The fires were raging. The alarm was sounding. It started as a low annoying sound and slowly built in volume and intensity. There was a sense of urgency to the alarm. Run. Get out. Hurry, your life depends on it, it seemed to say to me. There’s no time to waste. Go now.
I stumbled to my feet and started to pull on my pants while shaking the sleep from my head. I was half way through putting my shirt on when I realized I had been dreaming and the alarm that was going off was the first alarm in a series of alarms that I set on my mobile phone to wake me up in the morning for work. I had been dreaming about the fires again. “The fires” were the fires that engulfed Fort McMurray during my last year of high school and caused the entire city to evacuate while our homes burned and our lives disintegrated right before our eyes.
It was a hot and dry spring that year and the fires had started as wild fires but spread quickly. Before we knew what was happening and the scale of it, all of Fort McMurray was burning. Social Media and News Media all over the world reported about the events as they unfolded. People posted videos of their flight out of the city. People posted the video from their live cams from inside their houses as fire crept in and consumed everything. People posted how we all deserved it and it was karma for our dependence on the oil industry. People posted all kinds of things.
The world watched as our city burned. The history books record it as one of the biggest evacuations due to fire in Canadian history.
The evacuation is a bit of a blur to me. We gathered as much of our stuff as we could and evacuated to my Grandmother’s house in Smokey Lake to the south.
We stayed at my grandmother’s house in Smokey Lake for 2 months from May to July, then moved out and rented our own house on Smokey Lake to begin rebuilding our lives. Our house had been completely destroyed by fire and there was no doubt that we’d get insurance money for it, but with all the other insurance claims at the time by all the other people affected by the fire, it would take quite a while before the insurance company would pay out and my mother could decide what to do. Luckily for us, my mother was a teleworker for North West Tel and could work from just about anywhere.
It was just my mother Kate Slayden, my sister Jenni (who was two years my junior) and me Porter Slayden. My father Carl Slayden had disappeared 6 years previously when I was 12. He was presumed dead, but my sister and I weren’t totally convinced that he was dead even to this day. We would hear our mother talking to her friends and crying around the time he disappeared under what most people called mysterious circumstances. We didn’t really know what that meant, but to us it meant, there was still a chance he was alive. My mother had had to accept that he was gone and move on and she had managed pretty well considering she had two young children to look after, a mortgage and a car payment. She had been doing pretty well surviving on her Salary from North West Tel and the insurance company had paid out on my father’s life insurance even though they couldn’t prove he was dead.
My father had worked for the City of Fort McMurray as a City Engineer. He was always venturing into the depths of the city to find problems and organize the repair of water lines and sewers or track down the source of water that was leaking into office building basements, isolating natural gas leaks or organizing the expansion of infrastructure support in the newer sections of the city.
The story as we were told it was that my father had been working on expanding a new part of the city. A project called “West End Growth”. He was overseeing the construction of sewers, water and power for the expanding area of the west end of the city.
One day he went down into a newly dug section of the expansion and just disappeared. There was no cave in, no explosion, no flooding, and no reason for concern of any kind. He just walked into the ground one day and never came out.
The city and the RCMP spent three months searching for him and trying to reconstruct the day he disappeared and the events leading up to his disappearance. The final results were inconclusive and eventually they had to stop the investigation under pressure from the city to re-open the area so the project could continue.
We made it through that tragedy only to once again have our lives turned upside down by the fire in the spring of 2016.
I finished my last year of high school in Smokey Lake and even though I didn’t want to leave, I headed out in 2017 for the University of Toronto Systems Design Program. I had always been a computer geek and I was good with electronics so it was a natural fit for me. I felt like I was abandoning my Mom my Sister after all of the things we’d been through. My Mom convinced me I had to continue on with my life and make the most of it. She insisted she and Jenni would be fine and since we weren’t living in Fort McMurray anymore, there wasn’t any reason for me to stay. I had talked about trying to get a job working on the restoration of the city, but after many long talks and discussions with my Mom and her friends and my teachers, they convinced me that if I really wanted to help, I could make a better contribution if I went to university and got an education. After that if I wanted to come back and help rebuild Fort McMurray, I would be able to make an even bigger difference than just a smart kid out of high school looking to help.
