“Late July in Split Landing,” a short story by Julie Bouchard
Translated by Ann Marie Boulanger
It’s a summer of crushing heat and unsolved crimes. From east to west, over a mind-boggling ten million square kilometres of terrain — dotted with countless lakes, a fistful of murderers, and masses of dense, dry scrub — people have shuttered their windows, drawn dusty curtains, locked doors, and installed powerful air conditioners which, somewhat ironically, are cooling down their concerns while ratcheting up the temperature outside.
On the morning of July 26, the mercury in Split Landing already reads 34 degrees Celsius in the shade of the tall conifer trees, and the headline in the national newspaper, hurled at dawn onto front porches by an already sweating Gerry Gaston, blares “Two teens, suspected of murdering florist and pair of Dutch tourists, vanish without a trace.” Under the photo of the baby-faced boys, a second, less attention-grabbing piece reports that this July is shaping up to be the hottest month ever recorded on the planet.
In a soulless room, devoid of sunlight, Sue Sawyer, mouth surprisingly pasty for this time of day, is just wrapping up her news report for radio station CKSV, with the announcements that “sixteen-year-old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg is preparing to set sail for America on a zero-carbon boat,” that “fires are still raging in the Amazon rainforest,” and that “the RCMP have launched a manhunt in the woods around town for two murder suspects and are asking all residents to stay ind, ind — grrr — indoors,” stuttering twice over this last word.
To the opening notes of Born to Run in E and A major that follow that last “indoors,” she takes off her headphones, swallows, and wipes away an unexpected tear rolling down her cheek as Bruce’s vocal cords kick into action.
In the day, we sweat it out on the streets…
It turns out that today was the day — after two decades of reading the local, national, and international news, after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, after the typhoons, the tsunamis, and the mass shootings in the United States, after the ten years in power of Stephen Harper, the elections of Trump and Bolsonaro, the death of David Bowie, after the two hundred million migrants and the children separated from their parents at the Mexico–U.S. border — today was the day it hit her: that last-straw news item. The one that leaves you forehead pressed to a table, arms hanging limply by your sides, snot running from your nose, demolished, as a Springsteen tune plays in the background.
Unless — and the possibility can’t be ruled out — this unfortunate first tear is all Paul’s fault?
Regardless of the cause, Sue is taking tomorrow off, she informs Barry, the producer of Another Day, who’s now gripping her by the shoulders, quite helpless, as she paws through her knock-off Louis Vuitton for her keys, finding her sunglasses instead, which she settles over her puffy eyes.
“Bye-bye, Barry, I’m going home to hunker down.”
In Studio B, all that lingers in the air are the heady notes of pralines, patchouli, and red fruits of Angel by Thierry Mugler, which Sue Sawyer stocks up on at every airport duty-free shop she comes across — and the whiff, as overpowering as the cloying fragrance, of a looming threat.
On a remote property in the northeastern corner of one of the provinces that make up this beautiful country, Matt Silver, still half asleep despite the noon hour, switches off the radio at the same time as Sue Sawyer hits the accelerator on her Hyundai Santa Fe; he steps out into the suffocating heat of this Wednesday to collect the newspaper tossed onto the porch six hours prior by Gerry Gaston, reads the headline, raises his head and squints his eyes beneath the canopy of the surrounding forest just as two birds of prey soar above the white spruce and Sue hits the speed limit without busting it.
Lost in thought, he calls to Cindy through the screen door:
“Gotta be on the lookout, babe.”
Babe emerges from the bathroom, sullen and bare-legged. She lights her first Player’s Light King Size of the day and casts her own gaze through the grimy windows of their trailer home, with no particular emotion — the same way, incidentally, that she examines and contemplates everything in this life — at the steel-blue sky above the scrawny willow trees.
“On the lookout for what?”
Matt walks over to her, no doubt with a hard-on; he slips a hand under the white tank top that brings out her tan, glides it up toward her perky breasts, warm, soft, supple, gives them a squeeze, and answers the question over the cawing of a crow that hasn’t shut up since that morning.
“Seems there’s two killers on the loose hereabouts.”
