BY MICHAEL JOLL
This is the first of a two-part story. Read the second part here. Copyright is held by the author.
EARLE WAS out.
That much she knew.
That was all she knew.
Sue Lewicki closed her eyes, straining her ears for the sound of the snow falling, and until they adjusted to the silence, imagining each snowflake flutter, swirl and float as it danced in the wind, held aloft in the arms of an updraft then allowed to drift to earth to cling to cedar and spruce boughs. She stood in the rectangle of light from the cabin’s front room that lit the porch and threw a narrow oblong of pale yellow around her distorted silhouette onto the knee-deep snow. She took a deep breath, and in it held the aroma of frozen, hibernating forest, wood smoke and her own scent. She pulled the quilted plaid flannel shirt closer to her body, and as she did she heard the faintest hiss of millions of snowflakes falling on trees and paths, on rocks and roof, alighting on countless more already there.
Nothing stirred except the snow.
Mitch was in bed, asleep. This was her time; the dishes done, the story read, the cabin tidied. An hour, maybe two, gave her a chance to sew, to mend Mitch’s jeans, to fix a leaky tap or replace a light bulb without him around to sulk, to stare blankly at a wall or to throw another tantrum. And when she had finished what needed to be done she tried to catch a moment to herself, to read, to dream or, like now, to stand under the roof of her porch, listening to the snow.
A truck engine in the distance disturbed her moment of tranquility. She opened her eyes and cocked her head. Still a long ways off, she thought, but approaching, northbound, uphill from the direction of town. A pick-up, she could tell, not a semi, and not gearing down. An automatic, so not the township snow plough then, or a logging truck. Whoever it is is making heavy weather of it, like he’s not used to the road, doesn’t know his way around, and a foot of fresh snow doesn’t help either. It’s got to be the first vehicle in either direction since the snow began, and likely the last for a couple of days. Wonder where he’s going? It’s 20 clicks south to Skeena and there’s nothing north of here until you hit the logging camp where the pavement ends. They’re going to have to dig him out of a drift somewhere, tomorrow or Boxing Day, or whenever they find him, if he doesn’t drive off a cliff first. If anyone notices he’s missing.
“Idiot,” she muttered under her breath, and pulled the shirt tighter. Her breath left clouds of fog suspended in the air, millions of droplets billowing out of her mouth, freezing, crystallizing and mingling with the snowflakes twisting and dropping to earth like miniature parachutes. Six hours already since the snow started, just as darkness fell, and snowing more heavily now. She had heard the forecast on the radio: a polar vortex, a metre plus of snow before the storm petered out, and frigid temperatures. That meant blowing and drifting, white-outs, and maybe two more days before the ploughs finished with the main road and got around to the back roads like hers. Until then, life passed by elsewhere, leaving her alone, suspended in time and place, a snowflake held aloft by currents she could not control.
Solitude was one of the benefits of living in the cabin.
White flakes reflected and scattered the headlights as the truck neared the crest of the hill lit up the rock face and lanced through the night. When she guessed the truck reached the crest she heard the engine note drop. “Smart man,” she mouthed. There would be nothing but a swirling white searchlight shining back into his face, blinding him as his lights bounced off the snow, and nothing but a bat-black void beyond.
The lights dipped as the truck began the quarter mile descent towards the bridge over the Skeena River. Tail lights lit up the snow behind the truck, red flickers smearing the white backdrop. She saw the truck fishtail once, twice where the road curved to the left before crossing over the ravine, before it straightened out. She watched the truck’s headlights cross the bridge and heard the exhaust’s staccato fire echoing off the railings. The lights changed their angle as the truck started through the curve to the right, accelerating, scrambling to build up momentum to climb the grade towards her cabin. Once it has passed, she told herself, I’ll go back in.
The truck slowed and swung off the road. The headlights pointed straight at her, dazzling her as the driver gunned the engine, and in a cloud of snow swerved and skidded to a stop a few feet from her porch. She raised her hand to shield her eyes from the lights, her night vision ruined, wondering who it could be. Someone lost probably, she guessed, on the wrong road, saw the cabin lights; whatever. It’s too soon for Ed, she thought. He’s already called. He’s still on duty, won’t be off till two, promised to pass by to wish me a merry Christmas, before he booked off shift, and make sure I’m all right. And it’s not a Detachment vehicle. No RCMP markings and they drive GMC 4X4 SUVs, not this old F-150.
