From a distance, it looked like a small smear of blood on a white blanket. Perhaps a wounded coyote, staggering along the road in the relentless wind. Eric drove on, a flurry of white surrounding his car, keeping to the faint tracks he’d made the day before. As he drew nearer, the speck transformed into a withered old man, startling him with legs, arms, torso bent into the gale. But it was worse yet. He finally recognized the shape as a young girl. People didn’t walk along his road, not out here in the middle of nowhere. Not a girl, certainly not in this weather.
He slowly pulled the car alongside her, creating new tire tracks in the snow. The girl ignored him and kept walking. A red scarf tied under her chin covered her ears; long hair fell in damp strands down her back. She looked twelve, thirteen at most. Her coat was a grubby grey felt, too small, thrift-shop variety, the kind that let the cold howl through the gaps between buttons. Her jeans were dirty and frayed at the bottom. She wore runners, not boots.
Eric opened the passenger window, letting in a blast of cold that made his bones creak. “Hey,” he shouted, to be heard over the wind.
Plodding forward, she kept her head pressed down, hands in pockets. He stopped the car along the side of the road and jumped out.
She didn’t stop moving as he caught up and walked beside her. His eyes watered from the wind. “I live down the road a ways.” He sucked air through his teeth, swallowing the sting. “You’re not dressed for this weather. It’s freezing out here. I can drive you to wherever you’re going.”
He stepped in front of her, blocking her path. She stamped her runners and peered around him with exhausted eyes, as if there was something to look at and he was obstructing her view.
“I’m going to give you a ride. You can decide where to.” For a brief second, he wished he was still in uniform. “Look, I know you’re not supposed to get into a stranger’s vehicle, but it’s your—”
“You’re not a stranger.” She sounded dazed, croaking. “You live across the road from me.”
Wilson’s place? There was no other house along this road. “You’ve walked all that way?” It was a good five kilometres back to where their houses stood facing each other on either side of the road. Who was this girl?
Her nose ran and she lifted a bare hand from her pocket and took a feeble swipe. Jesus. She didn’t even have mittens. He could give her no choice in the matter. He held out his arm, pointing to his idling car, stepping closer, forcing her to back up. Finally, she turned, trudged back to the car, pulled on the frozen latch of his back door with her bare fingers, and fell inside.
Eric hurried to his side of the vehicle, got in, and cranked the heater as high as it would go. He would have preferred her in the front beside the vent.
He turned to look at her, passing her the box of Kleenex they kept under the console. “My name is Eric Nyland.”
“I know,” she said, wiping her nose, her running eyes.
Nigel Wilson must have told her his name. What else had he told her?
“What’s your name?”
Eric couldn’t fathom what Wilson was doing with a girl named Finch. Couldn’t fathom what the girl was doing in the bitter cold, so entirely unprepared, as if she were out for an afternoon stroll in September.
“Okay, Hannah. Where to?”
After an ungodly long pause—where had she been going?—she said, “I have to go home. Can you drive me back?”
There was something in the way she said home. Her shoulders slumped as she fought with her seat belt. Her fingers looked brittle, like they might snap off in pieces.
“You sure?” he said. “Because I can take you to town. Or to a friend’s.”
She shook her head. “I left Mandy with him.”
“Never did own a cat,” he told her as he turned the car around. He’d seen his share of runaways during his twenty years with the force. If he’d spotted this girl at the shopping mall, he would have thought her a go-to-church, finish-your-homework, listen-to-your-mother type.
He kept on talking to help put her at ease. “Dog people, our family. Down to one mutt at the moment. My father’s dog, Thorn. That’s the dog’s name. He’s a big, fat black lab mostly. Poops all over the house. Guess he can’t help it because he’s so old and doesn’t know what he’s doing anymore. Falls down if he barks too loud. It’s sort of sad. Woof, woof, and down he goes.”
She shifted slightly in the back seat. “I’ve seen him. Sometimes he comes down to the road.”
