Jaime complains a lot. This is either something Keith has forgotten about his daughter, or something he never really knew.
“My toe hurts,” she says.
“Your toe?” Keith asks. “What’s wrong with your toe?”
“It’s all tingly. It’s like there’s no blood in it.”
She stretches her leg out and plunks her foot down on the dashboard, the untied laces of her combat boots draping over her bare shins like limp spaghetti.
“And my butt is totally numb. It’s like I’ve been trapped in this car for the whole entirety of human civilization.”
This has been going on since they left Toronto, close to twelve hours ago.
“I can’t get any cell service. . . . Your CDs are garbage. . . . This car smells like farts.”
She is a writhing, seething ball of negativity, vibrating with righteous indignation, calibrated by an inventory of perceived wrongs done to her. Like this trip, for instance—driving up north in the tailwind of a Bison transport, the same one Keith is sure they have been following since leaving the Soo, despite having periodically passed it. Just one more part of a nefarious plan her father has devised to ruin her life.
In the back seat, Keith’s wife, Carla, is reading a book to their four-year-old son, Henry, in the waning light of the late September sun. Keith makes eye contact with her in the rear-view mirror, and she gives him a fleeting, harried smile. She hadn’t wanted to come on this trip either, even though she would never tell him that directly. Just a snide remark here, a long sigh there. Saint Carla the Martyr, Keith calls her in his head, although he realizes this makes him just as disingenuous as her.
“And the cow says . . . ?” Carla trails off, waiting for Henry to fill in the blank.
“‘I hate you!’” says Henry, kicking the book out of her hand. “The cow says, ‘I hate you!’”
Jaime crosses her arms over her chest.
“We’ll stop at the next gas station,” Keith says. “I’ll buy you a Snickers.”
Jaime makes a face. Once, as a fat toddler, she liked Snickers bars. Keith realizes he has no idea what she likes as a teenager. She is all angles now, angles and purple hair and black eyeliner, so far out of his realm of comprehension she might as well be another language. And there won’t be another gas station for miles, anyway. The Trans-Canada, in this part of northern Ontario, is all rock and tree and lake and rock and tree and lake, transports and no-passing lanes, narrow potholed roads, the speed limit dipping down to fifty through the occasional tiny crumbling mill town. Slow moving and dangerous. Of course, it’s also breathtaking—the road swelling and then plummeting, curving along the contour of the lake—although no one else in the car has noticed.
Keith noses the car over the centre line, hoping to pass the Bison, then pulls back into his lane as another transport whizzes past them in the opposite direction. Jaime flips listlessly through his box of CDs, in case her first perusal wasn’t thorough enough and she’d missed an opportunity to be affronted.
“Please tell me you don’t actually listen to this crap,” she says, holding up a Soundgarden disc.
Just as Keith is about to say something about how Chris Cornell has more talent in his little finger than those ridiculous bands she listens to, in his head he hears his own father saying the exact same thing about Kenny Rogers.
“Maybe we can find something on the radio,” he says instead.
He reaches for the knob and begins scanning through channels, but finds nothing but unbroken static.
Jaime rolls her eyes at him. “God, what are you, ninety?”
Her earbuds go into her ears and she slouches back down in her seat, eyes closed.
“You face, poo face, you face, poo face,” Henry chants from the back seat, then giggles maniacally.
arla sighs deeply.
“Just five more hours, tops,” Keith thinks. And then what? What does he think will happen? That his desolate northern hometown will magically make them happy again? Keith doesn’t have any relatives left in Thunder Bay, has lost touch with most of his friends, his condo on King Street worlds apart from their camps and ice shacks, weekends spent with snow machines or fishing rods. He doesn’t even remember street names anymore, didn’t recognize any hotels or restaurants in the travel brochure. But it has been more than twenty years. Even a place like Thunder Bay gets new restaurants. Even a place like Thunder Bay has to change. Doesn’t it?
