“Shania Twain Sang Me to Sleep” by Jessica Mundie

The first years of my life were exhausting. On August 11, 1998, I was placed in my mother’s loving arms, blue faced and cone-headed, after a 36-hour labour, forceps, and many stitches. Sleeplessness began before I had even made my appearance in the world.

Being my parent’s first child, they had no idea what to do with me. I am often reminded of the story of my homecoming: my parents placing my car seat on the coffee table, sharing a look, and my father asking, “What do we do now?”

Little did they know, the rest of my infanthood would be enshrouded by a blanket of colic.

Every evening, around dinner time, the wailing would begin. My mother would sit me in my highchair, beside her and my father at the dinner table, and they would try to talk over my loud screaming. It would continue long into the night. As most people turned off their lights and cuddled up in bed, my parents were awake trying to soothe their sad baby.

They desperately tried to shut me up: I was swaddled, massaged, bathed and nurtured, but I would not relent. Eventually, after many months of little sleep, they discovered I had two weaknesses: an endless desire for food and a love of Shania Twain.

In March of 1999, Twain’s Man! I Feel Like a Woman was released on North American country radio stations. This came seven months after my birth and about when my parents realized they were losing their minds.

I am not sure how my mother made the discovery, but to my parent surprise and extreme relief, they found that if I was bounced up and down, in an excruciatingly consistent manner, while listening to Shania Twain celebrate the prerogative of women everywhere, I would fall asleep.

I could not tell you why I loved Shania Twain so dearly. Maybe as a baby I was already identifying with my strong feminist values, or maybe I just loved Canadian country stars. Either way, now every time Man! I Feel Like a Woman comes on at my local country bar, I can be counted on to belt out the lyrics.  

After the discovery that saved their sanity, my parents played me all different genres of music. I took my first steps with the waltz of the Blue Danube, spoke my first word alongside the croon of Leonard Cohen, and was ushered off to kindergarten to the tune of David Bowie.

Unfortunately, as a preschooler, I still had trouble sleeping. I was too big to be bounced, so either my dad would lay in bed with me until we both inevitably drifted off (a habit that has ruined his sleep schedule to this day) or my mom would sit on the edge of my bed rubbing my back and singing until I fell asleep.

I made requests. At night I liked folk: James Taylor, Peter Paul and Mary, and Gordon Lightfoot were regulars. My mom has a beautiful voice. She would sing me hit songs, hidden gems, and her own creations. I was particularly fond of The Water is Wide, which, accompanied by my mother’s soft hand on my back, would never fail to row me delicately to sleep.

I went through an 80s pop phase in grade school. After dinner, my mom, brother, and I would hold dance parties in in our dining room. We pushed the big table to the wall and took over the hardwood floor. We grooved to Take On Me, shimmied to Tarzan Boy, and head banged to Come on Eileen. Then, my favourite was Girls Just Want to Have Fun, an ode to my roots as a fan of female power ballads.

Middle school came with a love for teenage rebellion rock. An interesting time in my music history. My angst-filled years were fueled by My Chemical Romance and my own evil insecurities. I try not to think of this time: it was painfully sad, as most middle school experiences are.

There was a light at the end of the puberty-induced tunnel, and it came in the form of five glorious teenage boys. One Direction. I often credit my sexual awakening to this group and sincerely appreciate their ability to pull me out of the depressed hole I had fallen into.

My mother got to experience the true power of One Direction at their second concert in Ottawa. Their two shows in my city were held on the first days of my last year in high school. My infatuation had considerably diminished by this point. I was older, and I had a real boyfriend, but I still dragged my poor mom into the ruthless pit of teenage obsession. (She said she had fun.) These concerts would be the end of my “Directioner” phase. They would close the door on boy bands and high school and open the door to adulthood and university.

Unshackled from the world of top pop hits, I was loose and wandering, genre-less. Slowly, I found my way back to the music that started it all, the music of my parents.

It began with Bob Dylan, my dad’s all-time favorite. I downloaded his entire discography one night and listened to his top hits, Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright, Like a Rolling Stone, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. Dylan lead me into a whole new world of 60s and 70s rock. The Eagles. Joni Mitchell. The Band. Simon and Garfunkel. Fleetwood Mac. All artists my parents grew up listening to and played for me as a kid.

Listening to this music is my most addictive nostalgia. I listen to the songs from my childhood and am reminded of vacations, dance parties, and sleepless nights. The same thing happens when I listen to music from middle school or find a playlist from a high school party. I can relive these moments over and over again.

My taste has evolved in recent years. I am not a stickler about genre or artist as much as I was, I will listen to anything as long as it sounds good. My current obsessions are Lizzo – a rapper, The Lumineers – a folk band, and Joan Jett – a 70s rocker.

But I will always have a love for the classics.

This summer, my parents, brothers, and I took a day trip to Montreal to drop one of my brothers off at McGill for his first year. I was in charge of music for the drive. My playlist started off with a classic, Super Tramp, Goodbye Stranger. It got a “nice one” and a nod from my mom. Paul Simon followed. Kodachrome. She started tapping the steering wheel.

The noise of the car took over. My youngest brother fell asleep, the other turned to his phone. My parents and I silently enjoyed the tunes. The next song was for them.  

Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under. Shania Twain.

This one got a loud, “Whoa!” from the front seat. My mom gasped, taken back in time 21 years. I started singing along. My dad turned around with a big smile, fingers pointed at me in pride, bopping his head.

“Oh god,” my mom sighed and shook her head. “You were an exhausting baby.”


JESSICA MUNDIE (she/her) is a creative writer and journalist from Ottawa, ON. She is a graduate of Carleton University where she studied journalism, English, and drama studies. When she is not writing, she can usually be found baking or walking her dog. In January, she will begin her master’s degree at Columbia Journalism School in New York City.

“Roger” by David Sonntag

Roger was seven when he died.

He was seven but he barely acted his age, always running around the neighborhood as if he’d just shot out of his mother like a cannon five minutes’ prior. He lived next-door to us and you could tell from the precision his Dad cut their lawn with that their family was more well off: shinier cars in the driveway, neater rows of thick bush in the backyard. And the food they cooked Roger for dinner; the aroma that would romance my senses when I peered through open windows nose-first, the magic in his bowl that could awake the kings of the jungle. It was enough to convince us we weren’t just a bunch of animals in cohabitation.

But since Roger died, those things didn’t seem to matter. 

I heard Roger’s parents talking about him the night after he died. I couldn’t make out the words but I sat next to their kitchen window and listened. I knew I shouldn’t have; I knew it was intrusive, but what were they gonna do? Roger’s dad hated me. The old man would shoo me away like I was some rabid dog, even when I was sitting on the curb waiting for the wind to blow and for my parents to come home. 

I watched Mrs. Sherman pick up the toys Roger left behind, and she’d shake them violently, the jewelry on her wrists making sounds like Christmas, and she’d wail and bark at her husband. Mr. Sherman seemed indifferent. I wanted to comfort Mrs. Sherman. I wanted her to pretend I was theirs for a night, that Roger’s things were my things and that they wouldn’t have to be painful for her. I wouldn’t be painful. I ran back home where my family had already eaten dinner and my own cold feast was waiting for me, ready to nourish but not to romance. 

Two months later I began to throw up. Carol took me to the doctor in one of her I’m-too-busy-for-this-Steve moods. Her and Riley weren’t my real parents. They took me in years back, when no one could find my actual parents but sometimes they acted like I was as much of a nuisance as unclaimed dog feces left on the curb. The doctor tried to burn my eyeballs with a bright light at the end of a stick. I swatted at it and the next thing I knew Carol was clamping my limbs to the table, and I looked at her as if to say, “Same team, Carol!” and she looked back at me as if to say, “I’m too busy for this, Steve!” 

The doctor gave me tablets to swallow, but they didn’t last long inside me and I threw them up when we were stuck in traffic on the way home. It was probably the first thing I’d eaten in days. I don’t know if it was Roger’s death, or the changes in these teenage years, or the traffic, but I felt irritated and wanted to jump out the window. 

The next morning, Carol and Riley’s going-away bags were at the front door. The last time they were at the front door I didn’t see Carol or Riley for three moons and four suns. More going-away bags than usual lined the door that day, so I guessed they would be gone longer. I didn’t care much; I wanted space. I went into the backyard and took shade under a row of thick and soft and bright green bush, the type of bush that a desert mirage would envy. Sure, it was a weird place to lie, but no person or animal could make me care.

I lay there and wondered about Roger. I wondered whether he felt much pain when he died. 

Cars drive along our street too fast usually. I know they drive too fast because Riley always yells at ‘morons’ and ‘ya goddamn idiots’ to slow down and informs them there are kids in the neighborhood. There are animals in the neighborhood too, but Riley never mentions them to either the ‘morons’ or ‘ya goddamn idiots’.

