“The Wolf and the Dragon” by Mary Thaler
It was only much later that Thuy would know whether to feel grateful that Binh’s children had been staying with her while he and his wife went to Boston.
When the lights went out, they were all sausaged in sleeping bags in the basement den. Thuy heard their alarmed and delighted cries from the upstairs kitchen. She set down her knife, groped for the drawer, and pulled out her flashlight. She thumped it a few times, pried off the cover and switched the batteries around: nothing.
Liam’s footsteps were more cautious than his usual thunder on the stairs.
“Gran, the lights are out!”
“I know.” Nothing in the drawer but useless wax blobs. “Get the girls to sit tight, I’m going to get candles.”
It was a brilliant night, like she hadn’t seen since she and Trang took Binh camping in Owen Sound. No light pollution, she realized. No lights, inside or out. Most of her young neighbours were no more likely to possess candles than assault rifles, but Thuy knew one house that might be promising.
As she stepped into the street, a shadow crossed the stars, making her shoulders stiffen. It was probably no more than an insect in the corner of her eye, but she waited a moment before climbing the steps and knocking on Frances Moodie’s door.
Frances had eight years on Thuy, and looked older still. Thuy occasionally saw her going down the street, swinging her arms, on what was obviously a prescribed fitness walk. She lived alone, and her family wasn’t pressuring her to go into care because, as far as Thuy could tell, she didn’t have one. None who visited, anyway.
Minutes passed. Thuy dismissed the thought that Frances might have evening plans. Instead the memory rose, ugly and persistent, of finding Trang on the floor after his stroke.
She was relieved when Frances finally appeared, her hair hanging in a bristly white braid over one shoulder.
“Hello, it’s Le Thuy from down the street. Do you have any candles?”
Frances said slowly, “The power’s out?”
It hadn’t occurred to Thuy that Frances might have dementia. But before she could respond, Frances said, “I thought my radio died.”
Had she been listening to it in the dark?
“One moment,” Frances said, closing her door.
That was unfriendly, and unusual on this street, where people knew each other. Thuy had even stopped locking her car after Trang died.
She was wondering how the children were – whether Liam was comforting Grace, or just riling her up with scary stories – when the stars flickered again; but this time, a muffled thunderclap followed, and the house across the street burst into flames.
Thuy cowered as if she were a child again, watching the Skyraiders roar above her parents’ field; but the flashback ended when she opened her eyes, because the huge, winged creature crashing into the asphalt had never featured even in her nightmares. The light from the flames was dim, but the wings were unmistakable: one of them clipped the corner of a roof, shearing away brick and joists, while the other touched the opposite side of the street.
Thuy abandoned Frances Moodie’s candles to run across the lawn. Flashlight beams spilled out of the McNeil family’s house across the street. Mr. McNeil was pulling their daughter by the hand, but as they reached the driveway, his wife screamed. Something was shouldering its way between the houses, staving in brick and timber as it passed. Between wing-beats, Thuy saw a red-and-white gullet – and somehow this seemed more surreal than the giant bird-creature, because she was remembering the uncle who gave her piggy-back rides saying, Don’t play below the dikes, the crocodiles will eat you, until she’d told him she was too old to believe that stuff.
Was she ever too old.
But the thing kept lumbering forward, bigger than a transport truck and snake-slender like no crocodile on Earth, back fins outlined against the red glow. The bird stabbed with its beak, but Thuy saw the reptile’s jaws close over the wing-joint before a gout of smoke forced her to bury her face in her sleeve
She would never make it to her door. She thought of waiting; the creatures’ fight seemed just as likely to roll a block or two further down the street. But then the smoke dispersed a little on the breeze – or rather, on the rhythmic shockwaves of air as the bird’s wings laboured to lift it out of reach. The front half of the reptile’s body rose from the ground. At rooftop level, the bird began to list; its wingtips sliced the air just above Thuy’s head before bird and reptile toppled sideways, smashing through the roof of another house.
