Vincent and Charlie

Published in Parallel Prairies in September, 2018

Vin­cent hit the brakes, hard, and skid­ded to a stop.

Huh,” he said, star­ing out the wind­shield at the wound­ed land.

Every week or two, on his way into town or on his way home to the farm­house, Vin­cent took a short detour to have a look at what he still thought of as his land. He’d sold the field to Roy Cham­bers a few years ago, when Irene was still alive. That land sale marked his offi­cial retire­ment from farm­ing, but he still liked to check out the field.

He had­n’t expect­ed to see what looked like a long mete­orite scar, a trench dug into the frozen earth. Black soil stood stark against the bright snow. Across the mile road, five of the trees in John Pachu­lak’s wind­break had been sliced off low by what­ev­er had crashed into his land. Roy’s land. The trunks lay across the road, smoul­der­ing.

Vin­cent could remem­ber plant­i­ng those trees as a kid, ten or maybe eleven years old, work­ing side-by-side with John and his broth­ers under the watch­ful eye of Ivan, the Pachu­lak fam­i­ly patri­arch: kneel­ing in the turned earth, push­ing birch saplings into the dirt and water­ing them, the mer­ci­less sum­mer sun glar­ing down on them.

In the hazy dis­tance the low moun­tain rose from the plain, an improb­a­ble bul­wark of stone deposit­ed by glac­i­ers in full retreat at the end of the last ice age. Clouds reared above it, herald­ing snow.

Storm comin’,” Vin­cent said aloud, to no one in par­tic­u­lar.

A wave of fear passed over him, a claus­tro­pho­bic sen­sa­tion of being trapped, a strange feel­ing in the wide-open prairie. After a sec­ond, it passed, leav­ing him with the sensation—the certainty—that some­one need­ed help.

Some­one in the trench.

*

Vin­cen­t’s bal­ance was­n’t what it used to be, so he clam­bered down, cau­tious­ly and slow­ly. A fad­ing warmth came off the walls. He was already chest-deep in the ground, and the floor sloped down­ward.

Now that he was in the trench he could see what had sure­ly dug it, and it did­n’t look the way he expect­ed a mete­orite would. Instead it resem­bled a giant sil­ver egg embed­ded in the ground. As Vin­cent approached the thing, one hand on the earth­en wall, he whis­pered a lit­tle prayer: “Lord Jesus, don’t let this cave in on me.”

A smell came to him, over and above the notes of turned earth and the steril­i­ty of the snow: roses—an impos­si­ble, impos­si­bly sad whiff of ros­es.

He reached the egg. The trench walls rose up over his head now. He could­n’t see the field any­more. There was only dirt to either side of him and a slice of white sky above. A tree root smoul­dered at waist height, thick as his thumb, sliced and cau­ter­ized by the thing’s pas­sage.

Above him in the world out­side the trench the wind picked up, a gust­ing roar that came and went.

The egg was big­ger than he’d ini­tial­ly thought. It stood taller than Vin­cent did, and he was­n’t a small man.

Ros­es again.

Anoth­er surge of empa­thet­ic fear shiv­ered through him. When it passed he found him­self more cer­tain that some­one need­ed his help. Some­one in this strange sil­ver egg.

You okay?” he said, not sure who he was ask­ing.

He reached out a hand, hes­i­tant, shak­ing a bit, to touch the shell of the egg.

(The hull of the ship.)

He wore no gloves, but it felt warm.

At his touch, a hole appeared in the shell of the egg, the sil­ver mate­r­i­al melt­ing, pud­dling at his feet. He took a star­tled step back. The molten shell gath­ered like mer­cury shin­ing with reflect­ed sky. The hole grew.

The wind roared over­head.

When the hole was large enough to admit him, he entered the egg. A wave of scent, not ros­es now, more like Irene’s orange pekoe tea, filled Vincent’s nos­trils.

Hel­lo?”

A momen­tary buzzing that remind­ed him of bees in sum­mer­time, one that he heard but also felt in his jaw.

Inside the egg was like a cav­ern, the walls round­ed in an almost organ­ic way. Wheat-seed lights winked on and off. A steady dim glow came from nowhere that he could see. In the cen­tre of the cav­ern, he found a ham­mock, sort of: pale mesh that held some­one in a com­plex har­ness.

The pas­sen­ger, pilot, what­ev­er, was small, skin and bones, with a head far too large for his body. Great black eyes gazed at him from a face grey as ash. Vin­cent tried his best not to count the fin­gers: three on each hand.

He did his best to con­cen­trate instead on his, its, cloth­ing: a tunic and skirt of dull yel­low mate­r­i­al that looked no thick­er than silk.

How are you even still alive?

The pilot pawed at the har­ness­es, try­ing to unstrap him­self. Those black eyes did­n’t appear to blink. The scent of ros­es came again. A flare of dark pur­ple blot­ted out his vision for an instant, but then cleared.

A faint voice sound­ed in his head.

Help.

It sound­ed like it came from a long way off, a fad­ed echo.

