The city of Regina was imposing in a way that Yellowknife and Whitehorse hadn't been. They had been rougher towns, built around mining and logging. With undisguised fascination, Benton looked out the window of the bus at an impressive white building crowned with a tower, probably some kind of government building. He supposed he must look like a hopeless country boy. Of course, that was what he was.
Depot, when he reached it, was a confusing mass of buildings and people, most of whom were in some kind of uniform and heading purposefully in one direction or another. He spotted another young man on his own, standing against a wall and looking lost.
"Are you a new recruit, too?" Benton asked.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm new." The other recruit smiled tentatively. His hair was sandy brown and his face lightly freckled.
"Do you know where we're supposed to go?"
"No, sorry." Benton reached his hand out. "I'm Benton Fraser."
"Well, I suppose we'd better find out." Benton stepped out from the wall.
"Excuse me?" he said to a uniformed man who wasn't walking quite as fast as the others. "We're new recruits. Do you know where we're supposed to go?"
The man smiled perfunctorily. "Welcome to Depot. Turn right just after this house and you'll see the office where you're supposed to enroll."
"Thank you kindly."
The man strode off, and Benton went down the street with Tommy just behind him. At the indicated house, a woman behind a desk received them and checked off their names against a list.
"Cadet Meyer, Cadet Fraser, please go over to Supplies. You'll be issued clothes and other necessities." She handed them a map of the grounds.
Unexpectedly, Benton's belly flipped at being addressed as 'Cadet Fraser', although he couldn't say why, exactly. Perhaps it was the formality of it--he was used to Ben or Benton, or sometimes 'that Fraser boy', from some neighbor who thought he wasn't listening.
The rest of the day passed in a whirl of new faces and information. The troop in which he and Tommy were to train was shown the Depot grounds (mess, driving range, parade ground, shooting range, and a host of other buildings). There was a formal reception with a speech by the commanding officer of Depot, and a display of Mounties in full RCMP dress uniform standing motionless at parade rest, which Benton fully realized was meant to impress the new cadets, but which impressed him nevertheless. He'd rarely seen his father or Buck in a dress uniform.
They were all to bunk together in one large dormitory, 22 of them in close quarters, except for the single woman in the troop, who was to have her own small room. The common sleeping quarters were to promote group identity and also to teach them to do without luxuries. At least Benton had no problem with the latter.
Dinner was served in the mess hall, a large room filled with loud conversation and the smell of pea soup. Benton fell into line, waiting to be served. Around him, the others in his troop were making small talk, the kinds of things you said when you met strangers who you meant to get to know. The cadet in front of him was already talking with someone, so Benton turned to face the next in line.
"Hi," Benton said. "What's your name?"
"Neil Jackson," the other man said. He was tall and sturdy, with brown hair flopping over his forehead and a disconcertingly handsome smile. Benton looked away to disguise his reaction, because he was fairly sure that thought wasn't appropriate here.
"I'm Benton Fraser. Pleased to meet you." He reached out his hand.
Neil raised his eyebrows, but shook Benton's hand. "Formal, aren't you? Where are you from?"
"I'm from Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories."
"So I guess you guys have polar bears walking the streets up there?"
Benton drew breath to say that no, they did not, but Neil continued. "Nah, just kidding. I'm from Toronto."
By then, they had reached the kitchen workers who were ladling out food, and Benton had received a bowl of steaming pea soup with pork. He buttered himself a piece of bread as well, and went in search of somewhere to sit. Neil had taken the last seat at the end of a table, and Benton sat down at another one.
That night, Benton lay with his eyes closed, waiting for sleep to come. He could hear the small sounds of other people in the room: breathing, sheets whispering and a bed creaking as someone turned over, the slight snoring from the bed by the door.
He had never slept in a room with someone else before, except for Eric, the rare times they slept together in a bed. When he was little, he must have slept beside his mother, he supposed, but he didn't remember that.
Benton turned, as if lying on his other side would be any more conducive to sleep. The room was warm, and he turned his pillow over to feel cool fabric against his cheek. But his body heat soon warmed it again, and he sighed.
He didn't know what time it was. The curtains were drawn shut, and he could probably not have told the time from the sky here anyway--it was darker further south, at least between the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Benton turned resolutely onto his back, breathing slowly and trying to empty his mind. He wondered what Eric was doing--no, don't think. Sleep. Please, let me sleep.
Benton started awake, his heart racing.
"You have twenty minutes to shower and get ready. Inspection at 7:20."
Around him, the others scrambled out of bed, grabbing their towels and heading for the showers. Benton did the same, dashing his head under cold water to wake up, and toweling it off as he hurried back.
He threw his clothes on and straightened his sheets, tucking the corners the way they'd been told to yesterday. The door opened again when he'd just folded his sleeping shirt and put it on one of the shelves beside the bed.
"Attention!" The voice cut through the din and chatter of the room, and Benton jumped up and stood stiffly by his bed. The man who entered was their deportment teacher, Corporal Delorme, whom they had seen briefly yesterday at the formal reception. He began to walk the length of the room, pausing to find fault with everyone.
"I thought you were shown how to tuck your sheets yesterday, Cadet Meyer?"
"I'm sorry. I'll do it again."
"You're sorry, what?"
"You're sorry, sir. Twenty push-ups."
Benton winced inwardly with sympathy for Tommy, but he wasn't sure he'd fare better himself. Corporal Delorme found something to complain about at every bed.
Benton kept his eyes fixedly to the front when Corporal Delorme reached him. Out of the corner of his eyes, Benton saw him glance at the bed without seeming to find fault, but Benton didn't relax yet. Then Corporal Delorme looked him in the eyes. He had a trimmed mustache and glasses that framed his cold gray eyes, and he wore a brown uniform, not the red dress uniform from yesterday.
