‘Six Kilometers Around’, Meghan Cruickshank

Illustrations © 2018 Laura Anca Adascalitei

 [ Raking leaves, © Laura Anca Adascalitei ] Tabby was raking the leaves on the front yard when the respirator suit walked out of the forest. It clunked up the hill in eight-pound boots. “You shouldn’t have come,” she called.

Astronaut gloves came up to slap at the valves of the helmet. When the wearer cracked the hood open and struggled it off over his head, it was a dark-skinned man under there. He patted himself down. After a few seconds with the clean air in his mouth he said, “How are you breathing?”

“You ought to head off before Mama and Papa get back,” Tabby said. Mama and Papa would be mushrooming until nightfall. They hadn’t told Tabby to rake the lawn. Nobody for the lawn to look nice to. But a strange smell came up in the house, so Tabby had gone out to breathe easier. She still tasted the smell if she poked her tongue into the soft of her cheek. The sourness of something dying. Although not here; somewhere on top of here.

“The air is fine,” the man said, astonished.

“Mostly,” Tabby said. “Mama and Papa won’t like you here.”

“I know,” the man said. “But I’m not here from CSOIA.” See-saw-ya, he said. Which was what Papa called the government. “I came by myself.”

“You’re wearing the patch,” Tabby said, motioning to the green hexagon on his breast.

“I work for them. It’s their suit. But I only barely convinced them to let me.”

“Sure,” Tabby said. “I’m just saying.”

“You four need to evacuate,” the man said. “I’m begging you.”

Tabby washed her gums with her tongue and tasted the dying smell. She shadowed her eyes to gauge the height of the sun above Mount Gertrude.

“Come in for a tea,” she said.

With his forehead creased, he followed her into the cedar cabin and jammed himself and his suit into the fourth chair around the table. She thought of it as the fourth because nobody sat in that particular one anymore.

“You’re Tabitha, aren’t you?” he said as she got the teapot out of the cupboard. “Rainie and Ed are…”

“They’re mushrooming,” Tabby said.

“And your brother? Does he still live here?”

Tabby made a noise that could be interpreted any which way. She dug through the scavenge pantry for tea bags. In there, also: baked beans, cup ramen, Kraft Dinner, beef jerky and Fruit Roll-Ups. Anything that’d stayed good for the last nine years in the Sore Creek houses, up there at the crotch of the valley with their windows blowed out.

Her mama used to straighten quilts and sweep under the sofa when visitors came over—for instance, one of the delicately preserved great-aunts, their skin white and straining as Kleenex. Aunt Eva would give Tabby and Josiah wrapped peppermints in acrid-tasting plastic. Her mother would sometimes say, in a bad mood, You don’t poison my kids like that Eva. Anyway as her guest took his gloves off at the table, Tabby, turned hostess, wished she had swept under the sofa.

“I’m Stephen. I’m genuinely sorry I’m on your land,” the man said. “My supervisors have always wanted us hands-off about this house, but I begged them. Tomorrow…”

“Sending by the foster care people that time wasn’t very hands-off.”

“What? I guess that was before my time. I’m sorry if they bothered you. Really I am,” he insisted, at some disbelief on her face. “You know, I was in care for a while. I got scared too when they’d come around.” His tone reaching out all earnest.

“Okay,” Tabby said.

Stephen’s expression bent like it would have if she’d refused his handshake. Then he leaned forward over the table. “Tomorrow the biggest storm in years is coming through. Easily up into the 12s. The nexus passes right over this house. Sincerely, we don’t think anything is going to be left in the black zone afterward. Let alone your house or what’s left of Sore Creek.”

“Huh,” Tabby said. “You take sugar?”

“Do I…?” He sighed and his shoulders went forward. “No, it’s fine. When are your Mama and Papa going to be back?”

“They can’t be rushed,” Tabby said.

“I have a helicopter pickup tomorrow afternoon on Mount Gertrude. There’s room for all four of you. I know there’s been resistance in the past but this time you’re in a serious amount of danger if you don’t evacuate. If you start packing now…”

“They said we were in a lot of danger the first time, too,” Tabby said.

