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2017 Northern Lit Awards

By 49thShelf
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Ontario Library Service-North, in conjunction with Northern Ontario Public Libraries, is pleased to announce the twelfth annual Northern Lit Award. The Northern Lit Award will recognize the outstanding contribution Northern Ontario authors make to Northern culture.
We're All in This Together

The first call had come at ten that morning, while Finn was sitting outside with her coffee on the back steps of her townhouse, watching Max the golden retriever run around in the yard.
     “Ms. Parker?” a husky female voice asked. “I’m glad I caught you at home.”
Finn sighed. One of the perils of working from home is that you’re always at home. “Who is this?” she asked.
     “My name is Cassandra Coelho. I’m a reporter with Thunder Bay News. I was wondering if I could ask you some questions about your mother.”
Finn felt something like an electric shock spark in her brain. “My mother? Why?”
There was the sound of paper rustling. “You are Serafina Parker, right? From Thunder Bay?” Cassandra Coelho paused. “Your mother is Katherine Parker? The Conqueror of Kakabeka?”
     “My . . . The what?”
     “How is she doing? Is there any word on her condition? We’d love to talk to her when she comes out of the coma.”
     Panic crashed over Finn as she tried to process what she was hearing. Her mother, in a coma. This much Finn could understand, the words lining up with their proper meaning, an entire library of reference points tumbling out of her mental archive. Coma, noun: A state of deep unconsciousness that lasts for an indefinite period, from the Greek koma, meaning “deep sleep.” The rest, she had no idea. She hadn’t been home to Thunder Bay in over three years, hadn’t spoken to her mother in probably six months, with the exception of a few brief emails, which meant months and months of blanks she couldn’t fill in. It had been working for her. As long as she filled her days with the present, then the past didn’t exist – she could pretend she just sprang fully formed from the earth, or just willed herself into being all on her own. But now it was cracking open, this entire potential world of things Finn didn’t know. On the other side of the yard, Max chased his tail, and Finn watched him, mesmerized, as he turned around and around, her own brain spinning along with him.
    “Ms. Parker?”
    “No comment,” Finn mumbled and hung up. There were choices to make now, courses of action to decide on – it was almost as though she could see them all, playing out in front of her like movies over­lapping on a screen. She picked the only one she could handle.
     Her brother, Shawn, answered on the seventh ring, out of breath and annoyed.
     “What the hell is going on?” she asked.
     “Oh. Finn.” Shawn said her name as though he’d just remem­bered her existence. When was the last time she’d talked to him? Two weeks ago? Eight? “Can I call you back? It’s not a good time.”
     Finn made a fist and jammed it into her thigh to keep from screaming. “Not a good time? I just found out my mother is in a coma from a fucking reporter.”
     “I was going to call you.”
     “Of course you were,” said Finn. “I’m sure I was at the very top of your list of priorities.”
     Shawn sighed. “I just got to the hospital. I have to find some­one to cover for me at the restaurant. And I still have to figure out who’s going to pick up the kids.” Shawn’s boys were named Tommy and Petey. That way, Shawn always said, when they were grown-ups they could be Thomas and Peter. And then when they were old men, they could be Tom and Pete. Their names could be modi­fied to fit any stage of life. Finn imagines Shawn likes this because Shawn was just Shawn, you couldn’t even make a nickname out of it except for maybe Shawny, which sounded less like a person and more like a town or a piece of farm equipment.
     Shawn’s wife’s name was Katriina. No one ever called her any­thing but Katriina.
     “First you need to tell me what’s going on,” Finn said. She started pacing the yard, the too-long grass prickling her bare feet. “The reporter said something about Kakabeka Falls?”
     “Yeah.” In the background, she could hear a tinny voice dron­ing over a loudspeaker, an unintelligible din that Shawn practically had to yell over. “She went over.”
     “She . . . went over?”
     “The falls, Finn. She went over the fucking falls.”
     “Oh my god. When?” asked Finn, hoping to hell it wasn’t two days ago, two weeks ago, two months ago.
     “This morning.”
     The droning stopped. In the resulting quiet, Finn could hear her own heart firing off in her chest.        “She got caught in the cur­rent?” she asked hopefully. But somewhere inside her, she knew what the answer was.
     “No.” Finn heard the sound of a door closing. “Kate went over the falls on purpose,” Shawn said, his voice low.
     And there it was. “How do you know?”
     There was a long pause. “She was in a barrel,” Shawn said. “One of Hamish’s,” he added, as if it made any difference whose barrel it was.
