“Rarefied” by Brandon Lorimer

Artwork by Victoria Alex

The sky was hung with pink the day I sent everyone away. By six minutes past golden hour, every living being except for me had disappeared from the city. I dropped the tome onto my unwashed sheets as I walked towards the door of my balcony. Stepping out into the evening air, it was bliss. The closest thing to peace I ever heard. No kids shrieking, no smokers hacking, no dogs yapping, no lovers fighting. It had worked. And I had one week.

I clutched the cool metal of the railing and let it anchor me in the moment. The thing I’ve struggled most with my entire life is being part of it, not just letting the days fall through me. If there was ever a moment that deserved to breathe, it was this. Watching that sky pregnant with peach, I grinned to myself. That was new, that grin. Or maybe I do that constantly and have no idea. Probably not, though.

My hands looked scrawny and helpless on the railing, like I’d just emerged for the first time from a life behind barred doors. Which I guess I had. There was chipped black polish on my nails. They always chipped the day after painting them. Something about that look felt equal parts regal and trashy, and that felt fine. But I was always so worried about people seeing my nails like this. Looking at them wrapped around the weathered rail of the balcony though, it felt right. It felt me.

One week with no other living being in the city. I’d tell how I did it, but I barely know. My mind leading up to the week was a fog. I was feeling something. Then I had this book, this volume. Then I knew what to do, what I needed, how to do it. And then I did it. Now, breathing room beyond measure, and a chance to think. That’s all I wanted – to think. People take thinking for granted and having a place to do it. Maybe everyone else doesn’t need that. Maybe I’m just doing a really bad job at thinking and being a part of life. At least I’m good at making people disappear.

I wanted to hurry and get this venture started. I ran back inside, and grabbed my bag as well as a leather jacket that had been bought on a whim two years ago and never once worn in public. Pulling it on with the mad energy of a streaker in reverse, I clambered out my door full of giddy, ethereal, and hopeful excitement and immediately tripped on the stairs and started plummeting to my death.

Everything got slow, the way it gets only when you are teetering on the razor of life and disaster.

“At least nobody’s around to see this,” I thought with grave solemnity.

Except this was slower than chasing my soccer ball out in front of a speeding minivan or choking on a cruel chicken bone hidden in some vindaloo. It was slow enough that I got my wits back in time to open my eyes and see them filled with pink vapor. As soon as I had seen it, my eyes cleared, and I saw the sidewalk an inch away before I plopped down on it. I shook my head and scrambled around to see what had happened, and I met a pink cloud.

A pink cloud is not a normal thing to meet, so I stared for a moment. Part of me was thinking that this was a great opportunity to really be there for that moment, really take it in. The majority of me was thinking how fucked up this was and how I almost died falling down my steps like an idiot, and how there was a little pink cloud at the bottom of my steps. It looked picturesque, somewhere between a watercolour fluff and a cartoon set-piece, just bobbing gently above the sidewalk.

“Wow, um,” I started. “Thank you so much for that.”

The cloud bobbed in silence.

“Okay I had just wanted to say thank you in case you could talk but you’re just some cloud aren’t you?”

The cloud continued its bob.

“Right. Okay. Well, I’m going to go explore a bit. Um. I’m going to stop talking now.”

I gave a quick wave goodbye to the cotton candy cloud and an inward grimace at my own ineptitude, then slung my bag over my shoulder and walked as hurriedly as possible down the nearest alley. One week.

The alleys crisscrossed the world of my neighbourhood, flowing from every major street through every stretch of homes. I had always been terrified to move through them. To be fair, nobody made much use of them. But did anybody actually twist themselves up worrying about it? Probably not. I had disappeared a city of souls, why was my heart racing as I stepped through the worn wooden fences and untended hedges? I wondered for a moment if anybody had ever done what I did, had whatever specialness inside of them to make those things happen. I felt something when it happened, something familiar but unplaceable. Maybe other people had felt that before too. Could I ask people? Would they tell me? Or would I just seem insane?

My thoughts carried me along and I realized that I had wound up deep within the arteries of the side streets. In all of my pondering, I hadn’t noticed that I stopped walking. The trunk of a crooked oak was beside me. I let my gaze follow it up to see the old tree’s foliage dangling above me, but was soon taken aback. There was the little pink cloud, hanging just above my head, billowing innocently. My body tensed for a moment, then I closed my eyes and let the taut air out of me. I was in control here. I had one week.

“You don’t need to follow me, you know,” I called up to the bit of bizarre weather. “I’d actually prefer to be left alone. Just thinking some things out.”

The cloud just billowed there. It felt like it was mocking me with its stoicism. “Well, I’m just going to carry on. So please don’t follow me.” And I scampered off down a path.

I knew that nobody was around, but I couldn’t help but feel anxious. I checked over my shoulder and darted my eyes side to side as I passed each fire escape, each back door. There was this sense of dread looming in me. What was that cloud doing? Why was it here? Did I accidentally summon it? It saved my life, but now it felt like this nagging, cloying thought. The thought had this familiarity, this feeling of something at the back of my mind. Every now and then I would look back and catch a glimpse of its pink fluff and redirect my path. The positive was that I didn’t have to worry about anyone getting in my way, or hearing people nattering, or jumping out of the way of cars as they pulled out. There was a freedom, even in this chase. 

Eventually, I found myself clumsily trekking down a shrubby hill. It levelled out into a parking lot behind some abandoned brick building. I could tell from the path I had run that I was just behind the main drag of my area, but I couldn’t place what building this was. I started to circle around the side. It was nice to be looking at things from a different perspective, without the context of the buzzing world. Even a worn-down old spot like this had a freshness to it. The lens of this week. One week.

When I came out on the other side of the building, it hit me. I saw the big, dilapidated water tower rising up to bludgeon the sky. The pinks had gone blue; I hadn’t realized that night had fully set in. Now all that greeted me from above was a cantankerous thrusting wreck and the promise of darkness. I felt weird about the water tower, I always had. When I was a kid, I had these fantasies about climbing up one of those to do something spectacular. Not like I knew what I would actually do, but it would be spectacular. As I got older and looked at those water towers some more, I realized how worn down they were. My mind had fooled me into thinking they were these paragons of cleanliness and importance. But they were thumbs. And this water tower, which I could just barely see from my bedroom window, was the sorest of reminders. I had never looked at it like this before.

As I stared at the decaying tower, the familiar fluff of the pink cloud slowly floated into my vision. I blinked hard and frowned at it while it made its a scent towards the top railings of the water. Right below where it hovered, a chipped metal ladder stretched to the ground. My heart quickened at the thought, and I quickly shoved it down. Too crazy. Too unnecessary. Turning away from the cloud and the water tower, I started to make my way back along the ramshackle path I took here. I’d get some sleep and get an early jump on tomorrow, maybe figure things out a little easier with a rested brain. I took one last look over my shoulder and noticed that the cloud wasn’t following.

As soon as I got in the door, I slumped into bed. One week. I slept in late. Extremely late. I even went to bed early and I slept clean through noon. Maybe disappearing an entire city of people takes a lot out of you. The moment I realized how much of the day I had already exhausted, I threw myself back down into the waiting depths of my pillows in anguish. Why was I wasting my day like I always do? I had gone through all the trouble of this plan and I wasn’t even doing anything differently.

Tossing and turning, I fell in and out of sleep throughout the rest of the day. My mind kept wrapping around one thing: the water tower. By the time I had gotten sick of tussling with my sheets, it was dusk. One day, gone. I sighed as I pulled on my hoodie and schlepped myself out the door and down my near-deadly stairs. My brain knew where it wanted to go. I didn’t want to. But I was going.

When I arrived at the base of the water tower, I noticed that the pink cloud was in the exact same spot as last night.

“I didn’t see you today. Was wondering where you were,” I hollered up to the cloud. It floated there with what felt like indifference.

“You know, it’s probably dangerous to be up there. I mean I guess you’re a cloud but…Well, people shouldn’t just be up on water towers, so…”

I stared as the little pink cloud buoyed in the air. Despite being on edge in its presence, it truly was something beautiful. Maybe I was so high-strung about it because I didn’t understand it, or at least didn’t understand what it wanted with me.

Then the cloud began to descend, floating parallel to the ladder and stopping right at the base. I stared long and hard at those first few rungs. I hated this. I breathed in a huge gust of evening air and grasped the ladder. Why was I letting a cloud peer pressure me? Either way, I was doing it. I took another breath and made my way up. I got to the top platform and sat down with my back against the water tower, laughing and shaking from exhilaration, and then stopped when I realized all I did was climb a ladder. Peering out through the spaces around the hand railings, I could see the lights of the city giving false life to the empty streets. Then I looked up and behind me at the bare, barrel face of the water tower. It was like a grimace of construction compared to the white and yellow dots extending out below them. But I felt for it. The pink cloud orbited around my head, and I felt my mind drift.

Being up on the water tower had this weirdly familiar feeling. I started to have visions of a night at my old friend Emerson’s house, the woods that spread behind the property, and this clearing I would go out to with them. There was a rocky sort of canyon near a highway. I held Emerson’s ankles while they shook up a can of pink spray paint and tagged the stony edifice with a big “FUCK IT”, and we laughed maniacally for hours after. Emerson was always so cool. So sure of themselves. Full of angst and full of care. We drifted apart after high school, and I haven’t seen them since I moved away from my hometown. I wonder whatever happened to them?

I woke with a start in the cold breeze of the night. I looked at my phone – 1:30 A.M. How the hell did I fall asleep at the top of a water tower? I started to panic as I looked around, expecting something horrible before remembering that nobody else was there. Nobody else was anywhere for miles. That put my mind at ease for a second, but I decided that it’s better safe than sorry. I scurried back down the ladder and ran home. The pink cloud maintained its orbit around the tower.

Over the next few days, I fell off track. All of my time was spent in my apartment, either wrestling with my bed dressings, skimming unfocused through the tome, or staring at my reflection in the black of the TV screen. I had one week. Now I had five days. Four days. Three days. Why was I so scared to go out now? I kept thinking about the water tower, about the cloud, and most surprisingly about Emerson. Why were they on my mind? I wanted to use this time to clear my head a bit and get a handle on my pre-existing thoughts – whatever those were – not to add more mess to my mind. But there they were, smirking with pride.

There was always something about Emerson that made me feel jealous. I never knew exactly what, and I definitely never mentioned it to them. Right now I wish I had. I’ve always had trouble understanding just what I’m feeling, and I could use any answers I could get. I never really thought I had an issue talking about what’s on my mind, but I guess getting rid of every living thing to be in solitude with my thoughts is evidence enough.

On the sixth day, I was so annoyed at myself that the second I woke up I jumped out of bed and headed out the door to the empty city streets. I had to do something. I was desperate, upset, and felt like a failure. By golden hour tomorrow, everything was going back to normal and I didn’t feel any different, any better. I wasted almost the entire week. There had to be something I could do to salvage this solitude. Why couldn’t I just know what I want? What was wrong with me?

My flurry of worry tensed my entire body up and I had to stop and catch my breath. Huffing, I looked at the shop window beside me. It was a home improvement shop. And there in the window was a line of spray paint cans, lined up in a rainbow. And something in my mind just clicked. My eyes were glassy and transfixed on the can’s simple glossy beauty. My whole body felt like it was reaching out towards them. I saw the pink cloud floating in the reflection of the glass beside me.

Ten more minutes with no other living being in the city. I sat on my bed, grinning. I’d tell you how I did it, but I barely know. My mind throughout the week was a mess, but I started to feel this strength, this clarity, this simplicity, and I just acted. I took a can of pink from the store display. I left cash on the counter. Then I was up on the water tower. That big, ugly, hopeful thumb, waiting to be what I used to believe it was. Waiting to be itself. At first, I didn’t know what I was going to tag. But then Emerson’s smirk filled my mind, and my arm just started moving. It was vibrant. It was simple. I liked it. At the bottom of the ladder, I had looked up to take it all in. The pink cloud had been holding close to me the whole time. But at that moment, with a thought, it hovered no more.

And as I sat on the edge of my bed, I felt something like peace. At the very least, something nice. I squashed all feelings that said I wasted seven days of solitude. Never in my life would I have dreamed of doing what I had done, and there is no way I could have wasted it. I was proud of myself. I closed my eyes and turned my head towards the window as the golden hour washed over my eyelids, preparing for the return. I let out a good sigh, opened my eyes, and beamed at the big, pink Q beaming back at me from the water tower.


BRANDON LORIMER is a writer, musician, and actor from Halifax currently residing in Montréal. He began his writing career with his play Noun, a post-apocalyptic tale of two men surviving and loving in a bleak wasteland. Since then he has worked with multiple playwriting units, including Playwright Workshop Montréal’s Young Creators Unit. He enjoys absurdity, staring at the ocean, and drink too much Arizona.

“Lance” by Shauna Checkley

Illustration by Victoria Alex

Turning over in bed, Jeri-Lynne felt an ache and a grief so deep that she clutched her pillow reflexively. It could pass as his body. Lance. Poor little sweet guy. What had she done?

The night was wild with discontent. Voices babbled and chided. She knew that it was her own silver tongue now grown tarnished. Yet she was unable to stop the deluge of recrimination, the onslaught of regret. The blackness of her bedroom felt evil, hollow.

She clutched the pillow tight.

