Fort Mac, Part 2
This is the second half of “Fort Mac,” Nasir Husain’s story about two brothers working the oil sands of Alberta, Canada. At this point, Tyler and Tanner are getting accustomed to life on the mine, but there’s bad news ahead.
Read the first half here or in your inbox.
Before the fire, the only other time the siren sounded was when Brophy fell down the hole.
Phil Brophy was a big, straw-haired kid from Nova Scotia who used to work a lobster trawler before coming out west to work the oil sands. He missed the ocean, would talk about it all the time. The briny air, the sound of the waves lapping the hull, the taste of an oyster shucked fresh out the cold sea. People would ask him, “So why’d you come out here then?” And he’d say, “Just a couple seasons, just till I can afford my own boat.”
Brophy was like us, the bottom of the totem pole. A digger, basically, excavating the mine with backhoes and bulldozers and sometimes just plain old shovels. One day Phil was working the northwest corner when a section of heavy pipe rolled off a forklift and knocked him off the edge.
I didn’t see it, but Tanner did, from down below. Said it was the worst thing he’d ever seen. Said Brophy came tumbling down the side of the mine like a ragdoll, lost his hardhat, and hit the bottom with his limbs bent in every direction like a swastika. His words, not mine.
They sounded the siren and herded everybody into the dining hall to tell us what happened. Of course, by the time the Suncor suit took the floor, word had spread and we already knew. This gave the man’s announcement the unfortunate effect of rubbing salt in the wound. They told us to take the rest of the afternoon off and brought in a couple grief counselors to talk to anybody who wanted it. Nobody did.
That night, McAuley got a bunch of the workers together and we met outside Brophy’s trailer. There was no moon, and the sky was blasted with stars. McAuley got up onto the front step of Brophy’s trailer and took off his toque and everybody quieted down.
“Well, thanks for comin everyone. Obviously, everyone knows Brophy loved the ocean, was damn near crazy about it.”
A murmur of amused agreement ran through the crowd. McAuley’s voice gathered muscle as he went on, “And obviously we’re nowhere near the fuckin ocean here. So, I thought, what’s the best we can do?”
He paused for effect.
“And then I remembered the tailings pond.”
We all laughed, even Tanner, who’d been pale and unusually quiet since it happened.
McAuley punched his fist into the sky, “Whattaya say we give our brother Brophy a goddamn Viking sendoff!”
We all roared.
The tailings pond was where all the crap went, all the shit from the oil sands that wasn’t oil and had no commercial purpose. They mixed it up with water and dumped it in a hole. Fort Hills had three tailings ponds and we went to the biggest one, which, at night, really did look like the ocean, the dark water seeping into the sky.
We circled up on the gravel beach and began to fashion a raft, out of beer cases and scrap wood and any other junk people could find in their cars. It was fairly involved, with pontoons made of beer cans, a plywood platform, and a heap of cardboard and kindling. Russell tore the side off a case of Canadian and wrote in big block letters “Brophy’s Boat.” He taped it to a stick and planted it on the raft like a sail. McAuley grabbed a bottle of Bacardi 151 and drizzled some on top.
“To Brophy,” he said, raising the bottle in the air, “May he never reach the shore.”
“To Brophy,” we repeated in unison.
The raft caught quickly, bright orange flames curling the cardboard, melting the red and blue ink like candlewax. McAuley used a long stick to push the raft out and we all stood in a line and watched from the beach as it floated slowly away.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when Tanner went missing.
We’d gone down to Fort Mac for a couple days off, and Russell tagged along too. The town seemed to have doubled in size in the six months since we’d first set eyes on it. There were billboards now for jewelry stores, car dealerships, and luxury real estate agents. There was an acupuncturist, a newly built mosque.
We stopped at Walmart on a supply run, and then we went to see Cody at his house downtown. Russell bought an ounce of weed and Tanner bought an eighth of coke and I told them I’d chip in a little for each. Then we dropped our stuff at Russell’s apartment and commenced what turned out to be a twelve-hour bender, involving stops at several pubs, at the Boomtown Casino, and, of course, at Showgirls. But there was nothing particularly unusual about any of that.
The next day we slept, Tanner and I on the floor of Russell’s living room again. And that night, once our brains had sufficiently rehydrated, we went out again. This time we each went alone, the same purpose, but different destinations. Russell had an actual girlfriend, a waitress at Moxie’s with her own place, where he would spend the night. “You two can fight over my bed,” he said before leaving, “just don’t fuckin jerk off in there.” Tanner said he’d matched with an app girl, a rare occurrence in Fort Mac, and was going for a drink with her. I said I wasn’t sure what I would do. But that was a lie. I’d arranged to meet Olivia at the Ace Inn Hotel.
