Sam cursed at the ringing telephone. Minutes from her deadline, she was still fiddling with footage from the Minister of Education’s visit to Prince George. She let the call go to voicemail, but the ringing resumed immediately. Probably Ed, calling to reprimand her with some choice words about her ineptitude.
“Hello, Sam speaking.”
"Samantha Pope?" Not Ed.
"Yeah?" She said, her eyes back on the screen. She needed to smooth over an awkward jump cut in the B-roll.
"You're the one who did that documentary. About salmon farms."
"Yeah." It wasn't really a documentary, but a five-minute student project. Still, it had won a competition, and an environmental group had featured it on its website.
"Well, I got a story you might be interested in. You want to shut down the fish farm industry? This story'll do that."
Sam grabbed a pencil. "Yeah?"
“Smahl Island. You know where that is?”
“Uh…off the coast—”
"Google it. S-M-A-H-L. Deadly infection in their salmon farms, spreading to the wild stock. Right now, as we speak. The Chief—you know, the one who just got awarded the Order of Canada? She's supposed to report it to officials, but she hasn't. She's talking about a secret culling. Starts Friday."
"Can I have your name?"
Pause. "Anonymous tip.”
"Nope. You have to come here. I have coffee at Janice's Café every day at four. It's right by the dock on Smahl Island. Come by tomorrow and we'll work something out. Don't approach me. I'll know who you are."
He hung up.
Quack whistleblower, Sam thought, and finished editing her story. She turned it in ten minutes late. Ed hated it, of course. He didn't notice the clumsy jump cut, but accused her of "cherry picking quotes" and making it look like she was taking the teachers' side in the labour dispute.
"I didn't make the minister look like an asshole, he is an asshole.”
"What's with the back talk, Pope?"
Sam stared at the sparse contents of her fridge. Two slices of leftover pizza. She ate them cold over her computer. After checking her e-mail, she googled her documentary and watched it several times. Her glory days. Save the Earth. Truth to Power. That's what journalism was supposed to be about. Fuck the education minister, she thought, and googled Smahl Island.
* * *
Sam looked out the window of the propeller plane. Below, the Skeena S-curved through fields of snow-powdered browns and greens, and along the edges of mountains and hills. She felt sophisticated, a reporter on covert assignment. Almost like espionage. But should she be excited, or terrified? She looked at her watch. 10:05. She'd officially missed the city council meeting, which she'd reported on every week since getting hired six months before. She knew she had to pay her dues, but she was tired of covering changes to zoning bylaws and appointments to the library board. This scoop about the salmon farm could fast track her to the bigger stuff: dangerous work conditions at the sawmills, women disappearing from the Highway of Tears, RCMP scandals. Sam imagined waltzing into the office Friday morning and flaunting her exclusive. The Vancouver Sun and the CBC might pick it up. Ed would pat her on the back: We're sorry to see you go, kid, but… He'd respect her drive and initiative.
When she got off the plane in Prince Rupert, she checked her phone. Five messages from Ed. She felt like throwing up. As she ran across the tarmac to catch her connecting flight, she listened to her voicemail.
"Pope! What the fuck? You better get your ass back here, or you're fired!”
The thought of losing her job pinched at her gut. She'd barely chipped away at her student loans. She'd been trying to pay off her credit card, but could never get ahead of the compounded interest. It was only noon. She could catch a flight back to Prince George, cab it to City Hall, interview a few councillors, and patch together a story about the morning's meeting for the evening news. She was about to turn around when she heard the roar of the floatplane engine. A man stood on the ladder, gesturing at her to hurry. She sprinted across the last few meters of tarmac. Settling into the single remaining seat of the plane, she turned off her cell phone. She'd deal with Ed later.
Sam looked down at channels and fjords that flowed around islands before pouring into the open Pacific. In the horizon, the mist was beginning to lift, revealing jagged snow-capped peaks. The skin on her torso was getting itchy. Sam had always been sensitive to ocean air. She could smell it miles from any shore. Her hand played with the hem of her sweater. Don't scratch! A voice from long ago. Raspy and shaky, yet firm. Commanding. Sam returned her hand to her lap. If she put the cream on right away, she could prevent the itch from getting out of control. She looked over her shoulder for a bathroom, but the pilot announced he was preparing for descent. Sam buckled her seatbelt. She looked around to make sure no one was watching before slipping her hand under her shirt.
