Eight months shy of sixteen, Danny Woodward looks out the window at his father's truck, lit by a streetlight and quiet in the driveway. He slides out of bed and creeps down the stairs. He slips the keys off the rack and escapes out the door.
The empty roads from house to highway are a test of his skills. The brakes squeal, the wipers scrape over dry glass, the roadside gravel spits under the tires. It's a rough start, but Danny quickly learns how to navigate his father's truck in the night streets. He finds the on-ramp, where the long highway disappears under his headlights and falls behind him, the steady flash of white line a Morse code signal of all his reasons for running.
He'll arrive by morning.
Danny is stuck at the cottage, and tomorrow is his father's birthday. His mother is heading to town to get things: a newspaper, groceries, a birthday cake, and needs Danny to pick a fishing lure as a gift. He will enjoy the drive through the woods, at least, and he always likes the general store, perched atop the hill in the centre of town.
He walks into the store, a screen door slapping behind him, a cold rain sputtering on the pavement. What's left of a red canoe, with wooden ribs splintered like wishbones, is suspended over the counter, and under it hangs a sign.
"A true Canadian makes love in a canoe. Without tipping."
He spots a girl walking the aisles, the wood floor creaking underneath her yellow sandals. Her blonde hair is damp, her shoulders wet. She fingers the shelves and skims through the magazines.
Danny and the girl share a glance. Her eyes are bright. He follows as she flip-flops down the floorboards, as she saunters beside cases stacked with bread, and turns down an aisle by the register. She tosses a pack of gum on the counter, then brushes a strand of hair behind her ear. He smiles at her. She smiles back.
The store bell twinkles as she slides out the door and into the rain.
Danny finds comfort in the rumble of the engine, the roll of the tires, the easy way he guides the truck into curves and out. He finds a tape his father has left behind and plays Goin' Mobile by The Who, screaming the Pete Townshend vocals:
Watch the police and the tax man miss me, I'm mobile!
He would be miserable were it not for the fun of driving. He is, after all, in command of a vehicle that can take him anywhere, as fast as he dares to go. He is driving north, the highway sliding under him with ease, but the dashboard lights flicker, and an orange light peeks on.
He is running out of gas.
Danny walks through the crowd at the town fair, under the hot sun, insects buzzing in the trees. There is a smell of fresh cut woodcrafts and trampled grass, the fairgrounds filled with old women in straw hats, purses dangling from their arms, tabletops covered with loon-shaped place mats, homemade crokinole boards, and cottage trinkets of every variety. The locals sit under umbrellas, next to coolers filled with sandwiches and beer.
Danny spots the girl reclining in a lawn chair, her sandy feet propped on a table loaded with picnic baskets. He feigns interest in a set of pine tree oven mitts, pays no attention to the man who asks him if he wants to buy a pair. His eyes are on the girl, biting her fingernail, twisting her hair into curls.
He stands in front of her table.
"Want to buy a hand-weaved picnic basket?" she says.
"You live up here?"
"Yeah. My mom makes these silly things and my dad makes me sell them. Where are you from?"
"Toronto. Well, not really, a suburb of Toronto."
"There's a lot of suburbs," she says. "Which one?"
He tells her.
"I've never heard of that one."
"It doesn't matter," he says. "They're all the same."
"Not to me."
Danny picks up a picnic basket and holds it like Little Red Riding Hood, prancing through the forest. She laughs.
"I'm Kelsi," she says.
"I'm Danny," he says.
Soon they are packing up the baskets. Soon they are walking out together.
Danny slips off the highway, drives an empty road, finds houses spread apart by long swaths of farmland. He parks the truck and creeps up a gravel driveway. The garage door is open. Hockey equipmentgloves, sweaters, knee and shoulder padsis scattered and drying atop a tractor. A red gasoline can sits in the corner, next to a covered snowmobile. He grabs the can, but finds it empty.
He spots a hose and slides it into the tractor's belly. With a long breath he feels the gas sliding up the hose and over the edge, but the gas seeps through his lips and splashes on his tongue. Danny stifles a cough, clears the sour burn from the back of his throat, and drops the hose into the can.
His gut trembles as he hops back in the truck, either from the gas swilling inside him or the worry of what's to come.
Danny and Kelsi sit quietly in her car, passing a bottle. The edge of the dump is a few feet away. Beyond, crawling among heaps of garbage, are bears.
They watch the bruins digging deep into trash, tearing plastic bags open for watermelon rinds, coffee grounds, and barbecue leftovers. In the shine of the headlights, before the lip to the garbage abyss, sits a tall pile of cheezies.
"What's orange and red and lies in a ditch?" she asks.
"I don't know."
"A wounded cheezie," she says.
Danny groans. Kelsi giggles and pokes him in the ribs. "I'm sorry," she says. "I had to."
They are responsible for the cheezies, purchased a big bag of them at the general store, and at dusk ran nervously to the front of the car to dump them in a pile. Now they wait for a bear to take the bait.
"You ever been to Toronto?" Danny asks, his face turning sour as he pulls from the bottle.
"A couple times. We did the CN Tower thing, the shopping thing."
A bear lumbers past and they hush. A lump grows in Danny's throat. The bear sits a few feet in front of the car and sniffs, then extends a pink tongue, lapping each cheezie up from the ground. Kelsi flicks the headlights on and off. She shines the high beams and the bear ignores them, eating cheezies a few at a time, showing more restraint than Danny imagined. He'd expected a ravenous feast.
"How long are you around for?" she asks.
It surprises him. He was thinking of bears.
"The end of August," he says.
