Like them I left a settled life, I threw it all away
To seek a Northwest Passage at the call of many men
To find there but the road back home again.
They vary in detail, the stories, but the broad outline is the same.
Someone—hiker, hunter, tourist—goes missing, or is reported overdue, and there is an appeal to the public for information; the police become involved, and search and rescue teams, and there are interviews with friends and relatives, and statements by increasingly grim-faced officials, as the days tick by and hope begins to crack and waver and fade, like colour leaching out of a picture left too long in a window. Then there is the official calling off of the search, and gradually the story fades from sight, leaving family and friends with questions, an endless round of what ifs and how coulds and where dids pursuing each other like restless children.
Peggy Malone does not wonder this, nor does she ask herself any questions. She suspects she already knows the answers, and it is safer to keep the questions which prompt them locked away. Sometimes, though, they arise unbidden: when outside her window the breeze rustles the leaves of the maple, the one she asked the Strata Council to cut down, or the wind chimes three doors down are set ringing. Then the questions come back, eagerly, like a dog left on its own too long, and she turns on the television—not the radio, she rarely listens to that now—and turns on the lights and tries, for a time, to forget.
The road was, as back roads in the Interior go, a good one: Len had always ensured that it was graded regularly. Peggy, bumping her way up it in the Jeep, added ‘get road seen to’ to her mental checklist of things to do. She could not let it go another summer; next spring’s meltwater would eat away even further at the dirt and rocks, and her sixty-three year old bones could do without the added wear and tear.
She followed the twists and turns of the road, threading her way through stands of cottonwood and birch and Ponderosa pine. Here and there the bright yellow of an arrowleaf balsam root flashed into sight beneath the trees, enjoying a brief moment of glory before withering and dying, leaving the silver-grey leaves as the only evidence of its passing. Overhead the sky was clear blue, but the breeze, when she pulled the Jeep in front of the cabin, was cool, a reminder that spring, not summer, held sway.
Peggy opened the rear of the Jeep and began unloading bags of supplies, which seemed, as always, to have proliferated during the drive. There was nothing to be done about it, however; the nearest town was an hour away, and she had long since learned that it was better to err on the side of too much than too little. Even though she was only buying for one now, the old habits died hard, and she usually managed to avoid making the journey more than once every two weeks or so.
She loaded the last of the milk into the fridge, which, like the other appliances and some of the lights, ran off propane; the light switch on the wall near the door had been installed by Len in a fit of whimsy when the cabin was being built, and served no useful purpose, as electricity did not extend up the valley from the highway some miles distant. The radio was battery operated, but seldom used: reception was poor during the day and sporadic at night, with stations alternately competing with each other and then fading away into a buzz of static. Kerosene lanterns and a generator could be used in an emergency, and an airtight fireplace kept the cabin more than warm enough in spring and fall. In winter she stayed with a nephew and his family on Vancouver Island; Len’s brother’s son, Paul, a good, steady lad who had given up urging his aunt to make the move to the Island permanent when he saw that it did no good. She would move when she was ready, Peggy always replied; she would know when the time came, and as long as she was able to drive and look after herself she was happy with the way things were.
Supplies unloaded, she set the kettle to boiling. A cup of tea would be just the thing, before she went out and did some gardening. It was not gardening in the sense that any of her acquaintances on the Island would understand it, with their immaculate, English-style flowerbeds and neatly edged, emerald green lawns which would not have looked out of place on a golf course; she called it that out of habit. She had learned, early on, that this land was tolerant of imposition only up to a point, and for some years her gardening had been confined to planting a few annuals—marigolds did well—in pots and hanging baskets.
Of course, she now had the grass to cut, and there were the paths to work on. It was Len who had suggested them, the summer before he had died, while watching her struggle to keep the sagebrush and wild grass at bay. The cabin was built on a natural bench, which overlooked the thickly treed valley, and was in turn overlooked by hills, rising relentlessly above until they lost themselves in the mountains behind. On three sides of the cabin the grassland stretched away to the trees, and Peggy had fought with it, trying, with her lawn and her flowers, to impose some sense of order on the landscape. She had resisted the idea of the paths at first, feeling that it would be giving in; but about what, and to whom, she could not have said. Still, she had started them for Len, who had taken comfort, that last summer, in watching her going about her normal tasks, and then she had continued them, partly because she felt she owed it to Len, and partly to fill the hours.
The paths now wound through a large part of the grassy area around the cabin. They were edged with rocks, and there were forks and intersections, and it was possible to walk them for some time without doubling back on oneself; not unlike, thought Peggy, one of those low mazes in which people were meant to think contemplative thoughts as they followed the path. She was not much given to contemplation herself, but keeping the existing paths free of weeds occupied her hands, and she supposed vaguely that it was good for her mind as well.
Now she stood looking at the paths, wondering whether she should do some weeding or check the mower and make sure it was in working order. It might have seized up over the winter; if so, then a good dose of WD-40 should take care of matters. She knew precisely where the tin was—Peggy knew precisely where everything in the cabin was—and was just turning towards the shed where the mower was stored when she heard the unmistakable sound of a vehicle coming up the road.
It was such an unusual sound that she stopped in her tracks and turned to face the gate, which hung open on its support, the only break in the fence of slender pine logs which encircled the property and served to keep out the cattle which occasionally wandered past. The road did not lead anywhere except to the cabin, and visitors were few and far between, for the simple reason that there was almost no one in the area to pay a visit. Peggy stood, waiting expectantly, and after a few moments a ramshackle Volkswagen van swung round the curve and started up the slight incline which levelled off fifty yards inside the gate, not far from the front of the cabin where her own Jeep was parked.
It pulled to a halt just inside the gate, and Peggy watched it. There were two people in the front seat, and for a minute no one made a move to get out; she got the impression that there was an argument going on. Then the passenger door opened, and a boy emerged, waving a tentative hand at her. She nodded her head, and the boy said something to the driver. Again Peggy got the impression that there was a disagreement of some sort; then the driver’s door opened slowly, and another boy emerged.
She would have been a fool not to feel a slight sense of apprehension, and Peggy was not a fool. But she prided herself on being able to assess a situation quickly and accurately, and she did not feel any sense of threat. So she stood and waited as they approached her, taking in their appearance: one tall and fair-haired, the other shorter and dark; both in their early twenties, with longish hair and rumpled clothing and a general impression of needing a good square meal or two, but nothing that made her wish that the .202 she kept inside the cabin was close to hand.
The pair stopped a few feet from her, and the fair-haired boy spoke first.
‘Hi. We, uh, we were just passing by, and we thought . . .’ He trailed off, as if appreciating that ‘just passing by’ was not something easily done in the area. There was a pause. Then he continued, ‘We heard your Jeep, and were kinda surprised; we didn’t think anyone lived up here. So we thought that . . . well, that we’d come by and see who was here, and . . .’
The trickle of words stopped again, and the boy shrugged, helplessly, as if making an appeal. It was clear the other boy was not about to come to his aid, so Peggy picked up the thread.
‘Margaret Malone,’ she said, moving forward, her hand extended. ‘Call me Peggy.’
The fair-haired boy smiled hesitantly, and stuck out his own hand. ‘Hiya, Peggy. I’m John Carlisle, but everyone calls me Jack.’
‘Nice to meet you, Jack.’ Peggy turned to Jack’s companion and looked at him evenly. ‘And you are . . .?’
