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"OF COURSE IT COULDN'T HAPPEN, sweetie." Gwyn sat on the bed and stroked her son's cheek. When he didn't lean away from her touch she felt even more annoyed with the babysitter. Then with herself for needing one. "It was just a movie."
Now he did pull away, with an irritated wriggle. "I know it was a movie."
Did he? He so often surprised her, expressing ideas that seemed advanced for his age one minute and showing a complete lack of common sense the next. Maybe all children were like that. Iris had told her about a boy down the street who was convinced Bruce Willis had really saved the planet from an asteroid.
What was Mrs. Henderson thinking? If she wanted to rent a video instead of playing or taking a walk, what about Shrek for a five-year-old? Or Aladdin? Not a disaster movie, especially one that showed the poor kid's entire country getting flash frozen. Chris knew where Winnipeg was on the map. He knew that according to The Day After Tomorrow he and his house were under ice right now. No, from what he'd told her, it was worse than that. He and she and everybody else in the neighborhood were ice right now.
He looked so small in his bed, nearly edged out by stuffed animals. The boy-size giant panda from his grandparents had pretty much taken over. It was his favorite. He liked the realistic ones the best, the panda and the tiger and the polar bear. Anything related to nature and science got his attention. Animals and plants, earthquakes and volcanos, rocket ships and the solar system. None of it had scared him before.
"You know," she said, "the hero in the movie wasn't really a scientist. He was an actor saying his lines. The way you did in the play at Christmas."
"Somebody wrote the lines."
"Sure, but not a scientist. A screenwriter, making up a story. Just like somebody made up Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Do you think mother and father bears really live with their children in pretty cabins with furniture and porridge?"
He almost smiled. "Maybe."
"An ocean couldn't flood a city so quickly. Could it?"
"Maybe it could."
"All that water, freezing in seconds? It doesn't make sense."
"They said there's a mammoth, a real-life mammoth, frozen solid with grass in its mouth." He emphasized the last words. Grass in its mouth. "A real mammoth, Mom. That part wasn't make-believe."
Her feet were aching, and she really wanted to have a cool bath and change her clothes. She knew there was a point she was supposed to be getting about this animal but she just wasn't. "So it died during dinner. These things happen. Maybe it took too big a mouthful and choked."
"Then it froze." He tried to snap his fingers. They rubbed together with hardly a sound.
Now she got it. A real mammoth froze instantly, like the flood waters and the people in the movie. "An animal that big freezing all at once, right down to the meal it was eating? Do you believe that, Chris?"
"People say all kinds of things. I promise, cross my heart, there's no such creature. We'll go to the museum tomorrow and prove it. How's that?"
He nodded, but he still looked worried. He didn't even ask if they could go to the gift shop for astronaut's ice cream.
"Ah, hon. Come here." Gwyn held out her arms and Chris climbed onto her lap without hesitation, the way he used to do. The panda fell behind him, grabbing more space in the bed while it could. She tried to memorize the feeling of small limbs and back curled against her, and the smell of soft hair under her nose. One day soon he wouldn't accept this kind of comfort. Not even on a bad day.
"I wish we'd seen the movie together. We could have had popcorn and laughed whenever it was silly. That's what your dad would have done."
Chris looked at the wall across from them. Enough light came through the window that they could make out the mural they'd painted together during her holidays last summer. Considering she didn't have the slightest spark of artistic ability and he was four at the time she thought it had turned out pretty well. Blue sky and white clouds, smooth green for grass with tufts spiked here and there where they'd tried for realism, trees with bird nests on branches and a small, square house with a triangle roof and white-petaled daisies by the door.
No stick-figure family, though. Instead they'd hung photographs, all of Chris's father. Blowing out three birthday candles, riding his bicycle, draping Bay of Fundy seaweed over his head. By the middle of the wall, he'd grown up. In one picture he wore his high school graduation gown, in another he held a salmon as long as his arm. The last two showed him standing beside a Canadian Forces helicopter, and smiling with Gwyn on their wedding day.
"Your dad knew all about the weather. He had to, to be in a flight crew. What do you think he'd say about huge sheets of ice springing up all over the place?"
"He'd say, "Nonsense. Couldn't happen." Not quite. His choice of words would have given the message some added energy.
Chris stared at her with Duncan's eyes — intent, dark blue. They weren't showing any of Duncan's lightheartedness, though. That was something she didn't see in their son very often. Shouldn't a boy named for Christopher Robin be more playful?
"You're not scared of it, Mom?"
"Not for a second."
"I'll check the weather one more time. Okay?"
He climbed off her lap and ran to the living room. Over the droning hum of the air conditioner Gwyn heard the television come on, snippets of music and talking as he rushed through the channels, then a woman's soothing voice mixing the forecast with motherly advice.
"Across the Prairies we'll see above normal temperatures again tomorrow and for the rest of the week. The humidity will make it feel even warmer, so be sensible if you need to be active outside. Drink lots of water and remember to use sunscreen. That's especially important in the middle of the day when UV levels will be at their highest. Firefighters and farmers have been asking for rain, but it looks as if they'll be waiting for a while yet."
