Regal and relaxed; five foot six or so; in her early twenties; hair in a pixie cut; flawless light brown skin.
Those were some of the phrases that came to Sylvia’s mind as the young woman floated into her store.
Sylvia was alerted by the sound of a bell set off by the opening wooden screen door.
The charmer was wearing a light sleeveless dress with a flower pattern in black and white. It swished and swayed with her every movement.
The stylish sunglasses helped turn her into an exotic and alluring beauty.
One didn’t often get a visitation from such a divinity in these parts. Sylvia had owned the part variety store, part video store, part gas bar, part postal drop-off point, part local gathering spot for the past nineteen years.
She wondered if her guest had anything to do with the unusual event of the previous week.
Sure enough, this was soon confirmed.
The young lady looked around, feigned an interest in some of the sparse merchandise, but quickly sashayed over to the serving counter.
Her voice was soft and mellifluous. “Hi,” she said. “How ya doin’ ?” She removed the shades with a sensual practiced flourish.
“Fine, thank you,” said Sylvia, kindness embedded in her core. “It’s a nice spring day and all’s well with the world. I’d have no excuse for not doing okay. And you? How can I be of service?”
Sylvia’s curiosity was revved up and eager to leave the starting gate.
“I’d like a pop. It’s been a long drive.”
This was obviously by way of preamble. ‘There’s more to come, that’s for sure,’ thought Sylvia.
“Help yourself. There are some cold ones in the fridge down the aisle. Straws are on the counter.”
The young lady was back in a flash. “Sorry to bother you, but I have some questions I’d like to ask and I’m hoping you can help me.”
“Shoot,” said Sylvia. Managing the limited inventory in her store didn’t take much effort and a diversion was welcome.
Sylvia, by nature, was a motherly type. That fact was made manifest by her appearance, from bleached frizzy hair to plain and baggy attire. Expansive jeans hung below a hand-knitted brown sweater.
Her one adornment was a store-bought scarf arranged in what was meant to be a jaunty fashion. Why else to wear it, since warmth had finally arrived in the north country.
‘Sylvia’s’, as it was known locally, was one of only a few commercial establishments in Ashes’ Corners. The tiny community was located along the barren stretch of Highway 17 between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay.
During much of its run, Highway 17 rimmed the northern shore of Lake Superior.
Travelers were usually of two varieties, truckers hauling natural resources and tourists who had resolved to drive across Canada. It was an incredibly long and unexpected stretch of asphalt.
The extraordinary width of Ontario in its northwestern corner remained a secret to most Canadians.
The rugged nature of the landscape was mainly a treasure to artists. There were numerous Group of Seven paintings that famously captured the Algoma region in all its seasonal beauty.
But to live within the vast emptiness was enough to turn anyone garrulous when a stranger appeared.
Sylvia was dying to talk. She waited for the vision’s next words with keen anticipation.
“Last week, my brother was killed on a stretch of highway just west of here. We were very close. I had to come and see the spot. And learn if there were any details the police failed to mention in their report. Do you know anything about the matter?”
Sylvia turned thoughtful. “Okay, that explains it,” she said. “I had a feeling there might be something special about your visit.”
She paused to compose herself. “It was a tragic accident. Just awful! From what I know, it was fairly straightforward. But there were a couple of unusual aspects. Let’s sit outside. There’s a wooden bench at the front of the store.”
Wyatt Wanamaker’s life prospects performed a back flip within minutes of entering the Points North diner. He was the only customer in the place. That wasn’t too surprising, since it was 2:30 in the morning.
Nothing else was open at this time up and down the lonely stretch of road he’d been traversing as an experiment.
Wyatt was working as a miner extracting nickel and copper from deep underground at the giant tunneling operations in Sudbury. The job paid well, but it was impossibly hard work, with little in the way of emotional compensation. There was almost nothing satisfying about it.
He’d come north from London, Ontario, the previous fall after dropping out of university. A new foreign owner at the mines had the deep pockets to spend on needed expansion projects. The investment opened up job opportunities. Emerging market demand was causing a spike in commodity prices.
Burly and solid, Wyatt took pride in his physical prowess. His time at university was mainly given over to playing football for the UWO Mustangs. He was the second-string left guard on the offensive line. There was no prospect he’d move up to the pros. Just under six feet tall and only 220 pounds, his size was a drawback. The team placed only so-so in the standings.
The end of the football season took away his reason to stick around. His brain was agile enough, but he wasn’t academically inclined. The routine of study was a drag. He had to fight too hard to avoid a tendency towards dreaming. He’d only moved on to college through a recommendation from his high school coach.
His mother had died from cancer three years before and he and his older sister survived on a small insurance policy. Joanne finally moved out of the house to attend teachers’ college in Toronto. She was now an instructor in geography at Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School.
Their father abandoned the family in the distant past and was never in touch again.
Working in a copper mine? It wasn’t something he’d ever expected to do. At first, it seemed like an exciting idea. Turned out that wasn’t the case at all.
Living in a basement apartment in Sudbury didn’t provide the outstanding social life he’d been looking for either. Far less dreary than earlier in its history, the city still wasn’t a Mecca of fun for young people. And it was a long drive anywhere before there was much of a change in the entertainment scene.
He didn’t know what to do with himself. His two days off each week were a particular agony of inaction and boredom. He started to scan for part-time postings on-line. He laughed when he saw the first help-wanted ad. It set out the need for someone to deliver flowers from a local nursery to florist shops in Thunder Bay, a thousand kilometers away.
“The guys back home would never stop kidding me if they heard that’s what I was doing,” he thought. And he moved on to other temporary postings at fast food establishments and gas bars. Additional possibilities included retail and telemarketing work, as well as positions with a taxi company and a parcel delivery service.