There was a pause, as if the boy was weighing the effect of not answering. Jack nudged him, and he said in a low voice, ‘Robert. Robert Parker.’
Something about the way he said it discouraged any thoughts of Bob or Robbie. The conversation ground to a halt again, and once more Peggy took the initiative.
‘So, you two boys students?’ she asked pleasantly. Jack shook his head and said, ‘No, why d’you ask?’ at the same moment that Robert said sullenly, ‘We’re not boys.’
Peggy took a moment to reply. ‘To answer you first,’ she said finally, nodding towards Jack, ‘we sometimes get students up here, from UBC or SFU, studying insects or infestation patterns, so it seemed likely. And to reply to your comment, Robert,’ she said, looking him directly in the eye, ‘when you get to my age you start to look at anyone under a certain age as being a boy; I didn’t intend it as an insult. If I want to insult someone I don’t leave them in any doubt.’
Jack gave a sudden smile, which twitched across his face and was gone in an instant. Robert glared at him.
‘If you don’t mind my asking, what brings you to this neck of the woods? Seems kind of an out of the way spot for two . . . people . . . of your age, especially this time of year.’
Really, thought Peggy, was my generation as inarticulate as this when we were young? You’d think they’d never spoken to anyone else before.
Again it was Jack who broke the silence.
‘We’re just, well, travelling around, you know? Taking some time out, doing something different, that kind of thing.’ Seeing the look in Peggy’s eyes, he added, ‘We just wanted to go somewhere we wouldn’t be bumping into people, somewhere we could do what we wanted. We’ve been up here for a few weeks now, staying in an old place we found over there.’ He pointed an arm in an easterly direction. ‘It was falling to pieces,’ he added, as if he was apologising. ‘No one’s lived there for ages, we figured it’d be okay.’
Peggy held up a hand. ‘No problem as far as I’m concerned, if it’s the place I think you mean. Used to be a prospector’s cabin, but no one’s used it for years. You’re welcome to it. Last time I hiked over that way was some time ago, and it was a real handyman’s special then. You must have done a lot of work to get it fixed up so that you could live in it.’
Jack shrugged. ‘Yeah, but we’re used to that. Lots of stuff lying around we could use.’
‘What do you do about food?’
‘We stocked up in town; and there’s an old woodstove in the cabin. We don’t need a lot; we’re used to roughing it.’
Peggy eyed them both. ‘Seems to me you could do with something more than just roughing it in the food line for a couple of days.’
‘We do okay.’ It was Robert who spoke, as if challenging Peggy. ‘We do just fine. We don’t want any help.’
‘I wasn’t offering any, just making a comment. Last time I checked it was still a free country.’
‘Yeah, course it is,’ Jack said quickly. He glanced at Robert and shook his head; a small gesture, but Peggy noticed it. ‘Anyway, we heard your Jeep; we were kinda surprised to see someone living up here. We figured it was only a summer place.’
‘No, I’m up here spring through fall,’ said Peggy. ‘Afraid you’re stuck with me as your nearest neighbour. Don’t worry, I don’t play the electric guitar or throw loud parties.’
It was a small joke, but Jack smiled again, as if he appreciated Peggy’s attempt to lighten the mood. Robert nodded his head in the direction of the van, and Jack’s smile vanished.
‘Well, we’ve got to get going,’ he said obediently. ‘Nice meeting you, Peggy.’
‘Nice meeting you two,’ she said. ‘If you need anything . . .’
‘Thanks, that’s really kind of you,’ said Jack. He seemed about to add something, but Robert cut in.
‘Can’t think we’ll need any help,’ he said curtly. ‘C’mon, Jack. Lots to do.’
‘Yeah, right, lots to do. Thanks again, though, Peggy. See you around.’
‘Probably. It’s a big country, but a small world.’
‘Hey, that’s good.’ Jack smiled. ‘Big country, small world.’
Robert, who had already climbed into the driver’s seat, honked the horn, and Jack turned almost guiltily towards the van. The passenger door had hardly closed before Robert was turning the van around. Jack waved as they passed, and Peggy waved back, but Robert kept his eyes on the road and his hands on the wheel. Within moments they were through the gate, and the curve of the road had swallowed them up.
Over the next few days Peggy replayed this encounter in her head, trying to put her finger on what bothered her. Yes, Robert had been rude—well, brusque, at least—but then a lot of young people were, these days; some old people, too. Their story about wanting to see something different; that wasn’t unusual, exactly, but Peggy could think of quite a few places which were different but which didn’t involve fixing up a dilapidated shack in the middle of nowhere. Yet Jack had said they’d done that sort of thing before, so it was obviously nothing new for them.
Were they runaways? That might explain why they came to check out who was in the cabin. But if they were running away from someone, they would hardly have driven right up to her front door. Drugs crossed her mind; it was almost impossible to pick up the paper or turn on the news without hearing about another marijuana grow-op being raided by police. Most of them were in the city or up the Fraser Valley, but she had heard about such places in the country, too; and didn’t they grow marijuana openly in some rural spots, far away from the prying eyes of the police and neighbours? That might explain why Jack had looked so nervous . . . but, when she recalled the conversation, and the way Jack had looked at his friend, she realised that he was not nervous on his own account, he was nervous for, or about, Robert, who had seemed not in the least bit nervous for, or about, anything. He had merely been extremely uncomfortable, as if being in the proximity of someone other than Jack, even for five minutes, made him want to escape. What had Jack said? They wanted to go somewhere they wouldn’t be bumping into people.
Robert must have had a shock when he saw me here, thought Peggy. Bet I was the last thing he expected—or wanted—to run into.
She did not see the pair again for almost three weeks. Once she saw their van at the side of the road as she drove out towards the highway and town, but there was no sign of Jack or Robert, and on another occasion she thought she saw the pair of them far up on the hillside above her, but the sun was in her eyes and she couldn’t be sure. She thought once or twice about hiking over to their cabin, which was two miles or so away. There had been a decent trail over there at one time, which she and Len had often walked; but the days were getting hotter, and her legs weren’t what they once were, and when she reflected on her likely reception she decided she was better off staying put. If they wanted anything, or needed any help, they knew where to find her.
It was late morning, and Peggy had been clearing a new path. A wind had been gusting out of the northwest; when she stopped work and looked up the hill she could see it before she heard or felt it, sweeping through the trees, bearing down on her, carrying the scent of pine and upland meadows before rushing past and down the hill, setting the wind chimes by the front door tinkling, branches bending and swinging before it as if an unseen giant had passed. Sometimes a smaller eddy seemed to linger behind, puffing up dust on the paths, swirling round and about like something trapped and lost and trying to escape. But Peggy did not think of it like this; at least not then. Those thoughts did not come until later.
She straightened up, one hand flat against her lower back, stretching, and it was then that she saw the boy standing at the edge of the property, by the mouth of the trail leading to the prospector’s cabin. She had no idea how long he had been standing there, but she realised that he must have been waiting for her to notice him before he came closer, for as soon as he knew he had been spotted he headed in her direction.
‘Hello there,’ she said. ‘Jack, isn’t it? Haven’t seen you for a while; I was beginning to wonder if you’d moved on.’
‘No, we’re still here.’ He gave a little laugh. ‘Kind of obvious, I guess.’
‘A bit. Your friend with you?’