She forgot about waiting and ran, arms pumping. Some toy tripped her, and a second later a scaly tail whistled above her face. She hadn’t even been paying attention to the creatures, which, still entangled, were lurching free of the wreckage.
She crawled over a pile of bricks that had been a wall and stood, nearly stepping on her household shrine, which was undamaged except for a few broken light-bulbs. Curls of smoke were rising here and there.
“Liam!” she yelled. “Mia! Grace!” before smoke and plaster dust choked her. Between coughs, she heard voices.
“Mia?” she croaked. She heaved her buffet table to one side and found the basement stairs.
The children waited for her say-so to come scrambling up, and she led them away, not stopping to hug them until they were safely past the curb. Liam and Mia’s faces were only slightly stiff, but Grace wrapped her fists in the collar of Thuy’s blouse and sobbed.
“So I won’t ask if you need matches,” a voice said.
Thuy turned away from what had been her home – the house she and Trang had afforded by working double shifts while Binh was cared for by strangers – and saw Frances Moodie holding two candles. As Thuy had expected, the chaos had already traveled a few blocks over.
“What type of furnace do you have?” Frances asked, eying the first, licking flames.
“Get in the car,” Thuy told the children. “Mrs. Moodie, can we drive you somewhere?”
“You have your keys?”
They had been in the basket by the front door. And there were other things Thuy needed – her phone, some medications. But the flames were spreading, and now she could feel a sharp pain in her hip from when she’d tripped.
What if she had a hairline fracture? Her last bone density score had been a worrying -2.
She was about to go for it anyway when the fireball erupted. Thuy felt searing heat as her back slammed against the car, the children’s screams muffled by the ringing in her ears.
“Du me,” she said, throat burning. She flung open the passenger door and was greeted by sobbing from the back seat. They would have to flee on foot – the creatures might return any moment – but Thuy wanted her first aid kit. As she felt under the seat, the driver’s door opened and she saw Frances ripping out a panel below the steering column.
“Oh good,” Frances said. “I like these 1990s shit-buckets.”
Given the language that had come out of her own mouth, Thuy couldn’t feel judgmental. “What are you doing?” she asked. A moment later the dashboard lit up.
“Hang on,” Frances said. “This next wire could blow me to Kingdom Come.”
“Choi oi.” Thuy watched as Frances tried to strip the wire with yellowed fingernails. “Let me do it.”
At last the engine coughed to life and they slammed the doors. Frances peeled out onto the road, tires bouncing over deep new ruts. A shroud of smoke covered the stars, like wildfire footage from Alberta, or like midnight anywhere in the Mekong Delta.
Frances braked hard.
“What happened?” Thuy demanded. “Why did you stop?” Then she saw the MacNeil girl watching them.
Frances glared at Thuy, as if she wasn’t worried about the children already in her car. Thuy looked around, but the only other people visible were the lawyer and his wife from next door, and her brain dismissed them as useless. She rolled down the window. “Brooklyn! Where are your parents?”
The girl stared, stricken. Thuy sighed. “Mia, open your door. Everyone scootch together.”
Brooklyn McNeil still didn’t move.
“It’s Mrs. Le,” Thuy said. “You and your Mom brought me lemonade last week, remember? Mrs. Moodie and I will take you somewhere safe.” Precious seconds were slipping away. “If you don’t come now,” Thuy said, “We’re going to have to leave you here, because we can’t wait around.”
That penetrated. Brooklyn burst into tears and flung herself into the car, while Liam squawked something about elbows. “Frances,” Thuy said, almost before the door slammed. “Go.”
Some police cruisers passed them as they turned down another street. Thuy noticed Frances didn’t turn her head completely over her shoulder before pulling to one side, and it occurred to her that she might have arthritic pain in her neck. The heavy foot on the accelerator, though – Thuy grabbed the door handle and looked back at the children. Brooklyn didn’t have a seatbelt, but she’d wrapped her hands around Mia’s arm.
“I do have my license,” Frances said.