So why had he never seen her? He’d brought his family back here nearly a year ago. “Thorn wolfed down a whole bag of dog food one time. One of those giant twenty-pound sacks you get at Costco. That dumb dog found it while he was sniffing around the shed. Tipped it over somehow, chewed through the corner of the packaging, got his head inside, and gobbled it all up. He waddled out of that shed looking mighty sorry about what he’d done, his stomach stretched so low it swept the ground. Took three full days to work all those nuggets through. Stunk so bad we made him sleep on the porch.”
They dipped into the valley, forcing his eyes to the road and keeping them there. During the warm months—all two of them—the view was of mustard-yellow canola fields, farms dotting the distance. Today, Eric saw nothing but blowing snow.
“I hear house cats are pretty smart,” he said.
Hannah sat perfectly still, her hands folded over a button on her flimsy coat.
“They know how to pace themselves. You can fill their bowl and they’ll nibble a bit here, a bit there, dainty-like, all day long. Not a black lab. No sir. Put down a bowl and they make it their job to suck up every morsel like a vacuum. Sometimes they forget to chew, they’re in such a hurry, and end up choking it back out again.”
He adjusted the vents, raising his voice to compensate for the added noise. “Tell me about Mandy,” he said, delaying his real questions until he could catch her eye.
“She’s a dainty eater.”
“Like I thought,” he said. “Have you had her a long time?”
“Since I got my tonsils out. Mom brought me home from the hospital and told me to look on my bed. Mandy was in a shoebox with just her pink nose sticking out of the towel. She was crying, so I picked her up and she stopped.”
“How old were you when you got your tonsils out?”
Her eyes shone right at him in the mirror. “Five. Now I’m eleven. Almost twelve.”
She sat taller and pressed herself against her seat belt. They crawled along, still a ways off.
“So where were you headed, Hannah?” She’d walked all that way without turning back. “Your mom will be worried, don’t you think?”
She looked at the mirror and caught his stare. “My mom’s dead.” She gave a little shiver.
“I’m sorry, Hannah. That must be tough.”
“So Nigel Wilson is your dad?” Stepdad, whatever.
“No. He was with my mom, so he got me.”
“Nigel and I used to go to school together.”
“You don’t think he’d hurt Mandy, do you?”
She looked down at her hands on her lap.
“Because you know there are laws against hurting a cat. Or a kid.” Nigel Wilson was a snivelling excuse for a human being. “If there’s anything like that going on at your house, we can make it stop. I mean the police can make it stop. But you have to tell them so they can help.”
The girl was done talking. She kept her head down and said nothing more as they inched along the empty road.
“Almost there.” Eric looked in the mirror; her cheeks were the greyish colour of week-old mushrooms. “You okay back there?”
She nodded, though she was clearly not. She seemed to be panting a little. He flipped on his turn signal out of habit, although there was no one in the barrenness to see it.
He took the last corner slowly. Barely clearing the deep snow, two weathered mailboxes, one of them Wilson’s, were nailed high on posts beside a dead-end sign. The narrow tunnel of a road felt closed in and too dark. Giant aspens loomed on either side, frozen branches hanging low and so overwhelmed with snow they nearly scraped the car top. Old snow was piled in man-sized shelves along the road’s edge.
“Please,” she said. “Stop the car.”
Eric turned his head, attentive to the panic in her voice. She’d already unbuckled her seat belt and had her fingers wrapped around the door handle. Their houses were not yet in view, just snow being lifted by the wind and swirling about the car’s windows.
“Whoa. Slow down, Hannah.” She couldn’t be planning to go out there again, not with him sitting three feet in front of her, not with that wind screaming through the tiny cracks in the glass.
“Please.” She jerked on the handle. “Hurry. I have to get out.”
“It’s all right, Hannah. Just give me a minute until the road opens up a bit and I can pull over.”
“I’m going to be sick. I’m gonna throw up in your car.”
Vomit had been a frequent back-seat occurrence in his former line of business. Eric braked more firmly than he’d intended, all four tires skidding out of the earlier tracks and into deep, wet snow, the car crunching to a halt, angled across the road.
“Hang on, hang on. I’ll get your door.” Eric stepped into a gust of icy cold. He scrambled around the car, intending to help her to the bank, but she was already out and falling forward into snow up to her knees.
Eric came up behind her.
He grabbed the back of her coat as she bent low, her retching so noisy and violent he worried she’d crack a rib. “That’s right.” There was nothing to do except stand behind her heaving body and hold a fistful of coat.
