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The Player

The Player

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Drone Chase

Chapter One

Huddled in a down parka, with my hands held to the campfire, I glance down the slope to make sure my parents are still on their walk. Affirmative: Their bickering voices — they haven’t stopped fighting since we moved here — are disturbing the afternoon peace of the mountainside. Next, I peer at the little red tent a few feet away from me. My sleeping grandfather’s unlaced hiking boots are sticking out from under the flap. In fact, the whole tent is shuddering with his snoring like a half-inflated balloon.

Zzz-zzz. The sound lifts my mood. It’s a good thing whiskered old mountain men need afternoon snoozes. Here at last, an opportunity to escape this boring, chilly campsite in the Canadian boonies.

It’s not the first time this city boy has been hauled unwillingly here, into a desolate land of granite peaks, waterfalls, dodgy wildlife, and monster trees, but it’s definitely not somewhere I feel at home. For one thing, dark woods scare me, and this place has endless trees. I hate trees. They have a bad habit of eating my drones.

Camping in general, in my private opinion, sucks. Who willingly goes for a hike in the sticks in May? Give me Central Park muggers any day over perilous predators hiding behind giant, moss-draped trees. I’m a New York City guy through and through.

I reach into the beefy backpack Granddad has saddled me with — “It’ll toughen you up,” he said — and touch the cellphone-sized drone the old man and my parents don’t know I’ve smuggled along. It’s a perfect antidote to the eerie woods.

“Remote-control toys are for kids,” Granddad ruled in his Irish brogue last month when my parents and I arrived. “They’re for city-park shenanigans. Got to get you in shape, teach you about woodsmanship, pry you out of that workshop o’ yours. Real life is the mountains, kid, and I’m going to teach you and yer city mom backcountry survival and appreciation for nature.”

Like that’s going to happen. As far as I can tell, Granddad has hated my “city mom” ever since she “stole away” his son to the other side of the continent. Given her high heels, makeup, New York personality, and lack of enthusiasm for the outdoors, in his mind she’s beneath his contempt. Which caused friction on our vacations here as far back as I can remember. But now that we’ve actually moved here, it’s way worse.

Sitting close to where we’ve strung up the food bag on a rope between two trees — “to make it fierce-hard for bears to reach it, grandson” — I pull out my fifteen- hundred-dollar store-bought drone kit: bird, batteries, and remote. The drone is four wavy rings joined by a centre that resembles a small bug. I call him Bug. The 250-millimetre, one-pound device can fly for about twenty minutes before he conks out. Then, clever robot that he is, he automatically returns to me. Another thing: He folds so neatly I can slip him into my jeans pocket. As in, I can hide him from Granddad’s sharp eyes.

We’re with Granddad because Dad tore us away from New York City. Granddad, an expert hunter and outdoorsman I admire but will never be like (as he reminds me regularly), lives in Bella Coola, in northern British Columbia. Bella Coola (population 150) is located in a mountain valley on a saltwater inlet maybe sixty miles — or I guess I should say a hundred kilo metres, since I’m in Canada — east of the Pacific Ocean, in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. Dad says we had to move here because Granddad’s health is “failing.” Failing? To me, the dude is stronger and more stubborn than a ninehundred-pound grizzly — and grizzlies actually live in the forests around here. Granddad is a headstrong taxidermist who stuffs and mounts dead furry animals for clients. So disgusting.

According to Dad, Granddad’s terminal cancer means he doesn’t have many months to live. It’s true he’s not as tough as he used to be, but there’s still plenty of griz left in him. And while he afternoon-hibernates, I’m outta here. Yes, I’m supposed to stick close to camp, and yes, the woods are full of dangerous stuff that scares me to death. But the trees aren’t dense and dark right around camp, and it’s a chance to launch a drone, which is what I’m all about.

I grab the bear-spray can and stuff it into my designer moto jeans pocket. Though I definitely hope I won’t meet a nasty bruin, I pretend I’d have the nerve to fire the peppery stuff into one’s face if I had to. Slapping away early-spring flies, I follow a path to a small clearing. Concentrate on the drone, not where the forest gets darker just up the slope. And don’t freak out if you see a bear. That ended badly last time.