‘I’m not surprised. He didn’t seem the dropping-in type.’
‘No.’ Jack seemed to feel that something more was needed. ‘He was a bit pissed off when he found someone was living here. He thought we had the place to ourselves, you see, no one around for miles.’
‘He likes his solitude, then.’
‘You could say that.’
‘Still, it’s not as if I’m on your doorstep,’ said Peggy reasonably, ‘or, to be strictly accurate, that you’re on mine. If your friend doesn’t want to run into anyone, he’s picked as good a spot as any.’
‘Yeah, that’s what I’ve been telling him, but I think we’ll be heading out before the end of the summer.’
‘Because of me?’
‘Well, no; I mean, sort of, but that’s not the whole reason. Robert’—he paused, looking for words—‘Robert likes to keep on moving. Restless, I guess you could say. He’s always been like that; always wants to see what’s over the next hill, around the next corner, always figures there’s somewhere better out there.’
‘Better than what?’
Jack shrugged. ‘I don’t know. He gets somewhere, and he seems happy enough for a while, and then, just when I think “Right, this is it, this is the place he’s been looking for”, off he goes again.’
‘Do you always go with him?’
‘Yeah, usually. We’ve known each other a long time, since elementary school. His family moved from back east and we wound up in the same grade three class.’
‘Where was that?’
‘Down in Vancouver. Point Grey.’
Peggy nodded. Point Grey usually, but not always, meant money, respectability, expectations. She could see Robert, from what little she knew of him, being from, but not of, that world. Jack, though, looked like Point Grey, and she wondered how he had found himself caught up in Robert’s orbit.
‘He’s always been my best friend,’ the boy said, as if reading her thoughts. ‘We hung out together. I mean, I had other friends, but Robert just had me. It didn’t bother him, though. If he wanted to do something and I couldn’t, he’d just go off on his own, no problem. It’s like he always knew I’d be there when he needed me.’
‘Has he always liked the outdoor life?’
Jack nodded. ‘Yeah, he’s always been happiest when he’s outside.’ He shook his head. ‘I remember this one time I got him to go along with a group of us who were going camping for the weekend. We were all eleven, twelve; our parents didn’t mind, they figured there were enough of us that we’d be safe.’ He paused, remembering. ‘We rode our bikes from Point Grey out to Sea Island; you know, behind the airport.’ Peggy nodded. ‘There used to be a big subdivision out there, years ago, but then they were going to build another runway and the houses got . . . what’s the word . . . expropriated, and torn down, and then nothing happened, and it all got pretty wild, the gardens and trees and everything.
‘Well, we all had the usual shit . . . I mean stuff; dinky pup tents and old sleeping bags and things, and chocolate bars and pop, but not Robert. He had a tarp, and a plastic sheet, and a blanket, matches, a compass, trail mix, bottled water; he even had an axe. You’d’ve thought he was on a military exercise, or one of those survival weekends, instead of in the suburbs. We goofed around, and ate, and told stories, and then we crawled into our tents, all except Robert. He’d built a fire, and a lean-to out of branches and the tarp, and he said he’d stay where he was, even when it started to rain. Rain in Vancouver: who’d think it?
‘Anyway, when morning came round, we were a pretty miserable bunch of kids; the tents had leaked, and our sleeping bags were soaked, and we’d eaten almost everything we’d brought. And there was Robert, dry as a bone, making a fire out of wood he’d put under cover the night before, with food and water to spare. Made us all look like a bunch of idiots.’
‘Sounds like a good person to have around you in a place like this.’
‘Yeah, you could say that.’ He scuffed the toe of one foot against the dirt, watching puffs of dust swirl up into the air.
‘So where is he this morning?’
Jack stopped scuffing and looked up at Peggy. ‘He went off a couple of hours ago; said he needed to get away for a while, be on his own. He gets like that sometimes. I hung around for a bit by myself and then . . .’ His look was almost pleading. ‘It just got so quiet, you know? You don’t realise how quiet it is ’til you’re by yourself. Robert doesn’t mind; sometimes I think he’d rather be by himself all the time, that he wouldn’t even notice if I never came back.’
Peggy tried to think of something to say. Jack went back to scuffing the dirt, and a breeze picked up the cloud of dust, swirling it in the direction of the paths. Jack followed the cloud with his eyes, and seemed to notice the paths through the grass for the first time.
‘Hey, that’s pretty cool.’ He took a couple of steps forward, and she could see his head moving as he followed the curves of the paths with his eyes. ‘Bet it would look neat from overhead, like in one of those old Hollywood musicals.’
Peggy had not recognized the tension in the situation until it was gone; its sudden disappearance left her feeling slightly off-balance, like an actor momentarily surprised by the unexpected ad-lib of someone else on stage. Jack was still gazing out over the paths.
‘Must’ve taken a long time to do this,’ he said. ‘What’s it for?’
‘Nothing, really.’ Peggy moved forward so that she was standing beside him. ‘It was my husband’s idea; he said he got tired of watching me trying to control the brush, that I should work with it, not against it.’
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, she heard Len’s voice say. And looking at all that—he had waved his hand towards the expanse of scrub and the hills beyond—I don’t think you’re ever going to beat ’em, Peg.
‘If you can’t beat them, join them,’ said Jack, and Peggy started slightly and looked sideways at him. ‘That’s how I feel about Robert sometimes. Can I take a closer look?’
‘Go ahead.’ Peggy looked at her watch. ‘I’m going to go and make some lunch; nothing fancy, just sandwiches and some fruit, but if you want to stay then you’re more than welcome.’
‘Could I?’ he asked eagerly. ‘I’d really like that. Our cooking’s pretty . . . basic.’
Peggy, noting Jack’s pinched face and pale complexion, could believe it. ‘I’ll go and rustle something up; come in when you’re ready.’
She stood at the kitchen counter, letting her hands move through the familiar motions of spreading butter and mayonnaise, slicing tomatoes and cucumber, while in her head she went over the conversation with Jack. There were undercurrents she could not fathom, depths she could not chart. She had thought of them as two boys from the city playing at wilderness life, and Jack’s words had not dismissed this as a possibility; but there was something else going on, she was sure of it. Were they lovers? Had they had a fight? That could be it, but she did not think so. She could not connect the dark, intense figure she had seen three weeks ago with something as essentially banal as a lovers’ tiff.
Through the window she could see Jack moving slowly along one of the paths, his head down as if deep in concentration. He stopped, seemingly aware of her gaze upon him, but instead of turning towards the cabin he looked up at the hillside above, intently, his head cocked a little to one side as if he had heard something. Peggy followed his gaze, but could see nothing on the bare slope, or in the air above; certainly nothing that would inspire such rapt attention.
She stacked the sandwiches on a plate, then sliced some cheese and put it, with some crackers and grapes, on another plate. She wondered what to offer as a drink. Beer would have been the obvious choice, but she had none. Milk or orange juice; or perhaps he’d like a cup of coffee or tea afterwards. . . .
Still pondering beverage choices, she put the plates on the table, then went to the door. Jack had not altered his position; he seemed transfixed by something up on the hill. Peggy looked again, sure that he was watching an animal, but there was nothing to be seen.
She called his name, and he turned to her with a startled look on his face, as if he could not quite remember who she was or how he had got there. Then he shook his head slightly and trotted towards her, like a dog who has heard the rattle of the can opener and knows his supper is ready.