I finished System Design at U of T and went on to get my Masters at MIT in Boston. Now after 7 years, I was finally back in my home town of Fort McMurray. Although 7 years had passed, I still had nightmares about the night we escaped the city. The nightmares had gone away for a while but ever since my return to the partially rebuilt Fort McMurray, the nightmares had started up again. I had nightmares about my Dad from time to time too. It had been almost 13 years since he disappeared. They were really bad right after he first disappeared. I would see him being swallowed up by a big hole in the ground and reaching out to me, but I couldn’t quite reach his hand, then he would be sucked into the swirling vortex in the hole and was gone. My mom had told me I should get into therapy for my nightmares when I was at University, but I was never the kind of person that felt I needed therapy. I could think through and rationalize the reason for my nightmares and even sometimes figure out the causes as I saw them, then move on. The nightmares didn’t rule my life. I was still able to sleep and work and live. A part of me didn’t want the nightmares to be gone because in a way they connected me to my Dad.
I turned off my alarm and laid back on my bed. My smartphone said6:30am. I laid there for a bit thinking about the nightmare I was just having and all that had transpired since that late night drive, then I decided I might as well get up and make some coffee and head to work. Work being WestComm. WestComm was a huge engineering firm that was heading up the rebuilding of Fort McMurray’s Communications infrastructure. I had secured a position as an Infrastructure Systems Engineer while finishing my Masters in Systems Design Methodology at MIT in Boston. I was back in my home town and finally working to help rebuild the city that we lost so many years ago. My Mom and Jenni were living in Fort McMurray again too. Jenni was just finishing College with a PSW diploma and was starting a job with company in Fort McMurray that specialized in home care. Mom was still working for North West Tel from home. Home for her was a new home she had built 4 years previously when she finally received the insurance money from North Western Insurance. Co. They had given her enough to buy a new property and build a new home and furnish it. Jenni was living with Mom for now, but was already looking for her own place to rent now that she was finished school and ready to move out on her own.
I walked out to my kitchen and ground some coffee beans and made a cup of coffee with my one cup coffee maker. As I stood looking out the kitchen window to the back yard drinking my coffee, I noticed that the apple tree in the yard was in full bloom. I wondered if I would be able to eat the apples on the tree once they were ready. It was a nice yard in a nice quiet area of Fort McMurray. My place was pretty small but I liked it. I had rented a 2 bedroom guesthouse from a lady named Malka Cummings. Mrs. Cummings was a nice old lady that knew my Mother via her volunteer work at the nursing home and had a place for rent. My Mother told me Mrs. Cummings had been lonely since her husband died a few years ago. My Mom volunteered at the Pleasant Acres nursing home on weekends and up until a few years ago, Mr. Cummings had been a resident. Mrs. Cummings had had to put him in the nursing home when his health took a turn for the worse. The two of them had been married for 45 years and now that Mr. Cummings was gone, Malka could use the income she received from renting her guest house. I found Mrs. Cummings a little nosey. She knocked on my door a several times a month to check on me and make sure I was putting the septic system tonic into the toilet once a month, that the pipes weren’t leaking, that I had enough food, there were no mice or bugs…and the list went on. Personally I thought she just wanted someone to talk to, but since she didn’t bother me all that often, I didn’t really complain. The rent was really reasonable and I wasn’t ready to buy a house yet, so this was a good arrangement. I had spent a lot on my education, so I really needed to pay my student loans down before I could buy a house. I managed to get a new car when I started my job, but only because part of my compensation package from WestComm was a car allowance. Having a car was a requirement of the job since I often had to travel to job sites. The guest house was a single floor above a 2 car Victorian style garage. I wasn’t sure about having to walk up a set of stairs to get to my house, but now that I was settled in I kind of liked the view. I could see out over the whole yard and the forest across the road. There was a park on the edge of the forest with a big pond in it. It was actually a pretty nice view from the kitchen and the living room.
I finished my coffee, grabbed my laptop satchel and car keys off the key rack near the garage entrance, put on my jacket and went out the door and down the spiral staircase into the garage. Along with the rental of the guest house came the use of the garage, so I could park my new Mini Cooper S inside which was great. Mrs. Cummings didn’t drive and the other side of the garage had been converted into a sort of office/work space. I was using it as my own personal office / computer lab. It gave me lots of room to work and kind of doubled as a party room/rec room when friends came over. I had mounted a 50 inch LED TV on the wall and setup my surround sound in there as well as my music equipment. My old acoustic guitar that I had saved from the fire so long ago hung on the wall in the Lab. It was a long time since I used it and I had purchased a new acoustic guitar a long time ago, but it was kind of a souvenir from another time in my life, so I mounted it on the wall in the lab.
I hopped into my car, pressed the garage door button opener and headed to work.
“You’re listening to the morning drive with Matt and Penny on 97.5 Kick FM”
The radio chimed as I pulled onto the highway that lead to the downtown area.
“And now the news. The rebuilding of Fort McMurray continues. City officials estimate the city rebuild will take another 10 years to complete. In another news conference Mayer McKenna said that WestComm was doing the best it could do to connect the Internet infrastructure throughout the city, but residents are reminded to be patient.”