Those black eyes, implor­ing.

Vin­cent fished his jack­knife from the pock­et of his jeans. He’d sharp­ened it just this morn­ing, or maybe yes­ter­day.

Good tim­ing, Vin­cent thought.

Aloud, he said: “Lis­ten, Char­lie, I sure hope I can cut those things.”

If they were some kind of crazy sci­ence-fic­tion­al super­ma­te­r­i­al, though, this res­cue was doomed.

He put blade to strap. The mate­r­i­al was stub­born, but with some elbow grease the knife would cut it.

As he sawed, Vin­cent said, “Hope you don’t mind my call­ing you Char­lie. Got­ta call you some­thing.”

*

Char­lie was light, lighter than a child.

Bird bones. All hol­low.

Vin­cent car­ried him out of the trench. He had to walk well past where he’d parked the truck before he was close enough to the sur­face to feel safe step­ping out, what with Char­lie’s extra weight. Even­tu­al­ly, he made it back to the truck and set his bur­den down on the pas­sen­ger seat. He hur­ried to the dri­ver’s side. When he start­ed the truck, he turned the heat up to full. For a long moment he sat, rub­bing his hands, star­ing out the wind­shield, try­ing to think.

Are you cold, Char­lie?”

A stink of sul­fur, there and gone. Anoth­er wash of that fear that belonged to anoth­er.

Vin­cent looked over at his pas­sen­ger. Those great dark eyes were open, star­ing up at noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar, but his wide nos­trils flared and con­tract­ed, and his shal­low chest moved in rhythm with his breath­ing. At least he was still alive.

Vin­cent reached behind the truck­’s seat, found the rat­ty old pink blan­ket Irene always told him he should throw out, and draped it over Char­lie’s small form.

Hope that helps,” he said.

To the west, the moun­tain had van­ished into low­er­ing cloud: flur­ries incom­ing. The wind gust­ed hard enough to shake the truck, but then died down again.

Vin­cen­t’s breath fogged in front of him. The fan was loud­er than the radio. The scent of ros­es filled the cab.

For a sec­ond he won­dered where the clutch ped­al had gone. With a lit­tle laugh he thought: No, that was the old truck. This one was an auto­mat­ic.

He put the truck in gear, backed out onto the grav­el road, and head­ed for home. The first snowflakes, small and hard, dri­ven by a ban­shee wind, rat­tled against his wind­shield. He flicked on the wipers, try­ing to think what he would tell Irene.

*

The car was gone.

Did she go to town?

For gro­ceries, maybe. Vin­cent hoped she’d bring back fresh white bread, but late­ly all Irene bought was the multi­grain stuff, bread made, in his con­sid­ered opin­ion, with bird­seed.

At least this would give him time to fig­ure out how to explain all this to her.

Char­lie fell from the sky. I saved him.

The wind had come up again, so he parked in the grav­eled yard next to the house. A blast of cold buf­fet­ed him as he opened his door. Snow, sharp on the wind, lashed his face, his bare hands. He pulled on gloves.

When he opened the pas­sen­ger side door Char­lie looked up at him, then slow­ly closed his eyes. Vin­cent hoped he was­n’t dying.

Stay with me, Char­lie,” he said.

A scent of stargaz­er lilies over­whelmed Vin­cent as he reached across to undo the pas­sen­ger seat­belt.

Stay with me.”

Into the house. Char­lie was light, so light. Bird bones indeed.

He laid Char­lie down on the old brown chester­field and those big black eyes opened again.

You hun­gry?” Vin­cent said.

He mimed eat­ing, won­der­ing as he did it what Char­lie might make of his motions.

I have bread, cheese, prob­a­bly some ham.”

He went to the kitchen and returned with a serv­ing tray: white bread, cubes of ched­dar, slices of fried gar­lic sausage he’d found in the back of the fridge, round pucks of cucum­ber soak­ing in vine­gar.

Char­lie sat up on the chester­field, old springs twang­ing under­neath him. He picked up one of the slices of bread, sniffed it, tore a piece from it and tast­ed it. His face crin­kled, but he chewed and swal­lowed. He tried the cheese and spat it out, sniffed but did­n’t taste the sausage, and ate every last cucum­ber and then drank down the vine­gar. He looked up at Vin­cent, blinked those great dark eyes, and held out the bowl.

Vin­cent smelled skunkweed and flax-flower.

More of that?” he said.

Char­lie looked at the bowl in his hands, then back at Vin­cent.

*

He brought a chipped Snoopy cof­fee mug, a litre of white vine­gar, and a half-emp­ty bot­tle of cook­ing wine that had been in the cup­board long enough to have a coat­ing of dust like a cape on its shoul­ders. He poured a cup­ful of vine­gar and held it out to Char­lie, who took it, sniffed it, drained it, and hand­ed the mug back. Pink flash­es flick­ered across Vin­cen­t’s vision, lit­tle light­ning strikes, heat­less and with­out thun­der. The room smelled of new leather. He poured more vine­gar. When the vine­gar was gone, he switched to the wine, which was dull red and smelled sour and sweet at the same time.