"So you're Corporal Fraser's son, eh? I suppose you think that makes you special."
Benton felt his cheeks flush. Why did he have to say that? And in front of the others, too.
"No, sir," he chanced, although he wasn't sure he was expected to say anything.
"Well, you won't have an easier time than anyone else, I can tell you that. And comb your hair, Cadet. It's standing straight up."
Benton flushed even redder.
"Twenty push-ups," Corporal Delorme said, and moved on to the next bed.
Benton got down on the floor in humiliation.
They began in the morning with deportment classes, learning to march and maneuver and stand at attention. This was harder to do correctly than it looked, and Benton grew frustrated at his own mistakes. They hadn't been issued any uniforms yet, and he tried not to be disappointed by this.
"You'll earn your uniforms as you go," Corporal Delorme explained. "When you can all march and maneuver to my satisfaction and you've passed your first firearms test, you'll earn the first part of the brown uniform. But for the hat and boots, and the dress uniform, you'll have to wait." His disparaging look at their formation made it clear that they had a long way to go.
In the afternoon, they had a firearms class, and after some theory and stern words about gun safety, they practiced marksmanship. Benton was used to hunting at home, and he aimed at the target the same way that he would when he was shooting a deer: he took a deep breath, then focused his whole attention on the target, letting it fill his mind. Then he let go.
After five shots, all of which hit the target squarely in the center, he looked up to find that everyone else had stopped what they were doing, and were staring at him.
"That's very good," the firearms teacher said, coming up to Benton. He was a burly man in his fifties with close-cropped hair. "Have you handled one of these before?"
"No, sir," Benton replied. "Just a hunting rifle."
"Well, must be natural talent, then." He nodded approvingly, and Benton felt his cheeks heat at the compliment. Being singled out for praise was almost as uncomfortable as being singled out for punishment, and Benton put the safety on the gun and stepped away.
At dinner, Tommy Meyer sat down next to him. "You're a really good shot," he said.
"Well, thank you. I used to hunt, at home. Where are you from?" Benton asked, changing the topic of conversation.
"I'm from Winkler. My dad's a constable at the detachment there." From someone else, this might have been bragging, but Tommy said it with a sigh.
"Yeah. He really wants me to follow in his footsteps, you know?"
"So you don't really want to be a Mountie?" Benton asked, wondering at the way Tommy was willing to reveal so much of himself to someone who was, after all, a relative stranger.
"Well... I don't know. But it's hard to say no to him. And I don't know if I'll really be any good at this."
Benton pondered what to say to this, and drank some water. "I suppose you'll find out? I mean, the worst that can happen is that you drop out. And then you can do something that you want instead."
Tommy winced at the words 'drop out', but then nodded. "Yeah, I guess. Anyway, what about your dad? I mean, we all heard what Corporal Delorme said. And Corporal Fraser is famous. I mean, I'd probably have heard of him even if my dad weren't a Mountie. After that business with the Russian spies in the Beaufort Sea, he was in all the papers. He must be really proud of you now that you're going to Depot too, right?"
"Um," Benton said, looking down into his plate. He'd give rather a lot not to be having this conversation, but he had to say something. "I don't know," he finally mumbled.
"You don't know?"
"No. Well. I grew up with my grandparents. He wasn't around much."
"Oh. All right." It was Tommy's turn to look like he didn't know what to say.
Benton asked him to pass the salt instead.
If shooting came easily for Benton, the driving classes did not.
He had a driver's license, of course, because that was required to apply for Depot. But in Inuvik, obtaining a license wasn't much more than a mere formality. He'd just gone up the Issuing Office, said that he was seventeen and that he wanted a license. The official had asked him a couple of questions, told him to drive up the gravel road and back again, and that had been that.
Inuvik hadn't even had a highway to connect it to the rest of the country until Benton was eighteen. Driving supplies to his grandparents' cabin with dog sleds, snowmobiles and an occasional borrowed pick-up truck had in no way prepared him for driving in a city.
There were all sorts of spoken and unspoken rules he had to follow, and he didn't know them. One night, he stayed up very late memorizing a book on traffic rules, determined to follow them to the letter. The next day, he did somewhat better, despite his lack of sleep. Still, he was tired and downcast when he came back to the dormitory after dinner.
There was a piece of paper on his bed, and he wondered a little about that. Despite the crowdedness of the room, or perhaps because of it, a small circle of privacy surrounded each bed. Benton wouldn't dream of intruding on the beds on either side of his.
The paper turned out to be an envelope, addressed to him in his grandmother's handwriting. It had only been a few days since he had left Inuvik, but it felt like weeks and weeks, and he blinked, suddenly overcome by homesickness.
Benton curled up on his bed to read the letter.
I hope that you are doing well at Depot, and that it is all that you wished it would be. I am writing this the evening that you left, and the cabin feels emptier after your departure than I thought it would.
George and I might not have been the best caretakers for you, I admit. After Robert, I never thought I should be a mother again. Even at the best of times, I'm afraid I was never more than adequate at taking care of small children. But there was no one else, and we tried to do right by you.
Benton blinked, unable to keep reading in front of the others. He clutched the letter and hurried to the relative privacy of the bathroom, where he locked himself in a stall and continued to read.
Before you left, you asked me about the time that I ran away from home (trust George to tell you about that). It was both a difficult and an exhilarating time for me, and I know that it isn't easy to be alone in a large city. I hope that it won't be too hard for you. I have no worries about your performance in class, because I know you will apply yourself. But if I may give you a bit of advice, it would be this: do not think you need to conform to your peers in every particular. Hold true to yourself, Benton.
He had never known his grandmother to speak to him quite this way. She was often outspoken to the point of bluntness, but rarely about personal things. The rest of the letter contained a few stories from her time at school in Toronto that he read with great interest, an account of the new additions to the library that had come up since he left, and greetings from his grandfather.
