By Valerie Mills-Milde
They viewed the room for rent at the Reid house on an afternoon in late April, hunks of mud-caked snow beneath bare shrubs and a needleless Christmas tree abandoned in the alley. The Reid house, like many others in the town, was low-slung and finished in glittery grey-brown stucco. A single stunted spruce stood out front. Mrs. Reid met them at the door wearing a black faux-satin shirt and tight jeans, her cropped blond hair freshly spiked, lips drawn in with heavy lipstick. Not much over five-foot, even in heels, there was a fierceness about Mrs. Reid. It radiated out from her like the points of a starfish.
“I’m on my own,” she told them. “Don’t want any fellas stayin’ here.”
Ev muscled himself into the doorway, wary, a sullenness creeping over the boyish features.
“Firefighter,” he said flatly. “Stationed at the base, up on the plateau for the season.”
“That so?” Mrs. Reid’s eyes narrowed as she looked him over. “Well, firefighter or not— No fellas.”
Robyn touched Ev’s arm. “Just me renting. And I’ll likely leave in early August.” She smiled winningly into Mrs. Reid’s pebble-hard eyes. Robyn had worked in the hospitality industry every summer since she began university. She’d been a hostess, served food, tended bar. Charm with crusty customers sat easily on her.
Ev’s well-shaped arms were crossed in a gesture of protest. “Your restaurant gig doesn’t end until Labour Day, Robyn.”
In March, Robyn had told the manager at the Bayview Resort, the biggest in the Gulf Islands, she would work for him again this year. But Ev hadn’t wanted them to be apart. He had assumed she would stay the whole summer up here, with him.
Robyn vaguely looked over Mrs. Reid’s rooms. Dust-covered bric-a-brac, grimy roller-shades, and there was a stale smell hanging in the air. “Maybe I can think about the room, Mrs. Reid? Let you know a little later today? “
Ev drummed his fingers on the S of his biceps. “You’ll be at the base with me on your days off anyway. You’ll hardly be in this house.”
A numbness crept over Robyn, a deadening, as though she had been anaesthetized. She looked from Ev to Mrs. Reid, and then back to Ev. She would like to look at other rooms in other houses but there were no other furnished rooms to rent in the small town.
Mrs. Reid was examining her nails. “Two-fifty, due on the first. And no breaks. Not for early departures or part-time occupancy.”
Ev waited, rubbed his nose with the back of his hand, shrugged. He cleared his throat. “We have her stuff in the back of my car. Okay if we unload it now?”
Mrs. Reid began to sort through keys on a small ring. “Of course I’ll want a deposit first. Fifty should do it.”
Robyn stood wordless, her eyes straying to a pair of dirty steel-toed boots that lay toppled on the living-room carpet. Mrs. Reid saw her looking at them and brushed something invisible from her shoulder.
“Those are Wayne’s. My son. Works nights. His room’s up here, next to me.” She stared hard at Robyn. “The one I’m letting out is in the basement, so you’ll never see him.
Robyn couldn’t see the resemblance to Mrs. Reid when she first met Wayne a few days later. He was broad and heavy-limbed, his face open in an expression of sweetness. He stood grinning in the narrow kitchen, his large fingers pinched around a chunk of ham.
“I’m the renter,” Robyn volunteered.
There was a pause. He blinked at her and began to shift from side to side.
“We never had no renters in here before.”
Robyn smiled at him and then looked at his arm. He was cradling it, rocking it back and forth like it was a baby.
“Got sacked las’night. Got an inj’ry, see. Can’t work the mill with an inj’ry.”
“Sorry about the arm,” she said.
“Don’t like the mill anyhow. Don’t like be’en inside. Noisy saws. Buzz, buzz, buzz.” He swatted at his head as though shaking off a fly.
“Maybe you could find something else.”
He stopped his shifting and widened his eyes so that she could make out that they were a pale and watery blue.
“You met my mother?”
Robyn laughed. “Mrs. Reid?”
When Wayne nodded, it looked like his head was on a pulley.
“Maybe you hear things down there. Maybe you hear bullshit yelling. Stuff like that.”
She had heard things. “No good lazy ass … can’t keep a job for love nor money … I’m keepin’ track of what you cost me, don’t think I’m not … I gotta get renters in here now to pay the damn bills …”
Wayne stood, unblinking, his eyes on Robyn. “She’s got things all figured. She thinks she knows jus’ what I gotta do. She’s loopy-like. Loopy-loopy-loo.”
