‘Night Shades’ by Matthew Murphy

6

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

(from Fugitive Dreams)

When his eyes opened he found himself curled into a crescent against the corrugated metal of the culvert, wedged into the exact position he was in when he fell asleep. It was still dark, the wee hours of the night when desires ran loose and dreams filled the world with their allusive illusions, their mirage worlds built of hopes and fears and insecurities, their shifting vistas ever-changing, the space behind them infinite.

For a moment all was still and quiet save for a puff of breeze exhaling through the pipe that lifted a strand of his hair and tickled his scalp, sending a not unpleasant shiver down his back. He took stock of himself and his surroundings—he was Tommy Roenick, it came to mind, and he was a fugitive from a federal penitentiary, had been so for over a day now as a matter of fact, and he was now cowering in a wet culvert under a country road somewhere up in the northern reaches of the province. His father he had never met, his mother and brother were dead, and he was all alone in the world, more so now than ever. And he hadn’t eaten in a day and a half.

He looked drowsily to his left, at the open mouth of the culvert, at the small creek of runoff rivulets now silver in the moonlight, and thought of how pretty it looked in the hint of light that sifted spectral from the sky. As he did so, hoping to once again close his eyes and catch another hour or two of sleep, he felt on his other side a sudden feeling of arctic coldness, encroaching and drawing what warmth there was away from him. He turned, and when he saw what was there he froze with fear.

He was not alone.

A couple metres away hunched a shadowy presence, as if coalesced out of the very darkness, drawing shade as well as heat. He was unable to even gasp, the sound locked in his throat. He felt paralyzed, much like he did back in his solitary cell when a shadowy presence hung over him and held him frozen as he lay in his bed. Perhaps this same presence that was crouching in wait in these close confines with him, a blackness, a coldness, an insidious absence.

A high-pitched, whimpery sigh escaped his mouth as though he were deflating, and the sound jarred him out of his frozen trance. He shimmied backward toward the mouth of the culvert, only to see the shadow elongate itself toward him, its spindly arms reaching and stretching, elastic, approaching, encroaching like a darker shade of night unlit by any moon. Again, he backed up a foot toward the mouth of the tunnel and then stopped, realizing that this person, this spirit, this entity, this whatever it was, could reach for him anyway even if he tried to bolt. He looked into the dark blankness of the face cut from the cloth of midnight, tried to see into the blackness for any sign of features, and saw only an indistinct wavering born from the strain of his squinting.

“Who are you?” barked Tommy in a ragged, frightened voice, much like he did in his solitary cell when he felt the presence stalking behind him. “What are you? What do you want from me?”

He heard a low, basso-profundo moaning, a bestial growl coming through the ether like a faraway radio transmission. From here, from there, from everywhere. Or from some other plane entirely.

He gasped, frozen to the spot with fear.

Once again he felt icy fingers seize his heart. He felt cold and fragile in the clutch of this being; he felt invaded and infiltrated and unable to do anything but sit rigid in fear while an invisible force held his heart like a ripe tomato and threatened to squeeze it till it burst inside his chest and his life dissolved into the blackness of the night.

He felt the vise upon his heart tighten, and spots formed in front of his eyes. He gasped in pain and then backed out of the culvert, falling into the muddy puddles of standing runoff below. As he picked himself up off the ground he felt the pressure round his heart slacken, the invisible fingers like cold metal cuffs around his heart unclasping. With the sudden infusion of air into his lungs, he inhaled in relief and took off through a break between the trees, running through the bushes as fast as he could, the twigs snapping against his face, his lungs tugging for air. He tripped over a root and fell headlong onto the rocky path, scraping his hands in the dirt as he put them out ahead of himself to break his fall. No time to lick his wounds. He got back up on strained and rubbery legs and continued running.

Behind, he could hear footfalls on the trail, the rustled parting of foliage, the snap of twigs underfoot. Adrenaline propelled him forward, and he responded to this chemical call with great clarity, legs pumping, feet deftly avoiding the catch of roots, the gnashing stub of rocks. A fork in the trail: which way? Each option trailed off into a night-black hole in the hairy brush. He opted for left and kept running, running and sweating. How long could he keep this up? His legs burned with every stride, the furious pumping of his thighs reaching the limits of muscular exertion.

He stopped a moment to catch his breath and rest his legs. Enfolded in the gnarled, bristling trunks and arms of the forest, and in the cloak of night, he felt as though trapped in a childhood nightmare. He wondered a moment, am I really being chased? Now that he had stopped a moment, the cuts in his back and hand began stinging, singing with pain. He needed a doctor and he knew it. He looked down at his hand, cut badly on the prison sewer-grate, at the dried blood that soaked into the dressing, the blood tracing the jagged fissure of bad luck running through his palm.

A crunch, a crash, the forest transmuting the sound of footfalls to the sound of its own rustled foliage, its own disturbed stones and roots and fallen twigs. An icy presence looming behind him.

A cold breath on his neck.

He continued running. He wished, oh he wished he knew where he was going. He had started out north when riding in the truck. At least he thought so. Now where? What would he run into? And what would happen if he stopped?

The sound of running water, a burbling stream in the bristling nightwood blackness. A few steps ahead through a tangle of twigs and leaves and he could see the flashing water of the stream carrying a quicksilver skim of moonlight on its downward course. He bent down and cupped his hands and slurped several deep handfuls of the cold water, his cut hand stinging, and looked behind him to see if there was some other way he could go to avoid getting drenched.

He saw a slight opening in the tangled weaving of the foliage, and as he parted the branches to further explore he felt invisible talons slice down his left forearm. He gasped in pain and looked down at a row of four deep furrows scratched into his skin, his blood blooming black in the night. He looked all about him, straining his eyes in the darkness, but could see no one or nothing.

Frightened, he jumped into the running water, slipping and sliding among the boulders and tumble of mossy logs and branches. The cold seized his breath. He gained a footing by holding onto the branch of a fallen tree, it reaching up as though for help in its dying fall. He helped himself along, using his grip for leverage, and then slipped down into deeper water, up to his waist, sliding amongst the slimy boulders and sunken branches. His groin froze; his penis protested and withdrew from the temperature, and the flow of water was nearly overwhelming. He feared he was going to be carried away downstream to God knows what fate. He struggled to regain his footing, and paddled himself with struggling, wheeling arms against the current, and he lunged forward and managed to grab a fistful of twigs and leaves dangling from a bent-backed birch leaning over the river from the other side as though to lend a hand. He pulled himself up, straining, with the handful of birch foliage, and he managed his way across, and he disappeared through an opening in the tangled bush and was again enfolded in the spiny embrace of the forest.

***

Overhead, the flapping of a crow in the gnarled woven canopy. He was cold, shivering at the base of a cedar, obscured in the foliage. His pants were soaked, and the temperature was dropping, autumn in the air and cooling it fast these darkest hours of the early morning. No sign of his mysterious pursuer anymore, no telltale crunch and rustle through the underbrush, no ominous vibrations of impending approach. It smelled of woodchip earthen dampness, of bitter bark and rotting leaves. The pain in his hand and arm and back had numbed awhile from his dash through the stream, but his nerves were now awakening, and an itchy throbbing now defined the edges of the deep lacerations he had incurred. For all he knew he could now get tetanus, lockjaw, whatever the hell they called it. Where the hell am I, he wondered, and where the hell do I go next?

There was no room for carelessness. The story had surely broken by now. The sky would be abuzz with helicopters in the morning, and the police would be scouring the countryside from high above with binoculars, all the way down through the snouts of sniffing dogs. They had probably been doing so already, were perhaps already near. Every main road was probably blocked at some point; police from every force would be mobilized; even military reservists could be in on the search. Most breakouts did not end well.

He shivered and he shook and he ran his fingers through his hair, and he squatted, too tense to actually sit, too primed to relax. God, how he craved a cigarette now, something to calm the nerves. He felt frightened in the forest, directionless. He looked about and all he could see traced in the blackness was the tangle of the thick impenetrable bush, the bristling forest that grew seemingly from the stones themselves through a thin medium of acidic soil ground under the press of glaciers long retreated to their alpine and arctic redoubts.

He looked about in the oppressive darkness and guessed it was about three o’clock in the morning. It was late whatever the exact time, and he was adrenalized and starving. He felt as though he could not carry on much longer without some sort of a meal and some rest. But the pressure was on to keep moving. Oh Christ, hope I can find some shelter and some food, he thought, I gotta move, I gotta move, and it’s getting cold and I can’t sleep in the open in the bush with the cold and the animals and all the heat that’s surely coming my way. And whatever it is that’s on my tail.

He stood up, embowered in the thick brush about him, and continued his way through the forest, on a winding root- and boulder-strewn path, feeling his stumbly, uncertain way in the dark, pushing twigs out of the way, brushing against leaves. He heard only his own footsteps, his own heartbeat, the rustle of the foliage and the crunch of stones he stepped upon, with nary a thought as his mind had contracted like his stomach from hunger and nerves and fatigue.

At last, the woods gave out into a stony field, and he walked out watched only by the ancient eyes of stars staring out from the prehistoric past, some long since burned out, their spectres glowing faintly in the night.  A cool breeze brushed through the long grasses of the field and through his hair, and it ruffled his sodden clothes. He shivered and kept on his way. An owl hooted. He stood to take stock of where he was, what he should do.

“Okay,” he said aloud, squatting in the field over a pitted table stone in which were embedded the fossilized denizens of an ageless sea, a Braille record of earthen memory, trilobites and shellfish and nameless ancient plants turned to stone in the gorgon stare of half a billion years. His breath smoked in the darkness. “Okay, I think I’ve lost it. I’m fuckin’ crazy. That thing—that thing—fuckin’ chased me all this way.”

He ran his hands through his hair on the sides of his head over and over again for sake of nerves, and continued speaking in the solitude of night. “Then it scratches me. I don’t fuckin’ get it, what’s goin’ on, I don’t understand a goddamn thing. And I’m all—I’m all cut up and bleeding everywhere and I need a fuckin’ doctor.” He stood up and kicked at the earth in impotent rage, dislodging a stone from the grass and the shallow soil.

“And I, I gotta be, I gotta be all over the news by now.” He paced back and forth, a few steps this way, a few steps that, his hands on the side of his face. “I need a fucking smoke, I’d kill for a smoke right now, I’d absolutely kill for a cigarette right now.”

A glance up at the stars in their midnight millions fixed in their burning points into the depthless cold of eternal night, fixed and impassive on his plight. What you need, he thought, weaving his self questioning back under the surface, back into thought, “Is to get your hands on a car,” his thoughts threading out through speech once again. And get your hands on a gun and hit a bank or a store—there’s no way around it—and take the cash. And get to a safe house of some kind so you can make further plans to disappear. Only then can you breathe easy. Only then.

“But now,” he continued aloud, choosing his words with care as he tried to still the mounting and inarticulate panic within him. “Rest. Get some sleep. You have no idea where you’re going or what is even happening right now.”

