“You’re breaking up, Scotty. Where are you again?” My buddy Luke’s voice was tinny, echoing in my ear as our connection got worse.
“I just got done with the the zip-lining shoot in Manitou. You wouldn’t believe how gorgeous it is here in Manitoba, Luke. I’m getting some great shots for my YouTube channel. I was planning to head back to the states, but now I’m going to sidetrack over to this little town I heard about over near Winnipeg.”
“But the kids miss you, Scotty. How much longer are you planning to stay up there? Seriously, you can’t tell me that some small town in the backwoods of Manitoba is sweeter than my babies.”
I cracked up at the whine in my buddy’s voice. Trust Luke to use the kids... emotional blackmail much?
“Nice try, asshole. But actually, this town might be sweeter than your kids—if we’re speaking literally. Côté-d’Érable is having their annual sugaring off festival; I’ve been told it’s a lot of fun, one of those not to be missed type of things.”
“Sugaring off? Dude. Are you going to some porn festival instead of coming home?” The horror in Luke’s voice had me cracking up all over again. Luckily, I seemed to have stepped into an area with stronger reception and could better appreciate the nuances in his voice without the strange echo effect.
“No, despite the way it sounds, there’s no sexual connotation. Sugaring off has something to do with them tapping the trees to get the maple syrup,” I tried to explain, even while I was cracking up at innuendo myself.
“Yeah, because there couldn’t possibly be a sexual connotation involved in something that involves tapping wood and sugaring off to get the sweet stuff flowing,” Luke gasped out between laughs.
“Funny guy,” I grinned into the phone. “Listen, my brother Todd is going to be in town by Friday. I told him that you’d have my spare key. Don’t freak out when you meet him, okay?”
“Why in the world would I freak out when I meet your brother?” Luke’s voice was breaking up again so I took a couple steps back to where the signal had seemed stronger just a few moments earlier. “Unless he’s really weird looking or sporting a third nipple—and even then I’d like to say that I wouldn’t freak out.”
“I’m pretty sure that I forgot to mention that Todd and I are identical twins. I didn’t want you to get all excited and think that it was me standing on your doorstep, that’s all.”
The line went silent for several seconds. I held my phone out again to make sure that we were still connected. When I put it back in my ear, I heard Luke wheezing with laughter.
“Why is it funny that I have a twin? Or are you just acting weird because I never told you? Honestly, I don’t know why it never came up,” I found myself babbling to fill the void before Luke interrupted.
“Sorry—I was torn between wanting to say something about how I was right about the fact that he’d be weird looking if he’s identical to you, but then I remembered a twincest meme I saw online and couldn’t figure out which one I wanted to mess with you about more.”
“On that note, it’s time for me to go because the bus that will take me to Côté-d’Érable is pulling up. Seriously though… twincest? Remind why we’re even friends again? Gee, and here I thought you were the normal one of our group.”
Luke chuckled at my teasing. Hearing his laughter made me a little bit homesick for my friends in Hollydale, but not enough to end my journey yet.
“Listen, Luke. I really do have to go, but I’ll shoot you a text to let you know when I’m headed back.”
“Well, at least I know you can’t stay there forever. How much longer is your travel visa anyway?”
“A week from Friday, so I should be home in a couple weeks—give or take. Kiss the babies, be nice to my brother, and tell Grazer I said hello; I’ll talk to you soon, buddy.”
Once we’d ended our call, I shoved the phone in my pocket and dug out my ticket. Hopefully, I’d get a little nap on the way to this little hole in the wall town I’d heard about.
The driver took a cursory glance at my ticket and tipped his chin toward the nearly empty rows of seats behind him.
“Welcome, friend. Sit wherever you like, we’ve a light load today. If you’ve never been this way, I’d recommend a window seat because the scenery around here is not to be missed.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll make sure to do just that,” I smiled and made my way down the aisle to the first empty pair of seats I found. Slinging my backpack onto the aisle seat, I dropped down by the window. The driver wasn’t wrong about the scenery. I completely missed the nap I’d planned to take while I enjoyed the view.
Once we’d stopped in Côté-d’Érable, I wandered off the bus and looked around. The driver’s friendly voice startled me when he came walking up behind me, but I turned with a smile.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you said—I was zoned out by this gorgeous winter wonderland around us.”
“Sorry to startle you there, I was just asking if somebody would be meeting you. As for the winter wonderland—just wait until you’ve been here a few days and your balls turn into ice cubes, eh?” He chuckled and walked a little closer. “Are you meeting any friends or family here?”