Benton tucked the letter under his pillow before he went to bed, ignoring the jibe about whether it was a letter from his girlfriend.
Benton had never been part of a class at school for any long period of time. Sometimes he attended school in Inuvik, but for the most part he had been home-schooled, and he wasn't used to having classmates.
Before he knew it, the troop had gone past the stage of getting to know each other and settled into its own social pattern. Some people always sat together in the mess hall, some never talked to each other, and some were popular. Neil, the cadet from Toronto he had spoken to on the first day, seemed to be among the popular ones, always at the center of a group of other cadets, joking and talking. The sole woman in the group, Audrey, was friendly but kept her distance from the others, no doubt partly because she had her own room. Benton envied her that.
Aside from Tommy, Benton had also befriended Adam Lockshin, who was from Yellowknife and had done the entrance tests at the same time as Benton. They were both northerners, which was enough for a certain camaraderie. Adam loved winter sports such as skiing and skating, but beyond that they had little in common.
Their teachers set a hard tempo, and Benton was constantly tired--more mentally than physically, although there was no lack of physical training. On the day they finally earned their boots, they were required to spend the whole evening polishing them to the correct shine and color in time for inspection the next morning. Benton had planned to do some reading that night--he had brought a few books, but seldom had the time to read them--but he resigned himself to polishing boots instead.
And it was in fact satisfying to feel the supple leather under his hands, to take in the way it smelled as he rubbed polish into it with a rag. His father had boots like these, of course, though he didn't often wear them except at formal occasions. While Benton worked, a memory surfaced from the time before his mother died. His father's boots were kept in a wooden chest, where his mother also kept her scraps of fabric for mending clothes. Sometimes, his mother would let him play with the bits of fabric, sorting and folding them. Some were sturdy wool, some thin and fine cotton, and they came in many colors and patterns: plain, striped, plaid, and his particular favorite, which had little blue birds on it.
The memory made him smile to himself as he worked the leather. When he went to sleep that night, the whole room smelled of boot polish.
The next morning, they were to present themselves for inspection. The only thing they lacked now for a full uniform was the Stetson hat, and they were all determined to earn that, too, as soon as possible.
In the general melee that was the dormitory in the morning, Benton didn't notice until he was just about to rush off to breakfast that the laces on his boots were gone. For a moment he just stared, then he wondered who on earth would take his laces. They had each been given their own pair yesterday.
As he pulled the boots on anyway, he wondered what Corporal Delorme would say. He didn't look forward to hearing it. Briefly, he considered using the laces of his hiking boots, but they were the wrong color, and would probably make the infraction even worse. And the supply office wasn't open this early in the morning, so there was no chance of getting a new pair before inspection. Benton painstakingly smoothed his hair down, making sure that not a strand of it was standing up, as if that would compensate for his missing laces.
They all hurried to the parade grounds in a loose group, then snapped into a line for inspection, backs straight and eyes forward. As Corporal Delorme came closer, Benton felt his stomach roil in apprehension.
"Cadet Fraser! What do you mean by this?" Corporal Delorme said in a cold voice.
"I'm sorry, sir."
"If you can't even keep track of the laces on your boots, I'm not sure you should have received them in the first place."
It wasn't a question, and Benton said nothing. Behind him, he heard smothered laughter, and his cheeks heated in shame.
"Ten laps around the field," the Corporal said.
"Serves him right, the teacher's pet," someone whispered behind him, and someone else sniggered. Benton couldn't tell who.
He ran, and felt the gazes of his classmates on his back. Why would someone do that to him? It wasn't fair. And he wasn't a teacher's pet--Corporal Delorme disliked him, and he was impossible to please, no matter how much Benton tried.
Sweating in the warm sun, Benton ran. Since there were no laces in his boots, they were loose. They chafed at the heels, and by the seventh lap, there was a blister on his left foot.
Later, in the queue for lunch, Neil turned to him, ducking out of his conversation with a group of other talking, laughing cadets. "Hey, Fraser, you find your laces yet?"
"No," Benton said. He couldn't tell if Neil was asking because he was concerned, or if he was mocking him in some way. He hoped it was the former.
"It was probably just a joke, okay? Lighten up." Neil flashed that white smile at him.
"I didn't think it was funny," Benton replied stiffly.
They had a class in police procedures and the legal underpinnings of the profession in the afternoon. Benton shoved the morning's incident to the back of his mind, and concentrated on the class.
Audrey came up to him in the break. She had reddish hair, cut short, and was compactly built and athletic. Benton liked her, but hadn't spoken with her much.
"I'm sorry about that thing they did with the laces," she said. "Some people seem to be stuck in junior high or something."
"Oh. Well, it's okay. I went to Supplies and got a new pair."
"No, it's not okay. But I just wanted you to know that not everyone thought it was funny."
"Thanks," Benton said, and meant it.
When he got back to the dormitory that evening, he sat down on his bed and let his shoulders slump. He took off his boots and lay back on the bed, closing his eyes. Then he sat up again and bent down to take the new laces out of his boots. Glancing around to see that no one was watching, Benton tucked them under the pillow, where his grandmother's letter already lay.
He hadn't replied to her letter yet. He meant to, of course, but with the schedule they had, he'd simply been too tired. But now he took out pen and paper and began to write, a little haltingly at first, but then the words flowed. It was strange--he'd never found his grandmother very easy to confide in, but it was somehow easier when he was writing instead.
He wrote until there was a hiss from the next bed over, "Hey, Fraser, turn out the light."
"Sorry," Benton mumbled. He put the letter aside and flipped the switch on his bedside lamp, plunging the room into darkness.
Benton posted the letter the next day.
