When the North Star Falls
Cold wind gently hisses at the cabin door. Inside, through an old wooden window, two people stare at a clear night full of stars.
Dave: 'Do it right, or you'll do it wrong.'
Rex: 'Feels like trouble.'
Dave: 'Trouble only comes when the North Star falls out the sky…still there?'
Rex: 'Still there...'
Dave: 'Sure it is, now pass that box.'
Dave: 'Once upon a time, when nothing bad ever happened, this junk was someone's treasure…my mother's before you ask…my job to save it or dump it.'
Rex: 'This her house?'
Dave: 'Walked out one day about a year ago, never came back…sent a letter asking to give it closure.'
Dave: 'Lvov postmark, looked it up, there's an opera house, loves opera, listened to it on the radio, that radio there, taught me more about the world than any book… could be anywhere now, over the hill, far away, that's for sure…
…had a lodger, not that he paid a cent, drifter type, lived in the woods, scavenged trashcans at night, scruffy with a big black beard, turned up when first snow fell, desperate. She took him in, still strong, not wasted like those scrawny tramps you see down town muttering to ghosts, became her handyman, chopped logs…guess he did the other thing, never asked and she never told...took him with her.'
Rex: 'Her lover?'
Dave: 'Wouldn't say that exactly, makes it sound romantic, can't see it myself, maybe they were co-dependent and sex part of the deal. It's anyone's guess.'
Rex: 'Your old man…?'
Dave: 'Threw him out when I was five. His drinking got too much. Useless and wasted, every night sat in that chair looking for the star that had long fallen from his sky, so she said.'
Rex: 'Sad story...'
Dave: 'Sad in the fairy tale of your mind…she taught me to fish, gather mushrooms, everything you need to be self sufficient in these lonely woods…know how long it took me to walk to school…in summer, hour and a half, over the mountain…winter, skied the frozen river down to school…if wind blew hard and the drifts too deep, couldn't get back, slept in a shack, wreck down there, right where the steep track ends and the river meets the sea…planned for that, had a stash of food, logs and stove, even had a bed… freezing cold 'less under blankets huddled by the stove. Morning time, back at school, everybody knew, didn't say a word…least I learned to read and write. Got a girlfriend, half moved in the winter shack, must have honked like a pair of rotten skunks…her folks the type who married their offspring, better off with me…ended up moving to this cabin, got on great with Mom. What did I need an old man for, telling me what to do…anyway, what sort of person tells another what to do…things were fine.'
Rex: '…don't think trouble's coming?'
Dave: 'Still up there in the night sky, told me yourself.'
Rex: 'Doesn't feel right...'
Dave: 'Not for you.'
Rex: 'Feel responsible.'
Dave: 'Lost you mean. She's having the baby, not you.'
Rex: 'Aren't I?'
Dave: 'Don't be a dumbass, you're concealing a six-pack under that jacket, not a sprout. Grab the kerosene lamp, want to show you something.'
The following afternoon, through a gap in the cliff top trees, the wild sea shows. Gazing at spray lifting from tops of rolling waves, all around him tall pines hiss and sway.
The hillbilly was too worldly. How could his Mom, who lived half way up a mountain with no road, take a tramp across the world? Nothing added up. Had he really skied to school? It was bloody miles away and the winters long and savage.
Walking along the cliff, Rex drops steeply down to the river mouth. Just before the slopes flatten out he sees the shack, tumbled down and full of weeds. Inside is an old stove and a rotting sodden bed. Kicking a rusted can, he turns, following the river back inland. High above, low grey cloud warns of snow. The mountain's already impassable.
Still unfrozen, the only way to cross the river is by a footbridge at the far end of town on the other side of the mountain. An old canoe solves this problem. Untying a rope from a rickety post, he pulls the canoe down the steep bank, into the river racing out to sea. Jumping in, he paddles hard across the current to the other side. Dragging the canoe out of the water, he leaves it high, far from the reaches of the tide.
The walk is long, a winding path between trees bending from relentless wind. It won't be long before this too is full of snow and the frozen river the only option left.
The crack of a breaking branch makes him stop. A storm is coming and he hurries on, trying not to think. It's dusk by the time he reaches the boundary gate, its red sign warning not to trespass. Slightly out of breath, he arrives at the road leading into town. Distant lights pull him on.
The store is empty. Rex hands over a piece of paper to the storekeeper.
Storekeeper: 'Going to carry everything on this list up there by yourself?'
Rex: 'It's the job, what he asked.'
Storekeeper: 'Take it from me, that's two good runs, you'll be exhausted, end up stumbling back in the dark, it's risky…you are coming back?'
Rex: 'Do my best…make up two loads, here's the pack for the first.'
Storekeeper: 'You're one of those new college kids, what made you come up here to study.'
Rex: 'Free room, free food, free fees, no free money so I'm working for...'