The driver killed the lights and the engine. A flash of dim light lit the interior of the cab as the door opened long enough for her to see that there was no passenger, then the tinny sound of the door slamming in the night. She heard boots hit the snow with a squeak as the driver half slipped and grabbed the door handle for support. Her hand flew to her mouth and she backed away, stumbling against the front door, but even as she snatched at the handle she knew it was too late to duck inside and bolt it. Her stomach lurched and bile rose in her throat. Her bladder released a trickle.
“Hello, Sue,” a familiar voice called, but she could not mistake the menace beneath the tone as the speaker advanced towards her.
A month ago she had received the phone call from Sgt. McKnight at the Skeena Detachment. “He’s out next week, Sue.”
“I know, Ed,” she replied. “I got the letter from the Parole Board this morning.”
“If he shows around here, if we hear anything, we’ll post an officer 24/7 in your home if you like. Just say the word.”
“I will, Ed. Thanks.” She hung up. In a week Earle could be anywhere in the country except the only place she had been safe from him for eight years — in Stone Mountain Penitentiary. Ed had since told her that they lost track of him in Winnipeg three days after his release. Ed had phoned several times since then, always with nothing to report, and dropped by at least once a week. “Of course I’m concerned, Ed,” she said, “what with the threats he made, but I know there’s nothing you can do unless he shows.”
“I don’t think you should take the threats lightly,” Ed told her, “at least for now, until we can lock him up again. Men like Earle can’t stay out of trouble for long.” There had been a long silence. “I still can’t get over the trial,” Ed had said, as if talking to himself, reluctant to let the conversation end. “I mean, that defence counsel jumping up and down. I thought the judge was going to cite him for contempt.”
“And to think he had the gall,” Sue said, “to try to convince the judge I’d made it all up, that I’d imagined it. Anyway, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”
“You could move into town for the winter, Sue,” Ed had suggested more than once. “You’d be safer there. Think about it, okay?”
She knew he was only trying to put her mind at ease. She had known Ed McKnight since the investigation started, and he had been friendly with her since the arrest, but always proper and professional. She knew what everyone else in Skeena knew: that since his divorce, when Marnie, his ex, moved back to Moose Jaw and what she called civilization, Ed had lived alone in an apartment in town, that he liked to fish, and that he was handy at renovations. An all-round nice guy. And if he was seeing anyone, it was the best-kept secret in Skeena. Why couldn’t Earle have been like that? It had been good once, years ago, before the drugs and the booze, before the fights and that last night.
Ed had been thoughtful and kind to her during the months leading up to the trial, but no more than that. “Everyone else around here calls me Ed,” he said early on. “I’d be happy if you did, too.” She had to admit that over the years she had grown fond of him, perhaps more than fond, though she had never let on. He was still married then. Maybe, she reminded herself during an occasional moment of unrest, she should have done something to warm the relationship after his divorce, but she hadn’t. Neither had he, and the opportunity had leaked through her fingers like water. And maybe it was for the best, she told herself. No point in living with “what if.”
She had considered Ed’s advice, but deep down she knew she didn’t want to move. “I like where I live,” she told him. “I have satellite T.V. and Internet, so I can work from home. It’s quiet, I can live independently, chop my own firewood, do my own chores without help, and there’s no-one to bother Mitch. And there are no facilities for him in Skeena, anyway. I’d have to move to Terrace or Prince Rupert for that.” Ed had nodded his understanding and hadn’t asked again.
She peered into the oblong of light at the face of the driver standing in the snow at the foot of the steps. Her voice cracked. “Hello, Earle,” she said.
“You’re waiting up for me, I see,” he said. “Or were you expecting someone else?”
“How did you . . ?”
“You’re in the phone book, Sue.”
“You can’t come in, Earle.” She gulped in a lungful of icy air that burned her throat. Her knees trembled, her hands shook as a shot of fear surged through her veins, its icy fingers gripping her throat so she could scarcely breathe. She couldn’t stop a second small trickle.
Earle took a step forward. “You scared? After what you did to me you should be.” He glanced down. “You wet yourself, girl?”
She nodded dumbly.
“You never could control yourself when you was scared,” he said, sneering. Then, “You entertaining someone?”
She shook her head.
“I asked, ‘are you entertaining someone?’” He emphasized each syllable.
“No. It’s not like that. It’s . . . it’s . . .” she stammered, grasping at straws, anything to stop him from entering her house. “Mitch is sleeping. I don’t want anyone disturbing him.”
Earle hopped up the last couple of steps onto the porch, grabbed her and threw her to the boards. “Don’t get in my way, Sue,” he said, snarling, and wrenched open the door. Framed in the doorway with his parka on he looked bigger than the scrawny addict she remembered. They have a gym at the Stone Mountain Pen, so they said. Maybe he used it to push weights. She struggled to her feet.
