A twig snapped back, delivering a sharp smack to Chuck Franklin’s cheek as he turned to re-examine the path already trod. “Where in the hell am I?” He started forward again, his feet weighing twenty pounds each. The pack on his back, although empty of food, seemed heavier than when he started this trip. “Miles and miles of nothing. Why the hell would anyone willingly do this?” He stumbled over another tree root. “Shit!”
Dropping his pack to the ground, he sat on a fallen tree trunk, rubbed his hands through long, dirty hair and sighed. “I’m gonna die out here and no one will know. Any minute now some hungry bear is gonna lunge outta the brush and I don’t give a shit. Let him eat me. Get it over with. At least I won’t die with some commie bullet in my back. You hear me! Come and get me. Get it over with.” He shook his fist at a tangle of berry bushes, but his challenge went unanswered.
Exhausted, he lifted one ankle, rested it on the other knee, and massaged his foot through worn shoe leather. The smell caused him to turn his head. He groaned. “If I take ‘em off, I’ll never get ‘em back on again, and I can’t walk through this crap in my socks. There has to be someone living in this God-forsaken country.” He looked around and shook his head. “Which country? How the hell will I know?”
He checked the backpack again, but knew he would find nothing to eat. He had gone through the motions seven times now, but the results were the same. His stomach growled in reply, urging him to find some berries again. “I’ll puke if I have to eat one more damned berry. I need food.” Resigned, he let his foot fall back to the ground and pushed himself off the log. Berries were better than nothing. He found a bush, picked a handful and slapped them into his mouth then stopped mid-chew. Head tilted, he strained to listen then smiled. He spat, wiped a grubby sleeve over his face, grabbed the pack, and started walking.
The sound was calling him. He was defenseless: he the ship, she the siren. She was singing to him, her voice growing in strength with each step he took.
Chuck stopped short of the clearing and watched. She was hanging laundry on the line, singing with the radio, rocking her hips slowly. Auburn hair hung to her shoulder blades, waved back and forth. With her full skirt, a lacy top, and bare feet, she was no fashion model, but also nothing to be cast off out of hand.
Oh my God! People! I’m somewhere! He ran his fingers through the mop on his head, combing it with filthy nails, took a deep breath, smiled, and breeched the tree line. She hadn’t heard him, so he moved closer, stood behind her, and cleared his throat.
“Ahem, excuse me…”
She screamed, spun to face him, clothespins flying like shrapnel as she dived to grab the radio. In what seemed a well-practiced move, she shut off the little transistor and slipped it into her pocket. He stared at her eyes, wide with fright. She clutched a wet towel to her chest as she backed away from him.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Chuck…” He held out his hand, but she didn’t respond to the pleasantry. Sheepish, he slipped it into his pocket, tilted his chin down and tried again. “I was just passing through. I heard you singing.” Still he got no response. “Look, I’ve been walking for a long time. If I could just get a piece of bread or something, I’ll be on my way.” He waited, watched her vacant expression, felt his frown growing.
“Oh, to hell with it. Forget it.” He brushed passed her and headed toward the street out front.
He stopped, but his frustration at being already snubbed prevented him from turning around.
“I’m… I’m sorry. You surprised me. I thought you were my uncle. When I saw you weren’t, I thought you were… Forget it. It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry I was rude.” She draped the towel over the line. Crouching, she gathered the scattered clothespins into a basket. Chuck turned then retraced his step, stooping to pick up more of the stray pins on the way.
He searched for some common ground. “You like Herman’s Hermits?” He nodded to the radio in her pocket.
She smiled. “Yeah, they’re sorta groovy, but…” she lowered her voice and looked around her. “...My uncle forbids me to listen to any ‘modern garbage’.
“Ah.” He nodded, dropping the pins into the basket. “Look, I just need some food. I’m starving. Then I’ll get outta here.” He hesitated, stood up, hands on hips, and looked around him. “Maybe you could tell me where exactly ‘here’ is?”
The girl wrinkled her face. “Here? It’s Sundown. I just arrived here a few weeks ago. If you don’t have to stay, don’t. It’s dead around here.”
“Sundown, Manitoba, you silly. Where the hell…” she startled, looked around again, cringing. “Where the heck else would it be? Where are you heading, anyways?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Just traveling, I guess; seeing the world, looking for a new place to call home. Now, about that food…?”
“Sit over there.” She pointed to a bench across the garden, watched as he plodded towards it then she ran into the house.
“Sundown, Manitoba,” Chuck mumbled to himself. “Canada. I actually found the damned country.” He looked around. “So, this is Canada. Now what the hell do I do?” He sighed, leaned back and thought about roast beef, mashed potatoes and cornbread.
