Sarah Spellings slipped into the world like a harbour seal, floppy and wet, with slick black hair and round, dark, heavily-lashed eyes. She was eight weeks old when an earthquake struck and the Highbury Avenue bridge collapsed, majestic arcs of steel and chunks of concrete plummeting into the churning water of the Fraser River below. Sarah could picture the bridge because her father, Tony Spellings, kept before-and-after pictures in a thick yellow envelope. On rainy days, Sarah would rest her head on her father’s shoulder while he shuffled a stack of photos and newspaper clippings.
“This one was taken before before Wailsmouth Street was a dead end. Look—that’s Highbury Avenue, right there.”
Sarah turned the grainy photo, trying to understand what she saw. The picture showed a broad, leafy boulevard, but nowadays Wailsmouth Street ended in twisted chain-link fencing, a few clumps of daffodils, and a rubble-strewn ravine.
“Your mother and I used to ride our bikes over the bridge, all the way to Vancouver.”
“What would you guys do there?” Sarah asked. She liked imagining her parents together.
“Oh, nothing much.” Tony Spellings said, closing his eyes. “Buy groceries, I guess. Salt fish from Chinatown, coffee from Commercial Drive.”
Sarah’s father’s eyeballs roamed under creased eyelids. Was he thinking about her mother? After a moment he sighed, opened his eyes, and chose another photo.
“Ha! This is you, when you were a baby. Picking cherry tomatoes in the community garden.”
A thump came from a distant room, followed by a thin complaint.
Tony sighed. He ran a hand through wiry grey hair, and rose from the couch. Sarah’s little brother Sammy had been born during an earthquake too, one that had coincided with a violent storm. The neighbourhood had flooded, a chasm had opened up, and the whole of Highbury Avenue had been washed into a muddy abyss. Sarah’s mother couldn’t get to a hospital in time, and Sammy was a bear cub, wide bum and burly shoulders. Her brother had come out backwards, everything had gone wrong, and Victoria Spellings had died.
Sarah’s father returned with a tousle-haired, sleepy-eyed Sammy. The little family sat in silence. Sarah gazed out a west-facing window toward Vancouver, a ruined city full of crime and looting. Her father said Parleyment, the tattered remains of the country’s central government, was organizing to rebuild Vancouver, and Sarah’s stomach hardened with anxiety. Parleyment wanted the return of factories and gas-powered trucks, which meant bad smells and deadly chemicals. Before Sarah was born, the Planet Protection Laws had regulated climate polluters, but since the earthquakes, police had been too busy handling emergencies to enforce the PPLs.
Mister Nickel, who lived next door to the Spellings, supported Parleyment’s return. He combed his hair severely across his forehead and kept his teeth sparkling and his clothes pressed, as if he had an important meeting in an executive boardroom to attend. His black leather shoe-heels clicked when he walked. Mister Nickel despised children. He smoked, a rare habit since cigarettes had been outlawed.
“Where does he get them?” Tony Spellings would ask, as if Sarah could guess the contraband source of Mister Nickel’s smokes. Together they would watch in dismay as their neighbour sprayed his red pickup truck with clean water, a cigarette dangling from his narrow lips.
Mister Nickel smoked, wasted water and dressed weird, but the strangest thing about him was his dog, Rumpus, a friendly brown-and-white terrier with a perpetually wagging tail. How could someone as ill-tempered as Mister Nickel own such a sweet dog, Sarah wondered? She loved animals, Rumpus most of all, and the dog adored her too because she fed him. On nights when she wasn’t ravenous, Sarah snuck meat scraps and crusts of bread into her pockets. Rumpus would run gleefully to greet her, which annoyed Mister Nickel.
“Get back here, you mangy sack of fur!”
Violet Smacker, who also supported Parleyment, lived at the other end of Wailsmouth Street. She flirted with Mister Nickel, teetering on sparkly high-heeled shoes, hair a mass of bleached blonde curls and face smeared with cosmetics, her shrill giggles piercing the air. She painted her nails, and complained bitterly about the lack of salons and Caribbean vacations.
