The sky was an odd shade of lavender, strewn with fog and hazy shafts of sunlight as the new day broke. A breeze sent the reeds swaying side to side, side to side, as the water lapped at the shoreline. Frogs and birds and insects filled the air with a cacophony of queries—the theme to a quiet summer’s day.
The raft moved slowly; a weak paddler fighting against a weaker current. It was barely a raft, too: a bundle of wood held together with soggy rope, wobbling with each shift of the feet, daring the waves to take it under. The paddler looked just as ragged, with his filthy shoeless feet, his tattered clothes and wild beard. He navigated the shallows with a stick a little thicker than his own arms—though that wasn’t saying much—and kept a wary eye on his surroundings.
“Y’here to kill me?” he called, in a feeble voice, to the shore. “I see ye there.”
Émile wrung the water out of his shirt, lean arms straining to finish the job. He flung the thing over his shoulder, squinted at the stranger drifting toward him.
“Non, monsieur,” he said. “Are you here to kill me?”
The man on the raft, held out his hands to show his lack of belongings, lethal or otherwise.
Émile did the same. Shirtless, worn trousers, worn-down boots. He wasn’t a threat so much as something to pity. “Do you know where we are, by chance?”
The man on the raft plunked his stick into the mud, stopping his progress. He looked downstream, then back the way he’d come, and frowned. “Not entirely sure,” he said. “Passed a village a day back. Didn’t get the name.” He peered around the bushes nearby to Émile. “You alone?”
“Oui,” said Émile. “Et vous?”
The man shrugged. “I am ‘til I ain’t.” He gave a nod. “Yarrow’s the name.”
“Émile,” was the reply, with a nod back. “Your boat is nice.”
Yarrow laughed. “It’s a pile of trash, but it does the job. Easier on the feet than walkin’.”
“Just so long as the water takes you where you want to go,” said Émile with a smile.
Yarrow laughed. “So long as it takes me away from where I was, it’s good by me.”
Émile stared at the rocks by the shore, solemn. “I know that feeling.”
The raft started to drift, and Yarrow was clearly having trouble resisting it. He plonked the stick into a different spot, grunting with the effort. “Walk with me?” he asked.
Émile looked up, smiled curiously. “On water?”
“On the shore, ye daft arsehole,” said Yarrow, with a grin. “Ain’t much company in the boonies. Might as well indulge ourselves while we can.”
Émile seemed to agree. He peered down along the riverbank, seeing how far it went. “It would be a nice change to talk to someone other than myself,” he said, and started walking.
Yarrow pulled himself loose, and used the stick to ease his passage along, to better match Émile’s leisurely pace. For a while, neither of them said a thing. The sun got a little higher in the sky, the lavender turned to blinding blue, and the birds in the trees got more frantic, like they suddenly realized their time was short, and had to get it all out.
“What was it, made you leave?” asked Yarrow, nudging himself around a rock.
Emile smirked at the diagnosis. “I didn’t mean to, to be honest.”
“Just sorta happened?”
“Who was she?” asked Yarrow.
“It’s complicated,” said Émile.
“Always is. She break your heart, or you hers?”
“Neither,” said Émile, then seemed unsure. “Or at least, not like that. I made her a promise, and I am doing my best not to fail her, but sometimes…” He looked pained at the meaning behind the words. Pained. “Sometimes it feels impossible.”
“Like you’re swimmin’ ‘gainst the current,” said Yarrow.
“Oui. Comme ça. Exactement.”
Yarrow drifted a bit further away, getting into the open—beyond the trees’ shade—and let the sun hit him full-on. He spread his arms, soaking it in.
“You want my advice?” he called.
Émile didn’t answer, but Yarrow didn’t care.
“Don’t swim against it,” he said. “The current’s bringin’ you to where you need to be. Let it.”
“It’s not that simple,” said Émile.