‘Sorry it’s nothing more elegant,’ said Peggy, pointing to the table, ‘but help yourself. Don’t be shy.’
She soon realized that her words were unnecessary. Jack fell on the meal as if he had not eaten in days, and for some minutes the only sound was him asking if he could have another sandwich. Peggy got up twice to refill his milk glass before finally placing the jug on the table so he could help himself, and watched as the cheese and cracker supply dwindled. Finally Jack drained his glass and sighed contentedly.
‘Thanks, Peggy, that was great, really. Didn’t know how hungry I was until I saw the food. Guess I wouldn’t win any awards for politeness.’
Peggy laughed. ‘That’s okay. It’s been a long time since I saw someone eat something I’d made with that much pleasure. I’m sorry it wasn’t anything more substantial.’
Jack looked at his watch. ‘Geez, is that the time? I better be going; Robert’ll be back soon, he’ll wonder where I am, and I’ll bet you’ve got things to do.’
‘Don’t worry, my time’s my own. Nice watch.’
Jack smiled proudly, and held up his wrist so Peggy could see it better. Silver glinted at her. ‘Swiss Army. My parents gave it to me when I graduated. Keeps perfect time.’ He sat back in his chair and looked around the cabin. ‘You live here by yourself? You said something about your husband. Is he . . .?’ He stopped, unsure how to continue the sentence to its natural conclusion, so Peggy did it for him.
‘. . . dead, yes. Four years ago. Cancer. It was pretty sudden; there was very little the doctors could do.’
‘That’s okay. You didn’t know him. He went quite quickly, which is what he wanted. Len was never a great one for lingering.’
‘So you live up here for most of the year on your own? That’s pretty gutsy.’
Peggy could not recall having been called gutsy before. ‘You think so?’
‘Yeah, sure. I mean, this place is pretty isolated, and you’re . . . well, you’re not exactly young.’ His face went pink. ‘I don’t mean that . . . it just must be tough, that’s all, on your own. Don’t you ever get lonely?’
‘No, there’s always something to do. I spend the winter with family on the Island; I get more than enough company then to see me through the rest of the year.’
Jack nodded. His eyes continued moving around the cabin, and he spotted the light switch. ‘Hey, I didn’t think you had power up here.’
‘We don’t. That’s a bit of a joke, for visitors.’
‘Bet you don’t get too many of those.’
‘You’d be right. My nephew and his family have been up a couple of times, but not for a while. He doesn’t like it much up here; says it makes him uncomfortable. This sort of place isn’t for everyone.’
Jack nodded. ‘You’ve got that right.’ He looked through the screen door towards the hillside and gestured with his head. ‘You ever feel that something’s up there watching you?’
Peggy considered. ‘No, not really. An animal sometimes, maybe; but we don’t get too many animals up there. Odd, really, you’d think it would be a natural place to spot them.’ A memory came back to her; Paul, her nephew, on one of his rare visits, standing on the porch looking up at the hills. ‘My nephew said once it reminded him of a horror movie his sons rented; The Eyes on the Hill or something.’
‘The Hills Have Eyes,’ Jack corrected automatically. ‘Yeah, I’ve seen it.’ He was silent for a moment. ‘Do you believe that?’
‘What—that the hills have eyes? No.’
‘But don’t you feel it?’ he persisted. ‘Like there’s something there, watching, waiting, something really old and . . . I don’t know, part of this place, guarding it, protecting it, looking for something?’
Peggy couldn’t keep the astonishment out of her face and voice. ‘No, I can honestly say I’ve never felt that at all.’ She considered him. ‘Is that what you think?’
‘I don’t know.’ He paused. ‘There’s just something weird about this spot. I mean, we’ve been in some out of the way places, Robert and me, but nowhere like this. I’ll be kind of glad when he decides to move on. I hope it’ll be soon.’
‘I thought you wanted him to settle down somewhere.’
‘Yeah, I do, but not here.’
‘Why don’t you leave? Robert seems able to fend for himself, and he appears to like this sort of life better than you do. Why do you stay with him?’
‘I’ve always stayed with him.’
‘But you said that he likes to go off on his own, that you don’t think he’d notice if you didn’t come back.’
Jack looked uncomfortable, like a witness caught by a clever lawyer. ‘Oh, I just said that ’cause I was pissed off. He’d notice.’
‘Is he your boyfriend? Is that why you stay?’
Jack looked shocked. ‘God, no! It’s nothing like that. It goes back a long way. . . . Remember I told you about that camping trip out to Sea Island? Well, when I went round to Robert’s house to get him his mom was there, fussing, you know, the way moms do, and he was getting kind of impatient, and finally he just said “Bye, mom” really suddenly and went to get his bike, and his mom turned to me and said “Look after him.” Which was kind of a weird thing to say, ’cause I was only eleven, and Robert wasn’t the kind of kid who you’d think needed looking after—well, we found that out next day. But I knew what she meant. She didn’t mean he needed looking after ’cause he’d do something stupid, she meant that he needed someone to . . . bring him back, almost, make sure he didn’t go off and just keep on going.’
‘Is that why you stay with him? So he doesn’t just keep on going?’
‘I guess.’ His smile was tinged with sadness. ‘I’m not doing such a great job, am I?’
‘You’re a long way from Point Grey, if that’s what you mean.’
‘Yeah, and I can’t see us making it back anytime soon. Robert wants to keep heading north, up to the Yukon, and then head east.’
‘What on earth for?’
Jack shrugged. ‘He does a lot of reading; he’s got a box of books in the van, all about explorers and people who go off into the wilderness with just some matches and a rifle and a sack of flour and live off the land. I think that’s what he wants to do; go up north and see what’s there, see what he can do, what he can find. He loves reading about the Franklin expedition; you know, the one that disappeared when they were searching for the Northwest Passage, and no one knew for years what happened to them. I think he likes the idea of just vanishing, and no one knows where you are, and then you come out when you’re ready, and tell people what you’ve found.’
‘The Franklin expedition didn’t come out.’
‘Robert figures he can do better than them.’
‘Well then, you should break it to him that the Northwest Passage was found a long time ago, and tell him he should maybe stick closer to home.’
‘He doesn’t want to find the Northwest Passage; anyway, he says it doesn’t really exist, there is no Northwest Passage, not like everyone thought back in Franklin’s time.’
‘And you’ll go with him?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘You do have a choice, you know.’
‘Yeah, like you said, it’s a free country. But I kind of feel like I have to go with him, to . . .’
‘Look after him?’
‘I guess.’ He shrugged. ‘It’s like there’s something out there, waiting for him, and I have to make sure he comes back okay, otherwise he’d just keep on going, and he’d be like those Franklin guys, he’d never come out.’
The conversation was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of a vehicle coming up the road towards the cabin. Jack stood up so quickly his chair fell over.
‘Shit, it’s Robert.’
‘Probably,’ Peggy agreed drily. ‘Don’t worry, there’s nothing criminal about having lunch with someone.’
‘No, but . . . Robert can be . . . funny, weird, sometimes. Don’t tell him what I said about looking after him, he’d be really pissed off.’
‘Your secret is safe with me.’
They went out on to the porch and watched the van drive up. Robert climbed out and glared at Jack.
‘Thought you’d be here,’ he said, ignoring Peggy. ‘C’mon, let’s go.’