Char­lie drank it all. When he’d fin­ished the last mug­ful, he leaned back on the chester­field and closed his eyes. Sleep­ing? Vin­cent could­n’t tell.

Vin­cent left him to it. He washed his hands in the bath­room sink, then poured him­self a half-cup of cof­fee in the kitchen. He sat down at the small break­fast table in the cor­ner. From here he could still see Char­lie, rest­ing, sleep­ing, med­i­tat­ing, what­ev­er you’d call it. The small kitchen win­dow showed him a slice of dark­en­ing sky, against which he could just make out the skele­tal black fin­gers of the wil­lows in the back yard.

Stir­ring sug­ar into his cof­fee, he won­dered what was keep­ing Irene.

The wind gust­ed, rat­tling the wil­lows. He’d have to trim them, come spring, or hire some­one to do it. They grew so fast. Had­n’t he just had some­one trim them last year? They were already scrap­ing the shin­gles again.

*

He jerked awake in the kitchen chair. His cof­fee had gone cold.

Well,” he said, “guess I might as well go to bed.”

He poured the last of the cof­fee into the sink, dumped the grounds from the cof­feemak­er into the wet garbage pail in the porch, put the mug into the dish­wash­er, and start­ed it run­ning.

As he brushed his teeth, he lis­tened to the wind howl out­side, a beast loosed on the world. The wil­lows scratched and scraped against the shin­gles. The house groaned and cracked. The win­dow showed noth­ing but snow.

Char­lie did­n’t stir as Vin­cent walked through the liv­ing room on his way to the mas­ter bed­room.

Vin­cent lay in bed, awake, for what felt an eter­ni­ty.

*

He woke up alone. The win­dows were dark. Irene’s side of the bed was already cold. How long had she been up?

He reached out an arm, found his glass­es, fum­bled them onto his face. The clock read 5:55 AM.

Irene?” he said, but she did­n’t answer.

Maybe she was in the bath­room.

He rolled to his back and closed his eyes. Rain­bow colours flared in the dark­ness of his skull, and he lay as still as he could, wait­ing for the migraine to start. He had­n’t had one in decades, not since before he got mar­ried. Now would come the knife blade, pry­ing open his skull, the jab­bing pin­pricks in the front of his brain.

But it nev­er came.

He opened one eye, cau­tious­ly. The rain­bows had dis­si­pat­ed.

He got up.

*

In the liv­ing room, a small grey man, or maybe a child, sat on the chester­field, watch­ing Vin­cent with large black eyes.

Are you real?” Vin­cent asked.

He received no response.

He expect­ed to find a bou­quet of ros­es on the din­ing-room table, but there was noth­ing.

Maybe Michael will know where Irene is.

He fished the address book out of the draw­er by the phone and looked up his son’s phone num­ber.

778? What area code was that? He punched one, then the ten dig­its writ­ten in old ink in Irene’s neat script.

The phone rang once, twice, three times.

Muh?”

Michael?”

Dad?” The voice became more alert. “Is every­thing okay?”

Yes. Just— have you seen your moth­er late­ly? Do you know where she is? I haven’t seen her in—”

Jesus Christ, Dad,” Michael hissed. “It’s four-thir­ty in the morn­ing—”

No, it’s six-th—”

Dad.”

A pause, like Michael was mar­shal­ing his thoughts.

I’m in Van­cou­ver. You remem­ber that, right? It’s two hours ear­li­er here.”

Of course I remem­ber.”

Dad, Mom’s not com­ing home. Remem­ber? She—”

Vin­cent heard Michael take a shud­der­ing breath.

Dad, Mom died. Last year.”

Vin­cent found he could­n’t breathe. Mem­o­ry crashed in: the hos­pi­tal, the doc­tors, the nurse giv­ing him a hug, the funer­al home.

Do you want me to come out there, Dad?”

Michael—”

I’ll book a flight, Dad. I’ll be there soon.”

*

He show­ered, then opened the door to let the steam clear. While he wait­ed for the hot water to fill the sink, he caught a look at him­self in the mir­ror. When did I get so old? Grey stub­ble, white hair. Had­n’t he been thir­ty just last night?

He laughed, a lit­tle rue­ful bark, then start­ed to shave.

A hazy blue sheen wavered over the mir­ror and van­ished. He lis­tened to the scrape of his razor mow­ing down stub­ble, hear­ing it with his ears and with his bones.

*

The stuff in the dish­wash­er was clean and dry, still faint­ly warm. He put it away while the cof­feemak­er ran. He kept smelling ros­es but could­n’t find any flow­ers in the house.

The news on the radio was about the storm. It had swept across most of the province overnight, from Thomp­son up in the north all the way down to places south of the US bor­der. Half the roads in the south of the province were closed. High­way One was closed from the Ontario bor­der to Saskatchewan.