It hadn’t seemed like a question to ask the person who’d just hotwired her car, but Thuy nodded
“My social worker makes sure I take the test every year.”
“Where are we going?” Mia asked.
Thuy weighed the pain in her hip against the probable state of the emergency rooms, and decided it didn’t hurt that badly. The children were uninjured.
“We’re going to see your Aunt Trinh in Guelph.” Trang’s side of the family hated her, but she’d stayed in touch with his niece for Binh’s sake.
“We can take you somewhere,” Thuy said. “There must be people worried about you.”
“There aren’t. It’s just – are you positive Guelph still exists?”
Thuy stared at her, then switched on the car radio, only to be greeted by dead air.
“They started going silent even before we lost power,” Frances said. “Not that they were covering anything but this.”
“What is this?” Already the things Thuy had felt so sure of seeing, the bird and reptile clawing, locked together, were starting to feel doubtful. Surely it had been a more prosaic destruction, Mark-47s or the modern equivalent, and Thuy was having a psychosis because of the paroxetine her doctor had given her when she refused therapy.
“They don’t know,” Frances said. “The first thing I heard about was earthquakes in the Canadian Shield, big mountain-forming quakes in a region that should be flat-lining. Then tsunamis in Nova Scotia. Then it got weirder, because the announcer was clearly trying to figure out how to say that a sea-creature had eaten a coastguard ship without sounding like a loony-tune. And of course there were more stories from the States or out west, all seemingly unrelated except for hysterical interviewees babbling about monsters.”
They’d reached the highway on-ramp; tail-lights stretched as far as the eye could see. Frances drummed her fingers. “Say, do you think the nuclear plant in Pickering was destroyed? Because that’s what happened at Indian Point, New York. Witnesses reported enormous snakes.”
“Probably just power lines down,” Thuy said.
“The most lucid description I heard was from the host of a country western station. He might have been high. He called it Ragnarök.”
“What’s that?” Liam asked.
“The Viking apocalypse,” Frances explained. When that produced only baffled silence she elaborated, “Fire falling from the sky.”
“Are Mom and Dad going to be okay?”
Frances looked at Thuy who said, quietly, “Boston.”
“We’re going to get somewhere safe,” Thuy told Liam, “And then we’ll call them right away. The most important thing is to make sure they don’t have to worry about us, right?”
Thuy looked at the kilometers of motionless traffic in front of them. “Back up and take Derry,” she said. “We’ll see if we can get on the 401 at Mississauga Road.”
They couldn’t, nor on the 407 twenty minutes later. The frantic drivers reminded Thuy of an ant colony she’d dug up once. Ants had rushed about, dragging their larvae here and there, but their chambers were collapsed, their scent trails broken. Thuy couldn’t imagine a colony re-forming after such total destruction.
They held their course westward on Derry. Thuy felt manic, more like the younger self who’d caught a ride from Saigon to Binh Phuoc in ’68, when it had been briefly safe to move around. It felt almost good, now, to pretend that she was on that trip, surrounded by rice rather than cornfields, laughing and sharing cigarettes with the soldiers in the truck. Trang had been called up to the ARVN, and she was anxious, not knowing where he was, but he had been alive after all; he hadn’t died yet, alone in their bathroom while she was out buying groceries.
Frances’s movements were becoming visibly painful. Thuy ought to offer to drive, but the car felt warm, and ten o’clock was later than her usual bedtime. After the night’s turmoil, she was balancing on the edge of sleep, but without her usual chanting or relaxation, she slid directly into one of her nightmares and woke, freezing and nauseous, an ugly whimper in her throat. The first thing she did was turn her head to make sure the children hadn’t heard, but they were sleeping, even Brooklyn.
Frances had stopped the car, eyes fixed through the windshield. Wipers squeaked; it had started to rain while Thuy slept. But the edges of her dream seemed to have become porous, because another creature was walking across the field on stilt-like legs, dwarfing the willows that lined the ditch. It had incongruously hulking shoulders, deer-like antlers, and a toothy snout fringed with whiskers. But what nearly convinced Thuy that she was still trapped in her nightmare was the beast’s skin, covered in overlapping scales, with droplets of flame running down its gleaming surface to ignite smoky flare-ups in the surrounding soy field.