The car that hit Roger was a big, black and loud one and it didn’t stop or turn its noise down until about four houses after Roger found his way under the car’s steel belly. Poor Roger laid lifeless and stiff, like he was just sleeping under this very row of thick bush. There was no blood. He just lay there, peacefully. Maybe that’s a good way to go. The neighbors were all horrified, and the driver cupped his hands to his mouth after he’d stopped and realized what he’d hit. The grey-haired woman across the street was the first one to attend to Roger until Mrs. Sherman ran out onto the road, still in her fleecy gown and without any paint on her face. I’d never seen her care for Roger that way, as he lay lifeless and stiff in her arms, her face wet and shiny with fresh tears. 

I heard our front door open and figured Riley was grunting at one of the bags he was carrying out of the house. At the same time Eric from across the road walked into our backyard. He was a bit of a dick and he roared at me to leave, even though it was my own goddamn backyard. I hated Eric, but fear outweighed the hatred, so I didn’t stick around. I ran to the front door, where I could see Carol and Riley getting into a yellow car on the street. They took off quickly and without a goodbye. I knew I’d miss them, but I also wanted to be alone. I wondered if I’d still be around when they got back. I knew things were changing and I felt that change right there and then as I threw up on the doormat. 

I was still around when they got back, five moons later. I’d had to put up with Mrs. Nightingale’s sickening perfume and underuse of top buttons, having visited me several times and showing the two largest teats these vertical pupils had ever seen as she’d bent down to massage my neck. Her cold hands prickled my hairs. After the second moon, she looked at my food, untouched from the previous day, and called Carol to tell her about it. I couldn’t work out why it was such big news; I just wanted her to leave and let me sleep. 

As soon as she was home, Carol took me back to the doctor. She didn’t seem frustrated or busy this time. She carried me carefully inside the bright white room, and when I tried to swat the doctor’s eye-burning fire stick she just stroked my head and calmly held my limbs. After we got back in the car, Carol’s face was wet and shiny with the same fresh tears Mrs. Sherman had when Roger died. 

We got home and Carol carried me inside. It hurt, and my body was weak with the hurt, and I felt like I was a plate of jelly about to spill through her arms. I’d been told for years I always landed on my feet but in that moment, I felt like I’d land face-first.

An hour later, Riley entered the house like he had something important to do and to my surprise he stopped in front of Carol and me. For fifteen minutes he stroked my head, which was hanging from Carol’s arm like a newspaper hangs out of a letterbox on a rainy day. Riley stroked my head the same way they did when I first arrived all those years back. I wanted to run away from both of them. I loved them, dearly I loved them, but I just wanted to be by myself. To be by myself under the row of thick bush. That was where I wanted to be, that was heaven for me. Heaven awaited and I did not want to keep it. 

That night, dinner was not cold, nor pragmatic. It was warm, it was flesh, and it filled the air like it was boasting its beauty to any nose that would have it. I ate, and it was as if I could still feel the explosive pulse of the animal on my tongue. Two mouthfuls were enough. 

Later, I was wedged between Riley and Carol on the couch, their couch, the couch usually out of bounds for me. Riley’s hand stroked my head and Carol’s patted my back, as if she was feeling the quality of an Egyptian rug. I knew whose hand was whose because my head was pushed down like a dashboard bobble-head on a bumpy drive. That was Riley’s way of showing affection. Something I’d missed. It was lovely and all, but what I really wanted was that row of thick bush. I wanted that row of bush to hang like clouds above me. 

The next morning, I pulled myself from the couch. I was exhausted. Each step to the front door was like trudging through thick mud. The door was closed, and I realized it was too early to be let out of it. I saw an opening in the window but was far too tired to jump up there. Riley appeared in his gown. He sat on the floor with me, gently caressing my head and offering to hold me once more with a tap on his chest. I loved Riley, dearly I loved him, but today I sought heaven. I wanted to lay under that row of thick bush. He opened the door for me and I could’ve sworn he had a wet and shiny face, just like Mrs. Sherman’s when Roger died all those suns ago and just like Carol’s when she drove me home from the doctor. 

I hurried around the side of the house as fast as my aching paws would let me, and I found my nirvana. I curled myself into a ball in the soil, like I was about to sink into it and provide the earth with nourishment, something my body had refused for days. The sun trickled through the leaves above me, and the wind made a singing noise with the branches, trying to put me to sleep one last time. I closed my eyes. I thought again about whether Roger felt anything when he died. I began drifting off. I curled my tail over my paws, and my paws over my whiskers, and thought it was time this old tabby discovered for himself. 


DAVID SONNTAG is a freelance writer, content marketer, and singer-songwriter. Originally from Western Australia, he’s a sucker for the ocean, strumming in front of a crowd, and reading under the sun. Dave wrote his first short story in 2017, after ditching his banking career. With Tim Winton and Haruki Murakami as his creative inspirations, Dave writes about family, human behaviour, and overcoming fears – often with a twist.

“The Meaning of Hockey” by Marie-Eve Bernier

I never cared for hockey. Sure, as a Canadian (truthfully, more of a Québécoise), I was aware of hockey but failed to appreciate its beauty and never quite understood its meaning. I would continue to be oblivious about it for far too many years.

Ironically, hockey shaped some of my earliest memories. Fragments of it can be found in recollections of my grandfather, Léonce, watching Les Nordiques in the living room, or listening to overly excited commentators announcing the scores over the radio on long car rides. I watched my brother play street hockey with his friend on cold Canadian winter afternoons. I witnessed my otherwise shy uncle rave about vintage hockey cards. Not to be forgotten was my introduction to the beloved short story, “The Hockey Sweater” by Roch Carrier, which was the first time I read English Canadian literature, beginning a lifelong love of short stories. So, hockey was, in a way, always part of my life.

In those years where I was uninterested in the game, fond memories unknowingly formed around watching my brother and sister play. I was so proud of my sister whose talent stood out in this male-dominated sport.  I was yet to appreciate their games, which felt tediously long as a little girl. I can still feel the cold on my hands from the arena and the unique smell of the ice, which would often be overtaken by the pungent smell of vinegar and fries that spectators ravenously snacked on. But nothing compares to the excitement I felt  between long periods of boredom when one of my siblings’ teams would score. I timidly felt overjoyed and could not avoid the irresistible urge to join the loud cheering of the crowd, filled with proud moms, dads, and other bored siblings.

I still affectionately remember many charming characters from the arena. The hockey moms and dads who disproportionately cheered for their child and did not shy away from trash talking the young opposing team. The nice boy in the back row with oversized orthodontic headgear, who somehow always seemed to catch the puck when it flew into the crowd. The well-meaning elderly man who sold lottery tickets for charity and allowed me to purchase some unlawfully (I won a tooney twice!). And then there was ambitious Andy, who smugly held the responsibilities of self-appointed executive chief water boy, concession stand vendor, and raffle ticket salesman. He was also the unofficial mascot, the replacement Zamboni driver, and I am almost certain he also sharpened the skates. Andy’s multiple roles were comical, but through them he contributed to town spirit in a way I failed to appreciate at a young age. Andy was not a hockey player, a hockey fan, nor did he know anyone at the hockey matches. He was proudly part of the figure skating club. No one really knows why he hung out at the arena during hockey games.

The even finer details are still fresh. The weight of my siblings’ hockey bags filled with their gear, which were most likely taller and heavier than me. The sound of the skates when breaking quickly on the ice. The terrible smell of the hockey gear post games and practices that no amount of Febreze (purchased in high quantities from Costco by my mother) could improve. The satisfying sight of the Zamboni machine cleaning the ice as the driver (sometimes Andy) waved to the crowd. The long wait for my siblings to get changed after games and practices to finally go home!

As a teenager still finding my feet, I remember my father speaking highly of the women’s Olympic hockey team win of 2002. I never watched that historic match, but I heard so much of it that I get excited just thinking about it. The extraordinary leadership of Danièle Sauvageau, the unfair refereeing, the near loss but how they won with grace and dignity.

My father gave me a speech inspired by that win about time, hard work and practice: “We all have 24 hours in a day, that’s the only fair thing in this world, how will you use your time?”.

I think of those words regularly and I think of that winning match, which I have never watched, when in need of motivation.

In 2010, when I finished my university semester, I found myself living in Montréal with my brother in our parents’ townhouse. I was working as a bank teller during the weekdays, and my brother had his usual high-tech computer job that I will not attempt to explain. We would eagerly meet in the evenings where he would usually treat me to delicious meals out on the town, comedy shows, and movies at the cinema. City life was so exciting.