“No, Earle,” she pleaded. “Leave us be.”
He ignored her, and looked around at the kitchenette and the small living room.
“You don’t got much for all these years,” he said.
“It’s all I need.”
“And I paid for all this,” he said, waving his arm around as if he were a realtor showing off a mansion.
“We don’t have to go over that again, do we Earle? You agreed. I agreed. Christ, the lawyers even agreed.”
He whipped round. “You know I don’t like it when you take the Lord’s name in vain, Sue. Watch your mouth.”
“I’m sorry, Earle.” She glanced down at the melting snow pooling on the front door mat around Earle’s boots, then looked up again, afraid of what was surely coming next. “Why are you here?” She already knew the answer. She pulled the shirt closer to her body, seeking warmth in the frigid air. Her teeth started to chatter.
Earle whipped round. “Why are you here?” He mimicked her whine. “Why am I here? You know damn well why I’m here. It’s Christmas fucking Eve and I came to see my son for the first time in my life. And not you nor anyone else is going to stop me.”
“He’s sleeping Earle. He’s . . . he’s . . . he’s not well. He needs his sleep.”
“What’s the matter? He got the ’flu or something?”
“No, it’s nothing like that. It’s not contagious.”
“Then I’m going to see him, so get him up or I’ll finish what I started eight years ago, just like I promised, understand?” He brushed aside the long stringy hair dangling over his face and ran a hand over his sparse, straggly beard.
Sue’s knees renewed their shaking and nearly buckled. “I’ll go get him,” she said, her brittle voice reed thin, close to tears as she edged past him through the doorway. “I won’t be long unless I have to change his diaper first.”
“What? He’s almost nine years old. How can he still be wearing a diaper?”
“It’s only at night, mostly,” she said, edging toward the door leading out of the living room.
“Shit! What kind of kid can he be wearing a diaper at nine years old? What have you done to him?” He took two strides across the room, grabbed her arm and stuck his face in hers, close enough that she smelled his breath; hamburger, cigarettes and rotting teeth. “Answer me, damn it!” He twisted her arm until she cried out.
“Let go, Earle. You’re hurting me. I’ll get him, okay?”
He relaxed his grip and looked around the room. “You’re not back on the bottle, are you?” he asked. Sue followed his gaze to the bottle of rye on the counter top in the kitchenette.
“You know I rarely drank, Earle. Don’t confuse me with you. It’s Christmas. I was going to have one drink before I go to bed.”
“You lied to me! You are expecting company.” He backhanded her across the side of her head. “Aren’t you going to offer me one, then, or is it just for you and your boyfriend?”
“Damn it, Earle, I’m not lying. I live alone and I’m not expecting anyone tonight, tomorrow, or any other time.” She struggled, tried to free her arm from his grip, but he held on tighter than before. She gave up. “I don’t really care if you believe me or not,” she said with a note of defeat creeping into her voice. “It doesn’t matter. Go ahead, help yourself, Earle. You always did. There’s a six pack in the fridge too if you want one. It’s been there since the summer, if you want to know. Now let go of me.”
He released her and grabbed the bottle, unscrewed the cap and put it to his lips, then hesitated. “I get it,” he said. “Get me drunk, call the cops, and have me locked up for parole violation. Not gonna happen. I did my time, every day and then some for some other shit that happened inside. There was nothing else they could hold me for. They had to release me, no parole, no terms, nothing. I’m a free man, Sue. I can do what I like in my own home.”
“This isn’t your home, Earle. It’s mine. Mine and Mitch’s. Ever since the divorce.”
He grabbed her by the hair. “Ouch!” she said. “I thought only girls pulled hair.”
He yanked harder. “Let go, you’re hurting me,” she said, gritting her teeth, determined not to cry. She had stood up to him before over his drugs and drinking. That was what had got her the shit kicking, the month in hospital in Terrace and the two years of psychotherapy when she thought she was losing all reason. Back away, she told herself. Stay alive, for Mitch’s sake at least. He needs you.
“I’m sorry, Earle. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry.”
“So you should be. Any idea what it’s like in the joint? It ain’t no la-de-da Swiss finishing school. You survive, if you’re lucky, by saying ‘Yes, sir, no sir’, whatever it takes so you don’t get another beating or take one up the chute.” He let go of her hair and pushed her away. “Get it?”
She nodded. “The parole board wrote me,” she said, her voice dull, expressionless. “I guess somehow I shouldn’t be surprised to see you.”