On the other hand, there was Murdock. Sarah didn’t know his last name. Murdock was the neighbourhood rebel, a few years older than her judging by wispy hairs on his chin and upper lip. He wore black clothing and rode his mountain bike down the ravine’s steep embankment. Sarah would stand at the top of the precipice and watch him descend, dirt spraying from his tires. Expertly Murdock would maneuver an obstacle course of wreckage, then balance on fallen tree trunks and roll into the wild woods, right past the DANGER – KEEP OUT sign. Sarah longed to explore the forest, but her father had strictly forbidden it. On windy days, swaying green treetops beckoned like fingers.
As she grew, Sarah discovered her neighbours couldn’t be easily separated into good and bad. On a fine spring day, she heard the buzz of a gas-powered motor and peeked outside to see Murdock whip past on a battered Japanese motorcycle,breaking the PPL’s. And one summer night, overheated and sticky and unable to fall asleep, Sarah heard scratching at the back door. Her father slipped stealthily downstairs. She tiptoed after him and hid outside the kitchen, eavesdropping.
“What have you got for me?”
Recognizing Violet Smacker’s voice, Sarah’s thick black eyebrows shot up.
“Not much—this heat wave is wreaking havoc in the gardens,” Tony whispered. “How about a bunch of carrots, a handful of kale and two zucchinis?”
“It’s all I can spare. What’s your barter?”
“Bottle of red wine.”
“You know I don’t drink, Violet. No deal. What else have you got?”
“Oh, fine. Here.”
Sarah heard the distinctive crinkle of plastic wrap.
“What are these?” Tony asked.
“Noodles. I’ll trade you a box of twenty-four packages.”
“Are they stolen?”
She held her breath and strained her ears, but Sarah didn’t hear Violet’s answer. More rustling, click of the back door closing, her father’s footsteps approaching—Sarah dashed upstairs to her room, stretched out on her bed, and pretended to be asleep. The next day there were noodles with vegetables for the midday meal. Sammy, overjoyed, slurped greedily.
“Where did you get these noodles, Dad?” Sarah asked.
“Never mind. Just eat them.”
Sarah did as she was told, because she was hungry, but the starchy noodles stuck in her throat. Packaged food was stolen from abandoned warehouses, but she knew better than to complain.
Doug and Debbie Dwight managed the Wailsmouth community garden, and ensured no one took more than their share of fresh produce. The Dwights had gentle smiles, but Sarah had heard stories about them defending the gardens with fists and shovels. Their daughter, Levvy, wore an orange knit toque over mouse brown, messy hair, and carried a canvas book satchel everywhere she went. Sarah admired Levvy’s quirky style, but had never spoken to her. Caring for Sammy was partly Sarah’s job. She didn’t resent the motherly role, but sometimes it kept her from making friends; afraid of being rebuffed with a child in tow, Sarah kept her distance. At last, spotting Levvy was scribbling madly in a notebook one day, Sarah’s curiosity overcame her shyness.
“Whatcha doing?” Sarah asked.
Levvy kept writing, as if she hadn’t heard, and Sarah’s heart sank. Feeling silly, she snatched up Sammy’s hand and prepared to leave.
Levvy looked up, blinking owlishly. “Pavement around the community garden is wasted space,” she said. “A road-wrecking initiative would result in greater vegetable yields.”
Sarah considered this information. “Sammy and I could help you wreck roads.”
Levvy tilted her head, as if noticing her neighbours for the first time. Sarah was conscious of her scuffed leather work boots and baggy striped t-shirt. She ran a hand down her thick black braid, and rubbed her nose to remove smudges. Sammy was dirty everywhere.
“Okay, sure,” Levvy agreed. “You guys can be on the crew.”
The three of them spent a happy afternoon jamming crowbars into cracks, prying up chunks of asphalt, and exposing parched earth. Levvy was clever, full of scientific tidbits and observations. She tolerated Sammy’s exuberant presence, and quizzed him like a teacher on his letters and numbers. Sarah, Sammy and Levvy hung out most days after that, weeding the garden and sharing stories. Levvy had done things Sarah couldn’t imagine, like going for a ride in a gas-powered car, and having her teeth cleaned by a real dentist. Levvy claimed she saw the future in visions, but secretly Sarah doubted it.
On the night Sarah lost her family the solar cells were fully charged, so they were eating a cooked dinner of curried lentils. Sammy was seven, and Sarah thirteen. A wall of roiling, angry clouds sailed inland from the ocean, bearing down on Vancouver like a monstrous open mouth. A high wind tossed twigs, leaves, and bits of garbage against the windows. Sarah was scared; an anxious crease divided her forehead, and she picked nervously at her lentils.