To connect with my brother, I half-heartedly decided to watch hockey with him and support the Habs. If anything, hockey-viewing snacks seemed so tasty! Slowly but truly, I was drawn in without realising.  

He used to say things like, “It’s just like a story, it’s good to know about their backgrounds and follow them through their success”.

My favourite players (and the only ones whose names I knew) were Subban and Halak, and, slowly  I became invested. I can still hear myself say with blind faith, “It’s impossible for them to lose, we have Halak and nothing gets passed him!” or,  “We are so lucky to have Subban on our side, we can’t lose with him!”.

Aside from learning  the players’ names and enough of the hockey rules (that I no longer recall) to get by, I was, more importantly, starting to learn about a nation’s and my province’s pride and true love. My brother also helped me appreciate Québécois hockey. It is undeniable that French Canadian hockey brings its own charm and excitement. I still giggle when I remember commentators saying “des bons gars avec des bons coeurs” when the team would do well or “ils n’ont pas de coeurs” when they would play poorly. Québécois are passionate about hockey, which is half the fun.

But what I remember most and know I will carry with me for life, is how beautifully connected I felt with the community when I watched hockey. The best part was seeing people in their matching jerseys rush out of the office early to catch the game.  Attempting to find a place with a good seat and a large screen in central Montréal, I would brave the overcrowded metro as people excitedly hurried to their hockey viewing parties. I still recall the infectious happiness that would explode when the Habs scored, reminiscent of the cheers I experienced in the arena as a child. The next day, hearing everyone at work talking about the game made me feel connected to something I had never related to before. What would once have been an eye roll turned into an, “I know, right!”.

I wish I could say that I kept up with watching hockey, but I did not.  In fact, I didn’t even finish the season as I returned to Ottawa early for university. I might have gone to the sports bar once or twice with friends to watch more games, but it was not the same. Was it because my brother was missing, the fact that the games were in English, or maybe I was just over it? I do not really know. I am ashamed to say I do not even know if the Habs won or how far they made it that season. My short-lived hockey fever was gone.

However, that is not to say that the game disappeared completely from my life. Hockey continued to find ways to reach me in many forms. For example, when “playing” floor hockey to support my roommate (I never once touched the puck and was always the first to enthusiastically volunteer to be benched). Flash forward many years, taking my British husband to a Remparts game in Québec City where I witnessed his confusion about Canada’s beloved sport.  

 “It goes so quickly!” he remarked.

To add to the confusion, the dedicated weirdo fan behind us was holding a squeaky rubber chicken and the hockey coach passionately threw his water bottle on the ice rink in a last ditch attempt to persuade the referee to side with him, which only added to my husband’s uncertainty about the game.

My young nephew joining a local small-town hockey team also brings back many fond memories.  I hope he learns the same lessons from hockey as I have, and that his siblings have as much pride watching him as I did with mine.

What surprises me the most is how much those matches I watched long ago had unknowingly inspired me. I have often looked back on them for guidance when facing struggles. What was once a meaningless game became meaningful and still is to this day.

I do not know what my hockey future looks like. I might get into another season and bond with other hockey fans. I cannot imagine myself even casually playing the game, but stranger things have happened! I hope to take my prospective children to play on outdoor ice rinks, even on afternoons that are far too cold. If life throws me an unmanageable hurdle, I can always look back on those games for inspiration. The dedication I observed in those games gone by was my main take away. Many future hockey-based moments surely await me.

What I do know is that I still think of the ice rink where my siblings played hockey, I still think of my father’s unsolicited coaching strategies and I will forever remember the lessons that hockey taught me. For me, the meaning of hockey is not being a player, or watching the games regularly, or even having a great understanding of them. It is not about keeping scores or wins. It never was and never will be about trophies. The meaning of hockey is about the memories of happy gatherings, believing in something that is greater than me, and connecting to my roots.


MARIE-EVE BERNIER is a Québécoise currently living in New Zealand. She loves playing outdoors and reading books. She works in the early years and considers babies her best friends. She has many hobbies but watching hockey isn’t one of them.

“Splinters” by Kelby Mackenzie

As I step out of the rusted station wagon, the unforgettable scents of Vancouver Island strike me — lilac, gravel, and salt. This place plays tempting tricks on visiting city dwellers, prompting us to question why we have chosen to exist anywhere else. I enter the foyer of the house and breathe in the smell of old wood coated in fresh paint. The panels below my feet let out an earnest squeak with every step I take, and I imagine the house blushing at its inability to hide its age. I head towards the staircase, lifting my bag as not to scrape its wheels on the delicate frames of the steps. The foyer at the top of the stairs presents a crossroad — there are five separate doors, four of which are closed, the other leading to a room on which Laura has already laid claim. There will be four of us staying here this summer—last-minute “girls retreat,” as my friends have been calling it. Since the beginning of university, we have been coming here every spring break. This year feels unique. Graduation is approaching quickly, and we all know that this will likely be our last visit here. I think that most of the girls will be happy to move on with their lives by the time school ends — I’ll be happy as well —but I can’t help feeling as though I still have things left to do. Time rarely leaves warnings for the young. Instead, it teases you with the illusion of endless expanse, offering no apology when you realize you have discovered its deception.

I take a left and push open the door directly across from Laura’s room, and decide to leave my bag in this one. It’s small, consisting of only a twin bed and a vanity, but there is one panelled wall adorned with tall windows that fill each corner with natural light. I stand in place for a moment, taking in my surroundings, letting my brain catch up with my body. I am truly, finally, here.

I unzip my bag and start to unpack my makeup and perfume onto the vanity, opening the window so I can make acquaintance with the sounds of the neighbourhood. Cars whizz by on the street outside, a few of the girls laugh about something while smoking in the driveway and from down the hall, I can hear Laura humming along to a Johnny Cash song. Sitting down at the vanity, I take a proper look at myself, which I haven’t done in days. Despite my transition into adulthood, I am still the same Ellery—though my hair has lightened from the sun, and my freckles threaten to expose themselves once again. Those freckles make me think of my grandmother, who used to call them “beauty spots.” Every summer, she would remind me that their patterns were formed by the universe uniquely for my body. A solar system, fitting itself faultlessly on the bridge of my nose. I’ve always thought they make me look childish.

As I lean forward to give my skin a closer look, I realize that I can see Laura in her room across the hall from the left panel of my mirror. I turn my eyes away, not wanting to invade her privacy, but I find it almost impossible not to look back. I feel a lack of control over where I place my gaze, aware of my inappropriate voyeurism. She isn’t doing anything particularly interesting, just unfolding clothes from her bag and transferring them into the nearby wardrobe. Still, her movements catch my interest. She carries herself with such mirthful energy, even when she thinks no one is watching. I place my chin on my hand, steadying myself in place so I don’t lose the precise angle that allows me to watch her from my seat. She continues humming to herself and shaking out the clothes from her bag for a few more moments. Then, abruptly, she begins rummaging through her belongings with new vigour, searching for something. She unzips the front pocket of her suitcase, triumphant. Reaching inside, she pulls out a creme-coloured dress, shaking it aggressively to loosen the wrinkles. She lays the garment down on her bed and begins to undress. My heart is beating faster now. I know I should look away, but I can’t bring myself to just yet. She removes her T-shirt first, pulling it over her head to reveal a wireless lace bra underneath. She then pulls down her skirt, leaving it to lay on the floor. My feet are restless, rhythmically pattering on the ground. Guilt makes my stomach churn. My actions are tasteless and invasive.

Laura raises the dress above her shoulders and slides it on over her head, turning to the mirror to see her figure fully. She leans closer towards the glass to get a closer look, just as I had done moments before, and a rush of panic runs through me when I realize that through the reflection her gaze has met mine. For a lingering moment, we both freeze, and a weighty wash of shame mixed with embarrassment strikes me. To my surprise, Laura’s lips draw themselves into a wanton half-smile, and she winks at me. She turns away to continue with her unpacking as if nothing at all had happened. I stand from my seat to do the same, revelling in the familiar sensation of promiscuity that overwhelms me. But—like a child, whose hands have been burned before by the coils of a hot stove—I know to keep my distance from things that make me feel this way. My body still sears, blistered from the last time I thought it was safe to share this part of myself.

Soon, I think to myself; you will be far from here. Soon, you can walk along a different beach, one far away, fingers intertwined with those of a girl who doesn’t fear her love for you. One who won’t abandon her courage come fall or hide behind mirrored reflections to meet her eyes with yours.

The events of this trip will remain, forever, within the confines of this tattered home, as they always do. Buried beneath lilac, gravel, and salt.


KELBY MACKENZIE is a twenty-two-year-old writer, who currently resides in Victoria, BC.

