“There aren’t any bears around here, are there?” Rey asks.
The water taxi driver—Finn, he said his name was—dumps the final box of food on the chipped Formica kitchen counter. He has a nice smile and kind eyes under the shade of his blue baseball cap. “Bears? Never seen one myself, but you see signs of them sometimes. We have the shy kind around here, they won’t try to break in for your food or anything.”
Rey doesn’t feel brave enough to ask what the “signs” of a bear are.
“You should worry more about the bugs anyway,” he continues. “Lucky you missed blackfly season back in May and earlier in June. Now it’s just mosquitoes until August—they die down a lot then. Keep your screen doors closed all the time. The windows all have screens, so you’re safe there. You might want bug spray if you go walking in the woods.”
She thinks in dismay of the single can of bug spray she brought. It sounds like she’ll be dousing herself in it daily.
Finn pulls a phone out of his pocket. “Hey, let me give you my number for when you need a ride.”
She fumbles around in the rucksack she dropped to the floor on one of their trips up into the cottage from the boat. Surprisingly, her phone’s signal is at five bars. “Good signal here,” she mutters as she looks up her new number to give him in return. It hasn’t stuck in her head yet, the Canadian mobile phone numbers unfamiliar compared with the British.
“Yeah, they put a tower up on Cary’s Island a couple years ago. You can use it for internet too, but it’s slow as hell. Check your email, that’s about it.”
It’s no different than she expected. In fact, it’s better—she thought she’d have to make use of the internet cafe back at the marina for everything.
Numbers exchanged, Finn says, “Want a hand with turning on the power and getting the water pump going and stuff?”
It hadn’t occurred to her that such things needed turning on. Power and water just … were. “You’re not too busy?”
“Nah. Most of our traffic is on the weekend. They’ll call me if they need me.”
While Finn is fiddling with the electrics, Rey takes a look around. The main living area is an open room. At one end is a sturdy wooden table with mismatched chairs around it, and at the other, a wood-burning stove. A cluster of wicker chairs face the large window that looks down the steep stone steps to the lake. Cutting some of the trees back in front of the cottage would give a better view, but the shade they cast is pleasant and makes the cottage itself very private, hardly visible from the water.
A kitchen with basic appliances and open shelves is off to one side, and a dark hallway leads off to the bathroom and two bedrooms at the back. The smaller bedroom has built-in wooden bunk beds she would have loved sleeping in as a child; even now she’s tempted to climb the somewhat rickety ladder to sit up high on the top bunk. The master bedroom has windows on two sides and a heavy, antique-looking wooden bedstead covered in a faded patchwork quilt.
Everything in the cottage looks old and worn. Rustic would be the kindest description. It’s all so different to the interchangeable foster homes she grew up in, one grey housing estate after another, hardly a tree in sight. Here the cottage is part of the the dense forest outside, redolent with pine and leaf mould, the scent of fresh water carried on the breeze. Crouching between trees and water, her wooden house clings onto the rocks under the thin soil, filled with artifacts of the grandfather she knows so little about.
Being surrounded by so much wood gives a unique sense of warmth. The narrow wooden floorboards are smooth underfoot and there’s no ceiling, the wooden roof support frames visible overhead. Neat rows of unfinished planks line the sloping roof interior. She can see the skeleton of the building, the bones her grandfather assembled to create it.
Finn spends the afternoon helping get her settled in. Soon the power and water are on, the fridge is happily cooling itself and all her food is put away. He shows her the woodpile and how to get a fire going in her stove: the arcane arts of kindling and log placement. Apparently a fire will be welcome at night and in the early morning, except on the hottest summer days.
After all the work is done, they share a drink of filtered lakewater on the deck, allowing her to collect her first mosquito bites. The water tastes soft and alive in a way she’s never experienced before, as if she’s been having some synthetic version all this time and this is the real thing. She can’t imagine what a cup of tea will be like, but the cool water tastes good in the late afternoon heat, watching the sunlight glittering on the lake.
“I should be going,” Finn says finally.
She fumbles for some cash in her pocket. “How much do I owe you?
“Twenty for the taxi.”
“You’ve been here for hours,” she objects. “I’d be stumbling around in the freezing dark and contracting cholera from drinking raw lakewater without you.”
He laughs and shakes his head. “We look out for each other around here. Call me anytime you need a ride, or have any questions. Oh, by the way, your neighbour’s registered. Friendly enough, but you never know, right?”
