Gerri Brightwell

Editor’s Note: This essay contains a discussion of suicide.

Brad’s dad isn’t waiting for him by the escalator but over by the luggage carousel. That fluff of white hair standing above other heads, that gaunt face scanning the passengers and, when he spots Brad, that set to his jaw. “How many?” he says.
       “There wasn’t time to go home and pack.”
     No hug. No handshake. No, So how’re you holding up, son? Just those unblinking eyes staring at him, as though his coming home is infinitely disappointing. Then his dad says, “So what the hell are we doing standing around here?” and pushes his way through the crowd, and Brad has to dodge along behind him.
      How strange to walk outside into air that smells only of recent rain. No reek of burning. No smoke scratching his eyes. All around, pristine hills glow in the late afternoon light, as though he’s dreamed himself here and any moment now he’s going to startle awake to a world socked in with smoke.
      Already his dad’s crossing the parking lot, striding past puddles with his stiff-hipped gait, and when he stops it’s by a gleaming red SUV. He angles a fob at the door, and the car lets out a perky beep. Only now does he glance back.
       Brad doesn’t hurry—why the hell should he? Still, as he comes close he calls out, “Nice ride, Dad. Looks brand new.”
        His dad pulls open the driver’s door. “What do you take me for? I bought it a year old. You buy a new vehicle—”
        “Yeah yeah, it loses—”
     “—it loses half its value before you’ve driven it off the dealer’s lot.” His mouth snaps shut, then he levers himself in behind the wheel.
      The seats are comfortable, luxuriously so, and some of the stiffness in Brad’s shoulders eases. He sets his backpack down, leaning it against his shin as though he needs to know it’s there. Inside, his laptop, a few pens, his ear buds, a chocolate bar he bought at the gas station on the way to work this morning then forgot to eat. Right now, this might be all he owns in the world—and if he’d known he was going to end up flying back to Canada, what else would he have brought with him? The sort of documents that are a pain to replace? Or sentimental stuff, like The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America that his mom gave him when he turned thirteen?
        No, he mustn’t think like that. He takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly, and yet he can’t help thinking how naïve he’d been this morning, how utterly fucking clueless, as though the sheer mass of ordinary days—working in the lab, running seminars for undergrads, meeting with his dissertation advisor—shielded him from a day like this when the wind swept up embers from a forest fire many miles away and scattered them across town.
      His fingers are curled so tight his nails bite into his palms. He stretches them on his thighs, thinks: underwear, a toothbrush, a razor. Shouldn’t he have been prepared? Shouldn’t he have carried those things around, or had spares at the lab? There’d been fires burning across the state all summer, the wind blowing in smoke and ash, and yet he carried on as though disaster couldn’t touch him. “Hey, Dad,” he says, “I need to pick up a few things before we head home.”
       His dad mutters, “Jeez, Bradford.”
   The car’s rolling through the parking lot powerfully, smoothly, a jazz number easing out of the speakers, the sort of stuff older men listen to, as though it confers on them some sort of sophistication. Beyond the windows, the world’s distant and serene. Brad thinks, this is why people who can afford nice things don’t give a fuck about the rest of us. Something Gemma would have said. Maybe she’s had to scramble to find somewhere to evacuate to as well. Maybe she’s with her parents in Seattle. But then, he thinks, maybe he doesn’t give a shit, and he lets his head fall back. The headrest is softer than he expected and gives off a slight, flowery perfume.
        Nothing feels real: this slick vehicle, the world outside in all its startling clarity, his dad beside him whittled down to bony angles, never mind that he’s only in his sixties. How could this be where he is on a Thursday afternoon, when just hours ago he’d been in the lab sipping coffee and logging data? There’d been a shout from Sanjay that everyone needed to listen up, they had to evacuate campus right now, for real. A titter of laughter—who had that been?—then people groaning and cursing. Sanjay held up a laptop livestreaming the local news: A reporter in front of a restaurant’s half-melted sign. A shot of flames leaping through the building’s windows. Along the bottom of the screen, an evacuation alert in red and Sanjay was yelling, “The Taylor Road McDonald’s is on fire. Come on, get going!” A moment later, stools scraped across the floor, equipment beeped, fridge doors slammed shut. Sanjay was talking into his phone, head bent. When he glanced up he cried, “No, you guys, no time for that. Get the fuck out of here!” Brad shoved his laptop into his bag, grabbed his keys with no idea where the hell he was going until he realized: in his bag, his new passport—a miracle of timing that HR had needed a copy.
      There’d been a crazy rush upstairs and out into the quad, and there everyone stopped. The sky, a filthy brown now, was shedding pieces of ash that came skimming down on the wind. One landed on Brad’s outstretched his palm: charred bark as long as his finger. When he touched it with his fingertip, it crumbled. That’s when fear took hold o  him, but how long it took to flee: cars crawling along the road, glowing embers floating through the murk, but by then he was on the highway. Even now in his dad’s car hundreds of kilometres north, his breath catches at the memory of it. His body can’t believe the danger’s been left behind, that it’s truly possible to be lifted out of one world and set down safely in another.
     Up ahead, the pay kiosk, and his dad snatches the parking ticket off the dash. All those times Brad’s come home, it was his mom who’d been sitting up front with her purse open. Now he’s looking through his wallet, nothing but American, and his dad’s let go of the wheel to fumble in his pocket, and the car’s drifting off at an angle. Brad says, “Hey, take my card,” but his dad pulls out a handful of bills, snatching the wheel just as a tire scrapes the curb.
      “So, this is how things are without Mom?” He smiles quickly to make a joke of it.
