The bell over the door jingled and a burst of cold air flooded in. Émile didn’t even turn; he just kept wiping the counter down and called out in French: “We’re closed!”
He flipped the cloth around, scrubbing at a particularly stubborn spot, before realizing he hadn’t heard the bell jingle again. “Come back in the morning.” He didn’t dare make eye contact. That was how they got you to stay open late, with their sad little eyes and tales of woe. He knew better than to give them a chance.
Still no response, though, so he switched to English: “Come back tomorrow.”
The silence was grating, so he gave in and peered over his shoulder, and saw…
“Merde…” he muttered, and set down the cloth to give the visitors his proper attention. There were three of them—big men with broad shoulders and arms as thick as logs. The leader wore no coat in the frigid January air, but it wasn’t like he didn’t feel the cold—he just enjoyed thumbing his nose at frostbite. Nobody but les Gens postured like that.
“Monsieur Deschênes,” the leader said to Émile. “Welcome to the neighbourhood.”
One of the other men crossed his arms over his chest, revealing a slim and weathered axe hanging from his belt. There was nothing accidental about the revelation, nor was there any doubt about what it meant.
Émile made sure to maintain a measured tone in reply: “Thank you. But I’ve been here since the fall.”
“We like to give newcomers a chance to acclimatize,” said the leader, looking around the shop. “How is business?”
Émile took a loaf of bread and held it out for them. “See for yourself. On the house.”
The leader took the bread, and immediately dropped it onto the slushy floor at his feet. He never broke eye contact with Émile, not even to blink. “How is business?”
The coin box was in the cupboard behind Émile. Hidden, but unlocked. He couldn’t let them know that, or he’d never get a moment of peace again. He kept his hands on the counter, smiling warmly.
“It’s early days yet,” he said. “Less foot traffic than my old shop in Québec, that’s for certain.”
The leader squinted at him, a slight smirk crossing his face. “Québec, eh? Long way to travel, coming here. Must be a very compelling reason for you to leave.”
Émile shrugged like it really didn’t matter. “Change of scenery, mostly.”
The leader gestured to the door to the outside, the cheap glass windows looking out over the deserted darkened streets. “And what scenery it is.” He turned back, smirk becoming a grin. “I’m sure you know how this goes, Monsieur Deschênes,” he said. “Québec is a very safe town, n’est-ce-pas? That is what we aim to do here in Bytown.”
“Well,” said Émile, keeping his hands absolutely still to be sure there were no misunderstandings. “I haven’t had any issues with safety here.”
“Not yet, no,” said the leader.
The man with the axe cricked his neck. The other just grinned.
“Listen,” said Émile. “I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot here, but my business is just taking root. And with the winter restricting my supplies, I don’t have a lot of profits as it is, so—”
“But there are profits,” said the leader.
Émile smiled. “Pennies a week. If even. It’s—”
The leader put his hand out, palm up, made a grabbing motion like he was bored by the conversation and just wanted it over with. When Émile hesitated, he gave him a warning look, and his associate snatched a bun off the counter, winding back to throw it straight through the window like a rock. The axe-wielding one let his hand drift down to the handle, just to be entirely clear what resistance would trigger.
“Pennies, you said?” grinned the leader.
Émile sighed, reached into the pocket at the front of his apron and fished out a handful of coins. He looked down at them like they meant everything to him, then winced and dumped them into the leader’s hand.
“There,” smiled the leader. “That wasn’t so hard, now was it?” He jingled the coins. “Pennies it is. And I’ll tell you what: I’ll let this pass, this one time. But next time, I want what’s in the lockbox…” He pointed past Émile, straight at the cupboard that hid the real money. “And if I feel like you’re holding out on me, well…”
The one with the bun took an angry bite out of it, chewing with his mouth wide open.
The leader smiled. “If you ever hold out on me, you’ll want to book passage back to Québec right quick.”
Émile said nothing. There was nothing he could say. He gave a very slight nod of acknowledgement, and then stared off into the distance like he was just waiting for it to be over.
The leader dropped the coins into his pocket, then backed up toward the door, never taking his eyes off Émile. The axe-wielding one opened it for his boss and followed him out. The one with the bun spat his mouthful onto the floor in disgust, wiping his mouth.
“No wonder he’s poor,” he laughed. “That bread was disgusting!”
The door closed, the bell jingling one more time. Émile didn’t move for some time, just trying to will his heart to beat slower. Just for a bit. He kept his hands on the counter, but slowly sunk to his knees, resting his head on the edge, eyes squeezed shut. His breath returned in a sharp burst, like he’d been drowning.
“Dammit,” he hissed, and flung himself to his feet, dashing across the room and locking the door, like that would do anything at all.
He grabbed the coin box on his way upstairs, absentmindedly walking around the three broken steps with practised ease. When he got to his room, he tucked the box under his arm, lighting a single candle one-handed. The light was dim to start, flickering in the drafty attic space. It had been hours since the oven had gone out and hours more before it would start again—this was the time to get under the heavy fur blankets and snatch two or three hours of sleep before he had to do it all again…
He sat on the bed, carefully opening the box, and started counting out the day’s earnings. It wasn’t a lot, but it was more than he could spare.
The floorboard in the middle of the room came up with a little prying and he set it aside quietly, as if someone were around to hear what he was doing. He reached inside—a snap of freezing cold nipped at his fingers—and pulled out a weathered leather pouch.