‘Hello to you too,’ said Peggy. ‘You’re a friendly sort, aren’t you? In my day we’d have considered it bad manners to order a person out from under someone else’s roof. Guess times have changed. Or are you just naturally rude?’ Robert stared at her, but she gave him no chance to speak. ‘Jack’s here as my guest; he’s had a good lunch, which I must say he needed, and you look like you could do with something decent inside you, whatever you might think. So you can either stay here and let me fix you some sandwiches, which I’m more than prepared to do if you’re prepared to be civil, or you can climb back into your van and drive away, with or without Jack, but I think that’s his decision to make, not yours. He found his way here by himself, and I’d guess he can find his way back if he decides to stay a bit longer.’
Robert started to say something; something not very pleasant, if the look that flashed across his face was anything to go by. Then he took a deep breath.
‘Yeah, you’re right. He can stay if he wants. No problem.’ He turned towards the van.
‘Wait a minute,’ said Jack, moving off the porch. ‘Don’t go. Peggy said you could stay, she’ll fix you some sandwiches. Don’t be a jerk. You must be as hungry as me.’
‘We’ve got food back at our place,’ said Robert; but he slowed down. Jack turned and threw a pleading look back at Peggy. What can I do? was written on his face.
‘Robert. Robert.’ He stopped, but kept his back turned to Peggy. ‘If you don’t want to stay now, that’s fine; maybe this isn’t a good time, maybe you’ve got things to do, I don’t know. But why don’t you both come back over for supper? I’ve got some steaks in the fridge that need using up, and I can do salad and baked potatoes. Sound good?’
‘What do you say, Robert?’ said Jack eagerly. ‘I’ll come with you now, then we both come back later and have supper.’
Robert looked at Jack, then at Peggy. She put her hands in front of her, palms out, like a traffic policeman. ‘No ulterior motive, no strings, just a chance to give you both a good meal and talk to someone other than myself. You’d be doing me a big favour, both of you.’
‘Yeah,’ said Robert finally, slowly, ‘yeah, okay, supper would be great.’
‘Fine! About six, then.’
Robert climbed in the driver’s seat, and Jack mouthed Thanks! and gave a wave; the sun glinted off the face of his watch, making her blink. He got in the other side, and once more she watched as the van rattled out the gate and round the curve.
‘I hope I’ve done the right thing,’ she said aloud. ‘Why can’t things be simple?’
The afternoon drew on. Peggy did a bit more work on the paths, clearing some errant weeds. She straightened up at last, and glanced down across the valley below. It was her favourite view, particularly in the late afternoon sun, and she stood admiring it for a few moments, watching the play of light and shade across the trees. The wind, which had been playing fitfully about her all day, had at last died down, and everything was still and calm and clear.
Suddenly she turned and looked up behind her. She could have sworn that she heard someone call her name, but there was no one there; at least no one she could see. Still, the feeling persisted that someone was there; she felt eyes on her, watching.
The hills have eyes.
For the first time she realised how exposed she and the cabin were, and how small. Crazy, really, to think that something as essentially puny and inconsequential as a human could try to impose anything of himself on this land. How long had all this been here? How long would it endure after she was gone? Work with it, not against it, Len had said. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. But how could you work with something, join with something, that you couldn’t understand?
She shook her head. This was the sort of craziness that came from too much living alone. Maybe Paul was right; maybe it was time to start thinking about moving to the Island permanently.
Or maybe you just need a good hot meal said a voice inside her head. Those boys will be here soon; better get going. She took one last look at the hill, then turned towards the cabin. The wind chimes were ringing faintly as she passed, the only sound in the stillness.
Inside, she turned on the radio; for some reason which she did not want to analyze she found the silence oppressive. The signal was not strong, but the announcer’s voice, promising ‘your favourite good-time oldies’, was better than nothing. She started the oven warming and wrapped half a dozen potatoes in foil, to the accompaniment of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’, then started on the salad fixings: lettuce, cucumber, radishes, tomatoes, mushrooms. As she scraped the last of the mushrooms off the board and into the bowl, she glanced out the window, and saw a figure standing on one of the paths, looking back at the hillside. Jack, she thought to herself, recognizing the fair hair, and looked at her watch. It was ten past five. They’re early. Must be hungry.
Simon and Garfunkel gave way to Buddy Holly and ‘Peggy Sue’. The oven pinged, indicating it was up to temperature, and she bundled the potatoes into it. When she returned to the window, the figure was gone.
‘C’mon in,’ she called out, ‘door’s open, make yourselves at home.’ She put the last of the sliced tomatoes on top of the salad, then realised no one had come in. ‘Hello?’ she called out. ‘Anyone there?’ Buddy Holly warbling about pretty Peggy Sue was the only reply.
Peggy went to the door and looked out. There was no one in sight. The van was not there, and it registered that she had not heard it come up the road. It’s such a nice night, maybe they walked. She looked to her right, to where the trail they would have taken came out of the woods, but no one was there.
A squawk of static from the radio made her jump. For a moment there was only a low buzzing noise; then Buddy Holly came back on, fighting through the static, for she heard ‘Peggy’ repeated. Another burst of noise, then the signal came through more clearly; only now it was the Beatles, who were halfway through ‘Help!’.
‘Interference,’ she muttered to herself. They often got overlapping channels at night; another station was crossing with the first one. She went outside and looked round the corner of the cabin, but there was no one in sight. When she went back in, ‘Help!’ was ending, and she heard the voice of the announcer. ‘We’ve got more good-time oldies coming up after the break,’ he said, and she realised the radio had been broadcasting the same station all along. They must have got their records, or CDs, or whatever they used now mixed-up, she decided.
She placed the salad on the table and got the steaks out of the fridge. She was beginning to trim the fat away from around the edges when the radio gave another burst of static, then faded away altogether. She flicked the on/off switch, and tried the tuner, but was unable to raise a signal. Dead batteries, she thought. I only replaced them last week; honestly, they don’t make things like . . .
She broke off mid-thought at the sound of a voice calling her name. Definitely not Buddy Holly this time, she thought, and walked to the door, ready to call a greeting. What she saw made her freeze in the doorway.
Robert was running towards her across the grass; running wildly, carelessly, frantically even, as if something was on his tracks, calling out her name with all the breath he could muster. In a moment she shook off her fear and began crossing the yard towards him, meeting him near the back of her Jeep. He collapsed on the ground at her feet, and she knelt down beside him as he gasped for breath.
‘Robert! Robert, what’s wrong? What’s happened?’
‘Jack,’ he gasped; ‘Jack . . . he’s gone . . . got to help me . . . just gone . . .’
‘Gone! What do you mean? Gone where?’
He was still panting, and she saw that his face was white. He struggled to his knees and swung round so that he could look behind him, in the direction of the blank and staring hillside.
‘Don’t know . . . we were coming over here . . . walking . . . and then he was gone . . . didn’t see him . . .’
‘Right.’ Peggy spoke crisply, calmly. ‘Just take another deep breath . . . and another . . . that’s it, that’s better. Now then’—when his breathing had slowed somewhat—‘you and Jack were walking over here—why didn’t you come in the van?’
‘It wouldn’t start; battery’s dead or something.’
‘Okay, so you decided to walk, and Jack went on ahead, and you lost sight of him. Well, as mysteries go it’s not a hard one; he’s already here.’
Robert stared at her. ‘What do you mean, he’s already here?’ he almost whispered.