Not in public, you dirty girl!
Sam’s hand froze. She gripped her armrests as the floatplane tilted, tilted, tilted, almost grazing the water. She bit her lip. Swallowed a mouthful of salty saliva. Remembered.
* * *
Sam, aged ten, lay on the top bunk in a strange room. A terrible itch gnawed at the sides of her ribcage. Each prickle pinged and tingled, setting off a wave of nausea. Her eyes darted around the room. Suitcases piled high on the opposite side. Her yaya sat at a wall-mounted table, removing hairpins from a tightly coiled gray bun.
Sam's nostrils twitched. Stale cigarette smoke. Not from the old woman, who, when she'd leaned over to tuck Sam in earlier, had smelled of dry skin and hand lotion. No. The smoker was someone else—the hacking, coughing person underneath Sam's bunk bed.
"Stop scratching. Botha you. It's shameful. Especially you. What kind of example are you setting?"
"Leave me alone!" A wheezy whimper from the lower bunk.
When Yaya looked away, Sam slipped a hand under her blanket and scratched. Closed her eyes and gasped, sinking into the relief. Opened them again. Screamed. Yaya's hands gripped her wrists with bony fingers. Sand-paper rough. Tight as a vice. The old woman forced Sam's palms open and slapped them together.
"Don't. SCRATCH! How many times do I hafta tell ya? Get your hand out of your shirt and stop touching yourself, you dirty girl."
She grabbed a belt, wound it around Sam's wrists, and tied it to the bedpost. Sam curled her body against the itchy pin prickle, bringing her knees to her chin. She whimpered.
“I can’t sleep!” groaned the voice from below.
Sam watched the old woman rummage through one of the suitcases, pull out a plastic bottle, and shake two pills into the palm of her hand. From a thermos she poured steaming tea into a cup.
"Take this. It'll help you sleep."
A hand, neon-pale in the fluorescent light, reached from the lower bunk and took the pill.
"I need another," said the voice from below.
"I'll give ya half."
The old woman shook out another pill, and broke it with her teeth. She removed one half from her tongue and placed it in her palm. The other half she dropped into the outstretched hand. Then the old woman came towards Sam:
"You take some of this too."
Sam thought of the pill fragment lying in Yaya’s mouth.
"Take it. It'll help you sleep."
Sam shut her lips tight and flopped her body from side to side, but the woman pinned her down, shoved her finger in Sam's mouth, pried her teeth apart, and dropped the pill in, removing her finger before Sam could bite down on it.
"There ya go."
The pill spread an acrid taste across Sam's tongue. She was about to spit it out when the woman brought a cup to Sam's lips. Scalding tea sloshed in her mouth, washing the bitterness away. Sam swallowed, and the pill fragment swam down her throat.
"More. I need more." Said the husky voice from below before breaking into a hacking cough. "I can't sleep. And the pain—so bad Mama. So bad."
"I'm sick and tired of being your nurse. Take this and leave me be, for once in your life."
Sam couldn't keep her eyes open. Syrup poured into her brain, dark and thick with shiny bits, like nougat in chocolate, like stars in the sky. She let her body sink into it.
Heart pounding, Sam woke. She'd heard a loud thud. Had someone tumbled out of bed? Her doll lay on the floor, its blond yarn hair fanned out around its giant plastic head. Sam noticed another, screeching, creaking noise. Garbage truck? No. They were in the middle of the ocean.
"Are you ok? Are you al—" Cough. "Are you alright?" The pale, scabby arm from below reached up and grabbed her leg.
And then what? Sam’s memory of that night always stopped there. Scissors clamped on a strip of celluloid. The reel jerked and rattled. In the next frame, Sam was in her first foster home in Prince George.
* * *
Watch out! She wanted to yell at the pilot as the wing almost dipped into the water, but the plane righted itself and landed with a graceful glide.