I unfold the drone’s arms and click in all four propellers, or props. Next, I give the 4K-sensor mini-camera a quick wipe-down, attach it to the body, and set the drone on the dewy grass of the clearing. After charging up my radio-sized remote controller for takeoff, I take a big step back and a deep breath and throw the throttle stick up. Yes! My slick graphite baby rises on cue and hovers in front of me with a happy hum.

A surge of excitement ripples through my body, like it does no matter how many times I do this. Flying allows me to de-stress, to take a break from missing my New York City friends and worrying about Mom and Dad’s recent arguing or Granddad’s cancer. When I’m flying my drones, even ominous woods turn into my happy place for awhile.

When the machine reaches four hundred feet (picture a forty-storey building), I admire Bug’s bird’s-eye view from the mini-tablet, slid onto my remote controller. Then, like the ace pilots I admire, I hit the throttle of the remote, tilting and thrusting till even I can appreciate Bug’s camera view of the crazy-tall trees, seriously blue sky, and icy glaciers that look like someone has spilled green Slurpees all over the mountaintops. I spot hairy mountain goats hanging out on a ridge and a real live eagle swooping high above them.

Imagining myself as a miniature pilot in my drone, I bank left, barrel-rolling for the crowds below, dogfighting with the drones of my New York City friends, Arlo and Koa. What I wouldn’t give to be back there with them.

Whoa! A nasty gust of wind catches my little guy. I do my best to keep him steady. But my remote controller starts beeping like crazy, warning me that Bug is losing connection to the controller because of wireless interference. Next thing I know, he is spinning out of control toward a tree. My fingers yank on the joystick, but I can’t get whatever’s loose to reconnect.

I hit the return-to-home button in a desperate attempt to save Bug. He doesn’t respond — Nooo! — just clips a branch and free-falls toward the ground. At least I see where he’s landed. Stumbling through the brush, I head that way, trying not to trip over stupid roots or slip on damp moss.

Phew! He is not so far away, just into the woods, on a small hillock of dirt half blocking a hole in the base of a giant cedar. In fact, my baby has parked himself partway into the entrance, like he’s shivering and wants a garage. As I sprint toward my flying machine, I see no cracks or breaks. I sigh in relief. We just might’ve gotten lucky. Except — my stomach tightens as I draw closer — for the smoke coming out of Bug’s far side. Wait, no. Not out of the drone. Out of the garage. And not smoke but —

No way. Breath! Someone or something is inside the tree breathing in the chill air. Something with a wet, black nose. Behind the nose, a massive bear’s head pushes out of the gap and gives an unholy growl, deep and menacing, like a Rottweiler crossed with a sasquatch.

My eardrums vibrate like a subway’s running through my head, and terror electrifies every nerve. But even through the panic, I reach forward to scoop up my drone. I’m that kind of dad. Then I stagger back, tucking him into the back pocket of my jeans.

“Most o’ the bears around here are still asleep,” Granddad told my parents and me before this weekend’s camping trip. “To be sure, if we do run into one, climb a tree quick smart if it’s a grizzly. If it’s a black bear, drop face first to the ground, wrap yer arms around yer head and neck, and play dead. Never, ever run.”

Every cell in my body screams, Run. But channelling all the self-discipline I can, I force myself to freeze as the bear emerges. Grizzly or black bear?

I recall Granddad’s lectures. “Grizzlies have upturned noses, small ears, shoulder humps, and long, straight claws.”

I have no idea which brand this girl is, but she’s one big customer. Seven feet tall, hairy as Chewbacca, and smelly as rancid oil. No more than fifty feet away, she’s clacking her teeth, flaring her nostrils, and making a sound like whoosh. Worse, two cubs the size of full-grown St. Bernards bound out of the tree like fluffy puppies, tumbling around Mama’s very large ass.

While frantically weighing my options, I stand tall, meet the bear’s eyes, and attempt to project calm instead of terror. Being the kid of two veterinarians, I know a thing or two about animals. It’s super important they don’t sense panic or fear. In my parents’ clinic, I’ve always had a skill for calming dogs. My parents call me the animal whisperer.