“Ky lan,” Thuy whispered. She needed to cough but was too frightened.
“I’m going to reverse.” Thuy felt the bite of the seatbelt as Frances released the brake too quickly. As the Ky lan lowered its head to sniff the asphalt, they turned down a side road, and, turning in her seat, Thuy saw it lope past the intersection, heading toward the city.
“Stop the car,” she said.
“Are you crazy?”
“I want to drive.”
“I told you–” Frances’s voice was loud enough that a quavering “Gran?” came from behind them. Thuy took a breath to compose herself, even as she felt her face heat.
“I need to stay awake or I can’t tell what’s real.”
Frances stopped the car. When Thuy got out, the rain creeping in at the collar of her blouse smelled like soot.
A building loomed beside the road. Thuy pulled into the parking lot, relieved when her headlamps lit the words, “Welcome Kindergarten Registration!” She smashed the glass in the door – if the police showed up, all the better – but though the emergency lights were on inside, there were no telephones in the halls, and the classroom doors were locked.
“Have you got a credit card?” Frances asked. She worked it into the crack beside the latch. “Okay, kick it hard.”
“I can’t. I’ve got arthritis.”
This was going to hurt. “Stand by the wall,” Thuy told the children, and, balancing on her bad hip, put all her weight behind the kick. The impact felt like it would split her pelvis, but the door popped open.
“Breaking and Entering 101,” Frances said, grinning.
The phone inside had no dial tone.
“We can’t talk to Mom and Dad?” said Mia, squeezing Brooklyn’s wrist so tightly the skin turned white.
“Let’s go to the gym,” Thuy said. “Liam, have you got Grace?”
They arranged gym mats on the floor of the equipment room. Thuy found an armful of pinnies to pile on top as blankets.
Liam was unimpressed. “We don’t have our toothbrushes.”
“It’s okay for one night. Don’t think you’ll get away with this normally.”
Frances took them to wash their hands and feet – filthy, since none of the children had shoes.
“Gran!” Liam called when they came back. “Frances says there’s a ghost in the girls’ change-room.”
“I guess boys should keep out, then,” Thuy said, giving his nose a gentle twist. “And call her Mrs. Moodie.”
“I never married,” Frances said, rolling her eyes. “Escaped it by the skin of my teeth. Only my social worker calls me Mrs.”
Thuy was beginning to suspect that only the social worker called Frances anything at all. “Do you want to be their Auntie?”
But Liam was already yelling, “Auntie Frances! Auntie Frances!”
Frances sighed. “If it makes him happy.”
“Liam, settle! Show me your feet.”
Both Liam and Mia’s feet had a few cuts, while Grace was unscathed. But when Thuy reached for Brooklyn’s ankle she got an unexpectedly powerful kick.
“Brooklyn!” Thuy scolded. “What would your parents think if they saw you behaving like this?”
“Her parents are dead,” Liam said, perched on his haunches. Mia nodded solemnly. Thuy was regretting sending them with Frances to wash up. She’d wanted a moment alone, to centre herself, but clearly they’d been sharing all kinds of disturbing stories.
“We don’t say despair-filled things like that,” she told Liam.
“But she saw. Right, Brooklyn?”
Thuy expected sobs, but Brooklyn spoke in a flat voice directed at her knees. “The thing ate them. I s-saw it b-bite Mom in half.”
“Fuck,” Frances said, her face dark red, kicking a crate of basketballs. More curses spilled out, louder and louder. Even Brooklyn, shocked out of her misery, stared at her.
“Frances,” Thuy yelled, before she could frighten the children any more. “Go outside.”
Once Brooklyn was calmer – if that described the way she lay stiffly in Mia’s arms – Thuy went out and found Frances, her skin pale and clammy, leaning against a wall.