“It is that simple,” said Yarrow. “I used to be like you. Used to think I stood a chance of fixin’ the things I saw that were broken in the world. Used up every last ounce of my soul tryin’ to do something ‘bout it.” He let the raft drift closer again. “But some things just can’t be fixed. Some things need to be broken, to survive.”
“Doesn’t matter. Look, see? See that?” He pointed the stick toward the shore near where Émile was heading. A frog was swimming along, long legs making chaotic swirls in the water as it went. “Headin’ where it’s headin’. Now you can go an’ try t’make it swim t’wards you, right up into yer hands. And maybe it’ll work. But probably, it won’t. And your back’ll seize up in the tryin’.”
The frog disappeared into the reeds. Yarrow nudged his raft around another rock.
“Sometimes I wish I’d never even tried,” said Émile. “I should have looked the other way.”
Yarrow gave him a wink. “That’s more like it. Most men, they don’t ever see that truth, Mr Émile. Most men, they pour good money after bad, tryin’ to make themselves whole. But they ain’t never gonna make themselves whole. Not for all the coins in the empire.”
Émile nodded again, taking a detour around the trunk of a willow tree that seemed to be trying to peer at its reflection, forsaking the land for a glimpse of beauty.
When he came back, he started unfolding his shirt again, letting the air at it. Letting it dry.
“Where are you headed?” he asked, pointing on down the river. “Where does this lead?”
Yarrow dipped his stick again. “Place called Bytown. Know it?”
Émile frowned, shrugged. “Is it far?”
“Far enough, I hope,” said Yarrow. “Folks say you can make your fortune there. Take what you got—whatever you got—and double it overnight. No one trusts no one, so ye don’t have to pretend.”
“Pretend what?” asked Émile.
Yarrow seemed stuck on that question. He ground his teeth, face twitching into impermanent scowls. “Pretend she loves you, when she don’t. Pretend the kids are yours, when they ain’t.” He stabbed the stick into the water a little harder. “Pretend your life is your own, and not just some fleeting dowry, gone like a flame in the rain.”
He clawed his fingers through his beard like he wanted to pull it off. Pull his skin off. Pull everything apart.
“You’re starting over,” Émile said, solemnly, from the shore.
“Aye,” said Yarrow. “From the ground up. But better, this time. No lies to tie me down. My first penny’ll be mine, and I’ll know it.”
“Well that’s a shame,” came a voice from just ahead, and Yarrow jabbed the end of the stick into the water, halting the raft. Émile took a step back, away from the water.
“Who’s there?” shouted Yarrow, pulling up the stick and holding it like it might make a good weapon. Like he might make a good warrior. “What do you want?”
“The answer to a riddle,” said the man, stepping out from behind a tree, hands deep in his pockets. “What’s a family cost?”
“Who are you?”
The man tipped his hat. “The name’s Gauthier, Mr Yarrow. Your father-in-law sends his regards.”
Yarrow jabbed the stick back into the water, coming to a stop in the very middle of the river. Too far to reach easily, but not nearly far enough. “No he didn’t.”
“No, no he didn’t,” smiled Gauthier. “He said a lot of things meant for you, but none I’d go so far as to call a regard. He had one question, though. Top of his mind. Kept coming back to it, over and over, like he was afraid he’d forget it if he didn’t remind himself.”
Gauthier’s hand slid out from his pocket holding a pistol. He cocked it, pointed it straight at Yarrow’s head. “Why did you do it?”
Yarrow was shaking, trying to subtly push himself to the other side of the river, as if he stood any chance of escape. He darted nervous glances at Émile, who was easing further and further away from the water, a solemn look on his face.
“I didn’t—” Yarrow sputtered, and Gauther fired wide, hitting a tree not too far from where Yarrow was headed.
“Let’s be civilized, sir,” said Gauthier. “Don’t lie to me, and I won’t lie to you.”
