by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
Duncan loved Algonquin Park at this time of year. The summer campers and the mosquitos had cleared out, and it was quiet during the week; the nights were cool and the days were golden. He’d scored a campsite at the secluded end of the radio-free zone looking out over Pog Lake, with no one in the lots to either side. He’d made a stop in Barry’s Bay for food and stove fuel, and filled his two collapsible water jugs as well; he drove in and parked by mid-afternoon with no intention of moving either himself or his van for at least a few days.
Duncan clambered out of the driver’s seat and stretched his arms above his head, breathing from the bottom of his lungs for the first time in what felt like months. Dried evergreen needles cushioned the ground, and everything smelled of wood smoke and white pine. He left the door open and went around the back of the van to open the double doors there, letting the breeze off the lake carry away the acrid whiff of gasoline and the greasy memory of the french fries he’d ordered in a moment of weakness on his way up through Bancroft. He stretched again, and yawned; the long drive had taken it out of him. He crawled onto the padded floor of the van and rolled over onto his back, just for a moment, and then, he told himself, he would get up and make a cup of tea or take a stroll. He woke up almost three hours later, his stomach rumbling.
That was about all he did for the next two and a half days: nap, eat, wander down to the beach and back, try to read a book but more likely than not nod off again. There was nowhere else he needed to be, and from how thinly stretched he’d been feeling, he could tell he needed the rest. His last job had demanded a string of all-nighters, which was unusual; the dead tended to keep daylight hours, just like the living. And the thing he thought of as a door–the door he had the ability to guide spirits to and through, the door that led to wherever living things went when their lives on earth were over–had been wildly erratic lately. He couldn’t open it; half the time he could barely find it, until it opened on him like a tsunami and knocked him flat. Work that had been as instinctual as breathing was now like spinning plates while balancing on an ice floe. It had something to do with a last-ditch effort that had saved a job in May, when a spirit had taken a scrap of Duncan’s own life energy with her through the door when she went. That had been a new one on him–none of the other spirits he’d tried the same thing with had done that–and maybe, he’d come to admit to himself, he hadn’t thought that strategy quite through. Now there was some kind of unpredictable counterweight to his power, constantly heaving him off balance. It was exhausting, it was extremely damn annoying, and Duncan had no idea what to do to fix it.
So he was relieved to leave it be for now, and doze in the tree-filtered afternoon sunlight, the shimmering white not-really-noise of creatures being conceived and dying a low hum at the back of his awareness. The other campers were far enough away that their thoughts weren’t intrusive, and aside from rote greetings at the communal water tap, he had a few restorative days of not talking to a single soul.
He did find himself checking his phone. The first bar flickered in and out of existence according to no schedule he could fathom, but even two bars brought him no emoji strings or enthusiastically unpunctuated texts. Radio silence wasn’t exactly Peter’s MO, but he did have an actual paying job as well as the work; maybe he was just busy.
On the fourth day, Duncan hiked over to the comfort station to have a shower and shave and do a badly needed load of laundry. Back at the campsite, he strung up a line to dry his clothes on, and fussed enough over the knots that he recognized he was ready for something new to do. The summer programs had wound down for the season, but there was always the visitor centre, and it had been a while since he’d visited the logging museum. Duncan had been a pretty lousy student even before his power had shown up and knocked him for a loop right before high school, but he enjoyed historical plaques, nature trails, museums, and guided tours of any kind, just as long as he wasn’t expected to parrot it all back on paper.
He got into the van and headed down 60 to the museum, which was just this side of the eastern gate. He easily found space in the sparsely populated parking lot, and followed the path to the orientation building. He vaguely remembered the video introduction from last time, and he skirted the building to enter the outdoor part of the museum, where a forested trail looped through time as well as space, starting with replicas of early logging camp buildings, water chutes and horse-powered cranes through to the amphibious alligator boat and steam locomotive. In the old photographs on the text panels, men stood in the snow with cold-darkened cheeks and beards clotted with ice, or balanced on cut tree trunks the width of sidewalks, with a flotilla of logs spreading out over the water behind them. The woods must have seemed endless in those days. Certainly, plenty of men had never come out of them.
In the low, square log camboose, Duncan sat down on one of the bottom bunks. Everything smelled of cut wood and earth. Light leaked in between the logs and under the eaves, down from the broad chimney hole and through the open door. In the centre of the room, a iron pot hung over the huge square hearth, cold now; then, it would have been the heart of everything. The upper bunk above his head made the space feel even more enclosed, almost cozy.
