Coen had thought of the time he killed a young man. The man’s eyes. How they reminded him of his son’s. Or could have been. The man whose blood drained from lung and mouth had sold drugs, laying waste to streets. By blood and dependence, the dying man robbed security from fathers and mothers. All the same that memory summoned the taste of ash from his hollow chest and it shivered to his hand. A phone pressed to his ear.
“I’m taking my wife and kids, and we’re going away for a while,” he declared and swallowed his spit.
“Will we each speak again?” a women’s voice uttered softly through.
He noticed his kitchen. “I haven’t been certain about anything.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
“I wish I didn’t have to.”
He hung up and left.
A sparse layer of snow lay ahead of Coen’s old pick-up truck as he drove down the highway. He watched the moving borderline of bare poplar and spruce and jack pine infrequently tower into the skyline like jagged teeth. The sun glinted off the frost from the tall grass in the ditch as the November air blew through an open window where Coen exhaled his smoke. Rosalie looked at her husband with an expression which begged him to put out the damn thing. He looked back at her and stubbed it out in the ashtray and smiled convincingly. She turned her head to hide her smile behind her long black hair. He glanced through the rearview mirror and, in it, saw his six-year-old daughter Jess sleeping on her sixteen-year-old brother Emmett as his head bent to his phone as his thumbs danced and clicked over its bright screen.
The truck turned off the highway and onto a gravel road that cut into the thick border of trees where the road was so narrow that the willows and branches slapped and scraped the window. It was a few kilometers down the rough before the pick-up entered into a clearing where they saw a brown cabin sitting quietly and undisturbed except by scattered rodent trails that went beneath the structure. By a small shed in the distance, Coen looked to where the snow set lightly, where rustic hand saws and weathered scythes were hung by nails on shaved jack pine ornamentation as if to commemorate the efforts of the inhabitants long ago.
Coen and Emmett unraveled the tarp covering the truck box and began hauling bags and coolers and other outdoor gear such guns and ice fishing poles and tackle and survival kits. Meanwhile, Rosalie opened up the cabin and began sweeping out the dust that settled over the long vacancy while also keeping an eye out for Jess who ran about with active interest of the unscathed vastness. When everything was hauled inside Rosalie called Jess, and they changed bed sheets and washed counters and did whatever else to tidy.
Emmett could hear his dad chopping wood outside as he knelt over with his hands inside the stove. He rushed to place old newspaper underneath the kindling that refused stay in place. He pulled out his arms and let out a sigh and looked around as if he hoped there was gasoline laying about; however, his father, a traditional outdoorsman, wouldn’t have it. He reached in and lifted the kindling with one hand while igniting the newspaper with a Bic in the other until it caught up in flames. He set the tinder pile, so it had been proper to burn, and he withdrew his hands. Coen walked in with an arm full of chopped logs and placed them in a wood box near the stove. After seeing the flame grow, his father conveyed a look of approval.
An hour passed and they had their coats hung, and boots set, and the heat from the stove pushed out the chill from the cabin and brought warmth to the floor boards. Coen was sitting at the table picking and wiping down two disassembled rifles while Rosalie set and lit kerosene lamps. Their children sat across from their father with their heads bowing before their devices. As Coen noticed, he hoped to share the disappointment with his wife, but she was doing likewise, glaring at the screen. He shook his head with a sigh.
“Those guns aren’t going to clean themselves,” Rosalie joked as she stuffed her phone into her pocket. She walked over and sat on his lap and leaned for a kiss, “relax, I was just talking to your mom, she’s just going through the checklist again,” she explained.
“Now that we’re here? That’s great,” he replied, sarcastically, “if we forgot toilet paper, we’d be wiping our asses with frozen leaves now.”
“We have to use leaves, dad?” they gained Jess’ attention.
“What’s happening?” Emmett asked abruptly as he ripped the buds from his ear canals.
“Whoa,” Coen said, “take it easy, we just forgot toilet paper.”
“What? Really?” Emmett protested.
“No,” he replied as Rosalie laughed to herself. “Would you look at that? You guys off your phone. They should give out a Nobel prize to parents for stuff like that.”
“Funny,” he rolled his eyes.
“C’mon, you’re always on that damn thing. You used to love hunting and what not, what happened to that? If you were a boy, these guns would have been cleaned, and we’d already be out butchering us a buck.”
“Things change, yo.”
“Well, sorry, ‘yo.’”
Emmett rolled his eyes and stuffed his ear buds back into his canals.
“You can’t give them too much grief about it, hon,” said Rosalie. “I mean, cmon, even your mom’s can’t get off hers.”
“Yeah, well, I guess I’ll never get used like everyone else. Look at all this—this is the life: cozy stove fire, fresh air, the great outdoors, trees and stuff,” he smiled. “Beats getting drunk and doing it with the bros, anyways. I’ll say that much. I miss doing this with you and the kids. It’s been so long.”
“Oh really, you’d rather be with us than out in the middle of nowhere drinking with a bunch of lonely guys? I don’t believe that.”
He laughed insincerely. “Well, if you put it that way then no you’re right.” He watched his wife get up to proceed to ready for the night. “Besides, things won’t be so bad in a couple of hours or so.”
“Why is that?” asked Rosalie.
“Well,” he said as he continued to brush the interior barrel of his camouflage Browning, “because it’s going to be hard to use your phones when they’re dead. And we didn’t bring any chargers.”
“Yes, we did!”
“Nope,” he grinned, “I sort of unpacked them. The only one we got is for your phone, and that’s in the truck for emergencies only.” He stopped cleaning his rifle and looked into Rosalie’s surprised eyes. “So no phone calls from my mom. No outgoing phone calls. And, thank fucking God, no Facebook. I want this weekend to be about us. Our family.”
“Well, it would be nice to get a couple of pictures.”
He continued to clean the gun. “Yeah, it sure would.”
“What are the kids going to think?”
“I don’t know.”
“Hon, you know how it is. Wouldn’t it be better to be safe than sorry?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what if somebody gets hurt?”
“What’s cellphone going to do?”
“We can call somebody. Let somebody know.”
“Ambulances aren’t coming all the way out here. Either way, if something like that happens, it’ll be up to us to take them. Don’t worry, baby. It’s just a weekend. Nothing will happen.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I do. But I just want this to mean something. Can’t we just live like this for one weekend? Will that kill us? Relax, baby.” He leaned for a kiss. “We’re a tough crew.”
Rosalie looked away with a sigh. “We’ll see just how tough,” she said, biting her tongue.
The next morning was dim and gray until the scarce sun birthed through the crevices of the clouds out through the window where Coen watched and sat at the table with his stubby fingers wrapped around a hot cup of coffee. He looked out through the window at the blank white view. A dark dock sat in the wind as snow blew off its surface. The radio played country music and repetitive commercials faintly through silence. He sipped his coffee before placing more logs in the fire. He closed the stove and wiped off the black soot off his worn plaid sweater and went to turn the radio louder in hopes to wake his family.
Rosalie walked out of the main bedroom with frizzy hair. Coen eyed her down. She walked up to the coffee pot wearing nothing but a white shirt over her bare legs that derailed his attention from all else and, despite her slow suspicious, turn towards him he refused to look away. She smiled shyly. “Good morning.”
“Thanks to you.” He stared over his large mug as he took a drink
She sat down across from him at the table. They both said nothing as they sipped their coffee. The radio played repetitive commercials. “What’s on your mind?” she asked.
“Nothing too important.”
“Mh,” she said and tightened her lips. She spoke to break the silence. “Well, nothing important is going on, might as well tell me.”
“Just thinking about what the guy at that store said to me. The last one we stopped at. It smelt like mold in there. All I wanted to do was get out, and it took me about a minute to get his attention. He was staring at a TV. Some news or something he was looking at. Anyways, he finally notices me, and after I get him to grab me a few packs of smokes, he asks me ‘rough situation they have in China?’ And I don’t know what to say about that but ask him what he meant. He goes on to explain how China is crazy populated and how they force abortions and spread disease and famine to solve the problem. Purposely. Then he starts going on about our government and asking me all sorts of questions. I had no idea what he was talking about. Anyways, he went on to say that one day the same thing is going to happen to us. I have no idea why I’ve been thinking about that. It was just odd. But after a while, he started making up all sort of scenarios, and after a bit, it started making sense. I don’t know. It was odd.”
“Wow. That is odd.” It fell silent a moment. “Should I make the aluminum hats now or wait until the kids get up?”
“We’ll wait until the kids get up. Jess loves arts and crafts.”
“Arts and crafts? This is serious stuff, babe. We’re talking one world government, aliens built the pyramids stuff here.”
He sniffed out a chuckle as he smiled. “Anyways, when Emmett gets his ass out of bed, we’re gone for the day. Probably past sundown. Hopefully earlier, depending on our luck. If we do get something, we’ll come back, and you and I could teach Jess a thing or two about preparing meat. Tomorrow we’ll make jerky. But, that’s if we get lucky. This time of the season, there’s bucks running around everywhere looking for something to keep their dicks warm. So you know they’re around.”
