The interpreter was with fifteen grade four students on a bank high above a burbling creek, the final destination of the chum salmon. Maple leaves the size of shirt cardboards were spinning down to be carried away by the water.
The fish still alive were shredded and rotting, starved and desperate. They had swum past nets and over waterfalls and through slimy culverts where the water becomes a flume, and further, past the dead of their cohorts, half-eaten by crows and raccoons.
In decades past the stream bed would have been a seething orgy with a climax of mass death. Now there were but a few embarrassed pairs of fish for the students and the interpreter to watch.
Directly below, a female was churning side to side to create a redd in the gravel in which to drop her eggs. A male was fighting the current, waiting for her. He drew next to her, but she was not yet ready. The male succumbed to exhaustion and was swept downstream.
“He died!” the students cried, almost gleefully.
“But wait,” said the interpreter.
Indeed, the male found new strength and again fought the current, up to the female, but again she was not yet ready. He was swept away. “He died!” the students cried.
“Keep watching,” said the interpreter.
It happened again and again. “He died! He died!” they cried.
“Be patient,” said the interpreter.
On the fifth try, the male was swept away, far, far away, gone, down into the rapids below, having failed to mate. His white belly flashed in the rushing water.
The students looked to the interpreter.
“He died,” he said.
* * *
The cougar incident shook William more than any lightning strike or other shock. Four nights in succession he had night terrors, waking up paralyzed, being eaten alive. On the fifth night he went to Tom and Ross’s apartment and spoke with them of this disconcerting recurrence. He said, “Electrocution is a merciful assault in that it happens so fast you have no time to think of what is happening to you, or what you are about to lose. The worry comes afterward, a questioning ‘Why me?’ Being attacked by a predatory animal is a comparatively slow and terrifying way to die, because you are aware of the increasing damage to your body and mounting hopelessness of your situation. Although spared that fate, I can’t avoid repeatedly reliving what almost certainly would have happened had not Alan appeared to save me.”
They listened carefully, wine glasses in hand. After some thoughtful swirling, Tom said, “It’s not the cougar. You should have loved being so close to a cougar. It’s a deeper injury.”
“What do you mean?”
“The cougar is a distraction. Your dreams are a displacement. The real thing is you were fighting with your great friend, fighting with anger in your heart. That’s what’s tormenting you.”
“Alan isn’t my great friend,” William said. “And I wasn’t angry. I was confused about what he was doing.” He looked at his empty glass. “It would have ended differently if I’d been angry.”
Ross pointed. “You need more wine.”
William required no urging to drink more. He drank more after that, and then even more, to the point where he passed out on a sofa.
After a dreamless sleep he awoke tangled in a blanket with mice clawing at the insides of his eyeballs.
Tom was hovering. He held a mug of coffee. “How are you?”
He sat up slowly and leaned against the sofa back. “Hell. Oh God.”
“But alive,” said Tom. “Any bad dreams?”
He fought with the blanket. “Help me. I think I’m gonna throw up.”
Ross was banging pots and pans against every hard surface in the kitchen. He paused briefly to say, “The cure can often be worse than the disease.”
William returned home by Skytrain, barely escaping the trip without vomiting in public, and endured a morning on shaky arms above the toilet bowl. He improved over the day, and that night slept well, no night terrors. His brain dared not dream, fearing the cure.
He and Alan had talked only as necessary on the way down the mountain. Alan dropped him off a block from his own apartment, leaving William to find his way back to his. The unspoken injury to their friendship had been exacerbated by what had happened. They didn’t see each other for the next several days, although Alan’s parked car revealed he was daily at the lake, as was William.
William assumed he was helping Milt beaversit.
Burnaby Lake was one of few parks William was able to travel to by public transit, although it took twice as long as by car. Tom had him organizing the temporary Nature House, a double-wide trailer, into an office space and some sort of public exhibit area. William was able to make use of most of what had been salvaged from the fire: some furniture, the fax machine, a computer and the photocopier. Fortunately the fire had been concentrated in the roof above the props room. All those mouse-specked popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners, not to mention the hated Sluggo the Slug costume, were gone.
William wondered how Alan was doing, aware that his fifth wedding anniversary was coming up.
Two days prior to the anniversary, Tom let William do a canoeing program in Fooj’s place. Fooj was back from his honeymoon and his cast was off, but his ankle was still too weak for the stresses involved in carrying and climbing in and out of canoes. Tom wasn’t worried about Ed Daddle finding out, because Ed was to blame for Fooj’s disability.