I shrugged. “Actually, I came here on a whim when I heard about the sugaring off festival. I figured I’d find lodging once I got here.”
“The festival, eh? I’d forgotten that was this weekend,” he said offhand as he dug his wallet out and began rifling through it. He looked up a moment later as he triumphantly held a card out to me. “This is my friend Martha’s bed-and-breakfast. She runs a clean place for a decent price. Just tell her Lawrence sent you.”
“Thank you, Lawrence. I don’t suppose there are any taxis in the area?” I took the card and entered the number for the B&B into my phone before handing it back to him.
“No taxis, but I heard through the grapevine that the Martin boys started working for that Uber thingamajigger,” he offered helpfully.
Before he’d finished speaking, I’d already opened the Uber app. Sure enough, it showed that I could get a ride and thankfully there was a driver showing available in my area. I quickly arranged for my ride, and thanked Lawrence for his help while he rooted in his shirt pocket for something else.
I took a polite step back when he lit a cigarette a moment later, hiking my backpack onto my shoulder and lifting a hand as though I were leaving anyway.
“Sorry about that,” Lawrence immediately apologized as he leaned back to blow the smoke straight up into the air over his head. “Nasty habit, but I do look forward to my three cigarettes a day—that’s all I allow myself nowadays. I figure that’s not enough to hurt me, but enough to give me a little something naughty to look forward to on the long drives, eh?”
“No worries, I get it. But I need to head toward the main entrance so I don’t miss my ride anyway. Thank you for all your help, I’ll just leave you to enjoy your illicit treat,” I winked as I turned and walked away. I kinda felt like an asshole now for making him feel bad about his guilty pleasure.
I’d barely made it to the main entrance when a dinged-up Dodge minivan came flying into the driveway and skidded to a stop right in front of me. A young guy with ruddy cheeks and white blond hair reached over and opened the passenger door. It opened so fast that I barely jumped back out of the door’s trajectory before it would’ve slammed me in the shins.
“Hello there, friend. I’m Georgie Martin, you called for a ride? From the address you put in, I reckon you’re going to Martha’s?”
After a quick glance at my phone to confirm that this was indeed the driver I’d been assigned, I slid into the seat and wedged my backpack between my feet before shutting the door. After I’d fastened my seatbelt, it dawned on me that the driver was holding his hand out waiting for me to shake it.
“Sorry about that,” I said as I reached out for a quick shake. “You got here faster than I expected. But yes, Martha’s B&B is where I’m headed.”
“I get everywhere faster than people expect. I time every trip so that I can beat it when I do it the next time around.”
The kid flashed me a grin and stepped onto the gas so hard that we took off like a shot. I looked in the mirror to see snow flying up behind the tires as he spun out of the parking lot. I kept a white-knuckled grip on the handle over the window the entire way into town. Georgie chattered the whole way, but I’d be hard-pressed to remember a word he’d said while my life flashed before my eyes.
I may be a guy who makes a living doing outdoor adventure stunts like skydiving, bungee jumping, or cliff diving into glassy lakes—but I’d never been more terrified in my life than I was in this moment. As the van jerked to a stop in front of a charming little Victorian style home, I waited a second for my stomach to settle before opening the door.
“Thanks for the lift,” I said when I finally felt strong enough to stand and get out of this vehicle of death.
“Let me know if you need to get anywhere. My brothers and I have your back, anytime day or night.” He gave a jaunty wave as I closed the door; I barely stepped back fast enough to avoid having my toes run over, but not quick enough to avoid getting splashed by the melting snow that kicked up in his wake.
“Honestly, how those boys got their licenses I couldn’t tell you. But at least you’re here in one piece, eh? Let’s get you inside and out of those wet shoes.”
I turned to see a friendly-looking older lady with short gray curls standing in the doorway with a welcoming smile. I shrugged my backpack onto my shoulder and headed up the walk.
“Are you the famous Martha?”
“I don’t know about famous, but I am Martha,” she answered with a twinkle in her eyes as she stepped back to let me enter. “Go ahead and kick off your shoes right here by the door, hon. We’ll get those dried for you in front of the fire. Good hiking boots like those, you’ll never get them dry otherwise. I’ve a mind to have a word with Georgie’s mother after that stunt he pulled,” she tskk’ed as I stepped out of my boots.
No sooner had I removed the second shoe, then Martha was carting them across the room and setting them on the heath of a brick fireplace where a cheerful fire was already going strong.
