In the year 1979 Vole cheated death twice, won the lottery once, and got himself hitched.
Cheating death, it turns out, was the easy part. On the second half of Tuesday, August 7, three freak tornadoes manifested to wreak devastation on hundreds of people in the small town of Woodstock, Ontario (not to be confused with the Woodstock that Vole’s parents giggled abashedly over when they were a few drinks in). People died that day, good people, but Vole wasn’t one of them. The old friend he’d planned on visiting in Woodstock that day woke up too depressed to discuss selling off his factory equipment. Selfishly, Vole wasn’t disappointed to put the meeting off. His bank-man’s solid sense would have hammered down the last nail that the liquor missed. It’s time to consider bankruptcy, he would have whispered, and in doing so, clamped shut the lid of one more coffin. It was a bad time to be in small business.
After that happened, before his next tango with the fates, Vole won the lottery and met the love of his life. It happened on the first ice-slicked day of November, the very same day that every driver in Southern Ontario remembered that they were behind on getting their snow tires put on. Vole was pulling up to the intersection when the light flicked to red (later he would embellish that detail of their story to make Bay’s cheeks burn, and say that the traffic light must have been faulty because it skipped yellow entirely), and he pulled to a stop, milliseconds before his whole body lurched forward. The following orchestral climax filled the car: a loud crunch, a sickening snap, an agonized yelp.
Neck aching from the impact of being rear-ended at full stop, Vole’s forehead was resting on his left hand —the hand attached to the not broken arm— on top of the Montcalm’s steering wheel. Black ice and bad winter driving, he cursed. There were distant voices but he ignored them. The throbbing pain inside his head and arm was demanding enough.
A constant, frantic knocking permeated his ringing skull. Eventually he turned to glare at the unwelcome window percussionist.
When telling the story of their meeting —the one where Vole defends Bay’s winter driving capabilities to the point of absurdity, at which point her cheeks turn crimson— Vole would always describe the first time he looked into Bay’s amber depths as being chemical. They were the colour of sun shining through malt liquor. They exuded the same quality as the most glorious and crisp fall day. How fitting that he toppled into them, and never came back out.
Vole eventually came to realize that a woman who he would come to know as Bay, the love of his life, was shouting at him.
“What did you say?” he shouted back, and immediately wished that he hadn’t.
She gestured once more for him to lower the window. Vole did.
“Are you alright?” she demanded. And then, “Jesus Christ! Why the hell would you stop on a yellow? You’re in Canada for Christ’s sake. Learn how to drive in the winter. All it takes is one snowfall to bring out the worst in drivers!”
Vole opened his mouth to dispute whose fault it was when a stabbing pain in his right arm stopped him short. He felt the blood leave his face.
“Oh! Are you alright?” she asked again, softening with genuine concern.
It was kindness enough to make his gut turn over.
“My car is smashed and my arm is broken, but I’m alright enough to know that the fault of the accident is mine. Let’s not worry about putting it through insurance.”
Surprise took her. That was fast, her face said. He was delighted by it. Then wariness —or was it guilt? It was always hard to tell with Bay— set in.
“Let me take a look at you,” she offered.
By now, spectators and concerned citizens had gathered by the side of the road. Vole fired up his engine and pulled into a nearby parking lot. A Tim Hortons parkade. Bay waved everyone along, warming them with her megawatt smile, and soon enough they were entirely alone together for the first time.
“Are you a doctor?” Vole asked through grit teeth, staring at her face as she tenderly examined his now-exposed forearm. He couldn’t bring himself to look down at it. Not when something so much more fascinating stood in front of him, touching him. The pain he felt was assurance enough.
“An animal doctor?”
“You mean a veterinarian. Stop talking. You’re moving too much.” Vole obeyed. “My dad coached a hockey team.”
His arm jerked in response. Vole’s vision blackened and became filled with tiny explosions, like excited fireflies in the hay fields at night.
“I said don’t move!” Bay reprimanded.
