The sun was already high in the sky by the time I woke the next morning. Eva was the only one still in the mess hall when I walked in. She smiled at me and gestured to the plate of food sitting opposite her.
“For you,” she said as I walked over. “I managed to save a little something.”
The eggs were cold and the toast was a bit stale, but it was something to eat and I scarfed it down gratefully. “So, uh, where’s everyone else?” I asked between bites.
“Hard at work,” she told me. “We get an early start here and it’s already past nine, so you’re a little late.”
“It’s fine,” she said, stretching her arms up over her head with a sigh. “Seb was very clear that we’re all supposed to leave you alone outside of meals. If you manage to attend them, of course.”
I clenched my jaw and continued eating. “Screw Seb,” I muttered after a minute, unable to keep the words from escaping.
“Couldn’t agree more.” Eva propped her elbows up on the table, settling her chin down on her hands as she watched me eat.
“I thought you guys were friends,” I said, confused.
She snorted. “What gave you that idea?”
“Tayo and Genevieve seemed to like him,” I said with a shrug.
“There’s no accounting for Tayo’s taste in anything,” Eva replied derisively, “and Gen, well, she’s just starstruck.”
Starstruck was one word for it. When she wasn’t acting like I was gum under her shoe, Genevieve had stared at Seb like she wanted to eat him alive. Or like she wanted him to eat her. I made a face at that thought and Eva chuckled.
“What’s Seb doing then?” I asked. “Since apparently he doesn’t want to tell me anything himself.”
“Tayo took him up to one of the perimeter cabins,” Eva answered easily. She didn’t seem to have any misgivings about disobeying Seb. “He thinks Seb might see something we might have missed. But I doubt he’ll find anything.”
“You seem…sure of that,” I surmised.
Eva rolled her eyes. “We’re not incompetent; we just have limited options. And that’s not our fault either. NIMA just doesn’t consider what we do here to be all that important. Instead, that money goes to Seb’s paycheck, or his super totally necessary business expenses.”
I almost choked on a bite of toast. “And what exactly do you guys do here?” I asked her after swallowing.
“When you’re finished,” she said with an eager smile, “I’ll show you.”
Eva took my plate when I was done and put it in a bin that was already overflowing with dirty dishes. Then she led me out of the mess hall and into the main wraparound hallway. I was wearing my new down jacket but the blast of cold air when she opened the rear doors to the outside nearly knocked me off my feet.
“Doing okay there?” she asked, and I gave a feeble nod in response. “You get used to it after a while.”
I wasn’t convinced of that, but I knew I definitely did not want to be here long enough to find out.
Outside the lodge there was a large clearing, bordered in a large semicircle hundreds of feet across by a wire fence. Directly ahead of us at the furthest point of the fence was a gate, a length of chain wrapped around both sides and securely padlocked in the middle. Within the fencing were several wooden hutches of various sizes and shapes. The largest of the structures was just on our left, and it was toward this building that Eva made a beeline.
“You’re not afraid of dogs, are you?” she asked as she unhooked the latch on the giant door at the front of the hutch.
I shook my head no, but stepped back a few feet when the door swung open. Eva walked inside, murmuring something I couldn’t understand as she disappeared from view. She made a clicking noise with her tongue and then emerged with the largest animal I had ever seen.
I had to blink a couple times to make sure what I was looking at was actually real. Standing with its head level to Eva’s shoulders was a giant wolf. Its coat was a mottled white and gray, with spots all over its face and muzzle, and if it hadn’t been large enough to eat me in less than five bites, I probably would have thought it was cute.
“This,” Eva said as she patted the giant wolf on the head, “Is Igluinnaq. Iglu, for short. And that’s Eris in there.” Eva pointed back inside, and when I craned my neck I could just barely make out the shape of another massive wolf curled up on the ground against the rear wall of the building. “She’s shy around most people, so we’ll leave her be for now.”
The other wolf, Iglu, stood docilely next to Eva as she did up the latch again, tongue hanging out of its mouth as it panted happily, staring at me all the while.
“What is it?” I asked once she had a firm hand on the wolf.