Footsteps scraped the gravelled path outside. “Daddy, watch me, watch me! Take my picture!” a young voice shrilled. Duncan shook his head at his fleeting rose-coloured glasses. The room would have been less appealing filled with smoke and wet wool socks and fifty other men who hadn’t showered all winter. There were stories of loggers who had walked out into the snow one day and were never seen again; Duncan couldn’t swear he wouldn’t have been one of them.
On his way back to the parking lot, he stopped to check his phone again–one bar; no messages–and read the bulletin board at the front of the museum he’d skipped on his way in.
“Have you seen the dig?”
When he turned, the park ranger smiled at him and pointed at a notice on the board. “This summer we’ve been excavating the site of an old logging camp. It will take a while for us to put together an exhibit of the artifacts, but the dig site itself is open to the public. I don’t know if anyone’s working on it today, but they have daily logs and some photographs on display, if you’re interested.” Duncan nodded. “Are you staying in the park? Oh, Pog Lake? It’s before your turn-off, then, past Eucalia Lake, on the north side. You can’t miss the sign.”
“Thanks,” he said, and she smiled again and continued into the museum.
The sign was indeed very visible, a growing spot of fluorescent pink against the green and dun that lined the two-lane highway. Up close it revealed itself to be a wilted piece of bristol board with DIG and an arrow written on it in black marker. Duncan pulled into the cleared spot beside the road. There were no other vehicles there. A wide path of dried mud and wood chips led into a tunnel of forest, the green-black of pines punctuated with autumn’s first scarlet maple and cadmium yellow aspen leaves.
This wasn’t one of the old growth areas of Algonquin, but the trees were still forty feet high or more, thick enough to create twilight on this overcast day. Opportunistic saplings made a lower ceiling layer, and boulders and fallen limbs and logs emerald with moss cluttered the uneven forest floor, so that the landscape seemed to crowd close around him. A whole lot of nothing, his dad would have called it, except that to Duncan it wasn’t nothing; it was crammed from here to the edges of his awareness with life.
The dig was in a cleared space, smaller than Duncan had expected. A grid of stakes bristled up from an indentation in the ground; the excavation itself was concealed by tarps held down by rocks and logs. Where the path ended, at the edge of the dig, was another of those peaked-roofed bulletin boards that were everywhere in the park. There were print-outs of photographs pinned up: tanned people in shorts and hiking boots with bandannas tied around their heads; a strip of blackened earth against brown; a half-buried, half-rusted iron pot; ivory dice, a belt buckle, a pipe. There was a hand-drawn map, with one square for the dig and another kitty-corner at a distance from it.
The page of typing that described the project had probably been there all summer, and was rain-spotted and wrinkled with damp. The current excavation was of a camboose from the late nineteenth century (1860s?? someone had annotated in pen) that had probably burned down (a pencil checkmark). North-west of it was another, later structure, of which some logs still remained. The corroded chains and tackle of a broken jammer had been found nearer the highway, which had led to the rediscovery of the site in the first place; original documentation was thin, human memory was short, and the forest tended to eat what got left behind.
Duncan walked to the edge of the low pit. Leaves whispered above him. An edge of plastic tarp shuffled in the breeze. A hot shiver vibrated straight up Duncan’s spine and along his arms like the ringing of a bell.
He backed up from the excavation until he felt underbrush against the backs of his thighs. He rubbed his arms over his jacket. Burned, had the notice said?
He looked again at the edge of the excavation, focusing the sense of sight that used more than just his eyes…
Someone was watching him.
Duncan stared back at the man who stood twenty feet from him in a fringe of ferns. In the eye-blink after wondering why the man was knee-deep in forest, he realized that it was because that spot had been the middle of a path when the man had been alive.
Duncan blew out a steadying breath. “Hello.”
“You, sir,” the man said, and looked at Duncan levelly. “You see me.”
“Yes. Do you need my help with something?”
“Happens that I do. Something’s taking my boys.”
Unlike the first camboose, of which there was little left but layers of char, this one had simply been abandoned to rot and dissolve into the forest floor. Now that he knew it was here, Duncan could see where the walls had been, fallen logs sketching an improbable square in the undergrowth. From his seat on a younger, sturdier log within the square, he could also see, in disorienting double vision, the camboose as it had been and still was for the man who stood in front of him: the blanket-covered bunk Duncan sat on, the amber glow of the central fire, the shadows in the corners that laid a darker filter over the already-dim woods.
“Now we’re settled in, first things first,” the man said. “Name’s Briggs. This is my place.”
“I’m Duncan Coburn. Are you a guardian?” He’d met them once or twice before, spirits who had planted themselves to guard a place. He wasn’t sure if that was the right term. Peter would know what to call them.