“You were. You are.”

“We weathered.”

“What’s the worst storm you’ve seen? That spike in July—right? A 7.8.”

The house had tasted like needles under her fingernails and her own face in the mirror had looked, as in a bad dream, imprecisely measured.

She didn’t know if it had been July, but she shrugged. She didn’t want to think about that storm; it required thinking about Josiah, who would have sat in that very chair Stephen was sitting in now.

“I couldn’t leave you out here. My supervisor didn’t even want to try. Tabitha, you’ll be dead.”

“Probably he didn’t want to try because last time they sent out some government fella Mama shaved her head.” Tabby thought this was funny, but Stephen’s expression was alarmed. “You’ve not got much hair up there so no need to worry, I would imagine. Where are you planning to sleep tonight?”

“I have a pack.”

“I’ll convince Mama and Papa to let you sleep in the spare room. No point letting the wolves sniff you.”

“There aren’t any wolves here.”

“Something like wolves,” Tabby said. “Then you can go get your copter tomorrow. It’s all very nice of you. But Mama and Papa will never leave this house. They paid for it fair and square.”

Stephen sipped his tea like medicine.

Tabby loaded the wood stove and got a pot of water from the rain barrel while Stephen joggled his leg under the table. Soon Mama and Papa would come back to their house guest. She assessed the scene. “All right, I think you can’t sit in that chair. Sit where I was sitting. Mama sits toward the stove and Papa sits at the head of the table.”

Stephen’s expression was baffled but he hauled himself up. “And you have to take off the suit,” Tabby said.

Stephen stared at her so wide she said, “You are wearing clothes, right?”

He began to unzip and unbuckle. “Our readings just said the whole zone had gone toxic after last year. Even though you four were still alive—we didn’t know how—gas masks or something.”

“Readings don’t read right out here,” Tabby said. “Not even our little thermometer we used to have stuck to the window to see whether it was going to snow. Doesn’t snow real snow anymore, just the strange stuff. Do you like mushrooms? Cause that’s what we’re eating.”

“I have MREs, I don’t want to impose,” Stephen said. He got his boot stuck and had to hop and jiggle. He wore red wool socks. For some reason Tabby found this hilarious, but she sucked her tongue to keep from laughing.

“It’s fine,” she said. But she didn’t know how Mama and Papa would react. Now that she was Stephen’s hostess, she’d acquired a protectiveness toward him. And anyway, his arrival had brought up prickly feelings that she had let wilt, after Josiah vanished, in the storm in which her face became unmeasurable.

He folded up the respirator suit into a squarish lump on the table. The hexagonal patch sat neatly, damningly, on top. Tabby got her first real bolt of terror. “We’ll have to hide that. Mama and Papa won’t like it.”

Stephen’s expression was like he was still frightened they’d pump in the poison gas any second. But he let Tabby bring it to the spare room.

She held her breath when she went in the spare room. It was always dark. The boxes in the closet smelled wet. She blindly opened one of them and felt the soft cotton and peeling plastic emblems of Josiah’s old superhero pajamas. The respirator suit barely fit in the crevices between the old things, but she squeezed the box shut.

Mama had always called Josiah an exceptional boy. In her soppy moods—my rainbow baby. Only when Papa wasn’t listening.

He was her older brother but Tabby had looked out for him when they lived in the city. His peers used to laugh at both of them when she stomped out onto their front yard to fetch him from their clutches. They never hit him so he never told Papa. Nominally they were hanging out with him, but he didn’t seem to like it much.

Her big, doleful brother. His upper arms like soft loaves of pale raw dough. His smell like he was so embarrassed and sad all the time it got into his sweat.

Once she had gone to squash a spider with her sneaker—to save him from it in fact—but he paused his Nintendo and scrambled up to stop her; with his fat, lovely, precise hands, he caught it on a cue card and deposited it outside on the deck. As if it were an old woman in disguise from a fairy story, or his other little sister.