The sun had come up, but the clouds hid it, let­ting through only a wan grey light. Snow blan­ket­ed the yard. Drifts stood thigh-high across the dri­ve­way. The pine trees lin­ing the road were bowed and white.

Huh,” he said aloud. “That must’ve been a hell of a storm.”

The car was­n’t in the yard. Had Irene parked in the garage? He’d need the trac­tor to clean the yard, the dri­ve­way, and maybe even a bit of the road if the plow did­n’t come by soon.

The keys weren’t where they belonged, hang­ing from their hook on the var­nished pine KEYS plaque that Michael had made in high school shop class.

Shit.

He pat­ted his pock­ets, looked in the junk draw­er.

Irene?” he said. “You seen the keys? The trac­tor keys?”

She did­n’t respond.

After a moment, he remem­bered again.

Char­lie?” he said, try­ing to keep from sob­bing. “How about you? Know where my keys went?”

Keys.

He heard the word in his head, in his own voice, but he was­n’t sure that he thought the word. If he did­n’t, though, where had it come from?

In the porch he put on his brown quilt­ed under-jack­et then pulled his old par­ka on over­top. In the parka’s pock­et he found what he was look­ing for: a key for a lock he no longer owned and the IH key for the trac­tor on a ring with a John Deere fob from Lord knew where. He smiled at the lit­tle irony.

He pulled on his old boots, a JETS toque with a miss­ing pom­pom, and the padded ski gloves Michael had bought him for Christ­mas last year, or the year before, maybe? Things blurred togeth­er at Vin­cen­t’s age.

The wind had died down, but the tem­per­a­ture had plum­met­ed. It took his breath away as he stepped out­side, even in the shel­ter of the cov­ered deck. Snow had drift­ed onto the square con­crete paving stones and he’d have to shov­el them at some point. Right now, though, he want­ed to get the trac­tor start­ed.

*

The plow went by on the mile road as he fin­ished up the dri­ve­way. He waved to the plow dri­ver, a mid­dle-aged man whose name he felt sure he should remem­ber.

He parked the trac­tor and then drove the truck to town. It was slow going.

First stop: the post office. Fly­ers, the hydro bill, and a mis­sive from the MLA that he dropped, unread, into a recy­cling bin already half-full of mis­sives from the MLA.

At the Solo store next door, he bought a loaf of white bread, a jar of peanut but­ter, and a jug of milk. He put the gro­ceries on the floor of the truck.

Shit,” he said aloud.

He went back into Solo and found him­self in the same aisle as the sal­ad dress­ings and the ketchup. From the baf­fling vari­ety of vinegars—red wine, bal­sam­ic, raspberry—he final­ly select­ed a cou­ple of two-litre jugs of plain white vine­gar.

He went through the same check­out. The girl’s name tag read STARLA. He won­dered if he knew her par­ents or, more like­ly, her grand­par­ents. She chewed gum that smelled of cin­na­mon and wore per­fume that smelled of coconut.

Back in the truck he let the engine run a while to warm it up. The sky above the store was bright and blue and cold. When the nee­dle on the tem­per­a­ture gauge moved an incre­ment off the C, he backed out onto the street then went up Main Street to the high­way. He turned left and gunned it, got up to a hun­dred and two, and set the cruise con­trol.

He turned two miles before his cor­ner. Some­thing made him want to check out the old fields, the ones he’d sold to Roy Cham­bers back when he’d retired from farm­ing.

*

Five miss­ing trees. The felled trunks had burned away, leav­ing behind brit­tle char­coal bones. The storm winds had blown them to pieces, and the plow had scat­tered them from the road, spread­ing chunks of burnt wood in the ditch­es and even up onto the field.

The trench had been part­ly filled in by the storm so that it now looked like a shal­low, soft ditch. Vin­cent won­dered if the egg was still melt­ing, down beneath the snow and the earth.

So Char­lie is real. I’m not los­ing my mind.

*

When he got home the light on the phone was blink­ing. He picked up the hand­set. MISSED CALL. 778-some­thing. He tapped the HANDS-FREE but­ton, then dialed his voice mail.

Hi Dad.” Michael’s voice. “Okay, I’m booked on the ten a.m. flight. I get to Win­nipeg at three fif­teen or so, and I’ve got a car booked. See you about sup­per­time, I guess.” There was a pause. “I hope you’re doing okay. Sor­ry I got uptight. Call if you need some­thing. So, yeah. Sup­per­time, I guess. See you then.” Anoth­er pause, then, “Lovey­oudad,” all in a rush.

Vin­cent rewound the mes­sage and lis­tened again. He wrote Michael sup­per­time on the notepad next to the phone.

A siz­zle of spices passed over his palate: cumin, gin­ger, some­thing he could­n’t name but thought he might have tast­ed once at a Moroc­can restau­rant when he’d vis­it­ed Michael in Van­cou­ver.

He caught sight of the chester­field, through the door into the liv­ing room, and the small grey per­son sit­ting there. Char­lie.

He thought of his field, flat, fal­low, blan­ket­ed in thick snow. He thought of the trench, part­ly filled in with snow.