She turned her head. “Made myself dizzy there.”
“What do you mean, losing control like that in front of the children?”
Frances gulped air in and blew it out slowly. “What do you mean being so calm? Is this normal? She’s seven and she watched her Mom die. That’s – she’ll never be okay.”
Thuy couldn’t argue. Her parents’ bodies would never be buried. Brooklyn wouldn’t even be able to tell herself they’d died a good death, tranquil in spirit, when she’d seen the truth with her own eyes. She was right to be inconsolable.
“We have to set a good example,” Thuy said, and went back to the children.
Two minutes after she lay down Liam said, “Gran? I left my tablet at your house.”
“Go to sleep,” Thuy said in a tone that, from her own grandmother, would have heralded a slap at least.
Giving up, Thuy said, “I’ll tell you a story.”
“Once upon a time there was a dragon who married a fairy – lie down or I’ll stop talking. The fairy laid a hundred eggs, which hatched into all the people who live on Earth. But the dragon and the fairy could never get along, because they were too different.”
“Fairies don’t lay eggs,” Liam said, already slurring a little.
“But she was with a dragon,” said a voice on Liam’s other side. Excellent, Mia was awake.
“Dragons can’t be – ungh – with fairies,” Liam said, yawning but authoritative.
“Maybe it was a special dragon.”
Thuy thought of the sinuous dragons in the temples of Saigon, with their tiny legs and crocodile snouts, and wished she hadn’t thought of this story.
“…marry dragons,” Liam mumbled, nearly gone.
Thuy held her breath, but nothing followed; they were asleep.
She rolled onto her side. The nausea was back, this time without the accompanying chills.
Suppose the worst happened – would Frances take care of the children?
Thuy got up and followed a draft to an exterior door. Outside, a hard rain was falling, like the tropical rains of Binh Phuoc. Frances was sitting beneath the overhang, looking at a reddish glow on the underbelly of the clouds. She plucked at her braid, pulling it apart and weaving it back together
“Not tired?” she said
“Exhausted.” But Thuy knew what was waiting for her if she closed her eyes, the old nightmares breathed new life by tonight’s bizarre images, and the ranks of her dead family swelled to include Binh and the children. “You?”
“I’m lucky if I sleep three or four hours most nights. It’s my blood-pressure medication.”
“Did you bring it?”
“Nope.” Frances cast her a crooked grin. “Going cold turkey. You know how to recognize the signs of a stroke?”
Thuy thought of Trang’s twisted body and gaping mouth. Another bad death. “Du me,” she muttered again, since the children couldn’t hear.
“What about you? Anything I should know?”
Thuy hesitated. “I’ve been having hot and cold flashes. And, uh, nausea. It might be withdrawal.”
“Yeah? From what?”
She’d gambled on the other woman not recognizing the name, but Frances said, “They wanted to give me that too, for being a miserable old bitch, but I read the label and it causes sexual dysfunction. The doctor looked at me like I was crazy – like, how could a seventy-year-old lady without a husband possibly think that was an issue? Fucker.”
“I only take half the dose,” Thuy said. Everyone knew western medicines were too strong for Asian people. She’d have halved the TB meds they’d given her when she first arrived, but there had been a nurse to supervise her taking them.
“It probably does you good. You lived through the Vietnam War, right?”
“Explains a lot.” Frances rubbed her upper arms.
“Is it really getting colder?”
Frances held out her palm. “Ice pellets,” she reported.
“World’s gone crazy.”
“It’s like the elements are fighting each other. Earthquakes and floods, and now this. A water-dragon and a Ky lan.”
“You mean the wolf?” Frances said.
“In that field. It had a shaggy pelt, and it dripped flames from its eyes and nostrils.”
That wasn’t what Thuy had seen at all. She started to shake. “My village was bombed,” she said, unsure why these words were coming out. “When Trang and I moved to Canada, we named our son Binh, peace. But I never got these things out of my head. They ate up my brain and made me angry – all of Trang’s family was asking why he had such an angry wife. And they ate their way into the world.