“I’m a foreman. I look after my boys.”
Duncan could see them, too, a handful of men in a semi-circle behind Briggs, none as solid as he was, a few just wavers of light. “Why have you all stayed here?”
“A lot of my boys think they won’t be going to a good place when they go.” He glanced back at them with grim affection. “I reckon at least some of them are right.”
That was easy to set straight. “The door takes everyone,” Duncan said. “We all go to the same place.”
“So you say. Not my concern. Thing is, some of them are gone.”
“How do mean gone?”
“I mean they ain’t here. And I don’t mean they’ve gone on. Now and then one’ll go, but this ain’t in the natural run of things. It’s too many, too fast.”
Briggs slipped his thumbs behind his suspenders as he thought. “Paulson. The Ogre. Sam-Sam. Tall Johnny…”
“Hawkins,” said one of the men behind him, as if speaking from a long way off.
Smithy, whispered someone else, a low gust like the wind through dry leaves.
“When did it start?”
Briggs’s forehead wrinkled; day-to-day time tended to be slippery for even the most aware spirits. “In the summer? You understand, some of them tend to go quiet for a while and then wake back up again. Might’ve been earlier and we didn’t notice.”
Duncan eyed the spirits behind Briggs. “Before they went, were they upset? Angry?”
Briggs gave him a look. “Lot of my boys are, yeah.”
“More than usual?”
Briggs shrugged. Duncan folded his arms and looked around the forest. Briggs’ thoughts made boulders and clumps of trees light up as landmarks: there was the clearing where they squared the logs, that was where they stored the water barrels for icing the roads. Duncan stood up. “Show me everywhere you and your men go.”
It was awkward travelling, Briggs striding ahead of him straight through saplings and brush, Duncan picking his way across uneven ground and crossing his fingers that he didn’t break his ankle in some burrowing animal’s front door. A few times he stopped abruptly, hands up to protect his face from impact, before realizing that the tree the width of an eighteen-wheeler cab was something he was seeing only in Briggs’ memory. He’d read about the old growth forests; actually seeing them made his skin prickle in awe.
“The Ogre liked to spend time here,” Briggs said, pausing where there had been a clearing in the cathedral of trees, once. “He was never much for other people.”
Duncan closed his eyes and felt. Chipmunks, a fox nearby, the perpetual hum of small lives. Nothing human.
“This is as far as we cleared, on this side.” Briggs swept his hand to indicate a border Duncan couldn’t differentiate now, where loggers before Briggs’ crew had left a landscape of stumps, peeled bark and new scrub taking advantage of the sunshine. “We went deeper on t’other.”
They worked their way in an arc around the camboose site, crossing the shadows of roads and clearings. “That’s where Smithy did for himself,” Briggs pointed out. “Axe in the foot. Wound went bad.”
“Did he like to stay around here?”
“No, he kept with us, in the camboose. And that there’s the very tree where Scotty hanged himself from, but he ain’t one of the ones gone.”
Duncan caught a sense of presence, like a whiff of smoke on the wind, a little ways north of them. It was focused and hazy at the same time, the way things could get when a spirit was obsessed with something. He headed towards it.
“Aw, now,” Briggs said, with a tinge of embarrassment, “you don’t need to go disturbing those two.”
“Why, what are they–”
It was two, yes, though they were intimately close together, an undulating blur against a tree. Duncan could sense them individually, but barely, like two layers of tissue paper melting into one in the rain.
“You get that, in camp,” Briggs said gruffly. “Those two, it ain’t like they got much other pleasure out of life. Leave them be. They ain’t hurting anyone.”
“It’s all right, I agree with you.” This was just a reconnoiter, anyway. He’d come back again to talk to them, alone, without Briggs being growlingly protective in all directions. “Are they always in this spot?”
“Naw, they drift around.”
They kept walking. Duncan was forced to stop to disentangle his shaggy hair from a clutching twig, and realized that he was hunching his shoulders. It was an effort to straighten; pain undulated out from his chest like a raindrop making ripples in water, sending throbs up through his skull, down to his wrists and shins.
He took a deep breath and grounded himself in his own body, flexing his toes in his boots, noticing the cool damp of the air against his cheeks, reminding himself of the integrity of his physical borders. The pain dulled. Then he cast his awareness out to find what had caused it, and flinched when he found it.
“Jonah Bailey,” Briggs said, as they came up on something that Duncan didn’t want to look too closely at, a broken huddle at the base of a tree. “That was a nasty death. I reckon he never got over it.”
This, now, this was a thing Duncan could do something about. He steeled himself and crouched down, trying not to focus too closely on the red bubbles that breath made seeping out of the crushed ruin of a chest, or the clotted remains of Bailey’s face.
