It was dark when Waverly’s bus pulled into Purgatory, and it was even darker when she stepped out of Doc Holliday’s car and onto the homestead where they all lived through the summer. Doc had to pick her up from the station because Wynonna was busy. Apparently they had a guest this summer, and she had been busy preparing the spare bedroom in the house.
“That seems unlike Wynonna,” Waverly had told Doc in the car.
Doc had chuckled. “It seems that she has turned over a new leaf,” he drawled. “Also, I believe that our guest is a lady and also a friend of Dolls's.” The statement hung over them as it was the best explanation that Waverly could be getting.
“Fair enough,” she had said.
Waverly instructed Doc to leave her suitcase downstairs, and then, with her backpack over one shoulder, she all but dragged her duffel bag upstairs to her room. The door of the bedroom across from hers was closed, but light streamed through the bottom, and there was the sound of someone shuffling around. And then some profanity. It made Waverly smile. Classic Wynonna. Waverly had been excited to see her.
But she had been on her feet finishing the university library’s end-of-year stocktake for the better part of the day, and then squished on a bus during the evening. If she opened the door to that room, Wynonna would rope her into helping. Or better yet, get Waverly to do the job herself.
And so Waverly dropped her bags in her bedroom, tiptoed to the bathroom to brush her teeth, snuck back into her room, got changed into sleep shorts and a tank top, removed her glasses, and promptly collapsed on the bed. Saying hi to her big sister could wait until tomorrow.
Tomorrow announced itself to Waverly with the sound of Xavier Dolls's laughter, full and rich and sincere. That was unusual, and enough reason for Waverly to get out of bed and push her glasses onto her face. Dolls rarely laughed, and his laughter never sounded like that. She peered out her window to see him—barefoot, still in his barely-there sleep clothes that Wynonna liked so much—hugging a woman with short red hair.
“Waverly, are you up?” Wynonna’s voice called from the bottom of the stairs. “Waves? Can you come down here?”
Waverly pulled a light, baggy sweatshirt on over her clothes and rushed downstairs.
Wynonna was standing by the open doorway, smiling fondly at her. “Hey, kid. Didn’t hear you get in last night,” she said. “Exhausted?”
“Yeah, you were busy, and I thought it’d be better to turn in,” Waverly said.
“We’ll catch up later, yeah?” Wynonna said. When Waverly nodded, she jerked her head towards the direction of the doorway. “C’mon, I want you to meet someone.”
Waverly followed Wynonna out the door and down the porch steps, where they approached Dolls talking to his friend. His attractive friend. Waverly tried not to look at her too much, but there was something about the woman that just drew her attention.
She was tall and lean, with a striking face and a confident disposition. She wore a white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, olive green shorts, and Converse low-tops that were a dirty, faded red. Her hair was windblown, and her eyes glinted in the morning light.
“Waves, this is Nicole Haught,” Wynonna was saying.
The question slipped out of Waverly’s mouth: “Sorry? Haught?”
The redhead spelled it for her. “I get that a lot,” she quipped, which earned another laugh from Dolls. Her eyes met Waverly’s. “It’s nice to meet you, Waverly.”
They shook hands and Waverly found that her own hand lingered on Nicole’s for a second.
“Nicole is joining us for storm season,” Dolls explained. “She just graduated from university and she’s taking some time to get more outdoors experience while she waits on her application for park ranger training.”
“Oh, cool,” Waverly said. She turned to Dolls. “How do you two know each other?”
“Dolls was at North Bay the winter of my first year of university, he was working with one of my geography professors on some snowstorm research, and one night we ended up getting pizza together and became friends,” Nicole said.
“That was terrible pizza,” Dolls said.
“That’s as good as pizza gets in North Bay,” Nicole retorted. She addressed Waverly again: “Anyway, we kept in touch, and he said that you needed an extra pair of hands for storm season, and I figured doing something different this summer would be nice, so I said I’d go.”
“And we are so pumped ,” Wynonna said. “Come on, Haughtstuff, let’s get you settled in. Doc and Jeremy should be up and getting brunch ready soon. You’ll be staying in the main house with me, Waverly and our other teammate Rosita, who’ll be arriving later today… Dolls and the other two guys stay in the barn.”
“It’s refurbished,” Dolls explained, when Nicole shot him a confused look.
