You had planned to tell Carrick your ‘relationship’ must end for good this time, but he arrived at the park with a violet balloon in hand. Funny how a bag of breath could still snatch yours away. He had agreed to help build your daughter’s birthday present today even though the last time you spoke, he’d accused you of his wife’s death, like your connection through Anna had attacked Sherri’s heart, and you had told him to go fuck himself. It didn’t matter how small of a town Victoria was, just leave us alone.
Now, at the park’s edge, he leans against his car. Weird to see him as a confident father instead of a man with a secret. His Sherri-less figure startles you like the afternoon you spotted your graduate supervisor in the tampon aisle at Thrifty’s. Music moans through his Impala’s rolled-down windows to disrupt the stillness of Mount Douglas Park, and Carrick wears a red collared shirt, too loose now, tucked into James Dean jeans and the trees douse his face in an anemic glow, but he looks good. Sober.
He switches the balloon to his left hand, so he can pat your Irish Wolfhound who lopes from the firs. The November air is so cold that your breath floats upwards in little popcorn-shaped clouds. The rain has stopped, but the threat still lingers as if it’s holding its own breath, fog hovering above the canopies to hide the sky. Trails spring from each side of the square lot, and you lean against one of the logs used to mark a parking space. Moss spirals around the wood. Ants march in a line even though you’d assumed the cold had long ago killed them.
Carrick speaks to the dog before you.
More wire-coated stallion than dog, the dog rises on his hind legs to place paws on Carrick’s shoulders. Seven feet tall, his yellowing beard grazes Carrick’s forehead and a smile tugs at Carrick’s lips, the one that used to melt your heart. Now your nose stings when you see him like it’s carbonated. You will not cry.
—Did you bring the rocks?
Carrick extracts himself from the dog’s lengthy limbs and pats his back pocket.
—Of course. Outta Beacon Hill. From that duck pond she loves.
—She doesn’t love it anymore.
You watch a wren hop from one tree branch to another.
—We should get going.
Together, you enter the shade of the forest, making sure to stay a few feet ahead of him so that the breeze won’t carry his cologne your way. You try to think of Anna and what she’s doing with the babysitter, but all you can think about is Carrick’s eyes on your shoulder blades. Out of your peripherals, you see the balloon bobbing. Jem bounds into the shrubs after a squirrel and vanishes.
—Where are we building this thing?
—I was thinking our secret look-out point.
—That was years ago. It’s probably not very secret anymore.
The hike is quiet for twenty minutes except for your footfalls on the pine-needled floor and the hiss of wind through the Garry Oaks. Jem darts on and off the path. He trots in the middle of you and Carrick for a few paces then gallops back into the wildness. You spot an abandoned sneaker overturned near the gully. Carrick clears his throat.
—How have things been?
You wish you could tell him the truth. You used to be able to tell him everything. A signpost forks the road and through the trees you catch a glimpse of Cadboro Bay through the dissipating mist. As you turn left, the path begins to incline. Carrick’s hand touches your shoulder.
—We were supposed to go right.
You jerk from his touch.
—Why would we go right if the sign said left?
—I don’t remember the look-out being this way.
—You don’t remember much these days, do you.
A gnarled Douglas Fir slouches at the foot of steep rocky incline. You recognize this place; how could you forget. How dare he forget. You had come often with him. The trees here carried your secrets. They listened when you lost your virginity at this look-out point back in high school. They listened just last month when you broke down, told them about your dad. How he’d shot himself with a rifle and how you discovered him, saw the bottle of Sullivan’s on his desk. The gun had stood in the carpet and leaned against the chair. His fingers had curled around the barrel like a cane. When you reach the start of the rocky incline, your toe catches an evergreen root, sending you stumbling, and you make sure to right yourself before you need Carrick’s hand.
—I remembered the funeral, Charlie. I just… I couldn’t come.
—It was my dad, Carrick. You knew him. He cared about you.
Jem brushes your fingertips as he leaps through the bushes. Following, you break free from the forest into a small clearing half-way up the mountain. Yellow wildflowers freckle the grass. You take the blanket from your backpack and spread it across the ground. On your knees, you take out the sticks and ribbon. Carrick sits cross-legged and dumps the pond rocks onto the blanket. He avoids your eyes.