It was an evening paddle among the beaver lodges, with Caroline Li the sweep. Tom used some of his magic to get her to agree to work with William again. She was sulky and let him do all the talking at the various stations. There were many beavers on the way to the dam and back, slapping the water with their tails as the canoes zigged and zagged. Not far upstream from the dam William spotted Milt among the trees. He watched silently as they passed.
This program had been his first interaction with Caroline since the blow-up in the restaurant. William wasn’t sure what to say when they met at the trailer. Neither attempted an awkward apology.
Eventually William asked, “How’s Angela?”
She said, “Good. The Caucasian boy broke up with her and got himself a proper girlfriend, a Caucasian girl.” So she hadn’t lost the thread of the long-ago disagreement. More surprising was that she thought of her own daughter in any context as “not proper.”
“Is she upset?” William asked.
“She’s a child. She’ll get over it.”
“Maybe she never will.”
“You don’t know about anything,” Caroline said. “You think you’re so smart, knowing the names of all the plants and animals, but when it comes to real life, you don’t know very much at all.”
William saw — because the problem had been resolved to her liking, Caroline had been proven correct. And this, it seemed, granted her the authority to pass judgement on his entire life. He almost said to her, “If Angela wants to talk to an adult who actually cares about her feelings, you can give her my number,” but bit his tongue. William had promised Tom he wouldn’t antagonize her.
Over those days he saw Stacey a few times. They were still friendly, and he missed her. He wanted to touch her, hold her hand, but understood that that time was gone. Her boyfriend would be back in town in two weeks and she seemed happy.
Summer was winding down. The birch and cottonwood leaves were dried and spotted, starting to yellow. The lily pads were puckering and sinking into the lake and the late-flying shorebirds were passing through, heading south. A general malaise had fallen upon the interpretive staff. They were to varying degrees burned out, an inevitable result of performing for the public for months on end, including the late-summer weeks of compressed hell, dealing with hundreds of summer-minded children, but the glumness was primarily because autumn was when interpreters were laid off and must either fall back on their second, worse, jobs — Stacey folding shirts at the Gap, Tracy reshelving books at the library, Caroline clerking at BC Liquor, Monique at...well, now she would be grooming her pretty new home — or endure the humiliating hell that was making a claim for employment insurance. William, having lost his university teaching spot and any possible continuation of that career trajectory, would be doing the latter.
On Alan and Hannah’s fifth wedding anniversary, William went to the lake for no reason other than to spend time with Alan, to offer support should he be in the mood to accept it. His car was in the lot, but William couldn’t find him.
Fooj was in the double-wide with Monique, showing her a satellite image on the computer, one of the smaller of the Gulf Islands, the jagged fragments of bedrock scattered in the ocean between the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. He told William something astounding. With Alan’s help, he had purchased a good chunk of the island on the screen, fourteen acres. He planned to create a centre for biodiversity studies — The Kazuo Fujiwara Biological Centre — named after his late grandfather, who many times had taken young Martin to the Vancouver Aquarium and instilled in him a love of nature. “But we’ll call it the ‘Fooj Centre’ for short,” he said. His goal was to have every high school science student in the Lower Mainland spend a week there. Then he turned to William and said, “I can think of no one better than you to be the education director.” Good old Fooj and his humbling faith in him. William couldn’t find words.
He said, “Wow, Fooj. That is huge news. Wow. Really?”
“It’s an island, so you won’t need to drive.”
William went for a walk down the spit to the Jesus platform. The geese and ducks stood up and followed hopefully for a short distance, but eventually gave up and sat back down. Next to a mountainside, the shore of body of water is the best place to sit and try to focus ones thoughts, or let them wander. Maybe it was a better place, even if it was the shore of an overgrown, polluted sink for urban run-off. You were less likely to be attacked by a cougar there.
His mind drifted, almost happily. Education Director of the Kazuo Fujiwara Biological Centre. He would live on an island in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Orcas and humpback whales would swim past his house. Steller’s sea lions would loll on the shore. The winter storms would be ferocious and the summer days would be endless. William was called back to the real world by the scratching thuds of dog paws rushing down the boardwalk in his direction — another off-leash dog in a no-dog area, and, by the sound of it, a large one. The geese were honking frantically. William didn’t get up and do anything about it. William didn’t even turn around to look. It was a serious lapse.
The owner yelled, “Bruno! Bad dog! Leave the birds alone! Bad dog!” Then there was a sound that may have been a boot against a large dog’s rib cage, and a yelp, and claws dragging on wood as the dog was muscled away.