‘I saw him, over there.’ Peggy pointed towards the paths. ‘I looked out the window and there he was.’
‘Where is he now?’
Peggy frowned. ‘Well, I don’t know; I went outside, but couldn’t see him. I thought you’d both come early and were looking around.’
‘What time was this?’
‘Ten past five; I looked at my watch.’
‘That’s impossible,’ said Robert flatly, in a voice tinged with despair. ‘At ten past five he’d only just gone missing, and I was looking for him a mile from here. There’s no way he could have got here that fast.’
Peggy felt as if something was spiralling out of control, and she made a grab at the first thing she could think of. ‘How do you know exactly when he went missing?’
‘I’d just looked at my watch, to see how we were doing for time; then he was gone.’
‘Maybe there’s something wrong with your watch.’
Robert shook his head. ‘It keeps perfect time.’ He looked down at his left wrist, and Peggy saw him go pale again.
‘What the fuck . . .’ he whispered, and Peggy bent her head to look.
The face of the digital watch was blank.
Robert began to shiver. ‘What’s going on?’ he said, in a voice that was a long way from that of the sullen youth she had seen earlier. ‘Where’s Jack?’
‘I don’t know; but he can’t have gone far. Did you two have a fight about something? Could that be why he went on ahead?’
‘But he didn’t go on ahead,’ said Robert, in a voice that sounded perilously close to tears. ‘That’s just it. We were walking along, and he asked what time it was, and I looked at my watch—it was only for a couple of seconds, you know how long it takes to look at a watch—and then he was just . . . gone.’
‘Could he have . . . I don’t know . . . gone off the trail? Gone behind a tree?’
Robert looked at her blankly. ‘Why would he do that?’
‘I don’t know!’ Peggy took a deep breath. The boy was distraught enough, without her losing control as well. ‘Playing a joke? Looking at something? Call of nature?’
He shook his head. ‘No.’
‘Think! Are you sure you didn’t just miss him?’
‘I’m positive. There wasn’t time for him to go anywhere, not even if he ran like Donovan Bailey. I’d have seen him.’
‘Okay.’ Peggy thought for a moment. ‘You say you were both a mile from here, at ten past five, which is the same time I looked outside and saw Jack here, at my cabin. I’d say that your watch battery was going then, and it wasn’t giving you an accurate time, which is how Jack seemed to be in two places at once.’
Robert shook his head again. ‘No.’ He looked straight at Peggy. His breath was still ragged; he must have run the mile to her cabin. ‘Jack’s gone.’ Then, more quietly, ‘What am I going to do?’
Peggy got him inside the cabin and into an armchair, then went back out on the porch. The clock on the radio had died with the batteries, but her old wind-up wristwatch told her it was almost six. Time for Jack and Robert to be arriving. . . .
She called out ‘Jack!’ and the sound of her voice in the stillness startled her. She waited a moment, then called again, but the only reply was the tinkle of the wind chimes. She walked round the cabin, not really knowing why; Jack hadn’t seemed the kind to play senseless tricks, and she didn’t expect to see him, but still she looked, because it seemed the right—the only—thing to do.
She stood at the front of the cabin, looking down over the valley. All those trees; if someone wandered off into them they could disappear forever. She shivered, then shook her head. Jack hadn’t disappeared; there had to be an explanation. He and Robert had had a fight; Jack had stormed off, and Robert was too embarrassed to tell her about it. Jack was probably back at their camp by now . . . but that didn’t explain how he had been outside the cabin at ten past five. Unless he had come to the cabin as originally planned, then decided he couldn’t face Robert, and gone back to their camp by road . . . no, it was all getting too complex. She took a deep breath and walked round the side of the cabin . . . and stopped short at the sight of a figure over on the paths.
Only it wasn’t a figure, she realised a split second later; there was no one, nothing, there. She had imagined it, that was all; perhaps that’s what she had done earlier, looked up and remembered the image of Jack standing there from before lunch. He hadn’t been there at all; Robert was quite right. In which case . . .
‘We need to go looking for Jack.’
Robert looked up at her as if he did not understand. Peggy resisted the urge to shake him.
‘Did you hear me? I said we need to go look for Jack.’
‘Shouldn’t we . . . shouldn’t we call the police?’
‘Yes; but first we need to go looking for him.’ She told him about her mistake with the figure. ‘He was never here at all. So you must have missed him on the path. And he must be injured, or lost, or he’d be here now. So yes, we’ll call the police when we get back. Even if we called them now, though, it would be almost dark before they could get here; they wouldn’t be able to start a search until daybreak. We’re here now; we have the best chance of finding him.’
She turned the oven off—last thing I need now is to come back and find the place burned down—then gathered together some supplies: two flashlights, a first aid kit, a couple of bottles of water, a sheath knife. She put them in a knapsack, which she handed to Robert. Then she went into her bedroom and got the .202 out from the back of the cupboard. The sight of it seemed to make Robert realise how serious the situation was.
‘What do you need that for?’
‘There’s all sorts of animals out there, and a lot of them start to get active around this time of day. It’s their country, not ours, but that doesn’t mean I want to become a meal.’
‘Do you know how to use it?’
Peggy stared at him levelly. ‘It wouldn’t be much use having it around if I couldn’t use it. I’m not an Olympic marksman, but if it’s within fifty yards of me I can hit it. Let’s go.’
They headed out towards the trail, skirting the paths. A little gust of wind was eddying dust along one of them. Peggy was conscious of the hillside above them to their left, and could not shake off the sense that something was watching. What was it Jack had said? Something there, watching, waiting, something really old . . . part of this place, guarding it, protecting it, looking for something. No; she had to stop it, stop it now. Thoughts like that were no good. She needed to concentrate.
‘Come on, Robert,’ she called over her shoulder, ‘let’s go. We have a lot of ground to cover, and it’ll be dark in another couple of hours. You better go first; it’s been a while since I was last through here. Keep yelling Jack’s name, and keep your eyes open.’
They started along the trail. It was fainter than Peggy remembered, but still distinguishable as such; more than clear enough to act as a guide, even for the most inexperienced eye. They took turns calling, and stared intently about them, looking from side to side, searching for any signs of Jack; but there was nothing, not a trace of his passage, not a hint that he was calling or signalling to them. They stopped every so often to listen, and to give them both a chance to rest; but they only lingered in one place, when Robert indicated that they were at the spot where he had last seen Jack.
‘Here,’ he said, pointing; ‘I was standing here, and Jack was about fifteen feet in front of me, and then . . . he wasn’t.’
Peggy looked around, trying to will some sign, some clue into being, but there was nothing that marked the spot out as any different to anywhere else they had passed. Birch and poplar and pines crowded round them, but not so thickly, she thought, that someone could disappear into them and be lost to sight in a matter of seconds. A breeze rustled the branches, and something skittered through the undergrowth; a squirrel, she thought, from the sound. They called, but there was no reply, and searched either side of the trail, but there was no sign of Jack. Without a word they continued on their way.
Robert was still in front, Peggy behind; the trail was not wide enough to allow more than single file passage. Indian file. The phrase from her childhood popped unbidden into Peggy’s mind, along with the accompanying thought, I suppose you can’t call it that anymore, but Aboriginal file doesn’t sound right. Or would it be Native file? Natives . . . now what did that . . .