He wheezed, “I fail to see how having a hockey coach dad certifies you to poke at my broken— Arghm!” he grunted. And then, “Ah…” in immediate relief.
Whatever Bay had done seemed to have helped. A bit.
“You have a minor distal fracture of the radius,” she explained. “No reason to scream like a child. Bones crack and get bent out of shape all the time. My dad was always setting broken arms and wrists for the players. One day it became what I always did for him. You’ll need a cast, though.”
“I see. So about—”
“Hey now,” she was quick to interrupt. “You said it was your fault, and that we can leave insurance out of it!”
“—your name,” he finished. “I’m Vole Gibbons. I’d shake your hand, but you’ve broken mine, so I can’t.”
Bay’s face flushed, but not for reasons Vole expected.
“Vole? What kind of name is that?” she demanded.
“A shrewd one.”
A loud guffaw escaped her. Two fingers came up, hooked, and wiggled in front her mouth like two prehensile grippy teeth. “Why did your parents name you after a piddly little rodent?”
The question of Vole’s parents was a complicated one.
“Little known fact about prairie voles is that they’re largely monogamous, and according to some, capable of a very deep love that humans can learn from,” he summarized, smitten with her adorable hands.
“Baylotta,” she introduced herself. “Anagram for Tyto alba, the barn owl, also an animal capable of deep and inspiring love.”
“That’s awful,” Vole commiserated with delight. “What were your folks—”
“They had children far too young.”
“I was eight at the time. I have some memory. It was just before they straightened out. I haven’t stepped a foot outside of Ontario since.”
“Me too. I was twelve. Mine turned Christian. Yours?”
“Born again Catholic.”
“I didn’t know that was a thing.”
She leaned back from the window.
“You know your eyes are the colour of amber?” he asked, changing the subject.
“I prefer honey.”
“Honey. I like that. You’re a darling honeybee, aren’t you,” he said with a smile.
“Oh I’m a honeybee alright. I’ve got a stinger so sharp you won’t feel it till it’s buried deep in your heart!” she flirted right back.
Vole wasn’t sure at what point their banter had become so heady and intoxicating. Maybe the pain was making him delirious. But the way she talked! That spark and twinkle that barely covered up a deep and unapologetic compassion. Vole knew then that she was a queen, and that if she was ever forced to use her stinger it would kill her. Despite her bluster he knew that Bay didn’t have a mean bone in her body. She was one of a kind, and she would be his queen. His honeybee beauty.
Shortly after that, Vole cheated death for the second time. November 10, 1979, Vole was supposed to be in Mississauga sharing dinner with the regional manager of the bank he’d started working at earlier that year. He’d been ear-marked for advancement, and was looking forward to finding out exactly what that meant over a rich steak dinner on management’s dime.
But the dinner got cancelled for reasons entirely unrelated to the tragedy that struck in its place. A Canadian Pacific freight train loaded with toxic chemicals came hurtling off its rails, and a tremendous explosion sent angry flames high into the midnight sky. The bank’s regional manager was one of 200 000 residents who left the city for fear of what the compressed chlorine gas, shipped by freight and caught in the explosion, might do to their babies. Grisly photographs of black and charred train cars, tossed together like pickup sticks, dominated the papers for weeks. It became known as the Mississauga Miracle.
Vole didn’t think of it as a miracle. It was a wake up call. Time, he realized, wasn’t a thing to be squandered. It was precious, and it was running out.
He proposed to Bay, and Bay said yes, but only if he agreed to elope.
In her quiet demanding way Bay showed him a list of places she’d been keeping since she could first dream of love. Vole asked her where she dreamed of making love. “Paris,” she breathed.
They went to Paris, and they returned home feeling permanently changed.
A lot happened for the Gibbons in 1979. With the bad came the very good. But neither were prepared for the very bad that would come as the realities of life in a recession caught them at their hopeful best. In the echo of the decades that followed, Bay’s List of Wonders transformed from a dream, to a memory, until it became a ghost. A ghost that didn’t come back to haunt Vole until it was already too late.