The wooden dock on Smahl Island looked slick, though it wasn't raining at the moment. Christmas lights strung along the eaves of clapboard split-levels and bungalows glowed weakly in the fog. A few blow-up Santas held rein over patches of snow. Black-crested with dirt, they were melting into bright green lawns. Sam's expectations sagged, and with them, her mood. But what had she thought she’d find here? Longhouses and totem poles?
Sam walked away from the plane and towards a steep gravel path that led up to the road. She took her phone out of her pocket to call Ed. No cell reception. She winced as a prickly itch needled her ribcage. She put her tripod down and reached under her coat.
Sam realized she’d been scratching. Just like a dog! She pulled her hands out of her coat, embarrassed.
"I'm looking for—" how could she ask about her secret source? It was barely noon, and she still had a few hours before her meeting at Janice's Café. She might as well do some independent research. Who knew what this whistleblower's motives were? She’d need to substantiate his claims, get the other side of the story.
"I'm looking for Chief Gina Lake?"
"That'd be me. Who's asking?"
"Oh… well… my name's Sam Pope. I'm a—a reporter? From Prince Geo—"
"You here reporting on our salmon farms?"
"Well…I was hoping to interview you and...and…you know…have a look at…you know."
"I just want the facts. You know, an objective—"
The Chief arched her eyebrows. "The facts, huh?"
Sam lost her nerve. Everybody she knew hated fish farms. A year earlier, while in Vancouver visiting a friend, Sam had gone to a rally in front of the Art Gallery. Protestors shouted No to fish farms! in the pouring rain. Colourful cardboard cutouts of salmon bounced over a sea of umbrellas.
The Samhl Island Band, who’d allowed an aquaculture multinational on their territory ten years before, were condemned by environmentalists and ostracized by neighbouring communities. She could understand the Chief's wariness, and tried a different approach.
"Well, and also, I want to interview you. Congratulations on the Order of Canada."
The Chief's eyebrows levelled off.
"We work hard around here. We earned it. Not just me. All the people in this town.”
Their conversation was interrupted by one of the men unloading cargo.
"Chief? Where do these go?”
"Those three go to the General Store, and that one there to Janice's," the Chief instructed as boxes marked with Chinese characters came off the plane.
"Mandarin oranges from China. Can you believe it? When I was a girl, we didn’t have that." The Chief shook her head. "Let me ask you something. When you go to your fancy supermarkets in the city—Whole Foods, Granville Island and whatnot, you see pineapple, melons, papaya. Year in and year out, right?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"Well, that's a pretty big carbon footprint, wouldn't you say? All those trucks? Why do they keep picking on us and our little salmon farms?"
"Actually," Sam said, setting up her tripod and unzipping her camera bag. "Maybe I could interview you about the farms right now? It'll only take a few minutes.” This was a great setting. She'd have B-roll of the Chief directing the cargo shipments, and the background was ideal: the floatplane in the harbour, the wooden dock half-hidden in the mist. Maybe she could get the Chief to say that thing about the fruit again. Ed would love that.
"Nope. Gotta get to a meeting."
"No, wait. This'll just take five minutes."
The Chief got in her pick-up truck.
“I’ve got an opening in a couple of weeks. Go to the band office. They’ll check my schedule and pencil you in. I’ll be happy to talk to you then.”
“That’s great, but for now, can I just have a couple of minutes?”
Sam conjured Ed’s sarcastic voice: How hard did you try to convince her? The thought of losing her job intensified the itch, and she rubbed her elbows across the sides of her ribcage. She had to get to her motel and slather on some cream. There was bound to be a landline in the room. She could call Ed and explain she’d be back by tomorrow afternoon.
The Chief did a U-turn and drove away. Sam had to go to the band office to check into the motel. She looked around for signage, but was met on all sides with a dense shield of pine and cedar. She asked one of the men who were moving cargo off the plane, and he pointed her in the right direction.
She planned on talking herself into an appointment with the Chief. She might even wait for her meeting to end and ambush her, the way real reporters do on Parliament Hill. What do you think of the Prime Minister’s announcement…? She was still steeped in that fantasy when she arrived at the band office.