‘Natives don’t like that place.’ Who had said that? Someone, years before, who she and Len had run into in town, someone who knew the area and was surprised when they told him where they lived. ‘Natives don’t like that place,’ he had said. ‘Never have. Don’t know why; you can’t pin ’em down. Used to be a prospector lived back in there, not far from where you are, I guess, and there was a feeling he was tempting . . . well, fate, I suppose, or the gods, or something. . . . What happened to him? He just up and left one day; disappeared. Some people figured he’d hit it lucky at last and had cleared out with his gold, others said it was cabin fever; whatever happened, it didn’t do anything for the place’s reputation.’
Why had she thought of that now, of all times? She shivered uncontrollably, and was glad that Robert was up ahead and couldn’t see her. She hurried to close the distance between them; and although her breath was becoming more ragged, and the ache in her legs more pronounced, she did not stop again until they were at the cabin.
It was much as she remembered it; a low, crudely built structure of weathered pine logs, with a single door and one window in front, and a tin chimney pipe leaning out from the roof at an angle. There was no smoke from the chimney, no movement within or without; only the sound of the wind, and a far-off crow cawing hoarsely, and their own breath. The dying sun reflected off the one window, creating a momentary illusion of life, but neither one spoke. There was no need. Jack was not here.
They checked the cabin, just to be sure, and the van, sitting uselessly in front, and they called until they were hoarse, but they were merely going through the motions, and Peggy knew it. Robert tried the van again, but the battery was irrevocably dead. Still silent, they turned and headed back the way they had come.
They did not call out now, or search for signs; their one thought, albeit an unspoken one, was to get back to Peggy’s before dark. The sun had dipped well below the hills now, and the shadows were lengthening fast, and Peggy found herself keeping her eyes on the trail ahead. Once she thought she heard movement in the trees to their right, and stopped, clutching Robert’s arm; but it was only the wind. They continued on their silent way, and did not stop again.
They reached the cabin as the last of the light flickered and died in the western sky. Peggy ached in every joint and muscle in her body, but she lit the propane lamps and put water on to boil for coffee while Robert collapsed into a chair and put his head in his hands. Finally, when she could think of nothing else useful to do with her hands, Peggy sat down opposite him.
‘Robert.’ He looked up at her with tired eyes. ‘Robert, it’s time to phone the police. I’ll do it, if you’d like.’
‘Yeah, that’d be good. Thanks.’
She would not have thought that this was the same Robert she had seen earlier in the day. He seemed lost, diminished, and she realised with a start that Jack had been wrong, completely wrong, when he had told her that Robert wouldn’t have minded if Jack had gone off and never come back. Something inside Robert compelled him, but Jack, she thought, had always been there, a link with the life he had left behind, and a way back to it. As long as Jack had been with him, Robert would have kept moving; now, without him, Peggy had the feeling that there’d be no Northwest Passage. She wished that Jack could know that, somehow.
She moved to the phone, an old-fashioned one with a dial. She picked up the receiver and listened for a moment, then jiggled the cradle two, three, four times, while the look on her face changed from puzzled to worried to frightened. She replaced the receiver.
‘No dial tone.’
Robert stared at her. ‘What do you mean, no dial tone?’
‘Just what I said. The line must be down somewhere. We can’t call out.’
‘Great. Just fucking great.’ Anger mixed with fear flashed across his face, and for a moment he looked like the Robert of old. ‘What do we do now?’
‘We have a cup of coffee and something to eat; then we get in my Jeep and drive to town and tell the police what’s happened. After that it’s in their hands.’
‘Shouldn’t we go now?’
‘Frankly, until I get some coffee into me I won’t be in a fit state to drive anywhere, and I’d be surprised if you’re any different. And the police won’t be able to start a search until morning; another half an hour or so isn’t going to make much difference now.’
Robert looked at her bleakly. ‘I guess not,’ he said finally.
She busied herself with the ritual of making coffee. As she measured and poured, something caught her eye at the window, and she looked up automatically.
A face was staring in at her.
She gave a brief, choked cry, and dropped the teaspoon, which clattered on to the counter. It took her a moment to realise that what she saw was her own reflection, framed in the darkness of the window and what lay beyond. That was all it could be. There was no one out there.
But she had seen something at the window, out of the corner of her eye, before she looked up. No; it had been a reflection of something in the room. The cabin was brightly lit, and the windows were acting like mirrors.
From the front of the cabin the wind chimes rang.
Peggy was suddenly conscious of feeling exposed. The little cabin, lights streaming out the windows into the darkness, did not belong here; it was an intruder, and therefore a target. She turned to Robert.
‘Close the curtains.’
She pointed to the picture windows overlooking the valley. ‘Leave the windows open, but close the curtains.’
He did as she asked, while Peggy reached for the blind cord by the kitchen window. The Venetian blinds rattled into place. That’s better, she thought, and took the coffee in to the living-room.
They sat and sipped, both unconsciously seeking refuge in this ordinary, everyday act. There was silence between them, for there was nothing to be said, or nothing they wanted to say. The wind chimes were louder now, the only sound in the vast expanse around them. The only sound. . . .
A thought which had been at the back of Peggy’s mind for some time came into focus then, and she looked up, listening intently. She placed her cup on the table in front of her so hard that coffee sloshed over the side. Robert looked up, startled.
‘What . . .’ he began, but Peggy held up her hand.
‘Listen!’ she whispered urgently. Robert looked at her, puzzled. ‘What do you hear? Tell me. . . .’
Robert tried to concentrate. ‘Nothing,’ he said finally. ‘Just that chiming noise, that’s all. Why, did you hear something? Do you think it’s . . .’
‘Listen. We can hear the chimes, yes, but there’s no wind in the trees; we should be able to hear it in the branches, shouldn’t we? And the windows are open, but the curtains aren’t moving, they’re absolutely still. So why can we hear the wind chimes, if there isn’t a wind?’
Robert stared at her for a moment, uncomprehending. Then he went pale.
‘What are you saying?’ he asked; but she saw in his eyes that he already knew the answer, or some of it; enough, anyway.
‘I’m saying we have to leave,’ said Peggy, startled by the firmness in her voice. ‘Now. Don’t bother about the lights. Let’s go.’
She picked up her purse and keys from the shelf where they lay, and moved to the door. She did not want to go out there, did not want to leave the cabin, and it was only with a tremendous effort of will that she put her hand on the knob and pulled open the wooden door, letting a bright trail of light stream out over the rocky ground. She thought she saw something move at the far end of it, something tall and thin, but she did not, would not look, concentrating instead on walking to the driver’s door of the Jeep with her eyes on the ground, walking, not running, she would not run. . . .
‘Hey!’ Robert’s voice rang out behind her, and she turned to see him still on the porch, looking, not towards the Jeep, but towards the paths. She followed his gaze, and in the faint light cast by a three-quarter moon could just see a figure standing silent, twenty yards or so from them.
‘Jack!’ cried Robert, relief flooding his voice. He stepped off the porch and moved towards the figure. ‘Hey, man, you had us worried! Where’ve you been? What happened?’
Peggy felt a trickle of ice down her back. ‘Robert—Robert, come here,’ she called out, fear making her voice tremble. ‘Come here now; we have to go.’
He stopped and looked back at her. ‘Can’t you see?’ he said, puzzled. ‘It’s Jack!’ He turned back to the figure. ‘C’mon, come inside, get something to eat, tell us what happened. You hurt?’