There weren’t any spiders in the valley anymore to squash or not squash. Like Josiah, she guessed, they had all gone elsewhere.

“So where are you from?” Tabby said when she came back; this was the kind of thing she was meant to say.

“Minneapolis,” he said. “In…”

“I know about Minneapolis. Why’d you come up here?”

He was taken aback. Thought she didn’t know Minneapolis or small talk. Swallowed half his sentence. “To live with my—my partner.”

“Like a wife. What’s she do?”

“Uh,” Stephen said, “she’s a helicopter pilot.”

“Papa says women aren’t allowed to be pilots,” Tabby said. Surreptitious. She’d meant, someday, to confirm her suspicion.

“I mean—sure they are. They’re great pilots. My friend Kath—”

The door-hinges squeaked and Tabby sat up straight. Thankfully Stephen quieted.

Her father ducked under the doorway and took off his flannel cap to slap away the dusting of gray snow.

“Getting funny out there,” Papa said. Then his eyes went squinty at Stephen.

“I’m—” Stephen said, but Tabby lanced him with a look and interrupted. “His name’s Stephen, Papa.”

Mama came in after him with a bin of mushrooms, working her jaw. She was so skinny now that a tendon pulsed visibly between her cheekbone and chin as she ground her teeth. Her eyes in her skin-draped skull were gray and flat as the heads of two roofing nails. “Would you like some tea?”

“Tabby served me tea, thank you, ma’am,” Stephen said. The mug was three-quarters full.

“Stephen came to warn us there was a big storm coming,” Tabby said.

“You think you know something about big storms?” Papa said to Stephen. “We’ll see about big storms. You’re from the government, aren’t you.”

“He came by himself,” Tabby cut in.

Papa wiped his nose. “He better be ready to head off by himself.” And added with a certain toothiness, “How long have you been alone with him?”

“He’s got to stay the night. I thought he could take the spare room. Copter’s not coming for him until tomorrow.”

“So long’s he stays quiet,” Papa said.

“Mr. and Mrs. Sorrel,” Stephen said, leaning forward again. “I have to urge you to evacuate.”

Mama said, “Don’t worry about any of that. We’re the only ones that stayed the first time, and we’re fine, honey. Here, Tabby, we got a good crop, brought in half from the tarp station out by the creek.”

“I got the water on,” Tabby said. She gave Stephen a look like I told you so, figuring it settled, but didn’t count that he wouldn’t understand her look.

“Mr. and Mrs. Sorrel,” he said. “Our… my measurements are saying this storm coming tomorrow is going to be worse than anything that’s swept through here in the last decade. The worst ever—since the first accident.”

“Listen,” Papa said, with his deep, steady voice, looking Stephen hard in the eye. “We’ve had enough of you people trying to kick us out of our home. You can stay here so long as you keep quiet, and only because my daughter kept you here till past dark and I won’t have another man’s death on my conscience. But enough of this evacuate shit.”

Stephen’s hands were quaking under the table. He pressed them together between his knees.

“You got me, Mr. Stephen?” Papa said. When Stephen nodded, Papa unzipped his coat and turned away to drape it on the warm apron of the wood stove.

“Tea?” Mama said again, brightly. Stephen tried to scrape together words, until Tabby took pity on him and shook her head. “How about some supper? You like mushrooms, Stephen? Here, we’ve got shaggy manes, hedgehogs…”

Stephen looked at Tabby. Tabby, though surprised, still did her best to share a strengthening look with him, a look of solidarity. This seemed to help him collect his thoughts, and he took a breath through his nose. “I’ll be happy to try them, ma’am.”

“Oh, I like him,” Mama said. “How well-spoken. Here, Tabby, help me cut the bad parts off the shaggy manes.”

Papa frowned into the pot of water Tabby had boiled, as though she might have done it wrong and he’d have to correct her.


Papa said nothing through dinner. Mama ate half her plate of mushrooms and offered Papa the rest, and he took it wordlessly. Tabby stayed standing and ate with her fingers; certainly she couldn’t sit in Josiah’s seat. She monitored Stephen’s expression. As his thoughts went round his mouth turned once in a while to a worrisome bow.