“Batten down the hatches,” said her father, falsely bright. “This is gonna be a bad one.”
“Right on,” said Sammy. “I love storms.”
“Storms aren’t fun, they’re dangerous,” Sarah frowned. “Trees fall down, things blow away, and people get hurt.”
“Storms are cool,” said Sammy.
“I don’t think he gets it, Dad.”
“Well he wouldn’t,” Sarah’s father answered, around a mouthful of dinner. “The worst storms were before he was born. We haven’t had a truly devastating storm since…” Tony Spellings swallowed hard, and stared at the darkening sky. “This one looks like a humdinger.”
Sarah sensed her mother’s ghost, hovering in the kitchen.
At bedtime howling wind wouldn’t let Sarah sleep. Rain began falling near midnight, pattering relentlessly on the roof. Sarah got up and pressed her face to the window. Solar streetlights lit up rivers of mud and debris, streaked with uprooted spring plants. The house groaned like a giant waking up, and the floor shifted under Sarah’s feet. Her doorframe twisted, and the door popped open.
“Kids,” shouted Sarah’s father. “Exit stations!”
Sarah knew the drill. While her panicky father roused Sammy, she donned earthquake gear: warm jumper, fleece pants, wool socks, and rubber boots. From downstairs came the sound of glass shattering—hail pebbles were smashing the windows.
“Emergency packs,” ordered Tony Spellings.
Everyone kept an emergency kit handy, a backpack stuffed with first aid supplies, dried food, warm clothes, a jackknife, rope, candles, and matches or a lighter. The Spellings’ packs hung on hooks in the front hall. Sarah zipped herself into a rain suit and grabbed her pack. The house rumbled, and cracking sounds ricocheted down the staircase. Sammy whimpered as Sarah threaded his little arms through the straps of his backpack.
“Out—we have to get out NOW!”
Tony Spellings wrested the front door open. Outside, the storm raged. They were supposed to head for the community storm shelter, but wind shunted them like empty plastic bags, and Sarah couldn’t tell which way to move.
Sarah heard fragments of Mister Nickel’s voice, and squinted through curtains of rain, searching for the little dog.
“The house is going down—RUN!”
Sarah couldn’t make sense of the scene. Streams of water converged in a raging torrent around the Spellings’ house, and as she watched numbly, the only home Sarah had ever known cracked off its foundations, rotated in the flood, and sailed over the cliff where Highbury Avenue used to be.
Where her house had stood moments before, only a ridge of mud remained. Rain intensified, and water sloshed over Sarah’s boots. She turned to find her father and Sammy.
They were gone.
“Daddeeeeeeee!” Sarah screamed into blackness.
The ground beneath her feet gave way and Sarah slid, following her house into the ravine. She slapped at mud, seeking a handhold, but there was nothing. Her body veered from side to side, gaining momentum. As she went over the edge she squeezed her eyes shut, preparing to plummet to her death on rocks and debris. Instead, to her surprise, she splashed down in water.
The ravine had flooded! A strong current sought to sweep her downstream, toward the ocean, but Sarah flailed, found a tree root, and pulled herself upright. Peering up at the mudslide, she saw that getting back up was hopeless; a vertical wall of wet earth stood between her and Wailsmouth Street. Mister Nickel’s house stood where the Spellings house used to be. Half-wading and half-swimming, Sarah fought her way through wild, churning water, clawed herself onto the opposite bank, and scanned the top of the ravine for her father and Sammy: there was nothing but darkness and rain.
Tears tracked brown mud on her cheeks. The storm slapped her face with cold hands. A gust of wind gave her a shove, like an invisible bully. In the ravine, she spotted splintered remains of her home. Before her stood a forest she had never entered. Sarah was alone, at the whim of savage weather.
She allowed herself a minute of sobbing, then dug fingernails into palms, halting the flow of tears. What should she do next? She was bruised, but not badly hurt; she had an emergency pack, weatherproof clothes, and a meal in her belly. The storm would pass, and daylight would come. She would find her way up to Wailsmouth Street, and track down her family. For the moment, the woods were the best place to shelter. Sarah turned toward the trees, took a few steps, and stopped short. She stared in astonishment.
Ahead of her, standing implacably under a massive spruce tree, was Levvy.