Short Stories - Warm Spot in a Cold Place

Warm Spot in a Cold Place - © 2007 By Steven Dufresne, all rights reserved.

"Dammit, Gord, we're hungry!" Hubert quickly glanced back at his wife, her hands on her belly, "My wife's got stomach pains, she's so hungry."

Jack, accustomed to the sound of raised voices pleading for food, rushed between them carrying a sack of lettuce. Gord, Hubert and his wife, Megan, watched Jack's back as he exited the greenhouse, a flash of the snow-white world briefly shining in through the open door and a blast of cold air hitting them as the door swung closed.

"Look, Hubert, we'll need as much food as possible or no one will reach the south."

Hubert returned his attention to Gord, "And if we don't get more food now, some of us won't last long enough to go."

Jack rushed back in. As he stepped between Gord and Hubert, Hubert swung out his hand to stop him.

Jack's six foot, two inch frame and bulky chest didn't stop Hubert from growling, "Jack. When you come back with another load, bring a sack of potatoes for Megan and me."

No one moved. Jack looked askance at Gord, as if to say, "What difference will one sack make?"

"No." said Gord.

"Why you..." Hubert turned and ran through the plastic heat barrier curtain and into the cavernous greenhouse proper, Gord and Jack in tow.

"Hubert! Stop!" shouted Gord.

"Ahh!" Megan cried out in pain.

While Gord's command failed to stop Hubert, Megan's cry brought him forcing his way back through Gord and Jack into the greenhouse entrance. He found Megan kneeling on the cold ground, her arms wrapped around her stomach, the muscles of her face pulled tight in pain.

"Megan, sweetheart." Hubert bent down to her.

"I'll get Henry." Jack ran out.

"Come on Gord. Help me bring her inside where it's warm." Hubert reached under her and picked her up as Gord pulled the plastic curtain aside.

Inside the warm greenhouse he found a table that was bare of food. "Throw some of those sacks up here."

Gord grabbed a few cloth sacks from a nearby pile and spread them on the table. Hubert placed Megan on the table as Henry and Jack burst through the curtain.

"What happened?" asked Henry.

"She's been having stomach pains." Hubert moved aside to allow Henry to examine Megan, her face wet with tears.

Henry pulled her hands from her stomach. Gently he said, "There, there Megan. Can you tell me where it hurts?"

"Here." she pointed to the lower-right side of her belly.

Henry applied gentle pressure, asking each time if it hurt. Then, on releasing his hand from one location Megan screamed.

"That's not stomach pains, I'm afraid," he said. "What's she been eating?"

"Come on, Henry," Hubert replied. "She's been eating the same as all of us... which is not much, with all this rationing."

"Didn't she have some ulcer pains a while back?" Henry asked.

"Yes, a year ago."

"Well. My best guess right now is her appendix is acting up." said Henry.

Megan groaned.

"Megan." Henry brushed her forehead with his hand. "I'll see what I can dig up for your pain." To Hubert he said, "Get her home and keep her warm." And then to Gord, "Give her some extra lettuce and potatoes. Lots of fibre."

Gord stared at him, but then grabbed an empty sack and headed for the growing area.

"Come on Jack. Give me a hand." Hubert and Jack turned to getting Megan home.

* * *

"Thanks, Joan." Hubert wrapped his hands around the steaming tea.

Hubert listened to the creaking sound of the old house, the strong wind doing its best to push it over. Joan sat on the remaining chair beside Henry.

"Is she going to die?" asked Hubert.

"Ten years ago, we'd have rushed her to the hospital and done an appendectomy. She'd have been out in days." Henry stared at his mug. "Now... with no ambulances, no hospitals, no electricity, ... Hell, I used up the last of my anesthetic agents on Emily Giroux. I ran out of antibiotics before that."

Joan covered one of Henry's hands with hers, a haunted look in his eyes.

