First came the comet. Then came the fires. Now we fight to save what’s left.
After The Fires Went Out: Coyote
Part 1: Thursday, December 27th
by Regan Wolfrom
This is the twenty-fifth installment of the full novel serialization of After The Fires Went Out: Coyote, to coincide with the release of Book Three: Veneration, in early 2014. The story begins here.
Today is Thursday, December 27th.
Ant wrote this last August:
It’s hard for a guy like me to talk about love; I’ve spent my time on this earth in pursuit of a full variety of the storied Canadian beaver, and truthfully, falling in love gets in the way of that.
But love is something that sticks with you, like a bad cold or genital herpes, and sometimes it gets even worse as time goes on. Sometimes it won’t go away no matter how much you want it to, no matter how much time you spend fapping to other girls.
I miss Natalie. It was impossible being with her, after being with her sister for so long, but that doesn’t really change anything for me. I think she misses me, too, not that we can send each other texts or try to run into each other at the grocery store. We might as well be a thousand kilometers away.
I left the Girards without any time to pack or really say goodbye; all I had time for was to tell Natalie that I loved her. She smiled in that way she always did when she heard my normal bullshit; I don’t think she understood what kind of love I was talking about.
One day I’ll get up the nerve to go back and explain it to her.
The night I dropped off Natalie and Tabitha, I took that little Honda back to McCartney Lake and parked it at a cottage up the road. It still had just over half a tank, but I didn’t really have any plans for how to use the gas that was left.
Last night after Sara had gone to sleep, I decided to drive back to the Girards’ in that little car. I brought along a vest and a helmet, but I didn’t feel like putting them on. I even took off my belt, stuffing it on the passenger seat beside me. It all felt like too much to carry.
I almost got stuck a few times in the snow, and at those moments I felt pretty stupid that I hadn’t brought along a snow shovel or any sand. But luckily that little car had more guts than I expected, and I made it all the way to Bondy Lake.
I’d forgotten to bring the tarps, too.
I went back into the empty house and gathered up the bed sheets. Then I brought them down to the car and spread about half of them in the back; I folded down the passenger seat as well to get a little more room.
Then I took the rest of the bed sheets and I went to the root cellar. I strapped on my headlamp, which felt strange strapped directly against my scalp and not onto my helmet, and I lowered myself down to where the bodies lay.
I’d been worried about coyotes finding the frozen bodies, not that I was sure if they’d be able to do much with them. But most of the dead Girards looked just as they did before; there might have been some rodents down there, but I didn’t look that carefully.
Natalie and Tabitha probably looked exactly like they did the day they died.
I knew it wasn’t fair to leave Tabitha there, away from her family and then away from her best friend, so I wrapped the two of them up with the sheets.
I carried Natalie first, and I didn’t know how to feel as I balanced her over my shoulder like a surfboard, her body rigid and cold. I placed her in the car and then I went back for Tabitha.
I felt a little guilty leaving the rest of them there, but I knew it would be hard enough with two.
I drove them back to McCartney Lake to the place near Wright Creek that we’d chosen when we lost Ant. I laid them both out in the snow, Tabitha wrapped in a sheet of yellow and green flowers, and Natalie covered with pink unicorns.
I decided that one day I would go back to the root cellar, for the children at least.
I gathered some logs from our firewood pile, along with two bottles of lighter fluid, since I didn’t have any kindling. I lit the fire and I waited a few minutes for the flames to grow hot. Then I grabbed my steel shovel and shoved it into the fire.
It took much longer to dig those two graves than it did to bury Ant, and the sun had already risen before I had finished filling them back in.
I was just glad that my heart had kept up with the digging.
Kayla found me there.
“Sara’s looking for you,” she said.
I tried to give her a smile; I’m not sure it worked. “Thanks for letting me know. You’re not going to ask me what I’m doing?”
She gave me a look that surprised me, like she understood exactly how I was feeling. She wrapped her arm around me. “I know what you’re doing… and I know that he’d appreciate it, Baptiste. Ant really did love her.”
“That’s what he wrote.”
“He told me once. One night when we were out together by the lake. I asked him if he wanted to kiss me, and then he just blurted it out like he was confessing to murdering someone. ‘I’m in love with Natalie Girard,’ he’d said. And then he gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek and said that a blowjob would be perfectly acceptable, however.” She started to laugh. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in love with someone like Ant. It must have been so frustrating most of the time.”
