The wildfire smoke was talked about far and wide that summer. Can we go out in it? Hang our clothes in it? Sail away from it? Is it getting worse? Is it here to stay? They said it made people wild, forgetful, infertile. That a bike ride was like smoking a pack a day.
It had suffocated the interior for weeks before choking the lower mainland, and was finally surrounding the Gulf Islands. Joe could already smell it, and now he could see it from his shed, haze coalescing across the water below Ladysmith, creeping up on them from the west as well. He stood in the doorway wiping grease off his hands, Reed behind him, taking apart an engine.
—Come make an appearance, at least, Joe said, knowing that Reed didn’t have much time for Anne. He looked at the boy, glaringly tall like Joe’s father. The big height had skipped a generation.
—I’m gonna ride up to the point, Reed mumbled. See if there’s smoke.
In the house, Tamara was picking up newspapers and torn envelopes from the coffee table, looking out the front window for headlights on the hill as dusk came on.
—I hate night stuﬀ, she said. I’m too tired to be nice at night.
Joe walked over and gave her a quick kiss, a spontaneous embrace which felt oﬀ to her.
—Maybe brunch would’ve been better, he said. She made a gagging noise.
—Neutral territory would have been nice.
—You make it sound like war, or like we’re paying ransom to kidnappers.
He had always been more introverted, but lately she was the one who tired quickly of being near others.
Soft beams of light eventually breached the top of their slope. They heard a car door shut and the gate roll open. Joe had sent Anne and her husband the code when they emailed that they were passing through the island and would pop by for a visit.
—“Passing through” to where? Tamara had said. You don’t “pass through” an island.
Joe just chuckled.
—That’d be Anne, all right. Story of her life. Always just passing through to somewhere.
He meant Anne the Original Version, Anne the First, but it also fit with the one who came and replaced her, who had walked away all those years ago, their life a mug of fresh coffee going cold on a clean, empty table. Since then, he had always believed in the existence of two Annes, neither one keeping still for long.
He made sure in their emails that they weren’t expecting dinner, as he was often late getting back from closing the cafe in town. He pictured them staying somewhere prudent like the Wisteria, for Anne had always lamented spending money on accommodations, but he worried they would show up pulling suitcases from the trunk of their rental car. He hadn’t asked how long they were staying on the island. But why assume the worst when someone requests a friendly visit?
At the window, he watched them park beside the carport at the bottom of the gravel drive and step out into the twilight without baggage, carrying only a bottle of wine. Someone coughed. Movement tripped the porch light on with a click, a click he felt in his chest, and then he heard Anne’s laugh through the door before he opened it.
About the author
Ben Lof’s stories have won the Howard O’Hagan and Far Horizons Awards, appeared in The Journey Prize Stories, and been shortlisted for the Bronwen Wallace Award, Jacob Zilber Prize, Fiddlehead Fiction Prize, and Alberta Views Story Contest. He lives with his family on Treaty 6 Territory, in Edmonton.
This article appears in the June 2023 issue of Edify