Watershed (a novel excerpt)
Written by Doreen Vanderstoop and reprinted with permission from Freehand Books
The faint hiss of airbrakes sounded above the wind. Willa Van Bruggen looked eastward and shielded her eyes against the May morning light. The sun lay low in the sky—a beautiful, terrible, celestial raspberry coloured by dust and by smoke drifting in from forest fires in Northern Washington State and British Columbia.
Crystel Canada’s double water-tanker hove into view at the top of the hill, the shine of its silver barrels dulled by the dusty air. Airbrakes again—intermittent now, like sharp intakes of breath—as the rig inched down toward the Van Bruggen farm. Drivers had to keep their speed in check, so water surges didn’t send the vehicles careening out of control.
Last night’s conversation with her only son had been running through Willa’s mind all morning. Daniel had video-called her to share the news about getting an interview with Crystel Canada.
“I’ll be working for the federal Crown corporation keeping Southern Alberta from turning into Death Valley,” he said. Daniel shook his head as if his point were obvious and he didn’t understand why she wasn’t getting it. She wasn’t. She wanted him back. Needed him to help them keep the farm afloat. Daniel tried again. “It’s like a banker getting a job with the Bank of Canada or an art dealer with the National Gallery of Canada. Crystel operates for profit at arms’ length from government, but the feds guarantee the cash flow in case of financial trouble. They won’t let the water pipeline fail.”
As he spoke, her mind drifted back to a time when she and young Daniel crept into the loft of the hay barn to check out a new litter of kittens. She’d marvelled at how gently his little fingers stroked their silky fur. But he was strong willed, too—always arguing that he was ready to take on the next big farm job. Back then, she couldn’t imagine he’d ever leave.
He told her the job with Crystel would be a dream come true.
Smile, Willa commanded herself. Congratulate him. But the muscles around her mouth refused to budge.
The phone screen relayed the hopeful twitch of his eyebrows. “Aren’t you happy for me?” he asked. “I can finally start to tackle my debt.”
“Of course I’m happy,” she said, the words like a mouthful of sand.
Daniel ran a hand across the top of his head and let it nest in his thick hair, as yellow as ripe wheat. His blue eyes shone. “My master’s is paying off. And I’ve made great contacts. No one is hiring, but my friend, Percy Dickenson, got me this interview. Brilliant guy. Double majored in political science and hydrogeology. Now he’s a bigshot in the provincial water ministry.”
“I’m glad you can get on top of your debt.” Her tiny image in the corner of the screen looked glad, didn’t it? “I just wish you were coming home.”
Daniel’s face disappeared as he tilted the phone away. She saw the dingy ceiling tiles in his basement apartment, then his face filled the screen again.
“Listen to me, Mom. I’m a professional now. I don’t want to fight dust and wind on a few lousy acres of dried out farmland. I want to help everyone. I’ve been looking for a year. A lot of grads from the Class of 2057 are still out of work. They’d kill for this opportunity. I can’t make ends meet with half shifts at the Breakfast Barn.”
Neither spoke for a full uncomfortable minute.
“I’m staying in Calgary,” Daniel said.
Now, Willa’s eyes followed the water truck as she pulled her dual-cartridge dust mask over her head. Her fingers fumbled with the webbed strapping that always tugged at her unruly curls. “Damn this thing,” she muttered. Still, it prevented Valley Fever. Few Albertans were immune to the fungal disease that had migrated north from Arizona. Her sister, Sophie, had barely survived it.
Daniel’s description of home had stung Willa. The place where he’d nurtured those damn cats, torn down old sheds, built new ones, branded calves once upon a time—all of that reduced to ‘a few lousy acres.’ He’d once sniffed at a pitchfork full of timothy grass and said farms had the best smells in the world. Willa tried to associate “hydrogeologist” with the deeply familiar image of Daniel as a boy, but the two concepts flowed through her mind like water and oil.