“It’s a regular old man cave in there. They have everything but a kitchen,” Wynonna said. She turned to Waverly. “I’m getting hungry so I’m gonna get Doc and Jeremy up. You mind showing Nicole up to where she’s staying?”
“Of course not,” Waverly said. She looked at Nicole. “Let’s go?”
Dolls handed Nicole her backpack and duffel bag from the back of her car. “Gimme your keys, Nic,” he said. “I’ll go park this over there.” He nodded at the area in front of the barn, where all everyone’s vehicles were parked.
Nicole obliged. “Thanks, man,” she said.
“I’ll see you at brunch,” Dolls said.
Waverly led Nicole upstairs and showed her her bedroom, which she quietly appraised before setting her bags down and kicking her shoes off. Waverly handed her a slip of paper with the wifi password, and then informed her that brunch would be ready in half an hour. And with that, she went back to her own room and got her things together for a shower before brunch.
Brunch at the homestead was often a lively affair, with an energy that didn’t let up even as the weeks of summer went by. In fact, that could be said of any meal that they had together in the summers. It was one of the reasons why Waverly missed home when she was away. Besides Wynonna, they were her family. Waverly had known Doc and Dolls since the summer of her third year of high school, and Jeremy came along the year after that. Doc pretty much stayed at the homestead full time, but Jeremy was based in Vancouver outside of storm season, and no one was quite sure where Dolls went, though sometimes he did turn up for a few days in winter.
Over brunch, Waverly discovered three things about Nicole: firstly, she was born and raised in Ontario; secondly, she had a Bachelor of Science in Environmental and Physical Geography from Nipissing University; and thirdly, she had never been to Alberta until that day.
“Purgatory is kind of the armpit of Alberta,” Waverly said.
“More like the asshole,” Wynonna said.
“Could we please watch our potty mouths ‘round the table?” Doc requested.
“Purgatory is a bit of a hole but the town has its charms,” Jeremy chimed in.
“Yes, charms,” Dolls deadpanned. He looked at Waverly, and then at Nicole. “Hey, I have an idea. We’ve got a few days before we’re due to venture out. Waverly, why don’t you show Nicole around town? You know, make sure she knows her way around, and she knows where—and who —to steer clear of.”
“That sounds like a great idea,” Wynonna said. “If anyone’s an expert on this town, it’s Waverly.”
Waverly addressed Nicole. “I’d love to,” she said. “If you’re up for it, that is.”
Nicole shrugged. “Sure,” she said, almost nonchalantly. “Maybe tomorrow?”
Waverly tried not to react at Nicole’s apparent lack of enthusiasm.
Storm chasing? Nicole must be crazy. But to be fair, the summers at Algonquin were getting a little repetitive, and North Bay didn’t really have much in the way of affordable accommodation outside a university residence hall, of which she had become ineligible for, on account of graduating. So when Dolls messaged her after seeing her graduation photos on Facebook, Nicole decided that she was heading to Alberta.
Purgatory, Alberta, from the way Dolls described it, sounded like the towns that only existed in Westerns. And as Nicole drove through it, she thought that she could be convinced that she was actually on a film set, and that there would be a cinematic shootout happening as soon as her car had vacated the premises.
Dolls lived on the Earp homestead, which was twenty-five minutes from the township. Soon after she arrived, she met the rest of the team. Wynonna was one of the Earps who owned the homestead, and was a weather photographer by trade. She was snarky and abrasive, but was the clear leader of the crew. Doc Holliday was a meteorology professor and an Earp family friend. He was American, with a sweet Georgian drawl, and had the most expressive eyes that Nicole had ever seen. Jeremy was a self-described summer intern from a well-off Vancouver family. He had just finished his third year of university, and seemed to always be jittery, either because he was nervous or because he was excited. And finally, there was Rosita, who had arrived that evening from Chilliwack. She was a PhD student with all of Wynonna’s attitude and all of Jeremy’s passion. Nicole couldn’t help but be impressed by her.
But the person on the Earp homestead who intrigued her the most was Waverly, the younger Earp sister. Nicole wasn’t entirely sure what Waverly did, only that she was away at university for most of the year, and that everyone else seemed to be especially fond of her. Dolls didn’t mention whether she was a storm chaser or not.