He took a swig of whiskey. “Now get me my kid.”
“He has a name, Earle. It’s Mitchell. Not that I expect you to care.” She stormed across the room and slammed the door behind her. Earle followed her, pulled the door open, and watched her stop at the first door down the corridor. She turned, took one look at Earle, and went into their son’s bedroom.
Two minutes later she reappeared with the boy in pyjamas, holding her hand and rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“Here he is, Earle. Your son. After what you did to me it’s a miracle I didn’t miscarry. Take a good look because this is the first and last time you’ll ever see him. You have no custody order, you have no right to be in my house, and I’ll get a court order banning you from seeing him or coming within miles of either of us.”
Earle stepped forward and grabbed the boy’s arm. “Come with me, kid. Somewheres I can see you proper.” He pulled the child after him and dragged him into the living room.
“So, did he shit his diaper?” Earle ignored the boy who, released from his father’s grip, wandered into the kitchenette and opened the drawer where she kept her useful things, and the cabinet doors. He scattered the contents over the floor before he found what he wanted; the saucepans and measuring cups. He began building an Eiffel Tower
Sue shook her head.
“Good,” he said. “We’re off to a good start. And just so as you understand, I don’t want any part of him, or you. I just want to see him once before I get the fuck out of his life.”
He turned and took the bottle off the counter. “Merry Christmas to both of you,” he said with a smirk, and tipped the bottle back. She heard him swallow, twice, three times, saw his Adam’s apple bob as he gulped down the whiskey.
“So, I’m your dad, eh?” he said to the boy, examining him. “Or didn’t your mom ever tell you you’ve got an old man?” He took another drink from the bottle and held on to it.
Mitch stood in the middle of the kitchenette examining his Eiffel Tower and ignoring his father. “Well, you gonna answer your dad, kid?”
“He doesn’t say much, Earle. Mostly he stays in his room staring at the wall. Sometimes he lines his toys up then messes them up. Or he builds things. He can’t help it. It’s what he does, Earle. It’s not getting any better. It never will. He’ll be like this for the rest of his life. He hasn’t said a word in three weeks. It’s one of the symptoms.”
“Of what? You said he wasn’t contagious.”
“He has autism, Earle.”
“Autism? You mean he’s stupid; dumb, fuckin’ stupid?” Earle was shouting now. He grabbed her by the throat and held her at arm’s length. “No kid of mine’s growing up stupid. Why didn’t you get rid of him before he was born?”
Earle wiped the spittle at the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand. “They can test for things like that now, can’t they?” he yelled. “Or you could have gived him up for adoption if you insisted on going through with it. But no. You had to do it the hard way. Stubborn. That’s you. Always was. That’s why I had to teach you a lesson. Looks like you never learned. So maybe you’re just as dumb fuckin’ stupid as he is.” He took a backhand swipe at Sue and caught her on the side of the head. She staggered back a step and regained her balance. She put her hand to her head where he hit her.
“Now look. You made me spill my drink, you stupid bitch. Yeah, it’s high time you learned another lesson in manners and respect.”
“No, Earle,” she whimpered. “I’ll do whatever you say. Just leave when you’ve finished. I won’t say a word to anyone.” The tears, never far away, welled in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks.
“It’s not you I want, bitch. I already had me a hooker in town before I came out here. A Christmas gift to me from me.” He sneered.
“No, I came to see my son,” he said, raising his voice. “And when I’m done seeing him, I’ll go. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to kill you, dreamt about nothing else for eight years, how I’d do it, sort of even the score for the hell you put me through, but I’m not going back inside because of you. You’re not worth it. You I wouldn’t screw if you were the last woman in the world, and I don’t give a goddamn who else does. You didn’t come by this cabin honest, that’s for sure. You on the game? Of course you are, whore. I hope they find you face down in a roadside ditch some day, raped and strangled like those other Native whores.”
Earle turned from Sue and bent down, face to face with Mitch. The boy stared at the floor with his hands clasped behind his back. “I’m your dad, Mitch,” Earle said, his voice softening. “I came to give you a present from Santa.” He took his eyes off the boy as he shoved a hand in his parka pocket, and pulled out a toy pistol. “See?” he said.
Mitch took a small step forward and looked at the toy without saying a word.
“What do you say, Mitch?” Sue prompted.
Mitch reached out and touched the pistol. Earle closed his fist over the boy’s hand, wrapping the pistol in it. “See?” he said. “This is how you hold it.”
The boy looked into his father’s eyes. He hesitated for a second then pulled his other hand from behind his back and drove a screwdriver deep into Earle’s eye.