        “Christ, Bradford, if your mom was alive, I wouldn’t be driving this car.”
        “She’d have loved it. That old thing you drove, the heater never worked.”
        His dad tilts his head, as though he can’t quite believe what he’s hearing. “You know what? We looked at nice cars, and they were always too expensive, too big, or too something. She didn’t know how to be happy.” He lets the car roll forward to the kiosk and tosses the ticket into the tray, then uncurls a five from the bills in his hand.
        “She was just careful, Dad.”
    “You think? So careful that she had a good life and threw it away like garbage?” He glances at Brad, eyes dark and furious, then turns back to the cashier who’s dropping change into the tray. He snatches it up before sending the car surging off, too fast for the narrow road.
        “Come on, Dad, you can’t blame her for the accident.”
     “Accident.” He spits out the word as he steers sloppily around a bend. Up ahead a small white car’s nosing its way along, and he hangs right behind it, says, “Look at that, they’re afraid of the damn gas pedal.”
        “What, you think she fell in on purpose?”
     The whole summer his father has been curt on the phone, has always referred to what happened as the accident. Brad’s mom died the day he had his tonsils out, and the fact that he was still lying in bed streaming movies and drinking liquid painkiller while she was cremated made her death unreal. Sometimes he forgets she’s gone—like today, standing at the departure gate with his phone to his ear. He’d expected to hear her voice, but of course it was his dad who answered, who sighed and said, “You’re already at the airport, aren’t you? What the hell’s this about?” as though footage of Oregon’s massive fires hadn’t been all over the news north of the border.
     Now his dad’s bent forward over the steering wheel, glaring out the windshield as he says, “A woman who’s deathly afraid of the water takes a canoe out on her own at night. What other explanation is there?”
        “You didn’t say anything about a canoe. You just said she drowned.”
       “Use your head, Bradley—what did you imagine? That she drowned in the bathtub?”
        “I thought she must have fallen in from the path.”
        “She was out in a canoe. I told you when I called.”
        “No, you didn’t.” In Brad’s chest a hollow pain flares, as though an organ has been wrenched out. “All this time, I had no idea. I mean—”
        The words just hang there as he stares at tree leaves bouncing and glinting in the sunlight, the way everything’s so stark it seems cut out with scissors. “Why would she have done that? What on earth could have happened?” He looks at his dad. “Is there something you haven’t told me?”
       His dad’s head flinches around. “Something I haven’t told you? Christ, the way you talk, you sound just like her, you know that?”
      He’d expected his dad to be broken and lonely, to be prickly about being comforted, never mind that he surely needed comforting. Instead he’s in the grip of this—this anger, this spite. Is this grief, twisted out of shape? Is it the bitterness of a man whose life has suddenly come undone? Or is this just who he’s always been at heart?
     Brad rubs at a stain on his jeans—a drip from the smoothie he made for breakfast, so very long ago. On his kitchen counter, bananas just ripe enough for the blender; in the fridge, pasta leftovers he was planning to eat for dinner. Maybe by the time he gets back, it’ll all be rotten. Or maybe, at this very moment, his apartment is on fire. Flames twisting from the windows. Dark smoke gushing into the sky. He curls in on himself, elbows on knees, because suddenly he’s come adrift from wherever he’s been moored all these years, and the difference between burned and unscathed, between dead and alive, it’s as insubstantial as the boundary where air meets water, and you can fall through and be lost forever. Is that what his mom realized? That in the end it’s impossible to keep yourself safe?
      A jolt, and Brad’s thrown forward against the pull of his seatbelt. Beside him his dad’s cursing. When Brad looks up, the nose of the SUV is just inches from the white car, and the car’s stopped at a yield sign, never mind that there’s no traffic. A few heartbeats later the car glides through the intersection and his dad’s right behind, then he overtakes with a fuck-you honk on the horn.
        Now that the road’s clear, his dad’s driving crazy fast. Brad bites his teeth together because he wants to bellow at him to slow down, there’s no big hurry. The words stick in his throat: they’re what his mom would have said. Instead he grips the seat and watches the blacktop rushing at them, and when at last he speaks, it’s to say, “Something must have happened to make her that unhappy.”
        “She was always unhappy, that’s the kind of woman she was.”
        “That’s not fair, Dad.” It comes out so quietly, he’s not sure his dad heard. He glances at him and says more loudly, “I just want to understand. If she killed herself, it wouldn’t have been for no reason.”
        “I didn’t say she killed herself. She put herself in a position where she’d probably die, and that’s just like her, not even making up her mind to do it. Here’s what I do know—she left me with the damn lodge to run single-handed for the rest of the summer. I had to hire in a woman from Colson to help out because we were booked solid. Can you imagine? And arrange a funeral on top of all that?” He shifts his hands on the wheel, clenching it so hard that his fingers look like claws.
        “Must have been awful, Dad. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there to help.”
        His dad doesn’t reply, as though it’s not worth the effort, and Brad turns to watch the landscape sweeping past. Tall pines shading the road, gleaming mailboxes, here and there crows settled on the cables looping between telephone poles. He closes his eyes. A tug in his gut, the urge to be back in his own life wondering whether to call Gemma—Christ, hadn’t she dumped that shit of a boyfriend yet?—, and Troy’s birthday at the weekend, and the new research assistant who’d smiled at him but seemed to know she was pretty. By now, the fire could have ruined it all and he’ll be stranded here for weeks, for months even. Maybe by now there’s news, and if he pulls out his phone, he’ll know. Instead, he rests his hand on its hard shape in his pocket and tilts his head toward the window, as though he’s already asleep.

