Pink light fuzzed through the drawn curtains of the Midnight Sun Hotel, washing across the mountainous bar-humped regulars and giving their silhouettes an ominous red glow.
It was a dust-fogged afternoon in late August. The guy at the next table was a seasonal worker, up from Vancouver, with clomping steel-toes, frayed Carhartts wet-looking with grime and an unbuttoned uniform that read Solomon Development Ltd. — Creating Sustainable Futures. He was sitting amidst a sea of heavy leather recliners that hadn’t been arranged so much as chaotically crammed into any available space. He was eating French fries with dirty fingers.
“You get that on Koh Phangan?” he asked me, nodding at my Chang Beer T-shirt. “Full Moon Party? I was there about six months ago. Between contracts.”
“Phuket, actually. I was there in 2012.”
He yanked out a chair for me, this guy, and we reminisced about our travel experiences over a pair of Yukon Jacks. He asked me whether I got to the killing fields in Cambodia or if I’d river-tubed down the Nam Song in Vang Vien. I mentioned the hill tribes outside Chiang Mai, up in the north, and within moments we discovered we had an acquaintance in common—a slender, sickly looking Thai teenager everybody called The Doctor. Years apart, each of us had been introduced to The Doctor during a multi-day jungle trek in which white tourists were marched from one tribe to the next, stopping to admire waterfalls, take pictures and purchase illicit drugs. The Doctor was the resident opium expert at one of the most remote cliffside villages, and for an entirely reasonable price he would accompany you to a small hut to smoke opium out of a lightbulb-shaped glass pipe.
Both of us had taken him up on the offer.
“I can’t believe it,” the guy said. “I mean, what are the chances, right? We smoked opium with the same dude.”
I forget his name—my memories from that time are often fragmented—but we spent a good six or seven hours talking that day. He was due back at the gold mine north of town the following morning. I would later learn he was driving a diesel truck with a makeshift living space in the back, stuffed with quintessential Klondike detritus: sleeping bags, empties, soiled mining clothes and a variety of mud-speckled work tools with functions I couldn’t guess at. He had the casual machismo of a man raised by men, a skill set that could only have been picked up from attentive fathers, uncles, brothers. I envied him the irritated-looking purple scabs on his knuckles, the casual heft of his engorged biceps, the weather-cracked complexion of his sunburnt forehead. It wasn’t that I was jealous of his lifestyle, or that I felt capable of living that sort of life—I just knew he would experience things I wouldn’t, he would visit places I couldn’t, and without too much effort he would construct the sort of life people call successful. Stability was an option for him.
He drove me out to a gold dredge, just a few clicks out of town, that was rotting Ozymandias-style on a stake mined decades earlier. I had trouble believing it was real at first, six storeys high but beginning to sag and collapse after decades of neglect. It had a rusted metal snout that protruded a couple hundred feet in the air, crane-like and avian. Rusted cables hung from its underbelly, and in its wake a series of stones were piled in systematic ridges. According to the guy’s headlight-illuminated monologue the operators had sifted through the churned up earth for anything of value and then excreted the sluiced mess out the back. I imagined the machine cleaving through the earth like a giant, nightmarish slug. He sat on his tailgate and blew cigarette smoke in its direction.
“You ever spent any time out there?” he asked me. “Like really out there?”
“This is about as remote as it gets for me.”
“You’re not careful, it’ll drive you bonkers. The solitude, man. I’ve never read so many books in my fucking life. Sitting in my tent with a headlamp just to keep my brain distracted. They do piss tests, but still half the guys up there are junkies.”
There was something dark in his voice. I didn’t know what to say. He explained that, at one point, it had been his job when they were preparing to vacate a work site to burn all the remaining garbage and ensure they were—he hate-rolled his eyes and air-quoted with his fingers—“leaving no trace”. It was a bitch job, but he was new on the crew so the task fell to him and the other fresh recruit. “We’ve got these two jerry cans of gasoline, right? And this is back in fucking March, so it’s snow everywhere and we’ve got everything piled up to burn—tree branches, bags of garbage, a ruined tent, whatever. And here I am standing in the middle of this mess, just shaking out the last few drops of gasoline on this pile of wood, when I look over and the guy’s already got his Zippo out and he’s waving it around like a fucking idiot, lighting this big dry branch he ripped off a nearby tree. I start screaming, you know? Like ‘put that shit down, you’re going to kill us’ but this fucker’s just waving around this burning branch and all of a sudden this whole place, I’m talking all around me, everything was on fire. Everything.”
“Got flames coming up my legs, no shit. I’m sprinting for the woods, right, with my fucking eyebrows gone and this fucker is laughing.”
“Laughing the whole time.” He sucked on his cheeks. “Nobody wants a guy like that on their crew, you know? Messes with the balance.”
He stumbled over to piss on some fireweed, then retrieved two more beers from the back of his truck. I felt bad accepting charity drinks but I’d seen his wallet, thick-stuffed with fifties, and hated myself for the instinctual money-lust it triggered.
“Two weeks later, dude took a drill bill to the face,” the guy said, finger-stabbing his own cheekbone. “They had to fly him down for reconstructive surgery.”
