering my calls, stopped speaking to me or anyone else. Six months later, I buried her in a plot beside her mothers.
The Flash Freezes continued across the world each following a sudden heat wave and encompassing a larger area than any Flash Freeze before. We learned to expect them even when we couldn’t predict them and still couldn’t explain them. They became a regular part of our pop culture and social media, incorporated into meme’s, tweets and screenplays. They made a movie about the first defrost, featuring London like it was a glam, bustling city when it wasn’t. It won an Oscar and despite the growing number of Localized Flash Freezes, the small crosswalk found just a block away from our office, began attracting tourists. People would try to replicate the scene. One attempting group came prepared with plastic birds that they carefully placed on the road, and vehicles of the same make and model.
Sometimes you don’t know how brittle you are till you break. You don’t realize how far something has pushed to the edge until you look down at the cliff beneath your feet and teeter forward. To this day, I still have difficulty explaining what happened. I was walking past the crosswalk at the time of the reenactment and suddenly I was screaming before I could comprehend that the shrieking voice was my own. Apparently, I attacked three of the ‘actors’ in the middle of the street and one walked away with a broken arm.
Later on, the police asked me why I had done it. What had I been thinking? I didn’t want to think about what I’d been thinking so I told them I blacked out. I didn’t want to tell them that when I saw that scene again, I could see Sophie. Sophie dialing her phone a million times. Sophie yelling at the men in Hazmat suits. Sophie burying her mother and then digging her back up to find her suffocated in her own coffin. Sophie laying pale and dead in her favourite black dress.
The police told me I was lucky no one had pressed charges and made me wait in a room with two way-glass so I could see myself small and pale sitting at the steel table in the grey brick room. I looked thin and lonely, answering their questions so they could understand who the crazy woman was who attacked strangers in the street. I lived alone, I was 37, born and raised in London, a product specialist for a company they’d heard of and even purchased products from. I didn’t have much else to say. They asked me if there was anyone I’d like to call, any one who would come get me. I told them there wasn’t. They asked me who my next of kin was and I told them I didn’t have one. Carefully, and cautiously, they asked me if I had lost someone in a Flash Freeze and I gave them Sophie’s name. They exchanged a look and I could see the words in them that their mouths didn’t say; Sophie Wells? Didn’t she kill herself?
I stopped going to work shortly after. I couldn’t focus, and after the incident I qualified for a mental health leave that never quite ended. My therapist highly recommended that I join a support group to try and bring more people into my life. When I refused, she suggested a support animal like a dog or cat, something to keep me company. I stopped going to see her too, unable to abide by her terrible suggestions any longer. Why would I bring someone or something into my life that could freeze tomorrow and be gone for who knows how long? What if I froze and left them?
The world plundered on as it does and I just couldn’t understand why no one was treating the Flash Freezes like a tragedy anymore. What happened to the fear? What happened to locking ourselves away in our homes praying to be spared and mourning the ones who we thought had died? We still had no answers from the scientists, meteorologists and government. They couldn’t tell us why or how any of it was possible and after a while they seemed to simply stop searching for answers, the reports fewer and fewer between until you had to scour the internet to find any articles about their research and anything new was just speculation. The world was bored with it. People had lost their lives, and were still losing their lives to it, but humanity looked the other way like it wasn’t a growing epidemic.
Children were born and raised with the lesson that losing mass pieces of our world to Flash Freezes was normal, it was just a part of life and always would be. They mentioned Flash Freezes in tv shows like it was just something to be said in passing conversation between characters who had just met. They featured characters who had been frozen and returned 7 or 10 or 15 years later to a world that had moved on without them.
I think that was the tipping point for their movement. They were depicted in popular movies, asked to speak on talk shows, followed as public figures on social media platforms and, as their voice grew louder, word began to spread that the defrosted were banding together, creating outreach groups and demanding rights to protect them from their tragedy. They claimed that they were returning to jobs that had replaced them, homes that had been seized, debt with unimaginable interest, and husbands that had found new wives and made other lives without them. They said the suicide rate among the defrosted was outlandishly high, and they talked about their unemployment rate and the emotional tragedy that followed in the wake of their defrosting when they discovered what they had returned to and what they had missed.
This enraged me, filled me with fury and hate. They were such beggars, all of them. They were years younger then the people they had grown with, they had avoided disease and illness and were in all but perfect health. They were alive when Sophie and her mom were dead.
Wasn’t life enough for them? Tell me, someone, anyone, tell me it’s enough.