“Got funny out there,” Papa said, finally, when his plate was empty. They’d all been waiting for him to finish.

“It’s a first front,” Stephen said. “It’ll go all night, recede for half the morning, then—“

“We’ll weather,” Mama said. “Doesn’t smell like it’ll be too bad, and you can’t hear sand whipping around.”

Sand? Can you normally?”

“When it’s bad, sure. And the trumpets.”

“And the zither,” Papa ruminated.

“And the smell,” Tabby said. “Like…”

“Tabs,” Papa said, “we were talking about things you could hear.”

Tabby nodded and drank down the rest of her water.

“Is it true your fingernails, uh…” Stephen said, leaning forward, eager.

Papa thumped his hand down on the table. His nails were bruised black. “As far as we can tell it’s just men,” Papa said.

“Right,” Stephen said. “You and Josiah, then?”

Tabby’s spine tingled and she kept her shoulders still. Mama’s jaw had stopped mid-grind. “No Josiah in this household,” Papa said.

Because she was Stephen’s hostess now and responsible for him, Tabby got offended. Her pa was lying to her guest. But it wasn’t a lie strictly speaking. Josiah was dead. Or something.

After it happened Papa never spoke of it. Except one time he looked her in the eyes and told her she was an only child. She had stopped saying Josiah’s name except quietly in the bower of her heart. Hearing Papa say her brother’s name again cracked open her old angers. He could lie to her, but he couldn’t lie to her guest.

Well, he could lie to her guest. He could do anything he liked.

“But…” Stephen said, and Tabby was unable to stop herself—she lashed a hand out and grabbed his collar at the back. Stephen cut himself off, and Papa, apparently satisfied, nodded. The back of Stephen’s neck was goosebumped, and he stayed quiet for a long time.

Nobody told Stephen whose room he was sleeping in, but as the sound of zither reverberated in Tabby’s cramped bedroom, and the hardwood walls began to smell riper and older, Tabby wondered if he had already figured it out.

Tabby turned the lights off in her room when the mottled veins on her hands began to squirm under her skin. Even in the darkness, blues at the corners of her vision pulsed and warped pungently. She closed her eyes and pulled the blanket over her head.

Somebody knocked once on the door. At first she assumed it was maybe the dresser tipping over. This why the mirror on the vanity was shattered, and also meant she hadn’t seen her own face in a long time. (Sometimes she wondered if it had stayed the way she had seen it that once during Josiah’s storm. How would she know?) But after a moment, just in case, she husked herself out of her quilts and crept to the door. “Hello?” she whispered through it.

 [ She didn't open it, © Laura Anca Adascalitei ] She didn’t open it straight away because there were people it could have been that weren’t Stephen or her parents. People she’d seen at other times during the storms. Once, a stretched-out woman. So skinny, big-eyed. Swaying at the edge of the forest with her fingers twitching around her knees. And once, in the woodshed, Josiah.

It was hard to say whether it had really been him. Sometimes Tabby thought it was just a projection of him, thrown forward in time by one of the storms from when he’d been straightforwardly alive. Other times she thought that, when her father had done what he did, the storm ate Josiah whole. That she’d seen the true-blue Josiah again, spat back down/through/into their woodshed for just an instant. Then, that the storm had slurped him up again before he could so much as say, Tabby, I’m back!

Stephen’s voice came through the wood, for what proof that was: “Do you have any painkillers?”

If it was him, he sounded frightened. She opened the door, squinted in the beam of his flashlight. He was trembling; when he lowered the flashlight she saw his pupils were wide as coins.

Tabby left the door open and wobbled to the dresser, which vibrated subaudibly. On a scavenging trip in Sore Creek she’d pocketed her own bottle of ibuprofen. She rattled three capsules into Stephen’s palm. He took them and shivered, holding the doorway, head bowed. Their exchange could have been done, but he didn’t move. “Ed said only the men get squeezed. You get headaches or…?”