“An amaroq,” Eva said, looking surprised by the question. She probably wasn’t used to having to explain supernatural creatures to a layman. Or less than a layman. I wasn’t even a part of the same world, really. “They’re faster, stronger, more intelligent than normal wolves, and he’ll probably outlive you and me.”
“Bigger too,” I said, still eyeing the creature warily.
Eva laughed, and patted the wolf again. “Yeah, he’s a big boy. He’s not even fully grown yet. But come on, we shouldn’t keep Cece waiting too much longer.”
I carefully followed the two of them as we walked away from what I could only assume were other animal pens to the side of the lodge where there was a separate building constructed of cinder blocks and cement that looked like it had been added much later than the rest of the compound.
Eva held open the door and Iglu trotted dutifully past her before parking himself on the floor a few feet away. He didn’t move until Eva made another clicking sound and he hopped up again, walking back over to her.
“This is where we store all the medical equipment,” Eva explained, gesturing to the surrounding cabinets and cupboards and trolleys stocked full of sterile white packaging. “Usually Cece takes the vaccines with her so she can administer them while the animals are still in their pens, but Eris gets too worked up if we do it that way, so it’s easier to give Iglu his shots here.”
She led me through another door, and inside was a fairly typical looking examination room. Cece was standing near the far wall behind the shiny metal table, and she made a face when she first saw me, before quickly schooling her features into something more neutral and giving a wave.
“Heavy sleeper?” she asked with a friendly smile.
“Just tired from yesterday,” I said.
Eva helped Iglu jump up onto the examination table, where he lay down obediently with his head tucked over his front paws.
“Yeah,” Eva said with a sigh, “traveling to and from Zara’s not exactly a treat. Cece and I always have a time of it around the holidays.”
“You live together?” I asked, hoping I wasn’t being too presumptuous. They hadn’t seemed like they were together last night, but maybe they just weren’t overly affectionate.
“We’re roommates up here at the compound,” Cece explained, “but Eva’s actually engaged to my twin, who works at a research facility for NIMA back in Calgary. So we have to go to all the same family functions now.”
Eva shook her head and handed the box of surgical gloves to Cece after putting a pair on herself. “You’re just lucky you don’t have to visit my mom every year. She wants Casey and me to come up there every single summer. It doesn’t get much worse than trying to arrange travel between two different places that both happen to be in the middle of nowhere.”
“Where does your mom live?” I asked curiously.
“Iqaluit,” Eva replied. Cece handed her some sort of device I didn’t recognize, and she placed it against Iglu’s torso, holding it firmly in place as the wolf’s chest rose and fell with each breath. “It’s part of northern Canada,” she filled in helpfully, guessing correctly that I was about as unfamiliar as it gets with Canadian geography. I wouldn’t have even guessed that either of them were Canadian if they hadn’t all but said so.
“Is it as cold there as it is here?” I wondered. I was still freezing to death, even indoors.
Eva laughed. “Colder. I’m used to it, but my fiancé, Casey, hates it. They try to get out of going to my mom’s every year, but she can be pretty persuasive.”
“Eva,” Cece said, her tone suddenly brusque and professional, “turn him over please.”
I watched as they carefully shifted Iglu to his other side. Cece then pulled out a packet of syringes from the cabinet, setting them down on the counter before pulling out tiny vials of clear liquid from the small refrigerator. Eva rubbed Iglu’s fur like he was no more menacing than a poodle, her hands dangerously close to the inches-long fangs in his mouth.
“So this is the kind of stuff you guys do?” I asked.
“It’s not as glamorous as it sounds,” Eva replied, continuing to stroke the wolf’s muzzle. “Like I said before, we don’t have a lot of resources, so we just make sure the animals are healthy and happy as best we can. If NIMA had started the preserve program a hundred, or even fifty years ago, we’d be in better shape to make some real progress, but as it is, we’re essentially in a race against time trying to stop what few species are still out there from completely dying off.”
“All the animals here are endangered?”
“If not already on the verge of extinction,” Cece chimed in, still meticulously drawing out liquid into each syringe before capping them off again. “Our thunderbirds are the last of their kind.”