She had the time to catch up with Dolls that evening, having beers together on a misshapen wooden bench—crudely fashioned by Doc Holliday, Dolls had told her—outside the barn. Dolls was not the most lively conversationalist, but his stories about his life on the road had always enchanted Nicole, and for his part, he was a hell of a good listener, even when it came to Nicole’s less exciting adventures.
“How are you finding the Earp girls?” Dolls asked her. And then he continued without waiting for a response. “They’re an interesting pair, huh? Couldn’t be any more different. But you know, one could learn a lot about loyalty by watching those two.”
“Wynonna’s a riot,” Nicole said.
“Wait until you spend time with her after a good chase,” Dolls said, smiling fondly at the thought.
“What about Waverly?” Nicole asked. “Does she chase too?”
Dolls took a swig of his beer as he shook his head. “Nah, she doesn’t,” he said. “Waverly is the brainy one. She studies history over in Calgary. Spends her summers reading and writing and researching. She’s got no interest in chasing at all, which Wynonna is happy about.”
“Well, she wants better things for Waverly. None of this travelling around in a hot car for weeks on end trying to chase things you shouldn’t even go near,” Dolls said.
“Are you trying to make me regret coming here?” Nicole teased.
Dolls laughed, short and sharp. “Of course not, Nic,” he said. “I keep coming back to this place, you know. So it can’t be that bad.”
“Sure, Dolls, but you’re not exactly the kind of person who enjoys nice places,” Nicole said. “You couldn’t stand Toronto.”
Dolls shrugged. “It was too busy and the drivers were shit.”
“For pretentious hipsters. Portland for broke white people,” Dolls said.
“I would have loved it there if I could afford it.”
Nicole nodded. “So true.”
“You and Waverly should spend time together. I think you two would get along,” Dolls said decisively. “She’s real tight with Jeremy and Rosita, but those two live and breathe chasing so much, sometimes I think she’d rather not keep up. And really, she shouldn’t have to. It’s never going to be her thing.”
“I’m here to be a chaser, though,” Nicole said. Besides that, she was also a city kid who dreamt of being a park ranger . She doubted finding any common ground with Waverly.
“Doesn’t matter. You’re not gonna do chase for the rest of your life,” Dolls said. “You think Purgatory is a shithole? Wait till you see some of the places we’re going to. You need to have something to look forward to outside of chasing.”
Nicole took a drink of beer, then hastily wiped her mouth with her forearm. “What have you got to look forward to?” she asked.
“Getting to feel smug about the fact that those dickheads probably wouldn’t survive a single mission without me.”
While Waverly couldn’t figure out why she was nervous about it in the first place, but on Nicole’s third morning in Purgatory, she finally gathered the courage to invite her to see the town. She was pleasantly surprised when Nicole agreed.
Waverly was enjoying the beginning of her summer. The gang was back together and had settled into their usual dynamic comfortably. Last night, she managed to commandeer the living room to watch documentaries on Netflix with Jeremy and Rosita on Wynonna’s prized flatscreen TV. And that morning, she gave Dolls a hand in the kitchen, since they had given up hope on Wynonna preparing something halfway edible.
It was interesting how Nicole was making a space for herself in their group. She projected confidence, but never attempted to ingratiate herself. She was unfailingly polite, but there was a distance to her words. She talked with Dolls the most, but answered everyone’s questions with enough detail as to not be considered unfriendly. She asked questions in return, but never prodded.
Although Waverly was relieved that Nicole wasn’t the chummy type—she wouldn’t last long with Wynonna and Rosita otherwise—she couldn’t help but find her behaviour a little odd. It was as if Nicole was determined to be a temporary fixture on the team, on the homestead, and in Purgatory.
After breakfast—well, brunch, because nobody on the homestead got up early enough for breakfast—Waverly beckoned Nicole to get in her red Jeep. She got in the driver’s seat and off they went to town.
Waverly parked in front of Shorty’s, the town bar where she worked during high school. She mentioned this to Nicole, who responded with a “Huh,” and a questioning brow, as if to tacitly accept that Purgatory’s townsfolk were so classless as to employ a baby-faced minor at their bar.