“Arizona Sunsets” by Charlotte Maertens

Bonnie’s parents had said they would be back in five minutes. It had been almost fifteen according to the waterproof watch she received for her birthday, and Bonnie suspected they would be a while yet. Not that she minded, really. She was too hot and drowsy to be annoyed. ‘Languid’ she thought, remembering her last vocabulary test. How far away it all seemed: classes, homework, gold stars. Her parents had taken her out of school a month before the end of the year to go on a family vacation to the Grand Canyon. ‘We are going to have such a good time’ her mother had assured her as she’d packed their bags.

They had been driving around the desert for days now, stopping at motels and roadside restaurants, her parents uncharacteristically vague about their itinerary. At this point, Bonnie started to feel they might never make it to the Grand Canyon at all.

Her parents had spent the past hour arguing about directions, her mother insisting they had missed an exit and should be turning back, and her father adamant they just had to carry on a while longer. With the sun rapidly setting over the horizon and no town in sight, Bonnie had felt the undercurrent of tension in the front of the car build like a rumbling summer storm. The appearance of this squat strip of stores seemingly out of nowhere along the endless desert road had given pause to her parents’ silent dialogue of glares and shrugs. ‘Stay in the car, sweetie,’ her mother had said as they’d pulled into the parking lot. ‘Back in five, champ. Keep the doors locked,’ her father added with a stretch and a yawn.

Now, with her parents presumably stocking up on snacks and directions, Bonnie was alone for the first time since they had left home. Her mind was too sluggish and uncooperative for her to read or even think properly to pass the time. Lying on the back seat of the rental car, staring up through the open sun roof and slowly melting into the leather upholstery, all she could focus on was the dry and relentless Arizona heat. It had a weight to it, an almost physical form: a large cat curled up on her chest perhaps, or the thick woolen blanket her mother pulled out of the closet only on the bitterest nights of January. If Bonnie held her breath, she could imagine sitting at the bottom of the swimming pool on a summer afternoon, the world as still and heavy here as it was underwater. 

The minutes ticked by, the setting sun slanting in liquid beams through the windshield, illuminating specks of dust floating in the air above her. She glanced at her feet pressed up flat against the window, her toes painted a new watermelon pink she had found in her mother’s makeup bag. Her mother had never liked pink. She had never liked the heat either. Or car trips. Bonnie frowned, and propped herself up on her elbows to look outside. Still no sign of her parents. Getting to her knees, she reached into the front seat and grabbed her mother’s discarded sweater, tying the arms in a knot around her waist. Then, before she could change her mind, she used the headrests to shimmy up through the sun roof, emerging into the last golden minutes of the day with the world awash in the deep orange of overripe clementines. From her perch, Bonnie swung her legs and slowly unpicked the French braid her mother had woven her into that morning.

Still no one, just the silence and the emptiness of the parking lot at the end of the day. None of it felt quite real; the rented car, the expanse of asphalt around it, the squat beige stores she could just see out of the corner of her eye, and the desert stretching away from her in its vast, merciless beauty.

Sometimes, when she was swimming, Bonnie looked up through the water at the surface and imagined that if she waited just long enough, and emerged in just the right way, she would find herself in a different world. She never did, no matter how many times she tried. As she sat in the hallowed quiet of the evening, it dawned on her that perhaps, just perhaps, this was the place. The place she had been looking for in swimming pools and wardrobes and potting sheds. The place where time stood still and the fabric of the universe wore to a translucence.

She could stay, she thought. She could wait for her parents to finally come out of the store, their arms laden with treats they would never normally buy at home and their smiles wide like they had not spent the past half hour arguing where she couldn’t hear them. About mom’s new nail polish, and all the late nights dad had been putting in at work lately, and the hundred other reasons they had felt this vacation was so urgent it couldn’t wait until she graduated from the sixth grade with her friends. She could stay, and of course Bonnie knew she would.

Yet, as the sun set and the desert sky bloomed to a bruised purple twilight,  a small part of her whispered, ‘you could go if you wanted to’. She could slide down the side of the car, sandaled feet meeting the asphalt with a slap, and start walking. She could take one step, then another, and then another, across the parking lot, across both lanes of the highway, and into the desert. She could walk with her eyes closed and her hands outstretched, feeling for the edges, the secret liminal spaces between this world and the next. She could keep walking, shedding a part of herself with every step in a puff of desert dust until she walked out of existence completely, leaving nothing behind. Not a footstep, not an echo.


CHARLOTTE MAERTENS lives and works in Montreal.

“The Witch” by Bohdan Enko

At night, Misha dreamt of being a witch – a witch with hair so long, it never ended, but would spread out, its trails spiralling throughout the forest; in cobwebs and birches, into abandoned wells and rivers, under mounds of dry leaves and soil. It sunk deep beneath the roots, through the thickening layers of decay, past hordes of bones and fossils. Sometimes, it would even reach as far down as the molten belly of the earth; so that when she moved, and pulled at her strands, everything twisted and churned around her.

During the day, he thought of love. He had love, but he wished that he cared, that he really cared. Her name was Andrea. Beautiful and smart, he thought, but could own it more. Principled, even if words trip her up. Most importantly, she was passionate about her work, and he respected that. She was a schoolteacher. He tried. He was present, he would cook at his apartment and clean at hers, and they’d both think of fun things to do together. They’d go on drives, or kayaking, they ate out and snuck into the movies. They had a treasure trove of nicknames and inside jokes. She was Stitch, and he Abu.

One spring evening, they’d driven out to the river, for a picnic. They brought sandwiches and watermelon. The sunset reflected off the rippling waves.

“Look at the fish,” he said, “jumping out the water. It’s cause they wanna take a look at you.”

He kissed her neck, and bit into a melon slice. She stared on ahead.

“You ever think of moving?”

He blinked. “What, like move in together?”

“No,” she said, “I mean leaving Montreal, going someplace else. If you could, where would you wanna go?”

He gave it a moment. “I don’t know. Nice here, isn’t it?”

“That’s just it, though,” she sighed. “We’re too comfortable.”

“You think so?” He sat up, and mulled it over a bit more. “I wouldn’t mind visiting Machu Pichu, save up.”

Andrea shook her head. “It’s different for you. You came over from Alberta, but not me. I’ve been here my whole life. What I want is not to visit. I want to move, to change everything. I’ve been talking about it with Mom.”

She brushed bits of dirt from her jeans.

“Change everything, huh. Don’t you like what we’ve made so far?”

“No baby,” she touched his face, “I do. You come with me. Nothing too crazy. Maybe the west coast, or the US. Not so far that we wouldn’t know what the people are like.”

“What about the kids,” he said, “at your school?”

“Oh, they’re fine. It’s not like we’d up and leave in the middle of the year. And you could bartend anywhere.”

He nodded. “So, it would be next year?”

“Actually, I was thinking sooner than that.”

“What,” he whispered, “this summer?”

She nodded.

“Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“The idea’s stirred up in me just recently. We have a few months left. If I talked to administration in the next couple weeks, they’d find someone by September, and I’d at least substitute somewhere else.”

He snorted. “So you’re dead serious?”

“I know it’s a lot,” she said.

They went over the specifics – the timeline of the move, friends and family, their apartments and furniture, where they might go, whether they preferred city or town, town or country. They talked into the night, and through the mists of the city, the stars shone dimly above them. Misha suddenly felt hungry and, remembering they had half a melon left, he devoured two pieces.

She had some too. “Anyway, give it some thought,” she said.

They slept at Andrea’s, that night. But before that, he stepped out for groceries. He wanted to walk and think. He meditated on their relationship, and questioned himself about whether his intentions were genuine. And if he wasn’t sure, wouldn’t it be wrong to go with her?

He sat down at a park swing, dropped his head in his hands. He thought it was unexpected of her to suggest this change, and he liked that she’d done it. Weren’t emotions made up, anyways? What did it matter if he loved or not, if she was everything he could want, if she surprised him, and if he put in the work, in turn? Wouldn’t the feeling realize itself, as a result of the action? But then, he also wondered grimly, whether he risked hurting her, and derailing her life over something that wasn’t yet real.

The streetlight flickered over the park. He got up and wiped his eyes.


BOHDAN ENKO is a student, idler, and dog mom in Tio’tià:ke. He has no prior publications. Connect with him on instagram @forumanarchiste.

“Connection Disrupted” by Lana Glozic

I push the ocular lenses into my tear ducts until I hear a faint click. Derek wants me to meet him in VR. I fasten my haptic suit. My vision blacks out; I’m confronted with the loading screen. I quit VR months ago and now I have to go back. I pick a server and I immediately teleport to the roof of an apartment complex. The buildings are all unrendered 3D assets, white and boxy. A generic skyline glitters in the distance. I cannot identify what city it is supposed to be. The skylines of major cities are copyrighted.