“Those lucky does.”
“Don’t sound so deprived. I ain’t walking away empty handed today.”
Emmett walked out of the room and interrupted in a disgusted tone before she spoke. “Oh God.”
“Oh! Good morning, sniper.”
“Well yeah, I figure we got to give you a cool name before we go out on the hunt today.”
“That’s a pretty lame one. Why not Grew Owl or something? An actual hunter. Sniper is something a dad would say on a 60s show. Anyways, what were you guys talking about… other than deer boners?” He sat down.
“Oh, you know the regular stuff parents talk about. Government conspiracy, aluminum hats,” she replied in a high-pitched, motherly tone as Coen nodded in agreement, “but mostly deer boners.” She sipped her coffee.
The wind blew viciously through the trees and masked the crunch of their footsteps as they tread softly and slowly into the snow and frozen leaves, each shade of gray in the woods matched their white camouflage attire. Coen’s rifle rested below his armpit with an open and empty chamber. Emmett had his in hand. While his father struggled to push through a patch of thick willows, Emmett opened up his chamber and quickly shoved a .270 round into the barrel. Coen looked back. Emmett thought his heart beat through his jacket, louder than the wind. He knew not to keep the gun loaded. However, Coen simply cleared branches out of the way and jerked his head for Emmett to pass.
At noon they sat quietly around a small fire and over the flames sausages sizzled at the end of their sticks. After they had eaten, they each drank from steaming ceramic cups and sat quietly around the fire as the remainder of the logs burnt away.
Hours passed in the wilderness. The air grew cold as the skies become dark. There was a trail of blood that followed along the footprints of the hunters leading to where Coen knelt over a bloody caribou carcass in the distance. He pulled and ripped a skinning knife through the hide. Emmett appeared from the brush zipping up his pants and knelt over the dead body to where he was opposite of his father.
He saw his father pull the trigger after he couldn’t. The rifle jerked against his father’s shoulder as the gunfire rang across the land and he looked to where the caribou ran a short distance before stumbling inert onto the white forest floor. He missed his opportunity to kill his first game and sensed a lingering disappointment by it from his father. Whether he shot the caribou or not, in the snow, it laid dead.
His father slid the blade through the thick leather and Emmett couldn’t help but cover his nose from the odor of the flesh when the pink and embossed tendrils of fat exposed over the blood-red, steaming skin. The hide was removed completely after Coen had sliced and hacked the caribou’s head from its torso until it was a boulder of flesh in the middle of the woods. The knife stabbed into its lower abdomen and carved towards and through the chest before stopping at the wishbone. It soaked the ground with blood and intestines, and a rank smell of feces came steaming from the pile of coral red pulp. Emmett pressed his forearm to his nose as his father ripped and slashed out the insides. First, it was all the intestine cords and then came the stomach and then the liver until the corpse was nothing but a hollow piece of meat and bones. They tied strings above the hooves on each leg and used trees to pulley the body belly up and tied it up to ensure it remained in place. Coen cut and pried the legs one by one and hacked off the meatless lower part of the limb. He told Emmett to wrap up each limb and piece of meat cut into small sheets of tarp until all that was left the head and hide and lower legs.
Coen cut down two small spruce trees and removed the branches so that they were nothing but long poles. He folded a tarp with the two poles so that it looked as if a stretcher. They strapped the meat on secure. “What now?” Emmett asked.
“Grab an end.”
The skies dimmed to nothing but darkness illumined by a full moon peaking through the clouds. They held the pole with both hands and held it against their waist and pulled it through three kilometers of thick trees and rugged terrain. Their breath froze instantly in the cold air as they pulled the contraption over dead-fall and hills. Hours had gone, and, at last, they saw a dim light in the distance through trees. “Finally,” Emmett said under his breath as he forced through the remaining trail and dropped the sled in relief at arrival.
“That wasn’t so bad,” said Coen, rotating his head.
Emmett stood for a moment, stretching out and slapping off the snow from his attire before following his father into the warmth.
Jess spouted up from next to the fireplace and ran across the room and jumped into her father’s arms while Emmett pulled off his gloves and peeled the hood from his head and saw his mother’s smile.
They hung their wet and frosty winter wear to dry above the range, and Jess watched their parents bringing in the raw, wrapped meat. Emmett walked around toward her side to better his view of her still curiosity. He placed his hand over her shoulder and put his hips against her.
“Did you shoot him?” she asked.
“No, dad did.”
“It’s how it goes. It’s hard to explain. But it’s how it goes.”
“Before there were stores like the ones we have back home, this was normal.”
She stood quietly for a moment. “Do we have to kill anymore?”
“No, we got more than we need. We can probably even give granny some. She loves wild meat.”
“Did you try shooting him, brother?”
He bit down, teeth on teeth. “I tried. But I couldn’t pull the trigger.”
“Emmett,” his dad exclaimed, “you’re just going to stand there?”
He rubbed his thumb on her shoulders and walked outside.
It was dark in the room after Rosalie leaned over and reached out to dampen the wick on the kerosene lamp. She blew out the tiny flame and set herself comfortably in bed and later in the night when the moonlight revealed the figure of their heads against white pillows, Coen’s figure joined with Rosalie’s. A quiet popping of their lips as they locked to each other. Rosalie’s breath grew loud. He pulled his hands out from underneath her white shirt and slid off his briefs. He rolled over in between her legs, and she panted in a sudden burst. She wrapped her arms tightly around his neck and back so that she held herself up to bite down lightly on his shoulder to mute her breath. Small gentle thrusts grew into long, hard ones. Coen buried his head into her shoulder to muffle his grunts and Rosalie bit down harder until their thrusting had stopped in the peak of passionate volume. They kissed, and he rolled over to his side and her head on his shoulder until slumber.
Next morning beyond the tool shed and spruce trees was a play house that stood about six feet above the ground. The floor base, nailed to four different trees, gave the structure an imperfect shape. The walls were rough wood that failed to completely fill the gaps between the lumber and in between the crevices Jess’ figure played. Inside the tree house, she sat on her knees as she mumbled and whispered to her doll. She bounced up and pretended to walk it in whichever way she saw fit. She held its head as if to look out through the window. “Look, a lake. Too bad it wasn’t summer.” She pointed out at the dock. “Want to go on the dock? Okay.” She climbed down the ladder and ran across the yard and onto the dock.
Jess stood a foot away from the end with the doll tucked against her chest. She slid her feet like skis slowly until the tip of her boots aligned with the end of the dock. The wind exposed separate areas of ice by clearing the snow. She held it out as far as she could reach. “Can you see through the ice?” The sheet of ice-foggy and cracked. “No? Well, okay, let’s if it clearer underneath the dock.” She leaned forward to see beneath. She lifted up her heels and stood on the edge with her tip toes. The wind gust. She squealed and jerked her head backward, falling on her posterior as she nearly slipped off the edge. She was in shock as she sat staring at her feet pointing towards the cloudy skies, the wind hollowing to no concern. She used her hands to push herself into a more stable position and rose to her feet. She stared once more at the ice. Her doll lay lifelessly on the cold surface as wind begun to cover it in the crisp white.
A thin blade slid with ease between the fat and muscle tissue. It came down a second time to glide through red flesh until it stopped at the bloody cardboard. And they’d repeated until it had been too difficult to divide the meat further. The pieces were packed full into resealable bags. The knife’s blade scraped off the white fat tissue from the cardboard and into a garbage bin that sat next to the table. Coen used the back of his forearm to wipe away sweat from his forehead.
“Where’s Emmett?” Coen asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“Emmett,” he called.
Emmett came out of the room next to his parents’. “Where’s my charger?” He held his dead phone in his hand. No one answered. “Hello? Where’s my charger?” He looked at his unresponsive mother as she had her eyes shamefully on Coen.
“We didn’t bring any.”
“Yes, I did. I packed mine.”
“I unpacked yours.”
“I unpacked them so we could spend time as a family. Now grab a bib and a knife and start helping.”
“What the fuck? I had shit I had to do!”
Coen grabbed the bridge of his nose and sighed. “Don’t talk to me like that, Emmett.”
“Well, what the hell? I have things I got to get done, too!”
Coen turned around with a sharp look on his face. Emmett’s eyes widened, startled. “Don’t you ever talk to me like that again. And if you ever speak to me like that in front of your sister and mother like that again, I won’t hesitate to kick your scrawny ass.”
Rosalie grabbed Jess firmly by the shoulder and covered both of her ears. “That’s enough, you two,” she said. “Emmett, it’s just for the weekend.”
He straightened his poster and matched his father’s fury. “This is fucking bullshit.”
Coen immediately threw a punch directed at Emmett’s face but stopped in time so that Emmett merely squinted to the convulsion of air crashing against his cheek.
“That’s enough, Coen.” Rosalie declared in Emmett’s defense as he used his arms to protect his face. “Emmett, you go back in that room.”