Sometime later, on his way back to trailer, William spied something grey struggling in the scrubby willows at the water’s edge. It was a Canada goose, its left leg severely broken, dangling at the middle joint. It hissed weakly as William threw his jacket over it. He hoped Fooj was still at the trailer. He could drive the goose to Wildlife Rescue. As William carried the bird, holding it tight to his chest, Alan spoke. He was sitting in the shadows on a bench, almost engulfed by blackberry canes.
“What’s wrong with the goose?”
He drove them around the lake. The covered goose sat heavy, warm and quiet in William’s lap with its broken leg between his knees. William couldn’t imagine its pain. Alan held open the door for him to carry it into the clinic. The volunteer behind the counter reported the species, the location of capture, the type of injury, and William’s name and phone number. William held the bird, still covered with his jacket, as she went to find the veterinarian.
“Dr. Ocampo,” she called.
The vet was a young Filipina with a high forehead. “Alan, hello,” she said warmly.
“Hi Thelma,” he said. “We brought you a patient.” William couldn’t have been more surprised. Thelma? This was the Morrow’s cleaning lady, from when Alan was living in the wrong house?
She turned her attention to the goose. “Oh, poor baby,” she said as she carefully lifted the jacket for a peek. “Come with me.” She meant all of them.
Alan and William held the goose on the stainless steel table while she inspected the leg. “This is a very bad injury,” she said. “At the joint. It cannot possibly heal.”
“What can you do?” Alan asked.
“They can stop it suffering,” she said. “Sadly, that’s all.”
Alan said, “But geese mate for life. It has a mate.”
“We’re going to stop its pain,” Thelma said. “Its mate will have to find another.”
Alan and William held the bird as she injected it, as they felt its life drift away. Thelma called to the volunteer who came to take the body. They stared at the shining empty space where it had died.
Alan was subdued, but asked Thelma, “How’s Rudy?”
“He’s good. He’s fixing up our place. He’s got a job lined up in a warehouse. You have to come and be our first guest for dinner.”
“I would be honoured,” he said.
“You come too, William,” she said. William wasn’t wearing his name tag. He didn’t know how she knew his name.
As they drove back, William asked, “What did you do? Did you pay for her husband to come here? Did you pay for her to go to Guelph to get accredited?”
Alan shrugged. “Sometimes you just want to help people, and when you have money, why not?”
William’s thought was, sometimes, when you are suicidal, you give away everything you’ll no longer need.
As though reading his mind, Alan said, “I need to talk to you, about things.”
They parked at the trailer and walked the short path to the wooden observation tower that overlooked the lake. The top platform was heavily inscribed with initials and crude representations of male genitals, and the wooden planks in the centre were blackened and cracked by the most recent teenaged attempt to burn the thing down. They leaned against opposite rails and surveyed the damage. Alan spoke. He said, “When we were young, there were rare occasions when you would tell me when you thought I was wrong. You confronted me so rarely that whenever you did, I listened. You once told me I was a pathetic male slut. You were angry at me, well, angry for you, for how I treated Mary McDougall, and you called me nothing more than a pathetic male slut. You were telling me an unpleasant truth.”
“You remember that?”
William remembered it too. He remembered it being maybe the only time he got really mad at Alan. Afterword he felt guilty about it. He was afraid he had damaged their friendship.
Alan said, “Why won’t you tell me the truth now?”
“Come again?” William was worried where this was leading
“You haven’t told me that Hannah is dead and gone and I have to get over it. A friend would do that. A friend would be helping me get on with my life without her.”
“I assumed others have told you that, and you don’t need to hear it again. Plus, you’re hurting. You were never hurting when I knew you before, at Camp Ohmeemaw. You were in a strong position then. Now you’ve had your legs chopped off.”
“That’s not true. That’s not the whole truth. You haven’t told me Hannah’s dead because you’ve experienced something you haven’t fully shared.”
William was studying the burned boards, the way the fissures between the puckered blackened parts were so evenly spaced.
Alan said, “William, look me in the eye and tell me that you are certain that Hannah is dead and gone forever. Tell me she’s not still here.”
So he did. “She’s dead and gone. She was killed by a hot tub, as ridiculous as that sounds.”
“You didn’t say ‘forever’.”
“Why are we together again, you and me?”
“A series of coincidences.”
“The chief one being what happened between us, together, seventeen years ago.”
“You mean the Roadrunner.”
He smiled. “No, I don’t, but ah, the Roadrunner. Best car ever.”
“You killed us. You drove like an asshole and killed us.”
Alan spun in a circle, looking down at himself. He looked William up and down. “Obviously I didn’t,” he said. “I was, and remain, a spectacularly skilled driver.”
“And I’m some sort of wizard who repeatedly cheats death, is able to enter the world of the dead and then return to the world of the living.”