His grandmother had always kept up a correspondence with many people. From the time he was little, he remembered her writing letters in the evening after the chores were done, while his grandfather played the guitar (at least until his fingers grew too arthritic). Letters for her would arrive with the post, some of them from as far away as China. He liked the thought of his letter reaching her the same way.
But he didn't write to Eric. Whatever was between them, it was nothing that he knew how to write down.
That day, they got a test on arrest procedures back. The teacher handed it back to Benton with a smile and a nod, saying, "Good work, Cadet."
Benton opened the test, saw that he had scored full points, and closed it again. A little glow of accomplishment warmed his stomach, as much from the teacher's praise as from his score on the test.
In the desk next to his, Adam was frowning at the red marks on his test. "Man, that was a hard one. How did you do, Fraser?"
Benton shrugged. "Well enough, I suppose."
He'd learned not to provoke envy from the others. Not that he would have bragged--his grandparents had brought him up better than that--but he didn't like being called the teacher's pet, so it was easier to avoid mentioning his test results.
One could adapt to almost anything, and Benton was used to the close quarters in the dormitory by now. He didn't have much in the way of possessions to take up space, and the full days left him tired enough to sleep despite all the people around him.
But he grew increasingly sexually frustrated. One morning, Benton awoke from a vivid dream in which he was fully naked and Neil was standing behind him with one hand around his waist and the other around his erection, stroking him while the whole troop could see.
Benton curled up on his side so that no one would see his arousal, and buried his face in the blankets in shame. He wasn't even sure that he liked Neil, even if he was attractive. Why did he have to dream that way about him? And in front of the whole troop? He felt like anyone could see what he was thinking, and in any case he couldn't get up yet, not like this. He bit his lip in frustration. If he had been alone, he could have...but he was not alone.
Benton wasn't stupid, and there was certainly nothing wrong with his hearing. He'd often heard, at night, the faint rhythmic slide of an arm against the sheets, shallow controlled breathing, a sudden intake of breath. A moment of stillness. Then blankets rustling as someone relaxed and turned over, perhaps wiped themselves off. But Benton simply couldn't bring himself to do it, not here, where anyone could see or hear him. It was something private.
Most of the others were out of their beds by now, and he had to get up or risk being late. The thought of the verbal flogging Corporal Delorme would give him was enough to lessen his arousal, and he took a couple of deep breaths and got up.
He went to the showers, looking down at the floor to avoid meeting anyone's eyes.
"Hey Fraser, look where you're going!" Of course, it was Neil bumping into him, with just a towel around his waist. Benton picked up the things they had dropped and handed Neil his shampoo bottle back.
"I'm sorry." Benton averted his burning face from the sight of Neil's bare, muscular chest, and fled into the showers.
"Finally!" Adam said, throwing his newly acquired Stetson into the air and catching it again.
They had done their mid-term physical exam today, and only one of them had failed, a cadet from Edmonton that Benton didn't know well. Failure meant instant expulsion, and all the rest of them were relieved to the point of giddiness.
They had also earned their Stetsons, and Benton put his on with a sense of satisfaction. Quite apart from its symbolic value, it also shaded his head from the sun. He was pleasantly tired from the running and physical exertion of the exam, and he stretched his arms above his head, feeling loose-limbed and happy.
Beside him, Tommy was smiling broadly.
"So you're happy that you passed?" Benton asked him.
"Yeah, I am. Maybe I do want this, after all. I certainly don't want to fail at it, anyway." He spun his hat on one finger, grinning.
"Let's go into town to celebrate," Neil said, and there was a chorus of enthusiastic support for the idea.
Tommy turned to Benton. "You're coming, right?"
Benton had a flashback to his time among the loggers that summer. They'd just received their salaries for the month, and were going into the nearest town to have fun. But it turned out that they weren't just going to drink--some of them were also planning to buy sex from prostitutes. This was so alien to Benton's whole upbringing that he hadn't been able to keep from speaking his mind, and as a result, the whole group had shunned him.
But this situation wasn't like that, was it? There was no reason for him not to go into town with the others, and surely if he didn't, he would be on the outside again. And Benton did want to be a part of the group.
"Yes," he said. "I'm coming."
They'd been kept busy at Depot, so he hadn't even gone into Regina since he arrived. The city by night was a different creature, and Benton was reminded again what a country boy he was. He'd never even been in a real bar before. There was one rough bar in Inuvik where the oil workers went, but he had never been inside it, and the restaurant that also served alcohol was nothing like this place.
At first glance, it didn't strike him as a place where anyone would go to have fun. The air was smoky and heavy with the breath of too many bodies. The deep bass of the music vibrated through his bones, making it hard to hear anything else.
Benton followed the others in, and stood awkwardly while they ordered at the bar.
Adam raised his beer to Benton and grinned. "What're you having, Fraser?"
"I'm not...I mean, I don't know. I don't usually drink."
"Oh, come on. We're celebrating, right? You got to have something to drink."
And he would, Benton supposed. He'd come here to be part of the group, and everyone else was drinking. Besides, it might help him--alcohol was supposed to make you more sociable (when it didn't make you depressed and abusive and give you liver failure, his mind added, thinking of his grandparents talking about the evils of alcoholism).
"All right," Benton said, and ordered a beer. He'd tried beer before, and liked the taste of it--rich and bitter and sweet all at once.
After half a glass, he felt a pleasant warmth in his stomach, and his limbs felt loose and easy. Though of course, that could be psychosomatic--he hadn't drunk very much yet. He finished the glass, listening to Adam and Phil, another cadet, and sometimes joining in.
He looked at the crowd of people in the dimly lit bar. They were mostly young, although older than him. Benton happened to catch the eye of a young woman, who smiled and deliberately made her way towards him.
"Hi. Are you a student at the Mountie school?" Her hair was curly, and her eyes looked huge with make-up.
"Yes, I am. How could you tell?"