They walked around, and Waverly pointed out the grocery store (“Their range is crap, honestly, most people here would rather drive to Calgary to do their shopping.”), the diner (“On the weekends people alternate between there and Shorty’s.”), the real estate agency (“The saddest office in town.”), and the library (“When I was eight, it was my favourite place in the world.”).
“Dolls mentioned that you’re a bit of a historian,” Nicole said.
Waverly giggled and tucked a lock of her hair behind her ears. “He said that? Well, I’m trying to be,” she said.
“What kind of history are you into?” Nicole asked.
“All sorts, but I have a fondness for the frontiers. I think it’s growing up in this place that really cemented it,” Waverly said. “I just finished my second year, but I’m already thinking that I should specialise in the history of women and children on the Canadian prairies.”
Nicole was examining Waverly’s face from under the brim of her Toronto Bluejays cap. “Yeah?” she prompted.
“We’ve always mythologised and romanticised this idea of the western frontiers, but those stories always starred men. But they weren’t the only ones living here,” Waverly said. “I want my research to centre around the lives of the women and children, of the families, who came to settle here.”
“Hell of a place to settle,” Nicole said.
“I know, right?” Waverly said. She decided she wanted to know more about Nicole. “What’s Toronto like?”
“You’ve never been?”
Waverly shrugged. “I haven’t been anywhere much.”
Nicole shoved her hands in the pockets of her shorts. “It’s a big city. It’s loud and energetic most of the time, and there’s always something to do. Anything you want to do, it’s right there at your fingertips,” she said. “I love it there. Great place for a kid to grow up, get some street smarts.”
“And yet here you are, preparing to be a park ranger,” Waverly said.
“I just love the outdoors a whole lot more,” Nicole said. “But can’t a person love both?”
“Of course they can,” Waverly said.
“It’s just, all that land, you know… Pretty much untouched. Well, not untouched , but as close as it gets in the twenty-first century,” Nicole said. A small, indulgent laugh escaped her lips. “I think I’m one of those people who romanticise the frontier.”
“Frontier would imply that you are aiming to conquer it, tame it,” Waverly said. “I don’t think you’re that sort.”
Nicole shook her head. “No,” she agreed. “No, I’m not.”
It was amazing, the way they all managed to fit in the Earps’ small dining room, around their small dining table, for three meals a day. There was no bickering—all right, Wynonna was always bickering with someone, but it was never about what was going on at the dining table. Bumping elbows was a rare occurrence, and everyone said please when they wanted something to be passed to them. This was novel to Nicole. She only had one sibling growing up, which left her sorely out of her depth at Nipissing when it came to communal facilities. And Nipissing was a small school, by Ontario’s standards.
A couple of days out from their first chase, they had their first team meeting after dinner. Nicole had helped Wynonna clean the table and put the dishes away, and then everyone returned. Jeremy and Dolls had their laptops, Doc had a yellow legal pad, and Rosita was tapping away on her phone.
The meeting began with Dolls explaining the transport situation. “I know last year we did three vehicles but I think this year we’re gonna go with two vehicles. Having someone drive solo got us in some potentially hairy situations,” he said.
Doc raised a tentative hand. “Forgive me for interrupting, Xavier,” Nicole had quickly found out that Doc was the only one with the audacity to directly address Dolls by his first name, “But now that Nicole is with us, doesn’t that mean that no would be driving by themselves if we had the same three-vehicle setup?”
Dolls nodded. “Well, Doc, I just in the interest of everyone’s safety, I think three team members in each vehicle would be best, and I’m implementing a policy that someone has to be up with the driver at all times while another person catches up on sleep to prepare for their driving shift,” he said. “With our plans to go even further north this year, it’s going to be a lot of driving.” He looked around the table at the rest of the team. “That sound good?”
They murmured in assent.
“Uh, just letting you know, that was my idea,” Waverly piped up. For some reason unbeknownst to Nicole, she sat down for the meeting too, sandwiched between Jeremy and Rosita, right across the table from Nicole. But she was holding a thick book, which was closed around the index and middle fingers of her left hand as she spoke to them.
Dolls shrugged. “Yes, it was Waverly’s idea.”
“Attagirl,” Wynonna said.
Waverly smiled and then turned her attention back to her book.