“You fucking psycho!” he hollered as he walked out.
Coen took a deep breath and turned around and continued cutting up meat. He looked over to Jess who had her head buried in Rosalie’s sweater. She looked to get a glimpse of him and turned away when they briefly locked eyes. “I’m sorry.” He saw her shaken expression.
Jess whispered something to her mother that Coen could not make out. “It’s okay,” Rosalie responded. He looked over with a question looked. She shrugged.
Later that evening Coen sat at the table staring blankly into his nearly empty cup of whiskey and cola. He swished the liquid and ice soft enough not to spill over the brim. A bottle of Canadian Club sat sweating next to him. He wrapped the neck of the bottle with his thumb and forefinger and topped off his drink. He swished the liquid to mix his drink properly and took a gulp.
He had the radio turned up louder than usual but still had not paid much attention. He realized that he had not heard a song for a while. He pointed his ear towards it:
“…we are still looking for more conclusive information on the cause of their deaths. In the meantime, authorities are asking that everyone refrain from leaving your homes, and avoid any contact with those who are showing signs of any symptoms. Once again, authorities…”
He got up and walked towards the radio to turn it up when he noticed a vehicle light shining through the window and, instead, he lowered the volume to silence.
The light grew as it shone on the backside of Coen’s parked truck. He threw on his jacket and stepped outside. An old engine muffled along as tires crunched through the hardening snow and soon Coen heard the music humming through the iron of an old pick-up truck as it parked slowly next to his. The man inside opened the door slightly before turning the key, muting the country music and uneasy engine. He stepped out and placed one hand on his belt. He thought the man to be about ten years his elder as he stood in the wind raising his eyebrows to the cap of his flapped hunting hat.
“Howdy,” he said in a stern voice. “Chilly out, eh?”
“Yeah, it’s getting pretty bad fast. Can I help you?”
The man approached as far as the steps where he rested his weight on the deck rail. “Yeah. Sorry to bother you at this time of night. My name is Carl. I have a cabin about fifty kilometers north of here. I was just wondering if you had a phone or some way I could make a call back home.”
“A cellphone. But the signal out here is pretty bad.”
“Don’t mind if I give it a try?”
He looked at Carl for a brief moment. “No, not at all. Come on in.”
Coen grabbed Rosalie’s phone from her hung coat and turned it on. While he waited for it to load properly, he offered a seat and drink to Carl and the guest obliged. He pondered over his thin, checkered sweater, thinking that for such a distance to travel in uncertainty, an outdoors-man would more cautious in respect of the freezing night. “Sounds good about now.” He poured and mixed it himself. Coen sat across the table from him and took a good drink from his cup.
“I know it’s late. Again, I’m sorry, bud.”
“It’s no problem. I was up anyway. And I’m sure it’s all for a good reason.”
“Yeah. It is I suppose. There ain’t a bit of service where my cabin is. All I got is an old radio. I tried using it a couple of times to get a hold of my wife, but she hadn’t been replying. I don’t know if it has anything to with these clouds, but it sure has me concerned. Been out there for a week. Just been these last couple of days this has been going on.”
Coen punched in the cellphone’s password and slid it across to Carl. “Hopefully you get something.”
Carl poked at the cellphone’s screen and lifted it to his ear. Coen could hear the phone ring faintly. The signal abruptly rung and occasionally cut out in chaotic sequence. Carl dialed a new number. The same result. He ended the phone call, and his deep breath exhaled.
“No luck I take it?”
“None.” Carl slid the phone back.
“Technology. They say so many good things about it on TV and what not. It never done me any good. I figure we’d all do better without it.”
Carl took a big drink. “You don’t hear that much these days,” he laughed. “But I agree with you there. Can’t get the kids off those damn things nowadays. Got any?”
“Two. Sleeping in that room right there. A six-year-old daughter and a teenage kid.”
“Wow, ain’t too often you hear about kids camping these days. I got me one. Technology is a spirit killer for guys like us. Often enough you can’t even use half the damn stuff out here. And if you can, you need to have plug-in every hour so that you can keep the damn thing from burning out.”
“Yeah. Maybe I’d use it more often if it wasn’t for that.”
“Then again. I did see this one satellite at a hunting shop one time. It was in the states. All you do is hook the bugger up, and it gives you internet and TV and all the bells and whistles like that. Says it could work anywhere in the world. I’d say something like that could have been useful right about now.”
“What’s the next move, Carl? You going to be heading into town?”
“Yeah, looks about that way at this point. Right in the morning, I suppose.”
Coen refilled their cups. “Us too. Could have been a more eventful weekend but at least I took down a buck. Always good to go home with meat.”
“Yeah. I got me one too a few days back. Figure I got to haul that back, too. Good hunting this year. I’m surprised. Wish I could find a way to get my kid off his ass and get him out here. But that’s asking for the impossible. He’s twenty-five now. He’s hitched and in love and has it all sorted out.”
“Yeah well, truth be told, I’m surprised as hell I got my family out here. When my son was just a young boy, he did some show and tell with his class. Lucky all he done was tell. Told his teacher and his classmates that we came up here and did some trapping and some little girl went and made a big fuss of it. They figured we were barbarians. My father would have been ashamed at the way things are,” Coen drank his cup dry and refilled. “He would have probably packed a switch blade and Roger’s Golden Syrup and moved up here and called it home if wasn’t for cancer. The bullshit back home would have drove him crazy. Times sure have changed.” He took a shot.
“They sure have. It’s good to meet a like-minded individual finally. You and your father both. Been driving past this turn off my whole life. It’s nice to get to meet you finally. Where’s home? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Not at all. Near Thompson. My mother lives in the city. Before that, I was living off a reserve by Flin Flon. I grew up there.”
“My family and I live in Thompson, too. Just moved there. She just opened up a deli. I’m still looking for work up in the mines. Never had much luck landing anything.”
“That’s where I’m working. I’m head of security up there.”
“Oh yeah? How’s that going?”
“Mhm. It’s alright. It’s mostly just quiet. Nothing too serious ever happens. Young kids getting worked up about their girlfriends back home mostly.”
“How did you get into that line of work?”
“Hm. Just got the job and stuck with it. Pays the bills.”
An hour of conversation passed. It was twelve thirty AM. Carl slipped on his linen gloves. “Thanks for your hospitality, eh.”
“Looks like it’s getting bad out there. Safe travels, man.”
“Yeah, I’m sure I’ll make it.”
“We probably won’t be leaving until late in the noon. Stop by and grab a coffee before you take off.”
“I sure will. Have a good one now.” Carl shook Coen’s hand and walked outside.
Coen closed the door behind him. He walked up to the table and poured the rest of the two-six of whiskey into his cup. He reached out for the volume knob on the radio and turned it up only to hear the sound of a constant hiss. The hiss randomly escalated to a small screech. He adjusted the frequency knob to find a different station. There was nothing but noise and static. He turned it off completely.
The next morning he walked out of the room as he rubbed his eyes and yawned. He walked up to the coffee pot and poured himself a drink. He heard the radio broadcast behind him. He turned and saw his family all sitting quietly as if they just heard that someone had died. Rosalie turned her head towards him. “You have to listen to this.” He walked over and sat down quietly not to interrupt.
“…Locals of Thompson, Manitoba are demanding more answers from the federal government as so many are forced to remain inside their homes. Authorities have blockaded the city so that no one could enter or leave. At eight thirty, officials have officially announced the death toll to have reached six thousand in the northern city.” Rosalie covered her mouth with her hands. Her eyes widened in tears. “Across the province, the death toll has been estimated to have reached approximately forty thousand since the first deaths. The unknown disease has killed approximately thirteen million people nationally in under forty-eight hours—twenty percent of Canada’s population. The Government of Canada and Minister of Health urges that all citizens remain inside their homes. ‘We are working diligently with the UN and World Health Organization for answers,’ said the Minister of Health, this morning during a nation-wide broadcast. The Prime Minister has yet to make an official statement. His last update came yesterday VIA a tweet stating: ‘my thoughts and prayers are with the families who are affected at this time. Some questions need answers.’ The first case was reported in China where the disease has since caused the deaths of over fifty percent of the population…”
Coen’s coffee was cold, untouched, and still at the brim. The broadcast had fallen upon deaf ears. His eyes fixed on the wooden surface of the table or something. Nobody spoke. Not that he could hear otherwise.
Jess got off her chair and walked over to hug her mother sitting still as if to hold back her tears. Her mother put her arms over her shoulders and pulled her in close. Emmett’s eyes wondered on the floor as if he was trying to look for something. He put the tip of his fingernail in between the crevices of his teeth and bit down. He had done this finger by finger until his mother slapped his hand out of his mouth. “Stop that.”
“Well, what the fuck?”
Coen snapped out of it. “Don’t start, Emmett.”
“This is insane. Why didn’t we bring chargers?”
“What? You lied? Where are they?”
“In the truck. Glove department.”