So, get a g-g-grip, Ray. Ref-f-frame the situation. Use h-h-humour. After all, I’m not a morning person either, and I’ve disturbed this brute and her babies from their long winter nap.

A side glance reveals a tall evergreen with low, sturdy branches that even a gymnastically challenged slackwad might be able to scramble up. With one hand on my bear-spray can, I take a step toward it, super slow-mo.

“Never get between a sow and her cubs,” Granddad always warns. “Just talk to the beast respectful-like as you back away.”

“Sorry, Blondie,” I say in as even a tone as I can manage. Blond equals grizzly, my half-paralyzed brain informs me. “My little drone didn’t mean to wake you up. He was just crash-landing.” I chance another step toward the tree. “He wasn’t going to hurt one of your little ones.”

The bear stomps her front feet, flattens her ears, gives me a spine-chilling glare, and lowers her head straighton. I know in my gut she’s going to charge. As my spongy knees miraculously support the final two steps to the tree, I leap onto the first branch and struggle to do my first pull-up since last year’s sophomore gym class, where I was pretty useless. Then I scramble upwards, fuelled by rocket-booster-grade adrenalin.

With a roar that sets pine needles quivering, Mama Bear lunges and in one bound reaches the tree. She raises her hairy shoulders high and rests her massive paws against the trunk just feet below my flailing silver running shoes (new, and purchased at great expense from Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market in Manhattan).

My heartbeat ups by a factor of three, my teeth form a death clench, and sweat streams out of my pits. Her next bellow is loud enough to wake up the valley and raise all three hairs on my chest.

When she quiets for a second, I try to speak to her calmly, like I do to upset dogs in our clinic. “I’m planning to stay up here till you go back to sleep or a rescue helicopter shows, okay?” Talking to animals: yeah, it’s a thing in veterinary clinics.

Then I screech, “Mom! Dad! Granddad! A bear!” Maybe I shouldn’t have wandered away from our campsite after all?

The cubs peek out at me from behind their mother’s tank-sized body. To keep my panic in check, I shift my eyes to one of them, a little guy trembling like a toddler hidden in its mother’s skirts. Its whimper tugs at my heart. It’s like a carnival-prize giant teddy bear, with a cute brown nose and very pink mouth, which opens wide to emit a wail like a baby’s.

It might be five minutes. It feels like an hour. I clutch the tree’s upper branches with moist hands and watch the mother bear as she watches me. I half wish I hadn’t shouted. The last thing I need is my unarmed parents or weakened grandfather scrambling up the slope right now.

I catch movement from the corner of my eye and hear three blasts.

I cry out as the sow drops heavily to the ground, bleeding from the front of her steep forehead. She lands on the cub who was wailing, trapping it beneath her giant bulk. I turn my shuddering body toward my grandfather, who is standing there holding a rifle, looking proud.

My chin trembles and my shoulders quake as I look from my murderous grandfather to the second panicked cub as it scampers away, then halts as if torn over what to do. The one beneath its mother is bellowing in pain. A cold heaviness creeps into my chest.

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Chapter One

Hannah’s parents would not let her go to town. It was barely a town anyway, Timmins. It was so far from Toronto that her friends would ask her, “Didja see Santa?” every time she came home. Timmins was essentially a crappy mall, a hospital, and a bus station. At eight, she hadn’t cared; at ten, she couldn’t go to town without an adult; at fourteen, she couldn’t go because —

“Hannah,” called her father. He stood by the woodpile, removing his mitts and pulling a hatchet from his belt loop. “Give me a hand?”

She went over and helped him lift the tarp that covered the kindling. It was birch kindling, the kind that smelled sharp and tangy when it burned, but the tarp had ripped overnight and now the wood was soaked and useless. Hannah looked up at the chimney stack that rose over the cabin. There was no smoke, but she could see waves of heat rising off the brick mouth. That meant the fire was burning well and they wouldn’t need kindling.

“We’ll need more kindling,” said her dad.

“Why? The fire’s already going. It hasn’t been out since we got here.”