“That we know of,” Eva added.
Cece glanced up from her work to give the other woman a skeptical look, but said nothing to the contrary, leaving me with the impression that they’d had this argument before.
Iglu suddenly let out a loud yip, and I jumped nearly a foot in the air.
“It’s okay,” Eva reassured me. “He won’t bite you.” Cece turned around with a syringe in hand and carefully administered the first shot while Iglu whimpered and whined under Eva’s hands. “Do you want to pet him?” she asked.
“It won’t like…freak him out?” The last thing I’d want while getting a three-inch long needle shoved into my leg would be for a complete stranger to start touching me.
“He knows we’re trying to comfort him,” she told me. “It’ll help keep him calm.”
I took a hesitant step forward and reached out a hand to carefully stroke the fur around Iglu’s neck and shoulders. He closed his eyes as I gently petted him, feeling a little bolder once it was clear that he wasn’t going to react negatively.
“He’s really soft,” I said, surprised by the texture of his fur.
“Genevieve’s meticulous about grooming them,” Cece said as she injected something else into the shuddering body of the wolf beneath my hand. “She’s a bit of a clean freak, so I guess it makes sense, but if you ask me it’s more trouble than it’s worth. It’s not like we’re putting them in a kennel club dog show.” Cece finished the last of the shots before patting the wolf with finality and turning back around to clean up the workstation.
“I’ll let Eris and him out to play for a while and get started on lunch,” Eva said as she helped the giant animal jump down off the table. “Head in whenever you’re finished up.”
Cece made an affirmative noise and continued with her work. It all felt very routine, and it was weird to see something so…unnatural treated like it was perfectly mundane. I mean, how long did it take to get used to stuff like this?
“I know vaccinations aren’t exactly the most exciting thing in the world,” Eva said apologetically as we stepped outside again. I flinched at the gust of wind that battered the exposed skin of my face and hands.
“It’s fine,” I told her. “It’s interesting to learn all this stuff.” And better than being cooped up in Genevieve’s room with just my phone for entertainment, which apparently was what Seb had planned for me.
“You haven’t been involved very long?” Her tone was casual, and I wondered how much she and the others knew about my situation.
“I really only found out all this shit was real like a month ago,” I confessed, and Eva’s eyes widened.
“You’re handling everything relatively well for someone who hasn’t had much time to adjust.”
I wouldn’t have said I was handling anything well, but I didn’t really want to get too into detail about how I’d coped with things in the past few weeks. “I mean, it helps now that I’m not the only one who knows. I can talk to my brother about things now.”
Eva hummed in agreement. “It was pretty isolating for me at first too. My family still doesn’t know, but it helps that I have Cece and Casey to talk to about work.”
“How’d you get introduced to all of this?” I wondered, hoping the question wasn’t too intrusive.
Eva gave a brief answer as she unlocked the pen again and this time left the door open. “I was in college at the time, on a camping trip with some friends. Long story short, I was the only one who made it back.”
“What was it?” I asked.
She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “If I told you, it’d give you nightmares.”
“I’ve had enough nightmares to last me a lifetime.” The words slipped out before I could make the decision to stop myself from saying them, but now they were hanging in the air between us, I felt suddenly lighter. It was the one thing I hadn’t had the courage to tell Joel about, and didn’t feel comfortable sharing with Seb. And I hadn’t wanted Muri’s pity. But Eva, with her sad brown eyes just like Lila’s….
She leaned up against the side of the pen, watching absently as Iglu circled around the wide open door and barked twice at the other wolf within. “Was it a death or...?”
I just nodded, not bothering to explain further. She had her secrets, and I had mine. I didn’t know how long it would be before I could really talk about what had happened to Lila without the words feeling like razor blades in the back of my throat.
Eva exhaled loudly, her breath a puff of smoke in the frigid air. Her smile softened and she took a step forward, her eyes locked with mine for a moment before she broke free and turned back to the main building.
“Come on,” she said. “We better get started on lunch. We’ll let Eris and Iglu play for a while.”