“That’s what love is, Kayla. If you’re not frustrated you’re doing it wrong.”
“I’ve never thought of it that way.”
“I’d rather you didn’t tell anyone about this.” I really didn’t want to explain why I did it. I’d cared enough to drive two dead girls up from Bondy Lake, but I’d never even bothered to ask where the Tremblays had chosen to bury Marc.
“Don’t you think they’ll notice?” she asked.
“Just don’t tell them for now, okay? Let them find out another day.”
“Thank you, Kayla.” I gave her a kiss on the forehead.
She giggled. “That means you love me,” she said.
That made me smile. “Yeah… that means I love you.”
We walked back together. And when Sara asked, Kayla told her that she’d found me out on a walk.
I doubt Sara has any idea what I was doing out there near Ant’s stand of sugar maples.
She didn’t ask me.
Today was the day for limbing and splitting the birchwood.
We’d cut down around two dozen birch trees during the late summer, while there were still enough leaves to suck moisture out of the wood. Now it was time to revisit the fallen trees and turn them into firewood. We also have around twenty balsam firs on the ground just off the road, but they’ll have to wait for sometime next week, after we’ve sobered up from New Year’s.
When we first moved into the cottage at McCartney Lake, we’d run our stove off of hastily-cut fir and whatever pre-split bundles of firewood we could find. Some of it was too green but we made it work. Graham had done his best to tell us about hardwoods versus soft, and how his father used to swear by Pacific Madrones for their firewood, which didn’t mesh well with them living in central Illinois. Based on his advice we made sure to cut some birch as well that summer, piling it on the metal racks to season for the following winter.
Now we’re hooked on birch, and it’s been easy enough to find; you just go to wherever there was a forest fire ten to twenty years ago and there you’ll find your firewood. We’ve seen colonies of young birch trees all over the district now, but it’s the older trees we need, the ones where the bark has already turned white, and the closest acreage of firewood-ready birch is on the far side of the lake. That’s where our fallen trees were waiting.
One of the only good things about the breakdown of society is that for the first few months there was plenty of equipment sitting around, waiting for you to take it all home; that’s made the job a whole lot smoother.
After being up all night, all I really wanted to do was sneak upstairs and go to sleep, but I had to set an example, or at least make sure Matt didn’t look better than me. Ant was gone, so someone needed to take his slot.
So five of us piled onto our three tracked ATVs, leaving Kayla and Fiona back home with the dogs and a shotgun, and headed off to our woodlot. Sara and I pulled the utility trailer while Graham and Lisa dragged the splitter behind them. It took three times as long with snow on the ground, the trailer and splitter wheels getting stuck in a few patches of powder on the way.
I would have liked to bring Des and Juju with us, but I wasn’t comfortable leaving just two people back at the cottage without some kind of backup. If someone came along we’d be able to hear the barking echoing out over the lake.
As expected, it was Lisa and Graham who worked the hardest out there, taking the bucked logs and setting them up on the splitter. Matt did his best on limbing with one of the chainsaws, but as always his coordination was a little off. Sara loaded the split logs onto the trailer while I did a little of everything.
I just couldn’t keep up with Lisa and Graham; I wanted to, but there’s no way my heart would be able to take it, even if I’d had a full night’s sleep. As hard as it was to do, I made sure to take a break every five minutes or so. As much as I was glad to have brought the defibrillator along in the trailer, I wasn’t hoping for a chance to use it.
We heard the dogs barking just before lunchtime. We all stopped working and listened. No gunshots, no screams, just the dogs. I was sure it was just a local pest running through the yard, maybe a squirrel or a Tremblay. But we still needed to be sure, so Lisa and I hopped on an ATV and headed back to the cottage to check, while Graham stood watch at the woodlot.
As we reached the back of the cottage, we could hear voices. We climbed off and readied our guns, Lisa with the shotgun and me with my pistol.
“Baptiste!” a man’s voice called out. “Your girls won’t let us come inside.”
I came around the corner to see a black half-ton, with Ryan Stems standing in front. He didn’t seem to be armed, or that’s what he wanted me to think, but a man standing by the passenger side door had a shotgun aimed right at me.
