Diane bolts up in bed, terrified awake by the sound of the cabin door creaking open. Twisting to free herself from her tangled sleeping bag, she listens, heart thumping, to hesitant footsteps on the other side of the flimsy wall. An intruder and one to whom she will succumb.
As close as a touch, she hears feet shuffling across the small adjoining room and chokes back the cry threatening to erupt from her frozen throat.
“Fuck, that hurt,” a man’s voice growls.
Alone and far from neighbours, Diane struggles to control her imagination. Were she here, her daughter would chastise her for overreacting. “Christ, it’s just a kid who’ll be scared off by a noise.”
A kid in the woods at 3 a.m.? How could he find his way up the hill in the dark? Not by car, that’s for sure. A week in the woods has reconditioned her city ears to sleep through night noises: the sudden cry of a loon or a snuffling nocturnal animal foraging for food. But the unwelcome sound of a car rattling over the gravel road would have jarred her awake.
Diane stretches forward, craning her neck to identify the sounds: the fridge door opening, the cupboard drawer creaking, and liquid splashing into a cup. The intruder is so close she can smell his musty hair.
She sees the headlines: “Cariboo Lake Woman Murdered by Robber,” then hears Marnie’s derisive snort, “Expecting the worst as always.”
Urged to action by a blast of music, Diane dangles her feet towards the frigid wooden floor and gropes to find the window. A blinding light bursts through the darkness. Diane recoils, shielding her face with her bare arm.
“Hey?” a male voice bellows angrily. “Is that you?” Startled, she stares into the harsh light.
“Fuck, you scared the shit out of me,” the man shouts. “I thought it was a bear.” She squints at the shape. Does she know him?
The light lowers. It’s the creep her daughter is dating.
“What are you doing here, Jimmy?” she says, angered by the tremble in her voice.
“What are you doing here?” he retaliates. “You scared the shit out of me.”
“I’m staying here. It’s my cabin.”
He turns abruptly and clicks off the radio. “Marnie didn’t say you’d be here.”
“Where is she?”
“In Vancouver. She could have warned me.”
She might have, if she had known. Her parents didn’t e-mail her to report every spat or when they had returned to their corners to rest for the next round. This time she has chosen a favourite corner—the cabin—where she could be off everyone’s radar screen: no phone and no e-mail. Her husband knows she will be back with renewed punching power and even her boss grudgingly accepts her vanishing acts.
“I’m here for peace and quiet,” Diane says, but the irony falls on deaf ears.
“Jeez, I thought it was a bear.”
“So you said.”
“Let me get my drink. I found the rum. Want some?”
She follows Jimmy into the main room, and instructs him to point the flashlight at the table so she can light the lamp.
“Don’t you have electricity?”
“We cut it off in the winter.”
Diane pours herself a dollop of rum, glares at it, tops it up, and then drops down at the small wooden table opposite the boy. The soft flicker of the oil lamp illuminates a small circle, like a campfire with the forest shadows hovering in the corners.
“So why are you here?” she finally asks, straining to be civil. After all he is “Marnie’s ‘whatever’—almost family, rue the day. The last thing she needs is to have a battle with her daughter; she’s already lost her son for being, as her husband had shouted at her as she left the field, “Too God dam judgemental.” Jimmy grimaces, uncertain what landed him up in this God forsaken place with this woman.
“Never mind,” Diane says suddenly jumping up and taking the rum. “Let’s get some sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”
Before Jimmy has time to protest, Diane grabs his knapsack and a flashlight and leads him outside to the sleeping cabin, hidden in the bushes. His shattered face signals that this is not his preferred choice but what the hell. It’s her cabin. She needs to get away from him and get herself off the boil: plan how she will react. Is there is way to turn this into a positive, she wonders. Could anything involving Jimmy be positive?
She remembers her first impression on discovering his thin body slouched on her sofa in his oversized shirt: ineffectual, weak, and self-centred. But she had swallowed her criticism. Years earlier, an innocent remark to her son about his affair with an older woman had cost her dearly. Daughter Marnie was even pricklier about criticism and she too would be out of the door at any misstep. Fortunately, her husband was too caught up in the fight to leave. It was just as well that they both enjoyed a sparring partner.
Secretly, Diane had counted on Jimmy being one of her daughter’s eight day wonders but he stuck to Marnie like a limpet. He knew how to spend money but couldn’t or wouldn’t find a job. When he wasn’t mooching around their house, he hung out on a friend’s sofa. Now here he is, invading her sanctuary.
Still smarting from her husband’s remark that she is inflexible, Diane considers playing it another way—using her work strategies on the boy. Used to conning people, Jimmy would be an easy mark. She will return to town victorious: her husband and Marnie forced to acknowledge how accommodating she has been to the twit.
The next morning, anxious to put her plan into action, Diane waits impatiently for Jimmy’s appearance. She even creeps out twice to peek in the window and check he’s still alive. And he is but sound asleep, his leg hanging out of the sleeping bag, skinny arm flung out to the side.