Maybe that would reassure him. After an early spring and more April showers than they'd known what to do with there wasn't a drop of moisture in sight, let alone a brand-new wall of ice.
DAVID BRETTON LAY as flat as he could in the bottom of the canoe. His life jacket lumped under him, his knees jammed hard against the canoe's center thwart and the edge of the seat dug into the back of his head.
Drifting downstream without looking where he was going was a dumb thing to do — he could hit a log or other debris — but he didn't think he was creating a hazard for anyone else. He was alone on the river. There were no motorboats, no teams from the canoe club, and there were never any swimmers. No one chose to swim in the Red River. The currents could suck you down, silt clouded the water and he didn't even want to think about the bacteria count.
He shifted his weight, trying to find more room for his legs, but only managed to bang his knees. The view was worth a few bruises. Out of the corners of his eyes he could see trees and the tall, narrow rectangles of downtown buildings. Traffic and crowds and noise receded. Looking up instead of ahead was as good as a holiday. It gave him a different perspective, filled his mind with quiet and a sense of timelessness that he sometimes welcomed. The planetarium captured that: the small band of human activity hugging the ground and the vast sweep of sky above.
A very clear sky right now. No sign of wind or even a breeze, no dusty haze, no cloud, no contrails. Just a pink and violet sunset in the west and a slowly darkening blue everywhere else. Plain sailing from the ground to the thermosphere. The only sign of an upward boundary was the moon. A crescent tonight.
It looked so still up there it gave the impression nothing was going on. Not true. Plenty was going on. Air masses swirled all the time, moving heat from the equator and cold from the poles, deciding — along with the ocean currents — how each day would be. How everything would be.
Even the water he floated in, this warm, dirty liquid, was part of the cycle. It flowed in from Minnesota and North Dakota then up through Lake Winnipeg and eventually found its way into cold, clear Hudson Bay. He told schoolkids who came to the museum to think of human circulation, blood carrying oxygen and nutrients all over the body and helping to regulate its temperature. Most of the time they looked at him with blank, incurious faces — how could the Earth be like a human body? — but sometimes he saw understanding click into place.
The jet stream was invisible, but it was up there, too. Misbehaving lately, curving way up north, drawing warm gulf air into the Hudson Bay lowlands. Thirty-one degrees Celsius in Churchill today. What was that in Fahrenheit? High eighties. The polar bears must have thought they'd been thrown into some southern zoo.
Balancing his weight so the canoe wouldn't rock, David sat up. His plan had been to relax and get some exercise, take his mind off work. Good luck with that. His mind was always on work. It was why Jess had left him. Three years ago now — longer than they'd been together.
"Everything is science with you," she'd said one evening after dinner in the middle of what he'd thought was an enjoyable washing-up conversation. "Everything is science," he'd replied. It was true, but a bad answer under the circumstances.
Her voice had gotten louder. She'd told him he didn't have a drop of romance in him. It must have really bugged her, because she'd underscored the point. "Not a single drop, David." Accusingly. By then he'd been annoyed and he hadn't seen that this discussion was different from the others. So he'd started to explain the science of romance. Next thing he knew he was divorced.
Two sentences — one, really — that summed up the problem. Everything was science. He took an evening on the Red with a setting sun and a faintly glowing ivory moon and riverbanks full of trees and turned it into a satellite image of the weather.
That didn't bother him — in fact, it suited him fine — but he'd never met a woman who was okay with it. Even the weather girl he'd gone out with for a while thought meteorology had its time and place, generally at twenty minutes past the hour on the morning, noon and evening shows. He didn't get that. It wasn't incidental: it was central. The history of humankind was firmly tied to weather and climate. So was its future.
David shifted onto his heels, then dipped the paddle into the water, sweeping it in shallow arcs from back to front and front to back. The canoe began to turn. As it came around he felt the catch of the current. Closer to shore it would be less powerful, but he stayed put.
Right hand on top of the paddle, left on the shaft, he reached ahead and dug the blade into the water. He pulled it through and lifted it out, a quick count, no breaks between or he'd be going north, the way the river wanted. He put the strength of his whole body into each stroke and soon sweat poured off him. His shoulders and upper arms burned.
Just when he was ready for a break he rounded a loop in the river and the current was gone. He took a minute to work the ache out of his muscles, then continued paddling at a leisurely pace.
This was a quiet spot, his childhood playground, behind the backyards of the street where his parents still lived. Through the trees he caught glimpses of the screened porch and a light in an upstairs window. They'd be settling down, feeling dozy, weighing the immediate benefit of tea with lemon versus the annoyance of getting up during the night. He'd be seeing them for breakfast in the morning. A hot breakfast. Something must be up. Nothing bad, though. They hadn't sounded worried when they called.
One more stretch of hard paddling and he was home. Mosquitoes found him as soon as he drew alongside the wooden dock. Swatting with one hand, he lifted the canoe to his shoulder and carried it to the boathouse. He used his building's back entrance and took the service elevator to the twenty-second floor. His door locked behind him as it closed.
He gulped two glasses of water, then drank a third more slowly on his way to the shower. He turned the tap off to soap up, on to rinse. Air drying helped him cool down a little more, then he climbed into a pair of drawstring pajama bottoms and switched on his laptop.