“Jonah Bailey, you don’t have to be in pain,” he said. “You can go on at any time.”
There was no sign that Bailey even noticed him, mired in his own agony, struggling to take in a last breath that had been denied him for over a century.
“Everyone goes through the door,” Duncan said. “Whatever you’ve done, whatever you think you deserve punishment for, it doesn’t matter now. The door will take you in.”
He reached out with whatever sense it was that he used to touch the door, trying to find that bud of possibility, the promise of ease and warmth. Help me, he thought at it. Help him.
A gray jay chattered somewhere in the treetops, earning grating echoes from farther away. A car hissed past on the highway, a distant sound like rushing water.
Duncan tamped down frustration, shook his head to clear it, and reached out again. He’s in pain. Please come take him. He felt his hand, instinctively mirroring his efforts, grasp empty air. Bailey’s breath wheezed wetly. Duncan gritted his teeth and pushed further, knowing that he was on the verge of fucking this up by trying too hard and unable, in this moment, to stop. There was so much suffering he could do nothing about, he read it in people’s minds every day, felt their loneliness and uncertainty and misery and flat-out despair; this one thing he could do, this one thing the door could do, so why wasn’t it happening–
Something in him gave way. Anguish tore through Duncan as his back bowed, and he collapsed onto the twigs and moss beside Bailey’s labouring ghost.
He might have lost consciousness for a moment. When he became aware again, there was a slick of cold sweat under his arms and a drum-beat of pain rolling against one temple.
Well, that was stupid.
He rolled onto his hands and knees. As he pushed himself to standing, his back started to clench. He froze and breathed through the spasm, then straightened and put one hand up to his temple to keep his pulse from bursting right through it.
“Looks like that didn’t do the trick,” Briggs observed dryly.
“Yeah.” Duncan staggered. He felt almost high, not in a good way but in a strained, butter-scraped-over-too-much-bread way. “How much else did you need to show me?”
“Couple more places over thisaway you might want to take a look at.”
They tromped through the woods for another fifteen minutes. By the time they got back to the camboose, Duncan was drenched with sweat and breathing as shallowly as he could; deep breaths hurt.
“I’ll come back soon and take a closer look,” he promised.
“Yep. Best to get someone to rub some liniment on that back.”
The first thing Duncan did when he crawled into the back of his van was to swallow a couple of ibuprofen, chased with lukewarm water. He wished he’d thought to make himself a thermos of tea before he left the campsite. He wished Peter were here to smooth down his agitation and shore up his energy with warm, bare skin. But he’d made do alone for a lot of years. His emergency food supply contained a couple of a Jokerz bars, and he fished one out and took a bite of chocolate and nougat and peanuts. He wasn’t a huge fan of sweets, but sugar and caffeine were the best alternative to touch that he’d found.
As he was driving back to the campsite, his phone let out a musical typewriter burst. Duncan pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway and took it out of his pocket.
Peter’s number. Hey so
Duncan waited for the followup for a counted minute before he typed back, What’s up? When he tried to send it, all he got was a circled red exclamation point and a stern Not Delivered.
He spent the evening and the next morning moving slowing and figuring out which postures did not send warning cramps rippling up his back. At least the stretched-thin feeling had abated.
After breakfast he drove out to the dig again. There was another car parked on the cleared patch. Duncan hesitated but then pulled in anyway, and as he walked down the path, nodded at the older couple on their way out. What day was it? Thursday, he saw, checking his phone. He wondered whether it was going to get busy on the weekend.
The dig was still tarped. Duncan stood on the bare ground and directed a tentative thread of awareness like a root into the soil.
The hairs rose on the back of his neck, and he backed away a step before he could stop himself. Something was near; he could sense it as though he were on a frozen surface looking down to a dark body blundering in the deep.
He had no illusions that whoever or whatever it was wasn’t connected with Briggs’ men going missing. But it clearly wasn’t going to welcome him. And with things with the door the way they were, well, it couldn’t hurt to know a bit more before he made a move.
He avoided Briggs’ camboose for now, and, guiltily, the spot where Jonah Bailey lay. He would get Bailey through the door. He would find a way. Just not right this second.
He found the lovers lying in the sheltered cave formed by the lowest boughs of a pine. Now that he knew what they were doing, their misty outline against the red-brown carpet of fallen needles was suggestive: someone bent on his hands and knees, someone kneeling behind him, an easy rhythm rolling through them both. Duncan chose a seat on a lichen-spotted boulder a polite distance away and settled in to wait for them to finish.
When you could hear other people’s thoughts, sex was weird in a way that, Duncan gathered, was different from all the ways it was weird for everybody else. For one thing, although his own experience was well on the vanilla end of things, he’d been through a whole travelogue of positions and kinks and illicit adventures in his head. It was amazing what people thought about while killing time at the laundromat or lining up to pay for gas.
The lovers had drifted, not so much apart as into a different shape, now with one of them leaning against the tree trunk and the other kneeling at his feet.
It was like having watched thousands of hours of incredibly varied but also very specific niche porn, if porn were something that got unexpectedly beamed into your head while you were just trying to buy groceries. At least he didn’t have to deal with inconvenient boners. The static of everyone else’s thoughts tended to white out physical arousal for Duncan under most circumstances. Though that was a mixed blessing, since it also cancelled out convenient boners.
The fog against the tree trunk had thickened, as if two people now leaned and thrust together, still rippling at that same easy, steady pace.
It was difficult to explain to some people how sex could be pleasurable without involving an orgasm or even a hard-on. The kindest, most generous men he’d met in truck stops and parks and the bathrooms of small-town bars–the men he’d known it was safe to approach–had also been the ones to feel the most conflicted about not going down on their knees for him in turn, or at least jerking him off. It could be hard to convince them that just getting his hands on their naked skin was all he needed.
The lovers were back on the ground again, face to face or one sitting behind the other–Duncan couldn’t tell–still rocking together. Duncan wondered if they’d had this much stamina when they’d been alive.
And then there was Peter, who not only was kind and generous but also had sunk a lot of his self-worth into being able to meet other people’s needs. Peter, who, on the first job they’d worked together, faced with a Duncan who was exhausted and dizzy and shocky from losing a part of his soul to whatever was behind the door, had stripped them both down and plastered his body against Duncan’s. Peter, who had selflessly tried to deny his own need out of a fear of exploiting Duncan, even as Duncan had happily stroked him off. Duncan had not made it clear enough to Peter, it occurred to him now, that that had been the most satisfying physical experience he’d had in years.
Were they ever going to finish? he wondered, watching the surging mist flow into another supine form. He focused his attention a little more directly on them, shrugging off self-consciousness. They felt the same as they had when he’d arrived, the same as they had the day before, in fact. They weren’t going to finish, he realized. Ever. Without physical bodies, there was no climax to interrupt them; they could just keep going, spirits wrapped around one another, inside one another, forever at the sweet spot between desire and urgency…
At the thought of that eternal touch, he felt himself blush. He turned away from the pair and looked into the cooling, distant green until the disconcerting thrill of arousal had faded and he felt able to pay attention to the work in front of him.
He approached the pair making both physical and psychic noise. They noticed him as he stopped at the edge of the pine’s protected circle, although their undulation continued.
“I’m sorry for disturbing you. I’m trying to find out what happened to some people who have disappeared. May I ask you a few questions?”
They answered with wordless assent.
“Briggs said you move around the forest. Have you seen any spirits in trouble, maybe trying to run away from something or struggling with something, being taken somewhere they don’t want to be?”
Forest, they agreed, more idea than word. Duncan caught a sense of longing and satisfaction both. But they didn’t give the impression of having seen anyone in distress.
“Have you seen the door opening recently?” Maybe Briggs was mistaken, and the spirits had simply moved on after all. But all he got at the mention of the door was indifference. They ignored it when it came; they weren’t ready for that kind of change.
“Have you noticed anything new or different?”
They paused thoughtfully, taking the opportunity to drift into another against-the-tree pose. There were still two of them, he could tell, but they felt identical to him. They had been two who were different, and now they were two who were the same, each made up two halves of what they’d been. Someday, if the door didn’t take them before that, they’d be one, like red and blue plasticine being slowly kneaded together into purple.
Fire, smoke. Smoke, fire.
He’d guessed as much. “I understand. Anything else?”
They considered. Save them.
He didn’t like the sound of that. Duncan sighed. “I’ll try.”
He thanked them and left them swaying against one another. He made his way back to the camboose and sat on the log. “Briggs?”
The foreman appeared, two of his more solid men flanking him. Duncan could feel their regard: distrust of him, old resentments and fears, anxiety hot in one like a smouldering firecracker.
“What can you tell me about the older camboose, the one that burned?”
Briggs scratched his beard. “Well, now, it was before my time, but I remember one of the old-timers saying it was a bad business. Happened at night. Not everybody got out.”
“Is there anyone from then still around?”
“Never seen any.”
Duncan stuck his hands in his pockets. “I think someone’s been woken up by the dig there. I’m going to go talk to them.”