The lab’s strangely dark and echoing. Brad’s at his desk, and the raw data he’s pulled up on his laptop makes no sense. Rather than numbers there are nonsense words, and they’re spilling out across the screen. Is he typing? He looks down. Oozing over the keys is a fibrous yellow mass. Slime mould, a variety called dog’s vomit that Sanjay gave him, only now it’s pushed its way out of its jar. Its clammy tendrils slip around his fingers, then tighten. In moments the mould’s winding its way around his wrists and up his arms, and there’s no mistaking its malicious intent, yet through his panic he thinks how incredible it is that a being with no eyes, no nervous system, no brain, is overwhelming him. Then, breathtakingly fast, the mould’s pouring across his face—
       He wakes with a gasp. The sun’s so low it’s glaring through the windshield. Beyond the glass, a parking lot, the store. His dad kills the engine, says, “Come on, Bradford, let’s make it quick.”

If slime moulds weren’t already on our planet, living in leaf litter or decaying wood, it would be easy to mistake them for alien life. Here’s the curious thing about them: they’re not animals or plants, they’re not even fungi. Instead they’re something more ancient derived from amoebae except, unlike amoebae, these single-celled beings can come together as one creature, and that creature can demonstrate a disconcerting intelligence. For example: a slime-mould expert, exasperated by the circuitous layout of Ikea, constructed a tiny model of the store’s floor plan—a maze, essentially. Slime mould grows slowly. It took hours for it to creep through the labyrinth, but it found the shortest route out.
     Since then, slime moulds have been set loose in models of Tokyo, of the Iberian Peninsula, of the whole planet. Their paths have unerringly followed the most efficient routes—the very routes, it turns out, where humans have built roads and railways, or sent their ships across the sea for millennia.