Storekeeper: 'Dave, his Mom gave him an unpronounceable Indian name, just like hers, so someone called him Dave, just stuck…'
Rex: 'Rex…pleased to meet you, I mean…I've been coming here a while now, but you know that…'
Storekeeper: 'How old fashioned. Storekeeper to you, folks here like to keep things discreet…many kids in college?'
Rex: 'Twelve, meant to be hundreds, maybe next year, we'll see…'
Storekeeper: 'Revive the town, good for us, boring for you, can't see it with our winters…what's your girl's name?'
Rex: 'You know? Of course you do, Anastasia…tell me about the drifter?'
Rex: '…must know something, he, Dave, mentioned him.'
Storekeeper: 'Like the rest, turned up one day looking for work, no past, no questions, didn't get work…either freeze to death in winter, or leave town, head south, he did neither. Didn't see him for a while, then he was here, six feet four looking like he could wrestle a bear, snap you right in two, had that toxic look, dangerous. Hell knows what she did to him…anything else?'
Rex: 'See you in the morning.'
Pushing the glass door open, Rex leaves. Stepping into cold night air, he hurries home to Ana.
Ana: 'Two hours!'
Rex: 'Snow closed the mountain.'
Ana: 'That's four hours a day, every day you work for him, the river won't be frozen solid for another month…be exhausted, skin and bone…'
Rex: '…get a six-pack.'
Ana: 'Only idiots at the gym get six-packs.'
Rex: 'We need the money, besides, needs me with his broken arm, there's a lot of lifting, said something about cutting logs, wants gas and oil…gave me a list for the store.'
Ana: 'Logs, thought he was closing the place down?'
Rex: 'Said so, got a month max before weather shuts the forest route. Reckon your Dad will lend me his skis?'
Ana: 'Even he couldn't get up the mountain with skis, slept in that broken shack you saw, with…what was her name?
Rex: 'Didn't say.'
Ana: 'I'll ask Mom, she knows everyone, still left here.'
Rex: 'How's the little bump?'
Ana: 'Find out for yourself…'
Long before dawn, the rude clank of alarm wakes them both.
Ana: 'Still pitch black…'
Rex: 'Early start, long day,'
Ana: 'Don't go, not yet…you will be back, won't you?'
The town is hushed and dark. Each cold morning for the next month or so, entering or passing the store will become routine for Rex.
Storekeeper: 'Seven o'clock, you're half an hour late, it'll be light by the time you reach the gate. Here's a torch for getting back, take it, I'll put it on the bill. With this heavy load you won't be at the cabin until ten so don't hang around, I'll have the other pack ready for twelve…now get going and don't forget to bring the money down…did you eat?'
Rex: 'Thanks, no…'
Storekeeper: 'Doesn't that girl feed you? Take this, it's my lunch, I'll put that on the bill too…be sure to make some noise, bears are on the move.'
The pack pulls him down. Dragging his feet, he hears his heavy breath. Twilight shows shadows, just enough to mark the way. He drops the torch into a pocket. At the gate, daybreak breaks.
To make the sign clearly visible, Dave had asked him to close the gate. The clonk breaks his dreamy thoughts and he hikes slowly to the soft hiss of wind and crunching snow. The storm has left a sprinkle that has frozen overnight. Although it's around freezing, he soon becomes warm, near hot as he pushes hard to make up time. Hiking in the dark couldn't be an option.
Tired, he drops the pack by the canoe and watches the river race towards the sea. Dave had warned him of the rush of tides, told him how to gauge them but, more importantly, know when not to cross. Placing the pack behind the seat, he pushes the canoe to the river's edge and lets it slide into the water. Yanking on the rope, he drags the canoe upstream, a hundred yards at least, and jumps in, the current taking him downstream as he furiously paddles to the other side. His heart racing, he hurriedly steps out, hauling the canoe to safety.
By the time he passes the shack, an inch of snow is underfoot. His tracks join bear prints. Under the load, his pace agonisingly slow, he starts to hum, whistling in the wind.
Dave: 'Storekeeper tell you to wake the neighbourhood? Thought so, winding you up, reminding me he wants his money...the bears have already left, gone high…except for the ones that seem to like the winter here…you're the last thing on their mind, besides they're too fat now to give chase, if that happens, run downhill…won't take the risk of falling head over heels.'
Rex: 'Run? This thing must weigh thirty kilos!'
Dave: 'Did you secure the canoe? Good…let's empty this, get you some food before we think about the next load.'
Rex: 'Gave me sandwiches, putting it on the bill, he said…second pack ready at twelve.'
Dave: 'Got you on a time trial, has he? You won't be back by twelve. Throw the sandwiches, I'll cook some fish, caught this morning….in fact, forget the second load, too much with this limited daylight unless you want to stay the night again…didn't think so, we'll do it tomorrow…now the fish...'
Rex: 'Those maps you showed me yesterday…so carefully detailed…'
Dave: 'Took us years, precious...if you want mushrooms, the month to pick, it's there, everything's there from the other side of river, over the mountain to the miles of forest right up to the national wilderness boundary, round the coast too, winter and summer maps. For survival, living here, marks where I caught this fish…not that knife, this one, the bendy one, use that to fillet…slowly now, let it curve around the bone…even shows where bears like to sleep….good, that's it.'