Alan pretended surprise. “You’re a scientist, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know what the hell I am anymore.”
“So you’re saying you can be a little flexible about things.”
“What kind of things?”
“Like who was the woman in the Gator?”
“There was no woman in the Gator.”
“What was she wearing?”
“There was no woman.”
“Did she ask about me?” He asked again, “Did she ask about me?”
“It isn’t real.”
“Did she say my name?”
Someone was climbing the steps. They were both surprised when Hannah’s little brother stepped onto the platform. William hadn’t heard from him since the night of the fire, and wasn’t sure he was still in British Columbia.
“Danny!” Alan said. Almost immediately he recognized that Dan and William were acquainted. “What the hell is this?” he demanded. “How do you two know each other?”
Dan said, “It was me. I found William and asked him not to tell you I was here. I’m really worried about you.”
Alan glared. “First my wife, then my brother-in-law? How much of my life have you been screwing with?”
Dan looked at William too. What had he done with his sister?
William tried to explain. “I only met Dan just a little while ago. He came to me because he’s worried about you.”
“Dan, come here.” Alan held out his arms. Dan approached, and Alan hugged him ferociously. Alan then pushed him away, onto the burned spot. He shouted, “Danny, now go home!”
“Alan,” said Dan. William could see pretty Hannah in his face. No doubt so could Alan.
“Please go home,” Alan said.
Dan looked at William large-eyed, and then said something to Alan that William didn’t catch. Alan turned away, and Dan left. His footfalls became silent as he reached soil. Alan leaned over the top of the tower and inhaled, as if about to shout something after his departing last link to Hannah, but instead slowly let out his breath and turned back around.
“Shit,” he said. “The last person I needed to see right now was Danny.”
“I didn’t invite him,” William said. They stared glumly at each other.
“Tell me you cannot help me.”
“I’m not the Jesus of the West, remember? Milt is.”
“Milt’s a loopy old man." Alan stared at him. “Tell me you cannot help me reach her.”
William paused. That was an oddly vague verb, ‘reach.’ It was somewhat of a compromise. Demands thus far had been of a more definitive nature, ‘Get her back.’ Tom had been certain of magic. Stacey was certain of none. William found himself liking the idea of a compromise. Some scientist he was, or had been. “Reach her?”
“And I’ll do the rest.”
William said, “I don’t know how.”
Alan then told William that one of the reasons they became friends at camp was because when he was depressed and venting about whatever was troubling him William usually just listened and didn’t try to come up with solutions. “I loved how you listened to me, let me wrestle with things without interrupting, until finally you would say something that was kind-hearted, and fuzzy enough that I believed I could recognize in myself what the course of action should be. You always had this gentle voice, when we were in a pub, or in the back of a police car, or when we had crashed back onto our bunks after a night of madnesss—like a mother talking. That’s why I was so angry to find it was you — in New York. It was like the two most important influences in my life, two people who had meant so much, had conspired against me.”
William hung his head. How was this going to go away? He asked, “Why did you become so attached to Milt?” William thought maybe he had been hedging his bets, unsure in which of the Jesuses his hopes lay.
That wasn’t it. Alan said he’d been doing whatever he could to help others, as a trade-off. He said, “Milt appealed to me because he looks a lot like my dad not long before he died, and I wasn’t as nice to my dad as I should’ve been. Milt is like a demented version of my dad—as if you had dropped a paving stone on my dad’s head. Do you know how Milt got fucked up?”
William said, “I understood it was a car accident.”
“Not quite. He was hit by a bottled water truck, which isn’t all that different from having a hot tub fall on top of you. Do you know what his job was when he got hit?”
William had never thought to ask. He would have guessed civil servant.
“School crossing guard. He spent 30 years protecting children, and a few months from retirement was run down by a truck containing water en route to people too idiotic or self-important to drink tap water. And then, three months later, out planting bulbs in the garden, his wife dropped dead. So you see, I’m trying to unfuck these fucked-up lives, including mine, including yours.”
William said, “You’ve done a lot of good out here. But maybe it would be best if you went with Dan. There’s a lot of Hannah in him. There’s a lot of Hannah in you. You and Dan can help each other. You can be happy again. You can paint again.”
Alan shook his head, and said, “Don’t you, of all people, hand me that bullshit. You know better. Without her, there’s no point. Without her, I’m done.”
A gust of wind rustled the leaves of the alders, and then another one, stronger. William turned and looked behind, west, down the lake.
Alan said, “Look, William. The way I see it, you have to help me close the circle, our circle, the circle that started that summer, the summer we were thrown together the way young soldiers are, who, if they survive, are brothers forever.”