I peer into one of the apartment suites voyeuristically, only to find a fully furnished unit with no one inside. There are dishes, half-washed, left in the kitchen sink. A fluorescent light flickers.

Before I can zoom back out, I hear Derek’s disembodied voice.

“Kyle! Hey, is that you?”

I stumble on the edge of the rooftop, until I remember that I am not actually on a rooftop. I hold the button on my controller, shooting back.

“Uh, hey.”

“You okay?” Derek asks.

“Yeah, just disoriented. Let me figure out where I am, uhh…” I reconfigure the zoom settings, waving my Muppet hands in front of my face. I usually play as Kermit.  “Alright, I can see you.”

He’s yet again using an anime girl model, a pink-haired waif in a sailor uniform. Even as human 3D models were refined to be less creepy, people still opt to play as anime girls – especially the men.

Someone sprints to the edge and does a backflip, jumping up and into the nameless, featureless streets below. Everyone claps and cheers when he instantly respawns.

“He has full-body tracking!” I hear someone say.

“Nah, it’s probably just a script,” another interjects.

Another player approaches the edge, this time it’s Waluigi: “Goodbye, cruel world…waaa!”

And he drops off. An uproar builds in the room.

“Dare you to jump,” Derek remarks to me.

“No. It freaks me out.”

“Everyone’s doing it,” Derek presses. “Wuss.”

“Fine.”

I approach the edge again. I look down. Everyone goads me on:

“Jump! Jump! Jump!”

“It’s not easy being green…” I singsong. I inch forward and I fall. It reminds me of a dream that I sometimes have. Although I’m lying in bed, safe, my heart lurches as if I fell from a great height – and I wake up instantly. Like so, I respawn instantly.

“Yes Kermit!” A girl calls out in the crowd. A few people surround me and cheer.

“Go away! Go away!” I yell out in my Kermit voice, running back to Derek. I hide behind him like a shy child.

“Good to see you, man,” Derek laughs.

“We haven’t done this in a while, eh?” I try to say, but it’s drowned out by twelve-year-olds mic-spamming the Soviet anthem, bass-boosted. We’re forced to hop onto another roof, but we can still hear them droning on in the background.

 “What?”

“I said we haven’t done this in a while.”

“Yeah, why haven’t we?” he asks.

“I was busy… I, uh, actually haven’t been doing anything for a while.”

“Oh right, you graduated! Congrats,” Derek says.

My graduating class is the first to complete our entire bachelors’ degree online. In-person classes were more like an occasional treat, something that you’d choose carefully to avoid rush hour.

 “Yup, I’m still applying to places. Employers keep contacting me for an interview, and when I say I’m available – they ghost me. I don’t understand it.”

“Have you tried being a mechanical turk? They take anyone.”

“It burns my eyes too much.”

“Fair.”

We go server hopping. On one server (“Ecclesiastical Church Of VR”), we witness a baptism in a river. Someone claiming to be a pastor (some are, most aren’t) stands over SpongeBob, preparing to lower him into the water. The shadows hit his face ominously. I think he was meant to stay two-dimensional. I can hear him crying, exalted, into the microphone.

“I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

The pastor, the only player to use a human model, holds him submerged underwater. We stand around him with a few other people. The river water rushes over my feet, hitting my ankles with a strange sensation, that of water without temperature. With the convert, we all look up. The clouds roll, uniformly, across the sky. I count four rivers in total which lead to a massive headwater, some sort of oasis and a fiery silhouette. The red sun lingers on the horizon and cracks form in the barren soil. At the end of days, seven trumpets are supposed to sound. Angels will rise from the river Euphrates, where they’re bound underwater.

I bring it up.

“What always gets to me about the apocalypse is that they’ll play trumpets. What would a divine trumpet even sound like? What kind of trumpet does an angel play?”

“It’s not Chet Baker’s trumpet, that’s for sure,” Derek says.

“Do you think it’s coming?”

“Couldn’t tell you,” Derek replies.

On the next server (Impossible Maze… 😉 If You Dare), we navigate through a corn maze. The sky is a recycled texture from the previous map. There are only three directions to go in: left, right, and middle. Every direction is a dead end and the map creator drew dicks all over the walls. I try to roll my eyes, but the lenses force them in place. I wipe away the discharge collecting in each corner.

We settle in a mall inspired by ‘80s vaporwave aesthetics: escalators lined with neon lights, palm trees on either side, the gaudy storefronts of fast-food joints that no longer exist. We wear bucket hats supplied at the entrance. Blank Banshee, Floral Shoppe, and other oldies play. I’ll meet the odd teenager in a tattoo choker, who wishes they came of age in the mid-2010s.

“I think we can sit here,” I point to a bench by the fountain.

Players walking by grasp soda cups, I imagine, just to have something to fidget with. Pennies glimmer from the bottom of the fountain, some of them marked with players’ names.  

“Hey, wanna throw one?” Derek suggests.

“Sure.”

“I vaguely remember this one movie where like, if you toss a penny into that fountain in Rome, you’ll come back one day,” Derek says. “Maybe the logic applies here.”

“I really hope not,” I laugh. Italy is now a black zone.

I toss the penny in. Another anime girl approaches, trying to strike up conversation. I’m surprised that, when she speaks, it’s actually a woman. Her voice is sugary and nasal, a performative hypersexuality that is in every way sexless. She wears a form-fitting, latex minidress, and thigh-high socks. There’s no life behind the eyes. A link to her OnlyFans hovers above her head in floating text, a demented halo that charges you $20.

“Hey guys, having a good time?” she says, with serious vocal fry.

“We’re good, thanks,” I shut her down immediately. Derek grows uncomfortable and looks off, ignoring her. Some maps disable the blocking function and, as it seems, this is one of them.

“You sure you don’t want company? You two look lonely.”

She sits right between us, and when she moves to stroke the back of my neck, I break away.

“Can you go away? We seriously don’t want your services,” I have to repeat myself to her.

She turns to Derek, trying to cozy up to him, and he kicks her in the shin.

“Ow! What the fuck?” she shrieks, jumping up and away from us. The freak has her pain settings toggled on.

“You don’t know what it’s like for me, asshole,” she hisses. “I got laid off.”

She drops her sultry voice, as well as her model’s initial poise. She slouches, sounding worn out. Her hand massages a knot in her temple in small, tired circles.

Derek finally speaks up. “Yeah, we’re all laid off – why do you think we’re hanging around here? Aren’t there specific rooms for this kind of thing?”

“They’re all full,” she sighs.

We scroll through the server listings and, she’s right, the strip clubs and “private rooms” are at capacity. The woman disappears, and the chatlog in the corner notifies us that she left the room.

“That was…something?” Derek says, trying to lighten the mood. “Did we nearly get assaulted on VR?”

I huff, releasing a long-held breath.

“It’s not funny, and I’m pissed off at you, too.”

Derek pauses, completely dumbstruck. “Wait, what did I do?”

“I don’t know why you wanted me to come on here. The same thing always happens. Someone weird tries to pull something. We watch someone have an epileptic fit, and we’ll have no idea what happens to them.”

“It happens, and it happens offline, too. Get over it,” Derek dismisses me.

“Is that a supposed to be a normal reaction that someone has? Jesus. I hate being here. I hate having to be on here. Everyone’s acting like it’s fun, like it’s all a big joke, but we have to be here, and we’re alone.”

Derek scoffs incredulously. “Oh, that’s what you think being alone means? Socializing in VR, temporarily? No one’s been alone for the past two decades.”

“You see, I don’t think it’s temporary.”

“I’m just saying – Kyle, if this were a century earlier, we wouldn’t see each other again. Is that what you want instead? The good old days?”

“Maybe I do,” I say, fuming. “maybe I do. I could focus on something big, if we were allowed to be bored. I could do something great. You know, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in-”

“VR isn’t stopping you from doing that,” Derek fires back.

 A pall casts over the room. The rebuttals I had prepared in my mind fizzle out.  

“Okay, fine, I’m an idiot, I’m sorry,” I apologize. I still believe every word that I’m saying.

“Thank you, Kermit.”

 “You’re very welcome,” I say with my best Kermit impression possible.

“I saw there’s a rave happening soon, you wanna go? I know it’s not usually your thing,” Derek asks.

“I guess I’ll try it this once. Whatever.”

The rave is more immersive than I expected it to be. I’m able to shake off my inhibitions, drinking some vodka that I have on my shelf. The stage lights and sirens flood my senses; I crank up my volume, I’m okay. There’s a full crowd. We bump up against each other, we flail and jump around. I forget myself; I’m really there, I’m free. I’m surrounded by everything from furries to Hank Hills and Peter Griffins. I have to stop to catch my breath.