Nicole couldn’t help but watch her. In fact, she ended up tuning out the meeting to watch her. Despite the chatter around her, Waverly actually seemed to be genuinely reading. Every couple of minutes, she would flip the page. She would push her glasses up her nose. She would tuck her hair behind her ears. She would mouth a sentence silently, while nodding in agreement. Not even Jeremy and Rosita reaching for the bowl of jellybeans that Wynonna was hogging was disturbing her.
“Hey, Haughstuff, you all right?” Nicole snapped out of her Waverly-induced trance, thanks to Wynonna’s ridiculous nickname for her. “You were spacing there,” Wynonna told her. “Want a beer? Whiskey?”
Waverly looked up from her book. “Whiskey doesn’t solve everything, Wynonna,” she said.
“It solves most things,” Wynonna said, but she didn’t get up to pour herself a glass.
Rosita reached across Waverly to touch Jeremy’s arm. “Jeremy, maybe you should ask Nicole your question again.” She gave Nicole a pointed look. “I mean, now that she’s paying attention.”
“I was just wondering if you had any special dietary requirements,” Jeremy said. “I know it seems like we eat anything here at the homestead, but it’s actually because we’re here and comfortable and able to source the ingredients that we need -”
“He’s saying he’s vegetarian and Dolls is like, caveman or something,” Rosita said.
“Paleo,” Dolls said.
“You drink beer, though,” Wynonna said.
Dolls simply shrugged in response.
“Anyway,” Jeremy continued, “Things will be way different on the road, so sometimes we gotta plan ahead.”
“He means we’re going to be eating like shit every night,” Rosita said. “I mean, diner food’s all right. Unless you’re vegetarian.”
“Or paleo,” Wynonna said.
“So, is there anything you can’t eat or not?” Jeremy asked.
Nicole shook her head. “I’ve got an iron stomach,” she said.
This made Doc Holliday burst out laughing. “Nicole Haught, where is the most backasswards hicktown you’ve been to?” he asked.
“Probably this place,” she admitted, which earned a laugh from everyone, including Waverly.
“It’s not your stomach that gets tested on the road,” Doc began.
Wynonna held a finger up. “Sometimes it is your stomach,” she said.
Rosita looked at her incredulously. “Who the fuck decides to have the salmon in Libby , Montana ?”
Wynonna’s finger stayed in the air. “That was me, yes, and I paid for it.”
“It is not your stomach that gets tested on the road,” Doc repeated loudly, his voice carrying across the table. “It’s your resolve, especially on a diet of beef jerky, gas station hotdogs, and diner coffee.”
“Or, in Jeremy’s case, just working through a head of lettuce every day,” Rosita deadpanned.
Dolls rolled his eyes. “Nic hasn’t got any special food requirements. Can we adjourn this meeting now? It’s getting very hot in this room, and some of us,” he glared at Wynonna, “probably need another shower.”
“I was working out in the fields today,” Wynonna said.
“What fields?” Doc asked.
And with that, the meeting was over. The guys went to the barn, except for Jeremy, who promised that he would watch Netflix with Waverly. Wynonna retreated to her bedroom, grumbling about how she never got a turn on her “big ass TV”, as Jeremy and Waverly made themselves comfortable in the living room. And so Nicole followed Rosita upstairs.
Their bedrooms were right next to each other, with a bathroom in between. Rosita, hand on her doorknob, paused and turned to Nicole. “So it’s you, me and Doc in his Cadillac. I hope you don’t get carsick,” she said.
Rosita laughed. “Keep up, Haught,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll be fine on the road. Without the distractions.” She said that last part in a lowered voice. Nicole wasn’t sure if it was her usual snarky humour or if she was threatening to blackmail her for staring at Waverly.
“Uh, okay,” Nicole responded.
Rosita laughed again. “You don’t mind if I take first shift in the bathroom first, do you?”
“Not at all,” Nicole said.
“Thanks,” Rosita said, before disappearing into her bedroom.
Nicole entered her own bedroom and sat on the edge of her bed. Had she been so transparent, so unabashed in the way she had been watching Waverly? Why had she been watching Waverly in the first place? Yes, perhaps Nicole thought that she was a little odd for choosing to sit in on a storm chasing meeting while reading a book at the same time, but wasn’t everyone on the homestead a little odd anyway? And Jeremy, he was a lot odd.
No one made a fuss about anybody here. They just let them be. Nicole resolved to start doing the same.