I was way too tired for that shit.
I didn’t have my vest and I didn’t have my helmet. There was no way I could take them both out before they got me. And I knew there’d be a third man somewhere. Maybe crouched around the corner of the porch… maybe up in the loft…
I pointed my gun at the man by the truck. I noticed that Lisa had done the same.
Kayla and Fiona were behind the screen of the front porch; despite what she’d told me before, Kayla was holding the shotgun like someone who didn’t know how to use it.
I turned to Kayla and Fiona. “Are you two okay?” I asked. They both nodded. Kayla kept the gun up and aimed, her arms shaking.
“I didn’t mean to frighten anyone,” Stems said.
“Bullshit,” Lisa said. She started to angle her barrel towards him.
“Why did you come here?” I asked him.
“I wanted to tell you in person. There are going to be some changes around here..”
“You’re leaving? Have a good trip.”
“Fucking hilarious, Baptiste.” Stems shook his head. “After what’s happened the last few weeks… this can’t go on. You need to stay on this side of the river.”
“Like a time out?”
“There are too many guns in Cochrane District. Too many guns and too many murders.”
“Don’t forget the explosion,” I said.
“This isn’t a joke. I don’t find dead bodies as funny as you do. I guess you laughed like a hyena when you found the Girards.”
“What happened to the Girards?”
“Don’t screw around, Baptiste. Detour Lake. Running around and pretending they’re me, remember? You know they killed those two girls because of you. And the rest of ‘em, I guess. And I’m not willing to see the same thing happen to the Walkers or the Marchands. Or to your people.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“We’re taking over. From the North Driftwood River to the Abitibi, from James Bay to Timmins. And our borders are closed.”
“I don’t think we can agree to that,” I said.
“We don’t need you to agree. We have more guns than you.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“I know you like playing the heavy. But try to remember who you’re talking to.”
“Who am I talking to? Some idiot from Minnesota who thinks he’s tough because he was stupid enough to join the US Army?”
“I’m the only reason you’re still alive, Baptiste. Remember that.”
“I don’t have a problem with shooting you in the head. Try to remember that.”
“Someday you may get your chance.”
“I do hope so.”
“But for today, just shut up and listen. We’re cleaning up the district… well, a part of it, at least. The Mushkegowuk Nation is sick and tired of having a shit sandwich on its border. And you’ve made it pretty clear that you’re part of the problem.”
“Fuck you, Stems.”
“I’m doing this to protect your people, Baptiste. To protect them from those assholes in the Toyota technicals and to protect them from your bad decisions.”
“The only bad decision I made was not shooting you in the head back when we first met.”
“I’m not happy about this either. I want you gone.”
“Then get me gone.”
“Don’t tempt me, Baptiste. My orders are to leave you be as long as you stay on this side of the river. If I have to drag your corpse over the bridge just to cover my ass… well, I’ll do it with a smile on my face.”
Stems was playing it wrong, trying to scare me but really just pushing Lisa to the edge. I didn’t have to look over to her to know that she was pretty close to losing it… I knew that if she took a shot I’d have to take mine, too. If I was lucky she’d take out the man by the truck, and I’d have a few milliseconds to guess where the third man was positioned. I focused my vision on my far left, trying not to move my pupils.
I couldn’t tell if anyone was up in the loft. There was no way to be sure.
I knew that the best thing for us was to do nothing.
“We’re willing to stay on our side,” I said. “As long as you keep to yours.”
“Not a problem,” Stems replied. “Sounds like you understand the situation.”
“Make sure you share the rules with that piece of shit Justin Porter. You know I’d be happy to deal with him.”
“I’ll tell him.”
“Good. Just remember… I’m doing this for all of us.”
He backed up to the truck and climbed into the front seat. The second man climbed in, and Stems put the truck into reverse. As they pulled away from the cottage I finally caught a glimpse of the third man, running out from his hiding place behind the corner of the porch. He hopped in the box with an assault rifle on his shoulder.
Stems had brought a bigger gun than I’d expected.
I kept the shotgun on them until I could no longer see the truck. And then I waited another couple of beats, just in case.
Lisa and I made our way onto the screened-in porch. Lisa gave Kayla a hug while I wrapped my arms around Fiona.