Suddenly, he seemed bold, his expression breaking into a parody of Mrs. Reid, twisted mouth, hands on his hips. Robyn was surprised that he was capable of satire. When he was finished, he started shaking out his arm, his face neutral with sweetness.
“Arm sure hurts. It sure does.”
Robyn looked at him. She had stopped sleeping well, since coming here. She was going through her shifts at the restaurant tired, distracted. Like a ghost. She watched Wayne holding his arm like something that had been caught in a trap.
On her days off, Robyn relocated to the base high up on the plateau, where she drank coffee over breakfast with the fire crew, or played baseball in the staging area. After dinner, when the rest of the crew drank beer and gathered around cards, Ev liked them to drive off alone, to Fire Canyon where they could strip down and lie against the warm rocks. He would hold her fiercely, his eyes scouring her face, her breasts. He talked about how their life together would be. Ev was set to start graduate school in the fall. “After, I’m going to get attached to a professional sports team. Here or in the States. We could end up in California, Robyn.” There is a deliberateness about Ev, a quality which had seemed like confidence when they first met eighteen months before. That had been in the kinesiology lab at UBC, where Robyn agreed to sit on a stationary bike and push pedals with her feet, blue and red electrodes stuck to her thigh. Ev had studied the action of her muscles, completely focused on a four-inch square of her skin.
She knew she should feel lucky to be with Ev, felt him willing her to say it. One night in the canyon, lying with him, her eyes probing the sky, Robyn said, “I can’t sleep at the Reid place.” She glanced up at him, tanned and taut, his dark hair grown long enough over the summer to pull into a handsome tennis player’s knot.
“I don’t really like it here.” More and more, Robyn fought the impulse to pack up. Lately, she dreamed of the velvet green of the coast, seagulls and kelp, the lazy sprawl of the ocean. Summer was brash in this part of the province, a string of ragged days. At midnight, even with the blinds drawn a wan light bled through.
“That’s a bit random, even for you, Robyn. Anyway, you only feel tired if you think about the sleep you are missing.” His jaw muscles flexed, she could see them grow rigid under the light of the bright moon.
“She hates him. Her own son.”
“Who? Who are you talking about?”
“Why are you thinking about that now?”
“I don’t know. How does it happen, that kind of feeling?” Ev slid off her and lay on his back. She imagined Ev at thirty-five, at fifty, the padding of disappointment settling on his fine chin and mouth.
“He’s retarded or something, Robyn.”
“So—she gets to talk to him that way?”
“No, I don’t know. Look, they’re sketchy. Both of them.”
What Robyn felt for Ev was complicated. What she felt was unease.
Once or twice a week, Robyn jammed earplugs into her ears and tried to deafen herself to Mrs. Reid’s tirades. The earplugs didn’t do much good and hours after the house fell into silence, she couldn’t sleep. In the morning, she opened her door to strange offerings. It had begun with a simple cardboard box containing three green plums, a box of tea bags, a huge elongated bag of Cheesies. There was a note placed on top. The printing was forced and shaky. Thank for beeng nise. She knew it was from Wayne. Over the next weeks, he left her a flashlight, a chamois cloth, a large box of cereal. The fruit she took to work and threw into the industrial bin at the back of the restaurant. The rest she crammed into a green garbage bag that she shoved under her bed.
She told Wayne he didn’t need to buy her things. They could be friends, without presents.
“Do you have any friends, Wayne? This must be a hard town to live in without any friends.”
Wayne was sitting on a kitchen chair, hands still and folded, watching her spread peanut butter on two slices of toast. She put one on a plate and gave it to him. Down in the city, she imagined, there would be homes for people like Wayne, places where he could work, feel valued.
He told her that he had always lived here, with his mother, but that soon he wanted to go away.
He shrugged, his head moving back and forth. “Dunno. Never been anywhere.”
Robyn laughed. “Not even to the coast? Not to the ocean?”
Wayne grinned at her.
Robyn went down to her room and got her cell phone. She had pictures stored on it. Pictures from a June wedding, at a park, on the beach. The pictures were small, but the boats in the harbour were visible, and a beach strewn with logs. Transfixed, Wayne squinted at the pictures for a long time.
“It’s nice on the coast,” she said. “And you could get a job. There would be good places to live, people you could talk to.”
“Maybe I could work out on the roads,” he said. “It don’t snow there, by the ocean, do it? Road work, all year.”