I chuckled to myself. “Yep I’m doing the best I can” I said out loud.
The mayor had been taking a lot of grief in the press lately for the cost of the city rebuild. Part of that cost was the exorbitant consulting fees paid to WestComm to connect the cities Communications infrastructure and coordinate the connection of Telus Network connections, Bell Connections and West Hydro Fibre that served as the backbone for the city.
“Good help is hard to find folks” I added.
The drive to work was a short distance. About 20 mins through the now rebuilt part of the city to the WestComm offices. I found a parking spot and headed into the office.
WestComm had leased a single floor sprawling office in the industrial area of the East end of Fort McMurray.
As I went through the front door, the receptionist Penny, gave me a smile and nodded toward the conference room just ahead of the reception area.
“They’re waiting for you in the conference room kid” she said.
Conference room? I thought. I didn’t have a meeting scheduled first thing this morning. I never liked meetings first thing in the morning. “I guess it’s a good thing I came in early huh Penny” I said.
Penny smiled back at me. “Go gettem tiger” she said with a grin.
Penny was a bit of a flirt. She called all the younger guys like myself kid. Not that she was that much older. She was probably in her mid 30’s. She was good looking, but the problem was, she knew it.
When I first started for WestComm, Penny was the first girl I noticed and I almost asked her out until one of the guys in the office told me that she had dated just about the whole accounting department and was still working her way up to the executives. Ok so “Penny is nice, but a bit of a gold digger. Got it.” I had said.
I stuck my head in the conference room and saw that Mr. Finch and Nadivah were in there along with some other guy that I didn’t recognize.
“Hey Porter” Nadivah Said
“Hey Nad, Hi Mr. Finch, You guys mind if I grab a coffee real quick?” I said
“No problem, go ahead.” Mr. Finch said.
I went back to my office and grabbed my coffee mug, grabbed a coffee from the lunch room on the way back toward the conference room and then headed into the conference room.
“Porter, I’d like you to meet Pradosh Cherian” Mr. Finch Said
“Hi Pradosh” I said, “Nice to meet you”
“Hello Porter, nice to meet you too” Pradosh said.
Mr. Finch Said. “Porter, Pradosh is from our Public Relations department. He’s been sent here to shadow you for a few days and get to know you. WestComm has been under a lot of criticism in the press lately and Public relations thinks that getting an article about a local boy working for WestComm to help rebuild Fort McMurray is just what we need to help improve our image.
I looked at Mr. Finch, then at Nadivah, then at Pradosh.
“You’re gonna be a star Slayden” Nadivah Said with a big grin on her face.
Nadivah Brickman was a member of my infrastructure team and she loved to tease me.
Nadivah was 5’5” had long dark hair and blue eyes. She was a little overweight, but just enough to give her curves in all the right places. I liked Nadivah. I especially liked the fact that she got excited about new ideas and projects. I could tell she tended to neglect the more routine aspects of life. Her hair wasn’t always perfect and she seldom wore makeup. She had a great ability to understand concepts and apply logic to find solutions. She was great to work with and once I worked up the courage, I was planning to ask her out.
“Very Funny Nad” I said.
“Mr. Finch, do I really have to do this. I don’t really like the idea of being in the spotlight. I understand that the company could use the positive public spin, but does it have to be at my expense?” I sad.
“You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to Porter, but WestComm would really appreciate your help in this” Mr. Finch said.
Read between the lines, I thought.
I don’t have to do it, but making your employer happy doesn’t hurt.
“OK Mr. Finch, I’ll do it, how does this work?” I said.
“For the next few days, where you go, I go” Pradosh Said.
“Alright, as long as you don’t follow me into the washroom, I’m good” I said with a smirk.
“Oh c’mon Slayden, you’re going to have Pradosh leave out all the most interesting stuff!” Nadivah Said.
“Har Har very funny Nad. Maybe they need an exciting expose on a Jewish Canadian female working in the technology industry…” I said.
“I’m sure you are way more interesting…” Nadivah said with a smile and a toothy grin.
“Alright Pradosh, let’s do this thing then. I need to head down to the west end and check out the grid and fiber ties that were recently completed.” I said.
“Nad, you’re going too right? You need to check out the switches and the controllers don’t you? I said.
“Yep, already to go boss” Nadivah said.
“Alright, let’s check our emails and head out in about 30 then.” I said.
I wasn’t really Nadivah’s boss, but I kind of liked it when she called me that.
“Pradosh, you need to put on some safety shoes and you’ll need a hardhat if you are going with us. Do you have all that?” I said.