“I thought that was it,” Kayla said. “My god… I really thought they were coming to kill us.”
“You guys did good,” Lisa said. “I’m so proud of you two.”
“Yes… really good,” I said.
“Why weren’t you here?” Fiona asked me.
“I was out splitting wood.”
“But you should have been here.”
“I know… I should have been here.”
I hadn’t been thinking straight.
I should have stayed behind. Or Lisa. One of us. Always.
That was how it was supposed to work.
I was too tired. I’d fucked up.
“And all this talk about keeping us safe,” Fiona said. “Seriously…”
“Take it easy, Fiona,” Lisa said. “Everyone’s okay.”
Fiona started to sob.
I didn’t know what to do. I let my arms drop from around her.
She ran from the porch and up the stairs.
We all glanced at one another for a moment. Lisa still had that berserker look in her eyes, Kayla was still shaking with fear… none of us seemed particularly well-equipped to follow Fiona up to her room.
“I guess I’ll go,” Kayla said to me. “She’s too mad at you to bother with me.”
I nodded as she left.
“She’s right,” I said to Lisa. “I should have been here.”
“I know,” Lisa said. “You should have been. You won’t make the same mistake again.”
Graham and I went out in in the truck to check the damage to the gate on Nelson Road. The locks were busted open, but that wasn’t a surprise.
“How did this happen?” Graham asked. “The tripwire should have triggered the alarm.”
I knelt down and took a look. “Everything’s intact.”
“So we trip it?”
“We trip it.” So I did.
Graham grabbed the handheld and pushed for Lisa.
“Alarm’s sounding,” Lisa said. “Gate on Nelson Road.”
“So the hop’s working,” I said. “So what went wrong?”
“I don’t know,” Graham said. “I’m more of a hardware guy, and this might be a software problem.”
“Maybe… I don’t know. You know who needs to check on this.”
“Shit.” I didn’t want to hear it. “Do me a favour. You ask him.”
“I can,” Graham said. “But it’d mean a heck of a lot more coming from you.”
“What are you, Sara now?”
“Just pointing out the obvious.”
I found Matt chopping wood, or playing with an axe, which is probably a more accurate description.
“I need you to check the hops,” I said. “Particularly the one on the Dougalls’ roof.”
“You want me to climb up on the roof? That sounds like a bad idea. That place is going to cave in.”
I had to sigh. “First off, it’s not going to cave in… otherwise we wouldn’t have put a hop and panel up there. Second… just shut up and start checking for viruses or whatever.”
“Viruses or whatever?”
“You know… breaches. I want to know if someone has compromised our network.”
“Someone like Stems.”
“Yes… like Stems. Can you just do this for me?”
“Yeah, alright. I’ll check it out.”
I didn’t want to say it. But I had to. “Thanks,” I muttered.
We decided to stop our wood splitting for the day; it felt like we’d be tempting fate if we divided into two groups again so soon.
Everyone stayed close to home. While we all acted like we were getting things done, I know that every one of us was too busy wondering what we should do next.
“We should have some kind of meeting about it,” I said to Graham as I passed him by the chicken coop. He was collecting the eggs, which was not something I remember him ever doing before.
Carcassonne was following by his heels; I think that big dog was just as surprised as I was.
“Actually, I was meaning to talk to you,” Graham said. “I’ve been saying that we’d discuss this over dinner. Maybe come up with a few options and have some kind of vote.”
I wasn’t so much surprised as annoyed by the way he seemed to be taking charge. “That’s a strange thing for you to be taking the initiative on.”
“Someone needed to.”
“I’m sorry… was that a joke?”
“I’m not joking,” Graham said. “I think it’s time we made some tough decisions.”
“Okay now,” I said, “you need to think this through for a minute, Graham. It’s good that you’re taking an interest –”
“An interest? You gotta be freaking kidding me. I’m getting a little sick of this patronizing attitude of yours.”
“You’re not the boss, Baptiste, and you and Sara aren’t the only grownups around here. It’s time you start listening to the rest of us.”
“I listen,” I said. “But just because you have an opinion doesn’t make it right. I know you want us to leave. I’m not an idiot.”
“It’s not about me wanting anything… it’s about what makes sense for us as a group. And staying here doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s just not safe.”