To this end he walked to the edge of the clearing and sat at the base of a tall cedar. He huddled himself against the cold and he shivered, and he lay his head against the rough bark of the tree, and he clutched the throbbing furrows of his arm with this hand, and he sat, teeth chattering in the coolness of the night, and awaited the arrival of sleep. He dissolved into drowsiness, eyes looking absently out at the darker shades of the trees against the lighter darkness of the night, and as he looked out he saw something in the corner of his gaze.

A pair of yellow eyes were fixed on him in the distance, shining faintly though staring with cold intent. Small pinpricks, hard to make out, but very much there, their indistinct pupils trained on him. A shiver of fear prickled through him.

“Go away,” he mumbled hoarsely, meeting the gaze of the eyes upon him in the night. “Fuck off! Leave me alone, whoever you are!”

But the eyes just stared at him as he muttered another curse and slowly closed his eyes and clutched the furrows in his arm now scabbing over. His own consciousness scabbed over for a while to undo the damage of the last couple days and make him forget the growing, gnawing hunger in his contracting, boiling gut. From time to time he emerged from his shallow, uncomfortable sleep and looked out and saw, or thought he saw, those beady yellow eyes still trained upon him in the blurry darkness.

And when he closed his eyes again he would plunge into staticky electric dreams of shapes and shadows and the breath of his uncle stinking of booze as he wound up to whip him with his belt and the drawn mask of his mother’s face in the prison visiting room and her croaking voice, “Sleep tight in here, Tommy, don’t let the bed bugs bite.” And the whirling sirens of the police upon him escape after escape and … and the twisted, broken shape of Lynne Hurst lying on the pavement as he looked down in horror at what he had done. She suddenly pulled herself up onto her elbows, her movements jerky, unnatural, animated as though her body were a puppet poorly worn by another spirit. Her head turned toward him, the eyes white, a grimace on her dead white face as she looked at him, into him, through him—

And still those eyes when he opened his, burning fires of midnight light, beacons to Bedlam’s shore, he drifting ever closer.

“Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite,” that haggish croak as his mother hovered over him, her bony fingers clamped upon his throat. She flashed decaying, sharpened teeth as she grimaced, her hands upon his neck squeezing, squeezing, pools of black tar bleeding into his vision, signifying his own extinction—

“Jesus Christ,” he murmured, opening his eyes again, a light breeze blowing through his hair, the eyes upon him still, “I just want to sleep without any goddamn dreams, please God just let me sleep just let me sleep—”

This cycle carried on through the eternity of the wee hours until at last the sky lightened, and the dreams went the way of the darkness.

 


MATTHEW MURPHY was born and raised in Sudbury, Ontario, and currently lives in Montreal. His debut novel A Beckoning War (Baraka Books, 2016) has been called “the product of an amazing new talent” by Quill & Quire, and “a creditable 1st novel” by Margaret Atwood (on Twitter.) Night Shades is an excerpt from his completed novel manuscript, a literary horror thriller entitled Fugitive Dreams.

Copyright © 2018 by Matthew Murphy. All rights reserved.

 

‘Goodnight Tommy’ by Pat Nadeau

5

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Tommy stopped believing in monsters after his mother died.

It wasn’t long after his mother’s chemo treatment that he started to forget what her face looked like. He could no longer see her bright, radiant smile. The glow of her beautiful brown eyes. Her calm reassuring voice silent. His father tried to explain it to him as best he could. How mommy was really sick and was going to need a lot of special medicine to make her feel better. He told him that he needed to be a big boy. His father couldn’t tell his little boy the truth outright, that his mother was dying and there wasn’t that much time left. 

Tommy tried really hard to be the big boy his parents asked him to be, but his mother’s degeneration was too much for him to handle. His mother did not respond to the treatment as well as they had hoped. After a couple of months Tommy could no longer recognize the woman in his mother’s bed. What lay there instead was a grotesque version of her former self: her skin was pale and yellow, her eyes were sunk in, and were struggling to stay open. Even her hair was falling out, with only little strands remaining.

Tommy had a hard time understanding the whole thing. What used to be his mother was now turning into what he could only imagine a person looked like before turning into a skeleton, like the decorations he saw last Halloween when his parents took him around the neighbourhood trick-or-treating. He remembered how scary they looked. His mother looked like she was disappearing, fading away into nothing. He didn’t know it, but his mother was always aware of the horror in her son’s face, the shock in his eyes, when he came to see her. And this look of fright and confusion, which she held herself responsible for, only made her condition worse. It broke her heart to leave her son like this.

He wasn’t with her the night she died. His father had taken him into his mother’s room to say goodnight, like they always did. Tommy was usually too afraid to go in alone. His father held his hand as he walked up to his mother’s bedside. She was barely awake when Tommy said goodnight. She rolled her head over to her side to see  him standing there, with that same look of fear in his face. But she somehow managed to smile, and for a second her eyes had that old glow. Tommy saw this look in her face and for a moment he wasn’t afraid anymore. She lifted her hand, and touched his face. She summoned up all her strength and said: “I love you very much Tommy. Remember to always be brave.”

She didn’t know it then, but that would be the last thing she would ever say to him.  Tommy’s father took him back to his room and tucked him into bed. His father stood in the doorway for a moment. He wanted to tell Tommy that everything would be okay, but he knew it wouldn’t be.

“Good night Tommy.” That was all he could say before gently shutting the door to his son’s room.

Later that night, Tommy woke up due to a sound that he had never heard before. It wasn’t until he walked out into the hallway that he understood where it was coming from. It was dark, but Tommy could see a ray of light shining out from under the door of his mother’s bedroom. He used that as a guiding light to make his way across to the hall, but it wasn’t bright enough to illuminate the rest of the hallway. Framed family portraits looked transformed in the darkness. Their faces in the frames appeared misshapen and distorted. The sound that woke Tommy up was muffled, but it was persistent. And as he approached the door, the noise grew louder. Tommy slowly walked  on the tips of his toes, and eventually reached the room.

The moment he opened the door would be burned into his memory for the rest of his life. The weight of it all was almost too much. Tommy couldn’t move or make a sound. He just stood in the middle of the doorway. He saw his father holding his mother’s hand with his head buried in a pillow attempting to muffle the sound of his crying. His mother’s head was rolled over on its side, facing the doorway, looking directly at Tommy. She seemed to stare right through him, and her mouth was wide open. His father lifted his head up to wipe his face, and he noticed Tommy standing in the doorway. He sprung up from the bed, and picked his son up into his arms, holding him tight as he closed the door behind them. He was still crying as he carried Tommy off and back to his room –

That was the last time Tommy saw his mother.

By the time the funeral proceedings had finished, and the distant relatives has parted ways, Tommy was almost seven years old. He didn’t talk very much before the funeral, and not at all after the burial. His father was taking care of him as best he could, but without a mother, a child is bound to lash out. This is exactly what his father thought his son was doing when he started experiencing what he could only identify as night terrors. He would wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of Tommy screaming. At first his father let this behaviour slide, believing that it was due to the serious trauma Tommy had from losing his mother at a young age. But when he confronted Tommy about this, Tommy was reluctant to tell him what was wrong.

Over a quiet dinner one night, he told his son:“I hope you know everything’s going to be okay. You don’t have to be afraid to talk about it.”

Tommy stared down at his plate. His father made him look him in the eyes and asked: “what scares you so much? I can’t keep waking up to you screaming late at night.”

“I keep hearing scary noises at night. It feels like something is in the bedroom with me.”

His father was understanding, but he remained skeptical. He figured this was all in his son’s head. He assured Tommy that there was nothing to be afraid of, and that there were no monsters in his room. That nothing was going to happen, and that he was perfectly safe in his own room at night. He was wrong.

Tommy’s father tucked Tommy into bed every night. He told Tommy he loved him, kissed him on the head, and then closed the door. One night the moon was big and bright in the sky, and it shone right through Tommy’s bedroom window. His goodnight ritual required that the blinds were always pulled up so the outside light could come in, like a night light. It wasn’t much, but it allowed him to make out most of the shapes and shadows in his room. He did his best to clear his mind, and let himself fall asleep. And he was almost there too, until he heard the same strange noise that had been scaring him awake. He tossed and turned until his eyes snapped open. He laid in his bed, motionless. He wasn’t able to identify what it was, but he knew where it was coming from. It always came from under the bed.

The strange noise sounded like something was scratching the floorboards, like something was trying to crawl out from underneath him. Tommy threw the covers over his head and shut his eyes. He wanted to jump out of bed and run straight to his father’s room. He was on the verge of doing just that, when he remembered what he had told his father. That he would be a big boy, and not be afraid of the dark. He repeated over and over again that it was just his mind playing tricks, and he began to calm down. He took comfort in his father’s words, and the noise soon disappeared. Hidden under the covers, Tommy opened his eyes.

He could only hear his own breathing. But then the scratching got louder. Tommy was afraid that whatever was making the sound was beginning to  come out from under his bed. He kept thinking of what his father told him, and he lifted his head out from under the blankets, determined to be the big boy he promised he would be. He peered over the edge of the bed, and crawling on the floor was a human skeleton that had long stretches of rotting skin with dry bones poking through the sores. Tommy couldn’t move. He wet himself, and the stream of urine running down his leg was the only thing that kept him warm. He was completely frozen with fear. It looked like someone with broken bones was crawling on his bedroom floor, and through the darkness, Tommy could make out its head by the long strands of hair all curled up around its scalp.

He couldn’t make out a face.

The skeletal figure came to a complete stop in the middle of the room, where it lay in a pool of moonlight from the window. Tommy watched as the head twisted all the way around, revealing its rotting face, staring straight at him as its body still faced forward. He recognized the face.

Despite the rotted skin, the missing teeth, and the sunken eyes, he knew who it was: his mother. She was wearing the same empty expression that she had on the night she had died. Her head was completely turned all the way around now. Her body was still lying on the floor, facing the opposite direction. Tommy’s eyes were locked on his mother’s grotesque face. Her mouth was wide open and all Tommy could hear was the sound of her drool dripping onto the floor.

His room was filled with a disgusting stench that had convinced him that what he was seeing was real. He sat in his bed, his blanket covering half of his face. He was unable to look away completely from the sight of his disjointed rotting mother on the floor. Suddenly, the blinds dropped and the moonlight was gone. Darkness filled the room.  Tommy sat in his bed motionless. His eyes hadn’t adjusted to the darkness that had taken over his room yet, so he couldn’t see the broken body on the floor. Again, his room was filled by an eerie silence. For a moment, he was almost able to convince himself that it was all in his head, that it was a dream.

But then he heard an awful sound that repeated itself over and over again – it sounded like bones cracking and snapping. Terrified, Tommy threw himself back under the covers. The cracking and snapping grew louder. Then, he heard footsteps. It was standing now, and it was walking towards him. Getting closer and closer. He could still hear drool hitting the floor. He trembled under his blankets; there was no way he could look into that face again. Tears ran down his face. He felt the blanket pull away from him. He held onto it as best he could, but he had no strength to fight back. He put his hands over his eyes, and let out a blood curdling scream.