But the room freezes. The drum and bass lags on one extended note, repeating ad infinitum, rattling in my ears. The people around me float away. Their models revert to the default T-pose, clipping through the walls, limbs extending and breaking. I reach out, and although I can move, my model does not.

A massive error message looms over me: “CONNECTION DISRUPTED. PLEASE EXIT PROGRAM.”

The only option is OK. Instead of reconnecting, I switch off the haptic suit. My eyes are watering. I grope around for my phone and text Derek.

“sorry had to go. nice seeing you. sorry.”

All of the sensations are gone, and I am playing a game like I used to as a kid, holding a controller, staring at a bright monitor in the dark.


LANA GLOZIC is a student of Classics and Philosophy at the University of Toronto. Her work has previously appeared in Goose Fiction and the Trinity Review.

“Under Neon Light” by Daniel Harrison

In a bar where a flickering cocktail sign lends respite to weary travellers, a man sits and he watches his world burn. His fingers are calloused and lead into taut, scarred forearms. Decades of barbed hooks and fishing lines have made his skin a battlefield rubbed raw by saltwater. He wears heavy rubber boots and a woolen sweater. His thick hair tumbles out from beneath a beanie that once might have been red. An anchor’s voice drones from a staticky TV, mounted high on the wall. The man’s hollow eyes settle on long, panning shots of a coastline: grey seawater, thin waves, the shadows of a harbour. Now the camera zooms in on a column of billowing smoke. Behind that, a boat sinking as flames tear its metal and wooden flesh. The man’s chapped lips and pockmarked cheeks do not move, even as the anchor says that there is a person inside. His mouth is dry, but he is not drinking. Not yet. He wants sober regret, before searching for his reason at the bottom of a glass. Or maybe he will find his reason in the glowing sign above the bar, where men like him have sought answers to the ghosts that chase them inside. But the man knows his reason will soon be at the bottom of the harbour, entombed in the boat where he spent his life. Where his father showed him the world, one he can no longer leave, and passed on his scars for the man to hide, as travellers hide in the neon light of cocktail signs.


DANIEL HARRISON is a young writer and poet from Calgary, Canada. His work has been published in Blank Spaces magazine, and he has self-published a short chapbook of poetry. Daniel is currently enrolled in the English program at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.

“Baby Fever” by Amanda Feder

I was quickly regressing from professional to petulant teenager. Restlessness and a sharp craving for a drink surged into my temples, and I blasted my stereo to mark the end of the work week, releasing a defiant hollar like a crowing Peter Pan.

I turned to my computer for news of the weekend’s potential diversions, and cringed at an empty inbox. I refreshed my screen with reckless abandon, again and again, nearly stomping my feet. Refresh, refresh, refresh, refresh.  And then, a twinge of regret at the sight of a bold subject line.

BABY ON THE WAY!

A reminder that Sarah’s Baby Shower will take place this Sunday at 2:00 PM.

I had completely forgotten.

You have replied ‘Attending’

Click here to change your response

I hovered my cursor over the link. It aroused a faint sense of danger, like swiping a candy bar at the corner store.

THEY’LL BE DESSERTS. DESSERTS. DESSERTS. (AND SALADS!)

“Guess I dodged a bullet there,” my friend Rachel chuckled later.  She had evaded the invitee list. “Remind me to never have one of those,” she said, rolling her eyes. Rachel and her partner were in the early stages of trying to conceive.

“Oh don’t worry, I’ll remind you plenty!” I snickered. Rachel’s laugh gave way to silence.

“Well, we will want to have some kind of party when the time comes,” she said.

“Of course, of course,” I replied.

***

Sarah always wanted to get married and have children. Though she never said so to me directly, it was common knowledge among our high school clique. We all had our teenage persona, and Sarah was the traditional one. 

As teenagers, Rachel and I considered ourselves to have much loftier goals than babies, like building impressive careers and having copious amounts of sex. 

“We don’t have much in common with her,” Rachel said as we gossiped about Sarah’s odd preoccupation with motherhood, our feeling of superiority thinly veiled.

I wondered if Rachel remembered those conversations. 

More than ten years later, I found myself drowning in a sea of new mothers and imminent mothers and fiancées and newlyweds. The click-clacking sounds of high-heeled shoes made for its own kind of chatter, drowning out the female voices. I looked down at my scuffed sneakers and winced. 

I hadn’t seen Sarah in over a year, well before she announced she was pregnant, and she was now six weeks away from the due date. All her sharp angles had curved, her delicate arms and breasts had swelled. She looked as though she had been stuffed to the brim with joy. She had transformed into a life vessel.

The imminent arrival of a child had not thrown off her astute fashion sense however. I looked down, hoping to find her wearing ugly ‘mom-running-shoes’ that would make me more comfortable with mine. Sarah’s sandals were elegant, and even had a small heel. 


“Oh god, they’re so fat,” she said, catching me lookingat her feet. She let out a nervous laugh. “I’m round everywhere.”

The women sitting around her quickly joined in a unison coo, “Nooooooo.” I shook my head in agreement. 

We were lying of course, but Sarah’s new shape suited her. It made me think of ivy growing over a concrete wall, green and lush and hungry. Sarah’s body had gone wild and looked very pleased with itself. 

My gaze drifted to her stomach. Mostly hidden by a loose-fitting top, I could still make out the edges. A sudden urge came over me to reach out and touch it. I was enchanted. Then the heat of embarrassment washed over me. 

I later assured myself that I was mesmerized by the rarity of a socially acceptable protruding belly, and not by what lurked beneath the skin. 

***

“I’m pregnant!”  I blurted out.  

My mother turned towards me. “Oh.” A pause. “Oohkaay,” she said slowly, stressing each syllable, her face blank.  

I was nineteen, home for a visit from university. We were in my parents’ bathroom, and I was perched on top of the toilet seat, looking up at my mother standing in front of the mirror. The fluorescent lights cast a bluish-green hue onto her skin, making her look pale and menacing, her features severe.  

I was teaching her how to apply eyeliner. But watching her practice technique in the quiet began to overwhelm me: her face pushed up against her reflection, one hand pulling at her cheek while the other shook, gripping the pencil. I felt like I was going to burst. I had trouble keeping anything from my mother, which both of us acknowledged as unfortunate.

“First thing is, let’s not tell your father. Okay?” she said.  

I nodded, then crinkled my face. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, suddenly feeling the weight of my confession.  

“Honey, this may surprise you, but I’m totally capable of handling this situation.” My mother is a psychologist and academic, specializing in adolescence, which throughout my teenage years felt like a cruel joke. “We will take care of this situation together.”  I assumed that the word ‘situation’ came up a lot in the literature on teen pregnancy. “When did you take the test?”  

“Oh, I haven’t,” I blurted out. “But I know I’m pregnant.”

My mom looked into my face. Was she searching for that new motherhood glow?

“What makes you feel that way?” Her therapist tone singed my ears.  

“I just know!” I whined.  “I mean, you just know, right? Your body knows!”

I had never been particularly connected to my body, so if I had been truthful with myself, I would have realized that it wasn’t telling me anything.  I had cried and sweated and cursed the alien cyst I was certain had latched onto my insides. But perhaps the reason I told my mom was that I knew that she would recognize this epiphany of mine for what it was. Pregnancy wasn’t living and breathing in my gut, it was an idea floating in my mind.


“Well, let’s get a test before we jump to conclusions,” she said, letting out a little laugh.

I crossed my arms as a show of disdain. My mom looked back into the mirror, then back at me, and said, “How do I look?” 

***

Just as Sarah personified the ideal image of Expectant Mother, the dining room table looked like it had been ripped from a trendy lifestyle magazine.  Every platter of food seemed purposefully placed, according to its size and colour, drawing the eye across the spread.  

And there was a clear focal point: the cake. Resting on top of an elegant silver stand was a vanilla cake, covered with playful splashes of white and salmon-coloured icing, like dripping paint. White and purple roses decorated its surface, with green leaves sprouting out from behind them. I couldn’t tell if the foliage was real or fake or edible. No matter. It was beautiful.

Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman popped into my mind — Sarah and I and all our friends had to read it in high school.  I had a vague memory of a pink cake. Had been in the shape of a woman?  

I remember being so moved by the novel. As she feels increased pressure to conform to patriarchal norms, in particular to get married and have children, the protagonist steadily loses her ability to eat. Like most high school girls I knew, I had started experimenting with obscure and exhaustive diets. I decided Atwood was investigating the common eating disorder, and by extension, my life, and found it thrilling.

Did society play a role in all this? I wondered. Yes, but it has more to do with fashion models, and less to do with family planning, I concluded, not quite making the connection.

The cake had been in the shape of a woman. Marian bakes it at the end of the bookand devours it, reclaiming her relationship to food and her sense of self. 