Brad knows the way to the lodge so well that his brain checks off the landmarks: the roadside diner, the tire repair shop, the long stretch of scrubland then, where the road dips, the pines looming dark and tall. Finally, there it is—that dirt road leading through the trees, the glittering surface of the lake and, a few instants later, the low promontory where the lodge’s roof rises stark against the sky. The paint on the roadside sign has faded: a cartoon sea serpent rising up over the words Lake Arnold Lodge, Home of Arnold the Lake Monster! That ridiculous exclamation mark, when this place is just an overblown bed-and-breakfast overlooking an unremarkable stretch of water that’s not even a lake—Lake Arnold’s a small ocean inlet, its waters deep and bone-achingly cold year-round. One evening over drinks at the campus bar, Sanjay asked Brad what his parents did. Brad stared into his beer. He was a doctoral student in biology, for crying out loud: Was he supposed to tell Sanjay that his parents owned a lodge that sold lake monster merch? So instead he said his father was an engineer, which used to be true, at least.
        The small gravel area in front of the lodge is empty. Brad’s dad parks at one end, as though he expects a fleet of other vehicles to show up, and Brad says, “No guests, then?”
        “Of course there are guests. Season’s not quite over, you know that.” He hauls himself out of the car and swings the door shut. Brad gets out too, and the wind catches the plastic bag from the store and bounces it against his leg. Beyond the drop-off, the wind’s tugging at the water, pulling it into creases as though something massive is swimming just below the surface. And if a guest were standing here? His dad would point, say, “There he goes, old Arnold,” and the guest would laugh, or gape at him, then gaze back at the lake. The electricians, the doctors, the software engineers, the school teachers, without fail they all looked. Brad couldn’t decide: Did they secretly fear that monsters lurked here in the waters around Vancouver Island? Or did they just want to believe that the world harboured the extraordinary?
        There’s an edge to the wind and Brad shivers. It’s not just the chill—the dark water, the scattering of light as it shifts and heaves: out there, that’s where his mom died. Not because she went bird-watching and lost her footing, as he thought all summer, but because one night she took a canoe out on her own. All her life she’d been deathly afraid of the water, so afraid that on ferry trips to the mainland she’d sit in the lounge, right in the middle of a row of seats, which was as far from the windows as she could get. She’d press her fists into her lap and stare at nothing, face strained and chalky, like she was turning into something not quite human.
       The first time it happened, Brad was six or seven. He climbed up beside her and shook her by the shoulder, only to have her shove him away so hard he fell to the floor. His dad gathered him up and carried him out to the deck, whispering in his ear not to worry about silly old Mom, she’d had a scare years ago and never let herself get over it. Together they’d spent the rest of the trip watching the dark smudge of the mainland creep closer, and every time they’d taken the ferry after that, the two of them had abandoned his mom to her fears, heading outside, or to the cafeteria for sandwiches.
        Between the lodge’s parking area and the drop-off lies a patch of cropped grass, and from there Brad looks down at the tiny beach. A few yards from the water stands the rack where the lodge’s canoes are stowed. Was it one of those she took? And after her body was pulled out, did his dad retrieve the boat and hoist it back onto the rack for guests to use? Is that something he’d do? He looks for his dad with that question heavy on his tongue, but his dad’s vanished, off to the family entrance around the side of the lodge, and Brad settles his bag on his shoulder and follows.
      Inside, the place seems unchanged—the smells of bacon and potpourri, the pots hanging from a rack by the stove, the plain blue apron behind the door, as though his mom is in the dining room right now identifying birds with guests, or bending over a map to point out hiking trails. Brad can’t help himself—he pushes open the door. Looking out over the tables, he notices only the emptiness.

Dinnertime, and his dad unfolds the newspaper like a screen. Brad props his phone against his glass and scoops up forkfuls of mashed potato. Everyone’s dispersed: Sanjay to his girlfriend’s place in Idaho, Troy south to stay with his brother, other friends spread out across the northwest and beyond, everyone messaging each other: What’s going on? Is campus safe? I heard the Perkins Street Mall’s gone—is it true?
        It’s hard to get much of an idea of what’s burned and what hasn’t. Brad gazes at photographs, tiny on the screen: trees covered in ash, smoked-in streets, the charred remains of houses. Fragments of a town rendered unrecognizable.

Here’s the thing about slime mould: it generally lives out of sight. When you cross your lawn, there are millions of individual slime mould cells beneath your feet feeding off decaying roots and bugs, or off the leaves you haven’t got around to raking. At times, for instance when food is scarce, those isolated cells come together, perhaps twenty thousand of them forming one mass that behaves like a single life form—moving with purpose, differentiating parts of itself to make stalks and fruiting bodies, and those fruiting bodies producing tiny spores. Those spores are designed to travel: sticky enough to cling to animal feet, or so light a breeze can waft them away. Of course, they have no control over where they land. It might be somewhere utterly inhospitable, though that doesn’t matter: they can lie dormant for as long as a human life span, and that’s plenty of time for conditions to improve.