Thirty minutes later the cold cuts Eva and I prepared were sitting on the main table in the mess hall as the others started to file in. Cece was first, and she helped us finish setting the table with plates, cups, and a pitcher of pink lemonade that looked like the best thing in the world to me all of a sudden. Seb and Tayo returned a few minutes later, with Genevieve following behind like a lovesick puppy, of course.
Seb didn’t so much as look at me as we all ate. I stared at him mutinously, wrinkling my nose in disgust as he unwrapped his specially designated plate and a foul smell wafted over to me.
“How was it?” Cece asked him as she dug eagerly into her own meal.
Tayo shrugged as Seb answered through a mouthful of food. “Bloody freezing. I don’t know how you guys can stand overnighters in those death traps.”
Eva laughed. “I warned you it was a few degrees colder than what we get in the valley.”
“He thought you meant Fahrenheit,” Tayo explained. The comment was met with chuckles from everyone but Genevieve and Seb, who still looked annoyed.
“Canadians,” he remarked with a roll of his eyes.
Eva scoffed. “Well if that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black.”
“You’re Canadian?” I said in surprise, forgetting for a minute that Seb was doing his best to give me the cold shoulder.
“My father was from Quebec,” he replied quickly, looking like talking about his parents, or talking to me, was equivalent to having a tooth pulled. “I only lived in Montreal till I was five. Barely even counts.”
“So your mother was American?”
“English, actually,” Eva replied for him with a wry grin.
I raised an eyebrow. I didn’t really have an ear for accents, but I never would have guessed Seb wasn’t the least bit native to the good old US of A. “Wow. Okay then.”
“Thank you, Eva,” Seb said pointedly, shaking his head in irritation as she continued to laugh under her breath at his expense. “But besides the fact that those cabins are ice boxes, there really isn’t much to go off. I can try calling Sara tonight and see if she can get some satellite images from around the same time Barnes disappeared, but I don’t know how much it’ll help if the weather was bad. Especially if all of you were out looking too.”
“It’s worth a try,” Tayo said with a sigh. “We’re gonna set up the new detection system Seb brought after we finish eating.”
“An ounce of prevention too late,” Eva muttered.
“Well, what would you have me do, Eva?” Seb said loudly, startling Genevieve, who was sitting to his left. “Go back in time and fix everything? I’m doing what I can to fucking help here.”
Eva didn’t respond, and the others looked slightly discomfited by Seb’s outburst. But as much as I hated to admit it to myself, he kind of had a point.
Finally Cece spoke up. “Is there anything else we can do to be more proactive in the meantime? I understand where you’re coming from, Seb, but I don’t really like waiting around and hoping for the worst.”
He sighed, pushing his hair back out of his face with a tattooed hand. “Unless you want to use the amaroqs to track the scent trail….”
“No,” Tayo said firmly. “They’re too young to be running around outside the fence. And you know how I feel about using any of the animals to run errands for NIMA. I don’t want to set a precedent here.”
“Look, I’m on your side,” Seb replied, holding his hands up in surrender, still holding a sandwich with his left. “But I’m just trying to explore every option.”
“We may not be able to use the wolves,” Genevieve piped up. “But we could follow Dex to Charlie, wherever she is.”
This time it was Eva who shut the suggestion down. “We discussed this already. I don’t want to risk losing another thunderbird. It shouldn’t even be on the table.”
“This is exactly the situation that calls for last resorts,” Genevieve argued fiercely. I didn’t think I was imagining the sideways glances she cast in Seb’s direction, but he was paying more attention to his food than to their debate.
“Who are Dex and Charlie?” I interrupted, wanting clarification before the discussion became any more befuddling.
“Our thunderbirds,” Eva explained. “We have five: Dexter, Charlie, Zero, Nakita, and Maxine. Charlie and Dexter are a mated pair, which means, theoretically—“ She leveled a harsh look at Genevieve, who had her arms crossed in defiance. “Theoretically, Dexter should be able to find Charlie, no matter where she is. We talked about trying to track her down that way when Charlie first went missing, but Brother Barnes vetoed it. And with good reason. We have a very tenuous control over the thunderbirds as it is, and I don’t want to do anything to upset the status quo.”