Registered? She’s unwilling to reveal her ignorance about yet another aspect of Canadian cottage life, so she just nods. Her purpose here is to work, not make friends with anyone, though Finn has been pleasant company.
She stands on the dock and looks on as he springs into his boat with a grace she knows she sorely lacked when she lurched onboard. The huge motor growls and water churns heavily, sending chaotic eddies to splash against the rocky shoreline. With a wave and a smile, he turns the boat around and heads out. Soon enough, he disappears around the bend at the end of the bay into the next, and the sound of his motor fades into the distance.
After dinner she goes out on the dock again to see the sunset. The sun is a glowing orange ball that looks like it’s resting on the treetops of the island that guards the entrance to the bay. It lights up a brilliant pink-orange path across the washed-out blue of the water, tiny waves rippling to disturb the surface. The path looks like it’s aimed right at her, like she could follow it right up into the sun itself, and she has to fight the temptation to stare directly at the dazzling light, to get lost between the shadows and the orange flame.
A bird calls repeatedly in the distance, a strange stuttering cry, and she squints to try to see it. As she looks around, she notices for the first time that a man is standing on the end of the dock of her next door neighbour’s cottage. With the light behind him, all she can see is that he’s tall and lean. His arms make a sudden movement and something long and thin flashes in the air. He stills and his silhouetted shape becomes clearer—he’s holding a fishing rod.
Their docks are just about close enough that she could call out a greeting to him, but far enough away to make it awkward. He doesn’t turn to look at her, so after a moment she makes her way back inside.
She thought she would stay awake longer, listening to the forest sighing around the cottage, her drift into sleep broken by the occasional sudden drop of an acorn onto the roof. But in the complete darkness and quiet she falls asleep more quickly than normal, and wakes more refreshed than she has in a long time.
Before she gets dressed she heads down to the lake, eager to see the water again. It’s early, before eight o’clock, and the water is as still as a mirror, holding dark reflections of the trees that stand over it. The smooth surface is so impossibly calm that she kneels on the dock and leans down to place a hand on it, so expecting to feel a solidity there that she is almost shocked when her fingers slide into cool water.
Peering deeper, she can just see the dark brown sand at the bottom and a few small fish weaving their way between the dock foundations and bright green strands of seaweed with fine needlelike leaves. The lake is deep: even here, no more than a meter or two from the shore, the water would be almost over her head.
The air is already warm, promising a hot, sunny day, and despite the coolness of the water, the temptation to slip under that polished surface is too tempting. She glances back up at the cottage, thinking of putting on her swimming costume, but… Who will see her? Only a few birds calling in the trees break the silence. No one else is around. A bubble of excitement swells in her chest as she quickly strips off her dressing gown and pyjamas.
Her ungainly leap in is far from an elegant dive, and she gasps at the shock of cold water. Seaweed touches her foot and she yelps, kicking hard and fast to swim further out, only stopping where the water is too deep for it to grow. All she can see is darkness when she looks down. The light on her skin in the dark water is strange, like her body hangs suspended above a fathomless expanse of black. The water’s not murky, though; it’s fresh and perfectly clear when she cups some in her hand to see.
She’s never swum in a lake before, and she feels like she should be troubled by the mysterious depths below. But she isn’t. Instead, she watches her breasts float, her nipples pebbled hard in the chill. Her hair swirls around her shoulders, the heady smell of lake filling her nose. When she opens her legs, the cool water enters her, but it’s not unpleasant.
She closes her eyes and turns her face like a flower to the sun. For a time, the only sound is her breath and the blood rushing in her ears. Her only sensations are the soft cool water pulling at her as she slowly moves her limbs to keep afloat, and the contrasting warmth of the sunlight on her face. She is made of everything the world is: air, water, light. She breathes. In and out. In and out. Alive.
A few days later, she’s tired of staring at her laptop screen and decides to brave a forest walk. After a liberal dousing in bug spray, she sets off on a slightly overgrown path that climbs up and away from the lake, further into the forest. Her head is full of warnings from a guidebook she found on the bookshelf. Poison ivy, porcupines, skunks, rattlesnakes. Bears. Canada would be a terrifying place if the forest wasn’t so calming.
She’s never really considered herself a nature person, never had much opportunity to be immersed in it like this. But already in the days she’s spent here, she’s eaten with better appetite, care of her twice-daily swims, and she’s slept soundly with no distractions from bright lights or traffic noise. In fact, she’s been eating so well she’ll need to call Finn in a day or two and get him to pick her up so she can go grocery shopping.