“Mrs. Le,” Frances said. “Thuy. What’s happening now has nothing to do with what happened to you in Vietnam.”
“No, I know,” Thuy said, because she wasn’t an egotist, and what Frances had heard on the radio was too big to be because of one human. And yet… “The elements are out of balance,” she repeated, because that seemed obvious. “The world is sick.”
“Monsters waking in the mountains,” Frances intoned. “The sky splits open and a flaming sword comes through.”
“Let’s get the children up,” Thuy said, sitting up.
She cast around for a reason. Fat snowflakes interspersed the ice pellets, to be swallowed by the wet, hungry ground. “The roads will get worse. No one’s ploughing this stuff.”
“But we don’t know where we’re headed.”
“I heard a noise.”
“Thuy, listen.” Frances drew a breath. “I have to tell you,” she said. “I was a bull cook in lots of places all over Northern Ontario, from when I was twenty-one to when I finally quit in ’92. Logging camps, at first, but those were already changing when I started – fewer guys using bigger machinery, living with their own wives instead of in bunkhouses.” She twitched her braid. “I hated the loggers’ women. I nearly ended up as one of them. I’d answered an advertisement, you see, not for a job but to get married to a Swedish skid-operator, but it turned out the cooking was the only part I liked. My so-called fiancé was furious, but the union rep was on my side, so it was me that stayed. Later I did mining camps, the more remote the better. I didn’t have a good home life to go back to, see. It wasn’t my parents’ fault; their own folks had been killed by influenza, and they’d never been properly parented themselves. But they couldn’t believe I was working with all those men without being a complete slut, so that made me persona non grata.”
Frances looked at Thuy.
“What I’m saying,” she said, “is that being alone isn’t a recent thing for me. Which is why, I swear to God, those creatures burning up with flames scare me far, far less than you and your kids do. I know shit about this, Thuy. But if I did know shit, I think I’d tell you that you need to take care of yourself to be able to take care of them.”
Thuy pressed her knuckles against her eyes. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s both try to sleep.”
Thuy woke to echoing shouts as the older children darted around the gym. She needed to pee, but Grace was warm against her side, and Thuy didn’t want her to wake alone. “Come on, con xau. Wake up.”
Grace blinked at her, mouth trembling, and began to sob.
“Shh, no, what hurts?” Thuy used her fingers to wipe the tears from her eyelashes, breaking off sometimes to cough. At last she gave up and hobbled to the bathroom. Grace followed like a broken-hearted stray and waited outside the stall, arms lifted to be picked up, hiccoughing insistently.
“Stop this, Little Rat. You’re four years old. Use words.”
“Four?” Frances said from the doorway. “I guessed two.”
“Grace, you’re too heavy for Gran.” But Thuy tried anyway, legs trembling from the weight, while Grace twitched rhythmically. “Let’s go see your brother and sister,” Thuy said.
Liam pounded up to them when they entered the gym. “I’m starved.”
“Is that it, Gracie?” Thuy set her down, seconds before her arms gave way. “Are you hungry?” Grace whimpered.
“She just misses Mom and Dad,” Liam said, rolling his eyes. “We’ve been up for hours and we’re really hungry.”
“Hours, huh? Fine. Tell the girls to get in the car.”
“You spoil that youngest,” Frances said as he dragged Grace away.
“Grandparents are supposed to spoil children.”
“You spoil her, but not the other two. They notice.”
Liam was giving Grace a piggy-back. “They love her,” Thuy said.
“Doesn’t mean they don’t notice.”
The sky was dull grey, with one brilliant spot where the sun was trying to burn though. The children shrieked with laughter as they slipped and skidded barefoot across the parking lot’s icy surface to the car. Once they were shivering inside, Thuy said, “Wait while I check something.”
Beyond the place where she and Frances had sat, she saw a dark line curving a broad S across the snowy sports field. It was studded with clumps of frozen grass, the kind left on low tree branches after a flood.