“Are you going to take some?” A woman asked me as she pointed to the platters of food.

I moved  aside and watched as guests shyly helped themselves to the salads and the meats and the bread. Butno one touched the cake. 

It was far too pretty to eat.

***

When I hit puberty, I started suffering from a recurring nightmare that I was going into labor. The dreams varied, but the crux remained the same: the time had come for me to deliver a baby and I was scared shitless. Faceless strangers dragged me by my feet, presumably towards a delivery room, and I grabbed hold of a door frame with both hands. Like a cartoon character fighting a tornado, my legs flailed up into the air until I was almost upside down, my knuckles turning white as I tightened my grip, a dark fate ready to suck me up at any moment.

“What do you think it means?” my therapist asked me, when I told her about the dreams.

It was the clichéd therapist response, like most of her responses seemed to be, which infuriated me.  

I had been told that I was an angry teenager, and I had been sent to therapy against my will. I promised myself I would rise to the occasion and live up to the role which I had been cast.

“Isn’t it your job to tell me what it means?” I quipped.

“I do have a theory,” she said, maintaining eye contact. My hostility never managed to throw her off balance. “Do you know why you are pregnant in the dream?”

I gawked at her. “Well, have you had sex with someone?” she asked.

The word ‘sex’ made me recoil in my seat. “I don’t know,” I muttered.

She leaned towards me. “Exactly!” 

I looked to the ground, not wanting to participate in her satisfaction.

“Amanda, I think you are carrying a heavy burden. A weight. And it doesn’t belong to you; it’s not supposed to be there. And you need to let go of it, you need to get it out of your system. A good first step would be to talk about it here.” 

I looked up. She was staring at me intently.  

“I see what you are doing,” I sneered. 

“What do you mean by that?” Her smile was taunting. 

No, I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. So, we sat the rest of the session in silence. 

***

Sarah’s parents were hosting the baby shower, and their home conjured memories of teenagehood.  

All of us huddled around the kitchen island countertop, hurling cheese puffs into our mouths. Sarah’s parents had a rare quality in those days: they weren’t bothered by boys in their home.  And while I secretly relished the coed gatherings at Sarah’s, I kept a slight distance from members of the opposite sex in those early days of high school.  

Some of the boys would sneak in forties of beer, hiding the bottles within their oversized sweaters. They laughed nervously with every sip, and the rest of us would try not to stare, pretending to be unfazed by the illicit alcohol consumption.  

Now, rows of mimosas were lined up along the kitchen table. I grabbed one and slurped half of it down.

“Amanda, oh Amanda, I’m so thrilled you could make it!” Sarah’s mom, Tina, pulled me into a hug.  “It’s so good to see you.”  

I was stunned by the sincerity in her voice.

“How are you? How are your parents?” She was beaming, so much so that I couldn’t look at her directly.

“Oh, you know, good!” I tried my best to sound chipper. “Congratulations!”

“I know, I know, I can’t believe it, I’m a grandmother, I’m going to be a grandmother, I’m thrilled!” She said, giddy, as her eyes darted across the room. She turned back to me and lowered her voice. “I’m glad you helped yourself, no one is touching the alcohol.”  

“Oh… ” My voice trailed off as I looked around the room. Guests were holding beverages, but they were drinking something else, something pink.  

“I guess the raspberry lemonade is more of a hit,” Tina added with a sigh. “But have you tried the cake?” She picked up a plastic plate from the coffee table behind her, and plopped a chunk of dessert into her mouth, licking the icing off her fingers. “It’s delicious.” And then she was off, zigzagging across the kitchen, greeting her guests. 

***

“The biological clock is a total myth!” I declared.

My parents and I were sprawled out on their living room couches, sipping coffee after brunch. I was telling my mother about a new fertility study I had read about. 

“Sure,” she said, barely looking up from her book.

“Well, if you ask me,” my father piped in from across the room,  “You’re past your prime.” His face showed a slight hint of a smile, leaving it to me to decide whether he was joking or not. “There is a reason women in other places start having children when they’re fifteen.”

The irony is that when I was that age, my father made no distinction between boys with sex, between sex and babies, and all of the above were strictly forbidden. 

He once caught my teenage boyfriend in our house at 3 AM. “What do you think you’re doing!” my father raged, not a question but a threat, his voice expanding like a cloud of smoke, permeating the whole house. “Get out!” he snarled.  

I still remember the way Tom’s teeth chattered. The blood vessels in his eyes glistened pink in the dark.

My dad was hostile towards any boy that came into his house during the day, and after the incident with Tom, none dared to visit after dark. I was better off burying contraband in the backyard than bringing someone home for dinner. Dating became a weapon I could wield against my parents. Boys and sex and babies merged into one murky symbol of power and rebellion.

“Haven’t you heard the term geriatric mother?” my father snickered.

“Is he still talking?” my mother finally looked up from her novel.  She sighed, took a beat, and then grinned from ear to ear, her way of setting up for a joke. “Anyways, we aren’t destined to have grandchildren. I have accepted that I will have grand-doggies.” 

The gift my parents bought my new dog, a rubber chicken chew toy, shot me a look from the hallway mantle. 

I thought of Rachel. “I’m turning 31 next year,” she said, wringing her hands. “If it doesn’t happen now, it never will.” 

The story had changed when I wasn’t looking. I had awoken from a dream to find myself in a new fairy tale.

***

Women had gathered in the living room. They were comparing smart watches and that current day’s step count.  A few older relatives were arranging the gifts into a semicircle on the dining room floor.   

I felt a wave of nausea, I had forgotten to buy a present. 

I headed to the bathroom but as I hit the staircase, I felt a poke in the back. “So how are you doing?  Sorry we haven’t been able to talk more, it’s crazy in here,” Sarah said, her shoes in her hands.

“Oh please, no problem,” I said.  “How are you feeling?”

“Good, good. It was harder in the  beginning. Now I’m fine.” She rubbed her belly as she spoke, which seemed fitting.

I wasn’t sure what to say but I didn’t want the silence between us to go on long. “Are you scared?” I blurted out, and then felt my cheeks go hot. I expected Sarah to laugh, to brush off my naive question, surely far too personal a question for the time and place.  But she looked like she was considering it thoroughly.

“Not anymore.” She smiled. I smiled back. I had never seen Sarah look this serene.

“Are you ok? You look a little pale.” 

I let out an awkward snort. “Oh don’t worry about me, I’m fine!” 

Sarah gave me a hug and then turned into the dining room, where she was being beckoned to open gifts.

I swallowed hard and followed Sarah into the dining room.

“Do you want the rest of mine?” Tina was suddenly beside me.  “It’s too sweet for me,” she said, and put her mimosa into my free hand. 

“Thanks,” I replied, but she was gone, back into the kitchen.   

The rest of the women were kneeling around Sarah, looking up at her as she held a leopard-printed onesie. I remained standing, smiling sheepishly, with both hands firmly clutching silver-plated flute glasses filled with booze.


AMANDA FEDER is an emerging writer from Montreal. In 2018, she was selected for the Quebec Writers’ Federation Mentorship Program.

“Growing” by Nadia Staikos

Josh wants nothing to do with my idea of digging up half the back lawn. He thinks it’ll be too much work and plus, he doesn’t have the energy. A garden will save some trips to the grocery store, maybe, a bit, by midsummer, I say. We both know this is a reach. A few carrots and tomatoes won’t make a dent. I need a distraction, I tell him. A project. 

I’ve noticed that people are going back to the basics—growing things and sewing things and baking. My friend tried churning butter. I realize how truly incapable I am. People used to make their own flour, and I can’t even bake a loaf of bread. I tell Josh I need something to help me feel wholesome. I already have the kids on board, so we all know we’re about to become vegetable gardeners. They’ve started painting some wooden stakes, labelling “beets” and “zucchini” in shaky vertical letters, and they’re bouncing around and cheering. Josh gives me his blessing, once he makes it clear that he does not, personally, want to deal with a shovel. 

Digging it up is more difficult than I thought, though I’m too stubborn to admit it. The boys give up after two minutes. I tell them to keep the dirt in the garden, but they chase each other around the yard, shaking the clumps of sod. There are grubs hanging onto the grass roots. Hundreds of them, it seems. It’s revolting, but I can’t help but fixate on the word juicy. The grubs are juicy. They don’t seem to have bothered the grass by chomping on the roots, but I don’t want them in the garden. I pick them off with my gloved fingertips and throw them across the yard. Robins are gathering at the edges, the bravest of them hopping forward for a bite. The boys whoop with delight.