With her head down watching the sides of the path for errant snakes and poison ivy, and busy making a shopping list in the back of her mind, she doesn’t see the dog before she hears its loud bark, startling her so badly she jumps backward, shrieking in fright.
“Bear,” a deep voice snaps and she looks past the dog, a chocolate lab, to the tall man a few paces behind it.
Her neighbour, it must be, though she’s surprised she hasn’t heard the dog before now. As she warily approaches, she sees just how tall the man is, well over six feet. Broad shouldered, too, with a muscular chest and arms. He wears a white T-shirt covered by an unbuttoned red plaid shirt and faded jeans. His face is dotted with dark moles, and he has a large nose and full lips framed by a slightly messy goatee. A handsome face, she decides after a moment. Strong featured, but his eyes are soft and warm. He has shoulder-length dark hair, part of it pulled into a ponytail high on his head.
He’s surveying her, too, eyes flicking over her plain T-shirt, skinny jeans and trainers. “You must be Rey,” he says after a moment. The dog sits down beside him, looking up at him adoringly.
She can’t control her flinch. How does he know her?
He’s visibly dismayed by her reaction. “Sorry, I just—I knew your grandfather. I heard you were coming.”
She leans forward this time. “You knew Obi-Wan Kenobi?”
He nods. “Yeah. He and my grandpa built the two cottages together in the fifties. Anakin Skywalker?”
“I’m sorry, I’ve never heard the name. My mum didn’t keep in touch with Obi-Wan. After he and my grandmother split up, she moved to England with my mum, so I grew up there. This is my first time in Canada.”
“Oh. I’m Ben, anyway. Ben Solo.” He looks at her like she might recognize his name, though she doesn’t know how she would.
“Rey Kenobi.” Shaking hands would be odd, and they’re still standing a bit too far apart for that, so she makes an awkward gesture with her arm that’s something like a wave.
“I have some pictures of Obi-Wan with my grandpa if you ever want to see,” he offers, politely ignoring her strange movement.
“Is now a good time?” It’s good to see another human face after days in total isolation. She’s used to being alone, but it can’t hurt to spend a few minutes chatting to someone friendly.
The outside of his cottage is stained a similar dull deep red to her own. It blends in with the reddish bark of the pine trees surrounding it and the bed of dried orange-brown needles and leaves that cover the forest floor. Inside, the furnishings are more modern and in better condition than hers, and the walls and ceiling are all enclosed and insulated, making it habitable in winter. A delicious smell fills the air, warm and enticing, like a batch of gingerbread has just come out of the oven. The smell is so strong, in fact, that she casts a quick look around the kitchen in search of a rack of baked goods, but only a few dirty dishes sit in the sink, and the surfaces are bare.
The dog, Bear, settles down in front of the wood stove, though no fire is lit. Open doors lead to a small sunroom that juts out from the cottage. The trees near the shore have been cleared away to allow spectacular views of the lake. A deep sofa stands in the room, and Rey can imagine losing herself sitting there for hours, watching the lake change and shift as the sun travels over it.
“Here,” Ben says, from where he’s been searching on a bookshelf on the other side of the living room. He hands her a photo album and she sets it on the dining table to look at it.
The first few pages show the two plots of land from various angles, before any work started. Then several photos feature boats piled high with lumber and sacks of cement mix. She tries to imagine bringing all the required building materials over in trip after trip. Several pages later has the first shot of the two men together. She barely recognizes that the bearded man is a young Obi-Wan. A slightly younger man, with a mane of thick hair not dissimilar to Ben’s, has his arm slung over Obi-Wan’s shoulder.
“That’s Anakin,” Ben says, pointing one long finger. His sleeve pulls up from his wrist to reveal a smooth band, which she first takes to be a smartwatch or fitness tracker. But the band is metal and has no display, only a number engraved on it and a symbol she has to stare at for a second to make sense of.
She sucks in a breath. “You’re an alpha.”
He jerks back and pushes his sleeve down to hide the wrist-tracker. “I thought you knew.”
“How would I have known?” Vaguely, she remembers Finn saying something about her neighbour being … registered, was it? That must be the word for it here. In the UK, they called it listed.
She’d actually known of an alpha before. Before his designation presented, he’d attended a secondary school she went to. Even when she was there years later, long after he’d been sent away, his school photo was pointed out to every new student. He had been lucky enough to find a mate, an extremely rare male omega. His family lived across the road from her foster home, and she’d recognized him from his distinctive bright red hair when he visited once. A bonded alpha was given much more freedom than most, they could travel with permission, even hold down a job. He had one hand possessively at the lower back of a shorter dark-haired man as he guided him into the house. Shockingly, the dark-haired man’s belly had been unmistakably round with pregnancy. It had been like seeing a unicorn, or a dragon. Something mythical.