Hubert remembered when Emily died of cancer, one that could have been treated. But that was before the sudden ice age had engulfed the northern hemisphere. Climate change had happened, all right. The fresh water from the melting arctic ice and from Greenland caused the gulf stream to shut down. It was the gulf stream that used to bring the equator's heat north and gave Europe and Canada much of their warmth. Without it, winter was a year-round affair. All of Canada now lay above the tree-line. In the ten years since then, the population of their southern Ontario town of Russell had gone from around fourteen thousand to a mere forty-three, partly due to migration and partly due a rising mortality rate.

"We're living in a dead land," Henry muttered this under his breath, "Time to leave it."

"Can she survive the caravan trip south?" Hubert asked.

"No. She needs an operation in the next few days. And if we did it, the worst case is that she would need three weeks to recover. The caravan leaves in seven days."

"What if she and I left on the plane with you? It can handle twenty people and only fifteen are going, including the pilot. They might have what you need in Mexico."

Hubert could see the fear in Henry's eyes at the mention of Mexico. After the food riots and fires, partly resulting from the deluge of Canadians and Americans moving south, Mexico and all of Central America erupted in anarchy with millions dying monthly. Only now was it starting to settle down, mostly into feudalism. Before that the US had already suffered the Mississippi river system becoming an inland sea as a result of an enormous increase in precipitation from changed weather patterns and tropical storms while the west burned during prolonged droughts. The caravan was bound for the eastern US, now a loose collection of separate nation states living much as in the days of the old wild west.

Finally Henry said, "The flight can't leave for another five days. The fuel's still being gathered together, much of the plane's in pieces for inspection. I'm sorry."

"What if I found you some anesthetics?"

Henry glanced at Joan before responding. He and Joan had been local country doctor and nurse for the community for most of their life. They expected Hubert to be stubborn against all odds. "We'd need more than that." he said to Hubert.

"And if I got you a hospital, an operating room, ..."

Joan spoke up. "Hubert, to really ensure she survives the operation we'd need antiseptic agents, some monitoring equipment, a truly warm room with clean air, good lighting, and more."

Hubert looked at her and then to Henry. "Make up a list. Whatever it is, I'll get it."

"In the next 4 days?" Henry asked. "Remember, after that plane leaves, there won't be another. And we'll be on it."

"I'll get whatever you need in time. Just make up the list."

* * *

Hubert knocked on the paint peeled door, the candlelight glow showing through the door's small window. Jean-Claude, a short, balding man in his sixties, opened the door. The usual air filled with smells from burning wood and candles engulfed Hubert.

"Hi Jean-Claude."

"Hi Hubert! Come in and join the game."

Hubert stepped into the house, cleaned off his boots and walked into the dining room. The game was poker, played often to fill the evenings. Jack sat at the dining table, grasping a hand of cards so worn-out that their backs were as distinguishable as their fronts.

"How is Megan?" asked Jean-Claude. The sympathy in his voice was partly due to deep understanding, as it was he who'd lost Emily to cancer two years previously.

"In pain, but holding on. Christina's looking after her." Christina was their daughter.

Hubert took a seat at the table. "Look, Henry and Joan are willing to operate on her if I can gather together the necessary things. But I need your solar power expertise. Enough power to run some lights and medical equipment," he said to Jean-Claude. "I'll need your help too, Jack."

Jean-Claude thought a moment, then said, "We'll need more than just solar panels. Solar panels charge batteries and then an inverter takes the power from the batteries and turns it into a form that the equipment uses. The problem is, any batteries would have gone bad a long time ago."

Jack spoke up. "But isn't that just the chemistry? We could crack them open and clean the lead plates. Then use lemon juice and water or something for the liquid. That's if Gord will part with the lemons."

Hubert gave him an angry look, but Jack knew it was really meant for Gord.

Jack grinned. "Don't worry. I'll get the lemons, and anything else you need from the greenhouses."

Jean-Claude said, "There are plenty of solar electric systems that we installed on the off-grid homes in Embrun just before the freeze. I can go through the houses and find a working system." To Jack he asked, "Can we get some help from you and a few others, and some sleighs and horses?"

