Episode 7: Taylor Bay

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It was at least four hours before dawn when Char left her room. Seth had called her on the comm and told her it was minus forty degrees outside, and his snowmobile, parked inside an unheated shed, wouldn’t start.

“I’ll have it running in half an hour,” he said. “Stay inside where it’s warm.”

For once she’d taken his advice and curled up under the covers for another ten minutes.

When she marched out into the yard, the fort was still conserving power by keeping all unnecessary lights off. The headlight of Seth’s sled illuminated her path. Seth stood beside the snowmobile, every inch covered with thermal gear. He handed her a helmet.

“Are you re-thinking the snowmobile?” Char asked.

“Yes,” Seth said dryly. “You can tether your comm with the helmet so we can talk if we need.”

“We won’t,” Char said. “It’s five in the morning and I have nothing to say to you.”

Char slid behind Seth on the seat and considered if she could get away without hanging onto him. She really didn’t want to hang onto him, but she kind of did.

“Ready?” Seth’s voice crackled through her helmet.

Char nodded.

Seth called over the comm for someone to open the gate and cracked the throttle. She had to grip his waist to not be thrown backward. The snowmobile spit snow behind them as they left Fort Situk behind.

Seth carved the snowmobile up through the passes through the treeless mountains by the light of the headlight. Every time they reached a high point, the bluish glow in the east grew brighter. Finally, as they approached the valley rim where the village of Taylor Bay was, the rim of the sun peeked over the horizon.

The wind had shifted again to the west. The sun rose red-tinted, suspended in smoky air.

They’d been travelling through a barren wasteland of rock and snow for an hour. Suddenly there were trees. Mostly small, waist-height trees with the odd, gnarled, tall pine protruding from the crowd like an adult among kindergarteners.

The town was a loosely arranged group of small houses and mobile homes with packed snow paths between them. Char scanned the edge of town for Seth’s parents’ cozy timber-frame house she remembered so well. Where she was certain it should stand, there was only an empty space. He drove right past it, over a small rise and toward a square house, surrounded by scrubby evergreens, clad with deep red siding and smoke rising from the chimney.

Seth’s uncle’s house. Char tucked her head behind Seth again.

The door opened, and a dark-haired man with a flashing smile stood in the entry, waving.

Char released Seth’s waist and fumbled with cold fingers to undo her helmet. Seth swung off the snowmobile and pulled off his helmet.

“I brought a guest, Uncle Will,” he called.

“Good. Come in and have some coffee.” Uncle Will disappeared into the house and shut the door.

Inside the house, Seth pulled off his toque and his braid fell out. “Uncle Will,” he said, gesturing to Char, who was climbing out of her snowmobile suit. “You remember Charlane?”

“Yeah.” Uncle Will eyed her with the faintest crease between his eyes. “You still like coffee, Charlane?”

“Sure do.”

“It’s the real deal,” Will said, turned and hobbling to the two-burner stove to poke at the tin percolator. “I’ve been shepherding along the stuff you brought me, Seth. Tastes so good compared to the synthetic stuff.”

“Yeah, perks of living with government folks.” Seth glanced sheepishly at her.

“Hold your hands over here, Charlane,” Will pointed to the stove. “It’s shit-cold out there, yeah?”

“Your trees are coming along pretty well,” she said.

“Yeah, seems they’re making it.” Will pulled two miss-matched mugs out of the cupboard over the sink. “We’ll put in some more in the spring if we can.”

They made small talk over cups of black coffee and gluey mass-manufactured bread with cheese spread. Sometime during the conversation, Seth made mention of going to visit the grave. A strange sense of dread came over her.

Charlie and Lisa Thompson had always been good to her. She wasn’t sure they liked her, but they’d been good to her when she and Seth came to visit. She had good memories of sleeping with him under real down duvet in their guest bedroom and waking up to open gifts on Christmas morning. Charlie had given her a hand-tooled leather belt that she still wore occasionally. Real leather cost a fortune these days.

Sometime during the conversation, Seth made mention of going to visit the grave. A strange sense of dread came over her.

“So now…” Will got up, threw two more slices of bread into the toaster and depressed the creaking springs. “This ring planet that you mentioned.”

“Yeah, do you remember the story?”

Uncle Will sat down and steepled his hands beneath his chin. “Well, the whole ring planet thing didn’t ring a bell.” A grin split his weathered face. “But I was thinking about a totem pole I saw down in Handler Falls. It has this creature with kind of big ears and a smooth face like you said. We could go down there and speak to the elders.”

“Yeah, we should,” Char said. She glanced at Seth. “Right?”

Seth took a gulp of coffee and nodded. “Once Char’s thawed out.”

Char flexed her toes down in her thick socks. “I miss the military-grade socks. They have those filaments in them that keep you warm.”

“Private security can’t afford that?” Seth asked.

“The military hoards the material,” Char said, bending down to examine the developing hole in her toe. No wonder a chill had snuck in. “What don’t they hoard? They won’t even guard their own goddamn research base. Too busy fighting.”

“Wasn’t you in the army?” Uncle Will raised an eyebrow.

“I was, yeah,” Char said. “I, um…” she glanced at Seth. “I couldn’t do it anymore.”

The toast popped. Uncle Will got up to get them. “Who could blame you.”

Who could blame her? Just a few parents of a few dead kids, that’s all. Char glanced to the side, only to catch Seth’s kind eyes.