“Nope,” said Maureen, the receptionist.
“Just ten minutes—”
“She’s booked solid till after New Year’s.”
Sam wanted to argue, but the itch was unbearable now, and she asked to use the washroom. Hands shaking, she removed her bra and looked at the curved wires poking out of the worn lace. Perhaps they were the culprits? Perhaps they’d dug into her skin? She stood on her tiptoes to look at her chest in the mirror above the sink, twisting her torso to the left and to the right. Three pink semi-circles, raised up from her skin and tender to the touch, marked each side of her ribcage. What the fuck, Sam thought, remembering something her yaya always said: if they ever find out about you…
She swallowed. Her saliva tasted of salt. Her lungs felt strangely elastic and clear, as if the brine had scoured a passage through the phlegm that usually constricted her breathing to a wheezy stream. But, as her ribcage expanded to accommodate this new bounty of oxygen, her skin stretched uncomfortably, aggravating the itch. Sam rummaged through her backpack for the jar the naturopath had given her. She scooped out a large dollop of cream and slathered it on. She closed her eyes and visualized it seeping into her pores.
A knock on the door.
“You alright in there?”
“Yeah. Just…I have a headache.”
“Need some Tylenol?” asked Maureen.
“No. No. I’ll just be a sec.”
“I have to lock up here and pick up my kids. Hurry up, if you want a ride.”
In her motel room, Sam lay on the bed, eyeing the telephone and surfing through the satellite channels on the television. She finally worked up the courage to pick up the receiver. The phone rang and rang until Ed's voicemail picked up. Thank god. She told him she was working on a scoop, and that she'd be back by Friday afternoon.
"It's worth it," she added, but didn't give any details, for fear he'd send someone he deemed more competent to cover the story.
For the rest of the afternoon, she looked over her notes and sketched out a storyboard. At a quarter to four, she packed up her camera and headed out. The day had begun to dim, and as she walked down the road, the cold gloom of early evening triggered doubts she couldn't quell. Her anonymous source could be a joke. Or Ed testing her. She felt stupid. Don’t be so gullible, Ed had told her countless times. She’d always reacted defensively, but this was proof, wasn’t it?
I’ll show you, she thought as her footsteps crunched down the gravel path to the dock at a quicker pace. Even if that guy who’d called her didn’t exist, she’d find something. She could start with streeters. That’s what she did in Prince George, when city councillors wouldn’t talk to her. She put the question to the people: What do you think of Councillor X’s proposal to build a casino on a site designated for senior housing? She’d quote from the most disparaging comments, just to get back at the fuckers. Politicians were always corrupt, no matter how grassroots they portrayed themselves. She’d find a way to dig up some dirt on the Chief.
Janice’s Café was close to the water. Sam could feel the salty air eating its way through the cream. To distract herself from scratching, she scanned the room. A group of women in white smocks and hairnets sat at a table in the back, and a couple of teenagers laughed and teased each other over cokes in the corner. A man in a tuque sat at the counter.
“Are you ready for Christmas, Dave?” asked the server as she set a bowl of soup down for him.
“Yup. Wrote my letter to Santa. Put it in the mail this morning.”
Sam tried to match his voice to the anonymous caller's.
“Oh yeah? What did you ask for?”
“Well, I gave him two options. Dear Santa, I said, can you make me handsome? if you can’t manage that, a trip to the moon would be just fine too.” He laughed. “Guess I better get my space suit out of the closet.”
“I’ll iron it for you,” said the waitress.
Sam considered sitting next to Dave, but the man on the phone had told her not to approach him, so she chose a table at the back. One of the women greeted her and asked when she’d gotten into town. Small place, thought Sam. Population just under eight hundred, she remembered reading on Wikipedia.
“You here to teach at the school or something?”
“Uhm… well…actually… I’m doing some research. On the—” she cleared her throat, feeling like she was about to throw a molotov cocktail “—the salmon farms.”
Her hand reached for the camera bag on the floor between her feet. Easier to lob controversial questions from behind a lens.