It kept coming and coming, a trail of the steaming stuff running down the white slope toward her snow-buried calves. Nigel Wilson needed to get her checked by a doctor.
“All done then?” He cupped her shoulder with his other hand, trying to hold her steady. The wind shot under his coat collar, under his cuffs. She brought her arm up and wiped her face with her sleeve. Her breath came out in short, choppy puffs that caught on the wind.
“Come on, Hannah.”
She’d started to shake so badly she nearly fell sideways. She turned her head toward him, blowing snow clinging to her lips and lashes. She was a frozen sparrow cemented in winter.
Eric wanted to place his hands on her waist and lift her out of the snow, but not even ex-cops were to touch kids that way, especially young girls. So he held his arms out to her instead, and she twisted and grabbed on, and as he stepped backward, she fell into him.
He pulled her toward the dirtier, more packed snow of the road, where she stamped her feet feebly, one at a time, and then he led her to the car and helped her get settled into the front seat, close to the heat. She said thank you as he closed her door. His ears stung, and his right thumb, the arthritic one from his football days, throbbed as he trudged through the snow to his side of the car.
As he buckled in beside her, Hannah ran her palms up and down her thighs. She wouldn’t look at him. He thought she might be embarrassed, so he played with the heater and revved the engine a few times. If a truck came along, there would be no way to pass with his car parked sideways across the road. But no vehicle came along. Winter was a lonely, desolate place along their road.
They couldn’t idle there indefinitely. The kid was traumatized and smelled like puke. She needed a hot bath and bed. He maneuvered the car back and forth into the snow, tires grabbing, until they were centred again in the tracks laid down earlier, facing toward Hannah’s place.
“Hannah, are you okay? Put your hands close to the heat.”
She spread her fingers wide in front of the vent, tipped her head back, and closed her eyes. Eric studied her mottled, thawing face. Her skin purpled around her closed eyes, making it look like she’d been smacked.
“Do you feel better now?”
“Yes. Thank you.” She kept her eyes closed.
“I hate throwing up,” he said, easing the car forward at a steady crawl.
“Me too.” Her nose started to run again but she sniffed it back.
“I do anything to avoid it.”
They were out of the trees and into the open again. Eric could see smoke coming from Wilson’s chimney. He couldn’t see his own place on the other side of the road; their house was tucked far back on the cleared driveway.
He could have thrown a stone and easily hit Hannah’s front door. He’d always wondered why the Wilsons had rooted themselves right there. Why they had hunted for property in the middle of nowhere and then built so close to the road they could hand lemonade to passersby through their kitchen window. There was nothing but the small two-storey house and a half-buried Ford station wagon. No garage, no barn, no motor home or boat. Not a tree or a fence. Nothing to show where Wilson’s property ended and the next began. Just billowing heaps of snow, whipped to a frenzy in the driving wind.
Eric parked the car next to Wilson’s Ford. He kept the engine running and aimed the warm air at the windshield. He couldn’t get her any closer. Wilson had shovelled a path no bigger than a deer trail. The house was the original, pre-1940s. A war house as the townsfolk liked to call them, shutters over the upper-floor windows, a glassed-in porch that could double as a freezer in winter and sauna in summer.
“Here we are, Hannah. Ready?”
She turned her head and looked at him, eyes wide, as if he’d managed to surprise her by getting them this far.
“I have something for you.” He wished he could give her one of his old RCMP cards with the horse and rider in his scarlet jacket, but those days were behind him. He reached into his inside pocket for one of his flimsy security guard cards and a pen, printed his cell number across the top, and handed it to her.
“I want you to call if you need anything. Anytime. Or stop by our place. A few of us are usually home. We’re your neighbours. I mean it, Hannah.” And he did. He wondered if Wilson had food in the fridge, or if he’d plugged in that Ford.
They sat beside each other, not talking. Eric kept his eye on the house, thinking it strange that Wilson didn’t come to the door. He had to know she was out there. Eric’s idling car made a hell of a racket.
“I have to go now,” she said.
“Okay,” Eric said.
“Okay,” she echoed, stepping into the biting wind. Eric trudged along behind her on the skinny path.