Thuy remembered last night’s nightmare, a black serpent conjured from the entrails of a demon, and felt rage like ice-crystals in her chest. She had heard something, but she’d let herself be led back inside like a fool while the monster slithered up against their walls.
“What is it?” Frances said beside her.
Thuy wheeled around. “Did you just leave the children alone? Do you know nothing about responsibility?”
Frances looked at the tracks and then at her eyes. “Sorry,” she said. “They’re just impatient and cold. We should get out of here.”
They drove. The radio was back, listing the names of blocked highways, and emergency shelters. At a gas station, Thuy checked the pumps, but they needed electricity to work. The store windows were smashed, and the cash register and tobacco shelves had been looted. Thuy pulled juice out of the refrigerator cabinet, while Frances picked up a lonely carton of filterless Players. Thuy’s face must have shown something other than the intended disapproval, because Frances said, “You’re a smoker? That explains the cough.”
TB damage to her lungs explained the cough – not that she was telling Frances that, even after owning up to the anti-depressants. “If the children see those,” she said, “I’m leaving you on the side of the road.”
“Hold these.” Thuy grabbed crackers and a jar of peanut butter, feeling a pang for her kitchen, fragrant with hot beef broth and fresh pancakes.
A display of flip-flops turned out to be a critical find, since the children’s restlessness, confined barefoot inside the car, was boiling over by the time they returned to the parking lot. Liam had scooped a handful of snow from outside to drop down Brooklyn’s neck while Mia yelled, “She doesn’t like that, Liam, stop it.” Brooklyn had simply responded by hitting him in the face.
“You deserved it,” Thuy said, hauling him outside, though she was disturbed by the dark bruise, and the expressionless mask of Brooklyn’s face.
Liam looked at the crackers. “Did you pay for these?”
“Watch your mouth.” Thuy tried to pass them to Frances, who shook her head. “Come on. You’re underweight.”
“Well sue me, I’ve cooked enough for one life-time.”
“You don’t cook these.”
“They’re dry,” Frances said, getting back into the car and turning on the radio.
A convoy of military trucks passed, forcing the other vehicles off the road. Frances stuck her head out the window.
“There’s an Emergency Centre at the arena in Milton.”
“Good.” Thuy offered the peanut butter. The radio announcer was saying, flood damage along the Credit River, and Thuy thought of Trang’s grave in the Erindale Cemetery, covered with dirty mud. “You’re really not hungry?”
“Almost never, no.”
Thuy abruptly registered her expression. “Frances. Did you hear something?”
Frances fidgeted with the cigarettes in her pocket. “It’s Boston,” she said.
Thuy forbade Frances to tell the children about the destruction of Boston (by trees, the radio claimed, but laughable as it sounded, few people had emerged alive from the strangling thickets), and Thuy had put her son and daughter-in-law out of her mind almost immediately; this was simply her responsibility as a grandmother.
At the Emergency Centre, most of the exhausted intake officers were sending people through as fast as they could write down their names, but the young man at their table looked obnoxiously bright-eyed. When Grace was shy he said, “Doesn’t she speak?”, and actually wrote it on his form.
Frances told him about her blood pressure medication, but Thuy was smart enough not to say a word, not about the her hip – which they’d probably just give her pain-killers for – or anything else. She absolutely didn’t want him putting together her age and race and deciding she had PTSD.
Then he started questioning Brooklyn, and Frances flipped.
“They need to track down her family,” Thuy tried to explain.
“Her family is dead,” Frances snapped, which made Brooklyn flinch all over. “She belongs with us. She and Mia are friends.”
Mia hugged Brooklyn, nodding
Finally the officer was able to determine that Brooklyn’s only relatives were in a nursing home. “We’ll find the best place for you,” he said. Thuy doubted they would devote resources to such a low-priority task, but the mere suggestion made Frances murderous.
“They toss kids around like ping-pong balls,” she fumed as they picked up their government-issued bedding.