“Nah,” Tabby said. “I guess I kept it around for a while because I wanted to be sure I could off myself if I had to.”

Stephen, his voice gauzy, said, “Bad way to go.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I hear it takes days,” Stephen said. Still didn’t leave.

“Is something…” Tabby said.

Stephen said, “Is there someone else in the spare room?”

Tabby stared at the sweat-spangled line of his trembling jaw, lit up from below by the flashlight. The rest of his face seemed to disappear into darkness, but she was able to see him swallow.

“Did you see somebody?” she said.

“It just feels like…” Stephen’s rasp fell off like his words were ground down into dust.

“Stay here. I’ll sleep on the floor.”

“No, there’s no need, I’ve slept on floors,” Stephen said distantly. Then he cursed and doubled over, covering his mouth, as though something had happened to his teeth.

“Don’t be proud,” Tabby said, which was what her father always said, and a bit of his brittleness entered it, although she meant to comfort Stephen. She took his shoulders and convinced him down onto the bed. Then it seemed unhostly in some way to abandon him, and while she could imagine that he might be embarrassed at the intimacy, she’d feel she was deserting him if she curled up on the warping hardwood. She crawled up onto the foot of the bed and sat with her back against the wall.

Stephen’s voice was muffled after he put his arm over his face. “Will you come with me tomorrow?” he said. “If you decide you don’t want to die after all.”

“I’ll think about it,” Tabby said.

Many minutes later, Stephen said one more thing as Tabby drifted into half-sleep. Her brain sluggishly put its fingers through the noises and picked out the sentence What happened to Josiah? Tabby thought that Stephen already knew.

In the morning there was no talk of what anybody might have heard or not heard during the storm. At Tabby’s fervent insistence Stephen crept back to Josiah’s room before the sallow, uneasy dawn could claw over the valley rim.

Papa and Mama went out to fill the water-barrel. Then when they got back they expelled Stephen, with the barest of politenesses, while Tabby sat at the table and picked the grain with a raggedy fingernail. She had worried that Stephen would have renewed energy in the morning to beg them to run for their lives some more; she had worried because it would be awkward, mostly, but also because her father’s scowl had deepened in the years since the last time the ministry people had come around, and she didn’t exactly know what he was capable of.

After Stephen left, she went into Josiah’s room. She stood in the aloneness and breathed dust that had accumulated new warmth.

There was something she needed to know, she guessed. She didn’t know how to excavate it other than to ask. So she went down the damp hillside; her parents were fashioning two-by-fours to nail over the windows that had come uncovered in the previous night’s storm. She waited in the doorway of the woodshed where Papa was ripping the two-by-eights they dried in the solar kiln into halves with the circle saw. Mama huffed up behind her with a wheelbarrow of lumber and they both stood in the aura of sawdust.

It seemed safe while Papa was wearing his scuffed ear protection, while the saw choked down splinters. “Do you remember what you used to call Josiah?” Tabby said. She couldn’t remember what corner of the woodshed she’d seen him in.

At the beginning of Mama’s frown, Tabby wasn’t sure Mama had even heard her. But then her gaze clarified; a haziness sank away and her eyes seemed very blue and attentive. So Tabby said, “Where did you get that? Rainbow baby is silly.”

“It was just a little nickname,” Mama said. Tabby wished she could be surprised at the fearfulness.

“I didn’t mean it was bad,” Tabby said. “It suited him.”

“Your father was right,” Mama said. “He was a young man.”


“Young men don’t need their mothers fussing on them. It makes them weak.”

Papa powered down the saw. Mama pushed her gaze down and it went glassy again.

Tabby said to Papa, “Are you mad that Stephen stayed in Josiah’s room last night? Do you even remember whose room that was?”

“Honey,” Mama said.

Papa twitched his mouth and wiped the expression away with his sleeve. Then he looked past her and said, “Rainie, get me that wheelbarrow.” And Mama stepped past her as though she was an unpleasant apparition. Well, Tabby could show them. She could go ahead and disappear.