“Don’t ruin it for us. We’ve got a good thing here. I work in the processing plant,” said a tiny woman. She looked young. Almost prepubescent. Child labour in the salmon farm industry. That could be Sam’s angle.
“Been working there since I graduated high school. I’m saving up for college. Mom works there too.”
“Those farms saved this town” said Dave, who’d swivelled around to join the conversation. “In the eighties, I worked on my dad’s fishing boat. Even then the salmon run was weak. My dad, when he was a kid, all the rivers were full of fish. The Nass, the Skeena, the Fraser.”
The server nodded. “And then…I don’t know what it was. Overfishing, climate change, chemical dumping…people have different ideas why the fish disappeared.”
“What did us in, though, was the government putting in those goddamn quotas,” Dave continued. “We caught so few fish, it wasn’t worth it anymore. My dad sold our boat in 1988.”
“Those were bad times. Ninety-five, ninety-seven percent unemployment until ten years ago, when those fish farms opened,” said the woman who’d first spoken to Sam. “The government wanted to move us inland, merge us with some other reservation. The whole damn town. Just up and move us from our ancestral land.”
Dave shook his head. “We fish. That's what we do. No way we’re moving inland.”
Sam didn’t bother with her camera. Everyone was toeing the Chief’s line. Disappointed, she ate her burger and left the café.
A half moon hovered above the bay, but as she climbed the gravel path to the road, all light disappeared, absorbed in a thick shield of giant spruce. Where were the houses? The Christmas lights? Had she taken a wrong turn away from town and into the wilderness? She turned on her flashlight and, relieved to see the road a few feet ahead, rushed up the last bit of hill. The houses appeared again, and she felt safe until the turn into the small path through the woods that led up to the motel. Pitch darkness again. An animal howled. Branches stirred with movement, creaking and crackling. Sam took a panicked step, and the stiff, slippery soles of her new hiking boots slid on a tree root. She fell on her hands and knees. The momentum propelled her backpack forward and over her head. A rustling again. Her heart pushed and pushed against her ribcage. She put her hand there, worried about the scars. A figure stepped out of the bush. Human. Sam blinked against his flashlight, so bright she couldn’t make out his face. But she saw a hand, extended.
“Hey, don’t be scared. I won’t hurt you. In fact, I’m here to help you.”
“Help me?” Sam pushed herself up on her own.
“Yup. You’re that reporter, aren’t you? Samantha Pope. We spoke on the phone last night. Pleased to see you got here so quick. My wife was at Janice’s. Called me as soon as she saw you.”
Sam didn’t say anything.
“Trevor Kelly. Fisherman. Skipper of the Reine Marie. So you took the bait, eh?” He laughed. "No pun intended."
“Yeah. So what can you tell me about those fish farms?”
Sam reached for her camera.
Trevor raised his hand. “Not now. Come on my boat tomorrow. I’ll take you to the farms. Show you everything you want to see.”
“I told you on the phone. Nasty outbreak. They’re hiding it. Planning a secret culling. Think your TV station will like that?”
“What’s in it for you?”
“My children’s future. Saving the sea and the wild creatures in. The Chief, she started all this without asking. Now everyone’s working on her boat, out at sea on the net pens, and in the plant. They like their paycheques. But if you’d asked them ten, fifteen years ago, they’d have told you it was forced on them. They wanted ecotourism, something more sustainable. Chief wouldn’t listen to any of that. Did as she pleased.”
Sam inspected Trevor’s face. “But you’re not…”
“Native? I am by marriage. Been here thirty-two years. My children were born here. Tell you what. I’ll swing by your motel tomorrow morning. Ten after five. I’ll take you on my boat and show you.”
“I don’t know. I have to catch the ten a.m. flight tomorrow morning.”
“We’ll be back in plenty of time.”
“Ten after five?”
“Yup. She sails at five-thirty sharp. We want to be there before the Chief’s boat.”
In the middle of the night, Sam flopped awake. The itch was unbearable, and a salty pool of saliva had gathered under her tongue. She swallowed. Brine scoured her airway clean. Her lungs expanded into thin translucence, inflated like a pair of birthday balloons. The scars at her ribcage stretched with a searing pain. She reached for the jar on her bedside table. Looked at the clock. 3:21. The cream soothed her skin, and she fell asleep.