Emmett sprung up and ran outside.
“Is grandma sick?” Jess asked.
Rosalie covered her mouth again and burst in tears. “No, my little darling. Grandma isn’t sick.” She hugged her and got up and started pressing her fingers against her phone’s screen in a hurry.
Coen hugged his daughter. “I’m sorry for the way I was yesterday.”
“It’s okay, dad. Emmett was being bad.”
“We both were.” He smiled and kissed her on the forehead. “What now?” he asked as Rosalie seated.
She looked at him and shook her head side to side. “I don’t know.”
The broadcast continued in their silence. Much of the reports repeated throughout the hour. Emmett sat at the table attentive to his phone. He often cursed at the phone’s poor service but updated with new information when it came through. The first accounts of the disease came from China and moved its way throughout the entirety of Asia before breaking out worldwide in less than twenty-four hours. Said of the unknown disease was that it afflicted the lungs and the victims died of asphyxiation in less than an hour after coming in contact with an infected individual. The disease was airborne. In the broadcast were the screaming riots worldwide. Mothers’ cries shouted violently through the speakers. Thousands of voices chanted out in holy prayers. Politicians spoke nervously at podiums. Blockades were present in every community worldwide. Villages. Small towns. Cities. All quarantined. Hospitals were shut down. Public malls and market places were robbed. Gas stations were sucked dry. On-call nurses and emergency respondents and doctors alike were nowhere to be found.
“This can’t be” Rosalie repeated frantically. They listened as carefully as they could, biting their knuckles.
They could only imagine the horror.
“Anything yet?” Coen asked.
She shook her. “No,” she murmured with her hand resting on her phone.
He wiped his mouth. A tear rolled down his cheek and over his fingers.
“What do we do? We can’t stay here. We have to go back.” She grabbed the back of his hand.
“Go where? You heard what they said. Everything’s blocked off.”
“We have to try. We can make it work. We always manage to make it work.”
He wiped his face. “I don’t know about that.”
“Well, at least we try, Coen. Don’t start now. We can’t be thinking negatively now.”
“Neither can we be thinking stupidly.”
“Why do you always do that? Shut down every suggestion I make? This is different. This isn’t about you.” He bit down and looked away. He held his tongue. “Okay? This isn’t just about you, Coen. This about us as a family. Your mother is somewhere in that mess, and here we are talking about abandoning her.”
“I didn’t say anything like that. They said it themselves! People are going crazy out there. They’re stealing from gas stations and stores and people’s homes. We can’t just up and leave and burn away all the gas for nothing. Thompson is quarantined. They won’t let anybody in or out. How hard is that to understand? We have to stay here and protect what little we do have. What if we end up going and we get mugged on the road? What about Jess? Emmett? We can’t jeopardize their safety for no reason. Think about it, Rosalie.’
We will be okay here. We’ll just wait for this whole thing to blow over. They’ll come up with a cure and eventually everything will be alright. You heard them say they’re doing everything they can. We have to believe in that. One stupid move is all it will take.”
Emmett looked down at his phone. His battery was down to thirty percent. “How much gas do we have for the generator?”
Coen glanced at him and moved his gaze to the window. “If we use it for no more than an hour a night, we should have enough for roughly a month and still have enough to get back home.”
“You think everything will blow over by then?”
“What if it doesn’t?”
“What about food?”
“We got enough meat to last us awhile. We’ll manage.”
Rosalie wiped away her tears. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
“I don’t think anybody could.”
“Where’s Jess?” She looked around hysterically.
“She’s in the room,” Emmett said. “I told her to lie down and read for a while.”
“No problem. What now?” Emmett looked at his parents’ blank expressions. Their eyes were red. “We have to do something.”
Coen looked into his son’s eyes. “Survive.”
Coen pushed the mattress and box spring off the frame and looked down in between the two-foot-high wooden rim where an assembly of firearms and ammunition laid. Four cased rifles and a black twelve gauge Mossberg laid side by side. Two handguns were lying in their holsters next to a few loaded clips. A mountain of ammunition sat in boxes, stacked in one corner. In the shadows, there was a compound bow and a crossbow lying next to two sheaths filled with arrows and bolts and large hunting knives. He grabbed a Mossberg and pulled back the action and set it next to a box of shotgun shells. He reached for another box and checked it before setting it down to grab one of the many hand pistols. He took it out from its holster. A silver 9mm Beretta glistened in the light as he held it above his head. He pulled back the slide and placed it back in the holster, strapping it to his belt. He walked over to the other side of the bed and grabbed a sheath and slung it over his shoulder. He pulled out a compound bow and tugged on the string to check if its tension was secure and it was.
He adjusted the bed and sat on the edge. One by one, he cleaned the weapons. He stared blankly at his muddy reflection on a ten-inch hunting knife. His eyes were dark. He held the point of the blade at the tip of his finger and used his other hand to spin the knife. He looked up at the wall and glanced at a picture of his family some years ago. He sighed and shook his head.
“This isn’t happening.” He went to the kitchen.
Rosalie sat and watched Coen as he fidgeted with the radio. He searched through the stations and found nothing but the same broadcast.
“What are you doing?” she asked to no reply.
He switched to AM frequencies but still found nothing. The last thing she heard was a reporter of protesters attacking blockades before Coen had turned the radio off completely. He hung his head.
He didn’t look at her. He turned away and walked to the room.
That evening had been the coldest thus far. The snow fell so thick that visibility was a mere ten feet from out the window. The wind blew as if to remove the roof from the cabin. The stove was filled bottom to top with burning logs to fend off the intruding cold. It was quiet inside save the deep bellows of the wind and the stove crackling and popping. Jess was in her mother’s arms as they sat on the couch with a mink blanket covering them up to their necks. Coen and Emmett sat at the table. His sights fixed on the weapons as his dad set the table.
“Do you remember when you were a kid and we use to do archery?” Coen grabbed the compound bow. Emmett nodded. “Well, we’re going to be doing a lot of that again. Bullets don’t last forever.” He took the sheath of arrows and handed them to Emmett. He leaned over and cooed, “if things don’t happen as we hope, you’ll have to know how to live.” He fixed his posture. “First we’ll use the bow for a while, and then we’ll make some of our own. I’ll even show you how to make an atlatl.”
“It’s basically a handle made of wood that you use to project a giant dart. You just use almost like you were pitching a ball. Doesn’t sound like much but if you make one right, it could cut clear through a bull at a reasonable distance.” He handed him the bow. “Pull it back but don’t let it go dry.” Emmett pulled it back and aimed towards the roof. “We’ll start practice tomorrow when it’s light enough to see.”
“Is this just for hunting?”
“What?” Coen was looking down at a box of ammunition in his hand.
“Like, will I be practicing how to use this just for hunting?”
His father’s eyes looked past his forehead as his chin tucked in. “You’ll be practicing how to use for whatever you’ll be using it for.” He put down the box. “I know your gun was loaded when we were hunting. Why did you do that?”
Emmett looked down at the table. “I just wanted to be ready to shoot just in case anything popped out of nowhere.”
“And when we saw that caribou, why didn’t you?”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t. I think I just didn’t want to miss and come home with nothing.”
He picked up the Mossberg and pointed it towards the window. He pulled back pump and set it back down. “Emmett, things have changed now. You can’t hesitate. Twenty-four hours ago I would have understood. We don’t know what to expect anymore.”
“I understand.” He pulled out his cellphone. “By the way, I was talking to Brandon earlier. He and his family are okay. I can’t send or receive anything though. Messages. Internet. Nothing works. I think the towers are down or something.”
Coen continued inspecting. “It’s probably better that way.”
“What good will knowing do?”
“Knowing what? What’s going on?”
“It could help us lots. Who is alive. Who isn’t. How we can fight this disease or whatever it is killing people. How we can prevent it. How it started. There’s still lots we don’t know about.”
“If we sit around and hear nothing but horrors than we’ll do nothing but run around here scared and crying. We know enough. We’re lucky enough to be here. All we got is to move forward. That’s a better deal than we could ask for, son.”
Rosalie shot up from the couch. “Babe, your mom texted back! She said she’s okay,” she announced. “I tried sending a text, but it wouldn’t send.”
“Mine either. Towers must be down.”
“What did she say?” he asked. His head leaned over her shoulder to read the messages.
“She just said she’s okay but scared. She just found out the same time we did. She said she locked herself inside the house and that she’s not going anywhere.”
“At least we know she’s okay.”
Coen went back to his firearms.
“We can’t just leave her there alone, Coen. She’s your mother.”
He was silent for a moment. “We already talked about this. We have to stay here. If we move, we die. Then it will all be for nothing.”
Rosalie stared at Coen with a harsh look for a few moments before turning to sit with Jess again. Emmett set the bow down carefully and said, “They say that whatever it is, it’s super contagious. It could even probably spread from just being by someone who is sick.”
“Well, what if somebody comes around here?”