I’ve got a ques­tion for you,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of ques­tions for you.”

I under­stand, said a voice, one that that sound­ed in his mind, not in his ears.

First, I must say thank you.

Vin­cent grabbed one of the jugs of vine­gar from the kitchen, then entered the liv­ing room.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

A smell of lilacs accom­pa­nied Charlie’s words.

Char­lie sat on the chester­field, watch­ing him.

You’re— you’re wel­come,” Vin­cent said.

With­out you I would almost cer­tain­ly be extinct.

It was the right thing to do, help­ing you.”

He poured vine­gar into the Snoopy mug that was still on the cof­fee table, hand­ed the mug to Char­lie, and sat down next to him on the chester­field.

That is you, right? Speak­ing in my head like that?”

Yes. Those great black eyes blinked. My lan­guage is not yours. But I can— I am able to manip­u­late your mem­o­ries. Your kind’s mem­o­ries. I have learned to affect them. To speak.

Char­lie drained the mug of vine­gar in a sin­gle long swal­low.

When nec­es­sary, to hide myself.

Char­lie opened the jug of vine­gar and poured him­self a fresh cup. Those hands were dex­ter­ous, prob­a­bly more so than Vin­cen­t’s hands, even if you dis­count­ed eight decades of use and the accu­mu­lat­ed arthrit­ic twinges.

Psy­chic pow­ers?”

No. Yes. In a man­ner of speak­ing. Your mem­o­ries are—

A hes­i­ta­tion.

a kind of ener­gy. I can manip­u­late that ener­gy.

Huh.” Vin­cent leaned back on the chester­field. “What about the smells, the flow­ers? The lit­tle flash­es of light, the rain­bows? Is all that you, too?” Or am I hav­ing a bunch of lit­tle strokes? he thought, but chose not to say.

Vin­cent could see Char­lie con­sid­er­ing the ques­tion.

Your mem­o­ries are— dif­fer­ent. Their struc­tures are unlike those of most mem­bers of your species. I have had dif­fi­cul­ty in manip­u­lat­ing them.

A waft of straw­ber­ries accom­pa­nied the words, the thoughts. The mem­o­ries, if Char­lie was to be believed.

It has tak­en me some time to estab­lish exact­ly how to speak to you with any con­sis­ten­cy.

He spread his three-fin­gered hands in a ges­ture at once famil­iar and utter­ly alien.

Vin­cent nod­ded. “The doc­tors, they told me I’ve got—” He took a breath. “I’ve got the start of demen­tia. Mild, so far, but—” He shrugged. “Michael thinks I should be in a home.”

Is this not a home?

It’s— Well, that’s a sto­ry for anoth­er day. Nev­er mind. It’s not your prob­lem.”

Can you hear my thoughts? Vin­cent thought to him­self.

He wait­ed a moment. Char­lie did­n’t reply, so he said, aloud: “Can you read my mind?”

I can­not. I can mere­ly affect your mem­o­ries. I am able to—make words—in your mem­o­ries of the very recent past.

Why are you here?”

Char­lie wait­ed a long moment before answer­ing. I am—lost. I suf­fered an inci­dent. My boat lost its way, foundered, and I am here. Marooned.

He blinked, long and slow, then con­tin­ued. I am not sup­posed to be here. Extend­ed con­tact with your peo­ple is a—sin? Trans­gres­sion? A break­ing of the rules.

Will your peo­ple come look­ing for you?”

They may. It is doubt­ful. I have no con­tact with them.

Char­lie drank some vine­gar.

That’s sad.”

It is our way. I am— You might say I am a fledg­ling. Find­ing my way.

Will you—can you estab­lish con­tact? Call for help?”

I can­not say for sure. I wish to try. I do not know what their response might be.

They sat in silence for a long moment. From the oth­er room, Vin­cent could hear the ticks of the wall clock as it count­ed off sec­onds.

What can I do to help?”

Char­lie put a three-fin­gered hand on Vin­cen­t’s. His flesh was dry and warm.

You have done so much for me already. It is I that owe you.

It’s the right thing,” Vin­cent said. “You’re sup­posed to help peo­ple. Aren’t you?”

Char­lie did­n’t say any­thing.

*

The phone rang, and rang again. Vin­cent blinked, real­ized he was sit­ting on the chester­field, and shook his head.

A third ring, then silence.

He wiped his eyes, try­ing to clear the gum­my feel­ing from them then looked at his watch. A lit­tle after 6:00 p.m.

Wow, I did­n’t plan to sleep that long.

It had gone dark out­side. The sky was­n’t yet black, but a deep, dark shade of blue. An almost-full moon shone above the bluff of trees on the oth­er side of the yard.

He man­aged to lever him­self up from the sofa. Char­lie watched him. Did he ever sleep? Maybe only when he’s hurt­ing. The vine­gar jug had been emp­tied. Did he have to pee?

Vin­cent walked with a stiff gait to the phone. Sleep­ing sit­ting up did­n’t agree with him.

