Birke yawned and peered out of the bus window. They had pulled up at a gas station. A small placard attached to the building denoted its status as a bus stop.
“Canby!” announced the driver.
Venturing down Canby's main street, Birke passed darkened storefronts and restaurants. The sun had barely risen above the horizon so the docks, with departing working boats, were the liveliest part of town. He grabbed an apple from his backpack to ease his hunger and ate it as he wandered down the hill toward the docks.
At the waterfront, he watched fishermen loading their boats and directing their helpers. Birds called and waves splashed. He smiled - it was so different from his village.
The horizon was scattered with islands and a headland rose up in the southeast. Pleasure boats dotted the bay to Birke’s right and a stately home stood on a hill at the edge of the forest. In the northeast, working boats motored away from Canby where the horizon opened wider. The northeastern shore was markedly untamed. There, shacks in varying states of disrepair gave way to forest. A few shacks had dinghies or small patches of green space between them and the sea, but most were only separated from the crashing waves by granite boulders and large chunks of concrete, some with rebar poking out. Inland from the shacks was a rectangular concrete crater - a foundation overgrown with weeds, beyond which was a neat line of narrow houses.
Noticing an increase of passersby, Birke looked up the hill. The shops had opened and the main street was bustling with people and cars.
As he began toward the main street, he heard a scuffle behind a tower of fishing traps. Stepping closer, he saw two burly men with their backs to him. A third man wound his foot back, then drove it into the stomach of a fourth man lying on the ground. “Where’s our mirror?” one of the burly men demanded, sending another kick into the man’s stomach.
The man’s dark beige face was contorted in pain as he shook his head. “P-please, sto-” he coughed. He raised his arms, which were scratched and covered in dirt and blood. “P-pl-” he tried, and waved meekly.
“We know you took it!” said one of the burly men, kneeling down. He grabbed the man’s shirt and lifted his head off the ground. The man's eyes, one green, one blue, filled with fear. The tormentor pulled a mirror from his coat and leaned close. “If you wanted to disappear, we would’ve helped,” he said, thrusting the mirror in front of the man's face.
The man went misty as the trio held him down.
When the mirror was torn away, one of the trio sneered and said: “Where is it?”
“Sh-shattered,” said the man. Sweat glistened on his face. “In the bay.”
“Nope. We recovered that one.”
“No, I-” sputtered the man on the ground, as the mirror was forced on him. When his form began to mist, the mirror was released.
Birke stowed his bags beneath a row of shrubs, then stepped into view of the group.
The closest of the trio took a step toward Birke and smiled. “What, you next?”
“Leave him alone,” said Birke, calmly.
The bully laughed. “You his boyfriend?”
“Could be. Just leave him alone.”
The bully stepped closer as the mirror flashed. The man on the ground began to fade to mist. Then the bully charged at Birke, who punched him, connecting with his jaw. When he staggered back, another from the trio moved forward angrily.
Birke blocked a blow from his second opponent and punched him in the stomach. Coughing, the man doubled over. The man with the mirror dropped it, stunned at the sight of his two comrades sputtering on the ground, and lunged at Birke’s legs. Birke sidestepped the man, who crashed to the dirt.
The trio, after attempting to rally, hobbled away, injured and swearing.
Birke helped the man sit up, then he retrieved his bags from the bushes. He made sure to stow the trio's discarded mirror deep in his duffle. The man sat with his eyes closed, taking deep breaths and holding his side in pain. A black eye was visible through the network of white lines on his face and dirt had caked in the curly, dark-brown hair that fell to his shoulders.
Birke rejoined the man and helped him stand.
“You’ll make enemies like that,” said the man, in a hoarse voice, coughing from the exertion. “But thank you.”
“Is there somewhere you can rest?” asked Birke.
“I’ll show you.”
The man led Birke through a gated section of the docks to a stately green sailboat with “Vireo” painted on its hull.
“Looks like a broken rib,” said Birke, once the man was settled on a cushioned bench in Vireo’s cabin.
Though he couldn’t fix the rib, he tended to the injuries he could. Since he wasn’t sure how sore the man’s jaw would be after the violent trio's treatment, he made soup and heated up some of the tea he had brought with him.
“I can pay you, for helping, and for the tea,” said the man, after they had eaten.
“Thank you, but it’s okay.”
“You’re very kind,” said the man. He looked over his arms and legs. “Huh, thought I had more cuts and bruises than this.”
“You did,” said Birke. The man gave him a questioning look. “My name’s Birke.”
“Ah, that’s why you’re good with your fists,” said the man, knowingly. “I’m Calum. I’m from Adney Island. My neighbour there was also from the mountains, but his fists landed him in jail. Unlike you, he didn’t mind the trade. He never mastered the tea though, never had much time between stints in prison.”