I left her envelope in the bathroom and sat on the bed waiting for her to change. As I stared at a painting of a snow-covered bison, I wondered if she counted the money anymore, or if she trusted me enough by now to just slip the envelope into her purse. Before I came to Fort Mac, I’d never paid for sex. Not that I was necessarily opposed to it. I just never had the need, or the money, to do it. But when I got out here, I had both in spades, and it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world. Still, I kept it quiet. A lot of the guys talked openly about the girls they saw, trading stories, making recommendations. But I always made myself scarce around these conversations. Part of it was that I genuinely liked Olivia, even though I knew that wasn’t her real name, and I didn’t want to listen to a bunch of my coworkers talk about fucking her. Call me old fashioned.
She came out in matching bra and panties, pale blue and sheer, with little pink and orange flowers adorning them. I’d bought them for her that day at the West Edmonton Mall. She was just over five feet, with caramel brown skin and dark hair that fell to the middle of her back.
“Jesus Christ,” I said, half in love with her.
She grinned and shut the bathroom door behind her. “Should I hit the lamp or leave it on?”
I ended up paying for an extra hour and left the Ace Inn around midnight. It was a warm night and I decided to walk back to Russell’s, stopping at McDonald’s for a ten-piece and a McFlurry on the way. The town was quiet. I could hear the rush of the Athabasca River several streets away.
Russell’s apartment was empty when I got back, which was honestly a relief as I was too exhausted to make up some story about where I’d been. I quickly undressed, slugged a glass of water, and climbed into Russell’s bed. Before I dozed off, I texted Tanner: Guess the kid got lucky! Gonna go play some ball hockey at Timberlea tomorrow, lemme know if you wanna come.
I fell asleep thinking of Olivia, her perfume lingering on my skin, and I woke up with the sun on my face, feeling more refreshed than I had in months. It was 11 in the morning and the apartment was still empty. I hadn’t heard from Tanner, but assumed he was with the girl he met the night before. I brewed a pot of coffee and fried a couple eggs and drove over to Timberlea Park.
It was an unseasonably hot April day. The outdoor Timberlea Park rink, covered in ice just two weeks ago, was now bare concrete and dry as a bone. A few guys were out playing already, and I laced up my rollerblades and joined a brisk game of three-on-three. The breeze whipped my hair, the sweat flushed my pores, and for two hours there was nothing in my brain but the rumble of wheels and the slap of stick blades on concrete.
We all had a beer on the bench as we changed out of our blades into sneakers. I checked my phone. There was still nothing from Tanner, but Russell had texted the both of us: Yo meet back at mine, head back to the well round 6? I gave it a thumbs up. In that moment, as I stared at the screen with its two lonely messages, I started to worry for the first time.
When Tanner didn’t show at Russell’s by six, I drove around town, asking at all the usual pubs, at the Boomtown Casino, at Showgirls. Bear, the bouncer, looked confused. “Yeah, I saw him,” he puzzled, “You were together, weren’t you?”
“No, that was two nights ago. Did you see him last night?”
“Oh jeez, I’m sorry Ty,” he shook his head. “I can’t keep it all straight. I think the last time I saw him, he was with you.”
“That’s okay Bear,” I said, giving his ham-sized bicep a friendly pat. “Thanks anyway.”
We waited for as long as we could, staying an extra night at Russell’s place, calling up a few friends who we thought might know something. Before he went to bed, Russell put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry man, he’ll turn up.”
But he didn’t.
I lay awake in Russell’s living room, my mind racing through the possibilities. He might’ve boozed so hard he was still sleeping it off. He might’ve overdosed on some bad blow, the fentanyl-laced shit you heard about on the news these days. He might’ve gotten on the wrong side of the wrong person. Then again, he might’ve simply decided he was done with this life, and moved on to another one. It wouldn’t have been the first time. The truth was, I had absolutely no idea what’d happened to him, and that made me feel worse than anything.
At four in the morning, having tried everything else I could think of, I reluctantly called the police, who basically told me to fuck off. “So, you’re saying it’s been barely 24 hours,” the cop chewed dismissively.
“It’s been almost 36 hours,” I said.
He confirmed that Tanner hadn’t been arrested, that he would tell the patrol units to keep an eye out. But he was a twenty-three-year-old kid with a nose for trouble and a platinum Amex. They weren’t about to send the dogs after him. And I couldn’t blame them.
At six in the morning, the sun just a thin yellow strip on the horizon, Russell and I got in the truck and drove back up to the well for the start of our shifts.