Seeing Lance and the other lambs herded onto the trailer, the fuzzy, fleecy white blur, continued to replay in her mind. She heard his bleats. She smelled the kicked up dirt, saw that look of confusion. She replayed it over and again like some unwanted rerun. Yet she was only caught within her own conscience, pinned by it as surely as by the bulk in the bed.

Beside her, Larry snored. She felt like punching him or elbowing him at the very least. It wasn’t just that he was disturbing the peace more than ever with his infernal snoring, he did that most every night. But his farmer’s indifference to the plight of little Lance outraged her.

Jeri-Lynne recalled his laughter when she broke into tears at the supper table. Then stormed off. He only became irate when their daughter, Hailey, began to howl from the confines of her high chair. Dribbled spaghetti. Thrown crusts.

But then he never really understood her bond with Lance. To him, Lance was just another lamb from just another ewe. Just another ledger line in his accounts. Money in the bank. That’s all.

The strength of the bond even surprised Jeri-Lynne. A farmer’s wife, she had went through many seasons of calving until the switch over was made to sheep. She had, of course, experienced a wide gamut of animals in her life. Other than her beloved cat Basil, a portly black Tom, that was presently curled at her feet and licking her big toe, she had never bonded with such intensity to another creature. It reminded her almost of her bond with Hailey. That overwhelming maternalism that comes to women sometimes, that lights them within, leaves all aglow.

It went without question that she’d feel that way for her toddler. Even her pet cat. But was it right for her to extend such love and devotion to one of the lambs? Especially a goofy looking one like Lance?

She believed as much. Why not? Lance was a sentient being, a child of God. It entered seamlessly into her mind with a spiritual sort of logic that granted her both the permission and the peace that she craved.

Yet she cringed when she recalled the reaction of Larry’s dad. Old Erv. “You got your wires crossed girl! Go hug your own baby for a change. But then you’re Irish after all, so who really knows?” Then he made that familiar, horrible death rattle in his throat, spit, and wandered off.

Larry wasn’t much better either. Just shakes of the head. Odd bouts of derisive laughter. But mostly he just ignored the cuddling and extra care that she lavished on the lamb, like the baby blanket she placed on Lance as he slept.

Jeri-Lynne knew they all considered her an odd duck. Larry and Erv and possibly the rest of the community of Oracle, that tiny farming town. She was the ill-considered catch of a no nonsense farmer who had married a sentimental, too thin, dance teacher. Tattooed no less. “She loves all those crazy books that she piles everywhere”, Old Erv once remarked as he stared grimly at an unflattering vegan casserole of hers.

She laid in that aching, throbbing darkness.

Lance…My little Lancelot

Without a doubt he was a character from the very beginning, the proverbial runt of the litter who had one folded-over ear.

“Look at that weird one,” Larry remarked when they were out in the barn one day.

Jeri-Lynne giggled when she saw the lamb pop loose from the ewe.

“Yeah,” she agreed.

Yet even a slightly deformed lamb is still a lamb and therefore cute by definition. In fact, Lance’s tininess and funny lopsided ear made him seem all the more endearing to Jeri-Lynne.

She recalled a childhood stuffy of hers, a lamb that went through the washer and dryer one too many times and shrunk and became misshapen. But though it looked slightly askew the stuffy was always still warm to the touch when her mother handed it back to her, and Jeri-Lynne continued to love it. She had only been seven after all, back when the world was fashioned for innocence and love.

Listening to Larry blaring away in the dark served only to fuel her agitation. Why in the hell can’t he wear his breathing apparatus like everyone else with sleep apnea? But he had refused, citing it as unnatural as a condom (another issue that outraged her).

In the early days of their marriage, she feared waking some morning to find him passed away from a heart attack caused by oxygen deprivation. But now she had just accepted it all with a curious resignation, a grim clarity, like awakening to a blue sky. If he croaked, he croaked. Whatever…

Wracked by guilt, feeling paroxysms of grief, Jeri-Lynne stared into a mouth of blackness that threatened to consume her. What have I done? How could I have let Lance go? I should have not let Larry take him to the processing plant. I should have slugged Larry in the gut if need be.

But she recoiled at her own rashness. It’s not Larry’s fault. He is a farmer after all. Animal husbandry is part of the job. Besides, what did I expect when I married him?

Did I really think that seeing Lance off would be a sufficient goodbye? Really? It was probably the very worst thing I could do to myself as now that image is forever seared into my brain. Like some sort of evil farm brand. Who would understand my grief anyways? Probably only my dear friend Clarice.

Jeri-Lynne quietly wept into her pillow. She was careful to keep the volume low so as to not awaken Hailey of all things.

Their fourteen month old toddler was a kitten during the day but a tiger at night. Never waken thesleeping lionhad become the family axiom. For she would emerge from the other side like a beast scorned. Raging her way back into wakefulness, the tiny tot would howl until she was freed from her crib, generally refusing to return back to sleep. Then Jeri-Lynne’s day of stress and boredom would be all the longer.

Hitting a sudden crescendo in his snoring, Larry jerked awake momentarily. Rolled over. Farted. then returned to a seemingly fitful sleep.

Gotta do something! Gotta save him! Gotta get my sweet Lance back!

Grabbing her cell phone which was charging on the night stand beside her, Jeri-Lynne saw that it was midnight. Probably closed until morning unless they run a graveyard shift. She googled the phone number for Thunder Creek Processors and then dialed.

 She listened to it ring and ring.

Ahh fuck, I’ve probably missed them for the day. They are likely closed.

But then the other line answered.

“Good evening. Thunder Creek Processors, Jerry speaking. Can I help you?”

Thank God!

“Hi. My husband, Larry Peterson, dropped off a load of lambs today. But I want to come back for this certain one. I’ll reimburse you the money of course.”

There was a pause. “What?”

“Yes, I know it may sound strange but I’m very serious about this. There is one little boy lamb from the group that we brought in. He is a runt compared to the others plus he’s got one funny, folded over ear. You can’t miss him really. His name is Lance.”

There was another pause. Then Jeri-Lynne heard the other line say in a muffled voice, “There’s some crazy lady on the line. Can you come gimme a hand?”

Crazy my ass! Who are the ones killing babies for a paycheque?

A brand new voice came on the other line, saying, “Hello, Donovan speaking. How may I help you?”

“Well, like I was telling the other guy, my husband dropped off a load of lambs today and I want to come back and get the one. Lance is his name. I’ll refund the money of course. Just please don’t kill him and I’ll be there tomorrow morning with the money.”

There was another long, strained pause.

“Uhh, okay. We might be able to do this?”

Thank God! Oh thank you Jesus!

“But how will we know one from the other?”

“Lance is a boy lamb and a runt. He’s the tiny one in the group plus he has one funny, folded over, lopsided ear. You really can’t miss him, I think.”

“Uh-huh. What was your husband’s name so I can track where he was dropped off?”

“Larry Peterson.”

“Okay, then let me just look this up in the system then.”

Jeri-Lynne was elated not only that the plant had answered the phone. She was also pleased by how agreeable they were with her change in plans. It was going smoothly thus far. And now if they only told her what she truly wanted to hear. That Lance was still alive and intact and hadn’t been slaughtered! Even just the thought of it sent chills down her spine, shock waves through her entire nervous system. Please Lord! Please let him not be processed or whatever euphemism they use for that whole horrible affair!

Bowing her head, she silently prayed, awaiting their response.

Beside her Larry snored.

With one mighty leap, Basil had rejoined them on the bed. She could hear him purring in the dark and welcomed the feeling of him settling once again at her feet. He was fluffy and heavy and warm. His snug little body reminded her of Lance’s even.

“Okay, that load went into pen number twelve and are still in holding. So what I can do is go down and have a look for him and put him in a separate spot. Then you said you’d come pick him up in the morning, right?”

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t worry I’ll be there. My name is Jeri-Lynne and you’re Donovan, right?”

“Correct. Yes, I’ll just be getting off shift at noon. But I’ll see to it that you get the little fella.”

 Jeri-Lynne was ecstatic! She felt a proverbial burden lift like her entire being had been reset.

“You said he was funny looking?”

“Not exactly. He’s just a runt. Smaller than the others y’know. Plus he has that one floppy ear.”

“Okay, stay on the line. I’ll go see if I can pick him out then.”

“Alright, thanks.”

She was on hold for a long time. She lay in the darkness eager and intent. Am I like Jason? Will I get my golden fleece?

Basil was now lightly snoring too.

As she held her cell phone pressed to her ear, Jeri-Lynne began to wonder what she was going to say to Larry? Or worse yet, to Ervin, his father, the retired patriarch that Larry had taken over the farm from.

Old Erv was bound to be annoyed, that was a given as everything seemed to irk him, the weather, the government, the television, whatever vehicle he was driving, the list went on. She had shaky relations with him at best and only by producing Hailey, the light of his grandfatherly life, had she redeemed herself in Erv’s eyes.

Would they erupt on her? Order her off the premises? Would she become one of those bad women kicked off the farm, banished over vice, misappropriation?Everyone heard of the secret drinkers, those guilty of intrigues and infidelity run off either quietly or grandly. But was she a newbreed of farm Jezebel? The one sent away for saving cats, lambs?

She was able to hold her own with Larry. And she was just going to tell Larry that his own father was not allowed to interfere in their relationship and dealings. That’s all. She had made up her mind. She would stand her ground with, Erv, the crazy old codger. In the darkness, a light, a way had emerged. Was it a prayer answered? Could it be God?

“Donovan here,” the voice was back on the other line.

“Yes I believe that I found him. So I put him in a separate pen and flagged him. He’s ready for pick up then.”

Jeri-Lynne cried, “Oh, thank you so very much. I’ll be there to get him tomorrow. Don’t worry.”

“My pleasure. Alright then. Bye.”

“Good night.”

They hung up.

Like that small glow from the night light in Hailey’s room, hope returned to her. Jeri-Lynne smiled, closed her eyes. Thank you Jesus!And thank you too that upon your return, there will be no more killing and death, suffering and disease and aging and sorrow. It will all end with you. Praise the Lord.

Her eyes popped back open.

As beside her Larry threw of body heat like a furnace, she was warmed.

Once agin, she remembered the issue of her husband. What would she sayto him?As it’s not like they discussed her retrieval of Lance or that she was granted permission by Larry, so what would be her defence in the morning light? She stared into the darkness once again. She thought hard.

Listening as the ebb and flow of Larry’s snoring continued; Jeri-Lynne had an epiphany. She devised a plan. I’ll wait until the next time he awakens, then I’ll spring it on him quick. He’ll never knowwhat hit him. Plus he’s likely to just roll over and fall straight back to sleep. I’ll let Morpheus do thetrick.

Waiting somewhat impatiently, Jeri-Lynne rolled over to face her husband. She was reminded of The Flinstones cartoon that she watched every lunch hour while a school girl. Fred and Barney sawing logs. Once again, her thoughts returned to earlier, innocent times.

But then Larry bolted upright in bed as predicted. Awake momentarily, his sleep disorder had thrust him back into the land of the conscious.

“Larry, I’m going to go and get Lance tomorrow. I’ve already phoned the company and it’s all arranged. I’ll pay for him out of my own money.”

Larry didn’t respond. He lay back down dumbly and returned to sleep.

Ah, it’s done! I did it! He can’t say that I didn’t tell him. He was forewarned. Jeri-Lynne instantly felt relieved.

Then she felt deeply tired.

Gotta get some sleep. Nearly a two hundred kilometre trip early tomorrow, with no less than a toddler in tow, she thought, gamely. I’ll have to be up real early to get things going.

So she hugged her pillow and delighted at the silky feel of Basil at her feet. She waited for sleep to come to her too, just like all of the rest.

 Do I need to count sheep tonight? Nah…

Still, she knew that she had only just cleared the first hurdle in the whole Lance odyssey. There will be many other labours to deal with for certain. Larry. Old Erv. Everything will be a heroic feat from hereon in.

She yawned. Slept. Easily lulled into her own mythic underworld, she was.


SHAUNA CHECKLEY lives in Regina, SK with her family and cats. She works at Regina Public Library. She is Disabled. She is heavy into cat rescue.

“Danny” by Michael Formato

Illustration by Victoria Alex

I stood in the threshold between two extremes. On one end was the warmth and comfort of my childhood summer home; inside, my mother and Brady chatted as they finished unsetting the dinner table. I peered in through the glass of the back door and grinned. Brady was commandeering the dirty dishes again, trying his best to politely shoo my mother out of the kitchen, with her having none of it. 

They smiled together.

They enjoyed each other’s company.

How did I get so lucky?

Sensing a set of eyes fixed on him for an extended period, Brady looked up and smiled. My mother followed his gaze and waved when she saw me standing there, beckoning me inside with hand gestures as I imagined coffee and dessert was about to be served. 

I really wanted to step inside and be a part of it. To give my mom a big hug and to kiss Brady like no one was watching. However, like an unbreakable force, I was pulled elsewhere. I held up a finger and nodded, signaling I’d be back in a moment, and turned back out towards the lakefront. 

The water drew me in. Ever since my father passed it seemed like the waterfront called out for me. I lacked the courage to venture out passed the wooden fence separating the backyard and the lake, the lush grass from the cattails and rough sandy dunes. 

For days now, I would stand by the white picket fence to feel the late summer breeze coming off the water. Beyond it lay the shoreline, containing the small rickety dock that bobbed with the current and the tide. It was my father’s favorite place.

I could feel my pulse through my hands as I rested them on the gate, worry and self-doubt flushing through my head and my thoughts. I knew who I would find on the other side, and yet every inch of my body urged me forward; a gentle grip on my collar, a quiet whisper in my ear. 

I let out a long breath as I let the gate swing out in front of me. I left this radiating warmth and traveled with heart racing towards the contrary, through the unpaved trail of gravel and sand.  

The sight of my late father sitting at the water’s edge filled me with dread. Even in passing he sat at his usual spot by the end of the dock, a small pile of skipping stones stacked beside him. The sun had just begun to dip over the horizon, the sky taking on hues of pink and orange across the early evening canvas. I knew that I could always count on finding him here at this time of day, this time of year.

Even in the heat of this midsummer evening, I could see the breath on my lips, reality beginning to fade with each step I took. 

Was I prepared to go through this again?Was I strong enough? I was about to find out. I stepped onto the old dock, my bare feet knocking across the wood as I crossed through the threshold, leaving reality in my wake and delving into memories long repressed. 

The boards creaked and bent beneath my weight. He heard me coming, though he did not turn to greet me. I sat at the edge of the dock next to him, legs dangling over the edge, my toes just kissing the water’s surface. 

We sat for a while, just staring out across the lake. My childhood summers were spent here, amongst nature, the lake, the house, the forests, and the dirt roads. I had grown to love this place more than I loved my own home back then. It was bittersweet being here under these circumstances, but I felt it necessary. Not only for my mother’s sake, but mine as well. I needed to endure this.

“What do you think of Brady?” I asked, the horrible feeling in my stomach rising towards my throat. My father shifted in his old metal chair.

“Seems like a great guy,” he replied eventually. “Good education, a good job… seems like a pleasant person to be around.”

My reflection contorted in the water, shifting to the will of the ebbing tide. “I’m glad,” was all I could muster, my smile lost in the ripples. He picked up a flat stone and tossed it across the water. It skipped a few times before slipping beneath the surface. 

I contoured a rock at the end of the pile, its roughness on my fingers. “I remember when we would sit out here for hours and watch the sunset over the lake. So many good memories.” I launched my stone, achieving a few skips before it sank. I was never good at it.

“I taught you how to do everything here,” my father said. “Taught you how to ride a bike out on the dirt paths, how to navigate the forest on your own, how to throw a baseball.”

“I used to hit you with so many pitches.”

“The patented Danny Beanball,” he remarked. “You were good, though. All those championship years.”

“I still love baseball.”

He nodded. “They still say you went too hard at the family reunion, by the way. Three years later and they still harp on that.”

I laughed. Had it been that long already? That reunion… I hadn’t known it then, but it would be the last time I would talk to my parents face to face for three years. I was twenty-one when I got my first apartment, twenty-one when I made the trip up to that reunion. 

“You told me yourself, Uncle Sal needed to be put down,” I said, digressing from my thoughts.

“He did.” 

Uncle Sal, Aunt Mary, my cousins. They were like my second family up here way back when. I was never bored when they came up to the lake and joined us for the summer. I wasn’t proud of all the perilous adventures and situations we got ourselves into, but Uncle Sal and Aunt Mary were always a lot more understanding when we managed to get ourselves in trouble. 

Another stone skips across the water in my peripheral vision. 

“Taught you how to swim here, too,” my father added. I raised an eyebrow at that.

“That wasn’t teaching. You tossed me in and said good luck!”

It wasn’t as dramatic as I had made it out to be, but as a five-year-old child without his swim floaties, the event was akin to tossing bait into shark-infested waters. 

“That’s how my father taught me,” he said after a while. 

“Times change, Dad.” 

He nodded once with a slight hesitation. 

“They sure do.” He became very still. “Remember the old boat?”

“I can still smell it from memory,” I said. “We caught all our fish on that boat; no wonder it smelled so bad.” I paused, catching a bit of breath, looking back out over the water. “Where isthe old thing?”

“Scrapped it. The repair bills were piling up, probably going to buy a new one this summer — a smaller one, easier to maintain. We can pass by the dealer to take a look tomorrow if you like. Old Robert Lormer still owns the shop. I’m sure he’d get a kick out of seeing you around these parts again after all these years.”

“That would be great. I was thinking about bringing Brady into town to check out all the old sights: the town square, the old church, the diner. Works out perfectly.”

“Church?” he asked, a humored optimism in his tone. I hadn’t been to church in almost a decade. I stopped going, to the initial dismay of my entire family, my father especially. They got over thatpart after a while.

“Not an actual service,” I clarified. “Just to look inside. It’s a small town, not much else to see.”

“Of course.”

We let the subject extinguish itself while I tried to keep the conversation light.

“Remember the big one we caught that one time? The one that was like, this big?” I held out my hands just over a meter apart. He nodded.

“That was the biggest one we ever caught; I think. Fed us for a whole week… That year– that was the year you brought Lisa up to meet us for the first time, wasn’t it? Lisa Hembrick?” I watched a nostalgic smirk waft across his face and hang there, to my subtle discontent. “How old were you? Seventeen? Eighteen? Gosh, it feels so long ago now,” he collected another stone from the pile. “Those were great times. She was a nice girl. Shame that didn’t work out.”

The small smile I had tried to maintain melted away. My father’s comment hit me like a rock to the side of the head. 

He didn’t mean it in that way, I knew he didn’t… but that’s how it felt. 

Like every stone he had been throwing here on this dock had me as its intended target. 

The skippingstonelingered in his hand, his grip beginning to waver before it slipped from his fingertips. It hit the dock with a loud smack and rolled into the water. He stared down on it, the ripples it caused. 

“I’m sorry. That was…”

“It’s okay, Dad,” I replied before he could go any further. His head lowered. 

“He’s a great guy, Daniel… Brady’s a great guy…” He let out those last words while holding back a sob. His whole demeanor had changed from nostalgia to an expression of sorrow, despair. 

“Dad,”

He shook his head, his arms falling limp to his sides.

“Once your mother told me you were coming up here to visit again… it’s been all I’ve thought about. I told myself that after a while… after all these years, things would just… go back to normal again. That all this would just pass. That maybe I would grow to just accept-” He couldn’t finish his sentence. The mere thought of acceptanceacting like a plague on his mind, a poison on his tongue.Tears began to well up in his eyes. I opened my mouth to try and comfort him, to try and speak, but no words came out. 

“Danny, I just wish that…”

My throat began to tighten. I had to turn away as he began to weep, as the tears started to fall. 

“I just want my son back…”

I couldn’t bear to watch him cry. I couldn’t bear to imagine the man that raised me, the man that I lived my whole life trying to live up to, looking at me now with nothing but disappointment in his heart.  

“I’m still here, Dad. I…”

There was nothing I could do to comfort him.

“I’m still me.” 

There was nothing I could say to change how he felt. 

That was the worst part. Watching the words dribble out of the hole in my heart, realizing for the final time that there was nothing I could do. 

“I didn’t change, Dad…” 

The memory shattered. The cold sting in my throat igniting into flame.

I scrambled off the old dock, and back through the threshold, back to reality. 

It was all so clear to me, the trauma, like it had all happened yesterday. 

The weekend I brought Brady home for the first time, the optimism I felt from the progress we made.

The conversation my father and I shared.

The pain I felt.

The realization it was all over. 

A large part of me was cut out and discarded that day, my flesh left to rot on the crumbling remains of that dock with my father still on it. 

Over the years, the hole in my chest was patched up hollow. The helplessness I felt that day, almost five years ago now, turned to indifference. I lived my life, while I left him here to sit and wonder how it all went wrong

And then he died.

Died on the dock, in fact, having suffered a massive stroke.

The thought of my poor mother having to find him out here like that… that broke me. I was only here now to support my mother. To be there for the rest of the family that still spoke to me. It would have been unfair to them if I didn’t come to the funeral, if I didn’t stick around to show I cared for them. They didn’t know the whole story. 

I never told anyone about the conversation. I never told Brady, my mother, the rest of my family… I just let it plague me. I was prepared to bear that burden, hoping that one day he’d come to his senses about Brady and me. That it made no difference who I chose to love.

How naïve I was. 

I felt nothing after he refused to speak to me year after year. I felt nothing when he didn’t show up to my university graduation. I felt nothing when he didn’t even call after Brady proposed to me. I felt nothing as they lowered his body down into his plot, not even relief or liberation. I felt the same way I felt now, staring out across the lake, having relived this trauma. Nothing. 

I stood there, unsure of what I wanted to see, uncertain of what I would say if he were still here now. Perhaps nothing. 

I knelt by the end of the dock, where it was moored to shore by a couple of cinderblocks and towline. I lifted and placed them onto the dock one by one. 

One day. Maybe one day…

I set a foot on the dock’s edge.

Maybe one day I’d return here, to try and pick up the pieces and rebuild this place once again, to rebuild what we once had. But there are only so many times you could put the broken pieces back together. 

There are only so many times I could bear to watch it all crumble at my feet.

There are only so many times I could convince myself that there was something left to salvage.

I pushed.

The dock floated away from the shore, untethered by the weight it now carried. The memories that I left on the dock drifted away into the sunset. 

Even now, despite it all, I wished that once the dust settled, there would still be someone left to save. 

He’ll understand. One day, he’ll understand.


MICHAEL FORMATO is a science-fiction writer from Montreal, Quebec, and a recent McGill graduate in the faculty of Education.

‘How Edwin Discovered Mile End’ by Anne Chudobiak

It had been a favourite topic of discussion at dinner parties throughout the years. They would go around the table and each one of the guests would explain how they had come to live in their Montreal neighbourhood, Mile End. Jen’s story was shorter than most because it was a postscript to Edwin’s. Edwin had phoned her right after he’d signed his lease, the first of his life, and urged her to take his back bedroom. He could afford the rent on his own thanks to his job at the passport office, which he had been able to secure before graduation in a seamless transition from school to real life. The place, a third-floor apartment in an early twentieth-century row house on St-Urbain St., was huge and he would welcome the company. From the payphone in the shadow of the Byzantine dome of St. Michael’s sham-rocked church, he’d told her the impressions that he would go on to share—and expand on—for years. As he’d walked to meet the landlady Vera and her daughter, it had seemed to him as though the entire neighbourhood was present and accounted for, present and accounted for and outside or within easy reach of it: leaning in their open doorways, sitting on their front stoops, calling out to one another from their balconies, in Portuguese, Italian, Greek. After years of living on campus, years that he had thought happy and full, it was a shock for Edwin to walk past a café and realize it was occupied by old men. “All these old guys, arguing and playing cards,” he’d say, whenever it was his turn to tell his Mile End story. “I realized that I missed old people. That I wanted to see old people again.”

That first evening, he’d marveled at the old men’s counterparts, women assembled to examine vegetable gardens encased in chain-link fencing reinforced with chicken wire, shaking their fingers at the cats that dared to slink by. There were other kinds of gardens, too. Over time, Jen and Edwin had tried to identify them all, an endeavour that Jen’s husband Capa who abhorred yard work and never wanted a garden found pointless. Whenever they engaged in it, he would tune out or leave the room. There were gardens that reminded them of forest bottoms, that were populated with moss, ferns or northern blue violets, or some combination thereof. Because these gardens required little care and were well suited to the shady side of the street, they were sometimes chosen by default by unambitious gardeners in search of convenience. They were Jen’s favourite kind, and she maintained that if she ever got a yard, in spite of Capa’s objections, that she would put in one of these gardens, sunny side or not. There were gardens that were more like meadows overflowing with raspberry bushes and tall, friendly, outgoing flowers: orange, red and yellow tiger lilies, black-eyed Susans, and pink cosmos, which, as summer went on, would get heavier or bolder, leaning over the fence and tickling people as they passed by. Vera the landlady had one of these gardens in the front, and that first year her daughter had taught Edwin how to make tinctures from the coneflowers. Edwin still made this tincture, and every year at Christmas, he would give it out as gifts, saying that it was the reason he never had the flu. There were gardens where fences had been removed, so that the same flowers, bushes, shrubs, vines, and fountains could extend one, two, three properties at a stretch. There were gardens watched over by the Virgin Mary in statue or tile form. There were gardens consisting solely of grapevines, potted tomato plants, rose bushes or potted shrubs arranged in symmetrical formations. There were fences draped in morning glories. Everywhere, there were front fences whose wrought-iron spikes bore lost baby items—hats, rattles, shoes—collected from the sidewalk, in the hope that yesterday’s strollers might retrace past steps. There was the odd garden where the owners had devoted themselves to maintaining a patch of suburban grass, no bigger in some cases than the space one might need for three or four graves laid out side by side. These gardens declared themselves with an extra line of plastic fencing or with a sign depicting in words or, worse, images, of a dog or cat in full squat with a line through it, that this was to be a shit-free zone. There were gardens that had been filled in with cement or replaced with interlocking brick. These were usually accompanied by an old man in a fisherman’s cap and with a hose, whose task it was to keep the space free of debris. There were gardens centred on flowering trees, trees that would only flower for a week or two each spring: magnolia, crab apple, lilac. These gardens were the most common of all.

That first night in the neighborhood, Edwin had walked home slowly, trying to take everything in. He had read outside of the church to learn that dome, name, and shamrocks aside, it offered mass in Polish. The church, he would find out, formed the foundation of Vera’s social life. Two times a year, he would host a Sunday lunch for her small circle of friends, mostly women and a dwindling number of men, who would take refuge in one another, smoking cigarette after cigarette under Vera’s beloved ash tree. That first evening, he had continued down the street, where he had passed a temple to Indian guru Sri Sathya Sai Baba. Incense wafted out of the temple’s open doors. Edwin recognized the soapy smell; the incense was popular with the girls in residence. Soap and cigarette smoke, that was the smell of the women of his youth, perhaps the last generation of women for whom this was true. On the same block was a Chinese Buddhist church and something called a mikvah, which Edwin would learn, was a ritual bath used by the area’s Hassidic Jewish women. On his way to the apartment, he had walked up Hutchison St., where he had seen other signs of this observant religious community: Men whose beards, side curls, and long black coats would not have looked out of place in an Eastern European village centuries before. Women in wigs and Jackie Kennedy suits, rushing. Children, so many of them. Big sisters helping little ones across the street. Boys on scooters. Girls playing schoolyard jumping games. Toddlers entrusted to stand on the sidewalk on their own.

Edwin left the street for a back alley. The back yards were not as ornate as the front. There was a frugality about them, as though it would have been shameful to spend money on one’s backyard even if one had the means. Some were given over to parking lots. One had a VW Bug resting on cinder blocksMany were used to store unwanted furniture, shelves, coffee tables, couches, and ottomans. There were plastic dining tables plunked amongst the weeds, with an overflowing ashtray as the only adornment. There were back shed fire escapes covered in tin that themselves looked like fire traps. On every pole, an abandoned bicycle. In some cases, these bikes had been smashed up or harvested for parts but remained locked. “I will buy a bike,” thought Edwin, who had never needed one, or even to use public transit on a regular basis, as he’d always been so close to all his destinations while living on campus.

That July, Edwin assembled a team—for him, assembling a team had always been easy—to help him move his and Jen’s possessions into the apartment, where he showed off its many features: the clawfoot tub, the stained glass windows and the intact fleur-de-lis pattern on the lower half of the original plaster walls.

Edwin had been in the same apartment ever since. He had developed a symbiotic relationship with Vera. Her age was a secret, but for years, it had been estimated at 90-something. Edwin cleared her pathway of snow. He brought her paper in the morning. He helped her to the taxi when it was time for her to go out on one of her rare outings beyond the church. He repainted the front stairs. He helped one of her nephews redo the front windows with EnergyStar panes. When it was time to order more fuel oil, he made the call and led the workmen to the tank. He also paid the bill for them both. Vera, in turn, granted him full access to her backyard vegetable garden. She allowed him to renovate his kitchen to accommodate a six-burner range. She even made arrangements in her will so that the next owners of the triplex would inherit Edwin as well. When Jen learned that, she knew that she would never leave the neighborhood either.


ANNE CHUDOBIAK lives in Montreal. Her work has appeared in the Montreal Gazette, the National Post, McGill News Magazine, VIA Destinations Magazine and the Montreal Review of Books.

Copyright © 2020 by Anne Chudobiak. All rights reserved.

 

‘What is Love and Where Does it Come From?’ by Kathryn Malone

Sarah bit her lip, not out of pleasure but out of the need to steady herself so she did not dart for the door. She was a willing participant and dutiful wife now, but everything felt empty and forced. It was more like a slow-motion attack rather than a celebration of love. She felt like she should be making eye contact, but it seemed like it would make the situation real and somehow even worse. She breathed a slight sound of acceptance. If it became any louder, she feared he would know that she was a prisoner of this marriage and now her own body. She peered up out of the corner of her eye and saw, not a man but a frightened animal, panting and glaring, not at her but at some nearing enemy that knew his form and his secrets.

Michael paced the room, stared at the open window as if it were the window to another world where he was the norm and his parents were the freaks. He was feeling everything and nothing all at once. He looked like the 1950s sculpture of a man, but he felt like a scared kid at a sleepover who was the only one who could hear the monster in the closet, and knew it was biding its time before it announced itself in the flesh. Just then there was a knock at the door.  Not an entrance, but a knock, someone was on the other side also biding its time. Michael cleared his throat and walked to the door. He opened it with sweaty palms, and the door floated open. There, there was the monster and the most beautiful sight imaginable. Michael started to breathe heavily and looked down at the monster’s shoes. “Michael,” spoke the monster, “I think you need to let me in.” He began to cry and shake. “Steven, you need to leave.” Steven walked through the door and closed it behind him. He didn’t wait for Michael to look up, he put his face in his hands and gave him a kiss with such gentle passion that you would swear you could hear a movie overture filling the room, defining a moment that was years in the making. Michael had no more fight in him. He let himself be ignited with a fire that felt so natural and exquisite that he wondered how it could be possible in a world as fake as the one he existed in.

Sarah smiled a natural smile and took Seth’s hand as she stepped over the uneven rocks covered by the darkness of the night sky. The moon was hiding itself and not showing anyone the way home this night. Sarah did not mind at all. The world’s greatest pleasures hid themselves under the disguise of a starless, moonless night. Seth never let her hand go even when the rocks were smooth and flat. Sarah felt her heartbeat in a way that was unfamiliar, and she felt warm, in fact, warmer by the minute which did not make sense in light of the chilly wind coming off the water. Her stomach was a-flutter and her hand became sweaty in the palm of Seth’s hand. It was the strangest thing. It felt almost as if the two were connected. Her heartfelt so vulnerable from the cool feel of Seth’s skin and the rhythm of his pulse. The ground became grass and dirt as she saw a small cottage coming into view. Seth shone the flashlight on to the porch. “There it is.” He looked right into her eyes and smiled.  Sarah smiled back, a seductive smile. She didn’t know she had one. Nonetheless, it just kept creeping onto her face.

Michael sat unimpressed and bored at the rehearsal dinner. He could barely pull off his fake smile as the corny jokes circled the table. He looked over at Sarah, poor simple Sarah who didn’t know the difference between life and obligation. They hadn’t spoken a word to each other all evening. Well, other than a casual greeting and, of course, brief introductions of each other’s distant family at the beginning of the meal. It should bother him, but it actually struck him as perfect. She had Seth, her best friend, and soul mate whether either of them knew it, and he had Steven, his long- time football rival and best friend. As long as both of them were distracted, neither would feel the need to mention that the marriage was a sham. That seemed to go for the rest of the wedding party as well. Michael cackled to himself. My God! What a bunch of fucking idiots!

Sarah could not stop staring at Seth. It was as if she had never really looked at him before.

Maybe, it was really because she had never been allowed to look at him that thoroughly before. Other than him being a poor educator of limited means (according to her parents), there was also the matter of his wife, Marianna, she had been at so many gatherings with them, but not this one and the party was definitely much better without her. There is nothing really wrong with Marianna, but there is nothing really right. Perhaps her mother should be ill more often. Seth smiled at her and tapped her hand. Sarah’s heart skipped a beat. God, she thought, I wish he would hold it.

Michael lay content on the football field, breathless and sweaty. Steven looked down at him laughing. Everything in life could be solved with a good game between friends. Steven calmed himself and looked off into the distance. Michael, all of a sudden felt lonely. He craved warmth in the chilly night air. Steven remarked on the fact that it was a moonless night and said something about a story where monsters roam during such times. Michael felt an ache in his body: it was in his heart this time. He caught Steven’s eye. It wasn’t just physical anymore. Steven looked back at him breathing heavily. They couldn’t hide from it. Michael opened his mouth to speak and Steven softly spoke, “I love you, Michael.”

Sarah was on the verge of tears. Seth shut the door behind him. “I love you, Seth.” Seth turned around. Now they were face to face, no more hiding, no more denying. Sarah burst into tears, “I have loved you, my whole of my life. Even before I knew you, and now especially now because I do.” Seth was shaking. He was white as a ghost. Sarah was so scared. “I know I am not a good person. I know that your wife is and that what I am saying is adding more destruction into a flawed world. Seth, if I continue to lie, and pretend that you are just my good friend and that I don’t lay awake at night wondering what it would be like if you looked at me, the way you looked at her, then I won’t be a person anymore. My last truth, my last connection to the human race is the way I love you and the way I am willing to leave you if you don’t feel the same.”

Michael started to get up but Steven got down on his knees so they could be face to face, without any distance or way to escape. The way they looked at each at that very moment, you could have sworn it was possible to hold another person without touching.

Sarah couldn’t stand the sound of the desperate silence and bolted so hard at the door she could have gone through it. She was stopped. Seth stopped her with his body. She could have passed out. She had never been this close to him before. His hand brushed her cheek then circled the edges of her lips. She ran her tongue along his finger, as his other hand brushed her thigh and went on to outline her entire body. She felt her body blush and she shivered with the anticipation of how it would feel when their lips finally touched.

Sarah and Michael stared at each other and repeated words in a stale sophisticated fashion.  This was no theatrical event, but the rows of shallow boring onlookers didn’t notice. You have to care about something other than yourself to notice when two incompatible souls come together and promise to be miserable for all eternity. This had all the passion of a nineteenth-century royal wedding, for you see as long as there will be an heir, and the evidence of a brief connection, no one will ask any questions. Their parents were elite members of society for the 1950s and they were excellent business people. Things had to seem perfect for them, the type of perfection society could admire.

The day continued in a blur for Sarah and Michael, because nothing really mattered. They had both experienced a full life. They had both known friendship and passion that turned into love and now the next chapter was about to begin, a chapter of duty and family. For the loves of their lives had families of their own and not the courage to choose a better path.

“Michael, STOP!” Sarah rolled out of his grasp. Michael froze then started crying. Sarah started crying too. They looked at each other and saw the other for who they really were. “Michael, I am very sorry this happened to you. I am sorry you don’t get to spend your wedding night with the love of your life.” Michael looked away, he kept crying. He was trying to be reasonable, but he couldn’t find a reasonable thought. Sarah took a deep breath and began to put her clothes on. Michael continued to cry. Sarah went one step further and began to pack. Michael took notice and found his voice, “Sarah, I am sorry, and we can work something out.” Sarah silently packed up her clothes, then her shoes, and then everything else until anything that had her essence was neatly contained. She looked over at her wedding dress hanging in the closet. Sarah cleared her throat, “That would look really nice on my sister if she doesn’t mind second hand.  See that my parents get it, it was very expensive.” Michael looked shocked. He stood up so quickly he almost fell. “Sarah, it’s not ideal, I know . . .

“You are right, it’s not and it’s supposed to be, so I will be the hussy. I will be the disloyal whore that runs off into the night and you will be the sympathetic saint who didn’t know what hit him.” Sarah, with a suitcase in hand, walks over to Michael. She kisses his cheek and whispers in his ear, “Don’t let a group of shallow idiots decide who will be the love of your life and where your life will lead.” Michael, still too shaken to smile, gives a nod. He steps out of the way so Sarah can leave through the door. Sarah enters the hallway and stops just as she is about to shut the door. She smirks and says “Knock ‘em dead.” Michael manages a smile, “Same to you.”  And the door glides to a close.

 


KATHRYN MALONE is a playwright and actress who lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick.  She has a BA in English and a Concentration in Drama from St. Thomas University.

Copyright © 2020 by Kathryn Malone. All rights reserved.

‘For a Friend’ by Roxanne Claude

The winds here are charged, tensed and pressing against the maple barks. They themselves are holding onto the afternoon sun, anything and something to carry them through the unforgiving season to come. It is fall here, but clearly harsher than the falls in the cities. Every snowflake here seems to be larger, rounder. Its bulk settles on the branches before the afternoon rays are due to melt it away. The quiet amplifies the cold. The silence is not simple but deep and layered with the noise of troubled creatures not yet having found shelter before the first storm to arrive.

The snow has fallen briskly today, covering the ground, although not enough to hide all embers of the last summer. Despite the barren patches, the forest stands tall and rooted in the mountains. The mountains carry the dry land with frankness, with bluff –proud of the tragedy, prouder of the fight and the ultimate conquer of the fire. It carries the dug trenches as pearls, necklaces to be worn in glorious fashion. As the wild creatures step and crack the fallen branches, those too strong to burn, the noise echoes through the forest. It adds to its song of resiliency, its song of demure and tender beauty.

A house stands alone among the snow and ash. The mountain behind acts as a backdrop, too pretty to not be a painting hanging in a museum. The house is simple, even a little stale. There are no flowers left in the ceramic crocks. They were wilted by the morning frosts. The garden, or what was left of it and put back together, was picked dry. The marmalades of Saskatoon berries made it into jars, subsequently to delight the palette of young grandchildren. This house is not precious and there stands no reasonable explanation as to why it was saved. However, it was the will of the mountain to save this land, this house. Mother Edith’s soul said it would be so.

This house is not precious. The wood stove was salvaged and rusted on the legs. The floors creaked. The walls, timbered logs, let in morsels of cold air during the nights. There would be bunk beds in the corner of the cabin, with mattresses lifted and leaning against the walls at the end of summer. There would be no linens. Grandmother took them with her for a good washing. There was an outhouse, long gone now since the fires. There were no remains of swings, no remains of carvings in the barks, those indicating young love. The young love was now long gone too, having faded with every blink of the eye.

There stands a girl, a woman in fact. Her feet were tired and sore after the quarter day hike up the rock. She followed the burn path up. This place seemed so different now. The cabin, the home, she looked at did not feel like a home now. It was much smaller than in her memories and she was much older than she thought she would be revisiting it. She hoped to cry in awe seeing the cabin, to feel a shiver down her spine, but all she felt was the cold against her aging cheeks. Her freckles are the same as they were back then, speckles like on a Bar at the Folies-Bergères. Her blonde hair, now long, looked different than back then. The strands are no longer seasoned with dirt and sap. Her hair no longer smelled like glacier rivers, the same ones she would bathe in as a child.

The evening is settling into the crevasses of the mountains. Soon it will be dark, a blinding darkness that penetrates the soul to make it quiver and taut the hairs at the back of the neck. The woman approaches the cabin, expecting an epiphany or something of the sort. All that happens is the noise beneath her feet. The cracking of pinecones resonates through the air, adding to the symphony of wolves in the forest below and the bear bells around her waist.

She opens the plain door, past the enclosed porch, to a plain room, one that she remembers well. There are no more photographs or needle points on the wall. They had been all taken down by her mother once the sale of the property had gone up.

The woman passes her hand along the log walls. It feels rough and lacquered, just as she remembers. This house is not precious, but the memories within are. Her life is not simple as this space is. Her life is scheduled yet hectic. Her life is expensive cafes, soft clothes, and warm cars. Her life is manicured, well thought out and precise to the word. She is not wild as the fires were. She is not stoic as the cabin is. It stands alone on barren land, on flowerless land. Although a sheet of white covers the metal roof, she senses the rust and the rivets holding the structure together. She feels the strength of the timber, holding steady. The mountain too is hardy and unyielding. Why is she not?

Darkness looms around the corner, behind the distant trees and their needles gently swaying in the wind. She throws timber in the stove and lights it with eight-dollar matches, packaged afar and sold in a high-end clothing store as kitsch. The room grows empty and dark. The only thing that remains are the bunk beds, they had been built into the frame of the cabin. There were no mattresses, only solid boards to lay her sleeping bag on.

It would be rough sleeping, but it would be honest. She settled herself in, her mind as blank as the dark sky. The corners of the cabin were dark and haunting. She stayed by the warmth of the fire, trying to put pen to paper. She did not know what the words would turn into as she held the tip of the pen to the page. Nothing came spewing out of it. Nothing. She was dry.

She looked into the fire for inspiration, some sort of sense of self. She looked for the spark she had lost, consumed by the idea it fell out of her pocket on her last journey away from this very place. It was the moment she would never return to, an era forever lost and rushed too quickly. She was a child, now forever a woman, never to return to the state of pure happiness and innocence of the mountains. She shed a tear looking into the flames that gave her no inspiration. They only gave her sadness. She watched the fire die and turn into crackling embers, begging to soar highly just once more.

Silence encapsulated her. She felt like a little girl again, but not the one she was before. She was not carefree and running around the stumps of tress or throwing water balloons at her cousins behind the shed.

This woman is curled inwards, towards her spine and rests in a place of loneliness and defeat. She had no reason to be, as she had love and empathy towards her fellow woman. She felt low, in a place she had too often been before, driven by the demons in her head. The uselessness amplified, the demonstrative need to succeed, everything she wanted to be but was not. It all lay underneath her, rocking her to sleep as the demented lullaby she knew all too well.

Sleep would come to this woman, painfully, but it would come. It was a dreamless sleep, perhaps driven by the negative thoughts or it could have been the cold. She would convince herself it was the latter, if only to ignore the fact that her feelings of inadequacy were indeed within her.

It may be all too easy to blame it on every dirty finger creeping up the skirt. To blame the sadness and the emptiness on the cracked jaw and the bruised knees would be tempting. But she is woman. A woman is meant to thank every punch and every playful slap. She is meant to bury her blood and speak of it nevermore.

With every step she takes, she sinks a little more into the dirt, weighed down by every terrible thought and image. Here she is. Alone once more to face the demons. She fights with no sword and no bullets in her gun. She fights bare-knuckled against a wall, built by her own calloused hands.

Behind every glass of wine stood a reason. A reason for her to be small, unforgiving, and cruel. It is exhausting to hurt, to weep. With every tear cast off, the voices in her head become louder. They shout at her temples, the curses and harsh sentences reverberating against her skull.

She awoke to the bells in her head. It was still dark. No sunlight would creep through the frosted windows. The air was intense and icy. As she reached for a log next to the stove, she heard it.

It was a humming.

And then it stopped. She looked around her. Nothing had changed, nothing had moved. The humming resumed. It was a low humming, the sort that was unnoticeable and unremarkable unless paid attention to. It was much like her.

Her bare feet slipped out of her down sleeping bag and she gently returned the log to the ground next to the stove. The cold nipped at her toes, almost like a playful tickle. She rose to her feet, her body motionless while her ears focused around the room. The sound came from outside. It was tempting and precious.

Her legs led her to the door as she pushed the panel outwards. The forest presented itself as a picture, perfectly framed by the edges of the covered patio. Suddenly, it was dark no more. The trees were not lifeless as they were this past evening. They were lush and full of adventures. The smell of lunch tempted children back to the homestead, even though the mountain would eventually entice them again every afternoon.

The woman stepped down from the patio. Her feet felt cold, piercing and blood-rushing cold but the sun was out. It was bright and warm upon her skin. She saw the flowers in the painted crocks blooming, their fragrance would fill the air and be carried off by the soft winds to the peaks. She heard the humming once more. It was soft and childlike. She looked behind her.

A little girl sat of the steps, pulling the petals of a black-eyed Susan. Her eyes were downcast, but her slight grin showed her to be at peace. She was small, with freckled skin, blonde hair and dynamite blue eyes. Content in her ways, the girl looked up at the sky and smiled.

The woman looked up too, but in a blink, it was dark once more. She stood on frozen tundra looking at the sky as her toes turned blue.

It was illuminated with thousands of stars and the brushstrokes of the aurora; a light show just for her. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she watched the sky sway and as the harsh wind tickled her sockless ankles. It was too early in the season for such a beautiful display of nature, but the mountain said it should be so. The mountain knows the troubles of those who love it dearly, keeping the rocks in their hearts to carry the memories around the globe. For in each travel, each step away from its base, the mountain knows the pain and sorrow she carries in her pockets.

The mountain is strong, robust yet kind and warm. It is a place to forgive and to offer the little tragedies a place to stay. For they shall not be forgotten but healed in this sacred place. For she is a woman who was once a child does not mean that the spark has since disappeared. Because a woman retains the fire, burying it deep within the soul, ready at any moment to awaken the senses. Even burned to a crisp, the trees hold steady onto the preciousness of a light soul. Each branch is ready to reveal secrets, once lost but now found.

She cries a little more until the peaks are illuminated from behind. She feels lighter, not healed but lighter. She walks towards the cabin. Perhaps this cabin is precious, she thinks. As the ink bleeds onto the paper, creating words of quaint reassurance, she writes. What she writes of is dear to her, an offering from the mountain and her as a messenger. What she writes may be fiction or truth. It may come from within her or simply stolen from what the wildfires left behind.

The woman folds the pages neatly and with intent. She is numb when sealing the envelope. She places it on the now cold stove.

As she walks away from the cabin, all possessions in tow, she smiles and enjoys every single step down to the village below. She hums with the marmots, common butterworts and the wolves, each adding a melody to the majesty of the orchestra.

Following a burnt forest trail stands a home, a beating heart. For each sadness offered in earnest to the sierra, a flower blooms under the ashes. In this land stands a friend, a confidant that tells no lies. Peace is often far-reaching, an unattainable treasure. Put on a pedestal and protected with glass walls, this peace needn’t be so dramatic. Forgiveness is found in crevasses and unassuming curves of the river. Love is found in the winds and carried wherever one goes. All tears shall eventually be swept away by the glacier falls and offered to another. Every dark sky is illuminated, even with just one lonely star.

On a stove in the woods rests a sage green envelope. This letter, written in sober peace, is offered and addressed to a friend.

 


ROXANNE CLAUDE was born in Pembroke, Ontario. Roxanne now lives with their partner and two dogs in Camrose, Alberta and works full time as a Paramedic.

Copyright © 2020 by Roxanne Claude. All rights reserved.

‘The Trailcam’ by Matt Poll

Trailcam

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

“Someone…yes, someone smashed our trailcam,” Pia said, holding up a shard of brown plastic.

A breeze tousled the silver birches that loomed above the trail, provoking a flurry of golden autumn leaves. The leaves flipped and glided among the two bird researchers.

“Damn, that’s the second one now. We had one go missing last month up by the platform, right before you arrived. The straps on that one looked like they were cut with a blade,” Teemu said, then directed his gaze downwards, “…and they left no tracks. They’re pretty good.”

Teemu, the lanky Finnish bander-in-charge, crouched to examine another piece of the camera.

“Whoa. So who do you think is doing this? Are there poachers up here?” Pia pushed a lock of bronze hair behind her ear and looked down the trail with a spooked expression.

“No, I mean, yes, there are poachers in Finland, for sure. But over on this side of the mountains, there just isn’t much to poach, as far as game birds or animals with good fur on them. I’ve never heard of poachers here working at catching our birds, the songbirds we work on here. Too small, no meat.”

“That’s really creepy. And what about the Mistle Thrush that Dawn banded yesterday? I wanted to ask you about that. Have you ever seen anything like that? Could that be related to the trailcam?”

“The one with the little splint on its wing? No, never saw that before. That was much stranger than the trailcams — the bones in the wing were set perfectly like a vet did it. But no vet —“ Teemu looked up and exhaled from puffed cheeks.

“But no vet would use those tiny little bits of wood for a splint?”

“That’s right. It was woven wicker. And the splint was fastened with that strange cording. Dawn thinks it was wool made from thistledown. Who does that? Such a tight little braid, don’t know who could have done that, or why. Maybe it’s related to the trailcam, maybe not,” Teemu said.

“Maybe it was the gnomes and elves!” Pia giggled.

Teemu’s face remained sombre.

“Well, we don’t joke about them, especially up here in the north. You know, the majority of Scandinavians believe in them. The invisible eyes. The small ones. We call them Tonttuhere in Finland. There are good ones and bad, many different types, just like birds.”

Pia furrowed her brows suspiciously.

“Riiiight.”

She nudged the cracked remnants of the camera casing with her foot, then stooped and retrieved something from the leaf litter.

“Oh-ho! Looks like we have a forgetful vandal. He left the memory card,” Pia said with a smile, holding the card up high like a football referee.

****

Pia, Teemu, and Dawn crowded around Teemu’s laptop on a tattered couch. The research shack was cramped and basic, but the international team of bird banding volunteers had been working well together in the remote wilderness of northern Finland, in spite of the First-World ordeal of a spotty Wi-Fi signal.

The sky outside the large main window was a profound black, and the swish of the pines was picking up in the onshore wind. A slim shaving of moon flickered on the fjord a kilometre down the hill.

Teemu queued up the files on the memory card to play all eight of the previous night’s motion sensor-activated video clips. The first two showed a Eurasian Red Squirrel bumbling past in the background. The third clip featured a spotty Mistle Thrush kicking over leaves, while the fourth also briefly showed a squirrel, this one sniffing near the camera in failing light. The last few clips showed movement but were too dark and brief for the researchers to make out on the first play.

“Replay it Teemu, that one, and can you slow the — oh Jesus!

Something cracked off the corrugated outer wall of the shack with the force of a gunshot. The researchers all flinched, then tensed. Teemu held a finger to his lips and stood to peer out the window into the gloom. Visibility ended several paces beyond the front steps.

“It’s OK guys, just a branch falling, it’s windy,” Teemu rasped in a voice that betrayed his uncertainty. He sat back down and played the last four video files again, this time at one-quarter speed.

Dawn jabbed the screen with her finger.

“There! Do it again slower, and pause it. Frame by frame if you can.”

Teemu restarted and paused the video file, then brightened the screen to compensate for the almost complete lack of light in the clip, which was taken at dusk. The front half of a Siberian Chipmunk was visible peering from what looked like a rough cloth sack, and very clearly, one of its front paws had a tiny wooden splint fastened to it.

“Same thing! That chipmunk has the same splint like the Mistle Thrush I banded yesterday! Someone is out here fixing up small animals!” Dawn blurted.

The next clip elicited gasps. It showed a pair of stumpy hands reaching and coaxing the chipmunk out of the sack, after giving the splint a final adjustment. Then the chipmunk and the hands were gone from view.

“Did you see how small those hands were?” Dawn said and poked the screen again.

“A woman?” Teemu offered, then used his sleeve to wipe the screen where Dawn had touched it.

“No way. That’s a kid. Those hands were super small,” Pia said, “…play the last ones, Teemu. This is crazy.”

The next clip was even darker than the previous ones. Only several frames were lit. Teemu paused the video as something passed close in front of the camera and looked right into the lens. The researchers squinted closer until all three realized together with a jolt that it was a human face.

“Christ!” Dawn said, “…it looks like an old hippie!”

The blurred face on the screen was that of a bearded older man whose face rippled in a knowing, friendly grin. He sported what looked like a rumpled felt cap.

“Wow. This guy, maybe some kind of old veterinarian who’s gone hermit,” Pia said, absently looking at the screen, “…a midget vet.”

“Yeah, I guess. Here’s the last one,” Teemu said.

The last frame before the camera had been destroyed showed the face back away from the camera.

“Wait, how small is that face? Look how small it got just there at the end.”

“That was blurring I think. It’s a perspective thing because the face was close to the camera,” Teemu said.

“No way, that face was too small, he’s a dwarf or something. Holy smokes, I’m gonna put this online when we get a signal. This will go viral, a midget vet in the woods,” gushed Dawn.

Pia added: “Dawn is right. I agree about the perspective, but at first, the face looked much bigger than it is because it was right up against the lens, but when it backed away —“

A loud clang outside the shack made the trio jump again, but they settled quickly as the familiar sound told them that Hanno had returned a day early with the supplies. Hanno was the caretaker of the Sami tribal land the research station was on and was busy replacing the station’s large gas canister.

****

The stocky Hanno pushed the door open and dropped two large bags of food onto the table.

“Hello. Gas is changed. Here is your food.”

The brusque Laplander pointed his chin at the laptop and gave an inquisitive grunt.

“Hi Hanno. Thanks so much for the food run, we were running low. That there on the screen is someone we think has been tampering with our research cameras. And maybe he’s been caring for animals too, healing them. Do you know him? He would be quite a short fellow,” Teemu said.

Hanno stepped closer to the screen and frowned, as the weather outside took a turn. The wind suddenly bent the treetops, and a weighty rain clattered on the roof.

Hanno let loose a breathless diatribe in Finnish and stabbed accusatory fingers towards the three researchers, and the laptop. The three cowered on the couch, as the wind redoubled its fury. What sounded like hail began to crackle against the research station. Hanno finished with a quiet sentence and calmly pulled the memory card from the laptop. He turned and plucked the tiny wicker and thistledown splint from where it sat on the window ledge, then exited the cabin.

A bewildered silence hung in his wake. Dawn finally spoke up as the winds outside ebbed.

“What did he say?”

Teemu took a deep breath, then spoke with a thin voice, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“He…said that we have encountered an Uldra, which are a kind of…Tonttu, ehm…gnome, as you would say, that in fact live up here in the north. He said that the Uldra, and the other twilight beings, well he said that unlike us, they all speak the language of the animals, and know about their problems. He said they care for the animals, as we saw. He ended by telling us that if the Uldras are mistreated by people, that disasters can occur. So we should leave them alone, is what he said, and Lapland and Finland will remain a happy place.”

“He said all that?” Pia whispered.

“He did.”

****

The researchers huddled in the doorway and found that the weather had eased abruptly — not a puff of wind — leaving the trees around them picture-still. The moon shone with a diffused brilliance that illuminated the woods around them so brightly that it looked like the light of the gloaming.

The top of Hanno’s colourful hat could be seen as he bobbed his way back down the trail to the fjord. He was humming a melody that sounded like the tentative first notes of a dawn chorus. A Robin’s chuckle replied from the underbrush, perfectly on key and in time with the Laplander’s refrain. This was soon joined by several Fieldfares and an assortment of other songbirds. Then, dozens of human-like voices chimed in from the surrounding forest, adding a dreamy, melancholic falsetto to the most exquisite song the researchers had ever heard.

 


MATT POLL has spent most of the past decade lurking in the bushes in South Korea and has written a memoir about the shenanigans involved with being a foreign birdwatcher there. He has also started writing a series of supernatural stories about birding, as well as a thriller/fantasy novel set on Korea’s DMZ.

Copyright © 2020 by Matt Poll. All rights reserved.

 

‘Encounter’ by Jaco Fouché

Encounter.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Some years before, I had moved to a coastal town thinking that fortune smiled on writers in picturesque places. But after much time had passed, I was in a bad state. I had hardly any friends. Writing no longer interested me. I wasn’t working at a proper job which contributed to my condition. There was a lot of time to waste fretting about old regrets and fears of the future.

So I slept. And dreamt. There was one in which I wandered into a vast building visiting room after room on floor after floor. I could never leave it. I’d wake up with a feeling of searing regret, something that some prisoner might feel, but that did not stop me from turning over for more sleep.

I slept at night, I slept in the mornings. In the afternoons I got up to go to the shops, or with effort write one of the stories that were my mainstay at the time. In the evenings I’d watch television before once again falling asleep.

One day I awoke early from a bad dream. In it I had decided enough was enough, I could no longer bear my own history, I couldn’t stand my own feeble attempts at art. I saw that it had all rushed away from me, everything that constituted a good and meaningful life. What was left to do? I had literary visions of the windswept cliffs the town was famous for. Perhaps I’d gain something like insight or guidance from the gulls and water and bracing sea air.

I dressed and ventured into the strange chilly morning, walking along the badly lit streets to the beach where I stood looking out over the bay.

There were other people there; old people, happy people. So happy did a particular group of three of them seem where they stood at the top of the stairs leading down to the sand that I walked over.

“Morning,” a bald man said, “are you joining us?”

“Yes, do,” a woman said.

All three of them had with them some baggage that made me ask:

“Are you planning a picnic?”

“No, we’re going swimming, of course,” the bald man said.

“Good grief,” I muttered, as to me it was a cold day. They laughed in delight at this. I said I was going for a walk.

“Before work?” the woman asked.

“Work, with that head of hair?” the third man said skeptically. I hadn’t had a decent haircut in a long time.

“I’m self-employed,” I said. I walked some distance along the path from where I could watch them put down their baggage, take of some clothes, and in their bathing costumes go into the water.

There must have been ten of them in the early light, their forms cutting into the backdrop of small white breakers rolling into the shallows. The bald man and his female companion turned and looked in my direction. Were they discussing me? Beyond the breakers, the water was darker but beyond that, across the bay, the sun was rising behind a great bank of clouds.

How beautiful all this was, I told myself. Why wouldn’t I do things like this more often? But I knew the next day would come and I might wake up only to turn over and sleep. I was stuck in something I couldn’t clearly explain. Still, this particular morning was happening and I decided to make good use of it, and followed the path through rocks and milkwood trees. It was wonderful to be out in the chill and the noise of the sea, water churning white against the rocks.

After a while, I returned to the beach where the bathers were leaving the water and heading for their towels and warm clothes.

“Oh, wasn’t that splendid,” the bald man said on noticing me.

The woman nodded and said, evidently for my benefit, “I’d suggest that even the younger generation might have use of such an experience.”

I remained standing there, drawn by their warmth. The bald man produced a half-bottle of sherry from his bag and grinned at me. “How about a toot now,” he said. We drank in turn, small polite sips which were more about the company than anything else.

“What work do you do?” the man asked.

“Writer,” I muttered. “Nothing you would’ve read.”

“I say,” the man said to me, “I hope you don’t think I’m prying, but is everything all right? There’s something about you, some malaise.”

“Yes, and you seem overdressed for the beach,” the woman said kindly. “This isn’t just a walk you’re taking, is it?”

There was very little I could think of to say to that so I laughed as carelessly as I knew how. We drank some more of the sherry, which filled me with warmth as much as did my companions.

“You know,” the bald man said, “fifty years ago I had a head of hair like that.” The woman laughed. The man stroked his pate and looked out over the sea, which had grown much lighter. “I’d just started a business. Construction. Things were great. The economy was strong, my timing was right. I was doing well. Then I got a diagnosis. I was told I had months to live. So I closed my business and moved back in with my folks. I didn’t do anything but read. After some time I’d worked my way through the Waverley Novels, the James Bonds and about half of the Canadians and my dad asked me, ‘So when do you plan to die?’ And I realized even if it was happening any day now, I might as well go out and face life. I went back into construction, got married, had a family, lost my wife, saw my grandkids grow up. Then I met this one. All that in fifty years.”

“And I met you, John,” the woman said softly and then to me, “It’s true it’s not all about good times. Sometimes you have to accept what’s downright bad too. Long ago when I was in my late forties I felt very alone. My kids were grown, my husband had left me. I moved to another town and worked there. I met a man who I had my doubts about. He wasn’t working, but he claimed to be looking for a business to buy and run. After a while, he was still looking and talking about it and living with me. I told friends that even if he was a swindler, at least I would have had someone in my life for a while. But sure enough, I eventually had to accept that he was simply a layabout and a braggart. One day I drove him to the station and bought him a ticket to a town on the other side of the country. He went. He left me without resistance. After some months he phoned me to say he was happy. Despite what you might think, that it sounds tacky, it was sort of special. It was life, you know. And that only happens to you when you allow it to.”

I nodded. I was very self-conscious. The two people seemed so kind and wise to someone who often felt like a foreigner even to himself. I was a citizen of some desolate country. I wondered if I should be concerned that my plight seemed to be written all over my person.

“What we mean,” the bald man slowly said, “is that we could tell something is up with you. If we could, we’d point you in some direction and say, there, that’s the way to go.”

“But what do we know?” the woman said.

Some of the other bathers had joined us and there seemed to be no point in continuing the discussion. I thanked the couple for their time and they wished me well and I walked back to my flat, where I looked around me.

The place was a mess. I cleaned it all day long. Shortly before the end of business hours, I went out for food and when I came back, I cleaned some more. Late at night the people below me knocked on the door to urge me to be quieter and expressed their surprise at the fact that they’d never seen me before. They left. I stayed up to write down what I could remember of the morning’s meeting at the beach.

At around four o’clock I fell asleep and dreamt. Once more I entered a vast building with many rooms and floors. But instead of waking up without having left it, this time I passed through it and walked away and I felt powerful.

When it was daylight, I began to dial numbers and look up businesses before deciding that a more personal touch was called for. I set out for the main part of town where with some effort I managed to ingratiate myself into a position with a retailer situated in a busy street. It wasn’t really sales, nothing so fanciful, just an assistant’s position, but it was a job that I could do while being among people all day. I was with company.

After going home at night, I chiseled away at my thoughts about the people on the beach. A few times I went back there early in the morning. I never saw them again.

Some years before, I had moved to a coastal town thinking that fortune smiled on writers in picturesque places. But after much time had passed, I was in a bad state. I had hardly any friends. Writing no longer interested me. I wasn’t working at a proper job which contributed to my condition. There was a lot of time to waste fretting about old regrets and fears of the future.

So I slept. And dreamt. There was one in which I wandered into a vast building visiting room after room on floor after floor. I could never leave it. I’d wake up with a feeling of searing regret, something that some prisoner might feel, but that did not stop me from turning over for more sleep.

I slept at night, I slept in the mornings. In the afternoons I got up to go to the shops, or with effort write one of the stories that were my mainstay at the time. In the evenings I’d watch television before once again falling asleep.

One day I awoke early from a bad dream. In it I had decided enough was enough, I could no longer bear my own history, I couldn’t stand my own feeble attempts at art. I saw that it had all rushed away from me, everything that constituted a good and meaningful life. What was left to do? I had literary visions of the windswept cliffs the town was famous for. Perhaps I’d gain something like insight or guidance from the gulls and water and bracing sea air.

I dressed and ventured into the strange chilly morning, walking along the badly lit streets to the beach where I stood looking out over the bay.

There were other people there; old people, happy people. So happy did a particular group of three of them seem where they stood at the top of the stairs leading down to the sand that I walked over.

“Morning,” a bald man said, “are you joining us?”

“Yes, do,” a woman said.

All three of them had with them some baggage that made me ask:

“Are you planning a picnic?”

“No, we’re going swimming, of course,” the bald man said.

“Good grief,” I muttered, as to me it was a cold day. They laughed in delight at this. I said I was going for a walk.

“Before work?” the woman asked.

“Work, with that head of hair?” the third man said skeptically. I hadn’t had a decent haircut in a long time.

“I’m self-employed,” I said. I walked some distance along the path from where I could watch them put down their baggage, take off some clothes, and in their bathing costumes go into the water.

There must have been ten of them in the early light, their forms cutting into the backdrop of small white breakers rolling into the shallows. The bald man and his female companion turned and looked in my direction. Were they discussing me? Beyond the breakers, the water was darker but beyond that, across the bay, the sun was rising behind a great bank of clouds.

How beautiful all this was, I told myself. Why wouldn’t I do things like this more often? But I knew the next day would come and I might wake up only to turn over and sleep. I was stuck in something I couldn’t clearly explain. Still, this particular morning was happening and I decided to make good use of it and followed the path through rocks and milkwood trees. It was wonderful to be out in the chill and the noise of the sea, water churning white against the rocks.

After a while, I returned to the beach where the bathers were leaving the water and heading for their towels and warm clothes.

“Oh, wasn’t that splendid,” the bald man said on noticing me.

The woman nodded and said, evidently for my benefit, “I’d suggest that even the younger generation might have use of such an experience.”

I remained standing there, drawn by their warmth. The bald man produced a half-bottle of sherry from his bag and grinned at me. “How about a toot now,” he said. We drank in turn, small polite sips which were more about the company than anything else.

“What work do you do?” the man asked.

“Writer,” I muttered. “Nothing you would’ve read.”

“I say,” the man said to me, “I hope you don’t think I’m prying, but is everything all right? There’s something about you, some malaise.”

“Yes, and you seem overdressed for the beach,” the woman said kindly. “This isn’t just a walk you’re taking, is it?”

There was very little I could think of to say to that so I laughed as carelessly as I knew how. We drank some more of the sherry, which filled me with warmth as much as did my companions.

“You know,” the bald man said, “fifty years ago I had ahead of hair like that.” The woman laughed. The man stroked his pate and looked out over the sea, which had grown much lighter. “I’d just started a business. Construction. Things were great. The economy was strong, my timing was right. I was doing well. Then I got a diagnosis. I was told I had months to live. So I closed my business and moved back in with my folks. I didn’t do anything but read. After some time I’d worked my way through the Waverley Novels, the James Bonds and about half of the Canadians and my dad asked me, ‘So when do you plan to die?’ And I realized even if it was happening any day now, I might as well go out and face life. I went back into construction, got married, had a family, lost my wife, saw my grandkids grow up. Then I met this one. All that in fifty years.”

“And I met you, John,” the woman said softly and then to me, “It’s true it’s not all about good times. Sometimes you have to accept what’s downright bad too. Long ago when I was in my late forties I felt very alone. My kids were grown, my husband had left me. I moved to another town and worked there. I met a man who I had my doubts about. He wasn’t working, but he claimed to be looking for a business to buy and run. After a while, he was still looking and talking about it and living with me. I told friends that even if he was a swindler, at least I would have had someone in my life for a while. But sure enough, I eventually had to accept that he was simply a layabout and a braggart. One day I drove him to the station and bought him a ticket to a town on the other side of the country. He went. He left me without resistance. After some months he phoned me to say he was happy. Despite what you might think, that it sounds tacky, it was sort of special. It was life, you know. And that only happens to you when you allow it to.”

I nodded. I was very self-conscious. The two people seemed so kind and wise to someone who often felt like a foreigner even to himself. I was a citizen of some desolate country. I wondered if I should be concerned that my plight seemed to be written all over my person.

“What we mean,” the bald man slowly said, “is that we could tell something is up with you. If we could, we’d point you in some direction and say, there, that’s the way to go.”

“But what do we know?” the woman said.

Some of the other bathers had joined us and there seemed to be no point in continuing the discussion. I thanked the couple for their time and they wished me well and I walked back to my flat, where I looked around me.

The place was a mess. I cleaned it all day long. Shortly before the end of business hours, I went out for food and when I came back, I cleaned some more. Late at night the people below me knocked on the door to urge me to be quieter and expressed their surprise at the fact that they’d never seen me before. They left. I stayed up to write down what I could remember of the morning’s meeting at the beach.

At around four o’clock I fell asleep and dreamt. Once more I entered a vast building with many rooms and floors. But instead of waking up without having left it, this time I passed through it and walked away and I felt powerful.

When it was daylight, I began to dial numbers and look up businesses before deciding that a more personal touch was called for. I set out for the main part of town where with some effort I managed to ingratiate myself into a position with a retailer situated in a busy street. It wasn’t really sales, nothing so fanciful, just an assistant’s position, but it was a job that I could do while being among people all day. I was with company.

After going home at night, I chiseled away at my thoughts about the people on the beach. A few times I went back there early in the morning. I never saw them again.

 


JACO FOUCHÉ is a South African writer who has published ten books in Afrikaans and who is interested in publishing in Canada. He was won awards for his Afrikaans writing. His most recent award was for an English poem in the AVBOB Poetry Project, “A Feeling like Leaving Harbour”, of which the theme was death and loss and which earned him first prize in the English category.

Copyright © 2019 by Jaco Fouché. All rights reserved.

 

‘Eulogy’ by Maia Kowalski

Eulogy.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

My father’s funeral was on a Tuesday, on my mother’s birthday. I found this fitting. After the divorce, she had said multiple times how much of a relief it was to have him out of her life. Now it almost seemed like a birthday present. She didn’t attend. The crowds of black that shuffled inside the church fanned themselves with the funeral programs I had made. We kept the doors open, but there wasn’t enough wind to sufficiently cool anyone past the last pew.

He didn’t want it in a church; I remembered that much from his will. In the few glances I was allowed, he said he wanted to be cremated in Calgary, where he had lived most of his life. His ashes were to be thrown around the city. I think he knew it would be too hot when he died to stuff people into a building. Grandma said we had to have a casket in Barrie, though, where he grew up. The shiny box was flooded with roses when we knew he hated them. There was a picture board even though throughout his life he was vehemently against taking photographs. But I liked how we refused all his orders. It made the whole thing more bearable.

It’s always easy to tell who comes to funerals because they feel guilty. I saw too many people I hadn’t seen enough in my father’s life when he was alive, and when I shook hands with them they pretended to know my name and gave me a sympathetic smile. Some didn’t smile at all. Go home, I wanted to tell them.

My grandmother gave the first speech. Even though she and my father never had a strong relationship, she pulled out old childhood stories and humorous arguments that lightened the crowd. She told us about his love of gardening and daisies. Then as we were all feeling better about ourselves, she hit us with tears when she said a child shouldn’t die before their parents.

My aunt was next and she, too, did not have a strong relationship with my father. But she brought out the same material.

“He was a good brother,” she said. “I knew it’d be hard to lose a sibling, but I didn’t think it would be this hard.”

I heard people sniffling in the row behind me and my grandmother gave a massive sob. I coughed to make it look like I was feeling the same.

I didn’t want to do a speech. I didn’t even want to be there. I told my father’s side over and over that I didn’t want to talk, that I didn’t have anything to say, but my grandmother quipped me with the you’re family line which left me with no other excuse. So when I walked towards the podium I pointedly dabbed my face with a Kleenex, pretending to wipe away old tears and ready to feign more emotion. I had a folded map of North America to use as a prop and stuffed it under my arm.

“My dad was a good man,” I began and scanned the crowd. Eager but tear-stained faces from my family filled the front row. Everyone else was a massive blur.

“I’ll always remember him as the one who took us for road trips,” I said and looked at my brother for confirmation. He gave me a faint smile.

“Jack would map them out and we’d start driving at 4am so we could get to our next rest stop before dark.”

I took out the map and pointed out the different places we had driven together. There were pen marks all over the United States and a single line from Calgary to Toronto, when my father had driven my brother out to university in his first year.

“He said his dad never took him to places like this, so he wanted to do it for us.”

I folded the map back up and looked at my grandmother and aunt. They smiled at me in agreement.

“He drove us around the city a lot if we needed something,” I continued. “There were the trips to Krispy Kreme, and Tim Hortons, and always to McDonald’s.”

The whole church laughed.

“When I was six we’d go daisy hunting in our backyard. I remember always finding more than him, and when he looked into my basket he threw them all up in the air and made me laugh.”

I actually smiled, remembering our hazy sunlit backyard, my orange dress, white daisies falling around me and sprinkling my vision. “Then he’d pick me up and put me on his lap, and we’d pick off the petals together.”

For the first time at the ceremony, my eyes threatened to tear. But I braced myself.

“Of course, there are always two sides to every person,” I said. “To be honest, there were a lot of times I didn’t want to be around him. Most of my life, actually.”

The wind carried in sounds from the street.

“When my grandmother told me to write this speech, the only things I could think of were negative.” I paused, pacing myself. “Honestly, those last three examples were the only things that showed him in a positive light.”

I looked at the front row. Grandma wasn’t happy.

“Our conversations were never deep. I never smiled genuinely around him. I think I even tried to suppress smiling if I noticed he was near me.”

Grandma’s mouth drooped comfortably into the frown lines she had built up over the years whenever she was upset with my father. I stopped looking at her.

“There was that time when I was eight, and he was running a bath for me and Jack. I sat on the side of the tub, naked because I was little, and he looked at my stomach and told me I was getting fat. I ran off crying to mom and she told him off.”

I was going to stop there, but there was a fire in my stomach.

“When I had a hard time making friends in university, he told me I wasn’t trying hard enough. I told him I had anxiety and he ignored me. ‘Making friends isn’t that hard,’ he said.”

There was an uncomfortable cough.

“He told me I was closing doors on people on purpose. He told me to force myself to be social. He told me I would be a drop-out. And he expected me to trust him when he couldn’t even trust me. I couldn’t make eye contact with him. He was unreliable and headstrong and nothing I liked in a person.”

I was looking at the back of the church. It was at this moment that I dared to look at the other pews, and it was the silent mass of stony and sad faces I had expected. I took their silence as agreement.

“I wish I could say that I loved him. I wish I could say that I enjoyed his company or he made me laugh or he was one of the best fathers a child could ever know. But the truth is he wasn’t, and being dead doesn’t change any of that.”

I snuck a peek at my grandmother and could barely recognize her. Her face was contorted into a glare, all narrowed eyes, and furrowed eyebrows, but she didn’t speak. I don’t think she could figure out what to say.

My aunt studied her fingernails in her lap. She must know I’m right, I thought. But when she looked up at me, her eyes were full of tears. She shook her head. My stomach dropped.

Jack was as somber as he was before I spoke, and I knew he didn’t like confrontation, so he wouldn’t say anything to me until after. But he bit his lip, which I knew meant he felt guilty. I looked away.

“Thank you.”

I walked away from the podium and towards the doors. I heard people whispering about me in the pews as I walked by.

“Why did she say that?”

“Is that really his daughter?”

“What a horrible child.”

But I ignored them just like I ignored my father every time he tried to tell me he was right.

Happy birthday, mom, I thought as I finally exited the church. The sun was bright and the heat embraced me. I feel as relieved as you do.

***

I woke up today with a headache. It’s still so hot outside, and even though I kept my window open last night, I couldn’t escape the stickiness of overnight summer sweat. But the heat reminds me. Today’s the day.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. The funeral was only a month ago, and since then my family has refused contact. Jack updates me on everything they’re saying behind my back, even though he doesn’t agree with what I did either. I don’t blame them for talking about me, but deep down I still think they know I’m right.

Jack says their favourite line against me is, How could she say that about her own father? He helped raise her, didn’t he? Sometimes I want to send a message back to explain. But I never do.

I thought ranting about my father would make me feel better, and I did in the beginning, for the first two weeks after the funeral. But then one morning I woke up with so much guilt I couldn’t move out of bed. I didn’t want to do anything except think about how I ruined the ceremony.

The day after that I told myself I’d redo everything at his grave the next month. I’d say a proper speech and remember him in a good way, even though my mind was filled with bad ones.

That’s today. I put on the same outfit I had on a month ago, and drive to the cemetery.

His grave is way in the back because everywhere else is filled up. I remember when he told me he paid to keep two spots open closer to the gates for himself and my mother, when they were still together. A few years went by until he realized he couldn’t afford it. I remember arguing with him about how he was spending his money, which ended with me not speaking to him for three weeks. I laugh as I drive past those two spots now, reading the names of people I don’t know: my way of telling them how happy I am that they got those spots instead of my father. But I wonder if I’d be more inclined to visit him if he was closer to the exit.

He’s in the middle of a row, and after I pass everyone else’s pretty potted tulips and orchids I come to a plain stretch of dirty grass and weeds. I’m surprised no one picked up the cemetery’s gardening bill, after all the emotion and kind words said at the funeral. But I guess all of that really did mean nothing.

I’m standing in front of him now. I look at his name for much too long, study the way it’s carved into the grave and how neat the dates look underneath it. I’ve forgotten why I’m here.

And when I do remember, nice words refuse to come out. Instead there’s that fire again, that fire I had a month ago, and it’s erupting inside my throat and now I’m yelling at him, yelling at his grave, yelling at dirt and weeds and a piece of stone that bears his name. I yell until I start to cry.

But when the wind changes and the sky is overcast, I slow myself down. I don’t know how long I’ve been here but it feels like the longest I’ve ever wanted to be in his company.

I had brought the map from the funeral with me as a symbolic thing, to show him where we went together for the last time. But I rip it up now, in front of him, getting rid of any evidence. I don’t need it anymore.

I’m about to leave when I see a single daisy flopping back and forth in the wind, right beside his grave. I pretend it’s him in flower-form, asking for forgiveness. And I pretend I’m six again, and dozens of the same flower are falling around me, dotting my vision, and I’m about to be picked up and held in his lap. I hope he remembers.

The daisy loses its petals in a strong gust and I watch them disappear in the grass. Then I turn my back on him for the last time.

I really hope he remembers.

 


MAIA KOWALSKI is a Canadian writer who is finishing up a Masters of Creative Writing in Paris, France. Originally from Toronto, she plans to move back home after she graduates to work on her first short story collection.

Copyright © 2019 by Maia Kowalski. All rights reserved.

 

‘A Coffee Date With Death’ by Ian Canon

Coffee Date

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

“You’re late, Isaac.”

“You’re mistaken, Labe,” he said, raising a finger in the air as he sat down. “The Grim Reaper is never early—nor late. He always arrives just in time.”

Labe, the elder of the two, had a mangy red beard and eyes like fava beans. He curled his fingers around a cup of coffee, the steam somersaulting across his forehead. Isaac had a neat, close-cropped beard and rounded eye-glasses.

“You’re still late.”

“You really haven’t seen?”

“Seen what?”

“It’s all over the news. I was schlepping souls up off the street all afternoon! What a day, a night, a week, if it was a month!”

“Explain.”

“The stock market crashed. Kaput! Nobody has money. Nothing! Zilch! They’re jumping out of buildings left and right.” Isaac threw up his hands as if tossing imaginary paper bills in the air. “The roof to The Bank of New York had an hour wait just to jump. An hour!

“That’s just the way these humans are. Such fickle beings. So proud yet prone to despair. But you, Isaac,” he said, extending an accusatory index finger. “Always with the excuses. Always late. We had a meeting. One you called, I remind you. So souls can wait. God knows they have an eternity.”

“Labe! I couldn’t help it, I swear. You don’t understand the difficulties of someone in my position! The angel of death, the man with a giant, terrifying scimitar. These are not positive things, mind you. A thankless job, if ever there was—”

“Welcome to Monk’s! Coffee?” a young boy sidled up to the table.

“Please, please.” Isaac wiped the sweat from his glistening forehead.  “Oy. I’m famished.”

“Cream or Sugar?”

“Black, my boy, always black. I’m getting old, you know! Weight’s becoming a factor.”

“Black. Got it.” The waiter turned to Isaac. “And you, sir? Need anything else?”

“My coffee is still serving me quite well, thank you.”

“Let me know if you two need anything else,” the boy said. He disappeared behind a swivelling back kitchen door.

“Why do you do that, Isaac?”

“Do what?”

“My weight. My age. These things aren’t real.”

“I like to play the part. It’s fun. What’s it matter?”

“Ugh…” Labe said, shaking his head, waving Isaac away. “I guess it doesn’t.”

“Anyway, what were we on about.”

“Your, as you put it, thankless job.”

“That’s right. A thankless job. One you wouldn’t understand.”

“My appointment is every much as difficult as yours.” He furrowed his thick red brows. “Some might say it’s more difficult, even. Let’s look at the facts, shall we? The crude birth rate, per 1000 people, is 19.4, while the mortality rate is significantly less, sitting at just under 8 deaths per 1000 people.” He slurped his coffee, his mustache coming back damp. “I have to usher into existence twice the souls you usher out on a daily basis, and you’re trying to tell me about difficulty. You have much to learn, Isaac.”

He raised a finger in the air. “Still, still. You’re held up in high esteem for your actions. A hero! Whereas I’m hated, feared, and misunderstood! The humans praise the lord every time you perform your little miracle, while they curse my name. It’s the most thankless job! One that I’ve been doing forever!”

“We’ve both been at it forever. This is nothing new to you.”

“That’s why I called this meeting. I’m fed up!” He collapsed onto the table, still talking into his arms. “When does it end? When do we get a day off? When can I go on vacation? How long are we here for?”

“I’ve never considered the question before.” He stroked his beard. “I would imagine this is our lot for eternity, my old friend.”

“Eternity!” Isaac stuck his tongue out in a mock-gag. “Bupkes! But tell me, Labe, in your infinite wisdom, what was before eternity? What did you do before this? What is after this? These people have their death, their escape, and what do we have? Are we human? Are we something else?”

“I do not know.” He looked up at the ceiling as if the answer were written on a poorly dusted overhead light. “I’ve only known life. This life. That’s it.”

“But you must know more than me! Life by very definition preceded death. What was I before this… whatever this is!”

“These are questions I do not have an answer for, but they are excellent questions, nonetheless.”

“Who does, Labe?” He leaned in closer and whispered. “The humans? Can we ask them? Surely, before they come to life or shortly after they leave it, they must have something to say!”

“An interesting possibility. I do not see why not. Where shall we begin our line of questioning?”

Isaac’s eyes glowed at the possibility of answers. “The beginning,” he said. “And the end. A hospital.”

“Just 12 blocks east.”

“Let’s go! Souls, those weary travellers, are waiting to be ushered into existence!” Isaac stood up and hopped, from one foot to the other, like a school boy playing hopscotch, out of the cafe.

Labe stood in a stiff, almost robotic, motion, brushed himself off, and left a $5.00 bill on the table. Shortly after, the boy-waiter brought over a pot of coffee, shrugged at the empty seats, and pocketed the change.

Despite the bodies raining from the rooftops, blotting out the sun as they fell through the air, it was a beautiful summer day in New York.

“Have you ever attempted to talk to the unborn?” Isaac said, stepping over a body.

“No, Isaac. I never quite saw the point.”

“What are they like?”

“They’re not really like anything. They’re quiet, I suppose. They arrive, from God knows where, these frail winged babes, to be ushered into a body. It’s an unglamorous activity with nothing of note to report. Have you talked to the dearly departed?”

“Talked? No. Listened? Not if I can help it! The damn things don’t shut up. They yap about this and that and the other. Always yapping.” A homeless man leaned into Isaac and asked for spare change. Isaac, ignoring the man, continued. “Yap, yap, yap. I rarely get a word in.”

“What’s the process like when you pull them out of a body?”

“More often than not, they’re confused before they fly off to, as you said, God knows where. Probably the same place they came from.”

“Have you ever seen a dead soul after the ushering? Say, walking around the street amongst the living?”

“Hmmm. That’s a good question. No, I can’t say that I have. I guess they don’t come back, then. Isn’t that odd?”

“I suppose it is. Where do they go off to?”

“Up there, I imagine.” Issac gestured towards the sky.

Entering the hospital, they lost their elderly exterior and took on the appearance of two middle-aged doctors. They carried with them an air of ease, comfort, and respectability as they walked through the narrow corridors of the hospital and towards the maternity wing. With their new skins, no one doubted their position or purpose.

“Where are we going, Labe?”

“Just a little farther, Isaac. At the end of the hall, on the left, up here, there’s a woman a few minutes from birth. A soul will soon be entering her. It’ll make a perfect specimen to question.”

They walked into the room. A woman, legs high in sternums, was red-faced and panting. No one seemed to care or notice the doctors’ intrusion.

“So what happens now?” Isaac asked.

Labe put his finger to his lips. He turned his chin to the sky. A small, wingless cherub floated through the roof, head first, and held out his hands towards Labe. Labe grasped the soul’s hands and gently set him on the ground.

“We have some questions to ask you, child.”

The bodiless soul blinked into the void.

“Ask him where he comes from!” Isaac said, a few feet behind Labe.

Labe glowered at Isaac, annoyed by his impulsiveness, then turned back to the small translucent soul and asked, “My child. Where do you come from? What came before this? Do you remember anything?”

No one said anything for several minutes.

Issac leaped forward. “Well, what is it, human! Where do you come from?”

If there was any effect on the child from Isaac’s outburst, it was not visible on its outward appearance. It remained lifeless and without expression, except for the empty smile on its face.

Labe tried his hand again. “Do you understand my words, child? Do you know what it is I am saying? We must know where you come from.”

Blankness. No response.

Labe knelt down. “Do you have any memory of anything before this?” He stared into the child’s eyes, hoping something would disturb its stillness, but the boy simply looked through him.

Labe stood up and turned to Isaac. “Its small cherub lips would likely not part for anything, man or beast.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t believe it has the capability to communicate. This thing here is a blank slate. It has no memories, thoughts or desires. Before us is an empty soul, waiting to experience the life of a human and to feast on its many experiences. It waits to learn, to play, to love. As of now, it has no knowledge to give us because it has no knowledge.”

“Are you saying there is nothing to gain here?”

“Perhaps not. The soul prior to birth is as lost, if not more so than we are. It is only through life that it gains some knowledge.”

“Then perhaps we must question it after it has lived a full life. We must question the dead!”

“Indeed, Isaac. We must.”

Labe lifted the pre-born by the shoulders and laid him over the pregnant woman as if it were a clean bed sheet.

“We’ve got a head,” A doctor said, as they left the room.

Isaac and Labe walked through the corridors of the hospital until they came upon a small commotion of nurses and doctors.

“This should do nicely,” Isaac said.

They entered the room. There was a man on the operating table with his chest open, hooked up to a variety of machines, the ominous steady ring of a heart monitor, the 21st century calling of the dead and dying, still heavy in the air.

“Is he dead?” Labe asked. He had always been uncomfortable around the dead. He assumed this uneasiness was bestowed upon him, for his duties regarded the living, not the dead.

“A goner.”

Isaac pinched the skin of the man’s shoulders and lifted up a soul, vaguely outlined by the shape of the man it came from. He placed it on the ground and it, as if Isaac stepped on a hidden air pedal, began to inflate. Fully animated, it judged its surroundings with the wide eyes of terror.

“Where am I?”

“You’ve passed,” Isaac said.

“Passed? What do you mean?”

“You’re dead. You’ve died.”

The soul looked around again, seeing its former shell laying, stiff and still, on the operating table. “I… I… I’m dead?” He looked at the pale feet of his old body with disappointment.

“Dead as the day is long.”

“My God,” the man said, throwing his hands around, pacing the room. “My friends. My family.”

“They’ll be fine. What’s your name, soul?”

“B-brian. My name is Brian. Brian Thompson. When will I see my family again?”

Labe walked forward and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Be calm, gentle soul, your family will be fine.” Labe stepped back behind Isaac.

“We would like to ask you some questions,” Isaac said.

An unnatural stillness, cased in confusion, came over Brian. “You want to ask me questions?

“Yes,” Labe said.

“I have a few questions of my own.”

“If we answer yours,” Isaac said, “will you answer ours?”

“I guess.”

“Then go ahead.”

“First of all, who are you two? What are you?”

“I am Isaac. Some people call me the Grim Reaper, or Death, or the Angel of Death, or Michael, but I prefer simply Isaac.” Isaac looked back at Labe. “And my friend over there is my counterpart. People don’t call him anything. Most don’t know he exists. I take the souls out at death and he puts them in at birth. He goes by Labe.”

“Okay. Isaac and Labe. What happens now?”

“We were hoping you could tell us that.”

The soul’s face contorted, and he took a step back. “I don’t understand. Isn’t that your job? Aren’t you supposed to take me somewhere? What do you usually do with a soul?”

“We don’t do anything. My job is to pull the soul from its body and Labe’s is to place it in a body. Beyond that, we have no clue where you come from or go when you die.”

“And you want me to tell you where I’m supposed to go when I know nothing?”

Yes,” Labe said. “We’ve been here on earth for an eternity, and it appears we are stuck here for an eternity more. What we don’t know, and what we may never know, is what happens beyond death, and you lot seem to be free’d, upon death, from your earthly confinements.”

“Well,” the soul said, attempting to stroke his chin, but slipping through his bottom lip. “Let’s work this out together. What happens to a soul after you free it… Isaac, was it?”

“They’re usually out of their mind, or in shock, or overwhelmingly sad. They ask me questions, questions I can’t answer, then I tell them they’re free to go, to fly off into the sky, wherever they wish.”

“And you’ve never asked one where they planned to go?”

“Honestly? I’ve thought about it.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t really say. Something always stopped me, I guess. Besides, they always find their way, wherever they go.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve never seen a soul return to earth. I haven’t seen them on the streets, or in the supermarket, or at the bottom of a bottle of milk.

“Do you know where you’ll go?” Labe asked.

“I don’t have a damn clue. Where would you go, if you suddenly found yourself free?”

“I suppose I would look for answers,” Labe said.

“Where would you do that?”

“Everywhere,” Labe said. “The universe is unimaginably large.”

“Maybe that’s why you’ve never seen one return,” the soul said.

“Why?”

“There are no road maps out there. Once you’re gone, it’s like finding a spec of dust in an ocean of sand.”

“You believe them—those like you—to be lost? All of them?”

“Or maybe this state gives way too, sooner or later,” he said, examining his opaque exterior.

“Think so?” Isaac said.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned on earth, it’s that nothing is forever.”

“What’s it like?” Isaac asked.

“What?”

“That body. I’ve always meant to ask.”

“There’s a certain lightness to it.” Brian lifted a few centimetres off the ground. “But some things, physiologically, don’t make a whole lot of sense. I can feel, but I don’t have skin. I don’t have eyes, but I can see. I don’t have lungs or hold air, but something is producing a voice. My body has weight, but I’m floating here, seemingly unaware of gravity’s existence.”

Isaac smiled. “Maybe we were once human, you think?”

“Perhaps,” Labe said. “But I am not aware of any death of mine.”

“Did it hurt?” Isaac asked. “Do you remember it?”

“It hurt for a bit, but it was sudden. A heart attack, I think. I was watching my daughter’s school play—her head sticking through a hole in a tree—when I toppled over, digging my fingernails into my chest. Then I woke up here, whatever this is.”

“Whatever this is, indeed,” Labe said.

“So, have I been of any help?” Brian said.

“Absolutely none,” Isaac said. “But it’s sure been an interesting experiment.”

“This experiment has done nothing but double my questions.”

“Answers are a monkey’s paw—they always come with more questions.”

“Where to now?”

Brian looked up, hands on his hips, floating in the room like Peter Pan’s shadow. “Somewhere up there, I guess.”

“Don’t let us keep you,” Isaac said.

“Goodbye,” Labe said.

“So long my supernatural companions.” The soul floated into the ceiling, never to be seen again.

As they left the hospital, Isaac and Labe walked with their heads down and their voices quiet. They pondered the complex nature of the universe, so vast and untamed, a wild horse unbroken by man or ghost until they reached the Bank of New York. The ground was littered with bodies and blood ran down the sidewalk, emptying into a nearby drain.

“Looks like you have your work cut out for you, Isaac,” Labe said.

Isaac put a hand across his brow and looked up at the roof of the building. “Never a weekend, or a vacation, or a day off—an eternity of work—toiling for God knows why.” He pulled away from the roof and looked at Labe. “What difference does it make if I release the souls? Who would be the wiser if I took a month off?”

“It is our purpose for being, Isaac.”

“Maybe I don’t need a purpose. Have you ever thought of that? Maybe I just want to be free! Maybe I just want to wander the universe, a lost soul.”

And at that moment, a body came careening through the sky, splattering the being formerly known as death into a thousand pieces, like a bug on a windshield and Labe never saw Isaac again.

 


IAN CANON is the author of the novel It’s A Long Way Down (2018) and the poetry collection Before Oblivion (2017). He’ll be releasing his second novel What We Do On Weekends in 2020. His stories have been featured in The Sunlight Press, The Spadina Literary Review, Kyler Zeleny’s short story collection Found Polaroids, and he has been interviewed for Vue Magazine. He runs a small writing workshop in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada through which he mentors young writers and helps them advance their work through both traditional publishing and self-publishing. For more, visit thisisallcanon.com.

Copyright © 2019 by Ian Canon. All rights reserved.