The call dis­play said ROY C and the Cham­bers’ phone num­ber. The voice­mail light blinked at him. Vin­cent dialed the num­ber and lis­tened to the mes­sage:

Hey Vince, it’s Roy. Lis­ten, I just had a cou­ple guys show up here askin’ ques­tions about the field and Pack­er’s trees. Said some­thin’ might have come down yes­ter­day, day before. They said a mete­or, but I think there’s more to it. Some kind of exper­i­men­tal plane, maybe? Any­ways, they asked how to get to your place, and I—”

Some­one knocked on the door, three quick raps. “Mr. Pelo­quin? May we have a word?”

His eye caught on the notepad: Michael sup­per­time. It was his writ­ing but damn if he could remem­ber writ­ing it. Still fud­dled from hav­ing a nap, I guess.

Three more raps on the door.

Mr. Pelo­quin?”

Who­ev­er it was used the Eng­lish pro­nun­ci­a­tion, the -quin com­ing out like “Quinn”, not the French ver­sion every­one around here would use, Vin­cent includ­ed, even though he spoke, at best, what they used to call Diefen­bak­er French.

Vin­cent pressed the phone’s OFF but­ton and set it down. He went into the porch and opened the door.

Yes?” he said. “Can I help you?”

Two men stood out­side, one on the stoop, the oth­er behind him on the square con­crete slabs of the cov­ered deck. The one on the stoop said: “Good evening, Mr. Pelo­quin. My name is Mr. Jones, and this is my asso­ciate, Mr. Coop­er. We have a few ques­tions we’d like to ask, if you’d spare us the time.”

Uh,” Vin­cent said.

Thank you,” Jones said, step­ping for­ward, into the house. Vin­cent was forced to take a step back. Before he could say any­thing, both men were in the porch with him. They shed their over­coats. While they hung them on hooks, Vin­cent stepped into the house.

He glanced at Char­lie.

Damn, he thought. I think they’re here for you. Hope you weren’t lying about being able to hide your­self.

Before he could stop him­self, Vin­cent said: “Would you like some cof­fee?”

*

They sat around the big old din­ing-room table. The two strangers wore expen­sive-look­ing suits, Coop­er in dark blue and Jones in dark grey. Jones did most of the talk­ing, while Coop­er spoke hard­ly at all, watch­ing with cold blue eyes. He hard­ly seemed to blink.

It’s a long way from Win­nipeg, out here,” Jones said.

He had an easy smile and a facile, super­fi­cial charm that remind­ed Vin­cent of a shark. His smile affect­ed only his lips; his eyes weren’t at all involved.

Fur­ther than you’d think,” Jones con­tin­ued. “Espe­cial­ly after a storm like that one. You know they closed the Num­ber One for a while?”

Yes,” Vin­cent said. “I heard.”

He took a sip of cof­fee. The oth­er two had declined, Jones polite­ly, Coop­er with a small shake of his head.

Char­lie, on the chester­field, watched with calm black eyes. The two men had­n’t seen him.

That whole mem­o­ry-edit­ing thing must be work­ing, Vin­cent thought. Or else he did­n’t real­ly exist; but if that was the case, what would bring these men here?

The rea­son we’re here, Mr. Peloquin”—Vincent resist­ed the urge to cor­rect his pronunciation—“is to look into an inci­dent affect­ing land that you once owned.”

He held out a hand to Coop­er, who hand­ed over a tablet com­put­er. As far as Vin­cent could see, it had no man­u­fac­tur­er’s logo what­so­ev­er.

A mete­orite.” Jones turned on the tablet and opened the pho­to gallery app.

A long shot of a row of birch trees, all of a uni­form height. Bright blue sky. A low moun­tain, dark in the dis­tance. A gap in the wind­break.

This is Mr. Pachu­lak’s land, as seen from Mr. Cham­bers’ land,” Jones said.

Annoy­ing­ly, he pro­nounced Pachu­lak cor­rect­ly.

He swiped the screen. A clos­er view, now, of the trees. The five stumps, charred and scarred.

Swipe: a view of the field, now.

Mr. Cham­bers’ field,” Jones said.

In a thick blan­ket of snow, a shal­low depres­sion showed where Char­lie’s boat, as he had called it, had bur­rowed into the earth.

Vin­cent began, “I’m not sure what—”

Have you been out to the field late­ly, Mr. Pelo­quin?”

Late­ly?” He glanced into the liv­ing room at Char­lie. “No.”

Coop­er, too, glanced into the liv­ing room, fol­low­ing Vin­cen­t’s gaze. He looked back at Vin­cent. His man­ner was­n’t charm­ing; Vin­cent got the sense, from him, of explo­sive forces held bare­ly in check.

Hmmm.” Jones swiped the tablet’s screen again. “Some­one was there today.”

The tablet dis­played a pho­to of tire tracks in the snow.

It’s hard to say there’s a clear match—”

Swipe: a truck tire in close-up, bright­ly lit by a flash; Vin­cent sus­pect­ed it was his, that they’d snapped the pho­to just before they’d knocked on his door.