That evening, Brad’s the one who has to carry the tray through to the guests in the dining room—or solitary guest, as it turns out: a large, untidy man with thinning hair who sits at a table by the window in his rain jacket, as though it’s chilly in here. With a smile Brad says, “Shepherd’s pie with garlic carrots?” as though there’s anyone else who could have ordered this meal.
     The man nods and taps the place mat in front of him, then tumbles his cutlery out of his serviette and lays the paper square on his lap. Just as Brad’s turning away, he says, “Have you seen it?”
       How easy it would be to say, Oh sure, a bunch of times. That’s what he used to do. Those summers as a teenager he’d see how far he could string guests along, telling them he’d been out canoeing and it had surfaced so close that he’d tossed his sandwich into its gaping mouth, that just last month it’d snatched one of his friends. Tonight all he says is, “You mean the monster?”
       “Yes, yes, the creature. Have you?” The man’s mouth is open, and a bubble of saliva glistens on his lower lip.
        Brad gives a sour smile. “It’s just a story.”
        Now the man leans forward and the front of his jacket dangles close to his plate. “It’s responsible for nearly two dozen deaths in this area. Two dozen!”
     That hoarse whisper, that eagerness—Brad steps back and tucks the tray against his chest. “People get drunk and take boats out. That’s the biggest danger around here.”
    “No no no,” and the man frowns, “that doesn’t explain the numbers. Twenty-two in the last nine years. Seventeen drowned, three vanished and presumed dead, plus two found with fatal injuries. And you know what? Eighty-two per cent of those deaths occurred during a full moon.” A pause, then the man lifts a fleshy finger to impress his point upon Brad. “There’s a creature out there whose behaviour is affected by the phases of the moon.”
        It’s been so long since he’s dealt with people like this that he’d forgotten—you don’t try to talk sense into them, you don’t use logic because there’s no reasoning with the will to believe. “I’m sure you’re on to something. Now, is there anything else I can bring you?”
        “You can’t argue with science.”
        “So true. Well then, I’ll leave you to enjoy your dinner—”
        “I was here when she died, you know. The woman who ran this place. She was a lovely person, very knowledgeable. You could always have a good discussion with her. Frankly, she was the reason I stayed here rather than up at the Colson Inn. We enjoyed each other’s company.”
         “She was my—”
      “Yes, I know who you are.” His tongue sweeps over his lips, fleshy as a cow’s, then he sniffs and looks away to the window where the last of the evening light is catching low clouds. “There was a full moon that night, so it was a good night to keep watch. I’d set up down by the water—chair, binoculars, thermos of coffee.”
     He pokes at his dinner, lifts a forkful and chews it slowly. “She was thoughtful, your mother. Late in the evening she’d put on a pot of coffee, just for yours truly. Sometimes she even sat with me. But that night, she headed to the canoes. I gave her a hand getting one down, and between us we carried it to the water. I’d never seen her take a boat out before, but I didn’t think anything of it because it was such a lovely night. The next day when I heard what had happened, the penny finally dropped: the full moon, her canoe capsizing when the water was so calm. There could only be one explanation: the creature. It had followed a tidal food source here. If only I’d realized earlier, I could have warned her and she’d still be alive.” His voice is thick with emotion and he shakes his head, gazing up at Brad with watery eyes. “I’ll not sure I’ll ever be able to forgive myself.”
       Brad has the tray held to his chest, hands clenching it so hard they ache. He should walk away right now, he thinks, but instead he hears himself ask, “Did she say anything?” There’s a note of pleading to his voice that disgusts him.
       The man takes his time prodding pieces of carrot onto his fork, then lifting them to his mouth. “Oh yes, we chatted.”
        “You did? What did she say?”
        He chews then dabs his lips with the serviette, leaving small yellow stains on it, and settles back in his chair. “What did she say?”
       Brad’s mouth is dry. He swallows. “Anything she might have said, anything you can tell me.”
      That broad face, the cheeks a little flushed, the eyes glistening. Then the man tilts his head and says, “Well, if you must know, it was a private conversation.”
        “But I’m her son, and my dad—”
        The man’s eyes are pale and merciless. “I shouldn’t have mentioned it. I can’t betray her trust, can I? What sort of a man would that make me?” At the corner of his mouth, a twitch, as though he’s about to laugh.
        “Her trust? Did she tell you not to repeat what she said?”
     For a moment the man gazes at him, then he looks down at his plate. “Don’t ask me again. Now please, let me enjoy my dinner before it goes cold,” and he shoves another forkful into his mouth.
      Through greasy strands of hair, the man’s scalp shows tender and pink. Brad’s muscles have tensed, the tray angled as though he might bring it smashing down on the man’s head. Instead he lets out his breath and strides away to the kitchen where his dad’s listening to the radio, one slippered foot tapping to the quick beat of some modern jazz. He drops the tray onto the counter, ready to sound off about that jerk out there who talked to Mom but won’t say what she told him—but his dad snaps, “That’s enough attitude. You’ve got the washing up to finish, and number one to make up if you want a bed to sleep in tonight. I haven’t had time, what with picking you up this afternoon.”
        “Oh come on, Dad, lay off.”
        It comes out more pissy than he meant, and his dad’s foot goes still. “You want a free ride, is that it?”
     Brad doesn’t say a word. He picks up the scouring pad and sets to work scrubbing one of the pots.

Brad startles awake with his chest tight and his head fogged from the sleeping pill he sneaked from the family bathroom downstairs. A whiff of onions and bleach hangs on the air. Across the floor, moonlight’s glaring across an unfamiliar carpet. It takes him a moment to understand: Not his apartment in Oregon. Not his old bedroom in the family quarters. This is guestroom number one, on the ground floor close to the kitchen, and something’s in here with him. A movement on the air. A presence pulsing from the shadows. He can’t turn his head, can’t breathe. He watches the darkness, as though if he doesn’t this thing will be on him in an instant.
    He waits. Long enough for the cold to seep into him, for his clenched muscles to tremble, for sweat to run down his temples. Then a shadow bursts from the darkness and he raises his arms and cries out. The sound of that cry’s still in his ears as he realizes—it was outside. Something large sweeping by on the path around the lodge.
     He hauls himself out of bed and stands at the window. Below, the lake’s glistening under a full moon, the hills beyond dark as holes in the fabric of the universe. He leans close enough to the glass that the cold coming off it chills him, and he peers at where the path vanishes down toward the water. Nothing’s moving out there except for the gentle bounce of tree branches, and their shadows dipping and rising over the ground. Whatever it was has gone.
        He pads over to the door and locks it, then gets back into bed and watches the moonlight shift over the carpet until, at last, he falls asleep.