Stephen turned out to be struggling straight up a slope of scree on the side of Mount Gertrude. “Hey!” she called from below; he lost his footing and skidded down a few metres, getting dust on his jeans and face.

“What’re you doing out here?” he said. Tabby shrugged. “Jesus,” Stephen said. Then peered up toward the peak. “You know a better way up this mountain?”

“Sure do.”

“Are you going to have enough time to get back to the house? It’s getting…what did Ed say? It’s getting funny. Isn’t it?”

Tabby looked up at the sky. It was textured like a fallen log bitten-up by burrowing things. She didn’t know if that was a normal weather to have. “Is it really going to be that bad?”

Yes!” Stephen said. His tone surprised her so she stayed quiet. He calmed. “Tabby. You won’t have time to get back. To get your parents.”

“Maybe not,” Tabby said. She turned before she had to see his expression.

She led him to the decayed trailhead she remembered, marked by a split boulder. She wasn’t surprised Stephen had missed it. Since the days when her and Josiah had clambered up the side of the mountain in the swell of summer, the path had been breached by thick roots that cradled pools of red needles and little bones.

It took them most of the rest of the day to pick their way up the slope. At the moment the first raindrop landed on Tabby’s bottom lip, they hit the landing. Looking out over the crest, the whole valley was visible beneath the gray jerking midden of the storm clouds. The smoke curling out of their house’s chimney in the trees to the east; Sore Creek’s black clusters of rooves like spots of mold.

Tabby spotted a familiar low pine tree good for sitting under. Stephen had to hunch, and looked hesitant when she sat on the mat of dead leaves and hardened mud under the tree’s umbrella, but eventually he lowered himself down after her. Some nastiness still dripped through but it was better than being in the open under the numbing rain.

It wasn’t as though there was much to watch, but the two of them stared into the storm together in the companionable way campers stare into a fire. Stephen didn’t turn his gaze from it when he asked his question. “Did Josiah pass away?”

Tabby was relieved. Still, the heart of the thing seemed too heavy to say. It was tethered to her sternum and when she opened her mouth it was yanked back into her throat. “You could say he passed away. He went elsewhere. Did he die, I wouldn’t know.”

“He got caught in a storm?” Stephen said.

“You could say that too.” Stephen looked right into her eyes. If Papa’s look was a point, Stephen’s was a bowl, safe to pour things into. Tabby cut the tether. “Wasn’t his fault. My Papa took him by the collar—” she made a fist— “and threw him out.” She opened the fist.

Stephen made a funny noise like ha. Tabby would have been offended but he didn’t look like he thought it was funny.

Sometimes she thought, if he’d sucked it up a few more years he would have gotten big, really big, bigger than Papa. Then the two of them could’ve shown Papa how things should go.

It didn’t happen like that. He tripped over the doorway and shook in his lump on the ground, his face in the safe crook of his elbow, then Papa banged the door shut, and there was no more Josiah.

“You know what? It was because he was crying. His fingers hurt. Pretty annoying, even I’ll admit. Real loud. I used to hate it too. I even yelled at him, ‘Josiah, shut up!’ Well, he didn’t.”

Something cracked the sky for an instant. Like lightning; not lightning. Stephen’s breath tripped. The impact, the thunder, crawled across the valley, rippling the tips of the pines. It hit them as a warm front.

“That’s…” Stephen said.

“I know, huh,” Tabby said. She pulled her knees up to her chest and watched the storm. “It’s something.”

Stephen’s hand lifted. She felt, on her shoulder, where he’d set it. But he changed the motion, and instead he turned up his collar.

By the time the helicopter arrived they had to dash for it under a rain of an inconceivable color. Stephen pulled his coat over himself and Tabby so at least their heads and faces were protected from the spray of dirt and rain misted into the air by the copter rotors. The sounds sung up from the valley louder and louder.

The blond, crooked-nosed helicopter pilot hopped out of his seat, demonstrating with a hand that they should keep crouched. The rotors continued to turn, seemed to flex and warp. Tabby didn’t know if they were supposed to do that. Stephen and the pilot embraced. The pilot gripped Stephen’s collar hard, then his neck. Had he been worried Stephen wouldn’t be touchable, when he came back? When they broke apart they had a hissed conversation; the pilot looked at her sidelong every few seconds.