     Finn sat back down on the step. She had a sudden, sharp memory of her mother, years ago, standing in her kitchen on Victor Street, talking about something she had seen on television. Annie Edson Taylor, that was it, a sixty-three-year-old woman who was the first person to go over Niagara Falls and survive. Finn remembered Kate sighing, gazing out the window at a far-off place in history that seemed so much prettier from a distance, saying, “I don’t know. Doesn’t it just seem like there’s nothing left to be first at these days?”
     “Finn?” said Shawn. “Are you still there?”
     How would a normal person react to this news? What would someone else’s daughter say? Finn took a sip of coffee and swal­lowed it before she realized it had gone cold. On the other side of the yard, Max was having a stand-off with a squirrel in a pine tree. She couldn’t see the squirrel but she could hear it chattering away, taunting him. “Well, is she going to be okay?” Finn asked finally.
     “No, she’s not going to be okay, Finn. She’s in a coma.” Shawn paused. “You need to come back to Thunder Bay. You need to come home.”
     Finn closed her eyes. “I don’t think I can.”
     “You know why.”
     Shawn sighed. “Come on, Finn, it’s been three years. Grow up.”
     She wished she was on a cell phone and not the cordless, so she could pretend that the call had been dropped. Shawn still talked to her as if she were a teenager, even though he was only four years older. He wasn’t even her real brother. He was just some street kid who hopped trains and sold drugs and lived in a tent in the woods behind the house where she grew up – until the day he stopped the family car from crushing Kate after she forgot to put on the emergency brake and it started rolling down the driveway towards her. After that, he started sleeping in their basement. “We could use a man around the house while your father’s away,” Kate had said to Finn and her twin sister, Nicki, winking at the scrawny kid with a forehead full of pimples and the ratty beginnings of a moustache, as though he could actually be mistaken for a man. “You know, someone to look after us girls.” Her mother’s idea of irony, Finn supposed. None of them had ever needed looking after. Not then.
     “You need to look after us girls,” Finn said under her breath.
     “What?” Shawn said.
     “Nothing.” Years later, she found out that the only reason Shawn had been there to save Kate is because he was trying to steal propane from their barbecue so he could do hot knives with a blowtorch. “How’s Dad taking it?” she asked.
     “Walter’s out on the lake with a research team. He won’t be back for a couple of days.” Shawn paused again. “Nicki’s pretty upset, though, in case you wanted to know.”
     “Right,” said Finn, rolling her eyes. “She still in rehab for that toe?”
     “Oh my god, get over yourself, Finnie.”
     In the background, Finn suddenly heard Katriina, clear as her own thoughts, say, “Who’s Finnie?” Katriina was from Finland – which Finn used to think of as her land until she met Katriina and realized it would never be anything but Katriina’s land, even though Katriina has lived in Canada for most of her life. Sometimes Finn suspects Katriina just pretends to not understand what people are saying in order to seem more exotic.
     “Serafina,” said Shawn, muffling the phone to keep Finn from hearing Katriina’s response.
     Finn tucked the phone between her ear and her shoulder and walked across the yard to clip the leash to Max’s collar. The back­yard was fenced, but Max, while in a particularly focused state, had been known to fly right over it. “I can’t just drop everything and come back,” she said to the muffled phone. “I have stuff going on.”
     “What stuff?” Shawn asked.
     “Stuff.” She had no stuff, of course. She worked from home. She didn’t have a boyfriend, a sex life, or even a social life. Max wasn’t even her dog – she just took care of him for her neighbour, Dave, a divorced plumber with every-second-weekend kids and a Charger up on blocks in his backyard. She didn’t even have any plants to water.
     “You are coming home, Finn,” Shawn said. She could hear the Shawn-ness in his voice. He might as well have called her “young lady.” “Kate will wake up, and she will need you. She’s not doing good, Finnie.”
     Finn shaded her eyes, searching the tree’s branches for the squirrel. She finally spotted it, halfway up, nibbling delicately on a pine cone, which it promptly hurled in Max’s general direc­tion. “Superman does good,” Finn said. It was one of her favourite expressions, which also might explain why she had no friends.
     Max took off towards the squirrel like a sprinter at the starting gun, so fast that he ripped the leash from her hands. The phone tumbled to the ground. The squirrel tore farther up the tree and bounded lightly to a power line, and then was gone. When Finn picked up the phone again, Shawn was gone, too. Max trotted over to her, tongue hanging out, unfazed by his defeat, and licked her hand.
     “Mom does well,” Finn said to him. Although even Max knew it wasn’t true.
     She led Max into her townhouse instead of taking him back over to Dave’s, and because she didn’t know what else to do, she decided to try to get some work done. Finn was a technical writer, writing warning labels for small appliances made by a division of some multinational conglomerate called UniTech. They sent her the raw data and she translated them into plain English, something that people like her neighbour Dave or her sister, Nicki, would be able to understand. Well, Dave, anyway. The people at UniTech barely knew her name – most of the time they just referred to her as “the warning girl” – something she is sure her family has been calling her behind her back for years. But before she could even open a document, the phone rang again.