Coen opened the chamber of a bolt action rifle and blew into the barrel. He looked into Emmett’s curious eyes and snapped the chamber closed.
Coen sat in the driver seat with his fingers tapping the top of the steering wheel. The sound of his police radio overwhelmed quiet country music and traffic passing on. He looked up in his rear-view mirror. His partner Phillip stood waiting out at the passenger side with a bag of fast food and a beverage tray with two cups of coffee. He used his hips to tap the window gently with his holster and belt. Coen reached over and popped the door open.
“Grab this,” Philip said as he handed over the tray.
He sat in the vehicle and looked in the bag and grabbed his chili and a bun and handed the bag over to Coen.
“What the hell took you so long?” Coen said.
“Man, it’s fucking rush hour in that place all the time.”
Coen dipped his bun into his chili. “Well it was worth it,” he said with his mouth stuffed.
“Yeah, sure, while you sat in here and played with yourself.”
“Relax, I got a wife. I don’t need to be doing that. Unlike somebody I know.”
“Yeah-yeah. I get tail all the time.” Phillip grabbed a napkin and wiped his blue jacket.
“Yeah ‘cause you go to those slummy bars all the damn time.”
“What’s wrong with that? They don’t know who I am over there. They’re always partying there. And they know how to do it better than those rich cock-suckers downtown.”
“See that’s why I don’t go out with you no more. You can’t go to a normal, nice bar and pick up a normal, nice chicks like any normal, nice guy would.”
“Do you want to know why there’s a problem with that?”
Phillip shrugged. “Well, because I ain’t normal or nice.”
Coen looked at Phillip with the corner of his eye, his teeth just about to sink into his food. He bit down. “Yeah, we know. You’re a sick fucker, Phil.”
The neighborhood filled with alarmed civilians and ambulance crews and police cars. Emergency lights flared. A crowd of people surrounded the yellow crime scene tape. Coen and Phillip got out of the car and walked under the tape. The commotion was in front of a two-bed room house where photographers snapped photos of bloody bodies they stood over. There were four of them lying lifeless and bloody on the red and green lawn. The coroners stood by waiting for the detective’s call to have them hauled away. Phillip looked at Coen after coming to wits. He shook his head and exhaled “Fuck. I can’t be around this. I’ll watch the tape,” he said and walked the other way. A detective in a black suit walked up to Coen after he inked a view notes.
“Coen,” he said. They shook hands.
“Brad.” He looked at the bodies for a closer glimpse. The face of one was so bloody and shot up that it was impossible to identify. “What the hell happened here?”
“Gangs, they shot this place up good.”
“They’re just kids. Nineteen to mid-twenties.”
“Any civilians hurt?”
“No one. There’s two more dead inside. They lit this place up with automatic handhelds: Uzis and Tec-9s and at least a few pistols. They couldn’t find pieces like that on their own. This was a job. We found no drugs in the house. Paraphernalia, but that’s all.”
“No drugs? So somebody got away?”
“Yeah, we spoke to witness who saw one person run out of the house and jumped in the passenger side of a car and they drove away in a hurry.”
“Did they get the license number?”
“Nothing. But she said the car looked like an early 90s Buick, tan in color. Maybe seen the letters B and X on the plates. They may have been older than the early twenties. We don’t get a whole lot.”
“Okay. I’ll let dispatch know immediately and have some boys keep an eye out. Anything else?”
“That’s about it. I’ll call you when I learn anything else. Seeing as you don’t have a phone to text. You should climb aboard the times. They aren’t so bad, Sarge.”
“Look at that, detective.” He pointed at the wall of people stretching over the tape taking pictures with their cellphones. “They look like fucking vultures scrounging for a meal. No thanks. And I’ll call you too if I find anything. Take it easy, Brad.”
They were driving slowly on the industrial side of the city. It was quiet that evening. The sun was already half sunken into the horizon of warehouses and junkyards. The area was blurry. The memory distorted in flashes like burning reels of tape but he could recall being across the street from a 92 Buick parked outside a culvert garage. Phillip was muttering to dispatch. The words dampened as if under water. Two men walked outside the culvert and looked abound warily. Noticed. Coen jumped out of the car with his forearms resting on the car door, gun loaded and aimed. “Freeze!” his demand echoed. They refused to abide. The gunfire resonated.
Tires squealed. They pursued the trail of dust. Two red rear lights shone like a creature’s glare in the shadows. The Buick lost control and crashed into a cement roadblock. Coen had his gun aimed at the driver side door. He begged for their surrender. The door opened, and slowly the driver crawled out, his face bloody and bruised. Phillip walked cautiously toward the wreck with his gun aimed at the passenger side. The other man fired his gun inside the shattered car, and Phillip fell to the ground. Coen’s eyes widened at the site of the bloody exit wound that protruded in the back of his partner’s head. The world slowly moved as Coen opened fire inside the vehicle. Silence fell.
He released his clip and snapped in a fresh one. He held up his gun and walked slowly towards the vehicle. The man in the passenger side appeared lifeless, his head leaning on the car seat. Cautiously, he opened the door to get a better view. The man burst in a sudden movement and fired off two bullets before his clip was dry. One bullet hit Coen in the torso. Bursts of cloth exploded. There was no blood. He managed to rapidly put several bullets into the man’s chest and head before he leaned against the car to hold himself up, the pain throbbing. He took a deep breath and saw the other man crawl away. Coen lifted his gun and lined up his site to him. Everything vanished.
Coen shot up, forehead sweaty. He felt lost when he looked around the dark room. The memory of bullet impact transcended into reality as he grasped his torso to check for a broken rib. Placidity came when Rosalie roused up.
“What’s wrong?” she asked rubbing her eyes. He took a deep breath and fell back into his pillow. He stared at the roof waiting for his heart to settle, and soon his fever dissipated. His wife rested her head on his shoulder. He reluctantly turned away to his side. “It’s nothing,” he said, “just a dream.” She threw off the blankets and walked out of the room.
Later that morning the wind whistled quietly through the crevices of the front door as Jess slipped on her boots. “Jess!” her mother cried before she opened the door to play. Rosalie grabbed her by the arms and looked her directly in the eyes “don’t do that, Jess. You can’t just leave like that.”
She pouted her lips. “I just wanted to play.”
“I know but don’t go outside without telling me you. You can’t go outside alone, you hear me?”
She nodded. “Okay.”
“Okay. Well, wait inside for a while. I’m going to cook some porridge.” She walked towards the kitchen counter. “You shouldn’t be going outside without eating anyway. Where’s your brother is he up?”
“Yeah. He’s outside with dad. They’re shooting arrows. I wanted to go watch, mom.”
“Well, you got to eat first.”
She turned on the propane and ignited the stove top and put on the coffee kettle. Roughly twenty minutes later the sound of bubbling and burping came from the pot full of porridge and steam whistled through the kettle. Coen and Emmett walked into the aroma of cooked oats. “Porridge is in the pot,” Rosalie told Emmett as she set Jess’ plate down in front of her. They walked over to grab a plate of their own and sat down, eager for a bite.
“Mom I want sugar, it tastes funny,” said Jess.
“Sure.” She got up and got the sugar and scattered a scoop of white sugar on the surface of her steaming oats. “There you go.”
Jess dipped the spoon back in and blew it cool. “Still tastes funny, mom.”
Coen fixed his posture and looked at Rosalie in disapproval. “We can’t use too much, my darling. We need to save. We can’t use lots.”
“But I don’t like it.”
“Jess, eat your food. You heard your mom,” said Coen.
She grumbled and started swirling her spoon in her bowl without eating. Her parents continued eating with their eyes fixed on the table. Emmett nudged Jess. She squealed and hit him on the arm. “Don’t” she cried.
Coen dropped his spoon and quickly wiped off his hands. He grabbed Jess’ bowl and walked it over to the garbage can and dumped it.
“You want to waste things? There you go.” He sat back down and acted as if nothing had happened. He could feel their eyes on him. His jaw muscles contracted.
Jess threw her arms on the table and began to cry. Rosalie looked back at Coen shaking her head. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Why should we have to put up with that? This isn’t how things are going to be anymore. Jess, I am sorry. But if you want to waste your food, you don’t have to eat at all. That’s the bottom line.” Her cries ascended. “Stop crying, Jess,” he demanded.
“Coen, stop it,” Rosalie exclaimed and jumped out of her chair.
Coen leaned closer to Rosalie’s face, uninitiated. “Get out of my face. I will not let my family die because we’re too careless with what we have.”
“She’s just a little girl.”
“And she’ll learn.”
She was quiet for a moment. “You’re not making this any easier on us.”
“Who said this was supposed to be easy?” He grabbed her arm and pulled her in closer. He whispered through closed teeth. “This is how it’s going to be for now on. I love you. I love you and the kids.” He loosened his grip. “Emmett, help your mom do dishes. Jess, go to your bedroom. I’ll be in there to talk to you shortly.”
Rosalie stared long and hard at Coen. “Don’t you raise your voice to her like that again. She’s just a little girl, and she’s scared.”