"The hat kind of tipped me off." She laid her hand on his arm and smiled.
Benton twitched nervously. He could see Adam grinning and giving him a thumbs-up behind her back.
"Do you like to dance?" she said.
"Um," Benton stalled. It would be impolite to refuse, he supposed.
She leaned in close, and her breath smelled of beer.
"Hey, come on. I wouldn't say no to you." The softness of her breasts pressed against his arm.
Benton blushed hotly. He shrank back against the bar counter, his whole body stiff with embarrassment and contradicting responses.
"I. No," he stammered, too mortified to think of a graceful way out of this.
She pulled back a little and shrugged. "Too bad."
Turning around, she made her way to a group of other young women, probably her friends.
Benton couldn't hear what they were saying, but she pointed back at him, and they all laughed. He wished he could sink through the floor.
"What, she wasn't your type?" Phil said. "I sure wouldn't have turned her down."
"Well, maybe he's got someone at home," Adam said.
Benton nodded, grateful for the excuse. And he wasn't lying--he did still care for Eric, though he didn't know if they would ever be together that way again.
"Anyway, that was good, right?" Adam said, gesturing to Benton's empty beer glass.
"Yes, it was," Benton said, and he was surprised to find that it was true.
"So you should have some more. Or wait, let's order whiskey. We don't get to go into town every day." He had turned to the bartender before Benton had a chance to say no, although he didn't know if he would have.
The yellow liquid looked harmless in its small glass. Benton took a tentative sip, and coughed. People drank this for fun? It burned his mouth, but he resolutely took a larger swallow.
"Yeah, that's it, Fraser! Now drink the rest of it."
Benton did, and blinked his watering eyes. The alcohol spread like tendrils of warmth along his arms and legs, and he had the strangest sense of some knot within him loosening.
Benton came slowly to wakefulness, feeling as if he was fighting his way out of some muddled, heavy dream. His head hurt. His mouth tasted terrible, and his eyelids stuck together. When he rubbed his eyes and opened them, the light pierced his head painfully, and he closed them again.
Benton chased the tail-end of his thoughts, feeling sure that he had done something horribly wrong, but unable to remember what it was. He felt queasy.
Opening his eyes again carefully, shading them with his hand, he saw the familiar dormitory at Depot. Yes. Last night, he'd gone out with the others, drinking. This was what a hangover felt like.
Water. He needed to drink. Benton went to the bathroom, wincing at the throbbing behind his eyes. He drank his fill from the faucet and then relieved himself.
Suddenly panicked, he wondered what time it was--was he late for class? But in the dormitory, about half the beds were still occupied. They had today off. Benton glanced at his watch on the bedside shelf, which stood at nine thirty in the morning. He had almost never slept so long before, but with a groan, he lay down on the bed again.
What had he done last night?
He remembered the beer, and then the whiskey. And it hadn't stopped with one whiskey, oh no. He'd had one after the other, urged on by the other cadets. There had been the girl, and he thought that probably he ought to have danced with her. That would have been something the others would have found normal, instead of...He shied away from the thought, and went on.
It was true, the alcohol had made him more sociable. He remembered talking and laughing with the others in his troop, the words flowing easily, though he didn't remember the conversation. The music and the smoke hadn't disturbed him anymore, and there was no hesitation or awkwardness left in him.
Drinking had made him feel good. And he was never going to do it again.
Because at some point in the evening, he had been talking with Neil, who was telling him a story. Benton had no idea anymore what it had been about, and perhaps he hadn't been listening to it in the first place. He only remembered Neil's expansive drunken gestures, and the dip in his throat between his collarbones. There had been sweat gleaming in it. They had stood close together in the crowded bar, and Neil was leaning towards him. Benton had thought about what the skin of Neil's throat would taste like.
Then he had leaned in and tasted it.
Benton pulled the sheets over his head. He wished he were anywhere but here, but most of all he wanted to be at home, with Eric. Not that it had been entirely uncomplicated, with them, but at least there had never been any shame in it.
Neil had thrust him away, and hissed in anger, "What the fuck are you doing?"
Benton had stood there, stunned and swaying and with the taste of salt on his lips.
"You damn fag! What, you think I'm one, too, huh? You're disgusting!" Neil had shoved him roughly into the bar and shouldered off into the crowd.
It was impossible to avoid anyone in the troop for long, no matter how he tried. Neil cornered him in the classroom after a lecture on the history of the RCMP. Benton had lingered behind when the others went to lunch, but that turned out to be the wrong strategy.
When Neil came in through the door and headed for Benton, he decided that perhaps it might improve matters if he apologized. He took a deep breath. "Neil. I'm sorry for what I did the other night. I know it's not an excuse, but I was drunk."
"Damn right you're sorry," Neil said and crowded him up against the wall. There was an ugliness in his face that made Benton wonder how he could have thought him attractive before. He took hold of Benton's arm and gripped him painfully above the elbow. "You know what they do to people like you? They get kicked out. Everyone thinks you're such a good cadet, with your famous daddy and your perfect record. I guess they don't know your dirty little secret, huh?"
Benton was silent. He'd apologized, and he didn't know what more to say. And he didn't even want to think about being expelled from Depot.
"What, you got nothing to say? You disgusting little faggot." Neil shook him.
Deep within Benton, a cold anger began to burn. He narrowed his eyes. "If I'm so disgusting, why are you standing so close to me?"
Neil recoiled, letting him go. "You just watch it, that's all I'm saying. Unless you want everyone to know." It sounded like a threat, but there was something in Neil's eyes that made Benton think he had won that round.
Benton went to lunch, but his anger still simmered. It wasn't fair. He'd known that homosexuality wasn't accepted, of course, but it had been mostly a theoretical knowledge, and the ugliness of Neil's words shocked him. His anger burned away some of the shame of that drunken evening, but by the end of the day, the ashes left him sad and tired.