None of these tweaked his interest. The best of the lot was with the courier company. He enjoyed driving. But if that’s what he was going to do, maybe the junket with roses across northern Ontario would be a better idea. He’d be able to experience the wild countryside on a more personal level. He gave the owner a call and then went to see her.
It was important that the hot-house blooms, once cut, be available for selling first thing in the morning. That would mean driving nearly twelve hours and making his deliveries before the shops opened for business early in the day.
He worked the math. He could finish his shift at 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday and be on the road shortly thereafter. A drive through the night would take him to his destination before dawn. He’d spend the day resting in a cheap motel room and return the next night.
That would still leave most of Friday for relaxing back in Sudbury. Then he could show up for work underground again on Saturday.
It would be strenuous but he was young and he could pull it off, or at least so he reasoned. He was sure time spent alone in the modified Odyssey cargo van supplied by his employer wouldn’t be a problem. He was passing most of his time by himself anyway.
That was the first of his miscalculations. The degree to which he needed human contact was underestimated. The big void that is northern Superior can be daunting even for those born in the region.
What he failed to consider was the immense stretch of highway he’d be rolling across alone in the dark, except for his own headlights and the occasional vehicle either approaching or trailing behind.
The hypnotic effect would send him into a trance too many times to count. Audio books and CD music helped, but there were limits.
On his first rite of passage, coming across the still-open restaurant in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere was a godsend. He was thrilled at the prospect of buying a cup of coffee and maybe enjoying a piece of pie with ice cream. But most important, he craved interaction with another human being.
He pulled into the parking lot, rolled to a stop under one of several overhanging lights, turned off the ignition and the sound system and, unbeknownst at the time, prepared to exit his past existence.
Isabelle delivered the order through the window-like opening. “Bacon with eggs over easy and whole wheat toast,” she said. Wyatt had decided to eat healthier than he first intended.
Adopting a casual manner, Isabelle went on to say, “Mr. Smith was by earlier today. He asked when would be a good time to come over and discuss the money you owe him.”
“Tell him when my butt crack aligns with Mars,” was the uncouth but amusing response from behind the wall.
‘Charming,’ thought Wyatt as he sat on a stool at the counter, alert to the play unfolding in front of him.
Isabelle was a treat for his senses. Sleep-deprived dishevelment failed to hide her appeal.
She spoke English well, but with a slight French accent. The next time she sauntered his way, he asked, “Are you from Quebec?”
The hesitation before the ‘yes’ was barely perceptible.
She took out a damp cloth and wiped the counter clean in his vicinity. Their fingers almost brushed. He pulled back his hands and clasped them in his lap.
“Would you like to read The Sun?” she asked. “It’s a couple of days old.”
What Wyatt wanted to do was talk with her. But he could hardly say so. At least, that’s not how he was built. He needed to make his advances more slowly.
Reading the newspaper might be a good way to prolong his stay. He gratefully accepted her offer.
He was pretending an interest in the news, but after seeing her eyes flick to his reading matter, he ventured an initial volley. “Politics is getting weirder and weirder, eh?” he said.
“I don’t pay attention anymore,” Isabelle responded. “I think most of what’s happening is a giant cover up.”
“What do you mean?” Wyatt asked.
“It’s all a conspiracy.”
“Do you really think so?” he asked, heart sinking. Maybe she was too crazy to take seriously.
“I read somewhere all the U.S. Presidents have been getting secret advice.”
“Dead people. The CIA has found a way to consult some of the smartest people in history.”
“No. It has to be somebody the CIA has murdered. Marilyn Monroe is at the top of the list. She had an affair with President Kennedy, you know. Since she died, she’s been living in the White House and advising Presidents.”
Wyatt looked up into the most beautiful green eyes he’d ever seen. They danced with amusement.
Maybe her mental faculties weren’t entirely stable, but she could not possibly have been cuter.
She gave him a lopsided grin. Was she putting him on? There was only one way to find out, get to know her better.
Wyatt was pretty sure Marilyn had been smarter than anyone had recognized. A President could do worse than listen to her.
Isabelle might be a good deal brainier than her first impression indicated as well.
Wyatt was hooked.
Wyatt now found it easier to cope with his epic journeys, often in horrendous snowy weather.
He couldn’t wait to get on the road and arrive at his true destination, Isabelle’s stomping ground.
As Wyatt’s infatuation with Isabelle grew, he moved to one of the immaculately clean small tables in the establishment. The shift was a desire for greater intimacy.
At this stage, he still didn’t know Isabelle as well as he’d have liked. That was about to change and in quick order.
If one is shy, there are a limited number of people in the course of a lifetime with whom one makes an instant connection. They’re often individuals with an unusual amount of ease and self-confidence.
Perhaps they have a breezy ability to say what they think without agonizing inordinately over how it will sound.
Their appeal lies in the absence of circumspection. Confidence while speaking with them swells when whatever is said has a diminished chance of being misconstrued.
Within such a term of engagement, the absence of a brittle personality yields pleasure.
Isabelle knew these things. Or she behaved as if she did. Wyatt was smitten early.
How could he possibly keep her interested? Whatever should he say to her? He quickly realized it didn’t matter. If he made a verbal fumble, she’d pick it up and run for a touchdown.
Should he mention the weather? Of course. Isabelle was sure to have several favorite times of the year and be eager to talk about them.
TV shows? She followed all of them. Reality episodes were her favorites.
She knew the latest gossip about the participants. Which ones were ringers. How the judges were getting along. Who might be sleeping with whom. She regaled him with amusing stories.
Personal stuff? Maybe a tendency to be more guarded in that area. Still, she was free with information about her tastes in clothing and food and, to some extent, her background.
What was she doing in such a remote place? Her brother, Oliver, was the proprietor. He’d bought the property when he realized he needed time away from civilization to think.
Wyatt gathered that Oliver was undergoing some personal therapy that involved being off on his own for a while. Isabelle was essentially his caretaker.