His father barged through the bedroom door, and wrapped his arms around Tommy.  After a few minutes of being help in the light, Tommy calmed down. His father figured that Tommy had had a bad dream, but that’s not how Tommy would have described it. It was all too real, even for a six year old boy. He knew what nightmares were, but nothing he had ever experienced was as intense as this. Fortunately, his father didn’t need an explanation. His son was upset, so for the rest of the night, Tommy slept in his room. But only his father was able to get any rest. Tommy wasn’t able to sleep. His eyes were drawn to the closet, as if he knew something was waiting for him inside. The door creaked open, just enough, although nothing crawled out. But Tommy could smell it, that rotting smell.

For the next few nights Tommy continued to sleep in his father’s room. And every night he could still smell the rot. He wasn’t sure if his father could smell it, but he doubted that he did. Despite the disgusting smell, there were no sign of the rotting body he saw on the floor the other night.

Eventually, Tommy’s father was sure his son was doing a lot better. The day finally came when it was time for Tommy to sleep in his own room again. Tommy’s eyes began to tear up when his father told him he’d be sleeping in his own bed again,  there wasn’t much Tommy could do. If his father wanted him to sleep in his own bed, then he was going to have to do what he was told. The alternative was telling his father the truth, but he didn’t know how to put that into words.

When it was time for bed that night, and Tommy was being tucked in, his father gave him a picture of his mother. He told him it was the most beautiful picture he had of her. She was holding Tommy all wrapped up in her arms. She was sitting down on the couch in their living room after bringing Tommy home from the hospital. There was a window behind her with the sun shining through, and they both looked so peaceful in the sunlight. Tommy’s father gave it to him to sleep with under his pillow at night, thinking it would help with his nightmares. Tommy took the photo in his hands and looked at it, examining the two happy people in the picture. Then, he placed it carefully under his pillow. His father kissed him on the head and said goodnight. He lifted the blinds, and then closed the door behind him after turning off the light.

The harder Tommy tried to stay awake, the heavier his eyes got, and it wasn’t long before he was fast asleep. He was lying completely still in his bed. His room was totally silent. After a few hours, Tommy was in a deep sleep. He looked peaceful. Suddenly, his head began to twitch, turning back and forth. The peaceful look on his face was gone, replaced by the face of a child having a nightmare. He kept shifting around in his bed until his eyes sprung open, and for a moment he didn’t know where he was. He sat upright and adjusted his eyes in the darkness. Everything was still and quiet. He looked around and saw nothing out of the ordinary. What if there was something waiting for him under his bed?  

He gripped the side of his bed and slowly crept over the edge to get a better look down below. His hair was almost touching the floor as it dangled above his head. He was relieved to see that there was nothing there. Just the usual stuff; his toys, a catcher’s mitt and bat, some dirty clothes he pushed under there. He was still hanging over the side of his bed when he heard the closet door creak open behind him. Tommy lifted himself up and saw that the door was wide open. By now his eyes had completely adjusted to the darkness in his room, but he couldn’t see anything inside the closet. The interior was a pocket of pure darkness. A black abyss. Tommy was sitting upright in his bed. Everything was silent again. He couldn’t tell if this was all still a dream. Everything felt so real. Even the endless darkness he was starting into felt all too real.

Then he heard something that send a cold shiver down his spine. Breaking through the silence was a snapping sound coming out of the blackness from inside the closet. Tommy’s eyes grew wide, and he could feel goosebumps all over his skin. He heard that same snapping and cracking sound from the other night. Then he heard it again. The sound of breaking bones. It was getting louder and louder, like it was breaking through the darkness. Tommy just  knew from the feeling in the pit of his stomach that something was coming out of the closet. “Hello?” he whispered.

Nothing. Tommy could only hear the sound of his own breathing. Suddenly, behind the thick darkness, he saw the disgusting face, the one that looked like his dead mother. Despite the darkness, he could see right into her eyes. He noticed that the eyes looking through him now were not lifeless. They were frightening. Alive. Tommy found himself gasping for breathhe was lost in her eyes. Without making a sound, she extended her hand out from the darkness and into his room. He could see it better illuminated in the moonlight. Bits of skin dangling on bone. Tommy did not see her mouth move, but he heard her words in his head. His mother’s voice telling him: “Come here, Tommy. Mommy misses you. Come be with your mother.”

He got up, and stood out of bed. His breathing slowed down. He started to move closer to the closet, closer to the extended arm of his rotting mother. “Good boy,” he thought he heard her say.

Tommy was only a couple feet away, when he remembered the picture of his Mother holding him on the couch, sitting in the glow of the sun. The voice in his head suddenly disappeared, and he was no longer convinced that this hideous thing standing in front of him was his own mother. Whatever it was… it wasn’t her. He remembered her beautiful smile, her laugh, the warm glow of her eyes. Tommy was scared, but he was also feeling brave. He could see now that the rotting corpse standing in the closet was merely a crude parody of his real mother.

“You’re not my mum,” said Tommy.

The thing in the closet tilted it’s head up straight, bones cracking and skin tearing. Tommy yelled into the closet. “You’re not my mum!” Over, and over, and over again.

The rotting arm pulled back, retreating into the darkness of the closet. It curled into itself as it snapped back. Tommy kept shouting as loud as he could. As he yelled those words, his strength grew, and the real image of his mother burned brightly in his mind. The thing in the closet curled up into a pile of flesh and bone on the floor. Tommy watched as the interior of his closet came back into view. The pitch black darkness faded away and his clothes were now completely illuminated by the moonlight coming in through his bedroom window. He was still standing in the middle of his room, fists clenched with tears streaming down his face, when his father came into the room. He turned on the light and saw Tommy staring into the closet. Tommy looked up at his father, and said:

“I miss mom.”

Tommy’s father walked into his son’s room, and gave Tommy a big hug. Tommy wrapped his arms around his father as they left his bedroom and went out into the hallway to his father’s room. As his father walked down the hallway Tommy could see clearly the family pictures on the wall. They no longer looked scary in the dark. He felt safe.

A few days later, Tommy’s father sent him to a therapist. He told his son that he was going to see a doctor for his nightmares. This doctor wouldn’t be the like the ones you saw in hospitals. These were doctors that you talked to. Tommy felt okay with talking about the nightmares now. After his father had found him screaming into his closet that night, the nightmares had stopped. Tommy was no longer being visited by that terrible thing that looked like his mother. The image in his head of that thing looked less like his mother with each passing day. The picture his father gave him to keep under his pillow at night had shattered that terrible image in his head for good. When the doctor began asking Tommy questions, he did his best to answer them. He didn’t lie. Tommy knew it was over, and that sooner or later they would see that there was nothing wrong with him. He was just a sad, confused kid, who really missed his mom.

On the way home, Tommy sat in the car, staring out the window. He got to sit up front now. The sky was getting dark and the clouds were turning grey. A storm was coming. Tommy pushed his hand into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out the picture of his mother. She was smiling in the picture, and Tommy smiled right back.

He knew now that nothing lasts forever – people leave, but they aren’t forgotten. The memories we have of our loved ones stay with us long after they are gone.

 


PAT NADEAU has been living in Montreal ever since he graduated from film school three years ago. Pat currently works in the VFX film industry as a production coordinator. He loves writing short stories and screenplays, and has directed 2 shorts films. His favourite genres are horror, crime, and family dramas, which aren’t always mutually exclusive. He wishes to continue writing and directing in the future.

Copyright © 2018 by Pat Nadeau. All rights reserved.

 

‘Drive’ by Stefanos Singelakis

2018.

Rooftops and grey skies. Ash and concrete. I’m a runaway, running from mediocrity, surfing across ocean blues. Riding high on the waves of a chemical octopus. I left behind a heap of fresh wreckage –– the car was buried in the river. Mounds of human waste and bleached blond hair, pimples and the smell of cigarette butts, poorly groomed genital areas…

My neighborhood is being run like an idiot parade. I’m growing disenchanted.

The people I know are people you don’t want to know. Small time. Living miniature adventures. Like busting a safe while sporting black cotton gloves in the parking lot next to the pool. Ten dollars for the effort. Eating acid in economics. Speed too; I’ll take whatever’s in fresh supply. The worst has yet to come.

We don’t know how to do anything really bad, not in this city. Criminal appetites require cultivation.

Looking at the map; now I’m overseas. They have their rules here too. It all depends on who your guide is. I was halfway settled in, feeling unnatural all the time. The locals tried to make nice –– native hospitality has yet to expire. There I was, spoiling for a fight or a drink or something.

We had opened shop. I’d make coffee. A shot of rum to start the day. When we’d get lucky, we’d smoke weed. There’s nothing quite like doing nothing. The hours expire. It’s dark outside and I can hear the street. The sound of cars is hypnotic. Cramped lanes are accompanied by narrow sidewalks. I spotted the junky today at the corner, his junky face would peer up and down the street. He’s waiting for someone and so am I.

I tell X it’s time to go out. He’s young and understands. Two phone calls. One to the girlfriend. He tells her he’s making a late delivery. The second rings the man. “Yes, uh-huh, ok, yeah, ok, alright.” We close the place down.

The truck is parked down the street. Before leaving town, we stop at the gas station. The man at the pump asks, “How much?” and X tells him to fill it up. The clock is ticking. We don’t have a lot of time. Five minutes later we’re tearing down the highway in a grey and green Mitsubishi pickup truck. The radio is on. How do you do a three-hour drive in an hour and a half? Speed is your friend. The truck is burning fuel. I’m burning on the inside, feeling heavy footed.

I’ve been staring straight ahead, looking at the highway signs. Speeding. The truck is eating up the road. X is avoiding checking the phone, too busy focusing on the drive.

When we’re halfway there we see the cops.

They’re on to us. Tearing up our ass. Going fast. Turning my head, I look back and see them getting nearer. A second or two passes. Now they’re alongside us.

Don’t panic. For a minute, I thought we’d get pulled over; stopped for speeding. If they only knew. The cops rip past us on the highway. Completely ignored. Everyone drives fast in this place. Speed limits are just suggestions.

Halfway-there. I can see the coast now. We’re taking the tunnel; the exit is in sight, drawing closer. Almost inside the city. I begin to see a clutter of rundown businesses crowded by dirty apartment buildings. Everything looks dusty and stained by smoke. We drive down a side street that’s littered with trash and animal feces. The smell of garbage perfumes the air. It’s nice, I’m used to it. We park the truck. Nobody walks along this street. Not tonight.

X sends a text.

Waiting.

Taking too long. Grab a bite to eat, waste some time. Munching street food on the curb. Cars drive by. There’s a street walker a hundred meters away. She sees me because I’m young.

We get the call.

Back in the car, we drive down the street. Nice and slow. In the back seat, he hands it over. There’s so much that it came in a shopping bag. The car reeks of it. We’re driving again – I’ve learnt to roll on the move. He’s the driver and I make the smoke. We think, Is it ever enough?

We sit on it for a minute.

“Well might as well since we’re here.”

“It really would be a waste to make the same drive tomorrow.”

“How much money do you have in your wallet?”

“Enough for eighty.”

He makes another call. “Yeah, uh-huh, ok, sure, ok, see you soon.”

Our other guy’s picking up. I feel the hunger. No specific organ. I’m just hungry all the time.

On the road. A five-minute trip from one seedy spot to another. This is a friend of ours, he meets us in the street.

