Catherine drove out to the cottage on the river on a yellow September afternoon. It wasn’t her cottage. She had only been there once before and, with so many country roads looking the same, walled in by trees, broken only occasionally by scars of limestone, it was a miracle she found the place at all.
She wasn’t supposed to be here but it didn’t look like anybody would really mind, except for a few displaced mice. It wasn’t much of a cottage. Four unpainted walls and a roof covered with green moss, its shingles curling up like damp pages. The woodpile, neglected under a torn and faded tarp, lay stacked against one wall. It was the last place anyone would think to look, the cottage belonging to the family of the man who wasn’t her boyfriend anymore.
A kerosene lamp stood guard on a windowsill. She looked around for matches, she would need them soon. The darkness here, surrounded by a million trees, would be infernal. The sun was already slanting low through the trees. Was there a flashlight in the car? She thought she remembered a blanket in the trunk, and an old jar of peanuts in the glove compartment. She had left in too much of a hurry to pack.
Tucked behind the kettle was a cardboard box with a red bird on the label. Strike anywhere matches, in large, old-fashioned script.
She went outside to be a part of the last light and looked down towards the river. The night grew louder with the twilight, the smell of smoke sharper.
The only other time she had been here was with Nat. Susan, his sister, swam in the river, but Catherine had been fearful of the current and sat back on the warm rocks at its edge. Nat sat with her, his arm around her waist, his thumb smoothing small circles on her hip. It was one of the driest summers on record and the first of the forest fires, started by a lightning strike, crackled and smoked to the west, but here, down along the water, the air was still clear.
What was Nat doing now? It was almost nine o’clock; he should be getting ready for bed. Locking up the house. Laying out his clothes in the bathroom so he wouldn’t disturb her by fumbling in the dark in the morning. Checking one final time on the street, that all was quiet.
There had been two vans parked outside the house when she left. Disaster restoration specialists, according to the red script on the doors. The apartment across the street looked empty, hollowed out. Their neighbour was gone. He used to scream maledictions from his upstairs window, blare his music at one a.m. He boasted to the street at large about his prison record and threatened anyone who crossed him. Anyone who might call by-law about the noise. Anyone who peeked nervously through their bedroom curtains. Once Catherine thought he had a gun but it was only his cell phone he was waving threateningly at their windows.
The shifting orange glow in the window the night before could have been candlelight. Nat thought their neighbour hadn’t paid his hydro bill and the power got shut off. It wouldn’t be the first time on this street. Then came the thick grey smoke.
The peanuts had not been enough. She woke with a fuzzy coating on her teeth that her tongue could not remove, and her stomach hurt. Her hair, when she brought it to her face, smelled of smoke. It was too cold now, in early September, for a dip in the river, even if she wanted to, and the thought of hauling water (did she even have a bucket for hauling?) and lighting the ancient stove to heat it for a proper wash kept her in bed.
Catherine refused to remember the sound of Nat’s heart when her head lay on his chest, the way they lay curled up together in front of the TV after dinner, her neck wedged at an awkward angle and his arm falling asleep but neither of them willing to move. She wouldn’t imagine the steady thrum of his heart, the rushing pulse of his blood encircling her. She listened to the distant river. Just the river. She didn’t even let herself go so far as to imagine the fish sliding through its current.
But hunger inevitably drew her out. She pulled her hair back in a ponytail to disguise its unwashed state, and drove out to the gas station just off the highway. She bought a loaf of white bread and some peanut butter, bottles of water, hot chocolate powder, a bag of marshmallows.
A haze of smoke from the still-burning forest fires in the west had settled over the parking lot. It could have looked as benign as a fall mist but for the long-haired man walking into the station, holding a cloth over his nose and mouth, and coughing. For a moment she saw herself back in the city. There was their neighbour, shirtless, all his tattoos on display, as they usually were in the summer. And she was somehow in his room with him. He sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor, his long kinky hair trailed down his back. Flames, psychedelic wallpaper, swirled around them.
Nat’s red hatchback crouched in the gravel lane, but it was Susan’s silhouette against the river, gazing down at the bright water. She turned when Catherine’s car door slammed.