Tabby heard her name called. At first, she thought at first it was the storm.

The pilot opened the back door of the copter for them and ducked back into the front seat. Stephen turned to her with new pep in his eyes and was about to say something. Mama and Papa came up over the ridge.

Papa roared, “You fucking government faggot.”

Mama said again, jubilantly, “Tabby!”

Stephen yelled a name that might have been the pilot’s, but it was loud under the rotors. Tabby slung herself between her papa and Stephen. Papa set her aside like he was flicking a thistle from his sleeve.

“Don’t you dare,” Tabby said. It was swallowed under the burring of the rotors, the wind, the burbling dreams of the storm. Stephen choked and put his hands up as if to surrender but that wouldn’t work this time, not on her Papa, who hated things that were vulnerable most of all.

Papa pushed Stephen back into the thrumming-hot side of the copter. Tabby felt the motion too. In her tingling fingers, in her scalp. The momentum swung her stomach around. It would fling them all off the side of the mountain like so much gravel. The storm howled as if it got too excited to bear.

Tabby hauled up her breath and shrieked over the wind. “I told him about Josiah!”

The storm exploded the name’s sound, carried it elsewhere and everywhere. The howling became a hum that was too much like a mouth-sound.

“You can’t do any more pretending,” she said into the low buzz.

Papa’s look hit her like a claw hammer. His pink face, mounted on his enormous shoulders, was insane.

Stephen scrambled into the helicopter, swung his head to find her gaze, his eyes huge. Tabby made herself small and flung herself forward, under Papa’s arm. She flailed out for Stephen. Their hands locked. Her other sleeve jolted back, almost tore the jacket off her shoulders. Papa. The bones in her wrists and shoulders creaked. Any second they’d come apart. Or something would.

She saw it on Stephen’s nails first. The black sank in. Stephen yelped. Papa made a guttural sound, and that instant, as his grip loosened, she tore herself from it.

The rotors sped. Papa and Mama were blown back by the wind, Mama moreso. Stephen pulled Tabby’s top half into the helicopter and Tabby kicked and clawed her bottom half into the helicopter and she slammed the door. Then, as Papa reared up against the wind, she saw it over his shoulder.

From out of the mist. Even the dust that wreathed the copter seemed to slow. Another figure alighted on the landing, shifting the dust, the wind, the seconds, the air from Tabby’s lungs aside with its hand. With black, black nails. Expressionless. All strange and stretched out. Tall. Big! Bigger than Papa. Bigger than anybody.

The copter lifted, swayed. Papa’s face was still close. So she saw how it slackened, all at once. Her hand was still on the copter lever, and when she saw her Papa’s face relax, soften—recognize—she wanted to go where they would go, and her hand twitched.

Stephen spoke in her ear. His voice was shaky. She heard that in that instant he’d been sure he was about to die, that he didn’t have complete certainty yet that he was still alive. Tabby was used to that feeling. “That isn’t…”

“It’s him,” she said, and took her hand off the lever to clasp it, on her knee, with Stephen’s.

The figure came to Mama blindly reaching out like it would choke her, but instead its immense hands landed over her face, and hers went up to circle its wrists, with love.

The copter went up into the fog, so what happened to her papa she did not see.

“Steve,” said the copter pilot, “let’s go home.”

Stephen smiled at the pilot. It wasn’t meant for her to partake in. Or he’d forgotten. Tabby wasn’t going home.

A woman in a navy suit and a woman in a black suit wanted to talk to her for a long time. At first when nothing had sunk in she figured she would co-operate, so she did her best. They kept asking the same questions. She stopped answering after a while and just picked her nails. Eventually Stephen knocked on the door and, after a brief conversation, the women left and Stephen drew her outside into the hallway.