The late hours were because Oliver couldn’t sleep. Might as well turn his insomnia into a plus, was the plan. Besides, he fancied himself a poet and the moments between midnight and dawn with only a few customers were ideal for his writing.
All the better for Wyatt. It meant he had Isabelle to himself for extended periods of time.
Only as the weeks progressed did Wyatt hear that Isabelle had personal problems of her own.
But that occurred long after he’d proceeded beyond his initial stumbling efforts.
He finally acquired the confidence to tell her about his job, his loneliness and his difficult family situation. He let her know that his sister in Toronto was the only person in the world with whom he had a close personal relationship.
Except that wasn’t quite true anymore, was it? His tie with Isabelle was tenuous but growing stronger.
“The way I heard it, your brother’s van was in the wrong lane when a logging truck from the Killarney lumber mill near Marathon barreled around a corner and demolished it,” said Sylvia.
She went on to say, “There are some notorious twists and turns on the stretches around here and you have to be careful what you’re doing. It’s tough enough driving in the right direction. How much worse to be in the wrong lane in the middle of the night?”
Sylvia was trying to be kind, but she realized the bare facts would be difficult to hear.
“But why would he be driving this way?” questioned the young woman. “It was early Friday morning. He should have been headed back to his home in Sudbury.”
“You’re not the only one who’s curious, child,” said Sylvia. “The police found the circumstances strange, too.”
“Have you spoken to them?”
“Yes, of course. We all know each other. This was the most excitement we’ve had in years.” Her eyes lit up, then Sylvia caught herself. “I’m sorry, dear, that was an insensitive thing for me to say.”
Sylvia continued, but with a softer tone. “The first officer on the scene was Stan O’Brien with the provincial force. The other driver contacted him by CB.”
“I feel badly. I keep forgetting someone else was involved. Was the trucker hurt?”
“His injuries were minor, a bruise or two. Those rigs are big. Like giant battering rams. But he was shaken up.”
“Any chance he wasn’t telling the truth? That he was the one who crossed the line?”
“’I’m afraid not. You know the cops measure tire tracks and that sort of thing. Apparently it happened just like he said.”
“So no one has any idea what Wyatt was doing?”
“Not a clue, although there are several possibilities. The boredom of driving this route can put one to sleep. Maybe that’s what happened. He nodded off, woke up and scared the wits out of himself.
“He decided to return here for a rest, but was still groggy and wandered across the yellow markers. That’s when he got hit.”
“Do you suppose he’d been drinking?”
Sylvia was quick to respond. “That’s not what the toxicology report said.”
“Maybe he encountered a mechanical problem and was trying to limp back to a garage. His steering could have been shot.” The young lady was looking for a logical answer.
“Yes, I suppose that’s possible.” Sylvia felt a need to throw her new friend a lifeline.
The two women sat in silence for a while. The regenerative freshness in the air was a treat. Too bad it was discordant with the mood.
Twice a week for the next month, Wyatt stopped to spend time with Isabelle. He gradually came to hear her life story. She had a boyfriend who was the love of her life but he was the one subject about which she was reticent.
To Wyatt, the boyfriend’s existence was a disappointment, but he quickly made the mental adjustment. There was bound to be a man in Isabelle’s life, but he wasn’t there right now, was he? Isabelle was his for the moment.
Isabelle was willing to talk about her brother. She and Oliver had been just kids when their parents separated. She’d been raised by her mother in various small villages around Drummondville, Quebec and he, by their father and his new girlfriend in Timmins, Ontario. Oliver acquired a small inheritance upon their father’s death.
When the time came that Oliver needed Isabelle’s help, she’d been quick to respond.
Apparently Oliver was an aspiring writer. If there were no customers, he’d sit in the kitchen and work on his opus. He dreamed of being a famous writer like Shakespeare.
He had an idea for the next great theatrical tragedy – “Like Hamlet or Lady Macbeth,” she said.
Wyatt wasn’t about to correct her. He loved the sound of her voice.
When she touched his hand after delivering an order and said, “Hope you enjoy your meal, Sweetie,” he knew the reason he’d been put on this earth.
“So what’s Oliver writing about?” he once had the temerity to ask.
“It’s the Family Lee story, as he calls it. Oliver’s fascinated with how Bruce Lee rose from obscurity to become a kung fu master and world-wide movie star. He had it all. Then suddenly, in his mid-30s, he died from a brain hemorrhage. It’s incredibly sad.
“Then his only son, Brandon, repeated the pattern. He died even younger, at 26 or 27, due to a ridiculous accident involving blanks and a fake gun on a film set. The family was cursed.”
‘True that,’ thought Wyatt, and his respect for his new best friend and her sibling grew enormously.
One night, shortly afterwards, Wyatt suggested he and Isabelle take a walk outside and look at the stars. He could never believe how bright they were above the forest shield.
“We’d have to turn off the power and Oliver wouldn’t like that,” said Isabelle. “Do you want to hear what he says about the stars?” she asked.
“Yes, I’d love to,” Wyatt responded with feigned enthusiasm.
“He says they’re pin-prick tears letting in heaven’s light through the night-time shroud.”
Having mostly heard Oliver’s musings from behind his cell wall – that is to say the boundary between eating area and kitchen – Wyatt was primed to laugh. Contemplation of the words stopped him short. Perhaps Oliver was a poet after all.
Wyatt looked at Isabelle and for the first time since they’d met, saw a look of pride in her eyes when it came to her brother.
Wyatt felt uneasy and wished to change the subject
When Wyatt stopped by Points North after his fifth week of floral deliveries, Oliver stepped out of his hiding place and sat down next to him, as opposed to face-to-face.
It seemed he wished to share a confidence. To be more intimate than the wider gap an across-the-table encounter would allow.
