When I was a young girl, I lived in the town of Tadaldak, just outside Whitesand Provincial Park in Northern Ontario. It was a small community, not found on any map. On the night of the meteor shower in 1981, Tadaldak went from a lively town of around 2,000 residents, to ashes scattered across the woodlands. I was the only survivor.
Tadaldak was a beautiful town filled with rustic-looking houses built with wood from the surrounding forest. Our homes had much more spirit to them than any of the mass-produced condos I’ve lived in since. I’m not preaching about colors of the wind or anything like that: I just appreciate genuine human craftsmanship. Due to Tadaldak’s secluded location, there was no way in or out of town, except for an ice road that appeared only in the coldest months of winter. Because of this, it was impossible to get supplies, so we had to be self-sustaining. Most of us knew how to hunt and fish, so we were never in danger of starvation.
Though our supply of fresh fruits and vegetables was limited, we found every excuse to indulge. That’s how the Starlight Festival came to be. In mid-August, the town got together to celebrate week-long meteor showers that took place every year.
As summer drew to an end and preparations for the festival began, I came down with pneumonia and had to be hospitalized. All day long, I watched from the window as the area transformed. Paper streamers were hung along town square, benches were installed, and food stands were rolled into place. Every night, when I saw the first star in the sky, I made a wish that I would get better in time for the festivities.
By the first day of the festival, I was feeling much better, but I was still stuck on oxygen. I nagged and begged the nurses to release me, giving them my most irresistible pair of puppy-dog eyes. Finally, the doctor agreed to let me out, under three conditions: I had to carry a portable oxygen tank, I had to be accompanied by a nurse, and I had to come straight back to the hospital once the meteor shower was over. I was thrilled beyond words.
A few hours later, I was sitting in the crowd as lively music blared through old speakers set up around town square. Nurse Jesse was kind enough to sit with me while my parents watched from a few rows back. The scent of fried food and sweets – a rare treat in our neck of the woods – filled my nostrils, and I excitedly looked from food stand to food stand, wondering if there was enough room in my stomach to try everything. One by one, the lights in the town turned off, as the sun descended onto the horizon. The sky was clear, welcoming the dim remnants of lights from far-away galaxies.
“Ooooooooo!” uttered the crowd, as the celestial show began.
Lights streamed above us as hundreds of shooting stars made their way across the heavens. I sat in awe, grateful that I was there to see the show. Then, something unusual happened: shimmering speckles began falling from the sky. My immediate thought was that forest fairies were blessing our festival by spreading pixiedust into the crowd. The scene looked enchanted, and I lifted my hands to try and catch the magical substance, thinking it would imbue me with the ability to fly. The powder was thick and weightless, like soot from a campfire. It dissolved as I manipulated it between my fingers. The stardust fell faster, covering us like a winter storm. I could hear people around me coughing, sneezing, and wheezing. A sudden twinge of guilt came over me, as it occurred to me that I might have infected everyone with pneumonia.
Wind blew the speckles of stardust away, but the crowd became even more agitated than before. I could see fear in their eyes, which, in turn, frightened me. Never had I seen so many adults look so disturbed, yet I had no idea why they were scared. I turned to nurse Jesse for comfort, hoping he knew what was going on, but what I saw sent me into full blown panic: the whites of his eyes had turned red, and blood leaked from every orifice on his head. I started sobbing and let out a muffled scream, fog forming in my mask. Nurse Jesse hacked loudly, clawing at his throat until his nails drew blood. Moments later, he fell over lifelessly. I screamed for help, but my weakened voice could not break through the agonized sounds around me. I turned to my parents, but they were already on the floor, bleeding. I saw hundreds of friends, family, and neighbors succumb to the same fate. Silence replaced the chaos. I wished I could hear their screams again, because the silence scared me more.
The silence meant it was over.