He set it on the bed next to the box, unfolding it carefully, and in the absence of good lighting, ran his fingers down the coins there, counting by touch and pattern. He slipped the new ones into the mix, keeping everything neatly separated by denomination. When he was done, he counted again, just in case.
“Every day, a little closer,” he muttered to himself, and bundled the pouch back up and set it back in the space between the floors. He settled the floorboard back into place, then brushed his hand across the area, as if that made the secret invisible.
He put the box down beside his bed, kicked off his boots and pulled the covers high as he tried to force himself to sleep.
It was not an easy thing to do.
The flat roof, slapped together in the autumn before the first snow swept through, cracked and popped as the ice reset itself in the dropping temperatures. Loud bangs like cannon fire jolted him from whatever rest he could manage, coupled with a low, agonizing creaking sound like a ship on the ocean, wracked by turbulent waves.
He lay there, staring at the ceiling, wondering if and when that dam would burst, and what it would look like, and what it would cost.
He looked over, eyes straining to see the floorboards in the pitch-black night, and felt fear. Fear like he hadn’t had in years, and he was so out of practice that it was starting to make him panic, and—
BOOM! went the roof, and he nearly fell out of bed.
He was too hot. It was too hot, under the covers. He sat up, stripping off his jacket and sweater, tossing them on the floor. On the floorboard. He ducked back down, pulling the blankets high again, squeezed his eyes shut.
He felt the rocking of the ocean as the roof creaked and moaned. Tasted the salt water in the back of his throat. Heard the crack of the whip and the—
BOOM! went the roof, and he did his best to ignore it, but someone kept yelling at him, kept yelling to light the fuse! Light it now, for God’s sake! Light the damn fuse or we’ll all—
He woke suddenly, blinking at the blackness, heart racing, wondering how much time had passed, and how long was left before he could forget all of this, all over again. The world was rocking, swaying side to side…the inverse of his nightmares, but just as terrifying, following him into his waking life. He could even smell the smoke from the fire pit, faintly, burning away as the men cooked their—
Wait, no. That wasn’t a memory, this was real. He sat up, thin socks hovering just shy of the floor, and took another breath. Hesitantly, carefully.
Smoke. He smelled smoke.
He pulled on his boots, threw his jacket over his shoulders and stood at the head of the stairwell, all his senses working overtime to prove or disprove the thoughts racing through his mind. Smoke, definitely smoke. But maybe it was just carried on the wind, from somewhere further—
Then he saw it, down below: the orange glow of flames from inside the shop. Glowing and growing and starting to challenge the roof for the most terrifying roar in Émile’s life. He felt a shudder, a rumble, as the floor he was standing on started to give way to the carnage below.
He looked back to his room, to the hellish yellow slats of lights cutting from between the floorboards, and his conscious brain gave way to instinct… He dashed back inside, dropping to the floor and pulling at the floorboards—they all looked the same in this light!—until he found the one he was after. He pulled it out of the way and—
“Ah!” he yelped, rolling out of the way as flames burst up from the shop below, sending embers fluttering into a brand new domain.
The pouch was gone. The pouch was gone!
He scrambled back toward the stairs, squinting through the thickening smoke that ate up the descent like a savage grey fog. He held the collar of his jacket over his nose and mouth and raced forward.
His foot fell through one of the broken steps and he yelped, grabbing the walls to keep from falling straight through, and took in a mouthful of smoke in the process. He coughed, choked, gagged at the taste of it, and his brain told him in a flash This is over. You’ve lost. Quit now.
But his soul said no. Desperate fingertips searched the darkness for something to hold and then, with an agonizing heave, he pulled himself free, tumbling the rest of the way down the stairs and landing in a heap.
Flames licked at his boots, his exposed skin searing with pain as his head tried to make sense of which way was up. He got to his knees, coughing a horrible, ragged cough, and looked into the shop—or what used to be the shop. The windows were all shattered from the heat, the shelves, half-gone themselves, just blazing beams amongst a world of indistinct fire.
The door was still closed, still standing like nothing was happening, like tonight was any other night. Only the lock was different, glowing a fierce bright yellow, warning him from any thought of escape.
He crawled in a bit further before getting to his feet, covering his mouth with his sleeve and trying to decide which of the two windows seemed like the better option to break through. The ceiling above him groaned and started to crackle, and he looked up to see, through the charring wood, a portal into his bedroom—the floorboard he’d removed.
And suddenly he had an idea, a crazy idea, that maybe the pouch was still alright.
He turned back, looking deeper into the shop, trying to see where it might’ve landed. Behind the counter, probably. In a space where the flames hadn’t quite caught yet.
There was still hope.
Without putting his thoughts into any kind of order, he leapt forward, feet dancing around the fire until he made it around the counter, his heart racing with a desperate hope that he might yet find the—
He gasped, and gagged. The pouch wasn’t there— what he found instead was a woman, slumped against the wall, unconscious.
Whatever thoughts he’d had before, they disappeared in an instant. He scrambled toward her, shaking her by the shoulders, trying to wake her up, with no response. There was soot around her nostrils, though, so she was breathing. Or had been.
He pulled her toward him, up over his shoulder, and without stopping to mourn his loss, he tore through the wreckage of his shop, up over a burning table, straight through the window—
—and into a whole other kind of Hell.