Yarrow’s demeanour calmed. Gauthier had taken his shot, wasted it on a warning. It would take him dozens of seconds to reload, which might just buy enough time to escape. All he had to do was get to the far shore. And not make it seem like that was his plan.
“She had a lover,” he sneered.
“They all have lovers,” laughed Gauthier. “Doesn’t mean you kill them.”
He glanced to Émile, whose expression was impenetrable. No sympathy, no judgement. The only thing to be read was a strong desire to be somewhere else. It made Yarrow more agitated. He spat into the water.
“She had to feel it,” he said. “Had to feel the pain I felt.”
“And the children?” asked Gauthier, jaw tensing. “Them too?”
Yarrow’s stick jerked slightly, sliding off an underwater stone as a memory flared through his memory again. He looked like he was going to be sick. Émile did, too.
“They…they weren’t mine…”
“No? Because I heard—”
“She was a cheating whore!” screamed Yarrow, tears in his eyes. “They were testaments to her betrayal, and I—”
“Five years old,” said Gauthier, eyes downcast. “Five, three, one.” When his eyes came back up, they were crackling with fury. “Five. Three. One.”
Yarrow was very close to his escape now. So very close. But he was coming apart, words cutting him more savagely than any bullet could. This was a tale he’d been fighting to contain for so long, and now that it was out in the open, there was nothing he could do but rage against the guilt he’d layered upon himself.
“She was going to leave me,” he said. “She said her father would cast me out. Out of my own home!”
“His home, turns out,” said Gauthier.
“You see?” snarled Yarrow. “Nothing I had was really mine! Not the house, not the career, not the wife, not the children! None of it was real!”
“So you stabbed them all in their sleep—and God help you, they’d better have been asleep—and set fire to the place, and ran for your life.”
Yarrow looked ready to retch.
“The question remains,” said Gauthier, frowning at his spent pistol. “Where did you hide the money?”
“There is no—”
“There was, and there is,” said Gauthier. “In a lockbox, in the cellar. Money and jewels. Your late mother-in-law’s necklace.”
“Wasn’t in the ruins,” said Gauthier, stepping right up to the edge of the shoreline. Still too far to do anything, but imposing nonetheless. “So you have it. Somewhere.”
“I don’t, I—”
Gauthier pointed the pistol at Yarrow’s head again. “You took it with you,” he said. “Because it was what you deserved.”
“You couldn’t escape by road, so you built this raft, and you tried to make it work, but you…” Gauthier’s eyes shifted to realization. “It was too heavy. It broke through. You lost it. Somewhere along the way, you lost it.”
Yarrow swallowed his sickness. “I don’t need it,” he whimpered.
Gauthier sighed. “And that answers that.”
He nodded past Yarrow, who turned ‘round to see a man on the shore near his exit, pointing a rifle at his head.
“Boo,” said Topek, and ended the charade.
As Yarrow’s pathetic body drifted down the river—ruled by the current—Gauthier made his way over to Émile, lighting his pipe and puffing out a few breaths before settling against a tree.
“You’re too damn good at this,” he said. “You play them too well.”
Émile straightened his shirt, avoiding eye contact. “People like to talk.”
“The father-in-law won’t be happy,” said Gauthier. “But I’m not searching the river for a lockbox, no matter what’s in it.” He clapped Émile on the shoulder. “A few more jobs like this, and we’ll be even, Mr Deschênes.”
Émile winced. “And then what?”
Gauthier looked down-river, down toward Bytown. “Whatever you like, I suppose. Back to the life you left behind.”
Émile looked the other way. Any other way. “That life is over.”
“Why? Aylen’s forgotten all about you. You’re a free man, Deschênes. Eventually, I mean. I won’t pretend I don’t want you to stay. I do. But I always figured…” He frowned at Émile, like he was trying to solve a particularly tricky puzzle. “I figured you’d go back to Bytown, if you could.”
“It’s not my Bytown anymore,” said Émile. “Because Maggie Kelly is dead.”