“Might need more than talking,” said one of the other men, and his form darkened into shadow, looming up towards the treetops.
“That’s not how I do things,” Duncan said.
Briggs turned his head towards the man. “It’s under control,” he said, and Duncan ducked his head against an unexpected swell of pride.
When he got back to the dig, he listened for voices or the sound of a car out in the parking lot, but heard nothing. He contemplated the tarped hollow.
“I’d like to talk to you,” he said.
“I’m looking for some people who’ve disappeared. Their friends are wondering what happened to them. Have you seen them?”
The tarp shivered in the breeze. Duncan looked down at it unhappily, knowing what he was going to have to do.
Under the tarp, the excavation was at least broad enough to not immediately remind him of a grave. Nearest him was the deepest trench, with two more in ranks like steps up to the level of the cleared forest floor. Fortunately, it hadn’t rained heavily in the last week, so there was no standing water at the bottom. Duncan cast a last look at the path, mentally apologized to archaeologists everywhere, and lowered himself into the dig.
He laid down on his back, spreading the hood of his hoodie so his hair wouldn’t be in the dirt. He couldn’t quite bring himself to pull the tarp back over himself. Far above, dark branches and leaves traced a lattice on grey sky. The still air around him smelled of soil, damp, and rotting leaves.
Duncan closed his eyes. He pressed his palms against the ground, let his fingertips push divots into the dirt. Tiny lives glittered around him.
“I want to help,” he said into the silence.
A shiver ran along his skin. He shied away from the thought of many-legged things crawling in the dirt. “How can I help?”
Help. Save them
His own heart boomed so loudly that Duncan started. Get them. Panic raced up his body. Save them save them get them save them
“Yes,” he sent into the dark. “I’ll help you save them. What’s wrong?”
Save them get them SAVE THEM SAVE THEM
“Where are they?” It was hard to see, everything was murk and confusion. “I’ll help. Where are you?”
No way out lost lost SAVE THEM
Duncan inhaled smoke, choking hot. He could feel other spirits, disoriented and isolated in featureless roaring light. He coughed and reached out for them. His touch fell short.
Despair crashed down on Duncan, followed in an instant by searing agony on the side of his head. He rocketed to his feet and flailed at the flames.
“Drop!” demanded a different voice. “Drop and roll, yeh fuckin’ idiot!”
Duncan heaved himself out of the dig, onto flatter ground, and rolled over and over in the dirt. The pain retreated. He could see again, breathe again. He sat up. His back felt as though someone were grinding knuckles into the side of his spine.
“Trying to run away from fire like a damn fool,” groused Briggs.
Duncan put a cautious hand to the side of his head. A handful of charred hair crumbled, blackening his fingers. His skin was stubbled and tender.
“They’re there,” he said.
“What’s got them?” Briggs asked grimly.
Someone else’s memory of flames that blotted out all other sight and sound jolted through him. Duncan strained a breath through his teeth before realizing that the air around him was clear and cool. “He’s another logger. He got trapped, and he thinks he’s helping them, trying to save them from the fire. He’s holding onto them and trying to get out.”
“But my boys? How do I get them out?”
The answer was the same as it always was: “I have to find a way to get him through the door.”
Duncan had come prepared this time. Back in the van, he drank a thermosful of strong, sweet tea, and swallowed a peanut butter sandwich without tasting it. Then, because he felt about to crumble into ash himself, he wrapped himself in his sleeping bag and fell asleep for two solid hours. He needed it, but it messed up his sleep schedule; he spent that night dozing through tangled dreams of smoke and doorless hallways, startling awake every hour with a gasp to find himself surrounded by the clean, chill air of an Algonquin October. Once, deep in the night, he woke to the sound of wolves howling out to one another across the dark distances. The back of his neck prickled, and he remembered an Ojibway guy he’d met once from way up in Temagami First Nation, who’d said, “Man, there is shit out in those woods that just needs to be left the hell alone.”
On Friday, he cooked himself a stick-to-your-ribs breakfast of oatmeal and dried apricots. He used his Coleman stove rather than the campfire, and checked three times to make sure the flame was out. Then he headed out to the dig for the fourth time. He’d come across a lot of thorny cases this year, he reflected as he drove. But then, spirits usually stuck around for strongly felt reasons. Only occasionally did he find one who had simply lost their way and needed to be ushered in the direction of the door like a lost tourist. Hello, goodbye, and home in time for second breakfast, as Peter liked to say.