“Well now that we have our stuff.”

A forty-dollar package. A tiny square of cheaply folded paper.

“Might as well stay a while.”

Off the street and down the hall. Back at our buddy’s flat, sitting in a stale apartment. He owns the place. No one is coming. He takes out the brown powder.

I want it.

The first batch wasn’t that good. I could feel it wearing thin real fast.

“Well fuck.”

We need some more. Ten minutes go by. The two of us are sitting in this living room. The TV is off. Our friend steps out. There’s another package. Cutting the lines. It’s convenient – unlike coke. You don’t have to break it up. This is the real stuff. I’m sweating up a poison stick. Something takes me and I begin to feel my face. X’s laughing. The other looks at me running my hands along my sweaty face but he’s too preoccupied to say anything. We’re getting high.

I love brown powder.

After an hour, it’s time to go. Have to open up the shop tomorrow morning.

Tearing down the highway again, I roll a joint as he eyeballs the road. Smoking. He does and I do. Thirty minutes go by. An odd expression takes possession of his face. He looks kind of greenish. He has to stop. Pulling over in a hurry, islanded by the side of the road. Slamming on the breaks in a small rest area. Just a patch of dirt for late night drinkers. Within a minute or two he’s out.

Is he dead?

His chest is moving up and down. Bile spews from his lips. A yellow stink, soiling his sweater. I’ll give him another five.

Alright, I’m bored. I prod him.

“Time to move.”

He’s pissed I let him puke on himself.

It’s my fault.

Back on the road. Back at the shop. I pass out on the couch. What a wonderful night.

Next morning. Our good stuff is done. I produce a snort, hoping to tap the reserves.

Thinking to myself, “Are you in there?”

I feel a rush of residual highness, “Yes.”

Triumphantly, I rise.

He’s in the office. I told him I had a line lodged in my sinus. He’s jealous. After coffee and a smoke, I ask him “So…what are we doing tonight?”

Sitting in his black leather office chair, he lights another cigarette. He’s sweating profusely and the joints in his hands are aching.  He can feel the pain most acutely in his fingers. After a second drag of his smoke he looks up from his crotch, “This time, you drive.”

 


STEFANOS SINGELAKIS is a graduate student at Concordia University. He is interested in writing fiction and creative non-fiction. He is currently working on a novella.

Copyright © 2018 by Stefanos Singelakis. All rights reserved.

‘Gray Jello’ by Marija Lukic

I call it gray jello.

This thing happens every morning where a gelatinous gray substance greets me. I fought yesterday, but when I slept it got me.  I wake up with jello in my eyes and ears and throat.

It’s thick and sticky and fills the apartment, covering the floor and piling up to the ceiling.  The jello is thicker near the door. To see you, I have to go to war. The first half of the day is everything: if I don’t win now (and trust me, fighting jello is a depressing way to spend your morning), I will die. So I start hacking through jello. The problem is I’m tired and it won’t give, but I have to wade through this gray sludge to get my purse, to get my phone, to get my keys. It all sounds simple enough when you’re moving through air, but when there’s a bunch of gray jello around, your body is so weighed down by the stuff that every step is five hours, five days, five lifetimes.

I slam the door on a scream of relief. The air lifts for a second and I run out to the car. I skip to meet you, hugging you and grinning, shoving snarls of jello-streaked hair out of my face.

You glance at your watch. “I only have an hour for lunch. We won’t have time to go for a walk.”

I shuffle behind you and catch a glimpse of the time on your stove: 12:17 p.m. I swipe my hands across jello-crusted lashes and cough. “I left on time, I promise,” I croak.

“It’s fine. Let’s eat. I have to get back to my meeting….Did you shower?”

I drop my head towards bacon-wrapped meat with potatoes and carrots, and gobble.

“What did you do today?”

“I…can’t really explain it.”

You are already wiping down the counter, putting dishes in the sink. “It’s a secret?” you ask.

“No,” I say. “I just—there isn’t time.” Because you’re fiddling with your earphones, and someone from the UK or another time zone is pulling you away, I say, “Maybe tomorrow.”

“Okay.” You smile as you pack up some food for me. “You did your oil change?”

“No. Not yet.”

I see you thinking about what the hell I was doing all day. I beat the jello (3 hours gone) and I got here but all you see is that I was late and I didn’t do my oil change.

“Maybe we’ll go together,” you say. “I have to get back to work. It’s really beautiful outside. You should go to Starbucks or something and enjoy it.”

“Yeah. Maybe I’ll do that.” I wave at the back of your head and trudge into pointy-toothed sun. The next time I open my eyes the car clock says it is 2:34. A group of kids are looking at me so I drive, past the Starbucks, and pull into my parking space which is too far from the door. I place one foot in front of the other. Gulping icy air, I keep moving.  What always happens when I walk through those doors will not happen.

I march into my apartment. My laptop is all the way on the other end of the living room. I pick my way around mountains of smelly clothes, and step over sad pizza with the pepperoni scraped off. A moldy tea bag sticks to the inside of my favorite mug. Five bags of garbage pile on the kitchen floor, which is sticky with juice I spilled last week. “Move,” I say, and I stomp forward. I bend to scoop up panties stained with a rust color. I fight but when it gets me, it’s got me good.  I fold under the weight of jello and crumple-fall to the carpet, gaping at the sloped ceiling, my mouth catching jello flies.

I become one with the jello. I turn into a squishy blob that is not in this world. I have crashed and it is like being next to the slimy, evil, beating heart of the jello. I am powerless to dig my way out. Time doesn’t move here. It continues outside but not in here.

I feel clocks. The hour hand ticks at the same speed as the minute (three hours gone is three years gone), and the clock stands on my head and follows me around all day. The clock snickers as I am encased in a jello grave. When I dig my way out, I am a few hours, weeks, YEARS older and the world doesn’t care.

Let me go, I tell the clock. Then, for a minute, the jello lets me go.

I fly through star-studded skies and lie against a golden clock-face next to a massive minute-hand. I float through space on the biggest clock at the center of the universe. For a minute, the world ticks into place.

I’m back. I stumble to the bathroom mirror. My face is white and my forehead cracked. I tug upward at it, changing my skin for a moment. Stay put. No use. Tiny feet frame my eyes; a silver thread streaks my hair. My teeth are turning yellow and I squeeze toothpaste onto the brush. I turn from my horror movie reflection and strip and scrub. It takes a month and I lurch towards my bed which is covered with cereal. I stop. I don’t want to sleep in cereal.

I put on my reindeer sweater and shove my laptop into my bag, and I make it to the 24-hour Starbucks. The barista’s name-tag says ‘Kevin’, and he puts a smiley face on my cup. I set up my laptop and drink at a table away from the cold air blowing in through the door and for a few minutes I watch the guy with his hand on a girl’s back as they stand in line, and the two ladies who are talking about teaching and nodding and agreeing with each other about everything. I bounce in my seat a little and open my laptop and type, and I soar.

It is 11:05 p.m. You are in bed. Tomorrow you will work and around 11 a.m., you will invite me to lunch and I will fight my way over there, and you will ask me what I did today. Or maybe you will read my explanation and it will change everything. At least, I’m sure you’ll never look at jello the same way again.

Love,

The girl who tried to live.

 


MARIJA LUKIC is an emerging writer and was born in Belgrade, Serbia. She came to Canada at the age of six and currently lives in Oakville, Ontario. In addition to short fiction, she is working on her first novel. When not writing, she acts in local theatre and collects degrees. So far she has three: a Bachelor of Arts in English, one in Psychology, Neuroscience and Behavior, and a Masters in Global Business Management from France.

Copyright © 2018 by Marija Lukic. All rights reserved.

‘Chambres À Louer’ by Steven Mayoff

It is not clear to me how long I have been in this room. Sometimes it feels like a minute, sometimes years. Sometimes I believe I may have been born here, but I am certain that one day I will die here. There are many smaller rooms within this room and I often move between them. Every morning the sister helps me into this chair and fastens the belt around my waist. She leaves the door slightly open, possibly so I won’t feel too lonely. I keep wondering if today is the day when the girl comes. I cannot remember the last time she paid me a visit.

Sometimes I sit by the window, looking out at the world. The sky above. The trees below. The nearby church with its immaculate lawn of sprouting headstones, its garden of the dead. This window is like constantly changing variations of the same painting. Barren winter. Budding spring. Flourishing summer. And soon comes the brittle autumn. Sometimes I roll my chair to the door and listen into the corridor. I listen for the other residents in their rooms. I listen for footsteps and to the bigger silence that is the corridor itself.

When the door opens a crack he enters, partly in shadow. Bonjour, petit homme, he says. He got lost on his way to the toilet. Maman’s new friend. He is tired and wants to sit. Je connais une histoire drôle, he tells me leaning close. I want to hear the story. It is about a worm in the garden who was lonely and wanted to find a companion. He holds up a finger to portray the worm and makes it wriggle across my blanket. Slowly disappearing underneath as if burrowing into the soft earth. His voice is both rough like stones on the shore of Plage Querqueville and gentle like the water that laps over them. Deep in the earth the worm finds a piece of rope. At first the rope does nothing, but soon, like magic, it stirs. The rope is a dreamer awakening, yawning and stretching to all its full length. I smell tobacco and sour wine on his breath. My face is hot, my mouth dry. I can barely swallow. Then Maman is at the door. Qu’est-ce que tu fais? she cries. Enfant diable!

I look up, startled to find this woman standing in my room. I recognize her, a resident from down the corridor. Her face is wide-eyed and frightened. She points at my unzipped trousers, shouting, Put it away, dirty man, put it away! One sister leads her back to her room and another helps me to zip up.

The sister has wheeled me toward the sunshine so I can look out. Through the window I watch the path below, one of the residents with his walker and a younger one beside him. Could be a son, possibly a grandson. Maybe a companion, like the one who comes to see me (a girl, I think, but she has a boy’s name). I follow them, watching as they turn the corner on the third-class deck.

This is my first voyage working in the galley. I walk faster to catch up. The boy is alone. A bit older than me in his tweed jacket. His wire-rimmed glasses make him look like a teacher. Es-tu perdu? He shakes his head. He seems quite shy, but soon I get him talking. He is a Dutch Jew travelling to Canada with his parents. I offer to show him around the ship. At first, he is not sure and acts a bit cold, but I can sense that he is lonely. It turns out he knows another passenger, a nineteen-year old girl I met in Cherbourg before we set sail. His mother is trying to play matchmaker for them. He finds it a nuisance and the girl does too.

I take him to a quiet nook off the main deck. This is a place I discovered early on. Somewhere I can go when I want to be alone. He likes it. He is a great reader and says this might be a good place to take a book. I don’t care much for books, but I like to daydream. He is interested in knowing what I daydream about. I want to visit strange countries and meet interesting people. At the same time, I slip my hand in his. His face does not change expression, as if he has not noticed. My fingers interlace with his and I ask him what kind of books he reads. While he is talking, rattling off a list of titles and telling me a bit about the stories, I raise his hand to my mouth and kiss the finely freckled white knuckles. I keep expecting him to pull his hand away, but he continues talking, naming different authors and how they use words as I place each of his fingers in my mouth one at a time. He never looks at me, what I am doing. His expression never changes and somehow that adds to the excitement.