Hannah’s father looked at her with his Learning Face. That was what her younger sister Kelli called it, the Learning Face. It was a seriously annoying face. “What if we need a fire outside, to smoke fish?” he said.


“What if we want to use the wood oven?”

“What if we need to make smoke signals?” said Hannah sarcastically.

“Hannah, don’t be smart,” said her father. “Look, I’m going to show you something.”

He dropped the tarp, hooked the hatchet onto his belt, and put his snowshoes back on, stuffing his mitts in his pocket. She could see the nametag, “G. Williams,” that was sewn inside of them; hers said “H. Williams.”

Hannah was already wearing her snowshoes, so she followed his wider tracks easily as he moved to the edge of the clearing where their cabin sat, past the tarpedover snowmobile and the SUV. They hadn’t brought the other vehicle; it was a car and would never have made it down the back roads to get here. Even in the summer, they always brought the four-wheel-drive vehicle. Her parents called this place “camp.” When she was younger, Hannah had fooled some of her friends by saying that she went “to camp” for almost every school vacation, but then stupid Kelli had blabbed and then everyone knew that it was just a cottage — a three-room, dingy cottage with an outhouse in the backyard, on the edge of a smelly pond.

They wended their way through the bush until they came to a little stand of poplar trees with a few frozen yellow leaves still clinging to them, almost hidden in the bigger, bushier arms of the blue spruce and waxy green hemlock. Her father looked up into the branches of the poplar. “These should work.” He reached up with one hand and grabbed a branch, and with the other he loosed his hatchet and chopped the branch off. He held up the iced-over poplar branch, and Hannah noticed the nicks on his red knuckles. Her dad loved to work outdoors without gloves. “Can you burn this?” he asked.

Hannah rolled her eyes. “No, it’s green wood. And it’s wet. I’m not ten, dad.”

“That’s right,” replied her father, “you’re fourteen going on forty. But sometimes you have to make do with less, right?”

Hannah shrugged.

He knelt down and placed the branch on the flat part of his snowshoe, holding it on its end with one hand. “In the winter, all wood is wet — on the outside.” With the other hand he brought up the hatchet and quickly made a series of downward motions on the sides of the branch until the bark bristled out like a skinny, grey-green porcupine.

“Instant kindling,” he said.

“Great. Is there an instant travelling stick, too, so I can go back home?”

“You never know out here,” he said. When he had his Learning Face on, Hannah knew, it was hard to get him to do anything but talk about the bush.

“I’m cold, and it’s lunchtime,” she said.

“Okay.” He stood and brushed the snow off his coat, turning his head to the line of clouds that were being pulled toward them by grey, pouting tendrils. “Smells like another storm, eh?”

Hannah let her breath out loudly, but didn’t reply.

They trooped back. The last two days had been warm and humid, but last night the temperature had dropped so quickly that the wet snow had chunked back into ice and broken through many of their tarps, and even Nook’s doghouse. Hannah and Kelli had spent all morning scraping ice and snow off the porch, the woodshed, the cars, the doghouses, and the outhouse steps to see what damage had been done. The snowmobile tarp was also ripped, and a chunk of falling ice had broken the gas line. Fixing it was tomorrow’s job. Hannah had volunteered for that one, mostly because it meant she could drive into town with her father to go to the hardware store.

They removed their snowshoes and propped them against the dogsled in the cold porch that separated the front door of the house from the elements. There were two more dogsleds behind the cabin, as well. The one on the porch was very small and was called a kicksled. The two behind the cabin were trail sleds, much longer and heavier.

Hannah’s dad put the green kindling in the big woodbox just outside the door. The box slid from the cold outer porch to the inside of the cabin, right through the wall. The opening was protected by a thick piece of yellow plastic that swung inward, like a doggy door.

When they went inside, Hannah slapped a sodden woodchip-covered glove onto the counter that separated the kitchen area from the rest of the main room and stooped to undo the laces of her boots. From the doorway to the bedroom she shared with her sister came Kelli’s voice. “Illegal manoeuvre! Illegal manoeuvre!”

“Calm down, dork,” said Hannah. “It’s just a glove.”