4:55. Sam turned off her alarm and bolted out of bed. She grabbed her camera bag and put on her hiking boots. Squeezing her feet into them was a struggle. They pinched her toes, but the only other shoes she had were a pair of Converse. Today, she’d be reporting from the field, so she needed sturdy footwear. She felt a surge of excitement. Until she stepped outside. Her flashlight illuminated nothing but foggy darkness. Sam yawned, overwhelmed with a desire to go back to bed. Wake again at a normal hour. Catch the ten a.m. flight to the mainland. Call Ed as soon as—a car horn. She jumped and turned in the direction of the noise. Slipping on the stiff soles of her new boots, she caught a tree branch to balance herself. Headlights blinded her. She squinted and raised her hand to her forehead, scoping out the car. Burgundy Chrysler. Long and shark-like. The driver’s window rolled down.
“So you’re taking me up on my offer, eh?”
Sam took a few steps towards the car, then stopped. Her toes were screaming with pain. What the fuck am I doing? I don’t even have the right shoes to be a reporter.
Trevor leaned out the window.
“Hey, I don’t have all day.”
He ran his hand over his head. As he adjusted his comb-over, a ring on his pinky finger glistened in the car light. The passenger door swung open.
What the fuck am I doing? she thought, sliding into the seat.
As Trevor drove away, Sam looked out the window. She was hoping to see a fringe of Christmas lights, the glowing window of an early riser, neon signs, street lamps—anything to pierce the opaque night.
“You’re going to love this,” Trevor said.
She wasn’t sure. “Wait. Stop the car.”
He slammed on the breaks.
“What’s your agenda? I mean, besides this wishy-washy the children are the future crap?
“Look, it sounds like you don’t really want to know. It’s easier for you to get your sound bite from the Chief about the Order of Canada and fly back to the city.”
“Let’s go,” she said, too embarrassed to admit she hadn’t secured an interview with the Chief yet.
Sam stood on deck, trying to make out the landscape in the glow of the boat's lights. Blue-green spruce and gun-metal boulders on either side of the channel. A splash of water hit her cheek as a fish, about the size of a wrestler’s forearm, leapt into the air. Salmon. She scratched her face and felt a tender spot where the water had hit her. Suddenly the itch swarmed her body. She went back into the wheelhouse and asked Trevor, who was at the wheel, for the bathroom.
“Through those steps to the galley. It’s behind the kitchen. Rough waters today, eh? You alright?”
She nodded. Let him think it was seasickness. She didn’t know how to explain her skin condition. All the doctors she’d seen as a kid had been clueless, too. In Prince George, hundreds of kilometers from the coast, the itch was manageable. But here, on the ocean, it jabbed at her skin with nauseating intensity. She stumbled to the bathroom. Her hands trembled as she removed her shell, fleece, and sweater. Scabs the size of fingernails dotted her skin. They glimmered in the light. She ran her hands along her arms. Scaly. A little slimy. Her heart picked up speed. A memory formed, of that other boat, all those years ago. The arm reaching out from the lower bunk. And that deafening noise. Creaking metal. They needed to get out of the room, but Sam’s hands were tied to the bedpost.
“Wake up! Help me. Help me, morii! You good-for-nothing lazy bum. Always sleeping. Always sleeping, you! Help me, morii! Morii! Ksipna, tembela!” Her yaya was yelling.
“What? What do you want again? Leave me alone.” Cough cough cough.
“Help me! I can’t…Oh my god. We’re going to drown. Get the scissors…”
The young woman got out of bed. She was in her underwear, her entire body covered in scabs. A bare lightbulb, which swung from a long wire, shone on the woman’s arms, her torso, her thighs. Her scabs glittered. The woman moaned and scratched her belly, her shoulders, the insides of her thighs.
“Stop scratching! I need those scissors. Or the knife. Now, you hear? Now!”
A knock at the door startled Sam back to the present. The cream had seeped into her skin, numbing the itch. The scars were fading.
