When Cole Harper is compelled to return to Wounded Sky First Nation, he finds his community in chaos: a series of shocking murders, a mysterious illness ravaging the residents, and reemerging questions about Cole’s role in the tragedy that drove him away 10 years ago. With the aid of an unhelpful spirit, a disfigured ghost, and his two oldest friends, Cole tries to figure out his purpose, and unravel the mysteries he left behind a decade ago. Will he find the answers in time to save his community?
Strangers is the first novel in The Reckoner series by David Alexander Robertson, award–winning writer, and author of HighWater Press’ acclaimed children’s book When We Were Alone.Strangers is the winner of the Michael Van Rooy Award for Genre Fiction at the 2018 Manitoba Book Awards.
About the Author
David Alexander Robertson is an award-winning graphic novelist and writer who has long been an advocate for educating youth on Indigenous history and contemporary issues. He has written several graphic novels, including the bestselling 7 Generations series and Sugar Falls. His first novel, The Evolution of Alice, was winner of On the Same Page (2016). His children's book When We Were Alone won the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award in the Young People's Literature (Illustrated Books) category, and was a finalist for the TD Canadian's Children's Literature Award. David lives in Winnipeg with his wife and five children, where he works in the field of Indigenous education.
Read an Excerpt
NEVER SAY NEVER
ASHLEY: You need to come home. Now.
Joe and Cole were alone on the basketball court, hours before classes began. Cole's sneakers let out a shrill squeak as he pivoted and turned towards Joe. He received the basketball from Joe, cut to the hoop with two quick dribbles, paused, found the ball's ridges with his fingertips, and shot. The ball arched through the air and then clanged off the rim. Sneakers against hardwood and the thud of the basketball being dribbled — even the stubborn sound of a bricked shot — were like music to Cole. He would've rather heard the mesh snap as his ball swished past the rim, but the game, the court, was his calm place. He needed it, especially now.
You need to come home.
The only basketball-related sound Cole hated was the crowd. He never liked the roars, and never liked so many eyes on him. He always felt like he needed to take his anti-anxiety medication before a game.
The ball trailed away from Joe and Cole in progressively smaller bounces.
"If only you could shoot like you throw a pick," Joe said.
Cole half-smiled. Even though he'd been the team's leading scorer last year, the stuff he did away from the ball — throwing picks, boxing out, guarding the other team's best player — had always been his thing. In fact, his coach had told him to go easy on the picks last year after he'd knocked a player out of a game in the playoffs. Broke the guy's rib. His coach didn't know that Cole was already going easy, and gauging just how easy to take it was often the problem.
Cole jogged after the ball, picked it up, and dribbled back over to Joe. He passed the ball to Joe, and then positioned himself under the hoop as though a defender was behind him.
"I can shoot," Cole said, ready for the rebound.
"Yeah," Joe shrugged and released the ball. The mesh snapped as the ball passed through the metal ring. It dropped into Cole's arms. "But you can really throw a pick."
A few minutes later, the boys were sitting with their open gym bags at the side of the court. Joe didn't waste time. He was already getting his jeans on as soon as they'd sat down. Cole, meanwhile, hadn't even untied a shoelace. He was staring at the gymnasium ceiling, at a birdie stuck in the rafters. The same one had been there since he'd started high school. Ashley's text kept scrolling through Cole's mind.
You need to come home.
Joe kicked Cole lightly on the arm, bringing him back to the real world.
"Doing anything this weekend, or are you all zoned in for tryouts?"
"I took some shifts at the community centre," Cole said.
Joe chuckled and shook his head. "Dude, you're either playing ball, doing homework, or working at that shithole."
"I have to save money for university, man. My grandma doesn't have money to pay for it."
"What about your aunt? She lives with you too, right?"
"Yeah, but that's the thing, Joe. If my grandma doesn't have the money, it means my auntie doesn't have the money. She supports both of us. Usually works sixteen-hour days just to get us by."
"Dude," Joe intoned. "Dude" could mean a million different things.