There were two cars already in the dig parking lot. Duncan hesitated, then carried on by and out of the park into town, where he grabbed some groceries. He also stopped at a drugstore and got a good look at himself in a mirror. A patch the size of his fist on the left side of his scalp was almost bare; the skin looked pink and tight. His next stop was the town barber, who buzzed his shoulder-length hair down to velvet on the rest of his head to match. Duncan hadn’t had his hair that short since grade school, and he felt so exposed that he had to dig his grey toque out of his box of winter clothing.
When he passed the dig on the way back, there were three cars in the parking lot.
Duncan drove back to the campground and spent the rest of the day reading and napping–which would confuse his sleep rhythm even further, but later on, he suspected, he’d be glad of the rest. More cars pulled into the lots around him as the afternoon wore on, and the rust-and-green landscape sprouted lemon-lime tents and fuschia gore-tex jackets and acid-blue canoes.
At twilight, as campfires sprouted among the trees, Duncan drove back to the dig for what he hoped would be the last time. He parked in the empty lot as close to the trees as he could get, and propped up on the dash the sign he’d scrawled on scrap paper for this kind of job: Engine trouble, back soon. Then he made his way into the woods.
There was a quarter moon, and he left his flashlight in his pocket to let his night vision develop. Getting to the dig was easy, the wood chips crunching softly under his tread. Once there, Duncan looked in the direction of the second camboose, not too eager to traipse through the undergrowth in the dark unless he had to. “Briggs?”
He sensed the foreman appear next to him. “Yeah?”
“Do you know where the entrance to this camboose was?”
Briggs surveyed the site. “Well, now, we always cleared a space in front, so…likely right about there.” Duncan moved to where Briggs pointed, about the middle of the eastern edge of the dig. “What are you about?”
Duncan sat on the ground. The chill immediately began to seep into his legs. “I’m going to try to show him the door.”
“And if he sets you on fire again?”
“I’m hoping if I can lead him out, that won’t happen.” It was a risk, no question, and if it was just the man in the burned camboose, maybe he wouldn’t have tried it. But it wasn’t just him; it was all the others, Briggs’ friends and maybe others he didn’t know about, who knew how many, trapped down there, lost and choking. He couldn’t leave them to an eternity of that.
He centred himself and reached out. “Are you there? I’m here, at the door. Come towards me.”
What seemed a long time passed. Then, from below: Out
“Yes. Bring them out.”
Bring them save them save them
Duncan tried to keep his breathing steady against a surge of adrenalin. “You can save them. You can get them out. Bring them towards me.”
Out save them lost lost
“Towards me.” He could sense them all, spirits he had seen briefly in Briggs’ memories, now milling around each other in a close space, snared in panic and disorientation. “Bring them out. You can save them.”
Now would be a good time for the door to show up, Duncan thought, and cast out a thought for it. He felt the spirit’s attention leave the churning confusion around him, fountain out to focus on what Duncan was doing. Save save save The naked side of Duncan’s head tingled.
“You can save them,” he repeated with half his concentration, trying to pull the budding possibility that was the door out of the ether. His face prickled, as though tiny flying cinders had landed on his skin. He hoped that if fire manifested again, Briggs would be able to call him out of it in time.
Save The spirit swooped in close. Electricity ran along Duncan’s arms, and a growing heat like the beginnings of a sunburn. Then a pull, as though the spirit were looking outward. Save save save them ALL
Duncan’s eyes began to water in intangible smoke. “Yes, save th–”
A force like a pickup truck in high gear slammed into his chest and knocked him into the dirt. Agony ground his breastbone into fragments. He heard his own gasp, too shocked to even draw breath to scream.
Bailey. The spirit had found him, gathered him in.
Duncan fought to distance himself from Bailey’s pain. He was not that broken body; he was whole, living, separate.
Another force hit him, lower than his chest this time. The lovers. Heat surged into Duncan’s groin. He honestly couldn’t tell whether he was physically responding or not; the thought or memory of intimate touch was more visceral right now than his own body.
Out demanded the spirit. Duncan felt his skin tighten and itch as the fire licked closer. Sensation racked him, anguish and lust and flames, all of it heat, blending together and winding tighter and higher.
He thought fleetingly of the door. All his concentration had scattered like cold ashes kicked into the dirt. He sent a tendril of appeal out to it, the faintest plea, the weakest touch, knowing it was futile.
And the door answered.
Out The spirit’s vast, exhausted, disbelieving relief washed over him. The door began to open, just a thread of light and harmony, and the spirit moved towards it.
Taking them with him. Bailey, the lovers, the Ogre and Smithy and all of Briggs’ men, Briggs now too, all of them dragged along by the spirit’s conviction. All of them, including Duncan.
Stop, he thought at the spirit, unable to speak, and struggled against a rip tide of solace that soothed the agony away.