He lay sleepless in his bed that night, staring into the darkness. He'd written to his grandmother about many of his difficulties and successes, but he couldn't bring himself to write to her about this.
Neil didn't tell anyone, but he did make Benton's life much harder. He was popular, and when he began to shun Benton, many of the others did the same.
Lately Benton had taken to walking by himself in the evening, going past the RCMP grounds and the houses and private property that surrounded it in many directions to find some woods where he could be alone. There were broadleaved trees--he thought they were maples, but it was hard to tell, since the leaves had long since dropped to the ground and were covered with snow. The forest was curiously open with its bare branches, leaving his view of the sky clear. Benton was used to the coniferous trees of the north, with their dark evergreen needles. He tried not to be homesick for the muskeg back home, and the open tundra where one could see for miles.
But that evening, it was overcast and the wind was whistling hard enough around the corners of the building to discourage even him. Benton hesitated in front of the door to the dormitory, through which he could hear laughter and loud voices.
"Fraser?" It was Audrey, whose door was ajar. "Do you want to come in?"
"Oh. Thank you." He went just inside the door, reluctant to intrude into her private space, even though he'd been invited. The room was small and spare, and wasn't much larger than the space occupied by his own bed.
"You can sit on the bed if you want," she said, and Benton sat down toward the foot of it. Audrey closed the door and sat down cross-legged against the wall at the far end of the bed.
"It's such a relief to have my own room," she said.
Benton smiled wryly. "Yes, I can imagine."
"Do you want tea? I always want tea in the evening, so I brought an electric kettle from home."
"Oh, yes. I would love that." Benton usually had tea this time at home, and and he'd missed it. Audrey fetched water, and they waited for it to heat. The homey ritual of making tea dispelled the slight awkwardness, and they were soon talking. Audrey was from Courtenay, a small town on Vancouver Island, and Benton told her about the summer he'd spent working in the forest in Prince Rupert, which was north along the coast.
"I miss my guitar," he said, thinking about playing on the street in Whitehorse. It seemed a long time ago now. He hadn't brought the guitar to Depot, because there would be no time or place to play.
"Oh, do you play? I play the clarinet, myself. Mostly classical music."
"Well, only a little. I like to sing, too. Folk music." They'd finished their tea a while ago, and Benton felt relaxed and easy--it was such a relief with simple, friendly conversation. But he supposed it was late now, and time to leave.
"You don't think it would be easier to, well, to be a part of the group if you lived in the dormitory with the others?" he asked. He'd been wondering about Audrey's aloofness.
"Maybe. But I doubt anyone could forget I was female, anyway."
"No, maybe they couldn't." He thought about it for a moment. "Although people can always find some way that you're different, if they want to."
"That's true, I suppose."
"Thanks for the tea," Benton said, and got up from bed. "I should sleep now, or I'll be tired tomorrow." They had physical training early the next morning.
"You're welcome." Audrey took the mug from him and set it on her shelf. "And, um. Thanks for not hitting on me. You don't know what a relief that is."
"Oh." Benton smiled in surprise. "You're welcome."
Some time before graduation, they had interviews to help their superiors decide where they'd be posted. They'd go wherever the RCMP needed them to be, of course, but their own wishes were taken into account whenever possible.
"The Northwest Territories," Benton said simply, when the question was asked.
"Why is that, Cadet? It's not a popular choice of posting," the sergeant behind the desk asked.
"It's what I know. It's my home, and I can speak Inuktitut. I'd be a good link between the RCMP and the Inuit, sir." That was part of the reason Benton wanted to be in the RCMP--he wanted to try to do something about the way native people were treated.
The sergeant nodded thoughtfully.
Benton added, "And I know the land. I can dogsled, and survive in the wild."
"You can dogsled?" The sergeant looked mildly amused.
"Well, for patrols."
"It's 1980, Cadet Fraser. We have snowmobiles nowadays."
Benton swallowed all the reasons why dogsleds were superior to snowmobiles. "Yes, sir."
Benton gave the buttons on his newly earned dress uniform one last shine. There. The whole uniform was spotless and ironed, and his boots almost glowed with the deep brown of polish.
Today was the day they would graduate. Yesterday, they'd had their last tests, and last night Benton had collapsed in his bed, boneless with the release of tension. Physical tests and written ones, and he had taken them one after the other, determined to excel. And he had--he felt sure of it.
Benton put his uniform on slowly, making sure each piece of clothing was arranged just right. It felt almost like a ritual: the lanyard, hanging just so, and the red tunic, with the collar tight and constricting around his neck. It wasn't comfortable, exactly, but then a dress uniform was made to look good, not be comfortable.
The whole troop was in a good mood, and the dormitory was a whirl of men half dressed in uniform or packing their things. Benton had already packed his bag and folded his blanket at the bottom of his bed.
The sky was a cloudless blue and their breath steamed in the cold air as they stood in rigid rows on the parade grounds, splendid in their new uniforms. There were speeches and salutes, and Constable Benton Fraser graduated as first in his troop.
After the ceremony, the formation dissolved as the parents and girlfriends and relatives of the new Mounties came to congratulate them. Each red uniform was the center of a cluster of people, eagerly talking and embracing.
Benton tried not to be disappointed. It was a long way down from Inuvik, and there had been a letter from his grandparents a few days ago, wishing him good luck. Plane tickets were expensive, and his grandfather had his rheumatism. And his father--no doubt he was busy. As he always seemed to be. But there was a tendril of envy in his heart when he watched the others, and however he tried, he couldn't root it out.
"Constable Fraser? Telegram for you." The secretary from the administrative office came up him, holding a piece of paper.
Benton took the paper with curiosity and a measure of apprehension, because who would send a telegram to him? He scanned it quickly.