“Maybe,” she said, her voice rising with encouragement. He was excited by the pictures, she could see it in how his legs were beginning to work up and down, his tongue roving over his lips like he could already taste the coastal rain. She imagined showing him places: Stanley Park, the ferries that look like toy boats in the expanse of the bay. He put a thick finger on the screen of her phone, stroking the beach as if he could feel the small stones.
She lightly touched his hand.
“I could help if you want.”
His legs were pumping up and down, up and down, a gesture she took for excitement. The eagerness in him was infectious.
“Sure,” he said, still grinning.
Walking to the restaurant in the afternoons, or sitting on her narrow bed after her shift, she imagined Wayne on a Greyhound, heading south, his round face at the window. He would be grinning and pumping his tree-trunk legs, as exuberant as a kid. Thinking of him leaving the town left her with a feeling of escape that was palpable.
“You probably think you’re doin’ favours, showing him pictures,” Mrs. Reid fired at Robyn a couple of days after Wayne had seen the pictures on her phone. Bent down and rifling through clothes in the drier, Mrs. Reid straightened and tucked back her shoulders, her face set in a pert, cut-out smile.
“Guess you don’t get it,” she said, tapping her temple with her forefinger, the nail long and blunt. “Wayne’s dumb.” She pushed out the word dumb violently and then took in a sharp breath. “Dumber than a bag of hammers.”
Wayne must have told Mrs. Reid about going to the coast; he’d told, not asked. Robyn knew, in that moment, how ridiculous it was to encourage Wayne. Wayne wasn’t free to go anywhere.
Mrs. Reid was contemptuous, her voice taking on the sing-song urgency of a long-repressed rage. “Years, and years, I done everything for that kid.” She was cleaning out the lint drawer, dropping the soft fuzzy mass into the waste bin by the drier.
“Of course,” Robyn said softly. “Of course you did.” Robyn felt the low ceiling of the basement, the dark panelled walls closing in. The heaps of clothes on the floor made of her think of things half digested. Mrs Reid stood before her, insatiable and desperate. Her eyes stuck to Robyn like they had caught on something shiny.
“You won’t be takin’ Wayne to the beach to watch no sunsets.”
Robyn escaped outside and stood on the burnt grass, her eyes glassy, mouth dry. She felt desiccated here, like something left in the desert. Dry heat, her customers liked to tell her in a superior kind of way. Robyn, the pretty girl from the City, from the coast, where life is dreamy: “You’re just up here for the summer, right? Well, you come back in January, Sweetie, you’ll see what it’s really all about.”
Robyn imagined her former self melting into the black scrub forest, seeping into the scrawny, sand-choked rivers. Her impulse was for camouflage. The few flat streets ran out at the muddy lake, past which there was only a rocky incline. A town with no soft edges. Go too far and you fall.
Getting involved with Wayne, trying to help him or just being his friend, would be impossible because of Mrs. Reid. Robyn had always gone out of her way to avoid ugly clashes with roommates, boyfriends. Her own mother, even. She hated sticky situations. There was no way that Mrs. Reid would suddenly become well-disposed toward her. Wayne—in fact anything to do with Wayne—was incendiary.
She tried to avoid Wayne but one night, after her shift, she met him on the front porch. He sat sprawling under the light, a flyswatter in his hand, aimlessly batting at the moths.
“You know how you get there?” he said, not looking at her. She made herself busy, rummaging through her backpack for her keys.
“Where’s that, Wayne?”
“The ocean,” he said simply. “Like in the pictures. For a job on the roads.”
She made a gesture of frustration, pawed through her pockets, pulled out the keys and stared at them in her hand.
“I found out some things. About what’s possible. Like there wouldn’t be any road work for you in the fall, Wayne. They don’t do that until spring, maybe even summer. No sense uprooting your life now, right? Better stay here. That would be for the best. That would be much easier.”
He was holding her in a sunny grin, happy for her attention.
“And Wayne, no more presents, okay?”
“You find out if there is anythin’ I can do down there, by the ocean? Don’t have to be roads.”
“No. There’s nothing. Forget it.” Then she softened her tone.
“Look. That stuff you gave me. The cereal and things. Maybe you can use some of it yourself. I don’t want your mom to get mad at you. Or me. Maybe you should give it to her?”
He was still grinning when she turned her back on him and went into the house.
Soon after, she found the shirts hanging in her closet like a pair of sleeping bats. At first Robyn understood them to be another gift. They were cut western-style, in a faded shiny black fabric with a little wear around the cuffs and collar. A woman’s small, not Robyn’s size; she quickly realized they belonged to Mrs. Reid.