“Here.” She was back, proud and smiling as she passed him two egg salad sandwiches and a large glass of milk. Dropping to the ground, she crossed her legs in front of her, straightened out her skirt, and gazed up. “So, what’s it like?”
“What’s what like?” He spoke around a mouthful of bread, his interest more in the eating than the talking.
“Running away. I think I might like to as well. Maybe we can run off together? What are you running from?”
He swallowed hard, chased the food down with a large gulp from the glass. “I’m not running away. What on earth would make you think that? I got an invitation to a party that I just didn’t want to attend, and I knew some people would be mad, so I figured, since I wanted to see the world anyways, what better time than the present. A new start sounded like a great idea.” He crammed more food into his mouth. “What about you? What’re you gonna run from? You’re not old enough to run away.”
“I’m fifteen!” She threw a cautious look around her again. “I have to run away from this place.” Her face fell, shoulders slumped. “See, my mom and dad were killed in a car wreck a couple weeks back. My brother – his name’s Marty – and I got sent here to live with my uncle. How old are you?”
“A lot older than you are. You still have school to finish. Make sure you finish school.” He wagged a finger at her. “It can’t be that bad here with your uncle, and the town can’t be that bad… it’s probably pretty laid back, homey. I bet not much happens around here. You probably don’t even have a police department here.”
She frowned again, gave him another once-over then laughed. “Man, you are strange. Where the heck are you from? We don’t have police departments… we have RCMP. Not right here in town: They’re stationed in Steinbach, about an hour north of here. When we need them, we call and they come around. We don’t need them very often, though.”
Chuck nodded. His day was getting better by the minute. “What about work? Is there work to get around here?”
She shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I told you, I just got here myself, but my uncle knows everyone here. He might be able to help.”
“Help with what, Julia?”
The deep voice startled them both. Chuck jumped to his feet, his hand reaching for his backpack in one smooth movement. Julia was also standing, brushing the grass off the backs of her legs and trying to look respectful.
“Who’s this?” her uncle asked, having received no answer to his first question.
Chuck gulped, stuck out his hand, and stepped forward. “Good afternoon, Father. My name is Chuck Franklin. I was passing through, and your niece was kind enough to offer me some food and a place to sit for a moment.”
The priest accepted the handshake, appraised the guest. “Hmm, well, it looks like you could use a shower, a shave, some clean clothes and some sleep as well. You said you were traveling?”
“Yes, Father. But I was thinking Sundown might be a good place to set down some roots, start a life of my own.”
He nodded, knowingly. “It’s a good town. Quiet, off the beaten path. Depending on what you’re looking for, it could fill the bill. You’ll need a place to stay for a day or two, some work, and some food. You’re skinny as a rake.” He turned to his niece. “Run in the house, Child, and make up the guest room on the main floor. Then you better get some supper on. Mister Franklin and I will be here in the garden, chatting. I imagine then he’ll want to freshen up. Look sharp, Child.”
Julia trotted off. Chuck watched her climbing the stairs to the kitchen. When he turned back to the priest, he realized he, too, was being watched.
“I’m Father Donovan Flaherty. That’s my niece. Her brother is around here somewhere. I hope he doesn’t make a nuisance of himself to you.” He started to walk towards the garden, his expression signaling that Chuck should follow. “I know why you’re here. I have no intention of judging you on that. You are welcome to stay for a while, so you can figure things out, but there will be rules. The first is to keep your nose clean, especially in regard to my niece. She’s had a tough go of it, and I’ll not tolerate anyone trifling with her. She’s young and impressionable. There are repairs to be done here, the cemetery needs some attention, and the gutters on the rectory need to be cleaned. Maybe by the time you get that done, we’ll have found work for you, if you’re planning on staying around.”
“Yes, Sir.” Chuck clutched tighter to his pack.
“And while you are here, there will be no drinking, no partying, no swearing, you will, under no circumstance, go upstairs in the house, and you will attend church. I don’t care if you’re Catholic or not; you’re under my roof, living off the kindness of my parishioners, so the least you can do is know and respect who we are. You don’t have to believe, but you have to understand and respect. If you have any drugs in that bag, get rid of them, and keep them away from my nephew. He has enough temptations already; he certainly doesn’t need that one. If you have that damned draft notice in there, get rid of it as well. I have a safe you can store it in if you must keep it for whatever reason, or I have a fireplace you can burn it in, but for all our sakes, get rid of it.”
Father Donovan bent to evict a milkweed from his petunias. “Get to know everyone here. There are some who will be more than happy to help you. There are some who would gladly see you hanged, and would take great pride in tanning your hide and dragging you back to the other side of the border. It’s up to you to figure out who is which, but don’t be fooled by first, or even second impressions. Now, let’s get you inside.”
Welcome to Canada... and Father Donovan’s boot camp. Chuck followed the priest up the stairs and into the house.