Rex: 'What about the heads and tails...and those little markings on the maps, the yellow ones…?'
Dave: 'Soup, don't waste a thing. You noticed uh…old mines, shafts, some covered with debris, wouldn't want to fall through, some sixty feet deep and full of water, tells you where not to tread, especially in the snow…men disappear up here, fools looking…use this pan, we'll fry it, add the mushrooms at the end.'
Rex: 'That was fantastic…'
Dave: 'Better than a lousy sandwich, usually smoke the fish in that shed, it needs a good clean, proper sort out, start tomorrow…you can always stay…'
Rex: '…have to get back, she…Ana…'
Dave: '…needs you, if you don't do it right…'
Rex: 'That's so obvious…three years before I finish…what was I thinking?'
Dave: 'You weren't, that's how it works. In three years, unless you make another, it'll go stale. On the other side of town, out in The Boonies, some make six or eight, keeps them together until they finally run out of steam, then they just stay put…'
Rex: 'Boonies...for real?'
Dave: 'Broken down homes, broken families, teeth are optional, only cooking done is in meth labs, sheds like my old school shack, blow themselves up sometimes…not from The Boonies, is she?'
Rex: '…not inbred, and Anastasia still has her own teeth…'
Dave: 'The Petrov kid?'
Rex: 'Is nothing secret?'
Dave: 'Secret yes, private no…only one Anastasia in town…went to school with her Mom, she married a Russian, engineer who jumped ship…nothing's private here…already making up stories 'bout you.'
Rex: 'Oh…asked about your shack friend from school, didn't mean to pry.'
Dave: 'No secret…came from The Boonies, never went back, this place was…everything. Come on…go back down together…
…you're good with the canoe…remember what I said, never cross if the small waves have white caps, end up out to sea or half way to town…chanced it once, never again…incoming flood pushed me way upstream, not a thing I could do, couldn't get it out, steep walls, got stuck between boulders, had to wait hours for the tide to turn…repaired the bridge after that.'
Dave banged the gate shut.
Rex: 'People trespass?'
Dave: 'Occasional poacher…one shot, whole town wakes up, gets the jitters…gives Sheriff and his dozy men something to do…hemmed in between the river and the sea, why would anyone bother…different story on the mountain.'
They head for the store.
Storekeeper: 'Three hours late…you'll never make it back…oh, didn't expect you so soon…how's the arm?'
Dave: 'Cast comes off in a few days, lucky not to need a pin…got to take it gentle…why I need the kid here.'
Storekeeper: 'Sheriff made enquiries, routine, shows he's trying, asked if I'd seen you… course I had, around the time that guy disappeared, right when you broke your arm slipping on ice outside my store.'
Dave: 'Shouldn't have been on the mountain, fool, like all the others, it's dangerous, bears, mine shafts…saw a pack of wolves swimming across the river this year, three weeks later ran passed the cabin, yelping, enjoying themselves, counted fourteen…don't worry Kid, you're safe…what I owe you?'
Storekeeper: 'Sheriff says it's the bridge…no bridge, no access…you're not finished yet, pay me at the end…those the maps you want copied, laminated?'
Later, at the house:
Ana: 'How's your day?'
Rex: 'Hardly managed the first load, was terrible, think he knew that…god my shoulders ache…ended up showing me the tasks, little jobs needing done, walked back with me… asked after you…know him?'
Ana: 'Know his face, who doesn't, everybody knows every face around here…Mom says the kids were mean to him at school, especially The Boonies, coz the colour of his skin, called him names…cracked open an older boy's skull one day with a lump of wood…boy was picking on him, had stitches, was an uproar, parents wanted to press charges but Sheriff wasn't having it…blew over quick enough, was left alone after that, no one wanted to be his friend except some half-baked misfit, sat right next to him in class the following day, real close, they'd never even spoken…Mom say she was a Boonie, girl who moved into the shack with him…just turned fourteen!
Taught her to ski, 'came so good was nicknamed Ski, no one said her real name after that…been forgot…'
Rex: 'From Boonie to Ski, that's funny…'
Ana: 'Half the town are Boonies…alright, long as you don't go asking questions, poking in their business.'
Rex: 'What a place to put a faculty, what were they thinking…'
Ana: 'Regretting it, are you?'
Rex: 'It's so out of time.'
Ana: 'This place is home for me….Mom says we can live here while you study and the baby is still small…after that…'
Rex: 'Move far away…'
Ana: '…won't leave me, will you?'
Rex: 'Will you want another…?'
Ana: 'Don't ask that, not over the shock of this one…there's more to your winter job…Drifter spoke fluent Russian, English broken bad…came around when I was small, don't know what they talked about, maybe Russia…Dad refused to see him after the disappearances…'
Rex: 'Storekeeper said a man disappeared recently on the mountain, when Dave broke his arm slipping on the ice…'
Ana: 'Slipping on ice, did he say that?'