“We’re here” Trevor said. “Sun’s coming up. Come on out and see for yourself before the harvesters get here.”
Sam joined Trevor on deck. Two-dozen circular net pens floated on the water. Sam leaned forward on the guardrail.
“Whoa! No men overboard on this expedition, please." He chuckled. "Or women. You seem a little wobbly. Haven't got your sea legs yet? I think I have some of them nausea pills in the galley. Want me to get you some?"
Sam shook her head.
“Okay, well, check this out!”
Trevor shone a light down on the net pen nearest the boat. The fish seemed sluggish, barely moving.
“Breaks my heart, the way they herd this wild animal, shut it up in pens like that,” said Trevor as Sam set up her tripod and lights. "See how they're swimming close to the surface? Salmonid anaemia. It spreads like wildfire and it's deadly. They're going to cull them, starting today. Secretly. Chief doesn't want anyone to know. Doesn't want government officials snooping around, imposing costly penalties and regulations. The band can’t afford it. Would shut them down for good. So they’re doing a DIY job. Meanwhile, who knows if the water'll get a proper clean up? All the antibiotics, the concentrated fish shit, the chemicals, they’ve been seeping into these pristine waters for more than a decade now."
Sam focused her camera on Trevor. He grinned, shyly, it seemed to Sam, adjusted his comb-over, weaved his hands together and held them in front of his belly. An awkward, stiff pose. Sam smiled, finally feeling relaxed around him.
“How long have you owned this boat, Trevor?”
“Twenty-two years.” He seemed distracted. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing at her.
"On your face. And your hand"
Sam was so engrossed in filming that she hadn’t noticed, but now she could feel the pin prickles. She wrinkled her nose and stretched the skin on her cheeks to get rid of the itch, but didn’t want to put her camera down for a proper scratch. She turned back to the listless fish. They flitted aimlessly in the net pens, mere shadows of the creature she’d seen leaping ten feet into the air. She wanted as many angles as possible. Leaning over the guardrail, she noticed a ladder going down the side of the boat.
Get as close as you can, Ed had instructed her during the municipal election in the fall. Get in their faces. Get so close you can see the sweat on their brows. If she went down a few rungs, she’d get much better images of the sickly fish.
"What the—no way, man! Get back up. I don't want to be responsible for—come on! The water's freezing!"
Sam tuned him out. She stared at the third rung, the last one before the ladder plunged into waves that billowed and surged and spewed and slapped against the side of the boat. She lowered her left foot, but before she could place it securely on the third rung, the sole of her right boot slipped off the second. Her body propelled forward. Reflex kicked in, and she grabbed onto the bar. Suspended, feet dangling inches from the frothy waves, she watched her camera hit the water and plummet down countless fathoms.
Sam's body strained towards the water. She remembered the leaping fish, and her muscles echoed the arch of its body, curving into diving position.
As soon as she was submerged, the scars on her ribcage ripped open. Salt water sluiced into the wounds. Pain pulsed and radiated, sending waves of nausea through her body. But she was breathing. She hadn't taken a single breath, yet bubbles rose from her mouth. With this bracing stream of brine and oxygen, memories flooded her mind.
* * *
Pitch black. A horrible metallic sound. Her yaya struggled with the belt. The pointy blade of the scissors dug painfully into Sam’s wrist as the old woman pushed it under the strap. Yaya winced and groaned, but the leather would not give. The younger woman leaned over Sam.
“Let’s try this knife,” she said.
The scaly arm was so close to Sam's face it scratched her cheek. The knife sliced through the leather, and the three left the room. Panicked chatter filled the hallway: did we hit something? Are we sinking? An iceberg? We hit an iceberg?
Outside, the wind beat like a drum in her ear. The sea swelled around them, black and immense. Sam stood between the two women. They held hands. One side of the boat was listing. Water rushed in, flooding the deck. A man with a reflective vest held a megaphone to his mouth, but Sam couldn't hear him. Another man reached out for her. She screamed when he pried her away from the two women and kicked at his chest when he lifted her over the railing and onto a lifeboat. The old woman was helped next. Sam looked at the other, younger woman. Please come, please come, she thought, but hope tumble into the dark pit of the night as the young woman pushed the man away, bent down to remove her shoes, and climbed onto the railing. The boat's emergency lights glistened on her mother's silver body as it curved and flipped into the water.