From previous rare sightings, Wyatt knew Oliver to be tallish and lean, with shoulder-length hair and a mustache. Up close, his dominant feature was intensity.
Wyatt had no idea what to expect. He and Oliver had rarely conversed before, nothing beyond an airy hello or good-bye.
“Isabelle’s out back replenishing supplies,” volunteered Oliver.
“Oh! Well I guess that has to be done to run a business properly,” said Wyatt. He realized how lame it sounded.
“Do you dream, Wyatt?” Oliver seemed intent on astonishing him.
It was hardly what Wyatt had been expecting to hear. It confused him.
“Do you mean do I have aspirations? Are you asking if I have goals in life?” He took a sip of his coffee.
Wyatt tilted his head, left ear at a right-angle to Oliver’s mouth, the better to hear the answer.
“What happens when you go to sleep at night? Do you have dreams? Can you remember them?”
Wyatt knew Oliver wasn’t sleeping well. His companion looked worried. Something was bothering him.
“In my dream last night,” began Oliver, ”I thought I’d been asked to attend a friend’s funeral. I was supposed to be a pall-bearer.
“I was going to learn my duties that night during a visitation to the funeral home.
“But then I remembered I always have dinner with my parents on Thursday evenings. I’d do that first and stop by the funeral home later.
“The scene shifted and I was seated with my mom and dad at a nice restaurant – Italian. I ordered a pasta dish.
“We were at a table for four, in a cheerful room, full of candlelight. I very much appreciated the red and white polka-dot tablecloth.
“I looked over to the large front window. A fog had rolled in. It was so thick nothing was distinguishable outside our comfortable room. I knew it wouldn’t be wise to drive anywhere. The trip to the mortuary was cancelled.”
Wyatt’s eyes had grown larger. He was impressed by Oliver’s serious demeanor. On a deeper level, he was equally affected by the strangeness of the subject matter.
“The next morning, I was out for a walk with some kids I don’t know,” continued Oliver. “They were lively and having a great deal of fun. I was attempting to fly a clear plastic sheet on the end of a string. It was a mini-version of a parasail.
“We were strolling down a tree-lined lane. The half-balloon was captured in the breeze. It climbed into the air. Rather than fight to hold onto it, I was pleased to let it go. I felt I was doing my part for free spirits everywhere.” At this, Oliver smiled gently.
“It rose so far, bumped into a leafy canopy and returned to earth. I took hold of the string again, walked another distance and repeated the process. This happened three or four times.
“We came to a crossroads. Approaching us on foot, descending a gentle slope, was a procession. I stopped just as they made a turn onto the road where I was standing. Our paths were coming into alignment.
“At the front, were several men dressed in tuxedoes. I noticed them first.
“Then followed a carriage pulled by some other men dressed in suits and sports coats. There was a polished wooden box sitting prominently on a platform in the cart. Approximately 30 adults and children in casual dress followed behind.
“I realized it was a burial. The one I was supposed to be in. Was I late? Had I let the time slip by?
“I thought it was about ten in the morning. Could it already be past two p.m.?
“I realized I knew some of the funeral party. Oddly, I hadn’t looked at any of them directly, so that wasn’t how I reached my conclusion. There was something about the circumstances. Or their profiles. Or the way they turned in unison.
“Maybe it was because they were so quiet.
“No one seemed to recognize me or, for that matter, even see me.
“Something wasn’t right.
“A spark lit. I knew the subject who was to be interred.
“I didn’t really have dinner with my parents the night before. They were both dead.
“The person in the box was me. Only, in a literal sense, that wasn’t true.
“Instead, I was outside watching the proceedings. Did that make me fortunate or unfortunate?
“I was surprisingly calm. After all, I’ve always figured that dying would be a traumatic experience. It might be a long process. It might be short. Whichever, it was bound to be unpleasant.
“But here I was. I’d made the leap. Without a lot of fuss or pain. If anything, I felt relieved. The worst was over for me.
“Except for one outstanding question. What now?
“Where was I supposed to go? What was I supposed to do? Was there a list of instructions?
“Would there be somebody along shortly to give me a hand? Point me in the right direction? Or was I completely on my own?
“The long and the short of it is that I woke up with a start and the usual bleak day stretched out before me.
“So what do you think about my dream? Does it mean something? Is it a forewarning? Should I be worried?”
Wyatt was saved by Isabelle’s appearance. She caught the ragged end of the conversation. “So how did you feel about your funeral?” she asked.
“Disappointed,” Oliver dead-panned.
Things never quite returned to normal after that. The subject of Oliver came up too frequently.
And there was the time Isabelle was obviously trying to mask a bruise with make-up.
Wyatt asked her what happened.
She didn’t stop the swivel of her eyes towards the kitchen soon enough.
“Did your brother have something to do with it?” he asked.
She shushed him. “No. How could you think that?”
“Then why are we whispering?”
“I looked in on Oliver and he’s managing to catch a few winks. I’d like to let him continue sleeping.”
Wyatt had his suspicions nonetheless.
More time passed.
The moment finally arrived when Isabelle was more forthcoming. She admitted Oliver had a temper and could be abusive.
“He’s not really your brother, is he?” Wyatt finally had the nerve to ask.
Isabelle relented. It was a struggle, but she set the truth free. “No. It’s my way to save some awkwardness. Most people act more kindly towards a caring sister and a sick brother than what may appear to be an unfocused couple simply shacking up in the woods.
“You and I have become so close and I care for you so much, it’s no longer right to deceive you.”
Wyatt’s heart did cartwheels. He was getting ahead of himself.
“But that’s part of the problem, too,” added Isabelle.
“Uh, oh,” he said grimly. “What do you mean?”
“Oliver is jealous of you.”
“We’ve never done anything to offend him. Not that I haven’t wanted to.” He snuck that in as an aside, now that he was sure she wouldn’t mind.