Seb nodded along with her explanation. “Just for the record, I’m inclined to agree with Eva on this one. Bringing in any of the other animals will just complicate things, especially since our search efforts are split between Barnes and Charlie.”
Genevieve scowled, but didn’t waste any further effort trying to convince the others to see things her way. I watched out of the corner of my eye as she picked at the remainder of her food before finally excusing herself to her—now our—room.
In her absence, the tension within the room relaxed ever so slightly, and the conversation drifted to topics I didn’t have a place in as Cece and Tayo chattered happily with Seb while Eva started to clean up. At least with Genevieve there I hadn’t quite been the only outsider.
Hoping the action didn’t come across as impolite, I pulled out my phone as soon I finished the last of my sandwiches, only to find that I had several missed call notifications.
“Sorry,” I said to Eva, standing up abruptly. “I think my brother’s been trying to call me. I can come right back to help you clean.”
“It’s not a big deal,” Eva replied easily. “Take your time.” Tayo and Cece gave murmurs of agreement as I walked to the door, but Seb didn’t so much as look up at me.
I closed the door to the mess hall and leaned up against the adjacent wall, sliding down it until I was sitting on the floor. It wasn’t the most private place, but I didn’t want to have a conversation with my brother in front of Genevieve, or hog the one and only bathroom, so it’d have to do.
With a sigh, I tapped the little phone icon next to the most recent notification and waited for it to connect.
“Hey,” I said quickly. “Sorry I missed you, I was eating lunch.”
“It’s fine. You okay up there?” He sounded oddly relaxed, and I wondered if that was a side effect of being home again or something else entirely. “I didn’t have a chance to call you last night, but I figured you were probably busy anyway.”
I sighed again, letting my head thump against the wall and closing my eyes. “Yeah, it was kind of a long trip.”
“All right. Well, I just thought I’d check in.” I could hear the tendrils of suspicion starting to creep into Joel’s voice.
“I’m fine,” I insisted. It was only a partial lie. I didn’t mention Seb’s odd behavior, since I wasn’t up for Joel’s smug ‘I told you so’. As if I hadn’t known from the very moment I met him that he was bad news. “It’s pretty weird up here,” I said instead.
“Oh yeah? How so?”
I started in on a lengthy explanation of the amaroqs and the missing thunderbird, doing my best to describe just how large Iglu had been. I steered clear of mentioning Eva specifically.
“I should try to take a picture for you,” I finished.
“That’d be awesome, but they probably won’t let you, right? Because it’s supposed to be a secret or whatever. But if you can, it’d be pretty sweet.”
“Oh yeah,” I replied. “I forgot about that. Hmm.”
“Hey, cheer up,” he chided. “At least you know I’ll believe anything you tell me, pictures or no. And it’s like a free vacation! I still have to go to work every day. And the safe house doesn’t even have cable. The internet’s pretty good though.”
“I’m surprised they even have internet up here,” I told him. “But it sounds like things are okay down there? No problems?”
We both knew exactly what I meant by that, and I was relieved when Joel replied with a firm, “Nope, none. It’s been pretty quiet actually. I think Muri’s annoyed by that. She just spends all day on her phone or the computer complaining to people.”
“What kind of people?” I asked, unable to suppress my curiosity.
Joel gave the verbal approximation of a shrug. “I try to stay out of her way as much as possible. I don’t want to get anywhere near her bad side.”
“That’s probably a good idea,” I conceded. Muri was half Joel’s size, but I wouldn’t put it past her to snap him like a twig if he got in her way.
“Hey, look, I gotta head back to work pretty soon, but text me every once in a while, okay? At least let me know you’re still alive.”
“Yeah, of course,” I agreed. “I’ll keep you updated on all the supernatural creatures and shit, all right?”
“Sounds good,” he said with a chuckle. “See ya, Pem.”
I waited for him to hang up and stared down at my phone for a moment, listening to the sounds of faint laughter coming through the doors. Finally, I got up and headed back to the kitchen, leaving the noise behind.