Cindy takes a drag off the Player’s Light, inhales deeply, and into the oppressive air of this twenty‑sixth day of July, head tilted back, lips pursed in an O, blows her smoke out in perfect rings, which hang, immobile, from biggest to smallest, above Matt’s head, forming a halo of sorts for a fraction of a second, before floating off over the forest, over the rooftops and the budding sense of terror, to eventually dissipate into the atmosphere of Split Landing, above number sixty-three Thompson Street, where Sue Sawyer will soon make sure that all the doors and windows are locked, that the alarm system is activated. Perfect. Exhausted, she will then lay down in her second‑floor bedroom of her prefab home, shredded tissue next to her heart, two streaks of mascara running down her cheeks, under a current of air cooled to seventeen degrees Celsius, with — as her sole companion since Paul left — her cat, Gary, an eight-year-old Siamese, who has just set up guard at the window, ready to meow at any suspicious figure that might approach the home: a squirrel, a bird, two killers.
Located on the eastern bank of the Carlton River — the main tributary, according to the atlases, of the biggest bay in the country — the town of Split Landing, unknown to the eight billion people living elsewhere on the planet, houses, under one hundred sixty-seven roofs, a population of four hundred sixty-eight residents, reasonably worried since this morning. By the end of the day, everyone who own firearms — anonymously, of course, since the dismantling of the federal long-gun registry in two thousand and twelve — will have retrieved them from their cupboards and placed them at the foot of their beds, next to their doors, within reach, loaded.
Such as Matt, who at this very minute is searching, under anything and everything he can lift, for his rifle.
“Babe, have you seen my gun?”
Cindy, now sitting motionless in the sun, a mug of instant coffee balanced on one knee, a second cigarette turning to ash between thumb and index finger, has not seen the gun, nope. She hates guns, Cindy does. She hates all weapons, in fact. She especially hates her father for having pointed his at her mother one January night in nineteen ninety-three, for having fired three shots, for having turned the gun on himself, and for having pulled the trigger again, only to fail. “I saw red,” would remain his only words of regret.
Overall, a rough end to July, with record temperatures making headlines, memories of blood and screams rising to the surface, and the daily routine being put on hold for a manhunt.
With the toe of her flip-flop, Cindy grinds out her cigarette and turns back toward Matt, who’s crashing around inside, searching, sweating from the effort. She studies his body, as though it had metamorphosed, before her eyes on the balcony, into a foreign body, disjointed, uninteresting: massive back, thick neck, overinflated triceps, flat head with the unfortunate beginnings of a bald spot, and, further down, two ridiculously small feet. The shell of Matt. Of Matt Silver. Born in Split Landing. And also certain to die there. The Matt, once reconstituted and reconsidered from a more intimate perspective, whom Cindy loves, ultimately (but what does it mean, like, really mean, to love someone?), but maybe loves slightly differently since she’s been making out, the smell of gas wafting on the air, with Jessica Parker once a week in the bathrooms of the gas station on the highway to Stanley.
Curious affairs, these things — temptation, desire, and transgression — layered on top of heat, fear and crime.
The world, both beyond people’s walls and within themselves, is in a pathetic state on this scorching twenty-sixth of July, whereon a bead of sweat, just there, is trickling down between Cindy’s breasts.
She wipes it away, closes her eyes, sighs gently, thinks about Jessica’s hand on her cheek, remembers how her voice cracked when she confessed to Cindy last week, on the verge of tears, “I want you, but I’m terrified of you.”
And, as her thoughts drift off on a tangent, as sometimes happens, she calmly opens up her spirit to all the girls on the planet, wondering: how many of them, out of three billion, are crying, feeling lonely, giving birth, how many are climaxing, suffering, how many are screaming, dying, being beaten, feeling terrified to their core at this precise second as she hears Matt yell in a crass ejaculation of relief, “Fouuuund it!”
Matt, who cherishes his gun almost as much as he does Cindy.
Whom he loves “like a crazy man,” he explained to Frankie, at lunch the other day, at the truck stop where they’d stopped to eat — between two runs hauling hazardous materials over crappy roads — hamburger steaks.
“There’s something about her, I’m not sure how to describe it, Frankie, something strangely unshakeable. Yeah, that’s it. Mystery and strength.”
Frankie had kept on eating his hamburger steak without once looking up from his plate. While he sometimes found Matt a little too much (strangely unshakeable?!), as for Cindy, he didn’t think she was anything special.
Granted, Cindy’s cultural baggage was plainly lacking; her knowledge of history and geopolitics, limited; and her models of love and family, we now know, virtually non-existent. Her library, unlike yours or that of Sue Sawyer — who had finally managed to fall asleep — did not contain hundreds of books, and, as a result, Cindy had never read the esteemed Durs Grünbein (From a distance, this was all there was to see, an undulating landscape), nor the beloved Virginia Woolf (I shall make myself face the fact that there is nothing — nothing for any of us), and definitely not Céline (Men are the thing to be afraid of, always, men and nothing else).