“I know, but he’s not just a writer. He also reads a lot and watches talk shows. He’s come across a new term that he says applies to us. He thinks you and I are engaged in ‘emotional infidelity’.
“Say what?” Wyatt queried.
“There are some husbands and wives who aren’t finding satisfaction at home, so they seek friendship over the Internet. It’s harmless at first, but then they start to share their feelings with that other person more than with the one they’re married to. It all seems rather gloomy.”
“Maybe also liberating.”
“Yes. I suppose. And in our case, I’m certainly glad I met you.”
“Am I the reason for the bruise?”
“Partly, but not entirely. Oliver also doesn’t like it when I venture into his area of expertise.”
“I told him how impressed you were with his description of the stars. His interpretation was that we’d been having a ‘romantic’ discussion. He hated to hear it. Fine, so we fought and made up.
“Unfortunately, he later came back to the subject. He wanted to know how I would describe the stars. I told him they looked like fireflies glued to the inside of earth’s black-velvet skull cap.
“He flew into a rage. He thought I was mocking him. That wasn’t true. It was the best description I could come up with. In fact, I’m rather proud of it. I’ve had a long time to compose it.
“Now, there’s nothing I say or do that satisfies him.”
Even as he was spouting some platitude to soothe Isabelle concerning her situation with Oliver, the question popped into Wyatt’s head – how far beyond his depth was he attempting to wade?
There was nothing he could do but press onward. He’d already rejected all lines of retreat. He was trapped in the seaweed of his emotions.
“I had contact with my brother every week by phone. Would it surprise you to hear that he talked constantly about a girl he’d recently met named Isabelle?” said the young lady.
Sylvia looked perplexed and took a second to answer. “Was this Isabelle supposed to be from around here?”
“Yes, she works in a diner just outside town. I looked for it on my way in.”
“There’s no eating place beyond the edge of town that I know of,” said Sylvia. “Did he mention the name of the diner?”
“I’m sure he did, but I was more interested in the human side of the story. I think he fell pretty hard for her. He kept insisting how great she is, but that she has some problems. He was worried about her.”
“I think she was having boyfriend trouble. She might have been abused. My brother was naïve that way. He’d want to be a knight in shining armor and rescue her.”
Sylia nodded her head. She’d met his kind before. Husband number two of three fit that bill.
“Maybe he was driving back to see her. But that still doesn’t explain why he was in the wrong lane. Was there was no sign of anyone else at the scene?”
“Not that I’ve heard,” said Sylvia. A crease of doubt appeared across her forehead. It was obvious she might have more to say on the subject if given time.
The young lady sensed Sylvia’s uncertainty. She waited quietly. Instinctively, she changed topic. A comment on the weather might break the tension. “What a beautiful day. It’s been spring in Toronto for about a month. I get a sense it’s only just arrived up here.”
“That’s right. We’re always way behind with the good weather and well out front when it comes to the bad.” Sylvia was obviously in the throes of making an important decision.
“Listen, there is a story you might be interested in hearing, although I admit it’s pretty outlandish. Do you remember the boyfriend’s name?”
“That I do recall. It’s the same as someone I used to date, who turned out to be a rat. Oliver! The last couple of times I spoke with Wyatt, he mentioned Oliver over and over. I think at first he liked him, but later all I heard was criticism.
“Oliver and Isabelle worked together. I think they tried to pass themselves off as brother and sister to most people, but they were really involved in a relationship. At least, that’s what Wyatt told me.”
“I was afraid of this,” said Sylvia. “There’s a local legend…” and her words trailed off.
Sylvia was reluctant to go on, but she could hardly fail to proceed. “It’s probably all nonsense, but I should forewarn you. Do you believe in ghosts?”
The young lady turned her head away, as if unsure how to react. “I know many people who do, but no, not me. I’m not really into that sort of thing. I find reality mysterious enough.”
Sylvia was quick to respond. “I’m not into the spiritual world either, but there is a yarn that’s well known in these parts. Many people claim they’ve had personal and up-close experience with the enigma that is Isabelle and Oliver.
“Let me tell you their tale, as far as I know it.”
Wyatt walked through the door of the diner and was not surprised to see the situation had altered.
Oliver was sitting on a stool at the counter. “What are you doing here?” he demanded to know.
“I’ve come for Isabelle, of course,” Wyatt answered.
“I suppose she called you on her cell phone?”
“Yes. You can’t go on beating her up forever.”
“Well, you’re too late. She’s already left.”
“What do you mean? Where is she?”
“Packed a bag, walked out and headed down the highway. I’m surprised you didn’t see her.”
Wyatt realized Oliver was probably getting his directions backwards. On Thursday nights, Wyatt would undertake the return jog from Thunder Bay to Sudbury. That’s where he lived and that’s the route Isabelle had probably taken. At least, he hoped such was the case.
Oliver was studying him intently. Was he reading his thoughts? It seemed so.
“Unless, of course, she decided to go the other way. I think we should go after her. What do you think?” The sneer in Oliver’s voice made it clear he didn’t really care what Wyatt thought.
“Uh, no, we should probably give her space.” Wyatt was searching for a means to stall precipitous action, which he knew was likely to be more harmful than good.
“No. We’re going now. I’ve had enough of her nonsense.”
“And of you too,” he added as an afterthought.
Oliver stepped behind the counter and bent to retrieve something on a lower shelf. He pulled out a pump-action shotgun. “In case we meet a monster along the way,” he said.
“Are you sure this is the right thing to do?” said Wyatt.
“Funny thing about that. I asked myself, ‘What would Bruce do?’ I came to the conclusion he’d take matters into his own hands. Let’s get a move on.”
He motioned towards the door. The threat wasn’t overt, but it hovered ominously.
“We’ll take the van and you drive. I want to keep an eye on you.”
They walked across the small lot. “Hold up,” Oliver commanded. “Come with me to the shed for a second. There’s something else we might need.”
