Elizabeth Baker hated the cold! She hated everything about it. She hated having to dress up in so many layers of clothing, she hated the snow, and she hated the annoying sound that it made as she walked to school.
For the thousandth time, Elizabeth wished that she was at home. The only problem was that this was going to be home for the foreseeable future. She and her dad had moved to this frozen hellhole a few months ago, after he had been fired from his teaching position in Toronto.
Bill Baker had been an English teacher at a very prestigious boy's school in Toronto. They had owned a nice home and Elizabeth had been a popular student at the nearby girl's school. That was, until her dad had screwed it all up! He had been accused of spreading hate literature and teaching anti-social beliefs about MORFS survivors. Instead of denying the accusations and keeping a low profile for a while, he had admitted to it. She knew her dad had some extreme beliefs about people who had been affected by MORFS, particularly those who showed hybrid traits. After six months of living off their savings, he'd had the brilliant idea to move north, to a small community and start over.
Unfortunately, 'moving north' was a major understatement. There aren't too many places to teach English that are further north than Iqaluit! For the geographically challenged, Iqaluit is located on Baffin Island, and is the capital city of the Canadian territory of Nunavut. If you can find the North Pole on a globe, you're close! If the people had been a little friendlier, Elizabeth might have been able to deal with it, but they were just as cold as the air outside. A blonde, blue eyed girl from 'the big city' was never going to be popular in this place.
The one person who was different was Annie. She was the only one that was friendly to Elizabeth. Luckily they were in all of each others classes, so they always sat together and usually walked to school together. Annie was a typical Inuit girl with her black hair, dark eyes, puffy eyelids and a round face. She was a little bit shorter than Elizabeth, but at only 5 foot 3 inches tall, Annie was shorter than most people. Annie had met Elizabeth during the first week of classes at the one and only high school in town. Iqaluit was technically a city but you would never be able to tell by looking at it. With a population of less the ten thousand people, it was barely the size of a small town.
It began on a day no different that most days. Elizabeth lived a little further away from the high school than Annie, so it was her job to knock on Annie's door and get her moving in the morning. She knocked on the front door, opened it and walked in. The door was never locked. People claimed that all their doors were left unlocked so that people would have somewhere to run to if a polar bear came into town. Elizabeth thought that was just a story they told her.
"Hi Mrs. Onalik, how's it goin'," said Elizabeth after pulling her boots off and stepping into the kitchen.
Annie's mother was cutting up some type of meat and adding it to the crock pot for the evening's dinner. She looked up, "Hi Beth, I thought that might be you. Do you want a cup of tea?" She was already pulling a cup out of the cupboard as she asked.
"No thanks, I just had a coffee at home."
"Okay." She placed the cup on the counter and filled it with tea anyway. Elizabeth knew it wasn't for her. Instead she unzipped her coat to keep from getting too hot. The tea told her that Annie was running late again, so it would be a few more minutes before they left the house. As Annie's mother added the sugar in the tea, Annie came bouncing down the stairs with something in her hand.
"Hi Beth, I'll be ready in a minute," she said as she hit the bottom of the stairs. Annie was the first person to call her Beth, now everyone called her that. She preferred it over Elizabeth though, so she didn't try to correct anybody. After sitting on a stool at the counter and taking a sip of her tea, she turned to Beth and handed her what looked like a knitted fruit bowl. "I made this for you."
Beth looked at it for a few seconds before asking, "What is it?"
"It's called a nassak," Annie explained. "It's a hat."
"Oh, you mean a tuque?"
Annie huffed before saying, "No, it's a nassak. It's an Inuit hat. It'll keep your head warm while we walk." Annie was always like that. She was always trying to teach Beth about the Inuit. Beth tried to sound interested, but it was hard at times. The hat was a beautiful bright red with a white pattern around the edge. It was a bit of a tight fit, but that would help to keep the wind from blowing through her hair.
"Thanks, Annie. How does it look?" she asked.