—but it cer­tain­ly does resem­ble your tire tread.”

There are a lot of trucks in this neigh­bour­hood,” Vin­cent said.

There are,” Jones con­ced­ed.

Drink a lot of vine­gar, do you, Mr. Pel­i­can?” Coop­er said abrupt­ly.

It’s Pel—”

I don’t care.”

Coop­er set a mat­te black case on the table. It had the gen­er­al shape and size of a brief­case, but it looked like it could deflect a bul­let. He pressed his thumb to a spot that, to Vin­cen­t’s eye, looked no dif­fer­ent from the rest of the case. The latch­es sprang open. From the case’s inte­ri­or he drew a shal­low grey bowl, which he placed on his head, posi­tion­ing it like a yarmulke or an arch­bish­op’s skull­cap.

Then Coop­er looked into the liv­ing room, right at Char­lie. “Well, fuck,” he said, and stood up.

Char­lie’s eyes, wide at the best of times, grew even wider. His hands moved in pan­icky ovals and fig­ure-eights.

Vin­cent start­ed to stand, too. Jones turned to him.

That would not be a good idea, Mr. Pelo­quin.”

Help, Char­lie said, in Vin­cen­t’s mind.

Is it the sub­ject, Mr. Coop­er?” Jones said, not tak­ing his eyes off Vin­cent.

Coop­er stalked into the liv­ing room. Char­lie stood up from the chester­field, still ges­tic­u­lat­ing.

Got you now,” Coop­er growled.

He grabbed one of Char­lie’s bony arms with his left hand. He drew back his right, and Vin­cent was afraid that Coop­er was going to punch Char­lie, punch him and not stop.

Jones turned in his chair to face the liv­ing room. “Is it,” he said again, slow­ly, emphat­i­cal­ly, “the sub­ject, Mr. Coop­er?”

It is,” Coop­er said, sound­ing queer­ly sub­dued.

Help!

I want to, Vin­cent thought, but of course Char­lie could­n’t hear him. But I don’t know how.

Jones said, “And you have it? In hand?”

I do,” Coop­er said.

No dam­age, Mr. Coop­er.”

No. Of course not.”

Coop­er low­ered his right hand. The ten­sion went out of him. Vin­cent, in the din­ing room, let out a breath he had­n’t known he’d been hold­ing.

Take it to the car.”

Jones turned his gaze to Vin­cent. He was­n’t smil­ing now.

Under­stand that we could arrest you, Mr. Pelo­quin. Obstruct­ing an agent of— Well, obstruc­tion of jus­tice. But we won’t.”

His face twist­ed into a sneer, an expres­sion that Vin­cent, even in the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, could­n’t help but think was prob­a­bly his default set­ting.

Frankly, Mr. Pelo­quin, you’re not worth the paper­work.”

Coop­er led Char­lie out of the liv­ing room. Jones, mean­while, reached into the brief­case for a small met­al cylin­der, brushed alu­minum, round­ed at the top.

If you’d please focus on me, Mr. Pelo­quin,” Jones said, “we can fin­ish this up quick­ly and go our sep­a­rate ways, mmm?”

You have got to be jok­ing,” Vin­cent said.

It looked exact­ly like one of the mem­o­ry erasers from the Men in Black movies. He remem­bered tak­ing Michael to see it when Michael had been tak­ing his degree at Bran­don Uni­ver­si­ty. What were those things called in the movie? Oh, right.

A neu­r­a­lyz­er?”

Hmmm? Oh. Yes. Of course, we don’t call it that, offi­cial­ly.”

Absurd­ly, Jones’ sneer melt­ed into a smile, a gen­uine smile for once, warm and human. Not like a shark at all.

I’m very sor­ry, Mr. Pelo­quin, but we—”

Coop­er was pass­ing Vin­cen­t’s chair, still tow­ing Char­lie. His grip on Char­lie’s arm looked unbreak­able. Those hands were fight­er’s hands, pow­er­ful, with big knuck­les.

Help!

Vin­cent stuck out his foot. He caught Coop­er right at the ankle. Some­thing in his knee went pop, some­thing felt more than heard.

Coop­er stum­bled, los­ing his grip on Char­lie. The skull­cap went for­ward off his head, land­ing with a clang on the ground.

Fuck!” Coop­er shout­ed.

Char­lie scur­ried around the cor­ner, into the kitchen, mov­ing faster than Vin­cent would have imag­ined pos­si­ble. As he passed the skull­cap, he scooped it up in one three-fin­gered hand.

That,” Jones said, “was spec­tac­u­lar­ly ill-advised.” All trace of a smile had van­ished.

I’m on it,” Coop­er said.

He round­ed the cor­ner into the kitchen, fol­low­ing Char­lie. Vin­cent won­dered if he could still see his quar­ry, or if he was fol­low­ing some oth­er sense. Per­haps he was pow­ered sim­ply by rage.

After a moment, he returned, once more tow­ing Char­lie. He wore the grey skull­cap again. He glow­ered at Vin­cent.

