The Beginning and the End, 1
Although the sun was just peeking over the trees, Catherine knew the day would be gone quickly, as if it was never there at all. She had gotten used to it. She couldn’t recall the names of some of her friends, the smell of her mother’s cooking, warmth, security, freedom. None of it really existed to begin with.
She shouldered her shotgun then swung her pack over her arm, looking behind her to ensure nothing was left behind. Every little thing was precious – even misplacing flint could mean death. Everything in her bag had a smell of must and mould on it. More assuring than anything, the smell of survival.
The sun’s rays rolled over her from between the branches of the evergreens, and she looked back to watch it crawl up the length of the forest, racing her. That was all her life was anymore: a race to nightfall. She didn’t know where she was racing to. She had nowhere to go.
She started walking.
Catherine hadn’t seen another person since she had fled Fort McMurray. She had kept clear of the oil fields, the camps, and the small towns as she travelled, and she had not made contact with anyone else for two years. Pockets of survivors were living in and around Fort McMurray, battling each other for food and water. After what had happened, Catherine gave them a wide berth at every step. There was no other option for her but to be alone. In most ways she always had been.
Sometimes she would stand on the banks of the river, wondering if she should follow it back. She fantasized about walking into Fort McMurray like walking up to the gates of the Underworld. But she would never go back. She wouldn’t die, anyway – she always managed to survive. When she escaped Fort McMurray two years prior, she had wandered aimlessly for days, contemplating suicide but never following through. Then she chanced upon the cabin waiting for her on the frozen lakeside. No one else ever came for it. After she settled there, her days were spent scavenging, finding what she could find and bringing it back to McClelland Lake. She forgot about dying and began coasting instead.
A soft crunch.
She dropped into a crouch and slid the shotgun off her shoulder, grasping it awkwardly. She scanned the legions of dead bushes and gnarled tree trunks before she caught sight of the animal.
It slowly moved through the snow as it nipped at the sparse blades of grass that breached the snow. Its teeth were whiter that the snow itself – or so Catherine imagined – and its onyx eyes were shrouded by delicate lids. How different they were. It was still whole, still glorious and untouched in the wreckage of life’s remains, while she had been worn thin by such a place. They were, however, both survivors, and they were both looking for food.
She lifted her shotgun carefully. The doe went about nipping at the grass, oblivious to Catherine’s intentions not ten yards away. All there was left to do was fire, but her hand stilled on the pump and her finger hovered over the trigger. They were different, they were one in the same.
The doe lifters its head, turning towards her. She gasped before pumping the action and pulling the trigger. A thundering crack pressed hard on her ears and boomed amongst the trees. The doe jolted, rearing back and collapsing.
The recoil had rammed the gun hard into her shoulder and it stung from the sudden punch. She rubbed her shoulder and caught a glimpse of red blossoming in the snow on the other side of the shrub. She shouldered the shotgun and stood.
It twitched upon spotting her. Blood gushed from its wound with each dying pulse. She knelt down beside it, watching it bleed to death with a sort of admiration. One perfect black eye remained locked on her. She could see the whites of its eyes, and she could feel the desperation there. The intensity of its gaze never dissipated. Something dark lifted its head from some time far gone.
No good guys, no bad guys.
She shuddered, closing her eyes, wishing the memory away. When she glanced at the doe again, its eye had rolled halfway upwards, lame and lifeless. She sighed like one would at the end of a very long war.
It would be uncomfortable, but caring it back to the cabin was doable. Her travelling time was limited by the minimal hours of daylight left, so she would have rest in but a few hours. She laid out the rope and gathered the doe’s hooves together. She tied them tightly then hoisted the game onto her shoulder. It was heavy, but not impossible.
Food this far north was scant. More than once starvation had become a very real possibility, but then there would come a squirrel, a berry bush, an old can of soup. Never something like this. A whole doe. If she played it right, she might be able to ration it for the rest of winter.
As she hobbled onward, the excitement of such a feast dulled to grey. In its place were the echoes of memories long dead. Having. A reminder of what things used to be like and would never be again. As her past began to resurface, she strode on, hoping she could put it behind her but she could think on nothing else.
Back then, everything had hit so fast that she had little idea of what was going on. Nobody did.
Her final semester at college was over, but the occasion wasn’t as glorious as she might have once imagined it. It was the end of the calendar year, and from the beginning, it had been bleak and ill-fated. If a visitor were to walk among the halls of campus without knowing the time of year, he wouldn’t be able to tell you that it was end of term, or that Christmas was around the corner. Then again, such a visitor wouldn’t be surprised to see the sad, disillusioned faces of students walking to their next class with heavy hearts, for it was the look that everyone in the country held.