“My dad taught me the tea, tried to teach me the trade too. Growing up in a town like that, I had to be strong if I wanted to disagree.”
“The trade wasn't officially welcomed in Adney, but it made frequent visits. I tried to stay neutral.”
“By stealing their mirrors?”
Calum smiled. “Well, I haven't officially chosen a side, after all. But if a few mirrors move from a trade's boat onto my boat, or into a Melter's pocket...” he shrugged.
“So, you're some kind of pirate?”
“Let's just say nobody else in Canby would’ve been willing to do what you did.” Calum took a sip of tea. “I told you, you’ll make enemies that way. If I were you, with a fresh start here, I’d try to stay out of the trade’s way. Get a quiet job. As for hotels, there’s a place on Second that is pro-Melter, not that they advertise it, but they have enough muscle to stay in business.”
Birke made another pot of tea before leaving. As he set the tea in front of Calum, he noticed a photograph of five people standing on the dock in front of Vireo. Calum followed his gaze.
“That’s my sister with her husband, my brother's in the centre, then me and the neighbour I told you about.”
“You two were friends?”
“He helped me build Vireo, named it after a bird,” said Calum. “But it was hard to keep anything serious going, with him always in and out of prison. Last I knew, he’d moved back to the mountains.”
“It’s fine.” Calum looked at the photo. “That was five years ago now,” he pointed to his sister’s small bump, “They also have a three-year-old.”
“I’ll check out that hotel you mentioned,” said Birke, as he left, “but you try to stay out of trouble too. Okay?”
“I’m not making any promises.”
Birke easily found the hotel Calum suggested. From his room, he could see Vireo; all looked well.
After getting settled in, he walked up the hill to explore the main street.
A help wanted sign caught his eye so he entered the shop. Seeds, dried berries, and herbs filled the shelves. Between two vases, a poster was tacked to the wall: “Strengthen the Future, Join the Trade!”
“Interested?” said the shop owner. She smiled kindly, her eyes warm behind her glasses. “It really is the way of the future,” she added.
“I’ll think about it,” said Birke, as the woman leaned uncomfortably close.
“Well, don’t take too long.” She smiled tightly.
Birke nodded and slipped from the store.
As he attempted to breathe in the fresh air, he was distracted by yelling. He noticed the source of commotion at once. At the bakery across the way, the baker was pushing two men in silver-splattered overalls out onto the street.
“Serves them right, bunch of thieves,” muttered a woman beside Birke, as she went into the store he had just exited.
The pair of Melters hurried up the main street. Birke, keeping his distance, followed. When they turned onto a side street, he crossed the street in pursuit. He caught up with them near a park.
“Hey,” he said.
They spun toward him, their faces anxious and drawn.
“Look, we don’t want any trouble,” said one Melter, while both of them backed onto the grass.
“No, I-” Birke began, but the Melters were already sprinting across the park. He noticed one had a slight limp.
After the park, the street became residential, so Birke turned back toward the main street. Nearing the corner, he passed a gallery. There was a sign in the window announcing a sale with increasing percentages crossed out, stopping at eighty. Through the window, Birke could see the owner wrapping artwork in paper. She was surrounded by a jungle of cardboard boxes.
Birke entered and the owner looked up. “Welcome to Strahan Bay Gallery,” she said, motioning to a shelf by the window. “Those are the last of the sale items.”
As Birke began looking over the artwork, a teenage boy entered.
“Theo,” said the owner, brightly, “good timing.” She picked up a box from the counter and passed it to Theo. “You do good work, so don’t let this discourage you, okay?”
"Thanks," Theo murmured. Then he left.
Birke found a sturdy wallet in the sale items. He brought it to the owner and retrieved money from his battered wallet.
“Thank you,” said the owner, accepting his payment. Then, noticing his old wallet, added: “You don’t often see that material outside of the mountains, pretty durable stuff.”
“Yeah, but it’s time for a new one.” He looked around the room. “I’m guessing your closing sale coinciding with the trade influx isn’t a coincidence?”
“No,” she answered, taping up a box and labelling it with the artist’s name. “When the cannery was still here and people were more optimistic it was much better.”
The door opened and a teenage girl entered.
“Remember what Hollis said, and stick with it,” said the owner, handing the girl a box.
“I will.” The girl hugged the owner. “Thank you.”
When the girl had gone, the owner’s gaze scanned the room for anything not boxed up.
“Have they all taken it that well? The artists?”
“No.” She shook her head. “Some took it a lot worse. What frustrates me is that its losses like this that give the trade more power. Without places like this, people don’t get to see alternatives.”
“Yeah,” agreed Birke. He glimpsed another artist, a woman with grey hair, coming into the gallery. “Good luck,” he said to the owner, “and thanks for the wallet.”