The winter mom was in the hospital, Tanner was working construction up in Muskoka, helping his buddy renovate some rich guy’s boathouse. He’d dropped out of Mohawk College in the fall, and he was living in Mactier in the carpenter’s basement. When we got the biopsy results back, I couldn't get in touch with him for a week. I called his cell, texted, emailed. Nothing. My messages got angrier and angrier:
Where the fuck are you man?
Call me back Tanner, I’m not fucking around.
You know what, don’t even bother you gutless piece of shit.
It didn’t even occur to me that he might be in trouble or anything like that. He was notoriously unresponsive, had a history of going dark for weeks. Besides, I had other things to worry about.
The cancer was in her mouth and in her throat. It had spread to her lymph nodes. They biopsied her tongue and the doctor called it “very aggressive.” He recommended a month of chemo and radiation. “It’s what I would do for my mom,” he said, first looking at her and then at me. I wanted to rip the stethoscope off his neck and beat him with it.
She had radiation every day in the basement of Princess Margaret. They made a plaster mold of her head and then a mask of hard plastic mesh that looked like chainmail. She lay on the table and they screwed the mask down over her face so she couldn’t move. Then the machine started to whir, the lines of bright green light scanning up and across her body like a Xerox, meeting in a bullseye on her left cheek.
I held her hand. They let her choose the music and she always picked a punk band, like the Sex Pistols or the Buzzcocks or the Dead Kennedys, which I thought was pretty funny given that the whole thing she had to do was stay completely still. Her eyes fluttered beneath her eyelids, like she was in a deep sleep, and I imagined she was trying to transport herself back in time, to a night at the El Mocambo, when she and her friends shook the floor dancing, happy and free.
In the end, the treatment didn’t do anything but drain her out, make her look yellow and shrunken. It didn’t help that she kept drinking, stashing a bottle in her underwear drawer, lying to her doctors about it. I should’ve told them, but she didn’t raise me to rat.
Her third week in treatment, I got a call from an unknown number.
“What’s up Ty?”
I hung it up.
“Who’s that?” mom asked feebly.
I was silent.
“It was Tanner, wasn’t it.”
“Well, are you going to call him back?”
“Don’t be mad at your brother,” she said, “I used to be just like him.”
At the end of my shift, McAuley pulled me aside and led me into a small, musty trailer that served as the site’s administrative office. I hadn’t set foot in there since I signed my contract. McAuley took off his hard hat, his bald head beaded with sweat, sat down in an old wheelie chair and kicked another one towards me.
“Where the fuck’s your brother?”
I stared down at a stack of papers that looked like invoices. I’d been thinking all day about whether to cover for Tanner, whether I’d even be able to. I’d toyed with a couple stories in my head. But the truth was, in that moment, my anger at him was just as deep as my worry for him. Again he’d vanished without so much as a text. Again he’d left me holding the bag. I wanted to find him, but I didn’t much care if he had a job to come back to or not.
“C’mon Tyler, what gives?”
I sat in the chair, the seat sliding down under my weight with a pneumatic hiss. I couldn’t meet McAuley’s eyes, so I stared off at the clock on the wall, its hands bearing no relationship to the actual time.
“I don’t know,” I mouthed.
“I don’t know,” I repeated, “I don’t know where he is.”
I felt the burn of tears in my eyes and blinked them back.
“He didn’t come back to the site with you yesterday?”
I shook my head.
McAuley gave a knowing look and scratched his beard thoughtfully. “Wouldn’t be the first time a guy went AWOL,” he said. “It’s not for everybody, this place.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. “It was his idea.”
“Coming out here in the first place,” I said. “It was his idea.”
“Well,” he said, “I once had the idea to propose to my ex-wife. Doesn’t mean it was a good one.”
He scooted his chair towards mine. “Look, Tyler, I’m gonna have to let him go. I got production targets to meet, and I need a full crew.” He rested a heavy hand on my shoulder, “You understand.”
I nodded. That was one thing I did understand.
That night I had another awful time sleeping. I was dead tired, as I always was after a day in the hole, my body aching and my eyes feeling hard as marbles. But sleep wouldn’t come. I tried reading my book, an old le Carré I’d borrowed from the mess hall, but the words passed through my mind without leaving any impression.