“Now let’s get you checked in, hon.” Martha scurried over to a small desk to the right of the door and pulled out a large ledger and held a pen out to me. I stared in shock at the antiquated system she used to check-in guests. “You go ahead and sign my guestbook, while I start getting you into my system.”
She chuckled good-naturedly at the look on my face as she pulled a modern tablet out from a desk drawer. As she opened the program on the screen, she looked up with a wink.
“I just love to get you tourists with that old ledger routine. So many of you expect me to be as old-fashioned as the accommodations,” she said with a wink as I signed my name with a chuckle of my own.
“You’re fantastic, Miss Martha. I’m Scott Foxx, that’s with a double x, by the way. I have to tell you though, your home is lovely.”
“Aren’t you just the sweetest?” She gushed. “Just for that, I’m not even going to tease you about having a double X-rated name. Now tell me, hon, what brings you to our fair town and how many days do you plan to be here?”
I didn’t bother to fight the wide grin that spread over my face. “Double X-rated? I love it. Actually, I came to check out the sugaring off festival. I’m not sure how long I’ll be here, is it possible to leave it open-ended? I’m only here in Canada for the next ten days or so. I’d planned on leaving already, but when I heard about your town’s festival this weekend I just had to come see it for myself.”
Martha huffed out a sigh. “I sure hope that everything goes as planned. Mother Nature isn’t cooperating this year, so there’s a bit of concern that our sugar water might not be flowing this weekend.”
“Why is that?” I asked curiously.
“Well, I’m not sure about how all the science stuff works, but here’s how I understand it. The sugar water, as we call it, has a small window of time that it flows every year. In order for it to flow, we need to have our nighttime lows be just a scooch below freezing yet the daytime highs need to be above zero. It’s a fine balancing act, I guess you’d say.”
“That’s fascinating,” I commented thoughtfully. “So this is Wednesday, but the festival isn’t until this weekend. Is there still time for things to turn around?”
“Maybe? But like I said, I’m never sure how all the science stuff works. I do know one thing though, the festival will go as planned one way or the other. We have five-thousand gallons of syrup stockpiled right across the street in our local museum, or so I’ve heard.”
“That’s good to know, I’m really looking forward to taking some Canadian syrup back home with me to the states. I’m also excited to try some of the various maple candies I’ve heard about—especially the ones they make by pouring it right on the snow. I was watching a video on YouTube about that last night; I’m excited to see it in person.”
We chatted for a few more minutes, and then Martha gave me the key to my room and sent me upstairs to take a hot bath while she got supper ready. Yeah, this little side trip was turning out to be a good idea already.
* * *
After breakfast, Martha and I sat out on the front porch drinking tea and enjoying the view across the street. The small museum had been broken into during the night and the RCMP were busy working the case. The mounties were fine looking specimens, a point that Martha and I firmly agreed on.
“You should take a picture, hon. Not only would it last longer, but I can’t think of a better souvenir when you go home than the image of that man on your phone. I have to admit though, you do have good taste. The man sure does fill out that uniform, dontcha think?”
I smirked at Martha’s teasing, but held my phone up to snatch a sneak pic of the hot alpha mountie that was working the scene. I’d done a double-take when he’d first come out and ever since been fighting the urge to walk across the street and accidentally meet him. I was resisting that idea, but only because the poor guy was busy working.
“No lectures about him being a little old for me?” I asked Martha as I put my phone back down.
“Are you kidding me? With a man that sexy, who cares? Besides, once you’re old enough, age really is just a number. He’s probably only about ten years older than you. That’s nothing,” she shrugged.
“True, and it’s not like I’m ever going to meet the guy anyway. Although, I’m not one hundred percent positive that I’d know what to do with him if I did,” I joked, knowing full well that I would have no problem figuring out what to do with a piece of man-candy like that in my bed. Not that it mattered, since I’d be leaving town soon anyway.
I nodded at the phone in Martha’s hand. “Any news from your grapevine about what happened over there last night?”
Martha shook her head with disdain. “Apparently it was vandals. The little shits just dumped every bit of that glorious syrup all over the floor. Who in their right mind would do such a thing?”
“Probably some stupid kids, would be my guess. I hope they find them—so that they can make whoever did it lick every drop with their tongues. I shudder to imagine the cleanup job this will entail.”
“Licking the floors, eh? Now that sounds like the perfect punishment for this crime,” Martha agreed with a swift nod.
The next couple days went by smoothly as I walked around the small town and took in the local sights. There wasn’t much to see or do here but what little there was, I found to be perfectly charming. After some neighboring towns helped replace the lost syrup, the festival went off without a hitch.