—What’s a fairy house anyways, he says.
—Do you think these are three inches?
You prod the sticks with your shoe and hand him the how-to manual.
—It says they have to be exact.
Carrick scans the page and frowns.
—Each stick represents a year of your child’s life, he says.
—The tipi culminates into a physical foundation of our love for her.
Carrick continues to look at the manual. Every time he crinkles the page, the balloon bobs. You watch him read. Tiny red lines spider across his eyes, silvery in the forest light. With Sherri gone, maybe you’d recover as a couple. Rock, moss, rock, you begin to construct a wall. Carrick gathers the sticks and puts them into a triangular shape, jabbing the ends into the soft earth. He wraps the ribbon around the top to tie them together.
—Anna’s really into this stuff, huh?
—I know. Just don’t think we should encourage magic.
You tear apart a tuft of moss, perfect for the tipi’s welcome mat. Carrick hands you an Exacto knife and his forearm is so close that you can see the tiny tattoo you’d gotten together underneath his wrist bone. A breeze rustles his hair, there, you can smell his smell and you have to sit back on your heels. The balloon above his head rotates to reveal a monarch butterfly spread wide on the latex.
Once, when you had fallen asleep in his university office together, you had explored the room while he still slept. Sometimes it was hard to see Carrick beyond the star of the rugby team, beyond the ring on his finger, as a PhD candidate for UVic’s lepidopterology program. You had glanced over your bare shoulder at him before approaching one of the corner shelves. You eyed what resembled a framed autumn leaf. Douglas maple, maybe. Another step and no, not foliage, but a monarch butterfly mounted to black backdrop. The display’s bulb imbued the insect in an iridescent gleam. Danaus plexippus, you tried the word. Its wings, the colour of cigarette embers, stretched taut, captured in a liminal state of defiance and defeat. Veins weaved across the wing membrane and faded into white-speckled tips. In your hands, away from the light, the butterfly appeared grotesque. A pin anchored its thorax to the board. Fur spiralled its three-centimetre body towards brittle antennas. Bulbous eye glittered. You traced a finger across the butterfly, the way you’d touch a soap bubble. Similar quality of a bubble, too: soft, slippery, brief. In the sky, the creature would be ornate, a kite adrift. How had it died? The display was a tombstone for the butterfly, the scientific definition below, a eulogy. You had placed it back onto the shelf as Carrick grunted and awoke, not meeting your eye.
Carrick points to the butterfly.
—Farmers are eliminating milkweed. Won’t be around much longer.
Jem trots over and with a tail whack, knocks over your pebbled wall.
—So, Charlie, listen. I got a job offer. In Vancouver. That forest entomology program I’ve been talking about. It’s only for a little while.
You wanted this, a denouement of sorts, but still a startled jolt and the Exacto knife strikes your thumb. Scarlet beads seep to the surface. You place your finger into your mouth and suck.
—What’s that mean? Awhile.
—Let me see your finger.
When he reaches over to you, he accidentally lets go of the balloon. Against a bruise-grey sky, it floats up, up, and up like it’s going away from a little while and you watch it, a purple blip, grow smaller and smaller. The tipi suddenly feels silly. Did Anna really want this for her birthday or had you made this as an excuse to see Carrick? You stand and place a hand on the nearest pine trunk. You’re halfway up Mount Doug and the fog has completely lifted. You can see golden farmers’ fields crisscrossing until they hit the infinite expanse of ocean. The waves convulse before they pull back in an aqua blur. Carrick joins you at the tree with a sharp intake of breath. Together you stand, feet paralyzed. You wipe your finger on your pants and tug a cigarette from your back pocket. Your fingers tremble.
—Sherri would have loved this place.
You don’t respond. You inhale and watch the smoke drift.
—I didn’t have to come today, you know.
—It wouldn’t have been a surprise if you hadn’t.
Carrick picks at the fray in his watchband.
—I’ve been really struggling. I miss her so much.
You don’t have anything to say about grief except for the bullshit clichés that had been handed down to you only a few weeks prior and even Carrick doesn’t deserve those, so you say nothing. Instead, you hand him a cigarette. Heat slithers into your lungs and down to your ankles. A blue-winged bird soars across the silver blend of sea and sky.