Since exams had ended on Wednesday, she had the rest of the week at her leisure. It was eight in the morning on the Friday, and Catherine was preparing herself for a weekend trip to her gran’s house, who had fallen ill to the virus that was starting to spread like wildfire. Leanne wasn’t her actual grandmother, but had lived in the apartment next to her mother when Catherine was born in Fort McMurray. Leanne had been an important part of their small family since, helping the young woman take care of her newborn, babysitting once Catherine’s mother went back to work, and so on.
Her mother tried to get time off in order to take care of Leanne as well but the hospital had suspended all leave time, so she was strapped down with little escape. Somehow things remained calm on the surface, but a small sense of panic was always resting just under the surface. Everyone seemed to want to abandon the country, leave their lives behind without remorse, but they could only run so far. Reports stated the virus had spread as far south as Mexico.
She placed her overnight bag in the trunk of her car then closed the lid weakly. She reopened it and tried to close it properly, but the lock didn’t catch. She did this several times, eventually resorting to throwing her weight onto the lid, but to no avail.
She jumped with a yelp, abandoning the trunk door and turning to her mother. She stood in her pale housecoat and slippers, looking at Catherine with a slight grin on her solemn face. Catherine sighed with frustration. “Where’s your face mask?”
“Don’t worry about that, honey, it’s just inside. Had something to eat?”
“I grabbed a breakfast bar.”
“Had some coffee?”
“No. I’m fine.”
“Brushed your teeth?”
“Okay, okay. Here, this is for you,” she said, handing Catherine a small envelope as she came close. “I want you to read it when you get to your gran’s. But no peeking.”
Catherine grinned slightly under her mask. It was a personal pun they shared: her mother almost always told her “no peeking” no matter the occasion. And her reply was always:
“You forgot to mention, ’Your mission, should you choose to accept it…’.”
“Nah, I wouldn’t give you the option.”
“Ah! So you do still laugh!” her mother said, returning the bright eyes. “I was starting to wonder if you were permanently broken.”
There was a moment of silence between them, and they both looked at anything besides each other. Catherine and her mother looked very similar; a passerby on the street might have deemed them sisters from a distance. However, she and her mother had almost polar opposite personalities and nearly nothing in common. Her mother was mostly outspoken while Catherine was as quiet as a mouse. It was mostly due to her mother’s absence at work during the majority of Catherine’s childhood, but as she hit adolescence, she became even more reclusive. At that moment, like so many before, Catherine wanted nothing more than to hide and be alone. When she was told that her mother had to stay at work and could not accompany her to Fort McMurray, she was secretly glad for it. She turned her attention back on the trunk and attempted to close it again.
“Catherine, I’m proud of you,” her mother whispered, her voice nearly drowned out by the hum of the engine. “Don’t you know that?”
The trunk finally closed.
Pride has nothing to do with it, Catherine thought. Over the last three months since the novel’s release, there had been positive reviews and praise for the first-time author. The book had succeeded exceedingly well for such a short period from its publication. All of that would have elated any author, especially a novice, but none of those things were what she was looking for.
He didn’t even know my name.
“I know, Mom,” Catherine replied quietly. “You should go inside and put on your mask.”
“My goodness, you’re pushy!”
“Mom…take this more seriously.”
“That’s enough, now. I do take this seriously. You know just as well as I do that standing out here for two minutes isn’t going to kill me.”
Catherine averted her eyes.
Her mother turned back to the house and waved a hand behind her. “Call me when you get there, all right?”
“And send me a postcard or something.”
Catherine smiled. “I’ll see you Sunday, Mom.”
“Take care of yourself.”
Catherine got into her car and exhaled long and hard. She had been purposefully avoiding her mother for the past few moths. In fact, it wasn’t only her mother she was avoiding – it was everyone. Over the last four years, Catherine had slowly withdrawn into an impenetrable shell and lost touch with the few friends she had. She was even fired over it. After all of the damage she had done, she did not want to let him go. Even now, when she knew she would never see him again, she longed to cling to his memory. It was draining, but at the same time, nothing brought her more comfort and warmth. Hope dangled in front of her like a lure she’d never catch, yet still she reached.
She slipped the letter into her coat pocket, gripped the gear shift, pulled it into reverse, and backed out of the driveway.
When she pulled onto the street, she looked to the house to see if she could wave goodbye. Her mother was standing at the bay window in their living room, but when Catherine looked in her direction, she turned away and let the drapes drop in her wake.
Catherine sat staring at the window for a moment before she drove away.
Highway 63 was crowded. She resorted to flipping through radio stations for answers. The local CAB broadcast on AM frequency reported a collision on the highway. She was only about halfway to Fort McMurray, and at the rate she was travelling now, she wouldn’t arrive at Gran’s until late.
“Tension is running high in the Wood Buffalo region after a string of fatalities late last night due to the influenza virus. Traffic on highway 63 northbound is backed up and commuters are being turned away at a check point. More on that report tonight at six.”
“I can’t wait for six,” she grumbled. She flipped through more stations. Some cars began pulling U-turns. Catherine’s fingers itched at the wheel.