And yet she knew — unlike Sue and Matt and Frankie — she knew something fundamental about reality and about the matter of this fear coiled in her core that could not be learned from books.
And that’s how Cindy approached life: as though she’d already gotten over everything. But as though everything, from one second to the next, was still on the verge of happening.
“Just in case. I’m putting it right here.”
Matt kisses Cindy on the mouth and loads the rifle.
Maybe she’ll tell him, one day, soon, tomorrow, about Jessica.
Then her eyes flicker over the gun for a few seconds.
Matt had last used it the previous fall, when he’d killed a three hundred fifty-kilogram moose with the help of Tom Smith, the new neighbour to the left.
Tom, who’s also just taken out his hunting rifle and who now stands contemplating — Judy’s clammy hand folded into his own — the white and black spruce trees, the rickety willows, the tamarack, the birch, the jackpine, and the red pine that surround them.
“We never should have moved here, to this goddamned forest.”
Judy. She hated Split Landing. She hated nature as much as the animals that lived in it.
There had been sightings, too, just last month, of bears, famished, roaming close to the houses, and a child was recently attacked by a coyote. Judy had always been afraid of animals and, since this morning, even more so of people.
“Murderers on the loose in our backyard. I’ll never be able to sleep, Tom.”
A few hundred metres from the Smiths, the Carvers, for their part, less up to date on current affairs, are climaxing together for the first time in their lives. On the wave of Nancy Carver’s powerful cry of ecstasy, which penetrates every atom of air in Split Landing, come helicopters from the west, bearing RCMP officers and their sniffer dogs, a dozen drones, and a great big dose of nerve.
To sum up, they explain, “We’ve got three people dead and two six-foot-four killers, seen on the twenty-fifth headed east in a red, two thousand twelve Toyota RAV4, probably hiding out somewhere within a few kilometres of here.”
Interviewed by a reporter hurriedly dispatched to the scene on July twenty-seventh, a resident of Split Landing — whose quote will run on the twenty-eighth in numerous newspapers across the continent, in the Today’s News section, under a lifelike photo, in which thousands of spruce trees stand sentry, under a tungsten grey sky, on either side of a long, dusty dirt road that seems to lead nowhere — will describe the place as such: “You know, we only have two sets of laws here: the laws of nature and the laws of boredom. It’s an unforgiving part of the country. No one really wants to live here.”
And yet they all do. Except for Paul, who moved to Alaska after marrying Michelle, which he regretted, by the way — but he can stay there, with his regrets, far away from Split Landing.
On July twenty-ninth, on the five o’clock news, Jinny Petit — who’s standing in for Sue Sawyer, whose day off has turned into an extended sick leave — announces that “an abandoned boat, possibly belonging to the two killers, has been found on the banks of the Carlton River.”
Matt, behind the wheel of his semi, switches off the radio and speeds up in his haste to get back to Cindy.
Sue Sawyer, for her part, has been snoring for the past two hours, after taking a double dose of sleeping pills.
Gary, the cat, is meowing, for reasons that are unclear.
The others, here and there across town, are praying, trembling, hoping that some form of deliverance might soon be in the offing.
Cindy, a little earlier, had left a note on the kitchen table after stowing the rifle back under the bed: “Gone out for some air.”
Around eight forty-five, amid the heat of Split Landing, against a memorable sky painted an intricate pattern of salmon, mauve, and sepia, in a thunderous explosion of decibels, converge the inconsiderate sounds of helicopters, barking, and sirens.
Before midnight, everyone is asleep.
The next morning, two lifeless bodies are found lying next to each other, near a marsh. Possibly the killers? No confirmation yet. The autopsy will soon tell.
And when the neighbours ask a few days later, with equal parts worry and relief, Where’s Cindy? We haven’t seen her around Split Landing lately, Matt will remain mum about her absence, muscles tensed, forehead oily.
A short story by Julie Bouchard, winner of the 2020 Prix de la nouvelle Radio-Canada.
Translated by Ann Marie Boulanger. Ann Marie is the owner of Traduction Proteus Inc., a certified translator, a mentor for aspiring members of her professional order, and a part-time lecturer in translation studies at McGill University’s School of Continuing Studies. She earned an MA in translation studies from Concordia in 2018. The Woman in Valencia, her first literary translation, is forthcoming from QC Fiction.