Tears clouding my vision, I tried to get up so I could find help. My oxygen tank had gotten wedged between Nurse Jesse and the bench, locking me in place. Snot leaked into my mouth, but I couldn’t wipe it away because the mask was in the way. Having been given strict orders not to remove it, I dealt with the uncomfortable salty taste. I tugged at my tether, finally yanking myself free. When I saw Nurse Jesse’s blood smeared along the silver canister, I started howling like a voice-neutered banshee.
Thanks to my parents, I knew to seek help in an emergency. I rotated the oxygen tank onto its wheels, and started walking towards the only logical place: the hospital. If anyone could help, it was the doctors and nurses. My lungs were on fire as I inched my way across town. I had to deviate from my path many times to avoid stepping on the sick townsfolk. I was too young to tell whether they were dead or alive. I was going to be the hero who saved Tadaldak.
I felt drained by the time I reached the hospital, but a wave of relief gave me a second wind, and I ran inside. It was far too quiet in the hospital. My insides twisted as I walked around the corner and saw the bodies on the ground, faces painted in streams of blood. I ran over and shook Nurse James, begging her to wake up, but her cold body remained unresponsive.
Once reality set in, I started bawling loudly, and curled up in the corner. I kept telling myself I had to be a big girl: I had to make everyone better again. I was going to be the hero who saved Tadaldak. I repeated those words over and over in my head until they gave me enough strength to stand up. If the doctors and nurses couldn’t help, then I had to go farther. My grandpa lived alone in the woods. He’d know what to do. I knew the way there, but it was going to be hard to reach him while carrying the oxygen tank.
I had barely made it to the outskirts of town when I heard a distant rumbling. My flight-or-fight instinct suddenly kicked in, and I ripped the oxygen mask off my face so I could bolt into the woods as fast as my little feet could take me. As I hid under a maple tree, I saw a black, low-flying plane rip through the treetops and towards my home. It was followed by two more.
I watched as hellfire rained down on my peaceful hometown. A strong wave of heat rippled through the air, and pushed me to the ground. I could smell Tadaldak burning from the short distance separating us. Ambers flew in every direction, twirling and dancing in the breeze. Pockets of warm air swelled through the foliage, making the landscape rattle like the chains of death. A mix of emotions overwhelmed me: desperation, worry, sorrow, confusion, and anxiety. I couldn’t function, and didn’t know what to do, except to stay right where I was as a raging fire took away all that I had ever known. I wasn’t going to be a hero. I wasn’t going to save Tadaldak. It was already too late.
The planes came back for a second assault, though I doubt there was anything left to shoot. Before long, they streaked away in the horizon, like shooting stars.
I’m not sure how long I hid in the bushes, sobbing to myself, but I remember what snapped me back to reality. From a short distance, I saw a bipedal, cloaked form with two bulging glassy eyes. I had heard legends of wraiths hiding in the woods, and thought that was precisely what I was looking at. I burrowed into a bush, hiding from and spying on the creature. Then, I heard it speak to another of its kind. I’ll never forget what they said, nor the horrifyingly ordinary sound of their voices.
“Get them all?”, asked the first.
“Yeh. Threw ’em in the fire with the others.”, replied the second.
They sounded human. I held back a whimper and made myself as small as possible, hoping beyond hope that they wouldn’t hear my labored breathing. I knew they were going to hurt me if they found me.
I honestly can’t remember how I did it, but I eventually made it to my grandfather’s place. I told him everything that happened while he peacefully consoled me. After that night, he took me in and raised me. Eventually, I grew up and moved out of the region. I visited him once in a while, but I couldn’t stand being so close to the scar in the landscape, so my visits were few and far between.
My grandfather died not too long ago. As his next of kin, I was tasked with handling his affairs. I took a trip to his cabin to clear out his things. In his attic, I found a locked wooden crate with ornate detailing. I wanted to take it with me, and searched all over the house for its key, without success. Eventually, I took the box to a locksmith, who was kind enough to unlock it for me.
In the crate, I saw the big glassy eyes of a gas mask staring back at me. It sat on a bed of news clippings and file folders marked “Operation Ta’xet”. I was too afraid to read what they said. I’d rather live the rest of my life pretending my grandfather wasn’t involved with the obliteration of my hometown.