Here, Cole interpreted it as: "Holy shit, that's rough."
"Anyway, I think by June I'll have enough for my first year's tuition.
Joe started buttoning his shirt up. Cole was trying to twirl the basketball on his finger for more than ten seconds straight, still in his sweat-drenched shorts and shirt, still with tied shoelaces.
"So won't your band pay for anything?" Joe asked. "They do that, right?"
Cole shook his head and slapped the basketball to get it spinning harder. It wobbled and fell off his finger. He caught it and started the process over again. "I don't need their help."
"Whatever, dude." Joe stuffed his gym clothes into his bag, then slung it and his backpack over his shoulder.
"Besides," Cole said, "if I work and get that scholarship, I'll be fine."
"Yeah," Joe said. "Sure. But then you might want to work on that jump shot." And with a parting, "Later," he left Cole alone in the gym.
"Later," Cole said, but the heavy gym doors had already slammed shut. The gym seemed even quieter now. Cole felt more alone. He didn't mind the feeling. But he did mind the message from Ashley, a message he couldn't ignore anymore. He fished into his gym bag and pulled out his phone. Read the text over again.
Ashley: You need to come home. Now.
Cole took a deep breath, then responded: Very funny.
As soon as Cole had sent the text, he saw the bubbled ellipsis by Ashley's name.
Ashley: I'm not joking, Cole. This is serious. Come home.
Cole's heart started to pound, fast and hard. His hands were shaking and his head was swimming. He gripped the bench to keep from falling over. He rifled through his gym bag until he found what he was looking for. He fumbled with the cap, managed to get it off, and took an anti-anxiety pill.
The first time he'd had a panic attack Cole's teacher had to call an ambulance. He was eight years old and walking into his fourth-grade class in the city for the first time. All the kids stared in his direction. He remembered Mrs. Benjamin screaming, "Call 9-1-1!" just before he'd blacked out. Next thing he knew he was in Grace Hospital Emergency, eerily calm. Months later, he started to see a therapist.
Now, Cole closed his eyes. He breathed in through his nose, right into his stomach, for five seconds, held it, and then breathed out through his mouth for seven seconds. He repeated this several times until he'd calmed, through the breathing or the pills. Sometimes he couldn't tell which.
Cole: You're an asshole for even asking that.
Cole muted his phone and threw it deep into his gym bag. He reached down to his shoes, but instead of undoing the laces he tightened them. He walked back onto the court with the basketball and stood at the foul line. He stared at the rim until its orange metal turned into Ashley's texts. You need to come home. Now. I'm not joking, Cole. This is serious. Come home. He bounced the ball once, let out a guttural scream, and charged towards the hoop. He leapt into the air and dunked the basketball with both hands, as hard as he could. He dunked the ball about two million times before class started.
It was a wonder he didn't shatter the backboard.
At 3:41 p.m. Cole stood in front of his opened locker, staring at the gym bag which he had put at the bottom. Throughout the day, he had piled textbooks and binders on to the bag. He had his hands in his pockets. One of those hands was wrapped around his pill bottle, which was always on his person, just in case.
"Dude." Joe walked up and stood beside Cole. They both stared into the locker.
"Hey." Cole didn't look away from the gym bag.
"I thought my shit was messy," Joe said. "Ever seen Hoarders?"
"I don't usually —"
"Like, there could be a black hole in there and nobody would know it. Matthew McConaughey could be behind that big stack of textbooks screaming out 'Murph! Don't leave me, Murph!' and, you know, the world would end because there's just —"
"Okay, I get it. I don't keep my locker like this. You know that. I'm trying to —"
"Great movie, though. Every time, I'm like, 'I'm not going to cry,' and then boom. Crying."
"— hide my phone from me."
"Waterworks, you know?"
They fell silent. They kept standing, staring, and the hallways started to empty. Kids rushing for buses. Kids rushing for rides. Kids just rushed. Except Joe and Cole.