Rex: 'Storekeeper did, outside the shop.'
Ana: '…been at least six disappearances, maybe more, cars found abandoned near the bridge, no trace except one body found at sea, lungs full of river water, shot right though the heart, high velocity…took Drifter in, checked ballistics, nothing, had to let him go…no guns at the cabin except an old shotgun…wild goose chase, another unsolved murder case…something with that Sheriff though…know how gossip goes…long tales, passes idle time, suppose…'
Rex: '…already doing that to us, he said.'
Ana: 'Oh don't…it's the gold, the disused mines shafts…people go looking, snooping…if there was gold, you'd think Dave would be rich and gone.'
Rex: 'Likes it up there…never seen anyone more at home…maybe Drifter cleaned the mines out, found new ones…?'
Ana: 'Why the secrecy, it's legal to have gold on your land…'
Rex: 'Would be nothing but trouble…maybe it's not their land…think Drifter killed those people, ran off with a horde of gold?'
Ana: 'Ran off with Dave's Mom to Ukraine, Dad said…never thought before, but Dad paid off the mortgage in one big lump after Drifter disappeared…was an engineer doing small repairs in the saw mill before they it shut down…how could that be?'
Rex: 'Specialised in gold…disappearances…'
Ana: 'Dad's far too peachy…we're as bad as others, making stuff up, stories…anyway, what's he paying you?'
Rex: 'Didn't ask…'
Ana: 'Rex! We need money.'
The following morning, Rex, half asleep, creeps downstairs to the kitchen.
Rex: 'Mrs. Petrov…up early…anything wrong…?'
Mrs. Petrov: 'Feel like a walk.'
Rex: 'Pitch black and freezing, you sure…?'
Mrs. Petrov: 'Made coffee, join you, far as the gate, today…'
Not speaking, they walk carefully on icy streets towards the lit-up store. From behind the glass, Dave and Storekeeper watch them approach.
Storekeeper: 'What brings her out on a dark frosty morning?'
Storekeeper: 'That's what you call it these days…'
Opening the door, Dave steps out.
Dave: 'Mrs. Petrov.'
Mrs. Petrov: 'Kei…Dave…'
Dave: 'Grab the pack Rex, got quite a day today.'
Trailing behind, following the torchlight, he tries to catch the murmurs. They are waiting by the gate.
No one speaks, only the familiar sound of the closing latch tells him to move, follow the light towards the forest. Pausing, he turns. Just visible, her silhouette stands motionless. He's sure she's staring back.
Dave: 'Damn tide racing…need to sit it out, wait for it to slack.'
Rex: 'You know Ana's Mom?'
Dave: 'Small town…watching out for you, nothing funny 'bout that…'
Rex: 'Says her Mom often leaves before first light…returns late, sometimes not at all…Dad says it's fine, what she does, walk.'
Dave: 'Go stir crazy stuck indoors all day…he must also have a thing…'
Rex: 'He hunts, at night.'
Dave: 'Catching shadows…come on…let's get it in the water.'
Sometime later, outside the cabin:
Dave: 'Good day's work…better get going soon, plenty light still left.'
Rex: 'Ana wants to know…how much?'
Dave: 'Two hundred a day…pay you for a month, regardless…sound right to you? Good…you smell that…?'
Dave: 'Grab the bag of shot, you know the one…I'll get the gun.'
On fresh snow, they move fast uphill.
Dave: '…long way off, near the mine cluster, north side of the mountain…keep up.'
Rex: 'It's strong now…'
Dave: 'Shush, stay low, we'll creep up.
See him, there, behind the fire. Load, that's it, both barrels…when I say, snap it shut, hold it steady…fire into the trees, blast the twigs above his head.
Dave: 'Where is he…?'
Rex: 'On the ground… got a rifle!'
Dave: 'Quick, load…ready…'
Rex: 'What was that…?'
Dave: 'Hit the kerosene, pack's on fire…load again…come on…'
Rex: 'He's running off...'
Dave: 'Heading for the pass, stay close.'
Rex: 'It's closed, you said.'
Dave: 'Closed, not impassable…need to get around the mountain, sitting ducks if he shoots from the top.'
Rex: 'It's tiring…up to my thighs, snow's too deep…'
Dave: 'Keep up…see him?'
Rex: 'Down there, looking back…heading for the bridge…'
Dave: 'Hold it, steady…ready...
You ok, Kid?'
Rex: 'Blast knocked me off my feet…'
Dave: 'Let's finish the job.'
Rex: 'Shoot him, you mean.'
Dave: 'With you around, dumb…scare him witless, that's what….'
Down at the river, before the last of dusk hides the view, they step onto the bridge. At the far end, across the dirt road, a yellow car stands, engine running.
Dave: 'Across the rail…steady…'
Pellets hit the rear of the car, the resounding bang echoing down the river.