As she snugged the floppy silicone mask around her nose and mouth, a desert whitetail landed on her arm. Another import from Arizona, but this one a hard worker that devoured hundreds of flying insects a day. The dragonfly wriggled its wide, black-tipped wings and chalky body. Willa had heard somewhere that they were territorial. She could relate to that. Her head began to ache. She checked the straps to make sure the mask wasn’t too tight. It wasn’t. When Willa looked up, she froze. Where the water tanker had been, an army tank now ripped through the barbed wire fence around the field. Bounced wildly through fallow ruts and divots. The main gun pointed at her. Caterpillar treads churned up the ground like enormous black teeth.
Willa staggered backward and toppled over. A horn blasted and airbrakes screamed. She turned slowly to find herself an arm’s length from the front bumper of the water truck.
Alain Dupré jumped out of the driver’s seat and ran to her side. “Willa, you all right?” Alain’s dust mask muffled his voice, but his Quebecois accent was thick with fear. “Tabernac—I thought you were going right under my goddamn tires.” He shot a frenzied look toward the house and the barn.
Willa sat up and pointed at the field. He looked over with a puzzled frown. She said, “I . . . I saw a . . .” Where the tank had been, a dust devil pirouetted across the field.
“What the hell you talking about, Willa? You fell like a sack of hammers.”
She shook her head and scanned the smooth ground by her feet. “I must have tripped over a rock. I’m tired. Not sleeping well.”
Alain helped Willa to her feet and held her elbow. He glanced back at the farm buildings again.
Willa took one long gasping breath through her mask and smacked her hands against her dusty jeans. “If you’re looking for Calvin, he’s in the barn. I’m fine.” Her and Alain’s masked voices sounded half dead in her ears. “Just fine.” She waved him on. “Go, go. Do your job already.”
He backed away slowly, then climbed back into the cab and threaded the tanker truck around the house to the cistern. Willa followed, massaging her temples. The day before, she thought she saw a coyote in the milking shed. A week ago, the sink and mirror awash with blood as she brushed her teeth. The illusions hadn’t lasted long but seemed so real. Maybe she’d contracted Valley Fever despite the mask. Could the fungus make a person crazy? She’d never heard of that happening, but perhaps it had mutated during its migration, now able to wend its way into a person’s neural pathways. She’d have to search that.
Daniel Brookes gripped the railing as he crossed the Langevin Bridge toward downtown Calgary. A hefty west wind kicked dust around the dry Bow River riverbed. He passed through the castellated wall that encircled Calgary’s core. Built to resist flood water from storms and melting glaciers, the wall now imprisoned the city’s hollow-eyed skyscrapers. Surging oceans, ruinous storms, and crippling droughts had finally sent developed and developing countries into backflips to curb carbon. Oil barons had been chased out of Calgary’s plush offices in the 2040s by the world’s intolerance for unconventional oil and its untenable footprint of emissions and tar ponds.
As Dan strode up Macleod Trail toward Stephen Avenue, he skirted an overturned sedan, half-on, half-off the sidewalk near the Municipal Building. A single file of commuters bypassed the derelict car. Most wore dual-cartridge dust masks, as he did, a line of ants weaving around an obstruction. Unfazed, single-minded. He found comfort in the pad and click of their shoes on pavement. The sound of order and determination.
Calgary had become a study in extremes: serene by day and frantically agitated at night. City police couldn’t keep up with the chaos caused by rowdy hordes that came out after dark to hurl rocks and insults about uncaring governments. A nine o’clock curfew had done nothing to quell the violence and destruction. Just that morning, Mayor Vaillancourt announced they couldn’t afford to hire more police officers. He declared a state of emergency and said he had appealed to the federal government to deploy Canadian Forces personnel to patrol the downtown core. The mayor said City Council would make sure the light-rail transit system kept running. As if the whirr of electric arms stroking overhead wires and the hum of Ctrain wheels on shiny tracks signalled that Calgary was still a civilized place.
Dan pushed his hands further into the pockets of his dress pants. Paper bags, food wrappers, and bits of fluffy pink insulation swirled in windy eddies around his legs as he rounded the corner onto Stephen Avenue. On Olympic Plaza, a wide outdoor court built for the 1988 Winter Olympics, a man half sang, half shouted through a bull horn about his saviour, Jesus Christ, who would help them all get back on their feet again. A long queue of ragged men and women snaked through the plaza. They shuffled patiently toward sandwiches and paper cups of water. Bull-horn Man had one hand on a wooden cross with the words “repent” and “believe” painted on the crossbar. A banner hung on each side of the serving table. One read, “Jesus is coming back.” The other listed the Ten Commandments. As someone with no religious affinity, Dan was curious what motivated the proselytizers to help the downtrodden—charity or conversion. He supposed it wasn’t either-or, but a complicated marriage of the two.