“She’s scared? That’s great. It’s fine to be scared. Being scared is what’s going to keep us alive.”
Coen had his elbows resting on the deck’s rail. He reckoned he would go out to smoke while the wind and cold were mild. He took a long drag from his cigarette and exhaled slowly to savor the warmth in his lungs. The smoke was thick in the cold. His thoughts were deep. He wondered if the white ahead was trickery and all was simply a dream of which he could not wake. The thought escaped as the front door creaked, and Rosalie walked out beside him. She crossed her arms to keep warm.
“How much of those do you got left?”
He dug into his pocket.
She huddled up against him and put out her hand for a drag. He placed the smoke in-between her fingers.
“I’m sorry,” he said calmly.
“It’s okay. I don’t know what I’m doing either.”
“Two years?” His eyes crossed to stare at the cigarette in between his teeth.
“Over two years now. Tastes like shit now.” She handed him the last few drags. “You had a dream about what happened didn’t you?”
He exhaled and stomped out the rest. “Yeah.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. “It’s going to be okay, babe. I just need you to understand that I’m here for you, not to get in your way. We have to do this together.”
“I know.” He looked down. “Every time I think about what happened, I just feel distant. I don’t want to feel like that, but I can’t help it. I feel like I could just pour an entire bottle of Canadian Club down my throat and pass out in the snow somewhere and even that wouldn’t faze me as much those fucking nightmares. I’ll never get away from them. You go into the force thinking that if something like that would ever happen, it wouldn’t affect you as much as it does. It’s a nightmare.”
“Drinking doesn’t help anything. Neither does being distant. Don’t think that way. You know you can’t do that. Not now.”
“I know. It’s just a feeling. It happens at work. I manage to manage.”
“Maybe it’s because they don’t sell alcohol up there.”
“More than likely. I had a drink the other night when Emmett had his fit about the phones. I just couldn’t take the stress.”
Rosalie’s stare was almost cold. “You brought alcohol?”
“No. It was already here from the last time I’ve been up here. Anyways a man showed up that night.”
“What? Out here?”
“Yes. His name is Carl. He asked to use our phone, but there was no signal. He had a few drinks with me and went about his way. He said he might be coming back, but he hasn’t shown up yet. I’m just wondering if he tried to get back into Thompson.”
“If he went there and it was quarantined, wouldn’t he have turned around?”
“I figure by now yes.”
“I might go up to his cabin and see if he’s there.”
Coen turned on the radio and humming, and noise rang through the speakers. They went through the frequencies, but there had been no broadcast, just noise that swelled and hissed and faded. He turned to address his wife and son. “Okay. If he isn’t there, that means he might have made it back into Thompson. That means we can go back too.”
“What if he isn’t there and he just died?” said Emmett.
“It’s a chance we got to take.”
“Okay, so what about gas?”
“Yeah. Aren’t we supposed to save it?”
“Yeah. But it’s a chance we got to take, son.” He walked over to the entrance and threw on his coat. He bent over to tie his boats. “Emmett, you stay here.”
He rose up and grabbed the rifle sitting next to the door. “Because you have to stay here and help your mom watch Jess. They need you here.”
“What about you?”
“I can handle myself.” He withdrew his Beretta from its holster and checked if the clip had bullets.
“What if somebody shows up?”
“Make sure his name is Carl. If it isn’t him, tell them to leave. It could be foragers or anybody. And if they try to harm you, shoot them. Have your gun on you at all times, Emmett. Tell your sister it’s just in case of bears. Don’t try and scare her.” Emmett nodded. “Be careful.”
Rosalie held her hand over her mouth. Uncovering it for a moment, she said with water in her eyes, “you too.”
The road was vacant and blanked out in white. Coen the pavement was buried under a blanket of snow. At a leisurely pace, it took an hour before the road was disturbed by vague tire tracks. He followed the trail for about a kilometer until finally, he came to a cabin much like his own although there had been poplar throughout the lot and beyond or before the wiry bush he saw no vehicle of any familiarity. He checked over his shoulder before stepping out from his truck and stood for a moment to listen but heard only wind and saw no smoke spewing or even so much as driveling from the chimney. He walked up to the front door and knocked and as he’d thought there was no answer and so he cleared a circle on the window with his sleeve and winced through the frosted glass but saw no one.
He went and checked the doorknob but it was locked and took a switchblade from his pocket and dug it into the frozen crevice between the knob and frame and carefully wedged and pulled the blade to pushed his weight on the door and he flung it wide open.
He folded the switch blade and placed it back into his chest pocket and looked about the cold cabin. There was frost on every window. The faint light from his backside painted his figure into the dim lobby. He saw the floors had been swept off the dust recently however as he knelt to touch the floor it had been cold to the touch. He looked to the heads of elk and deer and moose which hung on each wall, and, in between the trophies, wolf pelts, dream catchers, beaver traps, muzzle-loaders hung fossilized in rust and frost and, when he did not see any family pictures to indicate evidence of the owners, he walked to the kitchen counter and one by one he began opening cupboards. Cups…Plates…Soup cans…Spices… and there he opened up a cupboard with keys hanging from the door. He checked every key. There it was. It was a key that could have certainly been the spare for Carl’s pick-up truck. Still unconvinced he went through the drawers and found a pile of papers and magazines and old pens. He grabbed one of the hunting magazines and saw Carl’s name prescribed over the barcode and left.
Rosalie was reading to Jess on the couch while Emmett stared at his rifle, closing and opening the bolt action. He said to his mother that he was going out for some fresh air and left with the gun. He grabbed a sleigh full of chopped logs and started a fire in the fireplace and brushed the snow from off the picnic table and sat down waiting for the flames to throw heat. He looked out towards the lake and got up and put the butt of his rifle against his shoulders. He squinted to look through the scope. The dark spruce border on the other side of the lake was too distant to line up in the crosshairs. He turned the sight towards the woodshed and lined up the handle of the ax. He put his finger gently on the trigger and slowly pulled until the chamber clicked. The barrel was dry. He slung the rifle back on his back and turned around saw a man standing motionless.
Frost and ice hung off the fringes of the man’s hood. His scarf covered his face up past his nose. Emmett could only see snow stuck to his bushy eyebrows, his dark empty eyes looking back at him. Emmett put the end of his rifle underneath his armpit. The man raised his hand to halt.
“Wait,” he muttered loudly through his scarf.
Emmett eased the gun.
The man pulled down the scarf. Emmett had not known it, but it was Carl. “My name is Carl. I met your dad the other day.”
Emmett squinted for a moment and let go of the rifle. The man walked closer towards him.
“Sorry for scaring you. It gets cold walking when you’re walking for so many miles.”
“Did you see my dad?”
“Not since a couple of nights ago.”
“Are you okay?” Emmett pointed at his frosted boots. “Looks like you’ve walking quite a while.”
“Yeah. My truck ran out of gas. Bastards wouldn’t even let me fill up my truck.”
“You just came from Thompson?”
“It’s completely shut down. Even the radio wasn’t working. It could be on now, but I don’t know.”
“Whoa. Don’t come any closer,” Emmett said with his hands up. “Are you sick?”
“No, but I’ll probably get sick if I stay outside any longer.” He walked right past Emmett and pulled off his gloves and put his hands as close to the flames as he could. “Where is your dad?”
“He went to your cabin. He wanted to see if you’re still around.”
“Nope, no I wasn’t.” He blew into his hands and rubbed them together and put them in the heat again. “I figured out what was going on and I had to get back home to my wife. I just pray she isn’t gone. I just want to know if her and my son is okay. So many are dead.” He looked at Emmett and glanced at the rifle. “I get it. It’s cool, man.”
“My dad told me to be careful if anyone came around.” Emmett walked up to the fireplace. “Said to shoot anyone that wasn’t you. Was just about to. You looked like the freaking abominable snowman.”
Carl laughed. “Funny guy eh. Yeah, it was a long thirty or so kilometers. Thought I would have been lucky enough to make it here on fumes. Damn old gas guzzler anyway.”
The front door slapped the cabin. “Emmett?” his mother hollered. They both turned their heads towards her. Her eyes frightened.
The kerosene light danced calmly on the walls and over the floors and the stove crackled over the quiet hiss of the radio, and their eyes lay upon the table surface. A bottle of Merlot was set by Rosalie as she sipped from her wine glass. And Coen took a bottle of Canadian Club and poured it into Carl’s cup and Emmett’s posture was erect as he watched like a student at a University lecture.
“I say we just go over there guns blazin,” said Carl.
“We can’t do that.”
“Out of the question,” Rosalie broke in stubbing the tip of her index fingers on the table like forcing out a cigarette.
“She’s probably dead anyway,” Carl said solemnly. “My son, too.”
“Don’t say that,” Rosalie spoke in a comforting tone.
Coen nodded. “Yeah, she’ll be fine.” He poured himself another drink.
“I just can’t sit around and do nothing.”