Dave: 'There he goes…nearly missed the bend…'
Standing in silence, they watch dark shapes of crows cawing in tall trees opposite. Mist rises from the river. Minutes later, everything is black. Rex leans against the rail, shaking.
Flashing lights of the Sheriff's car round the bend. It stops. The lights cut. They hear the door open, click shut. In the darkness, the voice speaks softly.
Sheriff: 'Got a call from a man scared half to death…said someone trying to kill him on the mountain…heard the shots myself.'
Dave: 'Trespassing…was out shooting…how was I to know he was hiding behind a tree?'
Sheriff: 'Take the bridge away, you never use it anymore…'
Dave nudges Rex and they move to the far end of the bridge where they can make out the Sheriff's face.
Sheriff: 'Got him with you, have you?'
Dave: 'Be dead without the Kid…loaded up, four times at least.'
Sheriff: 'That's a serious offence…'
Rex: 'Didn't shoot anyone!'
Sheriff: 'Loaded the gun, four times, I heard.'
Dave: 'Both barrels, Sheriff, snapped them shut, held it steady, like a pro…I just feebly pulled the trigger…couldn't do much with my busted arm.'
Ana: 'That's it, nothing more?'
Rex: 'Drove us both to town, Dave still holding the shotgun…could smell the burnt powder. Pulled up outside your door, said: 'tomorrow at the store'…not a word more, I swear that's what happened…'
Ana: 'Come on…wrack that big brain of yours…'
Rex: '…your Mom started to call him…Ka, Kei, something…changed to Dave, fast.'
Ana: 'Why would she use his Indian name? You're shivering, freezing cold, have a hot shower…I'll have a word…'
'…that woman, blood out of a stone…knows nothing, just walks, all night sometimes…Dad's gone hunting, never brings a thing home …'
Rex: 'Only shadows…Dave said…'
Ana: 'What does that mean…parents are weird, never known them to share a bed, let alone a room…is it me, or is this town somehow off the compass? What yours like?'
Rex: 'Find out next break, if I live that long…I wish I'd…'
Ana: 'Don't say that, I need you…did you ask how much?'
Rex: 'Two hundred a day, every day for a month…regardless, whatever that means.'
Ana: 'Great! We'll have money, keep us going while you study. You can do it… not too difficult…is it?'
Rex: 'Physically, near impossible.'
Ana: 'You wanted a six pack…'
Rex: 'I'm not an idiot…someone may die next time…'
Ana: 'Please Rex, the baby…my job pays peanuts….Mom says he likes you.'
Stopping the alarm, Ana pulls Rex back to bed.
Ana: 'Can't go…scan, remember? Need you there…'
Rex: 'Forgot…god I'm tired…have to tell him, he's at the store…back soon.'
Ana: 'Be waiting for you…right here.'
Rex: 'Good morning Mrs. Petrov, Mr. Petrov catching shadows in the night?'
Mrs. Petrov: 'You sound just like him…become like him if you keep loading shotguns on the hill.'
Rex: 'How could you know…forget it, this place…'
He hurries to the store.
Storekeeper: 'Too late, he left an hour ago.'
Rex: 'I'm not late…he didn't wait…?'
Storekeeper: 'The clinic…she told him, was here at six…pack's ready for tomorrow, be early...'
Rex: '…Mrs. Petrov…can't be…she's in the kitchen, didn't say…
…who told him?'
Storekeeper: 'She did…
…canoe still this side of the river, where you left it…he went over the mountain this morning…'
Rex: 'Thanks…would never have thought, of that...'
After a three-hour drive, they both look together at the screen.
Ana: 'Rex, our baby…I'm so happy...'
Rex: '…not again…turn it off Ana…I didn't sleep a wink'
Ana: 'Mom's doing breakfast…long day, she said…'
Rex: 'What would she know…?'
Rex: 'Good morning Mrs. Petrov…Mr. Petrov…how's the night?'
Mr. Petrov: 'Dark…'
No sooner has he left the house, the unmistakable shadowed gait of Storekeeper comes towards him.
Storekeeper: 'Ice on the road, fresh snow on the trail…stay out the forest 'till day breaks, might slip with this load…one broken arm's enough around here…'
Later, passing the gate, everything's still black. The torch barely lights the frosty trail. Stopping at the edge of the forest, he drops the heavy pack, cuts the light and waits in the cold. It becomes unbearable, forcing him to pace, stamp his freezing feet until twilight breaks the night. In gloomy light, he moves towards the shadows of tall trees.
On the icy riverbank, the canoe sticks hard to frozen grass. He wrenches it free.
At the top of the steep uphill trail, hissing wind blows hard and cold. Relieved, he drops the pack outside the cabin.
Dave: 'Glad you made it…thought you might leave town after all the excitement…'
Rex: 'Between the Sheriff, Storekeeper and those loony Petrovs, feel I'm public property…she tell about the scan?'
Dave: 'Daughter's having a baby, one you put there…looking out for you both...'