“Unacceptable use of outdoor clothing!” Kelli ran in, snatched the glove off the counter, clambered up a folding stepladder, and placed it neatly on the glove dryer that hung above the big pot-belly wood stove in the centre of the cabin.

“Kelli,” said their mother, “calm down. George,” she continued, “put some wood in the stove, please.”

Hannah’s dad took two pieces of maple from the woodbox, opened the belly of the wood stove, and put them in. Kelli’s exuberance had woken Sencha and Bogey from their napping spot by the couch, and the two house dogs ran over to greet Hannah and her father as though they had been gone for years. They kept a respectful distance from the hot cast-iron stove.

The two dogs were as opposite as could be. Sencha was a Dalmatian, but she had brown spots instead of black ones, and she shed on everything — pretty little white hairs that somehow corkscrewed into anything that wasn’t Teflon-coated. Her ears sat high on her head and she watched everything with bright hazel eyes, investigating every sound or movement, no matter how small, with her gaze or with her nose, depending on how comfortable she was. Hannah’s mom called her “Little Jane Austen.”

Bogey, on the other hand, was square and big and had two coats of thick fur: an oily outer layer of beautiful dark brown, and a dry underlay of rust-coloured kinks that kept him warm even when he jumped into the cold pond to chase tennis balls or ducks, or just because he was a Labrador retriever and needed to remind everyone of that fact.

“Bogey, get down!” said Hannah, pushing him away. The big dog dropped back to the floor, his tail still wagging. Hannah’s dad gave him some rough pats on his flanks, and the Lab nearly toppled him over, pressing into his legs like a cat. Sencha went back to her warm bed near the stove, lying down with an assortment of grumbles.

Kelli, still near the gloves, looked suspiciously at the bottoms of her sister’s legs. “Are your pants wet? You should go change.”

“You should shut up,” retorted Hannah. “The floor’s already wet from Lab slobber.”

“Ha-neul,” said her mother from the kitchen, “respect your sister.”

Kelli, safely behind the wood stove and out of sight of her mother, stuck her tongue out at Hannah.

“Let’s eat!” said her father, pulling out a chair from the kitchen table.

The table was so old and so ugly: the top was faded pink plastic with a terrible pattern of gold-speckled stars and rough metal edging. The chairs were a horrible flaky silver with plastic seats and no padding. Hannah hated the chairs, the table, and the ruined edges of all her sweaters from sitting at it.

“Set the table, girls,” said her mother.

“I’ve been outside helping with chores!” complained Hannah.

Her mother did not say anything, just kept stirring the large aluminum pot on the ancient propane stove in the kitchen. Kelli slipped from her chair. Sighing, so did Hannah.

Kelli smiled widely, wobbling under the weight of the heavy crockery. She loved it when everyone pitched in and did things together. She put down the stack of dishes and divvied them up, racing around the table to the far side and back again with a single plate each time.

“You’re gonna slip and fall,” said Hannah.

“Kelli, stop running,” scolded their mother. “Hannah, stop needling. George, we need salt and pepper.”

Hannah’s dad laughed and sprang up. “Probably not pepper, but I’ll get them both anyway.”

He got them and also grabbed the bread that sat under a tea towel — a sort of cornbread with eggs and bacon baked right into it. He broke the bread into big pieces with one egg in each, and put a piece on each plate. “I’m going to Jeb’s tomorrow,” he said as he added butter to the top of the egg. “The weather’s supposed to turn later this week, so I want to get over there before we’re stuck under another four feet of snow — that always makes us want to hibernate, eh, Mina?” He grinned at his wife.

“Maybe you should call first and make sure she’s ready for visitors,” she said.

Hannah’s dad grunted. “Scott’s there right now, and it looks like she’s getting better, so it should be fine.”

Scott and his sister Jeb and Hannah’s father had all grown up together in Timmins. When Jeb had decided to sell part of her land and build a new house much farther down the road, Hannah’s father had bought it — which was why they were now the proud owners of a shack in the middle of nowhere instead of a real cottage by a lake in Huntsville or Lake of Bays, like everyone else.

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