Tanner’s empty, unmade bed gaped at me. I tossed the book aside and started to look through his things. On his little desk, there was nothing but junk: old receipts, candy wrappers, spare change. In the drawer, I found a couple hundred bucks cash, a dime bag of coke, and, at the very back, an old photograph. It lay face down, a date scrawled in pencil on the back, 12/22/99. I turned it over and it was mom, Tanner, and I, looking up at me. We were skating at Nathan Phillips Square, mom with an arm over each of our shoulders. I didn’t remember the occasion, or who’d taken the photo, but I could see why Tanner had kept it. The other skaters blurred around us, but we were still, our edges sharp, our cheeks reddened by the cold, our smiles matching.
By two AM I couldn’t stand the inside of the trailer anymore, so I went out for a walk. The camp was silent, just the wind and the sound of my boots chomping the melting snow. I walked between the trailers, flattened beer cans and soggy cigarette packs dotting the ground. I made it to the edge of our little city, the last row of trailers before the tundra resumed. The wind whipped across the plain and sent a shiver through the budding shrubs.
That’s when I saw it. The golden eyes glowing out of the darkness like distant headlights, all trained on me, unblinking. And then, stalking into the ring of light around the camp, a single wolf. He was beautiful. Silver fur, perfectly white muzzle, blacktipped ears. He stared at me and I stared right back, ignoring the rest of them waiting in the shadows, invisible but for their eyes. They didn’t matter. He didn’t growl or bare his teeth, and I stood with my feet flat and my hands at my sides. There was no fear between us. Just the wonder of two creatures seeing something they never thought they’d see. He nosed the ground and loped away and all the lights went out behind him.
When the siren sounded the next day, they didn’t have time to gather us. The blaring was interrupted by a voice on the intercom, booming fuzzily over the pit, “The site is being evacuated. I repeat, the site is being evacuated. Proceed to your vehicle or to a Suncor bus immediately.”
As I joined the throng of bodies climbing the mine’s outer ramps, it didn’t even occur to me that I might never be back. I tried calling Tanner again, but everybody was calling somebody, and my cell reception was for shit. I spotted Russell a few paces ahead of me and jostled to catch up with him.
“What the fuck man.”
He was tapping out a text on his phone. “They’re evacuating Fort Mac too,” he said.
“Want to ride with me?”
“Yeah, thanks. Anything from Tan?”
I shook my head.
“We’ll try him from the car.”
As we reached the surface of the pit, we saw the full scope of the fire, growing taller and wider by the second. We set off towards the Chevy at a run.
Even though they were sending both lanes southbound, Suicide 63 was bumper to bumper, everybody honking, barely moving. It was all on fire, both sides of the road, a corridor of flame taller than the trees that fed it. A million acres of spruce and aspen and fir. Smoke so big you couldn’t see the sky. It was impossible not to think of hell. I’d lost my brother and now I was in hell.
Blackhawk helicopters buzzed overhead, dangling cisterns of water from metal cables and dropping their payloads into the blaze. Drops in a bucket. Like a kid bashfully pissing in a bonfire. We put on the radio and heard they were evacuating the whole area, that the wind was driving the fire east and there was no sign of its slowing. “Do not stay in your homes,” the voice pleaded.
Embers fell from the sky like snow. The car was getting hot and I joined the chorus of drivers slamming pointlessly on their horns, “Fuck fuck fuck.”
Russell was on the phone, trying his parents, his girlfriend, and Tanner, one after the other, over and over again. The calls kept dropping before anyone could answer, as if swallowed up by the smoke.
There was a car pulled over on the side of the road and a man emerged from the driver side door, one hand clutching his shirt over his mouth, the other flagging us down. I nodded in his direction, “Russell.”
Our eyes met through the thick smoke. The man was coming our way.
“We can’t,” Russell said, his long black ponytail shaking with his head, “we gotta keep moving.”
“Moving where? We’re barely moving at all.”
It was a traffic jam in the middle of an inferno, a painfully slow procession of vehicles, none of them willing to give up their place in the queue. I hoped that Tanner had gone far, far away. That he’d skipped this terrible place. That he was off riding a cool wave over a sandy break.
“Ah, fuck it,” I decided.
As I lowered the window, smoke rushed into the car like water. Russell and I were coughing immediately.
“Hey!” I shouted, pulling my t-shirt over my mouth. “You okay?”
“We’re out of gas,” the man hollered back.
I looked over at his car, a green minivan, and was unable to make out who was inside. “How many are you?”
“My wife, my daughter.”
I nodded, pulling the truck onto the shoulder. “Get in.”
“Thank you,” the man called, “thank you so much,” running back to his car and knocking on the windshield. His wife came out of the passenger side, holding the baby in its swaddle, her hand cupping the back of the child’s head. Russell reached back and opened the rear door. The man helped his wife and daughter up first before climbing in himself and shutting the door quickly behind him. They were a young East Asian couple, early thirties by my guess. I twisted my body around to shake the man’s hand.