Outside the room dry-cleaned officey people rushed by, arms heaped with papers and coffee cups. Some of them looked at her like she was a blip. While she had been picking the fabric seat of her chair in the khaki room, CSOIA had been calculating analytics and readings and doing reports and such kind of things. Studying the storm. Out there still frenzied in its six-kilometre fishbowl.

In one or another unheard-of direction out from the storm would be her parents and Josiah. Although she repeated it to herself she still didn’t feel too sad. Probably she was in shock or denial. But then, they weren’t dead; they were on a long trip with no sure destination. And she was too. So in that they weren’t apart at all.

“It’s almost nine o’ clock,” Stephen said. “How are you feeling?”

“Lots of people here, huh.”

“Listen, Tabby. I know this is all happening fast. The last thing I would have wanted would be to take you out of your family,” Stephen said.

“There’s worse things.”

“I’m so sorry, but I have to get home,” Stephen said. “They cleared one of the spare campus accommodations for you.”

He passed her a keycard. On the keycard hanging off Stephen’s lanyard, a tiny chubbier version of him flashed a dorky smile from his photo. No photo on hers. She covered the black square with a thumb so she didn’t have to look. She still hadn’t seen her face in a mirror. “They really wanted to know what my Social Insurance Number was.”

Stephen covered his eyes. “I’m an idiot. Your documents.”

“I think we had a bonfire on those when I was younger.” Tabby realized how pink Stephen’s eyes were. He grimaced and smoothed his hand down his jaw. She said, “You go home. No need to fuss on me.”

They stepped out together onto the dark grass-scented campus. Tabby pictured that she could ask Stephen if she could stay with him; he would probably say yes, though maybe he’d hold his breath first. Maybe his apartment, like in Sore Creek’s abandoned and soggy Canadian Home glossies, would have all white furniture, a rangetop stove, one of those walls with a fireplace in it. But a fake fireplace, not a real one that you had to load up with wood.

And she pictured going to the accommodations—she didn’t know what they would be like but for some reason she saw flimsy nunnery cots in rows. Unless it was like a little closet where they let the security guards sleep overnight, with no windows. That wouldn’t be so bad. Things came through windows as easily as she could look through them.

All at once, superimposed on one another and cloudy, she also saw other images. Embarcaderos beside wide rivers, and city parks with yellow dogs playing, and brick buildings with funny doors up too high, and people, people, people. It frightened and excited her. She could get to those places if she waited long enough. She didn’t know what she would do except look at them and know they were real.

At the edge of the parking lot, Stephen stopped. “It’s that building there,” he said. He pointed at a white block in the middle distance, identical to all the others, lit up by fluorescents. A cold lighthouse. “Just walk this path. The security staff know you’re coming, they’ll help you get settled in. I’ll check in with you tomorrow. Okay?”

She wanted him to see it. She willed her imagination to project the images in her pupils, backward and upside down. Apricot orchards and roadside stands where they sold the apricots; beaches with palm trees and red tourists; girls who wore their hair short; old people. Then if he saw what she was thinking he could say, You can trust us and I’ll make sure they get you anywhere you want.

Or he could say let’s go right now. They would drive all night on the secret roads truckers took up and down the country. In the morning, at a harbor, sitting on the hood of the car, they could watch boats carry things far away over the swell of the earth.

“Okay,” Stephen said. She had no idea what he had seen when he looked in her eyes. He was quiet for, she thought, a second longer than he needed to be. Then he said, “It’s a big world out there.”

Did she even need him? If she walked long enough, she’d get there. Or at least she’d get somewhere. Tabby could walk a long time.

“I’ll see you tomorrow?” he said.

She felt she had talked to nobody else, even though the suited women had kept her in there so long. All the other CSOIA people were bland and unscented. In the woods everything had a smell. She remembered Stephen smelling of—something—the inside of the respirator suit, maybe. Now it was scrubbed away.

Tabby nodded; Stephen nodded. She hoped neither of them was lying.

Stephen got into a car and then he was gone. The night was devoid of animal noise.

Alone in the dubious light, Tabby peered at her blank ID card.

© 2018 Meghan Cruickshank

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