I shook my head and sighed; I was being a prick, but I felt it was the right approach to take at that moment. “I don’t want to have the same stupid conversation with you over and over again. We are safer right here. If we leave, we won’t survive.”
“You don’t know that.”
“You’re right… I can’t promise that you and Lisa and the rest of us will be shot up and skullfucked somewhere along the highway… or thrown into the big pit and left to die. It’s not definite… it’s just highly likely.”
“More scare tactics from the master,” Graham said. He turned to walk away.
I grabbed his arm. “I need to show you something.”
He glared at me for a moment, like he was about to stay on the attack, but I think he could tell that I was about to let him in on something that mattered.
I took Graham down into the basement. I led him past the half-dozen shelves overflowing with aluminum cans and boxes of dry goods, past our three chest freezers, and over to a tower of six long and deep plastic boxes stacked up along the dampest of the damp concrete walls.
I pulled off the top three boxes, one by one. I could tell I was already pushing my heart too hard.
I moved on to the fourth box. I pulled out one of the white and gray binders I’d saved from the committee. I let the binder fall open to the middle, and I flipped over until I found the right page. I began to read.
“Beginning in the month of February approximately five hundred and twenty people left Cochrane for neighbouring areas, including Timmins and Aiguebelle. A public plea was made for all evacuees to make contact with us in any way open to them to assure us that they were safe and that the road was clear. As of March 31st we have not received a single message confirming that any Cochrane residents have arrived at a secure destination.”
“That could mean anything,” Graham said. “Phones and networks were down more often than they were up. And I doubt most people know much about making calls on the radio anymore.”
“I was sent down toward Timmins to see if I could find any trace of our people. I found some of them.”
“And they didn’t make it.”
“They didn’t make it. They were slaughtered, sometimes by marauders, sometimes by The Souls. Bodies lying on the paved shoulders like roadkill. Who knows how many more ended up in the big pit. Sometimes the marauders would burn the bodies to keep down the stench, but other times the corpses rotted where they were left; they didn’t bother to hide the mess, and they certainly didn’t bother to dig any graves. It’s here in hard copy, Graham. The committee took each one of my photos and printed them out. Take a look.”
I handed him the binder and watched as he flipped through several pages of photographs. I hadn’t shown these to anyone before, and I doubt I’d share them with anyone else in that cottage. To me and Graham, these were just unfortunate people who got caught up in something terrible. To everyone else these could be neighbours, or friends… in Sara’s case, they could be her sisters. No one else needed to see them.
“This was over a year ago,” Graham said. “I’ll bet the majority of those marauders have moved on. And I’ll bet The Souls have better things to do these days. Those highways are empty now… there aren’t enough people traveling on them to justify lying in wait. I really don’t see how this changes the situation.”
“That’s why you’re dangerous, Graham. You’ve made up your mind.”
“What about you? You seem pretty stuck on digging in no matter what it costs us.”
“I think I’m starting to understand. This isn’t about how many guns we have, or whether or not it’s safe out on the highways. This is about how you’re so scared of having to fight that you’d rather pin all of your hopes on running away.”
“That’s not it.”
“That’s so it, man. I thought you were naïve. Turns out you’re just chickenshit.”
Graham made some kind of growl and shoved me square on my shoulders. I felt my head strike the wooden staircase.
“Don’t start something with me,” I said as I took position with my fists out.
“You’re right. I’ve seen what you’re capable of. I don’t want to end up like Marc Tremblay. People seem to keep dying around you, Baptiste.”
He turned away again, and I didn’t say a word as he walked back up the basement steps. I looked up the stairwell to see Lisa waiting for him at the top. I’m sure she heard some of it.
I found an old wood step stool and sat down. I wasn’t ready to go upstairs, not yet. I wasn’t ready to face any of them.
Sara chaired the meeting between the seven of us, apparently hoping that if everything seemed official that we’d all spend less time yelling across the table at each other.
We all sat around the pinewood table, Sara at one end and Graham at the other, and the rest of us clustered around them based on our little orbits, Fiona and I on one side and Lisa at the other, with Matt and Kayla smack in the middle.
“Things might get a little heated,” Sara said. “I know a lot of us have pretty strong opinions on the topic of whether to stay or go. So let’s all raise our hands like in school, without any interrupting.” She said it in a half-joking way, but I think everyone knew not to fuck with her. “I’m going to start.”