The two men walked the 50 feet in silence, Wyatt out front with his mind racing and Oliver striding behind, guard-fashion.
Just inside the entrance to the garden shack, Oliver grabbed the long handle of a shovel with his left hand. Then he indicated they should retreat to where Wyatt had parked.
Once they reached the vehicle, Oliver insisted Wyatt open the back door and he threw the shovel into the empty compartment. That portion of their preparations dispensed with, they both climbed into the front and drove off.
Sylvia was able to provide her new friend with the rudiments of the story. There was nobody left alive who knew the whole truth.
Although the two main characters might disagree with that assessment.
It began in a place not so very far away, but closer to civilization and imbued with a more vivacious spirit, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
In March of 1977, Oliver could hardly contain his excitement. He’d been chasing Isabelle since first laying eyes on her in an undergrad philosophy class.
He was very much aware of their differences and of how vain his desire was likely to be.
He was standard-issue white bread while she was a flavorful granola bar.
Her background was Haitian, from one of the few wealthy families on that benighted island. Ancestral money came from harvesting sugar cane and coffee.
Original French settlers were part of her genetic make-up and her parents had been smart enough to ensure she was fluent in several languages.
While her English was perfect, she could also lay on an accent when she wanted to, especially if it would help her get her way.
To certain of her gentlemen friends, there was nothing more beguiling.
She was accepted into the U.S. to study partly on the strength of her financial backing, but equally due to her high SAT scores.
Now she wanted to visit Montreal where there was a large expatriate community of her fellow islanders. She had a number of relatives living in the area.
It was the late 70s, not the mid-60s, and the hippie generation was starting to fade. But a number of roots continued to flourish.
One main shoot that was continuing to spread and send out feelers was the music.
Oliver was a huge fan of the artists who had launched the age of protests through their songs. The Vietnam War, racial inequality and the women’s movement all appeared in the lyrics of Peter, Paul and Mary; Joan Baez; and the incomparable Dylan.
By a fluke of proximity, Oliver had been near-by during one of the great outpourings of unrest in the whole era. The riots in Detroit occurred the previous summer. They led to his discovery of Gordon Lightfoot. “Black Day in July” fused folk and pop music with social relevancy.
While Oliver didn’t recognize himself as an elitist, Lightfoot provided him with a means to convey his exquisite musical taste while also demonstrating an uncanny intellectual acuity. He spoke in hushed tones about the work of a man many in the States had only barely heard of.
As Lightfoot became a cult figure, Oliver’s reputation among his fellow classmates and fraternity brothers rose accordingly. Isabelle was no longer an unattainable object of desire.
While her interest in him was never as great as the affection he directed towards her, she did find him to be a fascinating creature with a wide repertoire of likes and dislikes.
In those impetuous days, it was taken for granted that strong feelings were a prerequisite to making one’s mark. In affairs of the heart, they were also a turn on.
Oliver sensed his opportunity and was quick to seize it.
Learning of Isabelle’s wish to visit Montreal during spring break, he focused on achieving two goals in one bold move. He turned down his buddies who wanted to travel to Florida and offered to drive Isabelle on her quest instead.
His offer carried a proviso. She must be okay with traveling by a northerly route that would take them into Canada at the border crossing in Sault Ste. Marie.
Once on foreign soil, they could hop scotch from one Lightfoot shrine to another.
They’d begin by driving along the northern shore of Lake Superior, where the largest freighter on the Great Lakes had recently sunk in heavy seas, resulting in the deaths of 29 crewmen.
The moment was enshrined in the classic ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”.
Whitefish Bay was near the Sault, but Oliver also wanted to travel on to Wawa further north and west, where a better sense of the topography would be realized.
Then they’d backtrack to the top of Lake Huron and drive east through Sudbury and North Bay before turning south to Orillia. From there, the best route would take them across Ontario to Ottawa, then down to Quebec’s largest city.
Orillia was his hero’s birthplace. It had also been Lightfoot’s hometown during his formative years.
The pleasure of staying in motels along the way would complete his trip to Nirvana.
The initial night in the Sault on the Canadian side of the border was their first time under the sheets and Oliver would be forever grateful for his Canadian wanderlust.
The next day, rolling across some of the finest scenery in the world – with the music in the mustang’s tape deck blaring, the forest boundary squeezing them forward, the rocky shield taking notice majestically and the vast expanse of Superior struggling to hold back its power – was a heady experience.
Oliver and Isabelle talked of their aspirations. He was an English lit major, with a world view that all experience was grist for his creativity. He was dying to write great literature.
She believed in her ability to connect with people and felt an inclination to move into social work. Something in a women’s shelter, or helping the homeless, for example.
Day two was well underway when they reached Pancake Bay and decided to reverse course. The second longer leg of the journey was about to begin.
Oliver cranked up the music. “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”, with its driving melody in three parts rumbled and rolled in accompaniment with their motion.
The cadence of the singing in combination with the accelerating melody simulated a ride on an actual train. The mental clickety-clacking was mesmerizing.
As a true representative of his generation, Oliver had to wonder how much greater the experience would be if he were high.
He’d done his preparations before leaving campus, establishing a contact for when he crossed into Canadian territory. Once through customs, he found his man hanging out at the fringe of a community center and loaded up on weed and acid.
What he failed to take into consideration was the difference between the better quality drugs in his college hometown and what was likely to be available from some local amateur supplier.
He’d consumed a sugar cube the night before and was still feeling the after-effects. If he smoked some weed, that would be sure to help. He was unaware of the danger he was exposing them to, believing it to be worthwhile at the time.
His passenger, Isabelle, declined to participate. It wasn’t a decision she made easily. She was also a child of the times. The notion of joining him did hold a great deal of appeal.
The intermittent cars and trucks that sped past in the opposing lane started to expand and contract within his heightened field of vision.