After another half an hour, she had moved a total of twenty feet.
“Fucking…” Just saying the word made her cringe, as if everyone had heard her and was appalled by it. It took a lot to get her worked up like this. The stress was starting to swell. And it wasn’t just the car jam. It was her strained relationships with her friends and her mother, the virus sweeping the western hemisphere. All her successes, her failures…
She started digging at that ever-deepening hole that she’d been throwing herself in ever since she first saw him. Even as she wrote her book, she had no idea whether or not she was mentally ill or hopelessly charmed. She had never even spoken to him, or to anyone about him. Not only did the idea of confessing her infatuation seem unbearable, but she felt she’d be opening up the world’s Best Kept Secrets vault. That was only for her. Always just her.
“…death count related to the virus has amounted to three hundred in the Wood Buffalo region. RCMP are stationed on highway 63 to regulate traffic entering and exiting the city. Only residents and urgent cases are being allowed access into the immediate area. Effectively, Fort McMurray has been placed under quarantine. If a city as small and as northbound as Fort McMurray has been claimed by the virus, what can we expect everywhere else?”
Her eyes darted all over the horizon, looking between the trees and the car in front of her, not seeing any of it.
Two cars were pulled onto the shoulder of the road, one with a crunched fender, the other with his four-ways flashing. More people turned their cars around, even after they passed the accident. Some pulled into the ditch. Catherine drifted by, her hand locked over her face mask, her mind racing far over her head.
Ahead she could see an officer on the road and a few RCMP cars parked across both lanes. He was bent over, leaning on the top of a car and looking through the window. The line progressed slowly, as the officer spoke to every single driver. Some conversations were short, some were lengthy. One vehicle sped off south again, the driver shouting incoherent obscenities as he rolled up his window. It was then that she realized the only traffic going southbound were people making U-turns.
“Afternoon,” the officer said as she rolled down her window. He was wearing a face mask too.
“I don’t suppose you know the reason behind the road block, either?”
“I have an idea.”
“Oh, good,” the officer said, standing straight for a moment to stretch before bending back down to eye level again. “So you know that no visitors are being permitted into Fort McMurray.”
“I don’t have a doctor’s note or anything, but my grandmother is very sick. She has nobody to take care of her. I’m supposed to stay with her for the weekend until the caretaker comes.”
“You can head on up the road then, if you want,” the officer said, glancing up the highway, “but you’re not guaranteed entry. And if you do get in, you’re not likely to come out anytime soon, either.”
That hadn’t crossed her mind. She didn’t need to be home for Monday, but that was Christmas Eve. And if she couldn’t make it back by Monday, what about Christmas? New Years? January?
“Okay,” she said meekly.
“You don’t sound so sure.”
The officer looked her over for a second, twisting his jaw slowly under his face mask as his eyes flickered over her.
“My gran needs help.”
“Yeah. Yeah, okay, go on ahead, I’ll radio them for y—”
He stumbled. Catherine felt it too. The earth tilted a bit; she jammed the brake hard and squeezed the steering wheel tight; a small noise slipped from her throat and her eyes bugged as she watched the cars in front of her jump and slide on the road. Everything stopped. There was an odd vibration that came from underneath her car.
“What was that?” she asked quietly.
“I don’t know—”
The road shook again and did not stop. A loud CRACK echoed in the sky like an explosion. The earth lurched.
“Holy shit!” he shouted.
Her lungs shrivelled and she squirmed weakly in her seat. Her hands lost feeling as she tried to fumble with her seat belt.
People running. Some fled from their cars, streaming up and down the road on either side of the highway. They flocked past her as she turned to stone in her seat. The officer by her window had gone. The crack expanded, ripping up the pavement like paper.
The road jumped again and twisted sideways; her car slid across the sudden slope into the ditch. All she could hear was her own scream.
People fell in the short gaps that were torn into the road, and snow began to mix with dirt and debris, making a grey mixture of slush that splashed over them as they ran. Catherine kept fighting with the seat belt.
There was a loud and irritating tone on the radio.
YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE. THIS IS THE ALBERTA EMERGENCY PUBLIC WARNING SYSTEM. THE FOLLOWING EMERGENCY BULLETIN MAY AFFECT YOUR AREA; LISTEN CAREFULLY. LARGE SEISMIC ACTIVITY HAS BEEN DETECTED IN: LETHBRIDGE AND SURROUNDING AREA, MEDICINE HAT AND SURROUNDING AREA, CALGARY AND SURROUNDING AREA, RED DEER AND SURROUNDING AREA, EDMONTON—
Her view was tilted upwards towards the skyline; all she could see were the tops of the trees, some of which disappeared from view as they fell. She kept tugging on her seat belt with such force that she heard it begin to tear—
A tree trunk landed long-ways across the top of her sedan. It hit so hard that the roof indented and—BANG—the airbags deployed. It struck her hard in the face.