Monday, February 20, 2012

Edge of Nowhere

CBC has announced the longlist of 35 finalists for the 2012 Canada Writes short story contest. As I expected, my story, "Edge of Nowhere," didn't make the cut. Congratulations to the longlisted folks - the stories must be pretty great, to be selected from over 3,000 entries!

As promised (or threatened), I've posted my story below. For a really terrific image inspired by this story, please visit Jeff Shyluk's Visual Blog.

Edge of Nowhere
(June 2033)
I deserved no sanctuary, but as the merciless sun beat down on the carbon-blackened office towers of Calgary, frying what had briefly been the world's most valuable real estate, I behaved like every other panicking rat and used the last of my considerable resources to escape. While flames licked at the ring roads and maglev rails surrounding the city, I loaded up my Nissan-Ford Dreadnought with supplies and headed east, alone, protected from consequences by my shell of steel and plastic. My flight wasn't rational; there was no safety anywhere, not now that we'd wrecked the whole world, smothered it in greenhouse gases and pollution. But like any terrified animal, I followed the most likely escape route, and at that moment of ultimate fear I chose to go home - home to Manitoba, and perhaps, if I were more lucky than sane, if there really were no justice, home to another land I knew - or hoped - lay hidden beneath the Canadian Shield. I would escape through the sinkhole, exchange this ruined home for another more pristine and innocent. For passage, I would let my abandoned conscience be my coin.

(July 1976)
As a child I spent my summers playing Cops and Robbers or Forest Rangers in the sinkhole that bordered the western side of Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, a town on the edge of nowhere resting within a vast expanse of thick boreal forest. Imagine if God grabbed a battleship and shoved it into the earth to leave an impression, like a kid making a moat for his sand castle; the sinkhole was like that, a huge divot in the forest on the outskirts of town.

To a seven year old, the sinkhole was a magical place, its moss-carpeted floor, pine-needled pathways and towering trees wrapping children in an aura of mystery and adventure. The sinkhole was so deep, its walls so steep, the trees so thick that when you reached the bottom you could barely see the blue sky far above. Some days, clutching a plastic water pistol in one hand and a die-cast six-gun in the other, I knew if I followed the right path I could walk to another world, a fairytale place where I could kill monsters and rescue princesses.

On one such day, toy weapons in hand, I tripped over an exposed tree root near the top of the sinkhole. I rolled head-over-heels down the steep incline, bruising and scraping my limbs and back against tree trunks and exposed stone, screaming all the way down to the bottom. I landed flat on my back with a breath-stealing, bone-rattling thump. I wound up in a thick patch of moss, dazed, staring up at the sky through the treetops. For a few minutes I sobbed for air, tears streaking my dirt-stained face, whimpering. Eventually I realized that I wasn't really hurt, and with youthful resilience I stood up, gathered my guns and went about my imaginary business. On that day I decided to visit one of my favourite spots in the sinkhole, a huge tree that had fallen on its side in a long-ago catastrophe. The exposed root system, ripped from the earth and thus lying perpendicular to the ground, formed a sort of abbreviated cave. In the right light, the shadows seemed to suggest that the darkness hid not dead wood but a tunnel to another world.

When I reached the fallen tree, I was surprised to see someone had already laid claim to the cave: a pretty little girl, serving invisible tea to her teddy bear. I was a little annoyed by this intrusion, but I had accumulated enough schoolyard wisdom to recognize the iron rule of "firsties."

“Hi,” I said, “What’s your name?”

“Judith,” she said. “No guns allowed.”

“Oh,” I said, and turned to leave. But she insisted I stay for a spot of tea, and not wanting to hurt her feelings I shoved my guns in my pockets and sat down in the moss to endure a few minutes of pretend teatime. My head started to hurt a little; while I may have already forgotten the fall, it hadn’t forgotten me.

Judith said she was a princess whose parents only allowed her to visit Leaf Rapids once a month. This was a silly place, she pronounced, a dirty place of greedy people who’d be sorry soon enough, according to her parents. I played along politely, although I thought she was laying it on a little thick. Leaf Rapids and its people seemed nice enough to me, the kids, anyway. I was itching to play guns with Jeff or Melvin or Kelly, who could usually be counted upon to show up at the sinkhole eventually, but not, evidently, today.

“I have to go,” she said at length. “One day, you must visit. But no guns.” And then Judith smiled, took her teddy bear by the arm, and walked into the shadows at the back of the tree trunk, leaving behind only a cracked and broken old tea set. I blinked, stared into the empty space where the girl had been, and ran home crying to Mother, who chalked the story up to my overactive imagination and the trauma of the fall.

A couple of years later, our family left Leaf Rapids behind to surf the waves of black gold propelling Alberta's latest oil and gas boom. For the longest time, I forgot Judith and her bear.

(June 2033)
There came a day when the roar of anti-tank rockets and the staccato crash of machine-gun fire against metal and glass drove me out of downtown Calgary. After one close call too many, I locked down the mansion, revved up the Dreadnought, fought my way through the city's congestion until at last I hit the open road.

Even as algal blooms choked whole industries and communities on Canada's warming, sinking coasts, Alberta remained wealthy, at least on paper. Despite everything, the world couldn't get enough oil, so Albertans had the money and power to insulate themselves from most of the effects of climate change, determined 99-percenters aside. We all knew deep down that it was a temporary respite. The droughts that had emptied rural Alberta and swollen Edmonton and Calgary to bursting with refugees served as ample evidence that our relative good fortune couldn't last forever.

As I drove along the cracked and rubble-strewn highways that connected Calgary to Saskatoon, Flin Flon, Thompson and eventually Leaf Rapids, I wondered how much the sinkhole had changed, if global warming had extended its alchemy even to the far north. I wondered if the Churchill River had overrun its banks.

A quick tour of the old streets revealed the town was abandoned. I parked the truck on the path nearest the sinkhole and debarked. The air was fresh, the sky clear. I’d come far enough to escape climate change, at least until the supplies in the Dreadnought ran out. I suppose it was possible I could live on berries and fish for a while, but I had no illusions that I’d be able to survive a Manitoba winter without electricity. A childhood fantasy was my only real hope of true escape. At the back of my mind I wondered where the townspeople had gone.

I climbed down into the sinkhole, the walls as steep as they had been in my innocence. When I reached bottom, I knelt and sank into the thick carpet of moss on the sinkhole's floor. I thought of my wife and children, wondered where they were now, if they’d managed to find safe haven after abandoning me to my paper riches.

I realized that I'd been seized by temporary madness. Judith had never existed. Mom was right; I'd imagined everything, seeking refuge in nostalgia. I stood and headed for the fallen tree-cave anyway. It was gone; the earth had reclaimed it. For a long while, I stared into space. There was no sound but the occasional rustle of a squirrel darting from tree to tree.

Just as I started to turn back for the return trip, Judith called my name.

"You've returned as I said you must," she said. "You left your guns behind?"

If I'd gone crazy, I might as well embrace it.

"Sure, no guns. They were a metaphor, right? A symbol of the corruption of progress or something."

She was beautiful, somewhere in her late 20s or early 30s, if age meant anything to an illusion. She looked puzzled.

"No, we just don't allow guns in Adanac. We're strict about some things. Ready to join the rest of the townspeople?"

I shrugged and nodded, stuffing my hands in my pockets as she led me deeper into the trees. My sins continued to burn behind me, and I wondered, before the darkness took us, if there really was no justice, or if there was merely too much mercy. Sometimes good things happen to bad people. Sometimes bad people happen to good planets.

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