William said, “That was summer camp. Summer camp is not like a war. It’s a freaky little artificial society, a freaky little pseudo-reality.”
“It wasn’t that it was a summer camp. It was that it was us at the time, when we met, the age when we met, when we were thrown together, no longer children and not quite adults, and we found ourselves working against things together and figuring out the world together, including our lives with girls, with women. It was a tight, intense little window, a critical time. And, yes, at one sharp instant we almost died together. We jumped out the airplane door together, and held each other all the way down. We became linked forever, and I’m going to prove to you that I have never forgotten that.”
William just stared at him. His crappy driving had almost killed them. Or had killed them. They were linked forever? Were they already dead? Where had Alan been for the past seventeen years?
“I’m going to tell you something you don’t know,” Alan said, “about Becky Pang. I have done my part in closing the circle.”
“About Becky,” William said. “What?”
“She lives on Empress Avenue in North York.”
“How do you know where she lives?”
“It’s not difficult finding out such things if you have serious amounts of money. I paid someone to find out. But I also know something more important than that — her phone number.” From his shirt pocket he extracted a business card. He held it out, like a ticket to a conductor. “Don’t lose it. It’s unlisted.” William stepped forward to take it from him. The card was from Thelma’s recently opened veterinary clinic. “Turn it over,” he said. On the back was a penned phone number, area code 416.
“I’ve practically delivered her into your arms,” he said. “You have a cell phone in your pocket. Push 12 little buttons and her voice could be in your ear. One-area code-number-Send. Let’s see, in Toronto right now it’s about 8 o’clock? Her children are asleep, or playing a computer game or whatever, and she’s sitting on the sofa, flipping through channels. She’s probably wearing sweats, no, too hot for that. She’s wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Her fine, firm legs are propped up on the coffee table. Uh, she just moved. Now she’s gripping the edge of it with her toes. She’s sipping a glass of iced tea...”
“And her husband is right beside her.”
“He sure as hell isn’t,” said Alan, irritably. “She’s no longer married to that person, which is also why her phone number is unlisted.”
“How do you know all this?” Despite himself, William’s heart had jumped at the news.
“Money!” he said. “I bought this information, for you, to close the circle.” He continued, “Beside her is a table. On that table is a phone. You have the power to make that phone ring. Her life has become commonplace and sad. You can fix that. You can rock her world. From the top of a wildlife-viewing tower decorated with penis-etchings in British Columbia, you can rock her world! 12 little buttons!”
William gave the usual excuse. “She has children. That complicates everything. I’ve never had children. How would I know how to fit into their lives?”
Alan looked at him impatiently. “How many children have you been teaching nature to all these years? As many as Fooj has planted trees. You have more experience communicating with children that age than Becky has. It’s maybe the one part of this lame job that suits you. You were the favourite with the children at Camp. I remember 10 and 11-year-old boys crying when they were saying good bye to you. Ten and 11-year old boys don’t normally cry about things like that. Lightning injury or not, you haven’t changed, not that part of you.”
“If she’s been divorced two years, that doesn’t mean she’s still unattached,” William pointed out. Two years was an awfully long time for a Becky Pang not to become involved with someone else.
“Take a chance,” he said. “Are you never going to take a chance?”
William fished the phone from his pocket and unfolded it. Its tiny screen was hard to read in the late afternoon light. He re-folded it, slipped the card inside, and put it away.
Alan said, “You’re making me crazy.” From behind his back, over the houses and urban forest of west Burnaby, came a flash. The sky above was dark purple clouds. Wind drove a riffle down the rowing lanes, and the now brown and dead purple loosestrife started to dance. Another flash caused the hairs on William’s neck to stand. It wasn’t electricity, but the anticipation of it. At that instant, William knew. At least they could reach.
“Let’s go,” he said. “We have to hurry, back to the trailer.” He grabbed Alan’s wrist and pulled. They tumbled down the stairs.
As William unlocked the door, his cell phone vibrated. He almost jumped out of his skin, flooded by the thought, or hope, that his world was about to be rocked by Becky Pang, a Plan B from Alan, who was turning out to be quite the manipulator. He told Alan he had to pee, which meant in the woods, because the washrooms had burned down with the Nature House, perhaps the only true loss. He ran from Alan and opened the phone. It wasn’t Becky. Again, it was Dan.
“What should we do now?” he asked.
“I’m working on it,” William said. “We’re about to go canoeing.”
“Not a good plan. A thunder storm is coming.”
“That’s why,” William said. “Good luck, Dan.” William pressed the end button until the good bye song played. He looked at the card once more, and then closed the phone on it. He should have made a copy of the number and left it on dry land.