The shirts were different from the other gifts. Personal. She imagined Wayne fumbling with the Mrs. Reid’s key, awkward and lumbering as he pushed aside her things in the closet, making a space. Not a gift at all. A demand.
In the back seat of Ev’s car, the green garbage bag with the shirts, the box of candy bars, the bags of Cheesies, was rolling around like a drunken passenger. Ev was telling her about the last fire, a huge one. Monstrous. One of the crew cut through his steel-toed boot with an axe.
“They give us danger pay on a fire like that. Have you got any idea how that adds up?”
Robyn’s back ached. When she put her bare feet up on the dash, the surface was gritty, coated in a layer of pulverized rock. She hugged her knees. This place, so much further north than she had ever been before, exhausted her—the unending days, the dry heat that burned her eyes. And Ev, talking about their future together like it is a lottery they won.
The road climbed steeply through aspen and pine forest and then made its way through blasted-out rock. Soon, it would cross the angry-looking river, and level off onto the plateau.
“Robyn are you asleep? I said we shouldn’t have come up here. We won’t next year.” Behind her eyelids shadows darted, then vaporized in the returning rays of the sun.
She hadn’t known what to do with the bag. She had thought about shoving it in Mrs. Reid’s face, but in the end it had been easier to take it.
Ev reached over and put his hand on her thigh. It felt heavy on her skin. She should tell him everything, what has happened and what she wanted now. But the words weren’t there and it’s as though they’ve been taken. It’s complicated, Ev. Complicated to give it all back …
They must have been close to the bridge, the road twisting and snaking. “Jesus Christ. What was that?” said Ev. There was a dull thud and then a high-pitched bark. Robyn’s eyes flew open. She saw it clearly, a green-eyed animal slunk down, running stunned and zig-zagging across the dusty road. Its jaws were wrapped resolutely around a soft, limp thing.
Ev had the wheel cranked, and the Toyota now ploughed into loose gravel.
“A coyote,” she said evenly.
“You were sleeping—”
“No. I saw it.”
He stared at her:
“Christ. I almost hit it.”
She looked over to where she sensed it had gone.
“You did hit it.”
“No. I didn’t. It kept running. It had something in its mouth.”
They sat for a few seconds, taking in the silence, and then Robyn stepped out onto the deserted road. The bridge was about two hundred yards away, growing like a great arm out over the rock.
She gazed in the direction where the animal must have run. She wondered how badly it was injured. Ev stood by the side of the road, his sunglasses off, rubbing at his head.
“Maybe you feel bad, Ev. Because you hit it.”
He stared at her, not understanding.
“Hell, I shouldn’t have swerved. I should have just nailed the little bastard.”
The sun was low now, behind the high cliffs, and the warmth had suddenly gone from the air.
“We should go.” Ev was leaning against the car as though he was posing for a photo shoot or an ad for designer jeans.
Robyn didn’t move. “It’s okay,” he said sullenly. “I didn’t hit it. Grazed it at the very most. It didn’t drop its dinner, for Christ’s sake. It would have dropped its dinner if it was hurt.”
“Of course it didn’t drop it,” she said. “It was hungry, Ev. Everything is hungry.”
She folded down the front passenger seat and located the garbage bag crammed with the booty. Stealing, she imagined now, was like a signature. A set of prints on a sandy path, a disappearing flash of fur in the dark. “I’m going home, Ev. Tomorrow, on a bus.”
She carried the bag in her arms, like a newborn. Ev watched her, his mouth tight with disbelief.
“Look, Robyn,” he blurted. “We’ll talk about it later. Just get in and let’s go. Before it gets dark.”
It occurred to her that this was a beautiful place, strange and wild. Beneath the bridge, water rushed headlong over stubborn, battered boulders that rose from the riverbed like a crooked spine. The bag didn’t take long to fall. It disappeared and was devoured.
As she walked back toward the Toyota, coyotes started up with their yipping and their barking. Theirs was a bold and unrepentant tumult. Robyn turned toward their voices and listened.
Valerie Mills-Milde lives, works and writes in London, Ontario. She is the author of the novel After Drowning (Inanna Publications), which won the 2017 Silver Ippy (Independent Publisher Book Award) for Contemporary Fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals across the country. Valerie’s forthcoming novel, The Land’s Long Reach (Inanna Publications), will be released in May 2018.