‘Robert!’ Peggy’s voice cracked like a gunshot. ‘That isn’t Jack. Can’t you see? It isn’t Jack.’
‘What do you mean? Of course it is! C’mon over here, man, let Peggy take a look at you, you’re frightening her. . . .’
All the time Robert had been moving closer to the figure, which remained motionless and silent. Suddenly, when he was only ten feet away from it, he stopped, and she heard him give a strangled cry.
‘What the . . . what are you? What’s going on?’ Then, higher, broken, like a child, ‘Peggy, what’s happening?’ He seemed frozen, and Peggy thought for a moment that she would have to go to him, pull him forcibly to the Jeep, and realised that she could not go any closer to that figure. A warning shot, if she had thought to bring the rifle, might have broken the spell, but it was back in the cabin . . . She wrenched open the driver’s door and leaned on the horn with all her might.
The sound made her jump, even though she was expecting it, and the effect on Robert was galvanic. He turned and began moving towards the Jeep in a stumbling, shambling run; as he got closer she could hear him sobbing between breaths, ragged, gasping sobs, and she was glad that she had not been close enough to see the figure clearly.
She had dropped the keys twice from fingers that suddenly felt like dry twigs. Now, on the third try, she slammed the key into the ignition and turned it. Nothing. She turned it again. No response. She tried to turn on the headlights, but there was no answering flare of brightness. The battery was dead, and she realised, deep down in a corner of her mind, that she should have expected this.
Robert turned to her, eyes glittering with panic. ‘C’mon, get it started, let’s go! What are you waiting for?’
‘The battery’s dead.’ Her chest was heaving as she tried to bite down the panic welling up inside her. Robert began to moan, a low, keening sound, as Peggy forced her mind back. Think, think, she told herself. There’s a way to do this, you know there is, you just have to calm down, remember. . . .
Len’s voice sounded in her ear, so clearly that for a moment she thought he was beside her. ‘It’s not difficult,’ she heard him say, ‘as long as it’s a standard; automatics are trickier.’ And she remembered; she had asked him, once, what they’d do if the battery went dead, up here with no other car for miles. ‘We make sure the battery doesn’t go dead,’ he’d said with laugh, but when she pressed him—she was serious, it could happen, what would they do?—he had replied cheerfully, ‘Not a problem; just put the clutch in, put it in second, let gravity start to work, let out the clutch, and there you go, easy-peasy. Make sure the ignition’s on, and just keep driving for a bit; as long as the engine doesn’t stop you’ll charge the battery back up.’
She had no intention of stopping once she got the engine started.
She took a deep breath. The Jeep was parked on the flat, with the downward slope beginning twenty feet away. She would need help.
‘Robert.’ He was still moaning, looking out the passenger window, and Peggy risked a look too. The figure seemed closer. ‘Robert! Listen to me!’ Nothing. She reached out and shook him, and he turned to her, his eyes wide and scared. She hoped he could hear her.
‘You need to get out and push the car,’ she said, slowly and clearly. He started to say something, and she cut him short. ‘Just do it, Robert. Do it now.’
‘I can’t get out, I can’t, I don’t . . .’
‘You have to. You can do this, Robert, but you have to hurry. Just to the top of the slope. Twenty feet; then you can get back in.’
For a moment she thought that he was going to refuse; then, without a word, he opened his door and half-fell, half-scrambled out. Peggy turned the ignition on, pushed in the clutch, put the Jeep in second, and they began to roll, slowly at first, then faster, Robert pushing with all his strength.
It seemed to take hours to cover the short distance; then Peggy felt the car start to pick up momentum, and Robert jumped in, slamming the passenger door. She said under her breath, ‘Work, please, work,’ and let out the clutch.
For one brief, terrible second she thought that it wasn’t going to work, that she had done something wrong, missed something out. Then the engine shuddered into life, and she switched on the headlights, and they were through the gate and round the curve, and the cabin had disappeared behind them, along with everything else that was waiting in the darkness.
They did not speak during the drive to town. Peggy concentrated on the road with a fierceness that made her head ache, glad she had something to think about other than what they had left, while Robert sat huddled down in his seat. She did not ask him what he had seen, and he did not volunteer any information. The only thing she said, as they drew near the police station, was ‘Keep to the facts. That’s all they want to hear. Nothing else. Do you understand?’ And Robert, pale, shaking, had nodded.
They told their story, for the first of several times, and answered questions, together and separately. Peggy did not know exactly what they asked Robert; she gathered, from some of the questions directed at her, that he was under suspicion, although in the end nothing came of this.
Officialdom swung into action, clearly following the procedures and guidelines laid out for just such a situation. Appeals for help were made; search parties were sent out; a spotter plane was employed. There were more questions, although no more answers. Peggy sometimes wondered where they would fit all the pieces she had not told them: eddies of dust and the ringing of chimes on a windless day, someone (not Buddy Holly) calling her name, the figure they had seen outside the cabin, the battery failures, the phone going dead. She imagined the response if she told the police that they should examine local Native legends and the vanishing of a prospector years earlier, or that she had felt that the hillside was watching her, or that Jack had not disappeared at all, he was still there, watching too, that he had only been looking after Robert.
All the searches came to nothing; no further traces of Jack were found. A casual question to one of the volunteers elicited the information that the phone in the cabin was working perfectly. Peggy herself did not go back; no one expected a sixty-three year old woman to participate in the search, and everyone told her they understood why she preferred to stay in a hotel in town. They did not understand, of course, not at all, but Peggy did not try to explain.
Paul came up as soon as he could. He, too, was very understanding, although he was surprised at his aunt’s decision to put the property on the market immediately. She was welcome to stay with him and the family for as long as she needed to, that went without saying; but wasn’t she being a bit hasty? Yes, it had been a terrible, tragic event, but perhaps she should wait a bit, hold off making a decision . . . she didn’t want to do something she would regret. . . .
But Peggy was insistent. If Paul would go with her while she collected some clothing and personal items, she would be grateful; she would arrange with a moving company for everything else to be packed up and put into storage until she had found somewhere to live. She had clearly made up her mind, and although he did not agree with her, Paul did not argue the point any further.
They went up early in the morning, the first day after the search had been called off. Peggy worked quickly, packing up the things she wanted to take with her, while Paul cleared out the food from the fridge and cupboards. When everything had been loaded into his SUV, he went round the cabin, making sure that everything was shut off and locked up, while Peggy waited outside.
Now, in the daylight, with the sun high overhead and birds wheeling against the blue of the sky, everything looked peaceful. A gentle wind ruffled the branches of the trees, and a piece of paper fluttered along—left by one of the searchers, no doubt. It blew across the grass, and landed in the middle of one of the pathways. Out of habit, she walked over to where it lay, picked it up, and put it in her pocket.
She looked up at the hills above her, then back at the cabin, realising that this was the same spot where she had seen . . . or thought she had seen . . . Jack on the afternoon he had disappeared. She shivered slightly, even though the day was hot, and started towards the SUV, anxious to be gone.
It was as she moved away that she saw it, a glint of something metallic at the edge of the path near her foot. She bent down and picked it up. A Swiss Army watch, silver. Although she knew what she would find, she looked at the face. The hands showed ten past five.
When Paul came out and locked the front door, his aunt was already in the SUV. She did not look back as they drove away.
© Barbara Roden 2004