You must be hungry to be doing that, the sister says and removes my finger from my mouth. I feel slightly annoyed, then a moment’s embarrassment. I want to make her laugh so I dig one finger into the inside of my cheek and pull it out to make a popping sound. Champagne pour tous!

She wheels me through the corridor, into the elevator (another tiny room) and down to a larger room with people sitting at tables with plates of food, bowls of soup, cups and cutlery, napkins tucked into their collars. Who are all these people? Some talk to each other. I cannot hear their words. Mouths move like in silent films, like the ones I watch in the cinema where I hide out from Maman.

The white light flickers over the tops of the heads of those in front. I see the faceless backs of those heads and believe we are all in this enchanted limbo, somewhere between the living and the dead. What appears on the screen is another world we can enter. A world of its own flickering reality. A place to disappear from myself. But the back of one head keeps turning back, catching the corner of my eye. When he sees me look he lingers a moment then turns back to the screen. This happens a few times until he gets up to go, glancing and smiling as he passes. I wait, not wanting to miss the film. Finally, I get up too. I see him waiting by a back door, which he exits through to an alley behind the theatre. As soon as I follow the door closes behind me. No way back in. I look around until I see him and two others. I know I should run, but I cannot move. Fear has turned my legs useless. They come after me. I need to run, but I am frozen to the spot.

Help, I cannot move, help me! My voice echoes in my ears. I am beating my hands on the table. Get me out of here! Help! Heads turn to look. It’s okay, a woman says. Here I’ve brought you some tea. Would you like some soup or a sandwich? She puts her hand on my arm and kneels beside me. I stare into her eyes. Looking for these parts of me that are disappearing.

My eyes feel hot and dry from watching the bright ghostly flickering. I am so afraid. I keep forgetting parts of myself in some of those rooms. I find myself in one then in another without knowing how I got there. I think it is the rooms themselves that keep moving while I sit very still. I am too frightened to move.

The woman finds a chair and sits on the other side of the table, facing me. She waits until I have sipped some tea. She smiles. Do you feel better? I put my hands flat on the table. I stay as still as I can. The rooms rotate around me like planets around a sun. Only, in my mind I am being eclipsed.

I need to speak with you, she says. I need you to look at me. Okay? Her face is kind. I nod. I try to follow what she is saying. Something about a trust that was in the will of somebody named Jeffrey. You remember Jeffrey? I don’t, but I nod anyway. She is telling me that the money is running out and I nod again. Do you understand? This is the money that allows you to stay here. We have to think about what we are going to do. Do you understand? I raise my cup of tea, take a sip and smile.

Mon Dieu, how long it has been since we’ve seen each other. When I first found myself in Montreal, looking for a place to live and seeing the sign on Rue Saint-Sulpice: CHAMBRES À LOUER. I kept thinking of you, wondering and hoping that maybe I could find you in this big city. A friendly face after all my difficulties. No longer a sailor. It is so good to sit in this small back room behind your shop. Always some tea on the little wood burning stove. Remember back on the ship? I worked in the galley, but in my off hours it was the three of us. Like the Three Musketeers, he used to say because he loved that book so much. His mother kept trying to make a match between you two.

And here it is years later. I still cannot believe she married him, even after she lost the baby. To marry him she decided to become a Jew. I try not to stare at her drab wig. Did you have to cut your beautiful hair? Even as she is talking, I keep thinking of her husband sitting in the upstairs flat. His fine white freckled knuckles. And I wonder if he too is thinking. Of the secret times we shared without her. I wonder if he remembers how she caught us once. Yet she still married him.

But you must not worry, she says, we will figure something out. We might have to move you to a different room. It’s possible we may even move you to another facility. We will do everything we can to work something out. I just want you to be aware of the situation. Do you understand? I nod. I cannot remember who this woman is. Why she is sitting here. I like her dark green jacket and yellow blouse. It looks so smart on her. I like her red hair. Her voice is kind, yet I feel afraid. I want to reassure her that I will do everything I can to understand what she is saying. I remember none of it.

When she gets up to leave I follow her with my eyes then become aware that there is an uneaten sandwich in front of me. I finish my tea and nibble at the corner of the sandwich. You can take that with you into the dayroom, the sister says and places the plate in my lap. She makes sure I am holding onto it and wheels me into the bright room where others sit in comfortable chairs. Two play chess. One flips through a magazine without looking at the pages. Some sit by the large window. There is artwork on the walls, some done by residents, some done by relatives. Some by volunteers. Animals. Flowers. Boats. Buses. Everyday artefacts that may no longer exist in our lives. There are also photographs of residents with their names in big bold letters beneath. They are like frozen mirrors. Fixed identities. This is who you are at this moment in time. There is one thing that connects all these rooms I find myself in, these chambres à louer.

But it is not the rooms that are for rent. It is Time that is for rent. The limited time that I spend in each room adds up to an eternity of floating back and forth. Each room is a rent in time, a huge hole, and I am here and not here. There and not there. I am between rooms at the moment. If I weren’t strapped into this wheelchair I might very well float away.

If I move to another facility how will the sisters find me? How will the girl know where I am? She will come soon, I am sure. And what about all these people, where will they go? How will their loved ones find them?

All these people have loved ones to visit them, Maman. All I have is you and it is not enough. Those loved ones remember these people to the world. That is the same world I want to remember me. I know what you think of me, Maman, how you feel about me being a sailor.

To see her lying in her sick bed fills me with dread. I have been away twice now, sailing the world. She hates it. I know you think I am doing it to get away from you, Maman. Look, I have brought you a sandwich. You must eat something. You must get your strength back. The doctor says you are not taking care of yourself. Of course I care, or else I would not be here, would I? Don’t I keep coming back? Who else is there but you?

She cannot forgive me for being a constant reminder of the man who came here by the sea and left by the sea. The one who abandoned her with a little bastard to bring shame on her. No, Maman, I was not able to find a nice girl, a good profession, a respectable address to erase your sins. Don’t you see that’s why I must leave? Why I am suffocating in Cherbourg? I know you think I am a nobody, a zero. No scruples, no morals. Oui, Maman, je suis une chambre à louer! I am the room where others come to forget themselves, but also where they discover themselves. I am the place where they hide their secret thoughts and desires and then leave as quickly as possible.

She won’t even look at me. I have been such a disappointment to her. She won’t even eat the sandwich I have brought her. I see the cigarettes and matches on her bedside table. The doctor has told me that they will only ruin her health. I pocket the matches. Sure, it will make her angry and she will only find other matches elsewhere. But what else can I do? I can only do this little thing. I can’t bring myself to tell her I am shipping off again in less than a week.

This not your room, monsieur, the sister cries. How did you get in here? You need to leave now. The sister bends over the woman on the bed, feeling her wrist. The body is still. Making no sound. Skin as white as the bed sheets. The sister clicks her tongue in a sorrowful way. Come, monsieur, we must go. The sister leaves the plate with the sandwich on the bedside table and wheels me out.

In my room, the sister takes out her syringe. A tiny pinprick and soon my thoughts are heavy. The way dark clouds sometimes look like airships. She undoes the strap in my chair, helps me to the toilet. She closes the door on her way out. I am on my bed. The crucifix hangs on the wall above my head. Do not cry, Jesús. Soon you will be in your Father’s house. Wandering from room to room. Maybe one day I will… but no. I do not think there is a place for me in such a house as the one you dwell in. I must clean up my own rooms first. For the time being I am tired. I need to rest. I try to make myself comfortable on this bed.

I notice something fall out of my pocket: a book of matches. Where in the world did I get these? I don’t smoke. Merci, Jesús. You heal the sick, feed the hungry, warm those who are cold and forgotten. You provide for us even when we are not aware of being in need. Best to put these in a safe place. I manage to lean over and stash the matches in the drawer of my bedside table. For safekeeping. Always for safekeeping.

 


STEVEN MAYOFF was born and raised in Montreal and moved to Prince Edward Island in 2001. His fiction and poetry have appeared in literary journals across Canada and the U.S. as well as in Ireland, Algeria, France, Wales. England and Croatia. His two books of fiction are the story collection Fatted Calf Blues (Turnstone Press, 2009) and the novel Our Lady Of Steerage (Bunim & Bannigan, 2015). Upcoming is a poetry chapbook Leonard’s Flat an ekphrastic cycle to be published by Grey Borders Books this year and a full-length poetry collection Swinging Between Water and Stone to be published by Guernica Editions in 2019.

Copyright © 2018 by Steven Mayoff. All rights reserved.

‘How to Overcome Crippling Social Anxiety’ by George Wu Teng

“Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you.”

—Lorrie Moore, Self-Help

 

Start by purchasing ear plugs. They’ll be cheaper on Amazon, but go to a local pharmacy and buy a package of them. These will be good for you, versatile and small. If you pair them with big, around-the-ear headphones, nobody will see them, either. As an added bonus, they will give your music the effect of hearing it as if through a brick wall, as if outside a nightclub, which is somewhere you could actually be, if you didn’t have crippling social anxiety.

Stick to a regimented daily diet. Never deviate from it. Buy containers of Greek yogurt, bananas, whole grain pasta, Clif Bars. Begin each day by eating a container of Greek yogurt, a banana. Chug water. Skip lunch. For dinner, break open a couple of Clif Bars and have at it. If you’re feeling fancy, boil the pasta and add some olive oil and salt. Chug more water.

In class, tentatively hold your hand up and give a long-winded answer. Spend the next hour replaying what you said. The best way to go about this is to repeat your entire comment, word-for-word, under your breath. Did the professor smile, or look pleased with your contribution? Did the other students? Doodle something grotesque and morbid in the margins of your notebook. When the class ends, put headphones on before anybody can think of directing themselves towards you. Be the first one out the door, speedy and silent as a lubricated ball bearing.

Get into a sudden and irresponsibly absorbing relationship. Begin by talking online. Try to say “cool things.” Fail inevitably. Meet in oversized, drab sweatshirts on a pumpkin-spice afternoon. She will be smoking a cigarette, small puffs, like expected disappointment. Sit on a bench and make fun of pedestrians. Maybe she studies urban planning, and has a part-time job waiting tables. She might have several siblings that she is close with, or an estranged parent. She will have perfectly trimmed eyebrows. She will smile at your stories.

Play chess together—badly—at a board game cafe. Laugh when a passerby comments on how terrible each of you are at playing chess. At the counter, beat her in a sudden death match of rock-paper-scissors. Pay for both of the iced coffees. She will put more milk in hers than you put in yours. Ruminate on the implications of this for hours after she leaves. Make vague and jittery plans to see each other again. Later that night, cut your hair in front of your bathroom mirror. Get hair everywhere, massive clumps of it, matting the floor like dead grass thrown around by an ignominious infant. Wonder why you still haven’t bought a broom and dustpan. Clean up the hair by picking it up with damp toilet paper.