Graham raised his hand.
“You can go next,” Sara said. “All I really want to say is that we all have our jobs around here. I’m in charge of inventory and Fiona runs the kitchen. That doesn’t mean that Kayla can’t speak up if she thinks we’re too low on firewood, or that Matt shouldn’t care if we don’t have enough cutlery. But what it does mean is that each of us owns a specific part of our collective responsibilities… and in that one area that person will have the final say.”
Graham was shifting violently in his chair, but he held his tongue.
“Baptiste is in charge of security,” Sara said. “That’s his expertise and I don’t think anyone here truly questions that role. But we’ve had a series of incidents lately that have made us all a little uneasy.” She paused for a moment, biting her bottom lip. “Ant wasn’t doing the most he could, and it killed him. Marc Tremblay slipped and hit his head, and he didn’t make it, either.”
I glanced back to Graham. He was staring directly at me. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking, if he was considering telling the truth about Marc and what had really gone on out there.
“We know what happened to the Girards,” Sara said. “And we have reason to believe that the same thing may have happened to the Smiths and the Lamarches. And now Ryan Stems is trying to close us in to this side of the river.”
“And Ryan Stems was able to sneak up on us,” Graham said. “And could have killed every last one of us if he’d wanted to.”
“Hold on, Graham… I’m almost done. Stems came when we were vulnerable, when maybe too many of us were away from the house at the same time. That’s something we’ll need to fix going forward.”
She nodded to Graham.
“I respect Baptiste,” he said, “I really do. He’s done a lot for all of us. Just as we’ve all done a lot for him. But it doesn’t matter how much you like or respect someone… if a situation is unsafe, it’s unsafe. Baptiste can’t change that, no matter how hard he works at it. It’s not safe here… so we need to find somewhere that is. It’s that simple.”
Matt spoke next. “I really don’t know who’s right on this,” he said. “Today was too close. Too fucking close. I don’t know what I would’ve done if something had happened to… the girls. Maybe that’s all of our screw-up, not just Baptiste. I should have been there –”
“The point?” I asked.
Sara scowled at me, but all I gave in return was a shrug of my shoulders. Someone had to remind Matt that we were all just humouring him.
“I think we should listen to Baptiste,” Matt said. “He’s the expert around here. He was on the Protection Committee so he’s got to have a better understanding of what we’re up against. If he says it’s not safe to leave… well, I believe him.”
For a second I almost felt bad for being hard on Matt; that happens sometimes, but usually he’ll remind me just a few minutes later why I want to hit him on the head with a mallet.
It was Lisa’s turn next. “If Baptiste wants us to listen, he needs to give us something to work with.” She looked straight at me. “If you have information that you’re not sharing, you can’t really blame us for not trusting your judgment.”
I knew Graham must have told her, and now she wanted everyone to know.
Fiona stuck her hand up, waving it much too eagerly.
Sara gave her a quick nod.
“That’s not fair, Lisa,” Fiona said. “Baptiste isn’t hiding anything from us. He’s not pretending that there’s no risk to staying here.”
I stood up as Sara nodded to me. “I’ll lay it out for everyone, okay? There’s no question that most of the families that left town and tried to make it to Temiskaming or Timmins or Aiguebelle were killed en route. The Protection Committee expected some violence, but we believed that it would be limited to a few incidents, and it wasn’t like we were going to force people to stay in Cochrane. We’d thought there were a handful of marauders at most. But reports were coming in much faster than we could check them. We revised our estimates upwards to the point that we believed that there were over two dozen armed groups in total, including The Souls and the Angels, most in and around Timmins and the rest along Highway 11. At their height, there were probably over one hundred marauders in the area, responsible for as many as fifteen hundred deaths.”
I heard the gasps from everyone as Graham rose to his feet. “How many marauders do you believe there are now?”
Sara bristled, but she didn’t intervene.
“There are probably six or seven groups left around Cochrane,” I said, “but I’ll bet half of those are copycats, and aren’t doing much killing. I think these three Spirit Animal crews with the Toyota technicals are the only major threat left within thirty klicks of Cochrane.”
“They’re a pretty big threat, aren’t they?” Graham asked.