She felt a prickle of anger.

“I’ll finish my toast,” Uncle Will said. “Seth, you go on and start my snow machine.”

It took them another forty-five minutes to leave the village. As they got on their snowmobiles, a cousin of Seth’s walked over from the house next door.

Like Will, if he was surprised to see her, he hid it well.

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“Hey, Brett,” she said as he came over, hand extended.

“You still shoot?” he asked, his grin a flash of white teeth in his deeply tanned face. A braid like Seth’s was slung over his shoulder against his parka.

“Better than you.” Char grinned. Yep. That was how she’d bonded with Seth’s cousins—by outshooting them at any distance with any weapon the day she’d first come to Taylor Bay.

“We’re going on down to Handler,” Uncle Will said. “I guess we’ll be back around dark.”

“Come on in for supper when you get here.” Brett waved to them and disappeared back toward his house.

“Brett brought in a moose two days past,” Uncle Will said. He arranged his balaclava and pulled his helmet on. From the muffled depths, he said, “Shania promised me stew.”

Char paired her comm with her helmet and pulled the helmet over her head. “Can Uncle Will hear the comm?” she asked Seth once he’d put on his own helmet.

“No,” Seth said as he settled in front of her on the seat.

She waited a few minutes until they’d cleared the town and were following along a snowy pathway between the scrubby trees. “Seth,” she began slowly. “Did your parents…?”

“Die?” His voice rung hollow in her helmet, but it might have just been the comms. “Yeah. House fire early last winter.”

“I’m…” She faltered, clinging to Seth’s waist, struggling for words. “I’m really sorry. They were good people.”

“Yeah,” Seth said. He gunned the engine to catch up to Will, saving her from having to say anything more.

Mary Thompson was a distant relative of Seth’s, a tall and broad woman with a waist-length silver braid and a flowing skirt down to her snow boots. They stood in her front yard, and she listened to Seth’s explanation with her arms crossed, squinting at the ground.

“I know the one.” She looked up and glanced between Char and Seth. “You’re right about the story—he was the creature from the hoop-shaped world. The story goes that hunters found him in the woods. He stayed for a few days and then he disappeared with the chief’s virgin daughter.”

“Does the story say anything about his appearance?” Char asked. “Or about what he called himself?”

“The name he is given translates ‘he whose eyes change,’” Mary said.

The name he is given translates ‘he whose eyes change,’” Mary said.

“Venn’s eyes change colour,” Seth said softly, shifting from foot to foot in the shallow snow. “When was this, Aunt Mary?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Generations ago. The totem is more than a two-hundred years old if it’s a day. Come see it.”

The totem poles stood a short piece from the village in a circle of mature trees. Aunty Mary pointed out a figure halfway up one of the most weathered poles. It looked, more or less, like a man’s face with large ears.

“It’s not conclusive,” Char said to Seth as they walked back to the snowmobiles. The Alaskan sun was already sinking down behind the mountain peaks.

“The evidence is piling up,” he answered. “But it needn’t mean what Venn says it means.”

“Except then what would it mean?” She glanced over at him as they walked.

Seth just shook his head.

<>

It was dark when they got back to Taylor Bay. Seth took a flashlight and said he was going to visit the grave site. Char hesitated. Will hiked toward Brett’s house as if he expected her to follow Seth, so she did—trailing after the bobbing ring of light ahead of him.

The grave was a simple stone marker with their names on it, set among the headstones of the Catholic members of the community just behind the little church. Seth stuck the flashlight in the snow so it illuminated the stone and dropped to his knees in front of it.

He looked small and forlorn then. Char had the urge to kneel beside him and wrap her arms around him. Instead she hunkered down at arm’s length and stayed there in silence. The soft sounds of the village behind him and the rustle of the wind in the young trees filtered in.

“It’s not home without them,” Seth said.

Char didn’t know what to say so she kept silent. She reached out and slid her hand into the crook of his arm. He didn’t flinch or pull away.

“Did you come here after we… split up?” she asked. Her hand was still tucked under his arm.

“No,” he said softly. His head tipped back slightly. The upended flashlight cast an odd glow over his chin but left his face in the dark. “I worked in Vancouver for the rest of the year, then in Juneau until about eighteen months ago. I stayed here after that until I got the job at Situk.”

“Were you here when…?”

Seth shook his head.

They got back to Fort Situk as Leander’s shift was taking the evening watch. Char was fighting to keep herself from leaning her head against Seth’s broad back as they drove. The cold had sucked the energy from her. Seth parked the snowmobile and they walked in together.

“Why did you leave the army?” he asked suddenly as they opened the door to enter the base.

Char let the door slam behind them and looked up at him. “Like I said, I couldn’t do it anymore.”

“But the court martial found you not responsible for the death of the soldiers.” Seth leaned one hand against the wall. He loomed over her, weary-eyed.

“I know,” Char said. “But I—“ she tugged off one glove with more force than she needed. “At that point, what did it matter? Everyone thought it was my fault—“

“And you thought it was your fault,” Seth added in a low voice.

He still knew her, then. “Yeah.”

“I’m sorry.” Seth turned to go. “I know that job meant a lot to you.”

Char wanted to say something dismissive, but as she followed him down the hall, her throat thickened with emotion. It had meant everything to her. Seth knew that better than anyone.

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