By the time Brad comes downstairs the next morning, the lodge is quiet except for the hum of the fridge, and the hollow clicking of the wall clock. On the table, a note from his dad with a list of chores to do while he’s out. Instead, Brad pours himself a mug of coffee and drinks it scanning news sites, and official websites, and news releases by the mayor. Whole sections of town are closed off, and the fire’s still raging, and his friends are asking—What’s been lost? What’s safe? He hunches over his phone, thumbs ready to type, then sets it down on the table and gazes off across the kitchen. His thoughts are clogged with exhaustion, and the aftereffects of the sleeping pill. But there’s something else too, and he wonders now: If he’d pretended to be interested in that creep’s theories, would he have told him what his mom said? The way he declared, I can’t betray her trust, the pull at his lips as though he was holding down a laugh—no, he decides: that bastard never had any intention of telling him.
     When Brad goes to take another sip of coffee, it’s cold. He heats it in the microwave and gulps down a few burning mouthfuls, then carries it through to the dining room where the vacuum waits. He ignores it and stands at the window, blowing on his coffee and watching birds squabble around the feeder, chickadees and finches, birds so small you could cage them in one hand. Beyond the deck, the water’s bright under a flat, grey sky. A splinter of darkness edges across it where someone’s out boating. From the windowsill he takes the birding binoculars and pushes open the door. He scans the lake until he catches sharp ripples where a hull’s just cut through the water, the shimmer of droplets from a paddle, then he finds it: a kayak, two people in fleeces, young and tanned.
        Not the creep of a guest. But then, had he really expected it to be him? He leans on the railing and searches the water, then the shore. There, settled into a folding chair close to the water, sits that lump of a man in his rain jacket, staring at the lake through his binoculars. Brad checks the water again. There’s nothing out there to watch, nothing remarkable in the slight chop of water, no eagle swooping across the waves, nothing except for that couple in the kayak.
     When he glances back to the shore, the man’s swivelled around. Now the dark lenses of his binoculars are trained on him, and Brad can’t help himself, he gives him the finger and carries his coffee inside.

A slime mould has no organs, yet it can sniff out food and move toward it by sending its protoplasm surging through veins and finger-like pseudopodia. It can even learn, just like creatures with nervous systems and brains: encountering a relatively innocuous obstacle, such as a small amount of salt, it slows; on subsequent encounters, it slows less, and eventually not at all.
        And yet—you can shred a slime mould into thousands of pieces without killing it. Instead, each fragment will start to throb, then reach out to other fragments and coalesce. Soon an organism with veins and pseudopodia emerges, reorganized but unharmed.