DEEPLY REGRET TO INFORM YOU MARTHA FRASER DEAD IN HEART ATTACK STOP FUNERAL ON MARCH FIFTH STOP GEORGE FRASER
He read it again, almost refusing to believe the message. He'd had a letter from her only the other day. And his grandfather was the one whose health was poor--Martha Fraser had seemed as if she would be there forever.
"I--I need to leave," he stammered to the secretary. "My grandmother is dead."
She put a sympathetic hand on his arm. "I'm sorry for your loss, Constable. You just go, and I'll make sure you get a few days off for the funeral. Where do you want your orders sent?"
"Inuvik. The RCMP detachment will know how to reach me."
Benton made his way through the crowd, wanting to get as far away as possible. Perhaps he ought to say goodbye, but he didn't know how to speak to them, all the happy people around him. He turned his face to the ground, avoiding any contact.
At the dormitory, he mechanically took off his uniform and dressed in civilian clothes. He folded and packed the uniform and slung his pack over his shoulder. The bed and shelves were empty and bare. Soon, they would be occupied by some other cadet, and there would be no trace of Benton ever having slept there.
His flight wasn't until later that afternoon, but he couldn't bear to stay at Depot. Benton began walking along the road to Regina, not bothering to wait for the bus. The snow squeaked beneath his hiking boots, and cars passed him. Benton put one foot in front of the other. Left, right; left, right.
A car slowed behind him. Benton kept walking. The car honked.
"Hey! You want a ride?"
Benton was on the verge of refusing, because walking felt right; it was something immediate that he could do. But common sense asserted itself. He might miss his flight, and flights were expensive.
He got into the car. The driver was an electrician, talkative and friendly. Benton smiled, made occasional polite comments, because how could he do otherwise? Your grandmother's recent death did not belong in a conversation with a stranger.
The airport felt meaningless to him, a place and time that was blank, hurried, on the way. Benton waited for a stretch of time that could have been twenty minutes or three hours, then boarded a plane. Left the plane and boarded another.
It was late at night that he felt the jolt that meant landing for the final time. It shook him out of the daze of not-quite-sleeping. As he left the small airplane, there was a cold wind that was heavy with the promise of snow. Benton blinked, feeling awake for the first time in many hours.
He took his pack and began walking. It was dark, but he knew the way. As he turned onto the long road that led to his grandparents' cabin (his grandfather's, now), the wind began to whip snow into his face. Benton wished he had an extra sweater, and he turned his head down and quickened his steps to let exercise warm him instead.
A light was on in the cabin, as if someone was waiting for him. Benton wiped his boots on the mat outside the door, and opened it. George Fraser was sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of tea in his hand.
"Benton." He nodded in greeting. "Did you get the telegram?"
"Yes." Benton took off his things and hung them on a peg by the door. He held his hands out to the stove, feeling the almost-pain as they warmed up.
"She died three days ago. A stroke. It was fast."
"Three days ago? Why didn't you tell me sooner?"
"You had your exams. And you couldn't have come home in time, anyway."
Benton felt unexpectedly angry, although at what or whom he couldn't tell. Three days. It was almost like he'd gotten closer to her by writing letters than he'd ever been when he lived with her, and now she was gone.
"Are you hungry?"
"No," Benton began to say, but then felt the emptiness in his stomach. "Yes."
"There's bread and cheese on the counter."
Benton made himself a sandwich, and sat down opposite his grandfather. He looked smaller somehow, with his knobby hands and gray hair (no, it was closer to white). "Did your exams go well?"
"Yes. I graduated this morning." It felt like another world, bright and red.
His grandfather nodded. "We knew you'd do well."
There was silence while Benton finished another sandwich. Then a few words on practicalities--the funeral was tomorrow afternoon--and after that Benton went to his old room to sleep. The house was silent around him as he lay down in the cold, slightly damp bedding. He curled up and sank gratefully into sleep.
Benton stood beside his father, gaze forward. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the red of his father's uniform, red like his own, and Buck's beyond that. He'd wanted this, wanted to stand beside his father like an equal, but--not like this.
His grandmother's coffin had been lowered into the ground, and the minister spoke words that Benton didn't hear. There was a heaviness in his chest, and his throat felt tight. He wasn't sure he could speak, but he didn't cry. Even with the coffin there in front of him, it still felt unreal, as if there was a disconnection somewhere, in him or in the world. Absently, he wondered how the grave had been dug in the frozen ground.
George Fraser was crying. He stood there in the black suit he wore to church, and silent tears were running down his cheeks. Benton had never seen his grandfather cry before, and he looked away.
His father wasn't crying that Benton could see, when he sneaked a look to the side. He looked grave, serious. At attention.
There were a fair number of people at the funeral--Martha Fraser had been a respected member of the community. Mostly they were older, black-clad women and men Martha's own age or a bit younger, but June and Innusiq's family was there, too. June had a baby in her arms. Eric was there, hovering at the edge of the crowd as if he wasn't sure he belonged. He was dressed in clothes that looked as if they were borrowed from some relative. Benton caught his eye, and they held each other's gaze for a long moment.
Afterwards, everyone was eager to come in and warm up. There was food and tea, and people came up to him, his grandfather and his father to express their condolences. Benton awkwardly thanked them, and drank more tea. June came up to him and hugged him. Her baby had fat cheeks and big brown eyes.
There was no shortage of food--many of the guests had come with gifts of home-baked bread, smoked meat or cakes. Benton wondered if it was all meant for the funeral reception, or if they thought the men in the family couldn't cook on their own.
Eric had slipped away after the burial, and Benton hadn't seen him leave. He wished they could have talked, but he didn't know what they would've said, not among all the people. They'd had arguments about the RCMP before Benton went to Depot, and Benton was very obviously a Mountie now.
After the funeral reception, Buck tipped his hat and smiled at Benton, saying, "The uniform suits you, Ben."