Rex: 'Snow's getting deep…how much longer…?'
Dave: 'Once the river starts freezing, break it with the paddle…if it doesn't break, leave it, don't cross, you'll be through…current runs hard under the ice, remember that…forest be impassable anyway…week later, hard enough to ski, let you know…you cross-country?'
Dave: 'Good enough… don't worry, no more heavy loads….warm up, coffee on the stove…need to move the outhouse before the ground freezes solid…feeling strong?'
Later, in the afternoon:
Dave: 'Grand job, can't see that filling up…let's grab another coffee, have a bite…walk back with you, cast comes off in morning…'
Rex: '…that jersey, one neatly placed over the chair, wasn't there before, looks like…Mrs…'
Dave: 'Last night, North Star shone pretty in the sky…if it falls, you'll never get it back…darkness ever more…'
Dave: '…doesn't have to come…you loaded the gun, remember…'
Rex: '…feel set up, trapped…'
Dave: 'Smart kid, University, got a girl, pretty, no Boonie, that's for sure…crazy about you, her Mom said so herself…you're her ticket out…what you feel when you saw the scan?'
Rex: 'Nothing, felt nothing…damn you…'
Dave: 'There was a time men didn't know their fathers, slept with their mothers…'
Rex: 'That's disgusting!'
Dave: 'Unless you're a Boonie…it's not the baby you want, it's her, all silky…felt good uh…still feels good, keep it feeling good…leave this place, take her with you…like her, don't you…like…'
Rex: '…you liked Ski…'
Dave: 'Not wrong there…losing light with all this talk, have to go over the mountain now, yesterday's tracks should still be good…come on, need haste…'
They crossed the bridge in darkness. Rex turned on the torch.
Dave: 'Long hike back to town, sorry Kid, no chauffer today…'
Rex: 'Drifter shoot the man…found out to sea…?'
Dave: 'Questions lead to trouble…Drifter looks like Bigfoot's cousin but wouldn't harm a fly…river rises in the snowy peaks we glimpsed from the pass…winds round Boonie country…have their own wars, laws, missing people aren't reported, maybe the body floated down…'
Rex: 'What if she wants another?'
Dave: '…stop asking questions none wants to hear…'
Ana: '…why would he say that…river doesn't go near The Boonies, they live on the other side of town, miles out…'
Rex: '…maybe mixing things up, was a horrible day, digging a six foot hole, ground full of rocks…helped with the barrow, can't do too much…cast comes off tomorrow…make my life easier, at least…meeting at the store, ten o'clock…glad when this job's over…back to normal…'
Ana: 'We need the money…a lie in, can't wait…'
Ana: '…can't stop shaking…you're the best…the only…'
Rex: 'Your Mom still in the house?'
Ana: 'No, market day…need to go?'
Rex: 'Not yet, your parents get weirder by the day…'
Ana: '…sorry...come back over here…'
The streets are busy. A trailer loaded with a small dinghy stands outside the store. Dave reverses a pickup truck and Storekeeper hitches it to the trailer.
Storekeeper: 'Chainsaw's in the back…want the wood, fair's fair now…'
Dave: 'All yours…don't leave it too long or you'll be chipping it out the ice…when's low tide?'
Storekeeper: 'Soon enough…don't forget to tie it off, big rope behind the seat…'
Dave: '…never hear the end of it…jump in Kid…you can swim…?'
He drives with care on the icy road, stopping where the tarmac ends and gravel track begins.
Dave: 'Snow…not much, risky with the trailer though…help me with the chains…'
Rex: 'Your arm, sorry…how's it…?'
Dave: '…need to get the muscle strong…few weeks...that's it, leave them loose, snow-chains tighten once the wheels move...still need help, least till the river freezes over…
… sun never hits this spot, first place to ice up…you jump out, I'll back up…shout when the dinghy hangs over the riverbank…'
Between the icy bank and the swirling water, a low tide mud flat stretches along the river. A hundred yards to their right stands the long wooden footbridge.
Dave: '…release the winch, easy now, I'll guide it down the bank…that's it, on the mud…grab the chainsaw and the rope…
…not being funny, we need to push it to the water…be cold…did say you could swim?'
Rex: 'Mud's deep…jeez, freezing…'
Dave: 'Nearly there…push it off the mud, bit more…'
Rex: '…feet stuck, water rising…Dave…!'
Dave: '…tide's turning, ready…now!'
Dave pulls the starter cord. Rex hauls himself up, out of the mud and flooding tide and flops into the boat. He is shivering.
Dave: '…no other way, need to work fast…tie the rope around that post, there, on the bridge…loop it through…that's it…'
He takes the boat upstream, under the bridge and cuts the throttle. Letting the boat drift back, he pulls hard to start the saw.
Dave: '…cut the support posts…this one first…at the surface, quick…don't fall in, the saw's expensive…'
On his stomach, arms outstretched, Rex leans over the side. He clasps the saw as the dinghy moves with the swirling tide. The cutting is messy, the movements of the boat throwing him off balance. Nearly losing grip as the saw kicks back, the whirring chain slices through the water, just missing the boat.