You’ll meet frequently in hazy evenings, sometimes in your apartment, sometimes in hers. (Also: when was the last time you cleaned that place? How many clothes on the ground are too many clothes on the ground? Did you wash the dishes? Have you even vacuumed it since you moved in? Get a grip and make some effort.) Drink, then line the empty beer cans on your radiator, neat and horizontal like a snake tugged taught by two toddlers. Say: “If you hate the cold, you really picked the wrong place to move to.” She’ll frown a bit and cinch her eyebrows up, astonished you would say something so devoid of insight, then stand wordlessly, walking to the mini-fridge for another Pabst. Gut-punch yourself, mentally, and make a hasty internal promise to read more Wall Street Journal.

“The day after I fell off a cliff I still turned up for work,” she’ll say, grinning and swinging a half-hearted punch towards your arm as you walk, your body weak and twitchy, running on the fumes of a recklessly high dose of pseudoephedrine. Reply, with sarcasm, “I’m so sorry I’m not as tough as you, Leila.” Arrive at the trendy, hipper-than-hip pop-up shop for locally made pins and patches. “I had this amazing poster print from that brand,” you remark, gesturing to one of the tables. “It had a woman getting dressed on it, and on the bottom it said, ‘How is it already 3 pm?’”

“What happened to it?” Leila will ask.

“Got damaged when I was moving. I wish it was here right now, I’d totally buy it again.”

She’ll lift her chin, slightly nodding a bit, her eyes inquisitive and focused as a vaccination needle.

After a couple days, she’ll send a curious message asking if you’re in your apartment. Buzz her in. She will enter wearing a wide, shit-eating grin, hoisting an oversized, flat brown paper bag under one arm, closing the door with the other, swinging to face you. “I’ve got something for you,” she’ll say.

“I knew it,” you reply.

Take the print out and position it on your nightstand. The woman looks as you remember her, stooping down to draw up and button her pants, the cursive text at the bottom in an inviting and warm, soupy font.

Say, “I have something for you, too.”

Place the burgeoning money tree plant in her hands.

“You’d have to try really hard to kill this kind, it doesn’t even need that much sunlight,” you say, referencing the mopey, wilted, half-dead monstrosity decaying by her bedroom window.

“I hate us,” says Leila, with a loud laugh and earnest resolve. “This is too much cheese. We can’t do this again.”

“Too cheesy,” you respond, in agreement. “Too many cheese puffs.”

Sit at the window and eat delicious, grease-filled, triple-bypass A&W burgers together. “My best friend Camille is in town today,” she’ll say, licking ketchup from her index finger. “Do you want to meet her?”

“If she wants to meet me,” you say.

“I’ll send her a text. Samantha might be there, too.”

Walk with them, the four of you clumped like hush puppies in a takeout container. (How the hell do four people comfortably walk together on a sidewalk?) Go to a modern art museum and loudly belittle the photographs. In one corner, there’s an actual deer—seriously—dead and stuffed, lying on its side. Dramatically bend down and sprawl on the floor next to it, then stand and grin. Feel a little mischievous. Wonder what Leila is thinking.

Walk together down to the river that flows through the city. The afternoon will still be warm, amber and colourized as stock footage. Walk along the river. Walk along the canal. Keep walking, all the way to a popular outdoor market. Discuss tattoos, bad horror movies, that musky odour you’re all smelling, Justin Trudeau. Camille makes good, bad puns, smiles invitingly, seems to not hate you? Samantha does most of the talking, and you try to chime in with anything witty, an around-the-clock joke monkey. Realize you’re probably making an ass out of yourself. Keep trying, regardless.

Near the end of the day, mutually decide to eat at Thai Express, despite its slipshod quality, questionable flavours, and generally dysphoric atmosphere. Order and pay, then sit with them at a table, surrounded by large flat screen televisions playing racy, vibrant music videos on a loop. “I’m really not hungry,” says Camille, while sipping from a bottle of Canada Dry. “I’ve eaten a lot today already.”

“Like those rancid pancakes?” you ask, while hoping your face looks more bemused than constipated.

“I mean, it tasted fine,” Camille says. “It was like using buttermilk instead of just milk.”

“See?” Leila says, raising a fist in mock display of brutish aggression. “I know how to make good pancakes.” Flinch away from her hand and laugh.

“You never know you want Thai Express until you walk past one, then later in the day somehow come to the realization that you really, really want Thai Express,” says Samantha. Laugh and nod in agreement, then gnaw at a piece of chicken. Gesticulate wildly at Leila to join you in your steady consumption. While she masticates on a particularly large and ungainly broccoli stump, ask for her chopsticks, then wield a pair in each hand, giggling uncontrollably while attempting to transfer rice from plate-to-mouth in an unending flow, each pair of chopsticks either in motion to pick up more rice, or deposit it in your mouth, a grade-A mechanical operation.

“Holy shit,” says Camille. “Look at Leila, she’s, like, crying.”

“It’s not what he’s doing, it’s how his laugh sounds,” Leila will say, in between cackles that resemble uppercase letters. Glance at Camille and smile weakly.

A week of rain is right around the corner! Prepare via buying coffee beans and wine. Your younger sister will ask about your “new friend” on Facebook Messenger. “What’s she like? Are you treating her well?” she’ll say. “What does she study? Is it serious? I can’t believe she’s still talking to you after a few weeks.”

“I can’t believe she’s still talking to me either,” you respond, while slurping from a bowl of almost incognizably spicy ramen, your brow perceptibly and conspicuously sweating huge and unregulated capsaicin beads, the steam from the broth rising and fogging your glasses. “This one time she fell off a cliff,” you tell her. Switch windows back to your paper on Paradise Lost and wait for your doorbell to ring.

When midterm season rolls around, walk from your apartment to Second Cup and buy a medium hot chocolate. Create utter pandemonium when you try to place a lid on the concoction, causing a Mount Vesuvius eruption of whipped cream that shoots out and up from the mouth opening and floods the countertop in sweet, sticky foam. You never were very good at pre-empting disaster. Avoid employee eye contact and sheepishly grab handfuls of brown napkins to hurriedly remedy your mistake, then dart to her apartment. You’ll hand her the drink, and she’ll sit you down, placing both hands on your shoulders, arms extended like a new driver. “I don’t like it when people do things for me,” she explains, staring at the center of your pupils. “I really don’t.”

Nod in agreement, and use a stock phrase for, “I feel the same way, honestly.”

“Then stop doing it.”

“Ever?” you ask.

She’ll take a step back, her face returning to something less intense, her arms crossed in front of her. “The people I’ve been with are either too attentive, or completely ignore me for days,” she says, “but either way, I start hating them.”

Stare at her and say nothing.

“I don’t want that to happen to you,” she says.

“There’s no way I’m too attentive.”

She’ll smirk now, and maybe guffaw. “You’re totally too attentive.”

“Okay, okay, I get it, I get it.”

“Do you?” she’ll ask.

At home, take out a sticky note, and make a list of all the objective reasons why this relationship is a terrible, delinquent, idiotic, self-destructive, shit idea:

-She just moved here; wants to expand social circle, not fixate on one person

-You’re graduating this year., plans for next = ?

-She “isn’t good at commitment”

-Too smart for you

Take the note and stash it somewhere unmemorable and insignificant.

Receive a message one afternoon that contains information along lines of Leila “having some thoughts” about “all of this” and “needing time to process” them. Respond affirmatively. Remember that you’ve been mentally preparing for this since you met her. Continue working on your paper, reread Knausgaard. Edit your short story collection and try not to permanently eradicate the document from your laptop hard drive. Make soup.

Your friend Karen will stop by in a day or two, hauling wine and asking you to put on classical piano music. “Have you heard the new Lucas Debargue?” you’ll ask, moving to turn on your speakers. “Schubert and Szymanowski. It’s incredible, my favourite Schubert 784 ever, I think.” Sit across from each other on your linoleum floor and sip from small, stained mugs that feature blank-faced cartoon cats on their sides— quirky!

“How do you feel about her?” Karen will ask, ever selfless and benevolent.

“Differently than anyone else,” you’ll respond, too stupid to think of anything more specific or better-worded.

“Has she contacted you yet?”

“No, but it’s only been, like, two days,” you’ll say. “That’s not that long at all.”

“And how are you feeling otherwise?”

Shrug and take another sip from your wine. Offer more to Karen. She’ll nod, you’ll pour.

“I mean,” you’ll continue, “she said she’s not in any position to get into an involved relationship.”

“But you’re still going to try anyways?”

“You know me.”

Karen sighs a bit and gives you a look.

“Can we do something drastic?” You’ll ask. “I need to do something dramatic, let off steam, you know? Do you have anything you need to smash?”

Collect a vase, a plate, a broken plastic container. Hurl them off the balcony, each one a little harder than the one before. As you throw the last object, it lands with a splintering smack between the front fender of a parked car, and the back bumper of another. “Whoa,” you’ll say, and look at Karen. Run down the stairs and out the front of your apartment. Check that neither car was damaged. Say: “That could have been bad,” when you get back inside.

Spend too long in the grocery store choosing between two brands of peanut butter. Explain to yourself that these sorts of decisions take time, that they’re important and personal contemplations that are never easy to understand—am I a crunchy peanut butter man, or a smooth peanut butter man? Smile a little and change the song you’re listening to, to something sadder. Remember when you lay supine, alongside each other, exchanging music suggestions, on her mattress. Remember bickering over certain artists. After paying, change the song to one that she frequently sang. Think of how she sounded when she once sang it while walking home.

In class, your professor will laugh when you say that reading Milton “keeps you up at night,” then again, when you bring up Satan’s “daddy issues.” Feel momentary joy that she seemed to glean some earnest happiness from your contributions today. Wonder if you should have brought an umbrella instead of just a raincoat. Walk home and eat a couple of Clif bars. Fall asleep on your mattress after forgetting to brush your teeth.

She’ll send you a message, unannounced and aloof, on any given Thursday night. It will say, “Hey, how are you?” Respond with carefully rehearsed poise: “Hanging in there by the skin of my teeth.” She’ll ask if she can “come over.” Agree, then sit at your desk and stare at your wall. Try not to feel anxious. Chug water.

Leila will enter wearing familiar clothes and a familiar scent. You’ll smile unconsciously, then sit on your mattress, while she’ll occupy the space on your nightstand. Stare at her for a bit, then ask if she’s been okay.

“I don’t know,” she’ll say, her head angled to one shoulder. “I think I had a mental breakdown the other day.”

Inquire for more information. Sit up and say, “Wait, what do you mean?”

“Like, I finished grocery shopping, and I was walking home, and all of a sudden, I felt really weak and dizzy, and had to sit down. I thought I was going to have a heart attack.”

“Are you okay now? Did it end quickly?”

“I mean, I was fine, but it was pouring out, so I got completely soaked, and so did my baguette.” She’ll laugh a bit, and so will you.

“And you?” she’ll ask.

“I’ve been better. I had a minor breakdown the other day, too. I threw things off my balcony with Karen.”

Leila gives a wayward and faltering exclamation. “What?”

“Yeah, I just needed to do something cathartic.”

“Why?” asks Leila.

“I don’t know. Life. The situation.” Attempt a grin.

Next: Leila will stand, then turn slightly, and say, with discernible trepidation, “See, this is exactly what I mean, I can’t be so responsible for someone else’s reactions like this.”