Still, he knows what is driving him here. Yes, he wants to be able to say to his southern wife and children: “There’s the house I grew up in. There’s my old high school. There’s where I had my first kiss.” But it’s more than that. He also wants them to understand things about the north he can’t explain. The massive, looming mesas. The stark beauty of Lake Superior. The vast expanse of boreal forest. The sheer size of it all, how small it all makes you feel. How small, and how infinite. As opposed to this car, which right now just feels small.
By the time they reach Marathon, everyone but Keith is asleep—heads pressed against windows, mouths hanging open—and Keith can feel his own eyelids drooping, exhausted by the monotony of the pavement, by the constant vigilance for roadside deer and moose moving through the pre-dusk shadows like ghosts. Finally he pulls over and gets out, at a gravel lay-by on the edge of a cliff overlooking Lake Superior meant for tourists to stop and take pictures. For those cross-Canada bikers and trailer-towing Americans you’d see every summer, fixated on covering ground, who gawk and click and continue on in their quest for kilometres. He stands with his knees touching the guard rail and feels the solid rock beneath his feet, the wind off the lake while the night tugs at him from all directions. There’s something about the way the air up here feels in your lungs, as though you are the only person breathing it—unlike Toronto, where the air has already been breathed hundreds of thousands of times. He could feel his blood buzzing with it as soon as they passed Parry Sound. He wonders if Carla and the kids felt it too.
After a minute, he hears a door slam.
“The car better not have died,” Jaime says, wrapping a sweater around her as she moves toward him in the dark. “I don’t want to have to, like, sleep in a cave or whatever.”
Keith pictures her back in their condo, reclined on their leather couch with her laptop and phone and bottle of designer water. Designer water.
“You wouldn’t last two seconds in a cave.”
Jaime pulls her sleeves down over her hands.
“It smells weird out here.”
“That’s because there’s no smog.”
He waits for a snide remark, but none comes. “This is where all my stories live,” he wants to tell her. He thinks about terraced beaches, fingers stained purple from wild blueberries, feral gangs of barefoot kids racing across a mossy forest floor. Camping trips, dented cans of beer, deer jerky and hotdogs on sticks charred brown from the fire. The lapping of the lake against the side of a boat, the smell of motor oil on his clothes, the hollow sound of your own voice echoing through seemingly endless silence.
But even as he thinks these things, he knows how ridiculous it all sounds. Those moments, those memories, they aren’t even real. They are glossed-over, sepia-toned, distorted by distance. So they just stand in silence, looking out over the lake, while Keith wonders what the hell they are doing here, what he could possibly have been thinking when he planned this trip in the first place.
“What’s that?” Jaime asks suddenly, pointing out over the lake.
Keith follows her finger and sees a faint cloud of eerie green light dancing across a black expanse of sky.
“Aurora borealis,” he says.
The icy sky at night. Those words always make him think of Neil Young, of his dad with his guitar on the back porch on Sunday mornings, coffee and cigarettes on the step next to him, the dog at his feet. Neil Young. One musician they could always agree on.
“Aurora who?” asks Jaime, scrunching up her nose.
“The northern lights.”
Keith realizes Jaime has never seen them, has never even seen an actual night sky, unobstructed by buildings, by light. How could he possibly have let that happen?
“Whistle at them. It’ll make them dance.”
“We used to do it all the time.”
An old myth, something they would tell each other they could see just to not feel left out—then, later, something they would make fun of each other for believing in.
“Come on, give it a try.”
Skeptically, Jaime breathes out a low whistle. The light continues to wobble gently in the sky, unaffected. Keith waits for her to say, “This is dumb, what were you thinking, as if that would work.” But instead, her eyes grow wide, her face bathed in a faint greenish glow.
“Ever cool,” she whispers. “You do it too.”
For a second Keith can’t breathe. He knows Jaime is seeing an illusion, a hallucination generated by expectation. He also knows this moment is an illusion, that back in the car everything will be the way it was before. But still he stands next to his daughter and whistles into the northern night, the sound echoing through seemingly endless silence.
And in that moment they are small, and they are infinite.