“Sure do Boss” Pradosh Said
“Oh great, now I have two smart asses to contend with” I said.
Both Pradosh and Nadivah laughed and smiled at each other.
I went back to my office and Nadivah to hers to check our emails and get ready to head down to the site. Pradosh was setup in the spare office near the conference room. We often put visitors in that office. Usually people just needed a space to put their stuff and access to the network and phone etc.
Approximately 30 minutes later we grabbed our stuff and headed out towards the west end.
We decided to take Nadivah’s Honda Civic instead of my Mini since there were three of us this time. Usually it was just Nadivah and I and we could take my Mini and not be worried about space.
We left the industrial park and made our way along the highway to the west end loop exit then headed into the west end. Traffic was pretty light because this end of the city wasn’t even close to being finished. Mostly, it was still under construction and only local traffic was allowed, so it made for a quick trip.
We parked near the site entrance, grabbed our gear and headed into the utilities building that served as the entrance to the underground.
As we entered the building I was explaining how things were laid out to Pradosh.
“The city’s Infrastructure utilizes a top down approach to services. The various cables and piping required are layered in levels, so that you have to go down to different levels to reach the various types of infrastructure. Sewers are on the bottom, followed by water piping, then networking and electrical and so on as you head from the bottom up. This allows for water to settle in the bottom with little effect on electrical for example in the event that the bottom levels flooded for whatever reason. Electrical has higher priority than networking so it is the last layer closest to the surface.” I explained.
“So we have to go down to the networking level which should be….two?” Pradosh said.
“Wow he’s a quick one” Said Nadivah with fake admiration and her eyes open really wide.
Pradosh turned a slightly pinkish shade of brown and smiled and said “So what’s it like to be helping rebuild the city of your birth after so many years Porter? How does that make you feel?”
It was my turn to blush apparently.
“I’m really proud to be helping get the city back in working order. I felt bad when I had to leave to go to University, so I’m really glad to be back and making a difference” I said.
“That’s good stuff, can I quote you on that” Pradosh said.
“Sure” I said. “Just don’t quote me on anything unless I give the ok. Alright?” I added.
Pradosh nodded. “Sure thing Boss” he said.
“Don’t start that again” I said with a grin.
We made our way to the elevator that services the lower levels of the infrastructure.
The elevator was a simple box with a pull down cage in the front. I opened the cage and the three of us boarded the elevator. Once we were all in, I closed the gate and pressed number 4. “Let’s go down to the bottom and give Pradosh a quick tour, then work our way back up Nad.” I said.
“Sure, why not, you only live once. ” Nadivah said with a smile
The elevator jerked into movement and began to descend. When it reached 4 we were all expecting it to stop, but it kept going.
The number switched to 5, 6, 7, then the elevator jerked throwing us all off balance, it stopped briefly, then started moving so fast Nadivah let out a scream.
“Jake! What’s happening? She said
“I don’t know, just hang on!” I managed to scream as we plummeted faster down.
Just when we were all expecting a violent crash, the elevator slowed and came to a gentle stop.
When I looked out the cage I was staring into blackness.
We all looked at each other and I could see the relief in the other’s faces. I was pretty sure my face held the same expression.
“How far did we we fall?” Pradosh said
“I don’t know. This doesn’t make any sense. There are only supposed to be four levels.” I said.
“Now what do we do?” Nadivah said reaching for the emergency phone on the panel.
She picked it up and her expression turned dark.
“There’s no dial tone, and it’s not ringing” Nadivah said
“C’mon you guys, your just trying to freak me out aren’t you” Pradosh said
” I wish that was true Pradosh, I really do.” I said.
I had no sooner finished speaking when the elevator light started to flicker and went so dim we could barely see each other.
“Oh this just keeps getting better every minute.” Nadivah said.
I pulled out my iPhone and unlocked the screen. The signal indicator said searching.
“Anyone have a signal”. I said
Pradosh and Nadivah each pulled their respective phones out and checked them.
“Nothing” Pradosh Said
“Same here.” Nadivah said.
I used my thumb and swiped upward on my phone then hit the flashlight icon. I held my iPhone so it was pointing out of the elevator through the gate into the blackness beyond. I could just make out visible traces of what looked like rough rock walls that didn’t resemble anything like the smooth block walls in the upper part of the building.
“Is that rough cut stone?” Nadivah said
“Looks like it.” I said.
We all looked at each other.
“Well, I don’t think we have a choice, we’re going to have to get off the elevator and look out there to see if there’s a set of stairs or an emergency phone somewhere.” I said.
I lifted the metal gate with a screech and the three of us we walked into the blackness.