They took on an increasing aura of blurriness. In Oliver’s drug-induced mind, they became bursts of exuberance. They were outward expressions of all the joy he was feeling in life.
He joined Gordon in singing ‘Sundown’ and ‘Carefree Highway’ at full voice.
Isabelle was put on edge by their erratic movement on the road.
An approaching vehicle pirouetted into Oliver’s sight line. No need to worry. Nothing could harm him. He was touched by the hand of God.
Terrified and screaming, Isabelle reached over and grabbed the steering wheel.
At the last possible second, the mustang lurched to the right, shot across a ditch and smashed full force into a granite embankment.
Both of the occupants were killed instantly.
Released from their mortal bonds, Isabelle refused to leave this realm. Oliver wouldn’t go without Isabelle.
They soon found they needed something to tether them to reality.
Hence the start of the game. It proved no burden to find unsuspecting and too-willing saviors.
Wyatt and Oliver left the parking lot and headed east into the darkness. The smell in the van was pungent. It was the leftover fragrance from all the perennials and annuals Wyatt had been escorting across the north country.
The lingering scent of tulips, lilies, daisies, daffodils, chrysanthemums and myriad other flowers and plants immersed in various moist potting mixtures contributed a heady and intoxicating aroma. Too many living things had been cut in their prime for the enjoyment of others.
Add the silence all around them, plus the coiled violence in the passenger seat, and the trip was a madhouse excursion.
In the break between the trees in front of them, a half moon was a third of the way up the horizon.
“We could drive there,” said Oliver.
“Drive where?” asked Wyatt in confusion.
“To the moon. If we continue straight and we get the proper trajectory on a hill, that’s where we’ll end up. It doesn’t look like a long journey. Wouldn’t that be terrific?”
It was the calm in Oliver’s voice that was most unsettling. The disassociation between his anger and his power of observation was alarming.
What would come next? Wyatt’s considerable fear became more inflamed.
Oliver sat beside him, with a shotgun in his lap. There was no mistaking that both Wyatt and Isabelle were in grave danger.
Wyatt was desperate to reach Isabelle and save her from harm. But for her sake, it might be better if they didn’t find her.
Rounding one tight corner as a prelude to another, a figure appeared some distance away in the headlights, by the side of the road.
Oliver told Wyatt to slow down.
It was a girl, walking in a determined fashion, with no apparent inclination to glance backwards.
There was little doubt it was Isabelle.
Oliver raised the business end of his rifle several inches and demanded Wyatt pull over to the side.
The Odyssey slipped onto the shoulder and for a second, Wyatt was afraid they might sink into the soft earth and become stuck.
Oliver leapt out of the vehicle before it came to a full stop. He approached Isabelle from behind and called out her name. Her frame slumped. As she turned, her body language spoke of resignation.
Wyatt, frozen with alarm in the driver’s seat, was moved to a deeper sympathy.
With neither warning nor explanation, Oliver lifted the shotgun and fired at Isabelle.
Her torso became the mannequin tossed onto a floor when it’s time to change a store’s showcase tableau.
Oliver walked up to the body. He wanted to check on something.
Wyatt couldn’t believe the nightmare he was trapped in.
Oliver grabbed Isabelle by the top of her blouse and dragged her limp form into the middle of the road. He signaled for Wyatt to turn the van so the headlights would illuminate the scene.
Wyatt wanted to run. But if there was anything he could do to help Isabelle, he had to stay.
The notion of a psychotic Oliver with a deadly weapon also left him searching for courage.
Once Oliver determined what he wanted to know, he walked back to the open window on the driver’s side of the van.
“Great news!” he said. “She’s not dead yet. I can see she’s still breathing.” He paused for effect. “You know what that means?” he asked.
Wyatt was too much in shock to have a coherent thought. His eyes said “No”.
“You get to bury her alive.”
The van’s engine was still running.
Oliver walked around to the back of the Honda. He started fiddling with the door latch.
Wyatt’s brain finally kicked into gear. This was his one chance. He had to take it, or he’d be lost forever. He had an opportunity to save both himself and, if fortune was on their side, Isabelle as well.
He threw the transmission into reverse. The van knocked Oliver down and passed over his body smooth as could be. Wyatt continued with his foot on the accelerator for another thirty meters before braking.
Now there were two bodies in the headlights, Oliver’s up close and Isabelle’s at a further distance.
Wyatt was stunned. He’d never imagined himself capable of such a thing.
What to do now? He couldn’t afford another bout of immobility.
No fear of that. To Wyatt’s horror, the nearer of the two prostrate forms heaved up in jerky stages.
It reached a sitting position. In another five seconds, and against all comprehension, it staggered to its feet.
Oliver shuffled along towards Wyatt. The tension was unbearable. But rather than stopping to threaten Wyatt, Oliver continued on towards Ashes’ Corners.
Wyatt didn’t know what to do. Oliver was staggering down the road away from him. Isabelle was lying on the road in front of him.
If Isabelle and he were ever to have a chance, Oliver would have to be disposed of. He could hide the body and bury it later.
He threw a hard left across the road then spun the wheel in the opposite direction as he put the van in reverse. Into forward again and another sharp turn and he had Oliver in his sights.
Oliver was on the wrong side of the road, a short distance ahead and just at the start of the bend.
Taking aim, Wyatt put his right foot to the floor.
Coincident with reaching his target, he was surprised to sense a terrible rumbling.
Two brilliant lights blinded him. A monster did indeed come around the bend. But no shotgun was going to save him.
The ensuing impact was unavoidable.
Wyatt never knew what hit him.
“You think maybe Wyatt became involved with a pair of spirits?”
“Anything is possible, I suppose,” said Sylvia. “I’m simply passing on the same story others are sure to tell you once they hear the names Isabelle and Oliver.”