They crowded into the empty porch, so cold inside the useless room Eric could see Hannah’s breath curl around her dry mauve lips. She pointed her finger at the doorbell beside the bevelled glass door and pushed twice before she stepped through. Eric thought about why she might have to ring her own bell. Why hers was the kind of house you couldn’t walk into without announcing yourself first.
Nigel Wilson came down the stairs and stood before them, arms crossed. It had been decades since they’d spoken to each other, since Eric had stepped inside this house. The small living room was still filled with the furniture of their childhoods: velveteen chairs, stuffed couches, floor lamps with tasseled lampshades. Eric had been in this room often as a little kid, he and Nigel swapping Star Wars figurines and cold germs. When school started and Eric had a choice, he looked elsewhere, preferring the company of the rowdy kids over the brooding boy from across the road. Now Wilson just stood there. His pose irritated Eric, who thought Wilson ought to have been worried about Hannah, or alarmed at least to find Eric with her. Nigel was a big guy, bigger than Eric remembered, his muddy eyes still spaced too closely together. He wore a white pressed shirt tucked inside a pair of dark pressed trousers, hair combed back respectably behind his oversized ears. This too irritated Eric, who thought he could have spent less energy dressing and more tackling the driveway, watching out for this girl.
“Eric,” Wilson said, stepping forward and taking Eric’s hand firmly. “It’s been a long time. Thought we might have bumped into each other before now.”
Eric had waved a few times as their vehicles passed on the road, but Wilson had not acknowledged him.
They stood eye to eye. Wilson smelled faintly of cheap aftershave, like rubbing alcohol. Christmas hadn’t yet entered this room. No stockings hung by the chimney with care. No tree garnished with the decorations Hannah had made at school over the years. There was a sour smell leaking from the kitchen at the back of the house. He could have taken out the garbage, Eric thought, adding another strike against him.
“I see you’ve given Hannah a lift. Getting into a stranger’s car. Not the best decision, Hannah.”
Hannah was hunched over, off to the side of the floor mat, busying herself with her runners, one of which was missing its shoelace. Wilson still hadn’t looked at the girl.
“I’m not a stranger,” Eric said, feeling the heat rise up through his throat. “I live right across the road.” Why wasn’t he concerned about what she was doing out there in the first place?
“Who’d have thought we would both end up back here,” Wilson said.
Eric glanced over at Hannah, who wasn’t making a sound. “Hannah’s had a time of it. She’ll need to crawl under the covers.”
“Yes, well, of course.”
“And Child and Family Services will be stopping by.”
“Oh?” Wilson raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms again. “For taking a walk? Overkill, don’t you think?”
“It’s what we do,” Eric lied.
“We? What’s this to do with you, exactly?”
Wilson was right. Eric had no business poking his nose in police business. But he wanted his friend Betty Holt to meet this girl, to sit near her, maybe up in Hannah’s room, maybe beside her on the bed.
“Where’s Mandy?” Eric said. “I’d like to meet her.”
Hannah looked up and their eyes locked and she almost smiled. Then she stood, slow-motion slow, more an unfolding, crimson blotches spreading over her cheeks and neck. She looked even scrawnier now that she’d taken off her coat.
“Ah,” Wilson said. “The cat.”
Wilson turned to Hannah then, mouth smiling, eyes cold and hard. She stared back, matching steel with steel. Good for you, Eric thought.
“Probably under the bed,” Wilson said. “Or in the closet. Right, Hannah? I doubt she’ll show herself.”
“Maybe next time then,” Eric said.
Wilson’s eyes flickered. If he understood Eric’s warning, he didn’t flinch.
After Sergeant Nyland left her with him, Nigel stood in the living room and glared at her.
“Where did you think you could go?” he asked. When she didn’t answer, he snorted. “Perhaps you could try harder next time.”
He turned for the kitchen, leaving her shivering in the hallway. She’d brought the frozen world into the house with her, the cold a burning sensation, flames licking her fingers and toes. She jumped when she heard Nigel slam the cupboard door and again when his bottle clanged on the table.