"Why do you think my friend from Wounded Sky would ask me to come home?" Cole asked, finally verbalizing a question he'd asked himself all day.
"Dude, I don't even know why you left in the first place. You're just always weird about it," Joe said.
"I could just ignore him, right? I could leave my gym bag right where it is, and come back and get it for tryouts on Monday."
"Your bag would be stinky as shit, dude."
"And by then, if it's such an emergency, maybe Ashley will have given up, you know? We could both pretend like it never happened, go about our lives ..."
"Okay, I don't want to play the devil's advocate, but what if because it's an emergency, you should, like, go?"
"You were just literally playing devil's advocate there, you know that, right?"
Joe shrugged. "Sorry."
"What could be the emergency? Shit happens there, Joe. Like, last year, there was this flood. That was an emergency. What could I have done? Help sandbag? Ashley didn't text me to come. There was no come-home-now crap."
"I've sandbagged before. By the Red River. Last year too. Got free lunch, and we got paid. It was dope, for real. I took you to the Ex with that money, dude. Remember that?"
"Two years ago, they had a flu epidemic. Ashley got sick. I remember how sick he got. I thought he was going to die he got so sick. If he'd have asked me to come out then, maybe, you know? Maybe I would've come."
"But that's the thing, Joe. He wouldn't have asked me, even then. He knows better than to ask me."
Cole kept his eyes trained on the gym bag, crushed as it was underneath the textbooks and binders. He could feel Joe's eyes on him.
"But you should've gone, right? That's your bro, right?"
Holy shit. Joe's comment hit Cole hard. It at once felt like it was overstepping, as though Cole hadn't just invited Joe's opinion, but he was 100 percent right. Absolutely, he should've gone when Ashley was sick. When Cole had graduated from grade eight, and was about to move onto high school, Ashley flew down to the city for the day just to see him graduate. Cole wasn't even sick. Ashley just knew how difficult school had been for Cole, and always would be. Grade eight graduations were so innocuous; near-death sicknesses were not. Cole pried his eyes away from the locker, and swivelled around to face Joe. He said, rushed and angry, "Thanks. Really appreciate that, man. I'll see you Monday."
Joe threw his arms up in frustration, turned around and walked away. "Redirect anger much, dude?"
"Whatever." Cole turned back to his locker. He stared at the gym bag for a moment longer, then grumbled, "Screw it," under his breath. He pulled out the gym bag and fished through it, right to the bottom, and pulled out the phone. He had eighteen new text messages. Standing in front of his opened locker, some textbooks spilled onto the floor by his feet. Cole made his way through them.
You're the asshole if you don't come back, Cole, said one text from Ashley, sent immediately after Cole threw the phone into his gym bag this morning.
Seventeen others followed. None of them told Cole why he was needed home, but they all kept asking him to come home anyway — except for the one that read, Sorry, you're not an asshole, you're just acting like one.
Cole, when have I ever asked you for anything?
There's a flight that leaves tonight at 10 p.m.
If you're still thinking about it, there's one that leaves tomorrow too. 3 p.m. Did you turn your phone off? That doesn't make this go away!
Dishonest Cole swore he'd come back if he was needed, now refuses. Sad!
Okay, that was low, but you did say that, years ago. I NEED YOU!
On and on they went. When Cole was done reading through them all, he began to write back to Ashley, but he erased what he had written several times — because he didn't know what to say, because he didn't know what to ask, because his thumbs were shaking so badly that he misspelled almost every word. Finally, he took a deep breath and wrote back, You need to tell me why, or else this conversation is over, no matter how many times you ask. Then, as calmly as he could, he slipped the phone into his pocket beside his pills. He got his school bag, placed the books that had fallen onto the floor back into his locker, shut it, and made his way outside.
