Fort Vermilion Mile

We used to call it a Fort Vermilion mile: the distance between two bends in the Peace River. No two bends in particular. It was just when the river dipped away from you and when it looped back again. It wasn’t the only way I knew how to measure distance. Sometimes distance was measured in the time between phone calls with an auntie or the measure of a heartbeat, but this was my favourite.
        The Fort Vermilion mile I knew the best was the distance between my parents’ house and The Stardust, a bar about as old as the town itself. Our house sat just outside of the Fort, at a bend in the Peace that curled like a snaking s. If you followed the road from our mailbox into town, at the first sign of water, you’d see the Duster. The white, wooden-slatted building with no sign. Not that you needed it. You just needed to follow the sound of country music and the trail of punched-in holes leading from the front of the building to the door in the back, like breadcrumbs leading someone home. 
        How long it took to walk the Fort Vermilion mile between our house and the Duster depended on the season and the prairie mood. Dad had been walking it every Saturday afternoon since as far back as I can remember. Sometimes, when he’d call us from the bar’s pay phone and say he was heading home and ask if we needed anything from town, he’d be home within the hour. Sometimes, we’d be waiting for half a day. He’d have found a good saskatoon berry bush to pick on the way home, if it were summer. Or he had crossed someone else walking the mile, a cousin or old friend, and they’d ended up talking until the sun dipped behind the pines. The Fort Vermilion mile took as long to walk as it needed to.
        Dad said ghosts walked the mile too and when I was a kid, I thought he was just trying to tease. But then one day, I saw one. I was walking the mile with dad, he was going to the Duster and I was headed two blocks past it to the Tags to get a slushie. The dirt road crunched under our feet. Above us, the sun beat down hard behind wisps of clouds spread out in impossibly straight lines, a ribcage around a heart. In the open wheat field next to us, I saw the man standing in the open-mouthed yawn of an old barn. He had a cigarette dangling from his mouth and was laughing in the direction of the river. It was the red shirt that gave him away as a ghost. At that point, my papa hadn’t been dead too long from the heart attack, so the memory of him and that shirt he wore everywhere was still as sharp as a splinter.
        His laugh came out as a crack of thunder. And the second between when I looked from him to the sky and back again, he was gone. I didn’t bother looking around too much either. If I knew anything about the Fort, I knew it to be honest. You could see for miles in any direction and the people there would shout the truth without a second thought. So there was no hiding anything.
        Dad heard the sound just as clear as I did though, so he was scanning the blue sky for any sign of dark clouds. When I told him who I saw and where the sound came from, his mouth moved like a disturbed wound. We were already halfway down the mile, but he turned us around, walked us home faster and faster, until we were running in the ditch like something was chasing us. The mile shrank, like time was an elastic band someone had been pulling too tight for too long and had finally let it go. Dad scooped me up just as the wind stilled, the heat holding just above our heads like a broken thought. The sky snapped as we made it to the porch, the rain pouring down in buckets. We settled onto the porch to watch the sky darken as the lightning came in, a flashlight lighting up every inch of the mile and all the time and people it held.

* This piece was originally published in Together Apart: Home zine (issue 5, 2020)

Jessica Johns is a nehiyaw aunty with English-Irish ancestry and a member of Sucker Creek First Nation in Treaty 8 territory in Northern Alberta. Her short story “Bad Cree” won the 2020 Writers’ Trust Journey Prize and her novel of the same name will be released in January 2023 with HarperCollins. More: