I had begun to fear the worst: a family of raccoons had moved in. Or our cottage had become a bat house. Or mold clung like moss to the walls. There would be standing water in the basement, the foundation would be crumbling.
Finally, the border to Canada opened. I made the trip up to Thunder Bay. My first impression on seeing the cottage was relief: it looked the same as ever from the outside. The grass had been kept trimmed by the lawn service. The siding and the roof were intact.
I hadn’t seen the property since September 2019, almost two years ago. The last time I was there I took a swim in Lake Erie and a bike ride on my favorite rail trail. I had a beer and a sandwich at my favorite spot just up the road in Ridgeway. Then I put up the storm windows, stowed the picnic table and chairs, emptied the refrigerator, and locked up for the season.
Then came the pandemic and the border closure. There was no 2020 summer season for us in Canada. All this past autumn, winter, and spring the border remained shut. I had no idea what was happening to our summer house.
I walked around to inspect the exterior. On the south side I noticed several storm windows were missing. I wondered did I forget to put a couple of them up last time I closed for the season. Maybe they fell off in a storm and blew away. Maybe someone pulled them off and broke in.
I opened the door cautiously, in case a bat was waiting to dive bomb me or a rat bite my ankle. I breathed in the smell of cooking. A sweatshirt hung over the back of a kitchen chair. Dishes were stacked on a drainboard next to the sink. Was someone here? There was no car parked outside except for my own.
I stood and listened, one hand still on the half-open door, my pulse starting to thump. I passed through the kitchen into the dining and living area. There were books that weren’t mine on the table. An unfolded blanket lay draped over the couch.
Hello? I called. Who’s in here?
I heard a noise above me, the scrape of furniture on the floor. I resisted an urge to flee. Instead, I called up from the bottom of the stairs.
Is someone there? Who are you?
I grabbed the walking stick in the corner by the coat tree, held it in both hands, and started up the stairs. Each tread announced me with a sharp creak.
Is someone here? If you are, come out.
I reached the upstairs hallway. The bedroom doors were open except for the last one, the one that I use. I could see a toothbrush and toothpaste on the sink in the bathroom. I stood outside the closed bedroom door. I knocked on my own door. No answer.
I turned the handle and nudged the door open. The bed was unmade, the sheets piled at the bottom of the mattress like a coil of sails. There was the smell of body.
Breathing. Panting. From behind the curtain covering the closet. And me, I was breathing too. My blood churning and pumping.
Who is it?
I flung back the curtain. There were two of them, a young couple, no older than my own kids, crouched on the floor. They cowered and eyed me with dread. He had a black beard and wore sandals and shorts, as if he’d just come from the beach. She had dark, wide, fearful eyes and wore a long dress.
I pointed the walking stick like a bayonet.
Who are you? I’m calling the police.
Except I’d left my phone in the car.
He spoke, his English accented and fast. Please don’t hurt us, he said. Please, no police.
This is my house, I said.
Yes, we are sorry. Please.
I stood over them. They had their arms around each other. My hands trembled holding the walking stick.
I stepped back and let them out of the closet. They took turns telling their story. They were refugees who had fled Afghanistan. They had nowhere else to go. They’d been living here for almost a year. They would be deported and sent back to Afghanistan where they would be in great danger because he had worked as an interpreter for the Americans and she . . . well, she was a woman who would now live under the iron rule of the Taliban.
But they had trespassed and burglarized my home and made it their own. And how could they be refugees from Afghanistan? Only this past week has the Taliban taken control of the country, while these two have been living here for months. Hiding out in my house in a tranquil spot a block from Lake Erie.
The man was calmer, controlled. He was squeezing the woman’s hand, speaking to her in a language I didn’t understand. He turned to me.
Please, don’t call the police. Let us go. We will leave.
She began emptying the dresser, tossing their clothes on the bed. He said he’d gotten the furnace running and fixed a leaking toilet. And I might want to replace the bathroom window, which was rotting, but he couldn’t do it because he didn’t have the money or the right tools.
If I called the police they would be arrested, and likely deported or at least jailed. They would face many hardships. If I just let them leave, where would they go? Would they find another unoccupied dwelling to squat in? Would they end up homeless?
Either way, at least I would have our cottage back. I would feel the summer breeze and enjoy the lake and relax in the sun.
You have to leave, I said. This is my room. You can have the one down the hall, at least for now.