When he finally shuffles into the cabin, Diane pulls on her best face. “Let’s start with some breakfast,” she says, scooping a blob of porridge into his bowl. He watches her suspiciously. “So why are you here?” she asks, straining to be civil with what her daughter calls her spider voice. He’s had all night to think up an answer and he pipes up proudly.
“I’m here to paint the place like we talked about.”
“You mean last summer?”
“Yeah, do you still have the paint?
“I guess so,” she shrugs. “But why now?”
Why now? Why now? The words reverberate in her brain. This is my place, her head screams, get out. Spring has sprung.
“I had time,” then almost a whine, “Marnie thought you’d be happy.”
“Well, of course I am,” she says between gritted teeth, “But fall’s not a good time to paint. It’s cold and damp.”
His scrawny face deflates. With his wispy moustache quivering, his face reminds her of a weasel. What does her daughter see in him?
“But sure, what a good idea,” she cries out, “And two can make light work of it.”
So out comes the paint, the brushes and the work begins.
From the start, Diane struggles to keep her cool. Jimmy, the dawdler, is easily distracted and quick to put down his brush to pontificate. Although still in his early twenties, he suffers more aches and pains than Diane has experienced in her half century on earth. “My back’s a killer when I bend over,” Jimmy discloses when his movements made a question inevitable. “That’s why it’s hard to find work. They expect you to be a weight lifter.”
He shows his first rush of enthusiasm at a suggested lunch break, although he has brought nothing with him relying on “the stuff that was here in the summer.” So Diane divvies out what she had planned for her lunch. The boy cheers up when the work -day is over. Drinking freely he entertains Diane with unlikely anecdotes of his adventures and finally manages to squeeze a laugh from his hostess who is heartened at the plans he and Marnie have for the future.
“We’re not getting into a nine to five rut,” he confides, blithe to the irony that Marnie, even as he speaks, is putting in a nine to seven day at her office. “We’ll have a store or maybe a small business. Well, small to start. Just need to get some money together.”
Diane jumps on the potential of this one. “What sort of small business?
“Do you want in?”
“Maybe,” she says, “I might be the first investor. What is the business?”
“Oh, something organic maybe: flowers or vegetables or maybe llamas. You can make a lot of money with their hair.”
“Isn’t it called wool?”
“Where would you raise them?”
“I haven’t worked out the details,” he admits with a boyish grin.
“You need start-up money so you can do more research.”
“Exactly,” he cries out, “What do you think? $5,000?”
She balks; maybe she can fork over $1,000 on this lost leader but $5,000?”
“Let’s think more on it,” she says, and he agrees already making notes about what to buy first: a new laptop or a camera.
By the light of the lamp, Jimmy shares his insights. “Global warming is a ruse. If we use buses and grown organic, it’ll clear up.” “I never vote. That just supports the system.”
In her darker moments, Diane wonders if anyone knows he’s here. If he falls into a deep hole, will anyone come looking? Then she hears her daughter’s reprimand: “That’s not funny. People can’t all be like you.”
One fact emerges; the painting project is a way to win Marnie’s heart. “But it’s a surprise, so don’t tell her,” Jimmy pleads, noting Diane’s cell phone on the counter.
“My phone doesn’t work here,” she assures him. She doesn’t bother to mention that it would work farther up the hill, a lucky oversight.
By the second day, splitting the work 60-40 in her favour, they have done quite a good job and with the fire roaring (“I’m not an axe man,” he admits but does help carry in wood), the paint is slowly drying.
“Marnie’ll be over the moon we hit it off. She’s a real fan of yours,” he says offering a toast with the last of her wine.
He has given her his bank number—the young couple haven’t set up a shared one yet and he doesn’t want to put it into Marnie’s account so that he can surprise her. Diane has also agreed to call a few people about loans for organic farms when she gets back to town. He is looking happier and happier and Diane is so proud of her success that she thinks she might burst. She sees that the boy has charms and maybe it will all work out.
Waking early on day three, Diane decides to check for urgent phone messages and move that money. Standing on the hillside, cheeks nipped by the morning frost, she savours the sense of well being in her small kingdom. She’s smugly satisfied with how she has treated Jimmy; Marnie will have to appreciate her gesture. First things first, she moves the money. Next, she checks the messages, and calls Marnie who answers on the second ring.
“Hey Mom,” her daughter cries, “I have some good news?”
“So do I,” her mom calls back. “You’ll be surprised and proud”
“You’ll be surprised and prouder,” insists her daughter sounding more chipper than she has in years.
“Okay, youth before beauty. What is it?”
" I got rid of Jimmy.”
“Final straw, the bugger stood on my cedar box and broke the top. Instead of apologizing, he took 200 bucks from my travel mug and left an IOU. Probably already found another patsy. What’s your news?”