"It's a perfect fit. Let's get going," she replied after finishing her tea. Beth sighed as she pulled on her heavy coat and pushed her feet into the big ugly boots she wore. Annie pulled on her fur coat, seal skin boots and headed out the door, followed by Beth. Annie had the hood of her coat back and her hat in her hand as she walked the short distance to the school. She was enjoying the spring sun after so many days with little light. Beth, on the other hand, was shivering from the biting cold and held her hands up to her face to keep the wind away. Less than fifteen minutes later, the pair stepped through the doors to the school before heading for their lockers to store their coats, boots and other outdoor things.
Annie sat on a nearby bench, slipping on a pair of moccasins as she asked, "So, are you coming to the festival tomorrow?"
"I guess so," answered Beth. She really didn't want to go, but Annie had been bugging her about it for over a week. A whole day standing around outside was not something she was looking forward to.
"Great, I'll come by your place tomorrow morning to get you." Annie stood up and grabbed her books. Beth closed her locker and was about to head for their first class when someone walked into her from behind, knocking her books on the floor.
It was Sam. He glared at Annie before asking her, "Why are you still hanging around with her?"
She wrinkled her nose at him. "She's my friend, that's why."
Sam just huffed and walked away to his class. Since he was a year older than either Annie or Beth, he wasn't heading to the same class as they were. With only four hundred and fifty students in the school, almost every person their age in town was in at least one of their classes. Annie helped Beth pick up the last of her books and the two girls made their way to their first class of the day.
By the end of the day, Beth was tired and bored. She wanted to head home, fire up her computer and talk with some of her friends in Toronto. She refused to cut herself off from the 'real world'. As the two girls walked home, they chatted about nothing to pass the time.
During the short walk from Annie's house to her own, Beth wasn't paying attention to anything around her and was just focused on getting home without freezing to death. Suddenly, she heard someone behind her yell, "STOP!"
She turned to see who it was and immediately became terrified at what she saw. The person who yelled was quite a distance from her, maybe a hundred meters away, but less than ten meters from where she was standing was something she had only seen in a zoo.
A polar bear had wandered into town looking for food. It looked as though it had been rooting around in somebody's garbage. Everyone had been told, several times not to leave garbage out just for this reason, but not everyone listened. It was clear that the bear had been following Beth, but had turned its head when the person had yelled at her. Since the bear was distracted for the moment, Beth took the chance to run for the closest house and try get inside. She silently prayed that the stories of people leaving their doors unlocked where true. The closest house was on her left, but there was no door on that side of the house. The house to her right was a little further away, but at least the front door was on the close side of it.
The moment she turned and started to run, she heard the bear coming after her. The sound of its paws on the loose gravel road seemed to be right behind her. She wanted to scream, but was too busy running as fast as she could move. Just before she got to the door to open it she heard a gunshot, but she didn't slow down at all. She hit the door at full speed and began frantically trying to turn the knob and pull it open. After what seemed forever, the door opened and she bolted inside, slamming the door closed behind her.
It was almost five minutes before Beth had calmed herself enough to look out the small window in the door. What she saw was a small group of people standing over the body of a polar bear. It was smaller than she had expected. She figured it must have been a young bear, but it looked too big to be a cub. She opened the door and stepped out, hoping to find and thank the man that had yelled the warning to her. She had barely taken more than two or three steps before she found herself in a tight hug from Annie.
"Are you okay? Did you get hurt?" she asked Beth. She started to look her over before getting an answer. As she started to spin Beth around to make sure she wasn't injured she squealed and said, "OH MY GOD!! You're bleeding!"
"What, where?" asked Beth as she looked herself over. She couldn't believe that she could be bleeding. She felt fine, just shaken up.
"On your back!" Annie explained, grabbing at her coat. "Take your coat off, I want to see." Annie helped Beth off with her coat and checked her back for any sign of a wound, but didn't find anything. "It must have been from the bear," she finally stated.
As Beth looked at the coat with the blood splattered on it, it dawned her exactly how close the bear had been when the man had shot it. She touched the blood on her coat, convincing herself that it was real. Rubbing the blood between her fingers for a second made it all too real for her and she broke down in tears, hugging Annie again.
Somehow, Annie got Beth to her own house. She waited for Beth to finish her shower and have a bowl of soup before suggesting that she go to bed and try to get some rest. Annie waited for Beth's dad to get home from the school and after explaining what had happened, crawled into bed with Beth, holding her until she fell asleep.