As he vacuums the dining room, Brad keeps glancing over his shoulder as though he expects that creep of a guest to be peering in through the windows. So much for keeping watch for the monster—he’s just a sleaze who spies on people. Wasn’t that him outside his window last night? And the night his mom died, was he watching her too? Sitting on the shore with his binoculars and not doing a thing to help? Maybe she didn’t confide in him; maybe she hadn’t said a single word to him—after all, what had he known that wouldn’t have been in the local paper? Not a single fucking thing. How gullible he’s been, Brad thinks, and he shoves the vacuum across the carpet so hard it bangs against chair legs and table legs, belching out its stink of dust and hot rubber, then he yanks out the plug and wheels the vacuum into the reception area. Outside, only one car, a small brown thing that must belong to the creep, and the thought that it’s just him and that man here unsettles him.
        By the front door, grit pings against the vacuum’s underside as though his dad hasn’t cleaned the carpet in weeks. As for the cabinet of lake monster merch, the glass is milky with dust, and his dad’s forgotten the light. Brad flicks it on and it sends a vapid glow over the shelves of t-shirts and ball caps, the mugs and shot glasses and post cards, all decorated with that ridiculous monster. His dad had an art student draw it one summer, a cartoon creature with a smirking face and a body that looped out of the water like a string of old tires. His mom had hated it, and no wonder when it was everywhere—on the merch, on the menus, on the road-side sign she passed every time she came home.
        The vacuum’s whining, and Brad gives it a shove. Moving out here from Winnipeg, buying this place—he’d been just old enough to understand that it wasn’t because his dad had gone as far as he could in his job, though that’s what he told guests, and not because he could feel his soul being crushed by working a nine-to-five, though he said that too. No, his dad had screwed up somehow and been fired, and he’d moved them out here to the very edge of the country to escape his humiliation. All their family trips had been to his dad’s folks in Quebec, as though his mom’s family in Winnipeg no longer existed.
        It doesn’t take long to finish the reception area, then Brad trundles the vacuum through the kitchen and into the dim corridor of the family quarters. Here the carpet’s worn thin and the paint’s grey where hands and shoulders have rubbed against it over the years. His head’s full of the vacuum’s din, and he’s sweaty from hauling it around. At least he doesn’t have to clean his old bedroom: the floor’s stacked with flats of canned vegetables, and canned soup, and bulky packages of toilet paper and kitchen towel. The bed’s long gone, though on the wall, curling from yellowing tape, hang his posters of Gretzky and Lemieux. By the small window, a framed Audubon print of a great blue heron that his mom gave him when he graduated from high school, and that he left behind when he went to university. Wasn’t it beautiful? Hadn’t he wanted it? He can’t even remember.
        He steers the vacuum into his parents’ room where the air’s curdled with the smell of unwashed sheets. The light coming through the narrow window has turned everything dingy—the unmade bed, his dad’s pyjamas tossed onto a chair, the careless heap of newspapers on the floor. And on his mom’s side? A pillow, as though she still sleeps there and, piled on the nightstand, her birding diary, the books waiting for her to read them, her reading glasses.
        At the sight of those glasses, something in his chest twists. He abandons the vacuum and lifts the whole pile onto the bed. When he sits beside it, the pile tips over and the glasses slide off and land next to his thigh. Only now does he notice: the lenses are thick with dust. His throat tightens as he picks them up. How light they are, how insubstantial, yet still here undamaged while his mom is gone. All these months, he hasn’t cried. Even being back here again, it’s as though she’s just in another room, cleaning or cooking or talking to guests. Except here now are her reading glasses, grimy with disuse, and he can’t help himself, he clutches them to his chest with a sob.
        A whisper of sound. A shift in the light. Someone in the doorway—the guest, binoculars around his neck, in his hands a large silvery thermos.
      Brad startles to his feet. “These are private quarters. You can’t be back here.”
      “There was no one in the kitchen.” The man steps into the bedroom, taking it in with quick, greedy glances. “And I’m out of coffee.”
        “I’ll be with you shortly. If you wouldn’t mind heading back to the public part of the lodge—” His voice sounds thin and unconvincing, and perhaps that’s why the man comes closer with his thermos held high, as though it gives him the right to intrude.
       On the bed lies the notebook on which his mom has written Birding Diary in bold capitals. The man snatches it up. “Oh my,” he says as he flips it open. “Is this really—? This might be invaluable. There could be notes about the creature, clues as to sightings—” He tucks the thermos under his arm and licks his finger to leaf through the pages.
        “What the hell? This isn’t yours.” Brad snatches it away and holds it to his chest.
        The man’s face folds up in irritation. “I’m sure she wouldn’t have minded when it’ll help with my research.” He holds out his hand, as though he expects Brad to return it.
        “Sir, you need to leave.”
        His eyes tighten. “I’m a guest here. You have no right—”
        “—to stop you intruding?”
      “I won’t be treated like this. I had to come and find you all the way back here—what sort of service is that?”
     Brad’s so close he catches the coffee on the man’s breath. “Out,” he says, “right now.” When the man doesn’t move, Brad lays a hand on his chest. The soft flesh gives as he pushes him, just enough to ease him back, but the man staggers, arms wide to keep his balance, and the thermos thuds to the carpet.
     “I’ll call the police,” he hisses as he stoops for his thermos. When he straightens up his face is flushed and his mouth has buckled into an ugly line. “And if you think I’m paying my bill after this, think again. I will do everything—everything—in my power to ensure that this wretched place goes out of business.” He hurries from the room with his rain jacket swishing, then there’s only the thump of his footsteps, and the distant slam of a door.
        A few minutes later, the brown car barks to life and plunges off down the driveway.

After the guest has gone, after Brad’s heart has stopped jerking in his chest, he carries the birding diary out onto the deck and rests it on the railing. The small birds that had been pecking at the feeder flutter away into the trees.
     The diary’s full of sightings: warblers and hummingbirds, hawks, bald eagles, doves and barred owls, a great blue heron that she marked with a star—one of her favourites. On some pages there are sketches of markings on heads and wings, or the outline of a raptor against the sky. And then from mid-May—blank pages, so many of them, as though his mom had given up on life weeks before she died.

Under hostile conditions, the single cells of the slime mould Dictyostelium discoides clump together into a tiny, pale slug-like creature that crawls upwards through soil, drawn by the light of the sun. Some of its cells become bodyguards: if pathogens such as bacteria attack, these cells swallow them, then let themselves fall away to die alone of the infection so that the tiny creature can crawl on unharmed.
        When it reaches the surface, the creature releases its spores in the hope of better prospects for the next generation.