Saved the spirit promised.
Yes. You saved them. Now let them go.
Go the spirit agreed. The door was about to open, pulsing with comfort and light. Tears of longing pricked Duncan’s eyes.
Stop. It’s not right. Not like this. That was a fundamental of the work, practicality and his own ethics in parallel; the door itself might be able to compel people, but Duncan could only bring them to it and try to persuade them. He got a sense of incomprehension back from the spirit. Of course; who wouldn’t choose to be saved from a fire?
Duncan tried to drop away from the spirit’s hold, but it had him fast. He could feel the door’s consolation, like hearing a favourite song indistinctly through apartment walls. Some poor park ranger would find his body in the morning. Would Peter ever know why Duncan had stopped replying to his messages? Would he think Duncan was just ignoring him until Peter left him alone?
“That’s far enough.” Briggs’ voice was hoarse, as though he had breathed smoke, but firm.
The spirit wavered. Saved
“Yeah. You did well. I’ll take it from here.” His authority was bedrock. Duncan felt the grip on him loosen.
Go Now the spirit was uncertain.
“Yeah, you go. You’ve earned it. You let me worry about them now. It’s my job.”
The door bloomed open.
There was a sense of giving in, both reluctant and longed-for. The spirit didn’t let them go so much as set them all down gently. Duncan felt himself settle back fully into his own cold, aching body. The spirit slid away into glory. Others, freed now, followed him regardless: Bailey, leaving his agony behind at last; the one Briggs had called the Ogre; a few more. The light of the door eclipsed them, and then they and the door were gone.
The lovers drifted away into the trees. Spirits around him dissolved back to the camboose or their favourite spots. Duncan groaned and relaxed into the dirt. Constellations invisible in the city glittered above him.
He felt Briggs beside him, squatting down. “You all right?”
Duncan rolled onto his side and managed to push himself up to sitting. Everything, physical and psychic, felt battered. “Yeah…” He was shivering. “Good thing he listened to you.”
“A good logger knows when to heed his foreman.” And then, as if in response to the thought that Duncan was trying to keep to himself: “Without your part, I couldn’t have done mine. Well done.”
“Yeah. You too.” Duncan tried to stand. He couldn’t get his trembling legs under him. Unable to help himself, he reached out; his hands went right through Briggs’ arm. He flushed. “Sorry.”
“I can’t touch the world the way some can.” Briggs pursed his lips. “Hold on, I got an idea.”
He disappeared. Duncan wrapped his arms around himself. Why had he decided to leave his thermos a million miles away in his damn van?
Briggs appeared again, not alone.
Touch? the lovers offered.
He barely stopped himself from grabbing at them. “Do you mind?”
Touch. They closed around him. Warmth, connection, familiarity, pleasure. The rhythm of heartbeats, of sex, of bodies of water. Duncan swayed with them, enveloped and embracing, feeling their enjoyment at his difference and sameness, and his need gradually hushed into a smooth, gentle contentment.
The moon had moved by the time he separated himself from them. “Thank you,” he said, and felt their gratification in return before they wandered away. His body was relaxed and just a little aroused, enough to feel good without him needing to do anything about it.
Duncan stood up and brushed himself off. “Briggs?” The foreman appeared again from wherever he’d vanished to to give Duncan some privacy. “That helped a lot, thank you. But I have to get going.”
“Sure. It was real good working with you,” Briggs said. “Now you go get some food in you, catch some sleep.”
“I will. I hope you don’t have any more trouble.”
“It’s gonna be quiet around here,” Briggs said, surveying the dark forest that held fewer of his men than it had. “I like quiet.” Duncan saw the forest through his eyes again for a moment, towering old-growth trees that three men linked could not encircle with their arms. Then Briggs faded, and Duncan made his way back to the parking lot and his van.
By the time he woke up at his campsite the next morning, most of the other campers had doused their breakfast fires and moved on to the kayaking or hiking or whatever vigorous outdoor activity had brought them out to the park. Duncan cooked himself a massive breakfast of home fries and scrambled tofu, accompanied by a litre of tea. He knew he’d probably have to pull over and have a nap later in the afternoon, but for now he felt wide awake and ready to be on his way. He left by the west gates and headed south on 60.
Ten minutes out of the park, a long string of musical typewriter arpeggios erupted from his phone, one after another after another, each punctuated with a chime. Duncan was laughing by the time they ended.
He’d need to stop in Dorset for gas, and he’d read all of Peter’s messages then. In the meantime, he cradled the warm knowledge of them as he drove down the highway in the brilliant October day, the sunlight turning all the autumn trees around him to flaming crimson and gold.