“I knew it,” she said. “No one else had a clue where you’d gone. But I just thought maybe – and voila!” She stepped forward and hugged her.
What a relief not to be alone. As she pressed her cheek into Susan’s shoulder, she squeezed her eyes shut against the image of the half-naked man draped unconscious over the firefighter’s shoulder. The image that only yesterday had chased her down the highway.
She liked Susan. She liked her large frog-like eyes, her hair that curled as tumultuously as Nat’s. She liked her even though Susan always knew more about her than she should. Catherine distrusted what Nat might have told her. Things that could be used against her. The mood swings. The over-reactions.
“I brought food.” Susan pulled two plastic grocery bags from the trunk of the car. “We’ll have a picnic.”
“Can you show me how to get that stove going? It got so cold last night.”
“That monster. I can try. I haven’t done it in years though.”
A police car had blocked the far entrance to the street, an ambulance cut off the other. Car doors kept slamming as the fire investigators arrived. Hoses, like power cords that slithered under rides at the midway, colonized the road. Firefighters milled around, sucking back water and crumpling the plastic bottles as if they were beer cans.
The ladder atop one firetruck was still leaning against the second storey window, swiveled in place like an antenna. A police officer was interviewing a witness, a man in a dirty parka with very few teeth, on their front step.
Paramedics worked over the figure on the gurney. There was an oxygen mask over his mouth, but the paramedics did not hurry. There was no need. The ambulance, after it had backed up and turned around, left quietly.
Susan handed her a coke.
“Just so you know,” she said, “I’m not his messenger. Nat doesn’t even know I’m here.”
Catherine held the can away from her, pointing it vaguely at the river, as she cracked it open. It hissed and bubbled. She licked the liquid from her fingers. “Okay.”
“So, what was it? A fight? Or,” she lowered her voice, “some kind of breakdown?”
Catherine put her can down on the flat rock beside her. It was too sweet. She imagined the juices in her stomach reacting to the drink like the rushing river below.
“I’m not going to tell him where you are. Nat can be such a jerk sometimes.”
“Why did you come then?”
“It’s an awful stove and you’re a city girl. Didn’t want you burning the place down. And,” she reached into her pocket and pulled out an orange prescription bottle, “you forgot these.”
The only time Catherine saw him up close, the sun was beating down so forcefully she could barely lift her gaze from the sidewalk. This was outside the 7-11. His sneakers were ragged and their tongues lolled. His long cut-offs sat low and she could see his navel, the daggers of his hips, each defined muscle on his meagre chest. He had a mandala tattooed on his shoulder and some illegible motto on his forearm. He made her think of the sadhus she’d seen in India, old men with bedraggled hair and ropey arms, sitting cross-legged on the ground. Their expressions fierce, inscrutable.
He was taller than she was and his face, hollowed, tired, had a mean cast to it. His eyes passed over her as if she wasn’t there. He didn’t see her at all.
“Nat’s worried about you. He’s been talking to the police.”
Catherine squinted at the water.
“Apparently they’re treating the fire as suspicious. He said you’d gone out before it started. To the store. Maybe you saw something?”
Catherine put her hand to her forehead, as if she was taking her own temperature. She wondered what the forest thought about its own destruction. If the new growth would carry the memories of the old. She shook her head.
She had reached for the phone that night but Nat stopped her. He had wanted to wait, to see the fire spread more ruinously into the house before calling 911. That would solve the noise, he said, the dealers and the prostitutes, the peeling paint and graffiti all in one go.
When Susan drove off, Catherine rubbed her hands along her forearms and up her sleeves. There was a new coolness in the air, descending like an exhale from space.
She gathered an armful of logs and started to bank the stove the way Susan had showed her. Then something else seemed to take over. She brought in more firewood, laid it in piles in different parts of the cottage, as if she was building campfires.
Catherine struck a match. A house for a house. It seemed only fair.
Jennifer Falkner is an award-winning short story writer from Ottawa, Canada. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, in Canada and internationally, and most recently in Stonecoast Review, Firewords Quarterly, Former Cactus and The Jellyfish Review.