Dave: 'Now the others…work fast or we'll never get the boat back out…'
Rex: 'It's going to topple over!'
Dave: 'Kill the saw, hold the rope…god's sake don't pull, crash right into us… connect the winch…hurry, can't control it in this tide…
At the top of the riverbank, they secure the rope around a tree before winching the dinghy back onto the trailer.
Rex: 'Covered in freezing mud…can't feel my feet…hands…'
Dave: 'Bag in the truck, got a change of clothes…both of us, boots too…get to it while your fingers still move…throw me some…colder than I thought…'
They sit in the cab of the pickup truck, engine running, heater on, staring at the river.
Dave: 'Tight call…river runs hard around that bend…you did great…feeling warm?'
Rex: 'No longer hypothermic, still cold though…'
Dave: 'Here, drink some more coffee…helps, a bit.'
In the last of the light, the high tide pushes the bridge. They watch it topple over.
Dave: 'The out tide will pull the bridge 'til the rope goes taught…should then get pushed onto the riverbank…stay there, hopefully, stuck and frozen in.
Storekeeper wants to dismantle it, nail by nail, bolt by bolt…sell the wood…good hardwood that, cost some, took an age to build...'
Rex: 'Your land we just cut access to?'
Dave: 'Indian land…suppose so, got a piece of paper if that's what you mean…time to go…chains need taking off before the tarmac road…'
Ana: 'Look at you, have a shower…Mom's making food…Dad's going hunting later tonight…be glad when you're done with this…in the freezing river with a chainsaw, you could have died!'
Rex: 'Your Mom said I'll become just like him…'
Ana: '…you're right about her…weirder by the day, never noticed 'till you turned up…we won't become like them…Rex?'
Rex: '…like him and Ski…'
Ana: 'Oh, don't…'
Later, after supper:
Ana: '…another silent meal, took it as normal once…it's not normal, is it…and Dad's night hunting, always done…with who, where…hunting what? Let's follow him Rex, see where he goes…can use your car, park at the diner, wait for him to pass…'
Rex: 'What for, I'm dog-tired…need to be at the store by eight…'
Ana: '…we can have another lie in…'
Sometime later, huddled in the front seats of the car, they wait.
Rex: 'Can't believe we're stalking your Dad…still cold from the river thing…'
Ana: 'Turn the heater up, this is fun…stay down, mustn't know we're here…'
Rex: 'Not a soul, diner's empty…if he comes this way, sure to see the car…'
Ana: '…course he'll come…not heading for The Boonies…'
Rex: 'That's him! He'll see our lights, not another car in sight…let's not do this Ana…'
Ana: 'Cut the lights, moon's up, new snow on road…follow his taillights…'
Hanging far behind, on a snowy winding road, they follow clear red lights through a pitch-black forest.
Rex: 'It's been half an hour, maybe he's heading for the next town…'
Ana: 'Three hours away, don't think so…Dad's pulling up, there, stop, quick…'
Rex: 'Too close, he'll see us…another car coming, we'll be all lit up, get down…wait…stopping…must be his hunting friend…'
Ana: 'They're getting out…into the back of his, friend's car...what…?
Rex: 'Ana, another car…in the mirror, pray they don't look out, see us in the headlights…passing now, there…your Dad…oh…'
Ana: '…must be playing tricks…no…Rex, please…say something…drive, now!'
Later, in their bedroom:
Ana: 'Hear that? She's furious, slamming the front door…'
Rex: 'Night walk…'
Ana: 'Don't Rex…she played dumb, said it was imagination, lying cow…'
Rex: 'Maybe saw it wrong, just talking 'bout the hunt…'
Ana: '…saw it both, kissing in the back…my Dad, Rex…'
Rex: '…don't know what to say, need sleep…want a lie in, yes…?'
Ana: 'Going to lie-in everyday from now…won't let you become like him…separate bedrooms, that's how this mess starts…'
Rex: '…we don't know anything…'
Ana: '…parents barely talk, to me, each other…secret…whole town, blank faces, full of secrets....'
Rex: 'Secrets, that's what Dave said…'
Ana: 'Ask him, Rex…if anyone knows this place, it's him.'
Rex: 'Warned me not to ask…'
Ana: 'Please…need to know, something 'bout my Dad!'
Rex: 'Morning Mrs. Petrov…nice jersey…think I'll skip that coffee…'
Dave: 'Smash the ice…good, still thin enough to break…easy now…what's eating you, Kid?'
Rex: '…you don't want to hear…?
Dave: 'Seems I do…tell me at the cabin…
At the cabin:
Dave: …when you stick your nose in, in a place like this, find something soon enough… get a shock…or shot…how she holding up?'
Rex: 'Angry, at them both…asked me to ask, whatever good it does…'
Dave: 'Tell about the jersey?'