The next morning Beth woke to find that Annie was gone. She pulled herself out of bed and headed to the bathroom and then down to the kitchen for something to eat. The soup the night before had been all she had been able to handle, but now she was hungry and wanted breakfast. Her dad came in, pulled her into a tight hug and kissed her forehead before asking, "How are you doing?"
"I'm okay now," she answered, enjoying the hug from her dad. He had never been a person to show much affection towards her. Since moving north, Beth had been too angry to let him get close. A few tears made their way down her face as she said, "It was really scary. I don't even remember walking home. But Annie was great. She really helped."
"Oh, she said she'd be back in a little while," her dad explained. "She went home to get something." Beth's dad finally let go of her and poured himself another cup of coffee. "You want a cup?" he asked, still holding the coffee pot.
"Yeah, thanks." Beth grabbed a cup from the cupboard and held it for her dad to pour. She added her milk and sugar before taking a sip. Satisfied that she'd added enough, she turned to the computer to check her messages. She had barely started to read through the first one when Annie knocked once and opened the door. She stepped through the doorway and dropped a pair of seal skin boots and hung a coat on one of the hooks at the front door.
Annie looked as Beth and said with a smile, "Oh, you're up. Good. I was going to jump on you if you were still sleeping."
"I just got up," explained Beth. "I haven't even had anything to eat yet."
Annie got an excited look in her eyes as she said, "Good, don't eat. I have a treat for you when you're ready."
Beth was confused for a moment, "Ready for what?"
"For Toonik Tyme!" she explained. "The festival, have you forgotten already?"
"Oh, yeah, right," Beth answered, "I did forget actually, sorry." she looked at the things that Annie had brought in and asked, "What's that for?"
"I was looking at your coat this morning," explained Annie. "You'll have to get it cleaned before you'll be able to wear it again. I couldn't get the blood out of it." Beth shuddered at the thought of the polar bear.
Beth forced a smile before saying, "That's okay, I don't thing I'll be able to wear it anyway. It'll always remind me of..." She shuddered again and decided not to say it out loud. Annie stepped up to Beth and gave her a hug, smiling at her. She didn't need to say anything, the hug said it all.
Beth pushed her away gently and said, "Oh, you're still cold! Next time you want a hug, at least take you coat off, okay?" Annie just pushed Beth back and laughed.
Annie picked up the seal skin boots and handed them to Beth. "Come on, let's go. There's a lot I want to show you."
The two girls stood at the end of a short line, waiting for their turn to be served. An old woman sat on a small stool, over a camp stove, cooking a few small cakes in a large frying pan. When it was their turn to order, Annie asked for two cakes and paid the woman. Beth took one of the odd looking cakes, trying to see what was in it. The old woman gave Beth an odd look before saying something to Annie in Inuktitut. Beth always thought that the language sounded like they were mumbling all the time.
As Beth and Annie started to walk away, Beth asked, "What did she say to you?"
"Oh, she was asking about yesterday," answered Annie. "She heard about the bear attack and wanted to know if it was you."
Beth nodded as she absent mindedly started to eat her cake. "Wow, what is this thing? It tastes really good."
Annie smiled before explaining, "It's called a Bannock Cake. My mom and dad usually cook them when we go camping."
During the morning Annie and Beth walked around and watched several of the events and demonstrations. It turned out that the festival of Toonik Tyme was a combination of competitions, family reunion and a party after the long winter. By the time that Annie was making suggestions for lunch, Beth was starting to feel a little queasy. She wasn't certain if it was from some of the sights she had seen during the morning, or if she was starting to come down with something. Either way, lunch was the last thing she was looking forward to. The seal skinning contest was the last straw for Beth. She felt ill at the sight of the poor animal being cut open, but when one of the men cut off a piece of meat and ate it raw she couldn't hold it down any longer. She ran to a nearby garbage can and emptied her stomach into it.
An old man walking near by saw Beth. As Annie walked up behind Beth he said, "You need to take her home, Annie. She has the change."