Later he dropped me in front of the Midnight Sun staff residences. His engine shuddered and grumbled as I clambered into the street, shoulder-lugging my bag. When I turned back he was staring drunkenly at his steering wheel with naked dread. The dash light gave his face an amber glow. I felt like if there was a moment to say something profound, this was it. Instead I jutted out my chin, thanked him for the beers and watched as his truck crashed through the potholes in the direction of the river. As he turned the corner he dropped his arm out the window and gave me a quick wave. Then he was gone.
I walked up to the front door.
“Is Laura here?” I asked the guy who answered the door. “Or Paisley?” He stood shirtless, eyes pink, with short blond dreads firing out of his skull like accusatory fingers.
“It’s like 2 a.m. man, you can’t just come around whenever you feel like it. People are sleeping, you know? I’ve gotta work.”
“If I could just talk to them for one second.”
“We’ve got a curfew, you know? Hours ago, man. Like hours.”
“Please, one second?”
“This is reserved for staff. You’re not supposed to be here.”
“I’ll sleep on the floor. What do you want me to do?”
He didn’t slam the door in my face; instead he swung it shut, carefully, then turned the deadbolt with an authoritative click. The orange pane above the door went black, and I was alone again. For a moment I imagined torching the whole place—dreadlock-douche shriek-screaming in the conflagration. Instead, I headed down to the river to find a picnic table. It wouldn’t be the first time I slept on one.
The sky was purple-streaked and fading, the horizon line blurred with an ember-like glow. The darkest part of the night was already over, and pretty soon the sun would resurrect itself over the scarred face of the domed mountain that overlooked town. I walked along First Avenue, passing the line of dainty tourist restaurants, and sat down at the ferry terminal to smoke a half-joint I had stashed in my coat. My mind flirted with oblivion, reality blurring. A few hundred meters away was a slanted, yellow-painted former bank that had been boarded up and abandoned long ago. I watched as three hippy-kids, stupid-stumbling, hoisted each other through a second-floor window. They laughed, their efforts fumbling, with tragic joy. I could almost visualize their multi-week hitchhiking trip north, the panicked discussions on the side of a rainy highway, the selfies taken en route. Their pristine bedrooms, left behind.
Three people, these kids liberated from high school and suburban mediocrity, had set out together to capture some of that primal wildness, that Kerouacian madness. These kids, these little explorers, they had no real identity yet. Their only commonality was a sort of faux-rebellion, an aligning of their short-lived defiant phases, a happy coincidence that allowed them to be present for each other’s nomadic inner awakening.
But do you think they’ll even know each other in ten years?
Before long there was a small parade of drunk kids at the ferry terminal, milling bee-like around a line of vehicles and attempting to keep the night’s revelry alive with an impromptu pavement party. One girl in jean shorts came crawling out of a Jeep, barefoot, and asked for a swig of the beer in my hand. I looked down and discovered it there, amazed. She downed the rest and asked me whether I wanted to dance. Gypsy folk jangled from a nearby car radio.
“I saw this giant gold-digging machine,” I told her.
“Is that a joke?”
Her chin rested on my collarbone. I palmed the base of her back, her shirt damp.
“My friends work at the Midnight Sun,” I said.
“You don’t need to think about them anymore.”
She touched my hair with the tips of her fingers, blinking prettily. She was short, years too young for me, and clearly wasted.
“Are you at the hostel?” I asked. “You got a place you’re staying?”
She had huge, beautiful eyelashes.
“My boyfriend and his buddies are all back there already.”
“We could find something, somewhere, maybe?”
“What, like get a room? That what you wanna do?”
She kissed me again.
Maybe the other people were paying more attention to us than I realized, their own antics winding down, but we felt gloriously alone. I lifted this small girl by the waist and she straddle-grabbed me with her legs, laughing. We spun around for no reason at all.
“I’ve gotta do something about this,” I told her, panting from exertion. “This has to mean something.”
She laughed. “We’re heading up the Dempster tomorrow. We’ve got another space in the car if you want to tag along.”
“With your boyfriend, you mean?”
“It doesn’t matter. There’s a whole crowd of us, you know?”
“I want to get you alone.”
She slid her fingertips past my boxer elastic. “Yeah?”
“Fuck your friends, I’m going to kidnap you.”
She laughed again.
“You’re a nice man,” she said. “I think I like you.”
I kissed her earlobe, held her open throat in my palm. My thumb traced her jaw as our mouths opened. Tongues surged. I tasted her breath, carried all the way from wherever she called home, and drank heaving lungfuls of it. Mere breath, it died with each exhale. But together we gobbled those dying moments as everyone waited for the ferry to make its slow, diagonal approach.
Will Johnson is a writer, teacher, photographer and journalist from Nelson, BC. His fiction has appeared in the The Fiddlehead, Little Fiction, Prairie Fire, This Side of West, Burner Mag, OCW Magazine and Island Writer. His work can also be found in the anthology Somebody’s Child from Brindle & Glass, Coming Attractions 14 from Oberon Press, and, shortly, in a print anthology released by Little Fiction. He has his BFA in Creative Writing from UVic and his MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. For the last five years, he’s been mentoring writers of all ages through his Literary Goon mentorship service, as well as teaching workshops for high school students and writers with disabilities. He is currently completing an Ecclesiastes-themed book of short fiction called This is how you talk to strangers and a novel called Whatever you’re on, I want some.
Ian Stewart is a freelance photographer based in Canada.