“Whoa,” you’ll say, grinning wider. “Whoa, pump those brakes.” You sound so clever. “The breakdown wasn’t entirely because of you.”

“But partially?”

“Partially, but it was also just life, you know?”

“Life how?” she’ll ask.

“You know. Graduating. Not knowing exactly what I’m doing next year. Trying to figure that out. I have no idea what I’m going to do.”

Stand next to her and touch her arm.

“If you don’t want your actions to affect other people, you can always move to a hermitage,” you’ll say, laughing a little. She’ll laugh too, and retort, in a feigned shout:

“A hermitage?”

“Your actions are always going to affect other people,” you’ll say.

“I know, I know,” she’ll respond, while reclining on the mattress, patting an adjacent section for you to join her.

“I don’t know what I’m doing either,” she’ll say, her eyebrows furrowed and sympathetic. “This is when I’m supposed to be figuring myself out, and I don’t know that yet.” She’ll pause, then continue, “I mean, I just bleached my hair, what am I even doing?”

Nod slightly. “I understand, I think,” you’ll say.

“So I can’t really, like, commit to a relationship right now,” Leila will say, as a half-conclusion. “I can’t offer you commitment or anything.”

“That’s okay,” you’ll say. “Just because something’s finite doesn’t make it bad.” Look at Leila.

“God, I can’t believe I left my wine at home,” she’ll say, smiling. “I guess I shouldn’t be drinking in my current mental state now, anyways.”

Say: “Me neither, but I’m going to anyways,” then stand and grab a beer from your fridge.

The next morning, offer her Greek yogurt, or a banana. She’ll decline both. Ask if she’d like a banana chopped into Greek yogurt instead. Laugh wildly when she mock-punches your side. Make plans to see a concert.

 


GEORGE WU TENG currently studies classical piano performance at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music. He is often crying.

Copyright © 2018 by George Wu Teng. All rights reserved.

‘Jack’ by Angela Hanna Goulene

Jack Cover V1 (signed)

 

It’s nothing but a story. A story that constantly changes, just like the road I’m on. From the chanting corpses in Hell to the crying angels in Paradise, the road makes no sense. Or maybe…maybe that’s just how I see it. There’s a gigantic tree, with the finest greenest grass, and buffalos all around. I feel the wind on my face and enjoy the rays of the sun, mentally confessing that I’ve missed them. Two weeks of rain is just too much. There’s soft music and happy thoughts…

and a dead woman on a chair, she’s– )

and many people out there, the smell of barbecues. Over all, it’s a peaceful day. I wipe the drool off my jaw, like I always do. Doctors tried to explain to me why I drool constantly, but their words made no sense. I like things that don’t make sense, except when they’re supposed to make sense, because in that case, it’s a mistake. Errors and mistakes are part of nature, but I don’t like them.

my dear sweet Delphalilah  )

Do you? The road is changing again. Now it’s nothing but a gray and desolating landscape, a dark sky and broken houses, where the people look deader by the second. I watch with no fear but mere curiosity at a bird shooting through the air to finally crash on this cold looking floor. The people are looking skinnier and skinnier, and the cows are as thin as paper with lizard faces, their black hole eyes popping out of their orbits. The music turns morbid. But ha! I look at the road once more, and the sun is back, the peacefulness there, except that if I slit my eyes a bit, I can see under the camouflage, I can see the decomposing bodies and the dead things. A humongous tree is so bent that you’d think it would crack. It seems as though it has lost something there in the grass and wants to pick it up. I tell my mother to stop the car so that I can pick up the tree’s lost possession, but she ignores me and goes on. We lack so much of charity in this world. Ah, there it is again.

The road is back to being dead and desolated. My heart pumps faster and here I am, overfilled with warmth and joy. I shall see my Love soon. This landscape is far from being as unique, as wonderful as hers, but it’s already closer than the sun and peacefulness. Delphalilah is my Love, you see. She is wonderful in every way, and the only one to understand me. The only one who’s ever understood me. Just being with her makes me so happy, it makes me feel so warm, so complete. I cannot wait to introduce you to my Love, Delphalilah.

The road is changing again. Now, when I look out my window, I see a guy on a motorbike. When he turns around, I see that in reality, he’s dead, and half his face is peeling off, with only the side possessing the remaining eye staring at me. His lips too, have been partly torn off, but I can tell that he is grinning at me. I wave and smile, and he does the same. He then accelerates and drives away, far ahead of us, on the road which is now as dark as charcoal, as dead as the man on the motorbike. As beautiful and deadly as Delphalilah.

How must I describe my one true Love? She is simply perfect, as perfect as nobody, yet as eternal as everything is ephemeral. Her skin as blue as the darkest oceans, with a heart tattoo on her left arm, her lips are as red as fresh blood, and her long hair is of the brightest and most vivid orange you’ve ever seen … trust me when I say that no one is like my Delphalilah. I like to bend over – because she’s always seated, she who is so tall – and kiss the black buttons she uses for eyes.

Yes. There is only one like her. I almost cried when I met her, of emotion because all my short life I had been waiting for someone exactly like her, for someone who would understand me like she. Never have I felt as complete as during my time seated at the red table with Delphalilah. There has only been one thing which has caused me stress and wonder at the Madhouse. It’s the glass bottle.

It’s black, with the painting of a skeleton head on it, one obviously meaning something that has to do with death. Never once has this bottle moved from its same exact spot in front of Delphalilah, right on the red table. I have always wondered about the origin of this bottle, but most of all, its effects. Did Delphalilah drink the bottle? Is that how she became what she is now, or was she always this eternal, this stoic, this blue? If I drank some of the bottle, would I be even closer to her, would I see things her way? I would be there, seated on the other chair at the table, the one which remains constantly empty when I’m not there. And if that were the case, me and Delphalilah would be eternal and together forever. The fear I had of losing her support, her in general, her perfection, was beyond limits. I knew that if I lost her, I would let myself go, and all insanity would lose sanity, with all colors fading to white. White, because black is just the start of another story.

We’ve arrived; the car comes to a halt. Now this you see…this is where Delphalilah is. This is all that matters. It’s a deserted ground, if not for one huge mansion. Tall, impressive, dark and sinister, with the windows reflecting red shades. A few unidentified skeletons on the floor, discarded here and there, and the only living things are the hordes of black cats, hissing and running in confusing circles. One of them, much bigger than the others, walks up to me with its smug, elegant demarche.

“Little Boy,” it purrs. To black cats, all boys under thirteen are little boys.

“Haidren?” I respond with a smile.

“Came you to see her Highness of the Red and Dead?” All the while it’s staring at me with its wide eyes, tinted yellow-green shades.

“As every other time.” Its eyes turn into slits, but following that he merely nods and walks away, inciting me to follow him, which I do, like every time. The door of the old manor creeks open before the cat, and finally shuts behind me once I enter. Red velvet in all angles and places, occasionally mixed with expensive-looking and quality wooden furniture. The inside of the House appeases me: eternal, red and beautiful. Like Delphalilah.

Finally, the cat vanishes after we’ve turned a few corridors. I know what this means and enter the first room before me, where my eyes finally lay upon her: Delphalilah.

“My Love,” I breathe with emotion. There she is, on a chair, stoic as always, with her blue skin and all the stitches covering it; and how wonderful she looks with her perfectly straight hair and her buttons for eyes. Her dress never changes: its swirls and circles of black and white covering her pointed, triangular breasts, almost as if she wants to hypnotize you. My heart skips a beat, and I run to hug her, though gently, of course.

“Delphie my Love, Delpha! How are you?”

Silence. She’s a shy one, you see.

“I’ve been thinking about you every day of my absence, as always.” She remains silent, and so I sit down on the other chair, facing her. I don’t know how long we stand there, gazing amorously into each other’s eyes. That is, until, once again, I notice the bottle. It is, as always, in the same spot, but there came the itch once more, the desire to open it and drink it. I know it will have some enormous impact if I do, but the curiosity is nagging me, stronger than ever, and with no desire to let go. I approach my face to the black glass’ surface.

( this is Deplhie’s bottle )

To drink or not to drink?

I look up at Delphalilah anxiously. Her soft gaze reassures me, and even though I am scared and anxious, the answer is already evident, deep inside of me. I know that this time, I will drink the bottle. Getting up, I timidly reach out to it, until my fingers brush and seize the cool surface. I sigh in relief. So far so good. Following that, I gaze at Delphie with fear, sadness, and regret. At that moment I know that I will never see her again, that nothing good will come out of the bottle, but that I am meant to drink it.

“Goodbye, my Love…” And I drink. Nothing happens for a while, and then…

“NO! NO! NO NO NO NO NO NO! I DON’T BELIEVE THIS, I DON’T BELIEVE YOU-”

( you’re insane and the WAR the WAR came and killed the cat, killed your mother, killed your brother, your sister, your father– )

“NO! SHUT UP! PLEASE! I DON’T BELIEVE YOU! WHAT YOU’RE SAYING MAKES NO SENSE!”

( Daddy was already dead, but the soldiers came in the house and they got Nadie, the soldiers came in the house and they got Timmy, then the soldiers got Mommy– )

“NO! SHUT UP! BE QUIET, PLEASE!” I cried to this inhuman voice, seizing at my head with both hands, lacerating my face.

( and they cut Mommy, they laughed at Mommy and they hurt Mommy a lot. And they had a spray can– )

“SHUT UP!” I didn’t know where I was anymore, but it was pitch black, yet somehow I managed to slam my head against a wall. “I DON’T BELIEVE YOU!”

( and that’s how Delphie was born, because when the soldiers were done they left, and you came out from the basement’s slightly open door )

I started crying and sobbing.

“No, please…” The tears are cascading down now.

( they later found you sleeping against Mommy’s blue corpse Hell only knows how long you had stayed there )

And they brought you here, to a mental hospital, one in which you’ve been hiding from the truth inside your daydreams, inside the welcoming warmth of insanity. But this my boy, this –reality-, this is the real Madhouse.” I screeched until my lungs exploded, screamed covered in blood even, screamed and wailed, and then I truly saw Hell. I was locked in a white room, with demons coming to seize me, to bring me back with cruelty, to the Madhouse of Reality.

 


ANGELA HANNA GOULENE is a difficult to live with French, biracial intellectual with a love and adoration for children and cats, who hates pretty much everything else. She spends most of her time watching horror films and cartoons, as well as drawing, writing, singing, and just binge-watching anime.  When she isn’t busy doing that, she loves to spend her budget on books that are thousands of pages long which she won’t have the time to read.  The loves of her life are undoubtedly her Siamese cat Clea, storytelling, and traditional animation. She currently resides in Montreal where she spends most of her time writing or working on various show projects.

Copyright © 2018 by Angela Hanna Goulene. All rights reserved.

‘The Last Montreal Road Trip With My Beau’ by Oliver Lim

I would spend almost three years living with my boyfriend in a rather unconventional fashion. I was the first one to congratulate him for his arranged engagement, while we were still sharing an apartment. I was also there for him that time he had to leave for Africa to marry a girl he’d never met. I was tight-lipped the whole time –– I never spoke to any of our friends about it until it happened. I wasn’t sure what to say.