Hannah ran up to her room. Mandy was in her usual hiding spot, a mound of long black fur wedged behind the empty boxes in Hannah’s bedroom closet. Besides the boxes and a few empty hangers strung on a rusty pole, her closet was bare. She hadn’t been allowed to bring much of her stuff when Nigel moved her down from Bear Creek.
She stripped out of her frozen jeans and sweater and folded them neatly on the chair beside her bed. Then she put on her thin pajamas and wrapped herself in a blanket and lay down on the floor in front of the closet. She whispered Mandy’s name and made her favourite bird sounds—twee twee twee—but Mandy wouldn’t budge. It was as if she knew that Hannah had planned to never come back.
It would have been easy to pull the boxes aside and unhide her cat. An empty box weighs less than snow. But Hannah wanted Mandy to come to her. So she lay on crossed arms until they were blotchy blue against the frigid floor and told her cat everything that had happened. Hannah talked haltingly at first, scarcely above a whisper. Soon the words tumbled out, one on top of the other, until she could hardly catch a breath between. She’d never been that close to the sergeant before. That’s what Nigel called him, “the sergeant.” Nigel had told her he’d been booted off the police force and had crawled back to his mommy’s house with his tail between his legs. He’d told her the sergeant was a sick, twisted bastard who thought he was God. But Hannah didn’t believe him; Nigel lied all the time. When she got in her neighbour’s car, the sergeant was kind and didn’t press her with questions or call her stupid for walking down the road in a storm or for puking in the snow. She wanted to tell him that bad things were happening in this house, but Nigel’s words came bubbling up from her stomach. They’d drag her off to a foster home full of brats or a school for troubled girls that had locked doors and bars on the windows. She didn’t tell Mandy about her other attempts to get away, because she didn’t want to think about them.
She told Mandy the things she knew about Nigel. About him standing in the backyard looking up at the darkening sky, clouds sewn like flowers on an apron. This was at their first house, the three of them starting out together, and she hadn’t yet learned that she didn’t belong. Nigel stepped onto the back porch and Hannah turned to him and announced, “Rain’s heading our way,” mimicking what she’d heard the adults around her say. A look of disdain passed across his face, a fast-moving storm, barely discernible before he buried it behind a smile and told her she’d better come inside.
She told Mandy how much space that look on his face came to take up in her head. Her throat was a dry creek bed, words rasping in the still air. She wanted to tell Mandy how sorry she was too, but sorries meant nothing to a cat.
When Mandy rolled over and scratched her paws along the width of the box, Hannah raised herself to her knees and then stood on legs achy from her long walk. She tiptoed on bare feet to her dresser and pulled her spelling bee medal, with its red ribbon, from her drawer. Then she came back to the closet and dangled the medal, pulling the ribbon so it bobbed up and down. Mandy poked her head from around the box, and as Hannah backed up, she followed. After they played with the medal, Hannah sat on her bed, cross-legged, and Mandy hopped up and kneaded a spot on the blanket, cocooned between her legs.
She focused on a spot on the wall and waited until her eyes saw somewhere else. She’d done this trick a lot lately. Now she was at the lake. Seven years old. She was on that beach with her mother, just the two of them, the waves so loud they had to shout to be heard. The trip was her reward for getting her latest swimming badge. It was a hot, windy day and their wide-brimmed sunhats kept lifting off their foreheads and they kept clamping them down again with sandy palms. They dug deep with their plastic shovels, filling their pails with wet, heavy sand, flipping them over for castle walls. They built moats and tunnels and bridges with seaweed-wrapped sticks covered with lady bugs. They found white feather flags with tips sharp as thistles.
But it was the whale that was the real prize. A gift her mother had to save for weeks for. After they finished their cheese and cucumber sandwiches, her mother told Hannah to reach down into her huge woven bag. When she pulled out the plastic package with the picture of a girl on a black-and-white whale, Hannah jumped up and down and ran in circles around the castle. She could be a whale rider, just like Pai in the movie. She could climb onto the whale’s back and coax it back to the sea and ride faster than all whale riders before her.