“What do you mean ‘do nothing’? You could survive. We are. If you need anything, Carl, we’ll always be here to help you,” Coen assured.
“I wouldn’t know what I’d be doing it for.”
“For you. You can’t just know what you know and let it all go to waste. That’s why guys like us live the way we do. We’re born and bred this way. You can’t just give up. You’re meant to be here. You’re meant to move forward.”
Carl took a big drink. “How the fuck do we accept this shit?”
“Undoubtedly it’s hard to accept. But ninety percent of this world has been too busy with their heads plowed into their phones. They don’t even care to look five inches away from those screens without worrying about who’s going to text them or who’s going to like what they have to say. Me and you? We didn’t buy it. Never have and never will. And now look at this world. People were probably so busy on those damned things reading about the price of wheat in China that they didn’t even notice that the world was going to shit around them. If they were to see us now, they’d envy us. They’d give up their TVs, cell phones, credit cards, mp3s just to be where we are now. They’re stuck. There’s nothing they can do now. Doctors, politicians… they’re all dying. I don’t feel sorry for them. They chose their lives the same way I chose mine.”
They were silent for a moment before Carl spoke. “She didn’t choose that life. I guess I just left her behind. I live in the city too eh. I know there ain’t much people who like to go out camping or anything but there are the few who still need to work. There are still thousands that love to be outdoors, but it isn’t a way of life. I can’t say that I don’t feel sorry for them. It isn’t their fault people are dying.”
“The world couldn’t handle us people. So many of us and the way we show gratitude is by taking advantage of it, taking shortcuts and always looking for the easy way out.” Coen poured another drink. “But I’d kill to see my brothers and sisters again… my mother too. I’d do anything to have them out here. We’d make it so good.”
“Where are they now?”
“They all moved away, some to the States but mostly down south. They’ve probably been caught up in all of this too.”
“Are you going back?” Emmett asked Carl.
“Yeah,” he replied.
“Not tonight,” Rosalie instead. “Not tonight. You just finished freezing your ass off. If there’s any room for kindness left, it’s here. Besides, you and Coen are looking a little half shot. No way I’m letting my baby drive. We got a sleeping bag you can use. We don’t have any extra mattresses, so I hope that’s good enough.”
“That’s more than enough, Rosalie, God bless you.”
“Well,” Coen lifted his cup, “to the last alcohol we’ll be drinking in a while.” They raised their glasses and drank.
“You’d think we savor it,” Rosalie said while she poured her glass to the brim, “but fuck that.” She took a big gulp.
“Too bad I forgot the magic blue pills,” said Coen.
“Oh God, just end it all now,” Rosalie rolled her eyes.
Emmett shook his head and went to bed.
Jess was in the bedroom with a little LED scrolling over the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. She whispered the words soft and slow, trying to ignore the bantering of Carl and her parents outside. When she finished the book an hour later she could hear her brother snoring across the room, and she pulled her blankets over her ear to dampen the sound but his snores pierced through. Later on, she awoke to her parent’s snores coming through the walls and growled as she rose to her feet and went to a large box filled with toys and quietly picked out a stuffed bear and brought it over to her bed. She used its soft fur for a pillow to hug but she her eyes would not close and, irate and mumbling, she stomped to Emmett and nudged him quickly, “brother I can’t sleep.” She nudged again when he mumbled, “can I sleep with you? I can’t sleep, please.” She heard his growls and, with no room to lie next to Emmett, he sat down on the edge of her bed caressing the soft stuffed animal.
She swallowed her spit and decided to grab a drink of water. She poked her head out of the door and slowly stepped into the darkness. The moonlit room was quiet. She made out the kitchen counter sitting in the moon’s gleam in the darkness as she carefully slid her feet across the floor to avoid kicking anything. She got to a rubber tub and scooped water from the dipper, and she let the cold water slide down her throat in relief.
“Don’t you think you should use a cup?”
Jess froze when she heard Carl’s hoarse voice. His face was hidden in the shadows and saw only his hands and feet and a bottle of whiskey in his fist.
She stood speechless, eyes wide. “Don’t be scared,” Carl said in pitched voice. “Your mom and dad are only in the next room. You couldn’t sleep neither, huh?” He saw her hesitant nod. “Yeah, me either. You’re not scared of me are you?” She barely turned her head. “That’s good. I’m not scary. Compared to what’s going on anyway. You’re a lucky girl you know to have parents like that. Most girls your age don’t have parents that will take them camping.” He leaned over, and half of his face revealed. His sockets were shadows. “You better go to bed. I don’t think your parents would like it to find you out here out of bed.”
Jess slowly stepped backward until she turned and made for the room and she quickly shoved Emmett’s leg over and laid next to him.
Early morning Coen and Carl drove out about ten kilometers to the abandoned pickup. Snow covered the window and hood. Carl brushed it clean while Coen emptied out the gas from a jerry can. He closed the fuel cap. Carl turned the ignition, and the engine grumbled until it fired up. Carl got out.
“That ought to do well until you can get back to your place,” Coen said, placing the empty container in the back of his truck.
“Thank you,” Carl shook his hand.
“Now you’re sure you have fuel at your place?”
“Yeah, I got some of it. Next time I’ll be sure to bring it with me.”
Coen stood silently in the humming wind.
“What’s on your mind?” Carl said.
Coen looked at Carl’s pick up and looked around. “I thought you would have been further out from this. Thought I heard Emmett mention something about you being thirty kilometers away. Guess I thought I’d burn more fuel coming out here.”
Carl smiled. “It felt longer during the walk. I don’t know. I guess I’m just getting too damn old or something.”
Coen laughed. “Yeah, I know what you mean. You take it easy now, Carl.” Coen grabbed the truck’s door handle.
“You too,” Carl waved him off.
Coen got in and started his truck. Carl drove around him. He sat for a moment before he turned his wheel and made back for the cabin.
Late that morning Coen stood on the dock with his family and a needle bar resting on his shoulder. He walked up to the end of the dock and jabbed the ice with the pointy end. Ice scattered around the spot where the iron bar had gone in a couple of inches. It did not go through. He opened up his hand, inviting Jess onto the ice with him. She grabbed his hand and, after her father, slowly placed one foot down and the next. Coen smiled at her and assured her it was safe with a nudge. She began sliding around. Rosalie told her to be careful. Emmett jumped off the dock and did the same. Rosalie followed as they walked out towards the middle of the lake. They found a suitable spot where Coen drove the pole into the ice repeatedly until there was a circle outline of clear shards. He handed Rosalie the pole to which she looked to baffled. He pointed down at the outline and told her to punch through right in the middle. She started jabbing in between the outline. She popped her hips to lift the bar and drove it down repeatedly and, after an exhausting effort, the pole went through the ice and water spewed out the hole and filled the six inch opening rapidly like a sprung leak in a dam. Coen grabbed the needle bar and cleaned up the excess ice so that a water bucket could fit.
Emmett and his father went out into the woods and found dead jack pine short of a kilometer away. They hacked and chopped tiresomely until the tree fell. They chopped it in long segments and placed them on a long rubber sleigh and hauled the weight back to the cabin where Emmett cut the lengths into logs and split them in half. The process would take most of the light of day. Emmett’s arms were sore, but he was silent in confidence because the work was done. He brushed sawdust and soot and clinging branches from his apparel and went inside for a drink of water.
Jess and her mother were inside scrubbing dishes and the counters and the tables. When Jess would avoid staying busy Rosalie would scold her and make sure she participated. They shoveled the snow from the deck and swept it clean. Rosalie placed a large tin tub full of water on the stove and waited until steam rose. She took off the tub and put clothes in to soak. After around twenty minutes she scrubbed them one by one on a washboard and had Jess ring out excess water and hung the clothes on a drying rack. The laundry’s moisture turned into vapor. With the beds set and everything in order, Jess and her mother sat down for a game of cards at the table.
Coen walked in. “What’s going on?”
“Playing cards with mom, dad,” Jess said.
“Rosalie, there’s still stuff to do. We don’t have time for cards right now.” He walked in the room and came out with a hatchet. “Hurry up.”
“But dad we aren’t done our game.”
“Jess, please don’t talk back. Rosalie, let’s go.”
“Well, what? What do you want me to do?”
Coen had stopped before he walked inside, his expression serious. “There’s an old fishing net out there. You and Jess could take out the tangles.”
Rosalie threw down the cards in her hand. “Let’s go, Jess.”
When the light set in the mornings, Emmett and his father stood nearby the fireplace and practiced archery. Coen coached Emmett with his breathing and posture. When Emmett would complain about the wind, he told him it would only make him a better hunter. Day after day the projected arrow came closer to the bull’s eye. A week past and finally an arrow penetrated right in the middle of the target. Emmett had got the bull’s eye on a snowy and windy day. His dad patted him on the back. “Okay, now we go further back.” Emmett rolled his eyes and shook his head with a smile.