“Did the truck driver report seeing ghosts?”
“Nope! Not that I heard of. Of course, that might be something he would keep to himself.”
“You say they’ve done this sort of thing before. How does that work? What sorts of games have they played in the past?”
“Apparently, they look for abandoned properties anywhere north of Superior. Then they set up their imaginary scenarios and go to work on some innocent bystander.
“She lures them in. He fakes jealousy and they both hound their victim into doing something regrettable. They’ve supposedly opened after-hours libraries in derelict schools, set up overnight shelters in abandoned churches and served coffee and donuts in crumbling fast food restaurants.”
“Is there anything on the outskirts of Ashes’ Corners that might resemble a diner?”
“Yes, come to think of it, there is,” said Sylvia. “It didn’t cross my mind before, because the structure completely burned to the ground. There used to be a combination restaurant and refueling station a couple of kilometers out of town.
“There was an explosion immediately before I moved to Ashes’ Corners, back in the 90s. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I bought this place. The competition had just gone under.
“The owner’s wife died, he became lonely and depressed, drank a lot and flicked a lit cigarette in the wrong direction one night. Kaboom!”
For all that their conversation had opened up a new twist, it was clear Sylvia remained encased in skepticism.
The young lady seemed more inclined to consider the possibility. “Have you ever seen this Isabelle or her boyfriend?” she asked.
“Can’t say as I have. I’m too practical for that sort of thing.”
“Well maybe I’ll go have a look. You say it’s just up the road a bit?”
“That’s right. Not far along heading east.” Sylvia pointed with her finger. “It’ll take you only a minute or two to drive there.”
She looked around. “Come to think of it, where’s your car, my dear?”
“It’s in the parking lot of the Lutheran Church. It’s such a beautiful day, I’ll just walk the distance. It’ll also give me time to think more about Wyatt. And pay my respects. A stroll through nature around here is something like a religious experience anyway.”
She stood up and did a ladylike stretch. “Thank you for your help. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. You’ve been wonderful to me.”
She placed her left hand ever so gently on Sylvia’s right shoulder. The depth of her appreciation was transmitted through the physical touch.
“You’re more than welcome. I’ve loved having the opportunity to spend time with you.”
Sylvia realized she wasn’t just mouthing words. She truly meant it. Maybe to as great a degree as ever in her life.
It had been one of those surprising human connections that occur rarely during one’s span of years. They may have been thrown together by a random circumstance, but an instant bond had been established between the two of them, however unlikely the pairing.
‘Too bad it’s ending so soon,’ thought Sylvia.
The young lady walked into the clearing where the diner stood. She went around to the back and entered through the rear doorway.
She needn’t have gone to that much effort.
“Oliver, I’m home,” were the first words out of her mouth.
She could hear him climbing the stairs from the basement.
“How’s our friend doing?”
“He’s disconcerted. Like so many of them are at first. Can’t believe what’s happening to him. He wants to stay of course, but I’ve explained that’s not possible. He’s only delaying the inevitable.”
“I know, once they display an intent to kill, that’s it for sure. No possibility of a better outcome.”
This was the only way Oliver would play Isabelle’s game. He loved her with everything at his command. It killed him when she wanted to take up with another man, no matter how impossible the situation might be.
On many occasions, Oliver had fulfilled his part in some role-playing scenario that saw Isabelle engage in an impossible flirtation for a brief period of time.
They’d set up shop in an abandoned warehouse or shuttered school or decommissioned church.
Isabelle would have her fun. Oliver would play the heavy. And when the proper time came, contingent on how long they could maintain their illusion, the final curtain would come down.
Oliver was only amenable to the scheme because he knew his rival would eventually be dispatched to the nether regions.
Their drama would leave some poor sucker with no option but to commit murder.
Once that happened, and the unfortunate dupe was dispatched as well, there was no future for their prey save a fiery eternity.
Isabelle and Oliver were exempt from retribution since their demises had been accidental.
Nor could they be processed for punishment at this point since they were already beyond the veil.
What a way to live in death.
Thanks to the sacrifices he’d made over the years, Isabelle had come to appreciate Oliver a great deal more than in the early days.
She’d never really blamed him for the accident with the mustang. It could have happened to anybody.
But she knew there would never be oneness of understanding between them.
Oliver was unable to fully appreciate what motivated her.
She craved flesh-and-blood, living-and-breathing contact.
There were long stretches when she didn’t have any dealings with the outside world.
But those times would be partially counter-balanced by brief dalliances with the likes of Wyatt. Or through what she’d shared with Sylvia.
That had been wonderful.
She couldn’t stand it if she didn’t have such moments to look forward to.
Never mind how tentative the encounters might be.
The next morning, back at Ashes’ Corners, Sylvia was again steeped in her routine.
She was still annoyed with herself for not finding out the name of the specter who’d visited her the day before.
For the second time within twenty-four hours, she was surprised to look up and see a lovely lady enter her establishment, after being announced by the doorbell’s ring.
Again, there was the quizzical expression on the new maiden’s face.
‘What now?’ thought Sylvia, not unkindly. ‘It’s turned into Grand Central Station around here.’
The pretty young thing approached the counter with some hesitation. Sylvia rose to greet her. ‘She’s not nearly as bold as yesterday’s visitor,’ crossed her mind.
“Hi,” her new guest said. “My name’s Joanne Wanamaker and my brother Wyatt was killed in a traffic accident just down the road last week.”
There was a twitch under her eyes and she was clearly struggling to keep tears under control.
“I felt it was my duty to drive up here and see where it happened. And to inquire if there was anything I should know beyond what the police told me.”
Sylvia’s expression alternated between dumbfounded confusion and a desire to be forthright.
Each time she was prepared to speak, the realization reared up that she had no idea where to begin.
Take a fun trip back in time, to an age of chivalry and dragons, in Foil’s Forsaken Folio.