“Howard Leung,” he introduced himself. “This is my wife, Cici. Our daughter, Alana.”
“Thank you for stopping,” his wife said, with a profound sincerity that suggested how long they’d been waiting.
“You work the wells?” Russell asked.
Howard nodded, “I’m a geologist, for Imperial.”
As I forced my way back into the slow creep of cars, I glanced at the family in the rearview. The baby was remarkably calm, even with all the blaring horns and the helicopter chop and the truck filled with smoke. Her mom held her tight to her chest, trying to create a pocket of clean air beneath her flannel shirt.
“I can’t believe it,” said Howard, turning his head to take one last look at his abandoned minivan.
The truck’s air filter eventually helped clear the smoke, but the AC was no match for the heat. The fire roared on either side of us, threatening to leap across the ditch and ignite the river of cars at any moment. I imagined this was what astronauts felt like on re-entry, the crown of flame licking up the sides of the landing pod. Except instead of flying at Mach speed, we were inching forward, slower than tar sand up the conveyor belt. In that sense, it was more like being locked in a sauna. We put the car in neutral every so often to save gas.
The pace of Russell’s dialing slowed too. From continuously to every ten minutes. Then every twenty. There was no point anyway. Nothing got through the smoke.
We drove, the five of us, six hours at a snail’s pace to Wandering River, which was outside the evac zone. It was dark by the time we made it, and the one motel in town had no vacancy. There were dozens of cars, ash-covered like ours, sitting in the parking lot, and we learned that the motel was letting people stay there overnight, use the bathrooms and the vending machines inside. It was the best we could do. We decided we’d try for Edmonton in the morning.
The vending machines didn’t have much to offer. The only drink left was Diet Mountain Dew, so I bought four of them. Howard and Cici scavenged through the chips and candy, moving systematically across the grid, buying a couple of whatever remained.
As I waited in line to use the motel bathroom, I called Tanner again. The line rang, and kept ringing, longer than it had rung all day. My heart quickened. And then I heard his voice: “Hey, Tanner here, leave it at the beep.”
There was something both instinctively infuriating and oddly reassuring about getting his voicemail. I was caught off guard, and took a beat before speaking.
“Hey, Tan… I dunno if you’ll get this, but I made it to Wandering River. I’m with Russell, and some other people we picked up on the way. Gonna stay the night at the motel here and try for Edmonton in the morning.”
I searched my brain for any other pieces of critical information that would help him find me. If he wanted to find me. But there was nothing.
“I love you,” I said, for the first time in god knows how long. I honestly couldn’t remember. “And I really need you to be okay.”
We stood by the truck, resting our sodas on the hood and eating our dinner of chips and candy. The lot had filled since we arrived, the cars assembled in loose rows as if camped at some satanic music festival. The fire crackled on the horizon, a permanent sunset. Russell watched it mournfully. “Pass some of those Fritos,” he said.
The baby started to cry and Cici said, “I’m gonna go feed her.”
Howard nodded, his eyes following them as they climbed into the backseat of the truck. He turned back toward the blaze. “She was born there,” he said, nodding toward it. “The first Leung born in Canada, and it was in Fort Mac.” He shook his head and managed a laugh.
It was cold that night, a welcome relief from the feverish day. We wrapped ourselves in our jackets and let our body heat fill the truck. The Leungs were in the back, Howard and Cici with their heads rested against either window, the baby between them on the middle seat. Russell was passed out next to me, his toque pulled down over his eyes, a bag of M&Ms open in his lap. I watched the fire a while longer before drifting off.
When it was all said and done, three months after the plume first filled the sky, the fire had spread across northern Alberta and into Saskatchewan. It made its own weather: the heat making clouds, making lightning, making more fire. Thousands of homes burned to the ground, cars stripped down to the steel. They still don’t know how it started. “Likely human caused,” is what they said on the news. A campfire left smoldering, or a casually flicked cigarette. Something so small and insignificant you wouldn’t think twice about it.
I woke with a start to a light rap on my window. I’d slept so little the last three days I couldn’t trust my eyes. But they told me it was Tanner. He smiled faintly, and then the smile disappeared, likely in response to the grim, disoriented look on my own face. He cocked his head, inviting me out of the truck.
I stepped out into the cool night air and stared at him disbelievingly, his face covered in soot, his hair blackened and singed. “You fucking asshole,” I said, and pulled him into a hard embrace.
Nasir Husain is a researcher and writer with a focus on social impact and public policy work. He grew up in Toronto, Canada.