Except for one little thing—everywhere I turned, that hot mountie seemed to be around every corner. And yet, no matter how many flirty smiles I sent his way, the guy didn’t even notice me.
There was nearly a meet-cute when our hands brushed as we both reached for the handle of a local water fountain after reaching it at the same time, but he’d immediately stepped back with a polite nod and waited for me to go first.
After I’d finished drinking, I stood to thank him—only to find that another officer had engaged him in conversation and I’d been forced to walk away or look like a stalker.
By the time Sunday night rolled around, I was ready to move on for a little more adventure before I went back to the states. I smiled at Martha across the dinner table while I buttered yet another of her fresh, homemade rolls.
“Martha, with all of these gorgeous trees surrounding this town, surely there must be some good places where the locals like to hike and camp. Could you point me in the right direction? I’d like to take a two or three day trip up into the mountain before I leave town. Someone told me that the Rat River that runs nearby is a tributary of the Red River? I’d like to see a little bit of that, maybe.”
After she’d finished chewing what was in her mouth, Martha daintily blotted her mouth with a napkin before answering.
“Well, I can definitely point you in the right direction for some lovely hiking trails and camping areas along the Rat River. But I feel like I should warn you to watch out for Amik if you want to stay single.”
After nearly doing a spit take, I wiped my mouth with a napkin and set my glass down with a thunk. “Amik? Who is he? Some hot hermit who lives up on that mountain?”
“No, dear,” she said with a laugh. “I’m referring to our local legend of Amik, the albino beaver. Literally speaking, his name would be Waabishkiamik, meaning the white beaver, but we call him Amik for short. Amik is the overseer of lovers who are about to meet or lose their one true chance at being with their soulmate.”
I was already intrigued by her story, and motioned for her to continue as I took another bite of the succulent roast beef.
Martha thought for a moment before she continued. “Legend has it that he gets involved when the dreamer and protector come together but are too strong-willed to see what their subconscious selves are trying to tell them. Amik will use any and all forces of nature at his disposal to push the stubborn couple together until a solid foundation is built that will keep them together for a lifetime.”
“That’s so romantic,” I said with what I only knew was a dreamy smile. “But, what is his motivation here? Why does this Amik character give a crap about whether a pair of lovers get together or not?”
She reached across the table and patted my hand, obviously thrilled by the fact that I took the legend at face-value and only questioned the reasoning behind it. After she took a moment to swallow her mouthful, Martha continued.
“According to legend, there was an albino beaver who was friends with a wise alpha chieftain. One year, the beaver diverted the river with a dam to save the chieftain’s village from flooding after a long winter when the snowpack would have surely drowned the area when it melted. A few years later, the chieftain fell in love with a young warrior omega, but they were both too stubborn and fought more than they should have. They parted ways after one explosive fight that sent the warrior running off.”
“So what happened then? The beaver brought them back together and liked it so much that he’s made it his mission to do the same for every couple that followed?”
Martha shook her head with a sad smile. “No, I wish the old stories had happy endings. You see, the warrior had run into the woods during a heavy storm. The omega died that night while saving the beaver’s babies from death when the dam nearly collapsed. He saved it by holding it up and leaning against it with his back and strength of will while the beaver worked furiously to fix the damage. Once the dam was repaired he went to thank the warrior, but he’d died in the freezing water, giving his life to save the beaver’s family.”
Tears sprang to my eyes at that part. “So the beaver felt guilty? But it’s not like he asked the omega to give his life. He was just doing what warriors do, right? Fighting to save those in need or whatever.”
“Exactly, hon. But see, here’s where we get to the crux of the tale. When the chieftain came searching and found that his lover had died, he was heartbroken. In his grief-driven rage, the chieftain cursed the beaver to immortality for causing his lover’s life to end early. The chieftain eventually died of a broken heart, never having married or settled down. To this day, the beaver is responsible for saving stubborn lovers and will use the forces of nature itself to nudge them together.”
I leaned back in my seat and shook my head. “As awful as that legend is, I’m pretty sure that I’ll be safe. It’s not like I have a soulmate that I’m running from, right? Besides, what could go wrong? I’ll just go camp for a few days and maybe film an episode or two for my YouTube channel. I’ll be back to town before we know it. And you know I’m coming back here, because I’m leaving all the yummy Maple goodies I scored at the festival this weekend in your care. My friends in Hollydale will go nuts when they get to taste some of that, I just know it.”