* * *
Sam looked up and saw the blurry outline of something orange and round floating above her head. A lifesaver. Was she drowning? No. Her lungs felt clearer and fuller than ever before.
She’d never been much of a swimmer, but seemed to be moving with uncanny swiftness now, the water no barrier at all. The light from the boat glared off her skin, distorting her body into a form she couldn't recognize. She surveyed her surroundings. Cold, vast, inscrutable. Yet eerily familiar. Her lungs, gripped with terror, spasmed and seized. She torpedoed to the surface, leapt up, gasped for air, and grabbed hold of the lifesaver. Trevor reeled her in towards the ladder. Before reaching to grab hold of it, she yelled at Trevor not to look. Her clothes seemed to have come off in the water, and she was sure her body was covered in those horrible scabs.
Trevor turned his head away as he wrapped a blanket around her.
"There's some of my wife’s clothes in the galley. No luck locating that camera, eh?"
“What? Oh Fuck. Ed's going to kill me.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it. Go get warmed up.”
Sam’s teeth chattered as she slathered cream on her body. She put on a pair of jeans and a blue sweater she found hanging on a hook on the wall. Exhausted, she sat down at the kitchen table and rested her head on her arms. She was starting to doze off when she heard Trevor come in. He was wearing a wetsuit, fins, and an oxygen tank.
“I'm going to dive for that camera. The world needs to know. I mean, look at you. Three minutes in that water and you've caught some skin disease. Must be like Chernobyl down there.”
She looked at her arms. The scales were gone, but had left welted pockmarks all over her skin.
Sam didn’t make it back to Prince George until just before deadline on Friday. Ed greeted her with a rant about the missed council meeting. She waited until he was done to tell him about her scoop. Trevor had found the camera tangled up in one of the net pens, which had prevented it from floating away. It was ruined, but the flash memory had remained intact. Sam had edited a rough cut on the plane and burned it to a DVD. Ed smiled and nodded as the footage appeared on his screen.
A few weeks after Sam’s documentary aired on The National, she got an email from the BC Salmon Harvesters Association. She clicked on the link, and gasped at the picture that opened on her screen. The caption read: “Trevor Kelly and AquaHarvest Inc. CEO Bertil Eriksson shake hands aboard the Reine Marie.”
Sam scrolled down to read the article.
“Kelly was named manager of the AquaHarvest-owned salmon farms located near Smahl Island, British Columbia. He takes over after a disgraced Gina Lake, former chief of the Smahl Island band, stepped down from her role as manager of the farms. The BC Ministry of Agriculture and Lands conducted an audit of the Smahl Island farms last December after a CBC documentary exposed unsanitary conditions at the farms. The agency claims that Lake failed to disclose a deadly outbreak of Salmonid Anaemia. Kelly previously managed three aquaculture projects on Vancouver Island, and comes to this position with a lot of experience, according to Eriksson…”
* * *
Applause. Sam hears it as waves crashing on the shore and raking across pebbles as they retreat. She stands unsteadily. Ed, dressed in a tuxedo, stands too, and pats her on the back. Sam wants to run. She’s caught a whiff of the salt and felt its niggling prickle on her torso. She kicks off her heels and runs. Not towards the stage, but towards the exit.
Outside, the cool autumn air carries the smell of the ocean. The brine isn't pure here. It's cut with tanker fuel and smog. Still, it scours her skin. Rips open her lungs as she runs towards the Seawall. Across the Burrard Inlet, lights shine on the blackened mountains of North Vancouver. She looks at their reflection in the water and feels a ping of illumination. A Recognition. A wink. Memory glints like tackle embedded not in her mind but in a much more visceral place. Her lungs, her liver. This shard reflects the ocean. Blue grey, familiar. She dives in. Is ripped open. Then soothed, made whole, as she swims towards the open ocean.