Rex: 'She was wearing it this morning…I'm not an idiot…'
Dave: 'North Star still shining in the sky?'
Rex: 'You tell me…?'
Dave: 'Still there, Kid. Want to keep it there?'
Rex: 'Don't want her upset, that's all…couldn't care less about this crazy town.'
Dave: 'Great girl…good parents, done her right, you will too…don't see any problem here.'
Rex: 'Dad hunts shadows in the night…you told me that. She needs to know…something…'
Dave: 'Wasn't legal then, end up in a freezing Gulag, full of murderers, foul disease, food not fit for dogs…certain death for a man, like him.
Worked the boats, jumped ship quick…found the perfect place, this backward town, full of secrets, dirty lies, questions never asked…didn't have to keep it secret, no one would have cared…old habits just die hard…cat's out the bag now…'
Rex: '…Mrs. Petrov? He married her…god's sake…'
Dave: 'Her secrets suited his…some secrets best not known…river's full of secrets, floating out to sea…
…come on, logs to cut and stack…'
Later that evening, back at the house:
Ana: 'Mom says Dad's gone, packed up, back to Russia…says it safe now…think I'll miss him…is it true what Dave said?'
Rex: '…doesn't lie, just shoot you in the head instead…reckon that…yes, true…'
Ana: 'Said he'd write, invite us over…she's not upset at all…one less meal to cook…oh Rex, we'll last, won't we…?'
Rex: 'Forever lie-ins. Found a piece of gold today…look…make a good ring one day, he said.'
Ana: 'Wow, no wonder he took the bridge away…give it here, keep it safe…working tomorrow…?'
Rex: 'Snowstorm coming, river's freezing over, nothing for a week or so…really need a break…'
Ana: '…still up there?'
Rex: 'He came back down with me.'
Ana: 'Mom needs a break too, does that sometimes, goes away…this thing with Dad, too much…had a heart to heart…didn't make new revelations or anything…got the place to ourselves, you and me...don't have to worry 'bout the noise…can't wait!'
Rex: '…been thinking…she looks so young…'
Ana: 'Thirty-four…was young, really young… difficult for her, and Dad…never liked to talk about it…'
Rex: 'He wants me at the store first thing, something about the maps…'
The storm leaves the town white. Although it has passed over, no one ventures out. Streets deserted, crows make the only sound.
Arm in arm, they crunch their way towards the store, their breath steaming in the cold.
Storekeeper: 'Snow's come early, shut the town, winter drinking's started, same thing every year…this your girl?'
Rex: '…know she is…in fact, what don't you know…?'
Storekeeper: 'Left you these…laminated maps, key to cabin, spare one in the outhouse rafter, one you just fixed up…'
Storekeeper: 'How else will you get in? Use her Daddy's skis, when the river's solid, not before…'
Rex: '…walked back with me…where's he…?
Storekeeper: 'Opera…know it?'
Rex: 'He does…what about the work…?'
Storekeeper: 'Got a list…start tomorrow, take the bridge apart…frozen to the bank by now…'
Rex: 'A list, not expecting him back…?'
Storekeeper: 'Long way Opera…take a winter, least.'
Ana: 'Rex, your money…'
Storekeeper: '…said to give you this…worth its weight in gold…'
Rex: 'Anything else you need to tell me?'
Storekeeper: '...me and Sheriff only friends you've got…it's the company you keep.
Your Mama's skis should fit you fine, little old…your Mum sure could go…'
Momentarily, the silence of the empty street holds them.
Ana: 'What's in the box…?'
Rex: 'Come on, suddenly don't feel safe…'
Ana slams the front door shut and pulls the box from Rex's hands. Sitting on the bottom stair, she opens the lid. A handgun sits on pile of notes. Rex grabs the gun and Ana heads straight upstairs, shouting back down to him.
Ana: 'Double lock…this has got me spooked….'
Rex: 'Count it…I'll hide the gun, didn't put it there by accident...'
He joins her on the bed. She's staring at the pile.
Ana: 'Sixty thousand…can really start a family!'
Rex: 'If I get out of this alive…'
Ana: 'Mom, skis…Dave…Storekeeper said it...please Rex, tell me it's not true.'
Rex: 'They've gone…their secrets too…just you and me now…all I wanted was a cheap degree…'
Ana: 'Mom always told me he was trouble, said it with a smile, the kind of smile no daughter should ever see her mother smile…Rex…say something…'
Rex: '…must really like that trouble…anyway, trouble only comes when…'
Ben Gilbert is founder of TheBlueSpace Guides Co-operative and a consultant to Child Space Foundation, Nepal. He lives in the United Kingdom. Ben Gilbert has had poetry and short stories published in: Poems of Meaning (2014), Poached Hare Journal (2019), Scarlet Leaf Review (2019,) and is the author of The World Peace Journals (Garuda Books 2013), No Like Home Place (Garuda Books 2013) and Mumbo Jumbo (Garuda Books 2015). He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.