“They are, but it’s no better farther down the highway. We know that Timmins is fully run now by Souls of Flesh. I’ll bet if it wasn’t for the Protection Committee having organized people into patrols in the early days, we’d’ve had them up here. That same thing probably happened in a lot of other towns. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the towns between here and North Bay are being run by criminal organizations.”
“What are you saying?” Sara asked. “Is there really nowhere left to go?”
I took a deep breath. “I don’t think there is,” I said.
“What about Temiskaming?” Kayla asked. “It’s safe there, isn’t it?”
“We don’t know… there’s nothing to prove that Temiskaming isn’t just as bad as everywhere else. If we could even get there.”
“They’re pretty quiet,” Matt said.
“What do you mean?” Sara asked. She’d apparently given up on any semblance of order.
“On the radio… in the Tremblays’ truck. If you scan the channels you only get a few groups here and there… and none of them talk about Temiskaming.”
“That doesn’t mean much,” I said, wondering why Matt was spending so much time playing with the radio. “I doubt people mention their location often enough for you to pinpoint it. And that radio is digital; you wouldn’t even pick up on any encrypted chatter.”
“You think people are using encrypted radio signals?” Lisa asked.
“We use them on our handhelds, right? And I’d guess The Souls are using them in Timmins… otherwise Matt would be picking up on their conversations. Same for Aiguebelle. You’d probably need an analog scanner to even notice the signal.”
“Well, there’s no mention of Temiskaming on shortwave, either,” Matt said. “Whenever they talk about us on the BBC or that news station out of Boston they talk about Toronto, obviously, but they also mention Ottawa and even Aiguebelle once in a while. But no Timmins, and no Temiskaming. It’s a black hole out here.”
“They talk about places that are getting aid,” I said. “They probably have people on the ground in Aiguebelle to distribute food or fuel, and a correspondent here and there. I don’t think they’d bother with a place as small as Temiskaming. It’s probably no different than the way it was in Cochrane before The Fires, just a few dozen families trying to hold on.”
“They’re out there,” Graham said. “And we can make it to Temiskaming if we go now, before the next attack.”
“They’re not going to attack,” Matt said. “They’re not strong enough.”
“They want to attack,” I said. “But they’ll wait until we let our guard down… until we stretch ourselves too thin.”
“Like this morning,” Lisa said. “We’re lucky it was Stems and not those assholes pretending to be him.”
“We got back in time… and I won’t let that happen again.”
“So you know they’re coming for us,” Graham said. “But for some stupid reason you still want to stay?”
“We’re stronger than they are,” I said.
“That’s not true.”
“Trust me. We play it safe and we wait. That’s our best chance.”
“I can’t let this go,” Graham said. “We aren’t safe here.”
“We should vote,” Kayla said.
“It doesn’t matter what everyone wants,” I said. “It matters that we stay safe.”
“We’re taking a vote,” Sara said. “But you’re still in charge of security, so you’re in charge of whether or not we stay. You’ll make the final decision.”
“Then what’s the point of voting?” Lisa asked. “He’s already made up his mind.”
“Someone make a motion.”
“I’ll do it,” Kayla said. “I move that we stay at McCartney Lake.”
“Okay,” Sara said. “There’s the motion. Show of hands… all in favour?”
I didn’t know what to expect. I raised my hand and watched as the other hands shot up, Fiona, Kayla and Matt, four against two.
“Motion carried,” Sara said.
“Tell me, Baptiste,” Graham said. “What would you have done if they’d all wanted to leave?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “But I don’t think I would have given up. I don’t think I’d ever be willing to take us on the highway.”
“So we’ll never agree.”
“We don’t have to agree on everything. I’m not against looking at this again in the spring.”
“Whatever,” Graham said.
“No, seriously,” Lisa said, “I cannot wait until the snow melts so we can talk and talk all over again while you just ignore us and do whatever the hell you want.”
“I think we should adjourn,” Sara said.
But by the time she’d said it Lisa and Graham had already left the dining room, on their way upstairs and away from the rest of us.
“It’ll blow over,” Kayla said.
“I don’t think it will,” I said.
“It has to,” Fiona said.
I left for my own room, and I think for the first evening since we moved into that cottage on McCartney Lake, the whole downstairs emptied out as everyone went to hide from everyone else.