"Thank you," Benton said, automatically standing up straighter (not that he had been slouching before).
"Congratulations, son," his father said. "How was Depot?"
A thousand unsorted impressions went through Benton's mind before he said, "Fine, Dad."
His father nodded, apparently satisfied. "I thought you'd do well. Do you know where you'll be posted yet?"
"No. I requested somewhere in the north, but I haven't received my orders yet."
"Well, just let me know. I'll see you around, son."
That evening, Benton and his grandfather sat at the kitchen table, eating leftovers. Benton was tired, and he was grateful after all for the food they'd received. His grandfather looked tired, too, and old.
The silence stretched out. George Fraser had always been less talkative than his wife, and there were spaces in between their words now that would never be filled again.
"When...how did you meet? I mean, you and Grandmother?" Benton asked tentatively, suddenly wanting to know, and afraid that if he didn't ask now, he might never know. He'd always thought of them the way they were now, old and stern and living here in this cabin, but they had been young once, too.
George folded his hands and was silent for a moment more. Then he said, "We met in Toronto, in 1922. She was studying to be a teacher at the Toronto Normal School, I was studying history at the university."
Benton thought he wasn't going to say any more, but after a moment, he went on. "But we didn't marry until a few years after that, just before we went to China together."
Benton nodded. He knew about their time in China--indeed, he'd learned Chinese from them in this very room.
The fire crackled as a piece of firewood fell over, and Benton thought of the long winter, all the wood that was still to be chopped and carried. He didn't think his grandfather could manage on his own, but he didn't want to say so. And Benton himself couldn't stay here--he'd go where the RCMP needed him to be.
"Will you stay here? In the cabin?" he finally said.
"No. Not anymore. I'll move into town."
Benton's bedroom was warm enough from the fire in the next room, but he lay awake, his mind wandering and restless. When he closed his eyes, he saw again the coffin lowered into the dark grave, the minister sprinkling earth on it, mingling with the snow that had fallen down from the edges. Benton wondered suddenly if he'd been to his mother's funeral. He had no memory of it, but that didn't necessarily mean anything--he didn't even remember his mother's death, although he ought to. He'd been six years old, after all.
Turning to his other side, he curled up and wrapped his arms around his knees. His father was staying with Buck at one of the RCMP apartments in town. Why wasn't he staying here? It was his childhood home, and there was space for him. Benton sighed and drew the blanket tighter around his shoulders.
There was a knock at the window, and Benton startled.
"Ben?" Eric's muffled voice said. "Can I come in?"
He sounded tentative, but Benton wanted more than anything for Eric to stay, and not disappear into the night the way he had come. He threw off his blankets and went over to the window in his long johns. The cold air made him shiver as he opened the window to let Eric throw a leg over the sill and climb in. He was back in his ordinary clothes, a pair of jeans and a bulky old parka. There was snow caught in his long hair.
"I wasn't sure you'd want company."
"I do." Benton sighed. "I can't sleep."
Eric pulled off his parka, hung it on a peg by the door, and took his boots off. Benton crept under the covers again and sat up on the bed, back against the wall. Eric came to sit beside him.
"I went to the funeral," Eric said.
"I know. I saw you there."
"Mmm. I wanted to...I don't know. She was always good to me. Never said anything about..." Eric waved his hand vaguely between them.
Benton nodded, not sure he could say anything. His chest felt heavy again. In the darkness of the room, he let his body tilt sideways, until his head rested on Eric's shoulder. It wasn't really very comfortable, but it wasn't that kind of comfort he needed. Eric leaned back, and Benton closed his eyes and felt the warmth all along the side of his body.
After a while, Eric pushed at him and murmured, "Lie down, all right?"
Benton did, and Eric lay down beside him. Benton pulled him underneath the covers with him, even though his grandmother's voice in his head said that if you lay in bed with your clothes on, you might as well strew dirt on the sheets.
Benton lay there with his head on Eric's arm, and he buried his face in Eric's neck and breathed in the smell of woodsmoke and sweat. Eric's arms tightened around him, and Benton felt something inside him give way. His eyes were wet. He was shaking with sobs, and he couldn't seem to stop.
"Sorry," he mumbled. He was getting snot all over Eric's shirt. "I'm..."
"'S all right." Eric stroked his hand over Benton's hair. It was short, shorter than he'd ever worn it before--easier to keep it tidy that way, at Depot.
Benton cried until there were no more tears, and he felt lighter somehow, even though his nose was all stuffy. He didn't let go of Eric, greedy for the warmth and solidity of him. They didn't say anything, and Benton was grateful for that. He didn't want to talk about any of the things that lay between them, not now.
Benton's arm had fallen asleep, so he turned onto his other side, with Eric along his back. Eric wrapped his arms tighter around him, and Benton closed his eyes. He drifted into sleep, feeling the slow rise and fall of his own chest and Eric's behind him.
Benton dreamed of someone leaning over him and kissing his temple, stroking his hair. "Goodbye," Eric murmured. "I'm always saying goodbye to you, aren't I?"
"Why?" Benton thought, or said.
"Because you're leaving."
The bed was colder now, and Benton wanted to protest that it was Eric who was leaving. But he knew it wasn't true.
Benton received his orders the next day--he was to proceed to a posting in Coppermine, or Qurluktuk, a small community on the shore of Victoria Island. He'd never been there, as it was outside the circuit of his grandparents' traveling library. And they spoke Innuinaqtun, which was not an Inuit dialect that he knew, but he thought it was similar enough to the one he knew that he could learn it without too much trouble. At least he wasn't expected to live in a city.
There wasn't much to pack, just his clothes, his guitar, a few books and some camping equipment. The RCMP would pay for his flight, he knew, and there would be a place ready for him to live.
In return, he would maintain the right.