Jack was largely in charge of the sleighs that were being loaded up with supplies for the caravan and the horses that were borrowed from the south. "For this, you'll have whatever you need."

Hubert said, "Actually, Jack, I'll also need two horses to make a quick run to the old hospitals in Ottawa to scavenge some medical supplies. Henry's agreed to go with me."

"I'm surprised." said Jean-Claude. "I thought he had given up on everything here."

"There's hope for him yet." responded Hubert. "Speaking of the hopeless, I'll need to talk Gord into clearing out a corner of a greenhouse for the operation itself. We'll need the warm, clean air."

* * *

"Dammit, Gord!" Hubert found himself saying that a lot lately. "She'll die without the operation and the only place that's warm enough with clean air is here, in a greenhouse."

The greenhouses had been built five years before the freeze. They were built to provide fresh produce year-round, reducing the need for the carbon emitting transport of foods from distant places. Plants and animals shared the greenhouse, the plants on the south side and the animals on the north side. A specially designed thick wall in between captured and stored the heat from the sun and that of the animal's bodies and then released the heat when needed. The end result was a constant twenty-seven degrees Celsius environment allowing a steady output of fresh eggs, meat, fruits and vegetables.

At one time there had been twenty such functioning greenhouses but now only two remained in use. Managing them was like managing a small version of a complex world and that job had been Gord's for most of his life.

"Dammit yourself, Hubert! I do care, you know. But a greenhouse isn't exactly a sterile environment. It'd be more like operating in the middle of a tropical forest. Hell, there are far more bugs in here than plants. Who do you think does the pollinating and aerating? Me and my team? And the animal side would hardly be a place for it either. I'd have to clear out a corner somewhere and build a room."

"So what?" Hubert responded. "We'll all be gone from here in six days anyway."

"Not all of us." was Gord's unexpected reply. "My team and I are staying."

Hubert stood openmouthed. He'd thought they were all equally anxious to finally leave the land of endless snow, broken by the occasional dead tree or manmade structure. The only other living things were small plants, insects and rodents that spent their lives in a thin layer between the snow and the ground. He'd thought the only reason any of them were still here was due to their stubbornness.

"So that's why the rationing." Hubert said. "You aren't saving food for the caravan. You're making sure there's some left for those of you staying behind."

He looked around, as if seeing the greenhouse for the first time. Here was life, plenty of it. Hell, it was a tropical paradise, and even though there were only two greenhouses still functioning, eighteen more lay dormant beside them.

Hubert watched a group of small white butterflies fluttering in seemingly random directions around a bush of bright orange and yellow flowers while he heard a bee buzzing, no doubt busy pollinating the same flowers.

"Gord. What if we used one of the dormant greenhouses? All we'd have to do is clean the snow off of the glass, open the curtains, fill the central wall with water, maybe borrow a few animals for body heat. How long until it'd be warm enough?"

Gord was surprised at this new idea. "Not long at all. Two days maybe... if it's sunny."

"And then, when the caravan leaves, you could start planting in it. You'd have a third greenhouse to live off of. Hell, you could live in it!"

Hubert looked at Gord's eyes, staring at empty space, his mind obviously hard at work on all the new possibilities. He knew he'd have his warm operating room, and probably sooner than later.

* * *

"Pull!" yelled Hubert.

They finally managed to pull the hospital's main door open accompanied by the screeching sound of metal scraping against metal. White flakes from the wall of snow that they'd had to dig down through outside floated in on what was probably the first beam of light to enter in fifteen years.

"We're in!" and "Yeah!" were shouted by the four men as they stepped inside and proceeded to light candles.

With an early start, it had taken them a day to go from Russell to the old Ottawa General Hospital. Luckily much of the snow was hard packed and the horses stayed on top. Only in a few stretches did they sink up to their knees. Once they'd arrived, it took them an hour's hard digging to get inside.