Usually, he took the bus home. Auntie Joan could only afford a place in a different area of the city, but she insisted he attended schools in a better area; the schools around where they stayed were "too rough" for him. He would've gone to those schools, would've felt comfortable, but arguing with her wasn't much good. After all, it was she, not his grandma, who'd decided that they — herself, Cole, and his grandma — should move away from the community. His grandma had thought they should stay. That's what Cole's parents would've wanted, she'd said to Joan. Moving away wasn't just removing unwanted attention from Cole, it was removing community, culture, language, traditions ... everything. It was a trade-off, his auntie had argued.
"It'll be too hard for you, you'll see," Auntie Joan told Cole on the night before they left. It had always made Cole feel weak (one of the reasons why Cole needed anti-anxiety medication now, as he and his therapist had figured out over the years). Of course, everything he'd lost in the tragedy, and his role in it, was probably a greater contributing factor. So, they moved. They left almost everything behind and started fresh. Lived in a "rough" neighbourhood, went to a nice school.
Cole started on the hour-long walk home.
He hated the idea of going back to Wounded Sky, but maybe Ashley deserved as much. He couldn't imagine, though, what it would take to make his auntie agree to let him go back. That's who Ashley would really have to convince. Not him, not his grandma.
Cole's phone stayed silent during the walk. Given Ashley's persistence throughout the day, this surprised Cole. As he passed the familiar landmarks he usually saw from city transit he thought about Wounded Sky more than he had over the last ten years. Rather than fight them off, he willingly recalled memories from his childhood. Mostly, the memories centred on the close friends he had. Ashley. Brady. Eva. Mostly Eva. They came in fragments with her, like a remembered dream. Taking off their shoes and splashing around at the banks of Silk River. Cole helping her with math, and she helping him with Cree. How she always smelled like clean laundry. Watching every tear curl down her cheek when she learned he was leaving. Cole was certain he, his grandma, and his auntie moved away almost exactly ten years ago. He wondered if that was why Ashley wanted him to come home. If that were the case, then there was no way he would go.
Grade twelve graduation. He could go for that. A far more important event than an eighth-grade ceremony. That way, he'd have a full year to work up the courage. The thought of some messed up ten-year reunion bothered Cole so much that he texted Ashley again when he got to the front of the apartment complex.
This isn't about a memorial or anything, is it?
By the time he'd climbed up to the third floor of the building, got into his apartment and out of his shoes, he received a simple reply: Come on, Cole. No.
"Hey Grandma! Hey Auntie Joan!" Cole called out after positioning his shoes between theirs, against the wall in the entryway, just so. He could hear the television set blaring. Sounded like CSI. Somebody was talking about blood splatter. Maybe it was Dexter.
His phone buzzed in his hand. I mean, there is a memorial on Tuesday, but that's not why.
"Tansi, nósisim!" his grandma called back.
(FYI, dear reader: "nósisim" is a Cree word that means "my grandchild." Fun fact: it can mean either my grandson or my granddaughter. Very forward-thinking. Choch out.)
The television set muted. Cole made his way into the living room as he wrote back, Right. Knew it, to Ashley and, his anger returning, shoved the phone into his pocket.
"Sorry I'm late," Cole said to his grandma in a huff. "Needed some air."
"I don't think you got enough, child," his grandma said.
Of course it was a memorial. It couldn't be anything else. Ten years. Cole sat down on the couch aggressively, his arms crossed. His auntie entered from the kitchen with a cup of coffee. There was always a cup of coffee involved when she had a night shift coming up.
"What's up with you?" Auntie Joan asked.
"Nothing." After that, Cole went quiet. He found a spot on the floor, a discoloured area in the hardwood, and stared at it.
"That sort of nothing means a whole lot of something, Cole," Auntie Joan said.
He was still quiet.
"The quieter you are, the more you have to say."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Your father was like that," his grandma said. "He'd come into a room with steam coming out of his ears. He'd sit down and look like he was ready to explode. 'I don't want to talk about it,' he'd tell me and your mom. But when he started talking, well ... let's just say I put on a pot of coffee."
Excerpted from "Strangers"
Copyright © 2018 David A. Robertson.
Excerpted by permission of Portage & Main Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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