In the mornings and nights, Rosalie would check her phone for messages, but none sent. The signal had completely vanished, and the device was nothing more than a symbol of hopeless promise. A week had roughly past, and she stopped looking at it entirely.
One afternoon the family was out on the lake. Coen punched a hole in the ice. Jess stood by and asked of the odd piece of wood. He put it in the hole and guided it using a string. “Listen.” They were quiet. As he tugged the rope, they could hear the jig thudding beneath the surface. He had Emmett follow the noise for about a hundred meters away. Coen tugged. Emmett waved his arms, “got it” he signaled. He used the needle bar to punch a hole, and he pulled out the jigger using a hooked stick. Emmett started pulling the rope and the fishing net sunk into the water. Emmett drug the hundred pound net until it was completely under the ice. They tied down both ends to wooden poles they secured in the ice.
“When can we pull it out, dad?” Jess asked.
“Tomorrow.” He gave her a kiss on the head. “There will be lots of fish for us eat and smoke. Hey, I don’t think you ever tried smoked fish, have you?” She shook her head. “Well, we’ll have to have some. It’s yummy.”
That night Coen was up late. He sat at the table with a pen in his hands and a blank piece of paper in front of him. He stared at the dimly lit kerosene as if he was looking for thoughts to come. Nothing. Suddenly he heard a faint voice. It was the radio. He shot up and elevated the volume so he could hear it distinct. The reporter’s voice was soft:
“…thousands of policemen are reported to have deserted their posts. It’s unclear whether the disease killed them or they refused to show up for duty. Coast to coast, the government, has now rallied military reserves to maintain quarantine zones. However, military confidence is low. Riots within the quarantine zones are growing larger by day. The World Health Organization has ‘begged’ for rioters to refrain from joining large groups of individuals, creating an opportunity for the disease to spread at a more-so alarming pace. The statement issued after the deaths of over ten thousand in less than an hour during a violent protest in San Francisco, California. Similar occurrences have happened globally, and this is not rare. Health officials say that the protests are major culprits in the spreading of the disease.”
The broadcast was the sound of protesters from across the globe. Chanting and cries. “According to the UN’s reports, Russia has been least affected with a death toll of five percent compared to the global average of ten. Canada and The United States have been most affected at over twenty percent between both North American countries. Officials are stating that the presumed genetically enhanced Spanish flu is an act of biological warfare. Whether or not the Russian Federation is to blame is still unclear. Russian leaders have denied the allegations but have yet to make the following statement after reports that five million Russian soldiers have prepared in a ‘war-like’ manner earlier this afternoon. While the UN and other top global organizations investigate the cause of the disease, they urge that civilians stay inside and avoid any contact with strangers. Clinical masks and gloves can also hinder the spread of the disease. There is still no cure for the unnamed illness. And just to remind our listeners, that our broadcast is day by day. We are here only out of the good of our hearts. As much as we would rather be in our homes with our families, we still feel it’s vital to share what news we can get with you. From all of us still here in the CHTM studio, take care, and God bless. Goodnight.” The quiet hiss returned.
When they had all awoke to the cold and windy snowfall in the morning, they went back out on the lake and found their water hole with the markers standing out like lone trees in a whitened tundra. Coen shoveled off the snow from the hole that had frozen over. He lightly punched the entirety of the circumference and shoveled out the shards of ice. Coen and Emmett walked over to other hole and prepared to pull out the net. Rosalie leaned forward and squinted to see beyond the white precipitation. She could only make out faint figures like black and white sketches in motion. She used to her hands to keep the snowfall out of her eyes and walked closer as she wondered if her husband had been signaling her. Coen heard water splash like a large stone tossed into some calm water. Her head turned, and she noticed Jess struggling to keep her head out of the water. Rosalie screamed Jess’ name as she rushed to the hole and slid to grab her by the forearm. The little girl had been shrieking in the burning immersion of the debilitating cold. Her wet clothes scrapped on the edge of the hole until Rosalie pried her out entirely from the water. Her tears filled her eyes as she squeezed her frightened daughter.
Coen and Emmett came rushing out of the whiteness.
“What happened?” Coen panicked. He saw her soaked clothes freezing.
Emmett stood by silent and shocked as Coen grabbed Jess and threw her over his shoulder and dashed to the cabin where he ripped off Jess’ clothes and wrapped her in a warm blanket and wiped away the frosted moisture by the stove. She was still scared and crying as her parents spoke stern, assuring her that she would be okay.
Rosalie was wordless. The sound of her daughter falling into the water echoed. She saw her daughter fall in head first. Though, in that image, it was her beneath the ice instead. The endless black. She looked up to distant daylight through half a foot of ice as she clawed and pushed to escape and when so, she saw Coen’s jaw strain in disappointment. His eyes stiffened in furry, and hers slowly deviated in the overwhelming guilt, as if beneath the ice would be a warmer place to drown in rather the tension.
That night she sat next to her daughter and held her hand and watched as she slept soundly. The kerosene lamp lit the room like a calm summer evening. She studied Jess’ pale skin and dark eyelids. She removed the grade school books she’d just read to Jess and put them on the nightstand. She placed the back of her hand on her daughter’s forehead and adjusted the blankets to cover her completely. She noticed Jess’ mouth move somewhat talking in her dreams, and her arms began to jolt as she tossed over uneasily. Rosalie softly hushed her calm. Emmett walked into the room and sat on the other side of the bed. He leaned over and kissed his sister on the forehead. He looked at his mother and got up and rubbed her shoulder and gave her a hug before he walked out. Jess coughed violently. Her temperature climbed rapidly, and her skin became cold, clothes dampened from feverish sweats.
Rosalie walked out of the room and saw Coen sleeping on the couch. Rosalie blew out the lamp and lied next to Jess. Moonlight mirrored off Coen’s peered open eyes. The dim reflection in his optics gradually subsided into the darkness.
The sun glimmered off the wavy lake. The RCMP sports boat rocked easily. Coen and Phil were out of uniform as they sat comfortably in the vessel reeling their fishing rods. Coen wound in his hook and threw Phil a cold beer from the cooler. Their cans cracked one after another, and they took a meaningful drink as the hot sun poured down on them. Coen wiped the sweat from his forehead and cast his hook out. The world vanished as if Coen blacked out.
He was sitting solitaire across from a desk. He used his elbow to prop his chin resting his hands as he stared blankly at the abundance of filing cabinets and post it notes. There was a dampened voice calling his name, but he hesitated to answer. He looked towards a suited man speaking to him on the other side of the desk, but his concentration felt obscure. His chess captivity felt like an empty vessel.
“Coen, you listening?” the man’s voice finally came through.
“We have no choice but to put you on two weeks paid suspension. Considering what has happened to you, we can extend your time if you want.”
“What about my family?”
“We’re doing everything we can to relocate them. We need you to not go anywhere for a minimum of two weeks. We’ll get one of the guys to make grocery runs and what not. We’ll be keeping you family safe, Coen.”
“We relocated them too.”
“Is there anything else you want to tell me about those people?”
“Coen, I wouldn’t worry about it. You need rest. You’ve been through a lot.”
“For my family’s safety.”
“We’re taking care of it.” Coen’s stable expression made the man uneasy. “Okay. They’re just some group of drug pushers. They come out with different gang names every other month.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Doug. You don’t take these kinds of precautions with just any group of teenage thugs. Was it H.As? I deserve to know.” He barely made eye contact with Coen. He gave him a subdued nod. “Shit. He shot Phil.”
“Look. You might be in trouble. Might be. We aren’t sure. That’s all the information I can give you right now. We’ll have our guys calling you before night and every morning. We’ll even swing by and make sure everything’s okay. What you need to do, Coen, is get some rest. Call us if you need anything: an extension, food, drink… whatever.”
Coen surrendered his badge and gun. “Okay. Thank you.”
Doug reached over the desk, and they shook hands.
Rosalie and Coen were sitting on a couch in their living room. She turned down the volume on the television.
“What about school?”
“They’ll still go. They’ll be safe there.”
“And what about me? I have a job too.”
“If they can’t understand your situation then it’s their loss.”
She propped herself into a rigid posture. She continued in a concerned tone. “Babe, are we okay?”
He turned his attention away from the television and looked at her. His atom’s apple quailed. “I don’t know,” he replied softly with an unsure nod.
He peeled open the curtains of his home. Within the darkness, Coen could see the reflectors of an unusual vehicle parked from across his vast lawn. His eyeball barely peeked out a thin crevice. He could see a faint outline of somebody or something inside the vehicle. He squinted but recognized no particular figure. It was too dark outside, and the car had strong tint on both the back and front windows. He looked over at the clock on some unit in his entertainment stack. It was twelve thirty. The vague reality vanished into flashing images of a funeral. Coen was in a black attire suit. Phil’s ex-wife cried underneath her black veil. He could sense her deplored eyes stare through the opaque garment. His head turned to the road. It was the same car that disturbed the streets of his home. He examined cautiously until the black vehicle drove off. A chorus of gunfire heightened. The visions vanished.