The sun sinks low and Josh turns on the barbecue. I’m soaked in sweat. The boys are gone now, probably sitting in front of the TV. I regret having marked out the perimeter of the garden before I started digging, before I knew how difficult it would be. Josh gives some laughing encouragement, and I appreciate that he hasn’t once said I told you so. He cheers me on for being a third of the way done, and there’s no way I’m stopping now, not until the whole job is finished. Bags of dirt, seedlings and seed packets line the fence, and I’m not going inside until they’re safe in the ground.

I notice Josh and the kids eat the burgers, but I keep digging. The repetition has me in a trance, and the rhythmic tck tck tck noises made by the shovel have become music. I don’t want to interrupt my flow, and as the sky darkens, I see Josh illuminated through the kitchen window, putting my dinner in the fridge for later. Later, later, I see the lights flicker on and off upstairs, trailing the bedtime progress. Bathroom for baths and brushing teeth. On, off. Bedroom lights for the length of a couple of stories. On, off. Pale blue glow of the nightlight. I look up, and I can see Josh’s face reflecting back the light of his laptop from the couch.

My back starts aching in that way that’s tolerable, but indicative of something worse to come. My hands are sweaty inside the gloves, and I know when I remove them, I’ll find a blister sitting atop each tender spot. I almost have all the grass out. I tear at the last few clumps of sod and bang them against my shovel to shake off the excess soil. The grubs appear to glow against the blue smudge of night. The robins have left, so there’s no one there to eat the nasty little things when I toss them. 

It feels like I’ve really accomplished something now. When I step back to survey my progress, it hurts that it looks like a mess. I begin to stalk around my new kingdom, plunging in my shovel like an errant javelin and turning big scoops of soil, over and over again. I smash at the largest clumps I find, breaking everything into smaller and smaller pieces. When I run out of clumps, I look up to the sound of the sliding door, and Josh tells me he’s going to bed.

It doesn’t really get dark in the city. Nights don’t even have stars, not really. I know you can see a few, but when you’ve actually seen a true night sky, it’s impossible to accept a city’s attempt. And if it isn’t dark enough for stars, then I don’t see any reason why I should stop working. I slice open the bags of topsoil and manure and whatever else the salesperson sent me home with, and spread it all around. And then I dig and turn the soil some more. I exchange the shovel for a rake and stab around at the few remaining clumps, and then it feels like it’s time to smooth things out. This part is nice. The rake runs through without resistance, and the little patterns from the tines bring to mind monks and sand. A raccoon pops its head over the fence and then disappears again.

It occurs to me there is probably an ideal time to put plants into the ground, and after midnight is not that time—but the moon is hanging low in the sky, full like a breast, and that has to count for something. The boys and I had drawn a map together, laying out where everything should be planted. I reference the creased sheet as I work. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, herbs, zucchini. I pile up some furrows and pop in carrot and beet seeds.

It’s so humid, and the air presses in. Time eludes me, but it must be late because none of the interior lights are on in any of the houses around me. The garden centre boxes have been emptied, and an untouched swath of dirt across the front edge alerts me that something is missing. I consult the map again. Marigolds. We didn’t write the word in, but the boys had drawn orange flowers along the edge. We had planned on planting them along the front of the garden to help keep pests away, and I forgot to pick some up. I step back and try to admire my handiwork, but it bothers me that I can’t complete the job properly. I can’t remember the last time it felt like I was fulfilling any of my roles completely—a bit of an employee, a bit of a mother, a bit of a friend, a worn-out shell that’s a bit of a partner. I feel weary, and realize that it isn’t just the marigolds; it isn’t just the physical labour. I’m exhausted.

I sit in the grass and take off my gloves. I run my hand along the empty space, pinching tiny clumps of soil with the tips of my fingers. If I were a plant, I would like to be here, I think. There’s a comfort in knowing that the world is asleep around me. Now that I’ve stopped working, my arms heave a sigh of relief and make it known that there will be no more exertion from them tonight. I take off my shoes and socks, and step into the garden. I’m sweaty, and filthy, and because it doesn’t matter, and because it is so tempting, I gently lay down and stretch my body along the plot of the missing marigolds. It’s soft. Alive, like a body. I snuggle in until the earth is comfortably hugging every part of me. I close my eyes, and at some point, I fall asleep.

I wake up to a fat, cold rain, falling through thick air—not drops, but balls of water exploding all around me. When a person swallows a mouthful of water, they must first form it into a ball, and if one loses the ability to do that properly, they will choke. It’s still dark out, but softened in a way that belies morning. I’m surprised that I don’t feel cold, and I’m surprised that I have no urge to stand up and go inside. The soil is still holding all of the warmth from yesterday’s sun, and is breathing it on me and around me. And because the dirt is taking care of me, and everything is alive and grateful for the rain, I go back to sleep.

I see red light through my eyelids and feel the sun on my skin. When Josh comes out with the boys, he looks worried. The boys kiss my cheeks and then run around the garden, careful to stick to the paths between furrows, exclaiming about the new plants. I had saved some of the label stakes for them, and they match the plants to the stakes and verify with me before pushing them into the ground. I decline breakfast, and I smile at Josh, letting him know that everything is fine.

It’s the boys who understand best, sooner. Instinctively. It’s afternoon, and as if it were sand at the beach, they scoop soil with their hands and sprinkle it over my body. I used to take pictures of their hands. Sometimes, scrolling through my phone at night, the photos made me cry; their delicious puppy-paw-chubbiness, their potential, disbelief at the man’s hands they would become, and the things I pray they’ll never be used for. The handfuls become bigger, and they make sure to cover every inch of me. Not my face though, not yet. And because I’m smiling, and Josh notices my encouraging nod, he helps the boys with this last task. They kiss my forehead, my eyes—the last things left—and when they are finished, I feel the water. I’m so grateful they remembered the water. 

I feel held, everywhere—what I imagine a womb must feel like. Warm and enclosed, pulling everything that I need into myself from my surroundings. I am comfortable. I exist. I’m not sure what else there is.

It’s hard to judge how much time passes, drifting in and out of sleep without a view of the sun. When I can feel them walking around above me, I know it must be daytime. To hear their voices fills the space between us with the energy of a smile. I feed off of it, and send it back with all I can muster, which is everything now. That’s what I can finally give to them: everything. What is it, to love?

The changes have been so strange. I have tendrils. They are being pulled from the back of my body, and instead of getting pulled out, they tug and reach deeper into the ground. I keep burrowing deeper, glad the grubs are gone. I’m the unraveling ends of a knit sweater. It doesn’t hurt, and I don’t feel as if I’m becoming less, but more. It makes me feel powerful—more and more as time goes on. And even though I can’t feel the drops on my skin, I know when there’s water falling on the soil above. It soaks in all around me, and I pull it up from below. It’s an insatiable thirst, but I haven’t yet felt anything lacking, and I recognize that I have everything I need. I used to imagine what this must feel like. 

I know something is about to happen, so I’m not frightened when I start to split open. It is just meant to be, and I feel accomplished because I realize everything has been working towards this. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, one step after another. When I break through the soil, back in the sun again, the children are delighted to see my split shell. They each take hold of a half and help to pull my old self away. And the sunshine, it fills a cup I’ve never had before, and I drink deeply, with purpose.

Now that I’m back on the surface, the people spend more time with me. The small ones make a plant marker that is different than the others, and they stick it into the ground beside me. I am pleased, and I recognize that the markings on it used to mean something important. On dry days, they give me water. They spend more time in the garden on those days, when the light is most nurturing. They uproot some plants, but tend to others. And often, when it’s dark, the large one sits beside me and makes sounds I can’t interpret; they roll in and out in comforting waves, and flutter and vibrate in the air around me. We are alone, together. I am entranced. I reach, I stretch my leaves. I grow.

There are patterns and cycles. Things that help, and things that don’t. There are things that could help—I have cravings and desires they may never comprehend, but would be within their grasp to fulfill if they ever learn to use their other senses. This is enough though, enough for now. I flower, and the small ones exude energy of pure joy and surprise. They stick their noses right inside my blossoms and as they breathe in, I curl my petals around their soft skin. Loves, I will create something for you. I sing, and the bees come.

All of my energy is directed into my offerings now, and they get larger as the days get shorter. I hope for acceptance. And there’s a feeling I know I used to have a word for, and I feel like I would do anything for these beings, and I want the best for them. I want them to feel good. When they reach to pick from me the fruit I have created, I feel realized. It’s all I ever wanted, to be able to give them a piece of myself. I give them all I can. And they take from me—they take and then they give some back, saving my seeds to return to the soil next year, and in this way we will always be together. They understand.


NADIA STAIKOS lives in Toronto with her two children. Her work has appeared in perhappened mag, Blue Lake Review, and The Daily Drunk. She is currently working on her first novel. You can find her on Twitter @NadiaStaikos.