I got it,” he said to Jones. “We’re good.”

Thank you for try­ing, Char­lie said to Vin­cent.

The oth­ers did­n’t seem to hear him. Per­haps the tun­ing he’d done to be able to speak in Vin­cen­t’s mem­o­ries had ren­dered him

inaudi­ble to mere­ly nor­mal minds.

Take him in?” Jones said to Coop­er. He motioned with his chin to indi­cate Vin­cent.

“You’re the boss,” Coop­er said. “It’s your call.”

Jones nod­ded. “I’m let­ting you decide,” he said. “He assault­ed you, after all—not me.”

Coop­er con­sid­ered, then shrugged.

Fuck it. He’s old. Soon enough he’ll be dead. Wipe him and we’ll go.”

He dragged Char­lie into the porch.

All right.” Jones turned to Vin­cent. “You’re lucky. Well, if you choose to look at it that way. My asso­ciate is not usu­al­ly so kind to those who get in his way.”

He held up the sil­ver cylin­der and pressed some­thing on its side with his thumb. It began to make a sound, a whine that rose quick­ly in pitch beyond what Vin­cent could hear. A red light began to wink at him, on off, on off.

As I was say­ing, before your mis­guid­ed attempt at hero­ics dis­tract­ed us all: We of course can­not let you remem­ber this.”

I’ve got demen­tia,” Vin­cent said. “Give it time.”

Do you? My con­do­lences.”

It’s not—”

Jones thumbed anoth­er but­ton, and every­thing went white.

*

Thank you for your hos­pi­tal­i­ty, Mr. Pelo­quin,” the stranger said.

He wore a grey wool coat over a dark blue suit. His breath puffed into vapour in the cold air.

We will be in touch if we need any fur­ther infor­ma­tion,” the stranger went on.

Sure,” Vin­cent said, try­ing to remem­ber what they’d been talk­ing about.

If you think of anything—anything at all”—he made a busi­ness card appear from an inner pock­et and hand­ed it to Vincent—“please do call. ”

Sure.”

The man got into the dri­ver’s seat of a glossy black sedan. Anoth­er man sat in the pas­sen­ger seat, glow­er­ing. Vin­cent glanced at the card.

Adam Jones, Con­sul­tant

An email address and a phone num­ber.

Out on the mile road, head­lights marked the approach of anoth­er vehi­cle.

Rush hour, Vin­cent thought.

This new arrival slowed. Vin­cent could see its turn sig­nal wink­ing. Some­one else com­ing to the farm­house. It was­n’t Irene’s car; it was an SUV.

The black sedan drove slow­ly up the dri­ve­way, snow crunch­ing under its tires. At the cor­ner, it turned east. The SUV wait­ed for it; the dri­ve­way was only wide enough for one vehi­cle at a time.

Thank you.

Vin­cent turned. A small grey man—

Char­lie, some deep part of Vincent’s mind said.

—stood look­ing at him.

When you tripped him, I had time to exam­ine the hat he wore.

Char­lie?” he said.

I was able to dis­able cer­tain devices in the hat. Enough that I was free to alter Coop­er’s mem­o­ries, in addi­tion to Jones.

Who?” The names rang a bell, but he could­n’t quite place them.

Coop­er and Jones. Char­lie ges­tured at the sedan’s reced­ing lights.

It came back to him all in a rush: the inter­ro­ga­tion, the threats, the grey skull­cap. Trip­ping Coop­er.

Oh,” Vin­cent said.

The SUV turned into the dri­ve­way.

They have for­got­ten me, as thor­ough­ly as they attempt­ed to make you for­get them.

Why can I remem­ber them? Why can I remem­ber you?”

He remem­bered a white flash, a momen­t’s dis­ori­en­ta­tion.

Their device is tuned for nor­mal mem­o­ries. As we have dis­cussed, yours are—different.

Demen­tia.”

Yes.

The SUV stopped. Michael looked out the wind­shield at Vin­cent. His eyes passed over Char­lie with no sign that he saw any­thing.

I must go now. Again, I thank you. With all that I have, I thank you. Nev­er can I ful­ly repay you.

Char­lie turned and loped toward the bluff. He reached the first trees as Michael opened his SUV door.

Dad?” he said. “Why are you out here with­out a coat?”

Vin­cent shrugged. “Wait­ing for you.”

God, I hope not. I planned to be here a lot soon­er. They just reopened the Num­ber One a cou­ple hours ago.”

So I heard.”

Michael nod­ded. “So who were those guys? In the car?”

Vin­cent looked toward the bluff. Char­lie had van­ished into the trees. Vin­cent won­dered if he’d ever see him again.

Dad?” Michael laid a hand on his shoul­der. “You okay?”

I think so.”

Who were those guys?”

You would­n’t believe me if I told you.”

Michael shook his head.

C’mon, Dad,” he said. “Let’s go inside. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”

Yes,” Vin­cent said, limp­ing toward the house. His knee hurt. “Yes, we do.”