As Dan strode up the mall, he sidestepped islands of broken window glass and homeless people strewn along the sidewalk like monuments to a failed society. Most of the mendicants had signs propped beside them begging for money and bottled water. He imagined himself in their place. Time was ticking down on the two months’ grace Mrs. Winstead had given him on his rent after his grant money ran out. His student loans would be due soon. None of that could be managed on short-order-cook wages at the Breakfast Barn.
Outside the Telesat Convention Centre, a man sat cross-legged on the sidewalk. The mug he held out contained a few coins. His sign, neatly printed and correctly spelled, read: “Help me get back to business.” Dan tossed a quarter in the man’s cup. “God bless you, son,” the man said, grinning, a gap where his front teeth should have been. Dan looked around. Little separated him or his parents or the people scurrying to work from this man’s fate. Dan would be thrilled to get the job at Crystel, except for the catch. A surge of nerves kicked him in the belly.
“I’ll get you the interview,” Percy Dickinson had told him, “but if Landrew hires you, I want you to be my eyes and ears at Crystel. On the sly, of course.” Percy’s intensity radiated through the phone screen. “The corporation has its own fucking coffers at heart, not the plight of Albertans. They’ll fucking divert our pipeline water to the thirsty U.S.” About Crystel’s CEO, Adam Landrew, his friend said, “A bead of sweat wouldn’t dare cross the man’s brow. He’d sell his grandmother for a loonie.”
Dan made his way up Centre Street to 9th Avenue. A crowd milled about outside the Fairmont Palliser as Dan passed by on the other side of the street. Like most hotels in the downtown core, the Palliser had been recommissioned as a homeless shelter until the city could get back on its feet. People tramped the red-carpeted steps day and night, clamouring for one of the coveted luxurious beds.
When Dan arrived at Crystel Canada Square at 9th Avenue and 4th Street, two burly security guards equipped with handguns and batons stopped him as the revolving door spat him inside. The man’s neck formed a thick, sinewy junction between his ears and shoulders; the woman wore a grimace made more ominous by a fat halo of black liner around each eye. Dan pulled off his dust mask and told them he had an interview with the President of Crystel. They looked him up and down in scornful disbelief. Each of them held one of his arms as they led him to the reception desk, apparently to disprove his ridiculous story. Assured of his peaceful mission, they showed him to the elevator and stood, arms crossed, until the doors closed.
Dan shook his head as the elevator started up to the 33rd floor. Security had become a growth industry as mountain snowpacks and ancient glaciers evaporated. When thousands of Albertans lost their jobs in the oil sands, civil unrest had crept in the way cold settles in the bones. Alberta, and all of Canada for that matter, had dragged behind the sustainability innovators. Bladeless wind turbines developed in Spain and Germany dotted urban and rural landscapes. American-made rooftop solar panels on homes and many cars kept high capacity Japanese nano-batteries juiced. Cheap natural gas from China heaped efficient fuel on the transportation sector. Southern Alberta needed to rise from the ashes. The water pipeline would be a good first step.
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Doreen Vanderstoop is a writer based in Calgary, Alberta whose short fiction has appeared in Prairie Fire Magazine and online at Montreal Serai, prairiejournal.org, epiphmag.com, and Alexandra Writers’ Centre, among others. Doreen’s debut novel, Watershed, was published by Freehand Books and released in May 2020. Watershed has received critical acclaim, appearing frequently on best seller lists in Alberta. Doreen has participated in author panels at Word on the Street Toronto, Victoria Festival of Authors and the Calgary Public Library. She also appeared on the National Arts Centre’ Canada Performs series. Watershed was picked as the second book in the Alberta Reads Book Club hosted by the Book Publishers Association of Alberta. Doreen also sings, plays guitar, and performs oral stories of all kinds for audiences of all ages.