Annie looked at her friend with a bit of concern before turning to the old man. "Thanks Willie. I'll make sure she gets home. Could you find Dr. Connor and send him to the Baker's?" The old man smiled and nodded before heading off to find the doctor. Annie waited for Beth to catch her breath before they started to walk the short distance to Beth's house. She hardly had time to get Beth cleaned up, changed into some pajama's and into bed when she heard a knock at the front door.
The door opened and Dr. Connor yelled, "Annie, you here?"
"Up here, Doc," yelled Annie from Beth's bedroom. A moment later he came through the bedroom door to see Annie sitting on the end of Beth's bed. She was under the covers and didn't even notice him come in. "It's Beth. She was sick earlier and she seems to be getting worse." Annie was concerned and glad that Dr. Connor had been able to get there so fast. Dr. Connor had lived in Iqaluit for over ten years now, but was still considered by a lot of the locals as a 'Southerner'. Annie liked him though. He was always friendly and took the time to get to know as many people as he could.
Dr. Connor felt Beth's forehead and started to pull things out of his bag. "Willie said that she had 'the change'. Let's find out if he's right again."
Nobody knew Willie's last name, or how old he really was. Everyone just called him Old Willie. But if he said someone had 'the change', it was a guarantee that they'd test positive for MORFS. Nobody could remember a time that he had ever been wrong. The MORFS test kit was a small box that fit over Beth's finger. She didn't even flinch when the needle pricked her finger to take the blood sample it needed. Dr. Connor prepared the portable IV unit, strapping it onto Beth's arm even before the test kit showed its results. The test kit beeped just as he finished setting up the arm mounted unit.
"Well, Old Willie is right again," he said with a smile. He picked up the test kit and tossed it into the garbage. "If I could figure out how he does that, it would make those things obsolete."
He hit the button on the IV unit to start it and packed up all his things. He handed Annie a few refill canisters for the IV unit. "She's going to out of it for a few days. Tell Mr. Baker to replace the canister when the IV unit starts to beep and I'll be back in four days to see how she's doing."
"Thanks, Dr. Connor. I'll tell him."
Dr. Connor stood and started to head out of the room. "You get some rest too. There's nothing you can do until she wakes up."
Annie stood up to walk the doctor to the door. "I know," she said, "I'll stay until her dad gets home."
Since she hadn't eaten, Annie helped herself to a sandwich for lunch while she waited. In a small town like Iqaluit, news travels fast. Annie didn't need to wait long before Beth's dad showed up. He stormed through the front door slamming it closed behind him. He looked as if he was about to say something until he noticed Annie standing in the living room watching him. Instead, he started to climb the stairs to check on Beth. Annie followed him to Beth's room. When she got there he was sitting on the edge of the bed holding her hand.
"She'll be fine, Mr. Baker," Annie tried to reassure him. "She's strong and has a good heart. The change is kind to people with a good soul." Just like any community on the planet, MORFS had struck the Inuit people, but the effect on both the people it had changed, and those that it didn't, was completely different. Instead of see it as a curse on their people, it was just another change that they needed to embrace and adapt to. Living in such a harsh, unforgiving climate, it was always a matter of making the best of what was available, and adapting to the changes as the occurred. In the north, it had always been adapt or die. There was very little choice in the matter.
Unfortunately, Bill Baker was not from the north and didn't share this belief with Annie. "Thanks for helping so much, Annie," he said without turning around. "You should head home now. I can take care of Elizabeth until she's over this."
Annie was disappointed that she wouldn't be able to see the changes in her friend over the next few days, but understood Mr. Baker's wish to deal with it in his own way. Instead, she decided to be positive and look forward to seeing the new Beth when the changes were done.
Annie tried to be patient. She didn't want to intrude on Beth or her dad, but after four days she couldn't help herself. It was Wednesday, and she should have been heading to school. Instead, after having a quick breakfast and telling her mom where she was going, she found herself walking in the opposite direction towards Beth's house. As she got closer, Annie noticed the RCMP truck parked beside Beth's house and started to run to the house. She didn't even knock as she burst through the front door.
"What happened?" she asked the moment she saw Beth's dad.
The RCMP constable and Beth's dad both looked at her for a moment before Beth's dad finally said, "Elizabeth's disappeared. When I woke up this morning I went into her room to check on her and she wasn't there."