     “Ms. Parker,” a man said. “This is Lance Goodman from Citytv. Would you be interested in talking to someone on camera about the Conqueror of Kakabeka?” Finn hung up and then unplugged her phone. After three more voicemails were left on her cell, she turned that off, too.
     She stared blankly at her computer screen for half an hour before realizing she was not going to get any work done. And so she opened her email. The only message in her inbox was from a co-worker whose emails were almost exclusively forwards of stupid jokes, “inspirational” quotes, chain letters, and panicked warnings about lottery scams and chloroform-wielding rapists in parking garages. Finn was about to delete the email when she noticed that the subject line, buried beside a long line of fw:fw:fw:, read “The Conqueror of Kakabeka: must watch!”
     Oh god, she thought. No. I can’t. And yet her finger travelled over the touchpad, scrolled past the lines of addresses to find a small blue link buried at the bottom. Don’t do this. You don’t want to do this. Slowly, she brought the cursor over the link and clicked.
     She immediately recognized Kakabeka Falls, the “Niagara of the North” and one of northwestern Ontario’s most recognizable landmarks. The video was shot from the first viewing platform, where she had stood countless times, posing for family photos with the water crashing over the precipice behind them. The video panned across the top of the falls, and in the background she could hear the oohs and aahs of tourists. Suddenly the camera jerked back towards the centre. “What’s that?” a voice asked.
     The camera zoomed in, and Finn could clearly see a barrel hur­tling down the river towards the edge of the falls. She could also see a face peering over the rim. Her mother’s face. Then the barrel dropped off the edge, crashed with a loud bang against something jutting out from the centre of the falls, flipped in midair, and dis­appeared into the frothy pool below.
     “Holy shit,” the voice said. “That was a lady in a motherfuck­ing barrel!”
     When Finn and Nicki were young, their mother used to tell them the story of Green Mantle, an Ojibwe princess who saved her father’s tribe from certain destruction by leading their Sioux attackers down the Kaministiquia River and over Kakabeka Falls to their deaths, including her own. If you look closely enough, Kate would say, you can see the image of Green Mantle in the mist at the bottom of the falls. From then on, every time they vis­ited the falls, the girls would climb down to the lowest platform built into the escarpment and stare hard into the mist, waiting for Green Mantle to appear. It never happened, but they waited anyway, until their father started complaining their parking pass was about to expire, or Kate’s camera ran out of film. Why couldn’t they see her? Finn wondered. What were they being punished for? Did they not believe hard enough? Were they not true-hearted enough? The failure of magic can be tough on little girls.
     Now, watching her mother’s own epic plunge, Finn couldn’t help but think of Green Mantle. Thankfully Kate, unlike Green Mantle, did not die. According to the news reports, her barrel – white oak with a steel rim, which Finn knew was used by her brother-in-law, Hamish, to make bootleg whisky in the back shed – was carried on the Kaministiquia River to the precipice of the falls, then plunged forty catastrophic metres over the edge. The barrel hit the shale cliff face halfway down the falls with a sound like a gunshot, then flipped into the air before disappearing into the mist gathered in the gorge, carved twenty thousand years ago into the Precambrian Shield by meltwater from the last gla­cial maximum. The barrel stayed submerged for another twenty metres before bobbing to the surface of the Kam and beaching itself on the western bank.
     The rescue team called the coroner. Radio stations cut into Rush and Nickleback to report the death of a woman at Kakabeka Falls. No one was making a joke of it yet, but they would – it’s natural selection, they said, modern-day Darwinism, where the stupid will fail to survive. But in the end it was Kate who had the last laugh – Kate with her two broken ribs, a fractured pelvis, two chipped front teeth, a ripped-off pinky nail, and a severe concus­sion. The barrel, the reports said, was actually what saved her life – hitting the rock face directly on one of the steel rings, which kept it from shattering, then trapping her in an air bubble when it flipped over, which saved her from drowning. No one could figure out how she didn’t get pulled down into the whirlpool. A one-in-a-million chance. Survival of the blind-luckiest. The giant pain in Darwin’s ass, smiling meekly on the homepage of the local news site, waving a trembling hand to the camera from the back of an ambulance before slipping into a coma on her way to the hospital.
     “I’m not going home,” Finn said to Max, who just stared at her. “I’m not.”
     Max spun around once and thumped down on the floor with a sigh, resting his chin on his paws.
     She knew Max was right. If she didn’t go home now, she would never be able to go home again.

Excerpted from We're All in This Together by Amy Jones. Copyright © 2016 by Amy Jones. Excerpted by permission of McClelland and Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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