"Wow." Henry stood still in the candle light with his eyes dancing around all around him. "This brings back memories. So many years. Too many."

"Home away from home, Henry?" asked Hubert.

"Saner days. Real medicine." replied Henry.

"Ha! Ha!" Hubert patted him on the back. "Let's go get some of that real medicine."

They walked up a motionless escalator and through, what to Hubert, seemed to be a maze. However, Henry steered a steady course despite being in a bubble of light that stretched only about three metres in either direction.

"Here!" he said at last as he pushed open a door marked Authorized Personal Only. The room they walked into consisted of drawers and glass cupboards. "The drugs we need will be in here."

He opened one glass cupboard and pulled out what looked like a thermos. When he unscrewed the top there was an audible hissing sound.

"Vacuum sealed." he said as he pulled out and examined some pill bottles, putting a few in a sack carried by one of the other men.

After gathering a few more things he led the way out and to an operating room which contained a variety of machines for monitoring heart rates, breathing, and so on. In a corner sat tanks of various gases, including nitrous oxide and other anesthetic agents.

"Now we're cooking." was Henry's comment here. "I may just be able to practice modern health care again, to save someone for a change."

* * *

After three days the operating-room-in-a-greenhouse was beginning to take shape. Really it was just a circle of equipment occupying a small space in one corner of an otherwise large, empty building. At one point Hubert had paused in his preparations to watch the hustle and bustle in the newly warmed greenhouse.

He'd counted no less than fifteen people working on various components. Jack was working with some men, building frames for lights using wood scavenged from some nearby old houses. Earlier that day Jack had shown up with two boxes full of lights which he'd gathered from countless old houses and of which it turned out, most still worked.

Through the greenhouse's large south facing glass windows, Hubert saw Jean-Claude and a few others outside brushing snow off the solar panels and adjusting their angle to follow the sun by repacking the snow that propped them up.

Joan and Henry worked in the corner, preparing their medical equipment while Megan lay on a comfortable looking gurney, a spoil of the expedition to the hospital, with a handful of women and children keeping her in a cheerful mood. His biggest surprise was when Gord walked in carrying a tray on which sat a bowl of steaming hot soup. To his amusement, Henry forbade Megan to eat it, the operation being only a few hours away. Everyone laughed at this and even more so when Henry ate the soup himself, claiming he needed it to strengthen him for the operation.

To Hubert's further surprise, as the operation began, more people wandered in until it seemed that the entire community of forty-three was present. Chairs, tables and even food appeared. Most were silent. Those who talked, spoke in whispers.

For three hours Henry, Joan and their daughter laboured over Megan under the only source of light in the large building. Circled around them were a dozen chairs, occupied by some who felt as if their watchful presence could help. Occasionally someone would wander over and ask Henry or Joan how it was going and would then come over to Hubert to report. Hubert himself sat at a nearby table, surrounded by folks there for moral support.

Finally, at the end of the three hours a very tired, but at the same time, glowing Henry washed his hands in a large bowl and walked through the expectant, but quietly respectful community, to Hubert.

"It went very well, Hubert. She'll be fine." he said.

Hubert felt the tears well up in his eyes. He didn't hold them back as he stood and shook Henry's hand. "Thank you." he whispered.

As he continued past Henry towards where Megan lay, he heard Henry say, "No, Hubert. Thank you."

* * *

The caravan never left. The plane stayed put. It didn't take any big meeting or vote and there was no dispute. Somehow everyone had come to realize that they could make a life here. One powered by the sun, fed by the plants and animals of the greenhouses, more of which were now in use either for food, shelter or other purposes. Hubert knew that more would be built to support a growing population as they scavenged the abundant towns and the former sprawling city of Ottawa.

It took Megan three weeks to fully recover, and it was a month after the operation before Hubert thought back to Henry's thank you and what it meant. He realized that Henry's thank you was for showing them that they could live a good and meaningful life here, in a warm spot in the frozen north.

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