Your dad would’ve loved this place, too.
After you’ve taken photos of the tipi, you gather the garbage and straighten. Carrick cocks his head to the side.
—I guess it does look cool. Do you think we’ll find enough three-inch sticks for when she turns forty?
—We won’t be alive by then.
—Thanks again for the rocks. They really brought the tipi yard together. Maybe she’ll even start to like that duck pond again.
The pale sun has started its descent over the water, and you shove your hands under your jacket armpits. Lighter now, the backpack creates a warmth on your upper back, but goosebumps still run down your back. Carrick starts to shrug his coat off. You shake your head.
—I’m fine. Let’s head back down.
Jem leaps from the forest and hovers at the tree edges. A whine escapes through his jowls. He ducks back into the bushes then returns a few moments later. He barks, and the sound echoes around the area. Someone shouts from the top of the mountain. Carrick kneels to hold out a hand to the dog.
—What’s the matter, Jemima?
Jem yelps again and disappears. You latch onto the straps of the backpack before slipping into the darkening forest and follow Jem’s whine until you reach a Western Red Cedar that looks like petrified licorice. At the tree’s base, Jem paws at something. He looks at you over his shoulder and trots to your side, licks your hand and pads back to the tree. You step closer. A squirrel lays atop the roots. Its body pulsates with maggots. The pulsating mountain moves in waves over the creature. They devour the squirrel beneath them, a huge swollen feast the forest has gifted them. Hundreds of the tiny worms writhe and they swarm upon each other in attempts to reach the rotting flesh, pushing against the squirrel’s stomach so that it rises, as if it’s still breathing.
This is not the type of death you are used to, or maybe it is, you aren’t really sure, but you do know that you fidget against nausea and the smell is everywhere. You don’t want to see this anymore. You reach down and pick up the nearest stone almost too heavy to lift and you raise it high above your head even though you don’t know why; you just know that they need to stop; stop eating him! Why aren’t they stopping? You smash the stone down onto the swarm. With a wet smack, the stone slowly sinks and the maggots burst, small worms splattering across your jacket. You can feel them wriggling in your hair, at the base of your neck. Jem barks. Carrick shouts. Your fingers graze the worms’ wet bodies as you brush them from your jacket, run your fingers through your hair, flipping the worms away. You’re crying now. You don’t know why. Rocks trip your feet, and shrubs tear at your pants but you keep sprinting until you’re climbing, higher now, so high that you reach the top of the mountain known for its view of Saanich. When your toes touch the edge of the cliff rockface only then do you stop. Pebbles quiver underfoot, and you nudge one with your shoe. It plummets so fast that it vanishes in a matter of seconds. The rush of air cools your skin. You close your eyes. The smell of the squirrel hasn’t left you. The moist skin of the worms. The grate of shovels in the cemetery.
He stands behind you. Somewhere near, Jem whimpers. You open your eyes again. You don’t remember when you stopped crying, but your knees buckle, and you have to sit down. Carrick joins you on the cliff. Together you sit with your legs dangling. Jem lays on his stomach behind the two of you.
—I wasn’t going to. I just wanted a better view.
Carrick says he knows but he sees the way you tear at your lips with your teeth.
—I couldn’t now anyway. Anna.
—That’s why I didn’t want to have a kid.
He doesn’t say anything. Instead, he pulls out his own pack of Bensons and gives one to you before lighting his own. He takes a deep drag. The embers glow in his eyes.
—I’m glad we have Anna then.
You glance at him out of the corner of your eye. The youth in his face has been sobered by a wrinkle above his nose. It hadn’t been there before, and you tell him that he doesn’t have to leave. Anna wouldn’t want him to. He shrugs and says it’s only a ferry ride away, that he can’t stay here anymore, but neither can you, so you look back at the rockface. A piece of ash drifts from your cigarette and falls, glinting orange once before flickering out. Carrick inches closer. You sit shoulder-to-shoulder until your hands grow numb. In the distance at Cadboro Bay, a sailboat floats quiet, alone amidst the waves.