“I thought someone would have told you,” Ben mutters.
She takes a step back. Suddenly, she’s aware that they are very alone, and she’s ready to turn and run, except the thought of turning her back on him makes her neck prickle with fear.
“Please,” he says and reaches out a hand. She gasps and flinches away, though he was nowhere near touching her. “Please. I’m not—I wouldn’t. Don’t run. I promise—I would never hurt anyone.”
She looks up at him. His face is too soft, too open. Ready for her to reject him, call him one of the ugly names people reserve for alphas, to remind them of their place as primitive remnants of an old system that most people have evolved past, outcasts who have to be controlled. He’s already wounded without her having to wield the blade.
She tries to steady herself. “You startled me,” she tells him. Her heart is pounding in her chest, but every quick breath draws in more of the spicy-sweet air around them. The smell fills her head and it’s so warmly comforting that she can feel herself slowly relaxing. It helps that Bear is sprawled out on the floor and Ben hasn’t moved again, standing hunched and miserable, half turned away to the photo album.
“I’m sorry,” he says, not looking at her.
“I should go.” Her neck still tingles at the thought of putting her back to him, so she performs a complicated series of backward side-steps until she’s near the door they entered only minutes before.
“I could’ve gone over there anytime, you know,” he says, just as she’s reaching behind herself for the doorknob.
She pauses. “What?”
He stands straighter, pulling himself up. “I left you alone. You came on my land, didn’t you see the marker with the Alpha symbol?”
She shakes her head with confusion. The scent seems to be telling her that she’s safe, but it sounds like— “Are you threatening me?”
His eyes widen. “No! No.”
“So I should be grateful you haven’t come to my cottage to—to—” The plot of every trashy thriller she picked up over the years comes back to haunt her.
He takes a step toward her. “I’m saying I’ve had every opportunity to hurt you if I wanted to—”
“Oh, that’s making me feel so much better, thank you!”
“—but I haven’t. And I won’t.”
Somehow they’re standing quite close together, having met in the middle of the room. He’s glowering down at her as she glares up at him.
“Don’t call me that—”
“Thank you so much for protecting me by not attacking me. I’m extremely grateful.”
“You’re welcome, Beta,” he sneers.
“Beta is hardly an insult. I bet you wish you were one.”
Her voice is too harsh and he reels back, stung. Bear has come to stand by them now, whining at the raised voices and tension in the room. Ben places a large hand on Bear’s head and he calms immediately. She stares a moment at his long fingers as they gently fondle Bear’s silky ears. Ben is looking down at the dog and he’s curled back into himself again.
“I’m sorry,” she says quickly. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
He takes a slow breath. “I used to spend a lot of time with Obi-Wan when he was here in the summer—I’ve been up here since I got out of the alpha school. My grandpa had a rare form of dementia that hit him young. My whole life I saw him disappear. I never really knew him, the real him. Obi-Wan was—” He shakes his head and clears his throat.
“I miss him,” he continues after a moment. “This is the first summer I won’t see him since I was eighteen. I couldn’t get permission to go to his funeral…” He swallows heavily. “He was like a father to me. I would never hurt anyone connected to him.”
“I’m sorry,” she says again, awkwardly. Without thinking, she touches the side of his forearm in sympathy and he stiffens, leaning away from the contact.
“Yeah, well. Just—don’t be afraid. I’ll leave you alone.”
“Okay. Good.” That’s all she wanted, isn't it? This time she has the confidence to turn away from him to make her escape. “I’ll see you around then.” She opens the door and heads off before he can answer.
As she follows the path along the shoreline back home, a red squirrel scolds her from high up in the trees. Its chittering call is the only sound other than her own footsteps on the soft ground and the gentle roll of waves against the shore. She keeps wanting to look back; it feels like she’s leaving something behind. This place is taking things from her; she’s spreading parts of herself around in a way she hasn’t noticed happening before. Little pieces of emotion or thought, sprinkled here and there. Maybe it’s always been like that, but no one else’s tracks cover her trail here, so her prints are obvious, like footsteps dried into hard clay.
Finally she gives in and looks back to Ben’s cottage, but the trees are already shrouding it, and it’s no more than a few sharp angles glimpsed between foliage. She’s better off alone. She always has been.