There's an awkward pause, so Danny leans in to kiss her, but Kelsi honks the horn and Danny jumps. The bear also jumps, and scrambles over the edge of the landfill, into the garbage froth, where it hides behind the shell of an old refrigerator.
"Sorry," she says, laughing. "I had to."
Danny drives past souvenir stands, cheese shops and burger joints. The towns become sparse and small, four lanes of highway dwindle to two, resorts and golf courses give way to hunting camps and wilderness parks. For a long while there is nothing but a straight ribbon of road cloaked by a thick curtain of trees.
The town is silent as he approaches, driving through the tight curve by the baseball diamond, pulling past the general store, quiet in the off-season, like a building that belongs in a museum.
He coasts down the hill and pulls into the marina parking lot. He drives around the picnic tables, behind a wall of boats propped on blocks, and shuts off the engine. The rumble finally quieted, he imagines the frantic morning at home, his father riding a cab to work, his mother in her housecoat, cradling a cold cup of coffee and worrying on the phone with her circle of friends.
Exhausted, he falls asleep.
Danny and Kelsi are paddling a canoe. "Two people drowned on this lake a few years ago," she says. "It was national news."
"A couple in their thirties, guests of a cottage in town, rented a canoe and were paddling out here," she says. "They crawled under the thwart and were getting it on when the canoe flipped over." Danny turns to look back at her. "They were stuck," she says. "He was still inside her."
They paddle to the far end of the lake, where pine trees hover over the shoreline. They round a bend, and in a small bay tucked behind a rock, find a floating dock for swimmers.
The dock is crudely made, four rusty oil barrels underneath plank boards covered by green carpet. Kelsi ties a rope around a cleat and steps out, the dock rolling underneath her. Danny follows, sliding along the carpet, and lies in the middle.
She crawls on top of him, touches her cheek to his cheek and whispers in his ear.
"Scared you're going to fall in?"
"A little," Danny says, and stares over her shoulder at the shoreline, where a trickle from the hills runs through pockets of marsh and spills over rocks as it enters the lake.
"That story you were telling me," he says. "Was that true?"
"That?" she says. "That's a myth. I tell that to everyone I go canoeing with."
The sun shines directly overhead, so that her face is cast in a warm shadow.
"So," he says, and runs a finger along the soft flesh under her chin.
Kelsi smiles, then rolls off the edge of the dock. Danny follows. She laughs as he inhales a mouthful of lake, like a great whale, and spouts it towards her. She pushes a wall of water his way, watches the spray collect in his hair and drip down his face. He slides under the surface, searching through the tea-coloured murk for her fuzzy, underwater form. He finds her, wraps his arms around her waist, and kisses her on the hip.
He wishes he could stay down there forever.
Danny wakes, the parking brake a stiff prod in his side. He wipes his eyes free of sleep and peeks over the dash. Crumbled leaves are smeared against the grass. The sun has swung over the lake and is ready to descend on the other side.
He pulls out of the marina lot. The town looks different in the brighter light of the afternoon. He looks across the lake to the baseball diamond, the fairgrounds, spots the general store atop the hill. He parks on the road, shuffles over the leafy pavement, turns the corner, and stands before her house.
It looks, he thinks, like something out of a fairy taleblue gabled ends, bright windows, and a turret with cedar shingles. He can picture a sprinkler wetting a green lawn and her family sipping iced tea on the porch, watching the neighbour's kid pull wheelies on a bicycle.
But now the porch is empty. A wet newspaper, a collection of dead leaves in the corner. He wants to go up the steps and knock on the door. He wants to be invited in, to apologise, to cry on her shoulder, and for her to do the same, but he's struck by an uneasy feeling, a creeping sensation that will not let him go.
It is no longer summertime. He doesn't belong here.
When they climb back in the canoe, Danny paddles in the stern and finds it difficult. The canoe turns to shore, then swerves to the centre of the lake. He is aiming for home, but it is taking forever.
"Good thing we're not in a hurry," Kelsi says.
They paddle down the lake, then through a shallow river into a small, quiet, out of the way lake with no cottages on it. Danny's face turns red in the sun. He puts the paddle in the canoe and, hands balancing along the gunwales, slides toward her. He leans over the thwart, kisses a drop of water caught in the curve of her neck, and breathes on her shoulder.
"What are you doing?" she says.
"I'm leaving tomorrow," he says.
And before she has a chance to say, "I know," Danny pulls her over the seat and lays her in the bottom of the canoe. "My paddle!" she says, but it floats away. Her head is tucked under the thwart, and he digs his nose into her neck to smell the suntan lotion and sweat.
He wants her completely. He wants to live inside her during the cold winter, so he can call on that moment in the canoe and the whole feeling will return to himthe hotness, the hunger, the need.
The canoe rocks, water slapping at the side of the hull, but doesn't tip. There are grunts and sighs and tears inside.
The wind picks up, blowing broken leaves through the forest. Danny steps down the road, walks under a canopy of branches, and kicks a rock into the ditch. The swell of loneliness in his gut is a signal of a new kind of devastation, a kind he has never known before, and it aches to the end of his bones.
He thinks of the fury of home, the cold of winter. Danny knows the misery that will accompany him as he drives south down the highway and approaches the city, and he feels a weight on his shoulders that, for the first time in his life, he might be unable to bear. He struggles to gain his step down the hill, the long walk back to his father's truck, and he's almost resigned to his fate when he hears a door crack open and the wind slam it shut, then the creaking of footsteps on a wooden porch.
He turns toward the house, and what he hears next is a word, a name, from a voice that he hasn't heard in a long time, and the sound of it raises the hair on the back of his neck, like perfect fingers playing music on the strings of his heart.