Thuy shrugged. She was saving her chips for when the authorities realized the children’s parents weren’t showing up.
There were several television screens set up that Thuy didn’t plan to let the children see. One showed a satellite map of Quebec with a cloud of green pixels representing something Thuy didn’t care to know about, tracking westward. The woman beside her kept saying, “God, it’s coming this way. What the Hell will they do when it gets here?”
Thuy went to lie down for a nap, and was woken by Frances half an hour later.
“Liam did a runner.”
“I can’t chase him, I’ll stroke out.”
Thuy stared around at the strangers, memories flashing through her mind of the lawless refugee camp where she’d lived after leaving Vietnam. At last she saw Liam threading towards them. He was holding a tablet.
“Where did you get that?” she said, snatching it from him.
“I stole it,” Liam said brazenly. “You stole stuff from that store.”
Thuy slapped him, and he hollered, his fists flying. Shocked, Thuy didn’t fight back until Frances pulled him away.
“Take me to the person you stole this from,” Thuy said, “Or I swear I’ll report you myself. You never steal from other refugees, Liam.”
The bruise Brooklyn had given him, and Thuy’s handprint, made him look like a prize-fighter with a bad attitude, but he must have seen that she meant business because he didn’t plead or anything.
Thuy had been braced for a public altercation, but her heart fell a little when Liam pointed to a couple of teens sitting propped up against their backpacks, playing a game on their phone. She’d found that Canadian youth tended to be disrespectful towards elders, and she’d often warned Binh and Krista about the dangers of raising their children that way.
“Excuse me,” she said, holding Liam by both shoulders while the girls peeked from behind her back. The two boys looked related to each other, and as the older one stood up he glanced at a girl, curled asleep on a pile of coats. Thuy realized he was responsible for the other two and, paradoxically, felt better.
“Liam has something to give you,” Thuy prompted. Eyes downcast, Liam held out the tablet.
“Is that Liza’s?” the younger one said.
There was no anger or strong language. The older one said, “Did you take that? Liza loves her tablet, she’d be really upset if she lost it.”
Liam mumbled something like sorry, then added more clearly, “It’s wrong to steal from other refugees.”
“Good rule, man. And, uh, when Liza wakes up, maybe just ask if she’ll let you use it.”
Liam buried his face in Thuy’s stomach.
“Hey, don’t be sad. Want to see something gross?” He looked to Thuy for permission before unwinding a bandage around his forearm, and showed Liam a red bite-mark, laughing when Liam hid his face again. “You know how I got that?”
Liam shook his head, blushing.
“A wolf, big as a horse.” He probably wasn’t even exaggerating. “It tried to eat my sister, so I grabbed it, like this, let me show you…”
He hooked an arm loosely around Liam’s neck, pulling away when Liam squirmed. “Oho! Are you ticklish?”
Liam giggled. Thuy had nearly forgotten that the Liam she’d watched grow up loved clowning around. The young man poked his ribs, then scooped him, laughing, into the air.
“So what’s your story, huh?” he asked.
“We were at Gran’s but her house was knocked down!” Mia said. “But she saved us and then she saved Brooklyn. And we drove all night and got to sleep in a room with basketballs and stuff. And after saving everyone, Gran and Auntie Frances brought us here so we could be safe.”
Right, Thuy thought, but all the children were nodding, even Brooklyn; even silent, big-eyed Grace, who’d probably missed most of Mia’s rapid-fire delivery.
“Your grandma is awesome,” he said, shooting Thuy a look.
That was when she decided that if she had to choose a story to tell herself about that terrifying, desolate night, she could do a lot worse than Mia’s version. Frances would like it. The young man was hoisting Grace into the air, and, though she still hadn’t said a word, her mouth seemed to be considering a smile.
I’ll take it, Thuy thought.
About the Author
Mary Thaler recently completed her PhD. in Oceanography at Laval University, Quebec. Her fiction has appeared in Eclectica Magazine, Prairie Fire and Anamesa.