Brad’s raking leaves on the small lawn down by the water when he catches the hum of a car coming up the driveway. Is it the guest? Has he brought the police? Brad’s breathing hard as he peers up toward the lodge. A flash of red—his dad’s SUV. He’s so relieved that he sags forward, letting the rake handle take part of his weight, then he goes back to dragging its metal teeth through the grass.
        A few minutes later his dad appears on the path, and when he’s close he calls out, “You haven’t even unloaded the dishwasher. What the hell have you been doing all morning?”
        “Shit, Dad, nothing, as you can see.”
        His dad scowls at a half-filled garbage bag of leaves. “And you checked the guest out? Or were you too busy to take proper care of it?”
        “He refused to pay. He said he wasn’t happy with the service.”
       “I was only gone a couple of hours, and you managed to screw up? You’ll have to pay his bill, you know—I can’t run this place by letting people stay for nothing. It’s supposed to be a business, or has that slipped your mind?”
        Brad tosses the rake onto the grass and reaches into his jacket. “He tried to take this,” and he pulls the birding diary from his pocket. “When I wouldn’t let him, he got pissed and took off.”
        “That was in the bedroom. What the hell?”
    “He thought it might be useful for his research—you know, into the monster.”
        His dad reaches for the diary, but Brad splays it open and holds the blank pages down with his fingers. “See this? In May she stopped making entries. What happened?”
       His dad lets out a snort. “Nothing happened, nothing at all.” He yanks the diary away and flicks through those pages as though he can’t quite believe they’re empty. “You know how she was, always taking things to heart.”
        “Like what, for instance?”
     His dad smooths one hand over his hair. “Nothing happened, I just told you. We decided not to put this place up for sale, that’s all.”
        “I didn’t know you were thinking of selling it. You never said.”
      “When we bought it, we thought twenty years would be a long enough run, but why give up the place now? Why move to back Winnipeg when there’s nothing for us there?” He closes his eyes for a moment, and without their fierce stare, his face is nothing but a tired old man’s. “But she just wouldn’t listen to sense.”
        Overhead a couple of birds flit and tilt across the sky, letting out their shrill cries. That characteristic swooping, those distinctive tails. Swifts—he’d have known them anywhere. He looks back at his dad. “She never liked it here, did she? She never liked the lodge, or the whole lake monster crap.”
        “It’s given us a good living, so why did she have her heart set on going back to Winnipeg? For chrissakes, what’s so special about Manitoba? It’s just flat for as far as the eye can see.” He gestures toward the water and the hills, the whole expanse behind him. “Look at that—that’s why people love this area. They just need an excuse to get them to our lodge, and who doesn’t love a good monster?”
        “Yeah, well some of them take it seriously. Like that fucking guest.”
        His dad tucks the diary under his arm. “There are crazies everywhere, and that’s not my fault. It’s all just a bit of fun.”
        “Appropriating a First Nation’s legend? Isn’t that what you did?”
        “Come on, I just said it was First Nations to make it more believable.” He grins and zips up his jacket, right to his chin. “I came up with the whole idea myself. Well, mostly myself. I guess your mom had something to do with it—that phobia of hers. Who’d have thought it would come in useful, heh? No wonder she hated my monster,” and he lets out a laugh.
        Brad’s on him before he’s had time to think, his shoulder hitting his dad’s chest, the air leaving his dad’s lungs with an oomph, then the two of them are tumbling. His dad falls flat on his back, right onto the half-filled bag of leaves that splits and sends leaves spilling around them as they wrestle, clumsy and furious. Brad tries to land a punch on his dad’s jaw and his dad scrambles to take hold of Brad’s wrists until, at last, he pins them in an iron grip. For a few seconds they breathe into each other’s faces, Brad’s weight pinning his dad’s bony body, then Brad wrenches a hand free and it hangs in the air, poised to come down onto his dad’s face. But he doesn’t do it. He just can’t. “You’re pathetic, Dad,” he says. “You hear me? You’re a wretched bastard who doesn’t give a shit about anyone but himself.” He gets to his feet, clothes reeking of mud and decaying leaves. A few feet away, the diary lies open with its pages fluttering in the breeze, and he grabs it, then stalks back up to the lodge.
       There’s no staying after that. He packs what few possessions he has and throws them into the SUV, then takes off along the driveway, that image of the grinning monster flashing in the mirror as he turns onto the road. He wonders if his dad will call the cops. He wonders if he should call him first, but there’s nothing to say, and there never will be again. In town he finds a cheap motel, and when news comes that the fire has torn through campus, that his lab has been destroyed, his apartment building too, he takes the ferry across to the mainland, then heads east through the mountains and out to where the land flattens into prairie, because there you can see forever.

Gerri Brightwell is a British writer who lives in Alaska. Her latest novel, Turnback Ridge, was published by Torrey House Press in 2022. She is also the author of the novels Dead of Winter (Salt, 2016), The Dark Lantern (Crown, 2008), and Cold Country (Duckworth, 2003). Her short work has appeared in many venues including The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, Alaska Quarterly Review, Copper Nickel, Redivider, and BBC Radio 4’s Opening Lines. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Originally published in Moss: Volume Eight.

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