It took a long time for her mother to get enough air inside the whale to make its fins stand straight. When it was finally full grown, Hannah pulled her whale by its tail through the foaming suds at the shoreline and into the shallow, choppy water and swung her leg over its wide back. She fit snugly, her arms easily reaching the small handles above each fin. She stayed close to shore, as she’d been told, while her mother stood on the beach and clapped and cheered like the people in Pai’s village. Her mother was afraid to go into the water herself. Hannah loved her for this. For bringing her to the edge of the place she feared most.
Hannah leaned forward, hugging her whale to keep from tipping in the waves. It was as if she had been born in the water, as if she and her whale could skim across the surface of the whole beautiful world.
A ferocious gust whipped Hannah’s sun hat up into the air and carried it like a leaf across the water. Hannah didn’t know how to maneuver her whale toward her hat, so she hopped off its back and pushed through the knee-deep waves in order to fetch it. Her hat had been carried along the shore a great distance by the wind, and when she finally got to it, she scooped it up and rung it out, then waved to her mother. But it was the whale her mother was looking at. Hannah’s precious whale, riding the waves without her, swimming farther and farther away.
Hannah cried out, ready to chase after it, but it was her mother who crashed through the waves, running through shallow water at first, then getting farther from the shoreline, sinking deeper, until she was thrashing arms, a bobbing doll’s head, little more than a speck. The whale, a much better swimmer, was too far away to catch.
Come back, come back, Hannah yelled into the wind. Why had she been so stupid? She’d abandoned her whale for a silly hat that meant nothing to her. Now she just wanted her mother.
It took a long, long time, but she eventually staggered out of the water and fell onto the sand. Hannah wrapped her arms around her marble-cold skin and said I’m sorry, I’m sorry, over and over, while her mother lay there gasping. Finally she stood, wobbly at first, and dusted the sand from her suit. She bent down and kissed Hannah’s forehead, whispering in Hannah’s ear, “I should have known better. Today was too windy for hats.” Then she stretched tall, raised her arms, and started laughing. Hannah would forever remember her like that, her beautiful mother, laughing to the sky.
Eric drove too fast in his hurry to get away. When he neared the place where Hannah’s vomit sullied the bank, he pressed hard on the gas, fishtailing in the wet snow. By the time he pulled onto the main road, the plow had been by on the other side, while his lane was still pocked with ruts of ice and drifting snow. Ellie would be white-knuckled if she were out in this. She mapped her route in advance, chose the quietest roads, avoided left turns, and braced herself to make a mistake. He tried to encourage his wife, tell her she was a good driver, but he didn’t really believe it. He’d pulled her out of so many snow banks over the years he thought she must aim for them on purpose.
Before his detour back to Wilson’s, Eric had been on his way to Gerry’s place to get Ellie her spruce tree, something he promised he’d take care of. Ellie was disappointed when he hadn’t got over to Gerry’s last Saturday as planned, even more so when Sunday came and went and they were treeless still. He’d woken up that morning with one purpose only and that was to get this done for her today. He’d work his last half shift before Christmas, get Ellie the tree, make things right between them. But the morning turned sour before he even got out of the house. And then he couldn’t find his keys again, prolonging the unpleasantness. He and Ellie hunted through the usual spots—top of the dresser, beside the phone, coat pockets. She found them in the front closet, inside Walter’s boot. “You’re such a child, Eric,” she’d said, hurling the key ring across the room, hitting him in the chest.
He imagined Ellie back at home. She’d be standing at the kitchen sink, peeling potatoes or pulling the skin off chicken breasts, and she would turn her head and before she could think to change her expression, he’d see the deadness in her eyes. He couldn’t remember when she’d started going blank like that. After Sammy stopped letting them hug him? After Daniel started slamming doors over every little thing? After his father quit aiming at the toilet bowl? Ellie was a mess of trying too hard, and Christmas only made it worse.
He parked on the road as he neared Gerry’s turnoff. He started to dial Betty’s number, planning to fill her in on what he’d seen. He’d tell her he was aware that the timing was terrible, Friday and all, Christmas coming, but this Hannah Finch walking along the road, a wind chill of minus twenty-six for God sakes, dead mother, alone with Nigel Wilson. Could Betty get out there and talk with this kid?
But as he rehearsed the words, his pitch seemed laced with bad history and unsettled grudges. He wedged the phone back into his pocket. He’d drive to Child and Family Services in Neesley and sit across from her instead.