He is looking for me.
I’m not afraid, but I’m uneasy. The messages are cryptic – half in French, half in English – asking to meet, making it sound almost like a date.
He doesn’t know where I am, doesn’t know that I’m online and have seen him there. I’m shrouded by several different identities, by a VPN that keeps my IP address at bay. These are not foolproof, though. Not when it comes to him. If he suspects I’m lurking, if he put some effort into it, he likely could find me.
I could stop going to the site and end it now. Yet every day I scan the conversations, looking for his name, looking for that day’s message.
I am doing just that, along with my morning ritual of a cup of coffee and slice of toast, when I spot it, the phrase we’d devised to identify ourselves to each other.
‘Le soleil brille aujourd’hui,’ I read. The sun is shining today. The French is more familiar now that I’m using it every day, even if it’s Québécois and not Parisian.
After that, the link to the URL where we could chat privately.
I wonder for a moment where he is, if the sun really is shining where he is. Here, I see nothing but gray, hear the tap-tap-tap of the rain against the window.
I take a drink of coffee, a bite of toast.
He knows who I am. I’d like to say he’s a friend; he’s helped me in the past. I have trusted him more than I’ve ever trusted anyone.
I know him only as Tracker.
I am curious, more than I should be. My fingers itch to respond.
Instead, I pick up my coffee mug and plate and get up from the table. The house has an open layout – the dining area between the living room and kitchen – and it only takes me a few strides before I stick my plate in the sink. I turn and lean against the counter, cupping the coffee mug in my hands.
The wood stove sits cold in the corner across the room, unnecessary now that summer has finally arrived, but very necessary in the dead of winter when the unyielding snow and frigid temperatures wrap themselves around the house.
When I first looked at the house a little over a year ago, I wondered if it wasn’t just a little too brown. Wood paneling, a wooden built-in cabinet on the wall that backs up against the staircase that leads to the bedrooms and bathroom upstairs. A beige sofa and a wooden rocking chair. Wide hardwood flooring and a wood table and chairs. But the longer I live here, the cozier it feels, and now I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve added dashes of color: a locally hand-woven red and gold rug, red and orange ceramic mugs and bowls in the cabinet. And then there are my paintings, which splash the reds and oranges and pinks of the island’s sunsets and sunrises across the walls.
I am comfortable here, settled, on Ile-aux-Coudres. The island is small – smaller than Block Island, my previous home – in the middle of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec’s Charlevoix region, and has only two roads: one that circles the island for sixteen miles and one that cuts through it. The mainland is close, two miles, just a fifteen-minute ferry ride.
I’ve gleaned some trivia tidbits about the island: how it was discovered by Jacques Cartier in 1535, who named it after the hazelnut trees, and how seamen would stop here to bury people who’d died during voyages. Coastal shipping was a big business at one time, but that gave way to trucking, and now the economy relies on tourism and the island’s reputation as a summer resort.
I remind myself that I’m not doing bike tours here, like I did when I lived on Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island, so I don’t need to know these small facts, but those years seem to have piqued a curiosity in me that I never knew I had.
I do spend a lot of time on my bike, discovering the island’s gems. I frequently visit the two small, processional chapels perched at the side of the road: Saint-Pierre and Saint-Isidore. Their stark interiors are smaller than my kitchen, but there is a peacefulness that I find soothing. I am not a religious person, but I have discovered a spirituality here.
I’ve learned how to make my own bread, using the flour that’s milled at Les Moulins just down the road. Kneading the dough is therapeutic, back and forth until it’s smooth as stone. As smooth as the stones that Odette uses at the spa at La Roche Pleureuse. I am addicted to them, to the quiet peace that envelops me while she works her magic. Sometimes when she’s done I have to remind myself who I am, because I am too relaxed and I worry that I won’t answer to the name I’ve adopted.
I’ve been Tina Adler and Nicole Jones and now I’m Susan McQueen.
I have painted the chapels and Saint Louis Church and the windmill, filling my canvases with the broad brushstrokes that distinguish my style from other artists here, and the galleries that sell my work find that they are popular among the tourists.
One other thing that is curious: I am not afraid to go to the mainland here, as I was before. It is almost as though stepping off that other island set me free, but I know better than that. Yet I revel in my new life, eager to discover this new place, taking my bike across the river and pedaling as far away as Tadoussac, four-hundred-some-odd years old, where the freshwater Saguenay spills into the saltwater St. Lawrence. I’ve seen beluga and minke whales in the waters there. The Charlevoix region is more like Europe than North America, with tidy houses that sport a bounty of colorful flowers and mountains that rush to the edges of the St. Lawrence, with steeples piercing the cobalt sky in small, picturesque villages along the coast.
I have escaped twice now to find refuge in a place that is even more remote than the last one, and I am thankful for my own resourcefulness and the kindness of others. Luck might have more to do with it than any so-called higher power, but regardless of how I got here, I am safely enshrined. Or so I hope.
I might have remade myself for the second time, but this time I have kept bits of myself from before: the biking, the painting. And the laptop.
The laptop is a transgression. It is my weakness. I start out with rules: only in the morning for an hour, again in the evening after supper. I set the timer so I can adhere to this, but as they say, rules are made to be broken and there are many days when I lose track of time and hours pass.
It was harder to control my addiction in the winter, the deep snow and chill keeping me indoors, where it’s cozy and warm. But once the weather turned, the island lured me outdoors, and I’ve been able to keep it under control. At least a little bit.
I turn back to the sink and when I finish washing up, glance back toward the laptop on the coffee table. Sometimes it whispers to me, but right now it’s shouting.
I pour myself a second cup of coffee and allow myself to be lured back. I touch the keypad and the screen jumps to life. Tracker’s message is still there, waiting for me.
When I saw his name and the cryptic French phrase last week, my first thought was to wonder what had taken him so long. My second was, why now? It’s been over a year.
The only logical explanation is that something has happened that he means to warn me about. Tracker would not try to reach me just for the sake of catching up. Our relationship has always been a practical one.
I have been waffling because I don’t know if I want to know. But the longer it goes on, the more anxious I get, the more I feel I should know what’s going on so I’m not caught off guard again.
My fingers hover over the keys, and I close my eyes and quickly click on the URL link he’s left for me.
My hands are shaking so much that I can barely type.
‘Non, le ciel est nuageux.’ No, it’s cloudy.
This is the code that will tell him it’s really me and not someone else.
I can’t tell if he’s here. He is a ghost, and even if I start poking around to try to uncover him, I doubt I will be able to. Tracker is very good at hiding.
No, all I can do is wait to see if he’ll come to the chat.
My heart begins to pound, anxious now that I have not covered my tracks sufficiently, that he is, right at this very moment, tracing me to this very spot. I double- check my VPN, make sure that it’s working properly. I have given myself away in only one way: my screen name, which is no longer Tiny or BikerGirl27, but a jumble of letters and numbers that are meaningless to anyone but me. It’s one of five that I’ve been using for this site as I lurk among the conversations, picking up new tips and getting to know the other hackers here.
I see it without realizing it at first: a blip on the screen that could just be a hiccup in the wireless Internet, nothing that’s unusual out here on the island.
But I know it’s not that innocent.
The button next to the webcam shines a bright green.
I’m being shadowed.
©Karen E. Olson 2015