We were both living in the suburbs of Toronto with our families before our move to the big city. It was during our heydays partying when we first met through a friend. Though we were monogamous, we didn’t have a typical romance. We kept it a secret for the first six months of moving in together because he’s a Muslim, and I’m from a conservative Catholic family. When any of our family members would ask, we would refer to each other as roommates, which we were. Bros, with a little extra.

When we were together, we visited Amsterdam and smoked pot. He injured his foot, but it didn’t stop us from boarding the bus to Antwerp and Brussels. He was in a lot of pain the night we got back to our hotel, but “it was so much fun!” he said. We took many trips to New York, Chicago and Montreal for the scene. We partied hard in Mexico City, and backpacked all the way to Acapulco for three days before heading home with golden glows.

It was on one of our adventures that he told me he was about to be engaged. It hit me like a punch to the gut, but I wasn’t surprised. I had seen the signs. He’d given me clues, but I’d played dumb. I didn’t want to seem defeated. I didn’t want to be bitter.

My catholic upbringing made me feel for him –– in many countries, like the one his parents are from, being gay is still frowned upon. I didn’t fight. I was in denial, and perhaps I didn’t really think that arranged marriages still existed for people born and raised in Canada. So I chose to keep quiet. I couldn’t find a valid reason to argue against his personal beliefs, and I didn’t want him to be disowned by his parents.

The girl was from Mombasa, the daughter of a family friend. She was beautiful and educated. I was nothing like her because I am not a woman, but I knew that someone like me would be capable of making her soon-to-be husband happier without even trying. I wasn’t convinced he was even capable of fulfilling her sexual desires. She didn’t know that, and I felt sorry for her.

After the engagement, while the girl’s Canadian visa was being finalised, he was still living with me, and we were still having sex. I didn’t feel the guilt of sleeping with an engaged man –– he was my boyfriend first, and the relationship never ended. But I knew that it was only a matter of time before I’d have to give him up to her.

A few weeks before his wedding, I helped him pick a suit. We even got a haircut together. He usually goes to the barber, and I go to the salon, but this time he came to my stylist with me. There was a need to maximize the time we spent together before his big day. I just knew he was feeling it, too.

On the day he had to leave for the wedding, I started to realise that everything was real. I like to think that I successfully hid my tears as we gave each other a hug and a kiss before he stepped out of the place we had moved in to two years ago. The love nest we built when there was only the two of us against the world. But it was all about to change.

A month later, he returned as a married man. His wife was in the last stages of acquiring a visa. The moment he landed, I was the first one he called using a payphone at the airport. He said that he was afraid I wouldn’t pick up if I knew it was him calling. But of course, I would’ve.

I congratulated him, and he started sobbing ­­–– the first and the only time I would hear him cry. I knew it was a mixture of regret and guilt more than anything. He wasn’t in love with her. I don’t think he’ll ever be; he loved me.

Before his wife’s arrival, we’d occasionally hangout. He’d become a pariah among our friends. I didn’t want any of them to get involved, but for anyone on the outside I was a victim, which I never claimed to be.

We maintained our friendship. It wasn’t long before I’d get a call from his sister who had practically begged me to stop seeing her brother. It was by far the biggest challenge he had yet to deal with. His wife had hacked into his email account where we used to send each other intimate “love emails” in the early days of our relationship. She saw the emails. All of them.

His sister (and confidant) was the only person in the family that his wife had spoken to about the affair she’d uncovered. They kept it a secret from his parents.  When I heard that his wife was pregnant, I decided I shouldn’t be anywhere near him again.

I also didn’t want to seem desperate, to be seen as someone clinging on to a person who had chosen someone else.

Two years later, he called to tell me that his marriage had ended. I wasn’t surprised. His wife had flown back to Kenya with their daughter. I sympathized with the agony of a father that my former lover had become. I stayed on the phone just so that he could let it all out.

He took me on a trip for my thirtieth birthday. I was recently single at that time, and I wanted to make sure the feelings I had for him were not out of pity.

We drove for 6 hours to Montreal, and I slept all the way. We stayed in a modest penthouse along the Saint Laurent where we danced the night away.

Early the next morning, we spent another two hours on the road to Quebec City, a place I had always been in love with. Along the beautiful Rue du Champlain and Sous le Fort, we dined at a table for two. It felt familiar, yet something wasn’t right. I was sitting in front of the man I used to love, in the most romantic setting in North America, but I felt nothing.

The man who was once my lover was now a father to a beautiful girl. He was a great man, but he had so much baggage. I felt as though I were his Plan B, and giving him another shot meant sacrificing my self-worth.

We drove back to Toronto, barely talking during the six-hour drive. He dropped me off at the apartment he’d once called home. I did not invite him in. We hugged each other tightly for several seconds. It was a language unspoken, but rather felt and understood by two people who at one point considered themselves one.

I said goodbye, walked towards my door and didn’t look back. That was the last time we saw each other. No tears, nothing. It was over.


OLIVER LIM was born in the Philippines to a Filipina mother and a Fil-Chinese dad. He moved to Canada in 2004 as a teenager, and has not had any formal training in creative writing. He uses writing as a tool, very much like his art (painting), to be in his own little space. He views it as his safe place, his comfort zone, where his mind is free to do whatever it wants, using only words or colors or shapes.

Copyright © 2018 by Oliver Lim. All rights reserved.

‘La Mustang’ by Craig Barron

Montreal, October 1968

Eva faces the wall of sunroom windows, intent on her garden view: the unpruned growth crowding the peach tree, and beneath it the abandoned Mustang covered with leaves.

A trail of cigarette smoke drifts Eva’s way but she doesn’t move. The windows are closed on a warm autumn day—the aluminum outside storms too heavy to lift. Beside her Edith waves her cigarette with a circling motion. Edith coughs: “These new-fangled filters, there’s something in them. Not good for the throat.” Edith is past forty and ailing, but Eva wonders at the strange energy in her sister’s slight body.

“Look at the colours, the leaves, red and gold,” Eva says, “The city is on fire.”

“Aren’t you going to be late for work?”

“It’s Saturday, I start at twelve.”

“You don’t need to sit in the window.”

“Why not? Such a lovely day.”

“Anyone can see you.”

“There’s trees, the hedge and a fence. I can’t imagine who would be watching.”

“You never know. We have 4000 hippies living in town.”

“4000? Have you counted them?”

“What Mayor Drapeau said. Yes, I read it. A scary thing.”

“They’re not apt to wander into our boring neighbourhood.”

“You can’t tell what is on anyone’s mind these days. Temptations, you can’t tell.”

Eva stands, her eyes still fixed on the garden. “The leaves are falling early this year.”

“The big tree is rotting. Just as well.”

“Why?”

“The house foundation. The roots, they must have reached the cinder blocks. Looking for heat.”

“I think roots look for moisture. The basement walls are fine.”

*

Michel listens: the only English voices in the bar. Sometimes American tourists stroll in, or Ontario teenagers on a wild under-aged adventure, but too uncomfortable they rarely stay. Later in the evening there will be the inevitable drunken university students from McGill.

Quite the surprise to see Peter coming in the door, Michel at first not twigging to the fact that the woman following is with him. Michel watches as Peter choses a window view, then glances his way. Peter has never seen him on the job, but will understand it is a frantic place and expect no special attention. With her tweed skirt and plaid scarf, Peter’s companion is certainly no regular to the neighbourhood. Michel catches her first remark before moving out of earshot: “It’s like a birthday cake.”

“What do you mean?” Peter asks.

“The lights, like candles. The excitement.”

“Just another Saturday night on rue St. Denis.”

“It’s a different world.”

“What would you like to drink?”

“Whatever you’re having.”

Michel has moved to a scruffy bunch of intense old men nearby. After a moment he looks over to Peter. “Monsieur, deux cognacs, s’il vous plaît,” Peter says. Michel winks and goes to get their drinks.

“That was lovely,” Eva says. “When did you learn French?”

“I’ve changed neighbourhoods, you know. I live further east of here. A completely French neighbourhood.”

“How exotic. I feel as if I’ve crossed the Rubicon. Peter, t’s wonderful I ran into you.”

“I was a bit surprised …”

“Yes, things change.”

“You haven’t, not much,” Peter says. “How is it, working at Morgan’s?”

“I like the hustle and bustle. Did you find what you wanted?”

“I was just walking through.”

“Yes, some men do that, they just walk through. So, do you have a job?”

“No, I study. University, general arts.”

“Nothing in particular?” Eva asks.

“Psychology.”

“The science of the mind, right? There must be an extraordinary future in psychology.”

Michel brings their drinks. Eva notes he is a bit younger than Peter, with shorter hair, very attractive and at ease. Michel notices her attention and she promptly turns away. Michel touches the back of Peter’s neck. “Des cacahuetes? Peanuts?” Eva looks up and shakes her head.

“Have you ever thought about learning French?” Peter asks.

“What a good idea. Yes, it’s something I must think about.” She looks towards Michel. “I wonder if the waiter thinks we’re on a date.”

“No, he knows me a bit.”

“A friend? So handsome. Why is it people are so much more attractive on this side of town?”

“His name is Michel.”

“Handsome, and so unhappy. How can handsome young men be so unhappy? They have it all, the way things are nowadays: the new liberation, the freedom; he might have a half-dozen girls visiting his bed.”

“I don’t think so.” Peter looks at the view through the window, the street traffic, long dusty Pontiacs and Chryslers rumbling by.

“Well, what do I know?” Eva sits up straight in her chair.

“Do you go out a lot?”

“The odd film from time to time… I’d go mad if I didn’t. I’ve seen the Sound of Music four times. Did you see it?”

“Ah, no.”

“What a shame.”

Peter holds up his glass, looks deep into the amber liquid. “So what happened, that you’re working again?”

“Man and His World, Expo 67. A smorgasbord: hostesses, so much to choose.”

“Oh, you mean your husband?”

“Tony hightailed it to the West Coast with a girl from the French Pavilion.”

“That was one of the nice ones. It’s still standing.”

“It is?”

“Do you still have the house?”

“No, I don’t.”

“I heard about it.”

“Oh yes, lovely. Fieldstone fireplace, breathtaking, it covered an entire wall. Coppertone in the kitchen, cushion floor, avocado fashion cookware. An avocado themed bathroom. All gone. Tony left nothing but debts.”

“I’m sorry.”

“The car, the Mustang, was the only thing in my name. A birthday present.”

“You should be grateful to the marketing campaign.”

“Why?”

“The Mustang was designed for women; the keys can’t be locked inside.”

“Yes, that would have appealed to Tony.”

“So you get around in style?”

“No, Tony never had time to teach me how to drive. The car just sits under Edith’s peach tree.”

“So you live with your sister again? How is she?”

“She smokes, she coughs; she eats bacon and ketchup sandwiches for lunch.”

“The same bat outta hell.”

“Yes, endless madcap hilarity at her house. But I’m grateful, she cared for our parents, made sacrifices. And I was so much younger—so of course they left her the house. And now I have someplace to stay.”

“But an interesting case.”

“Interesting?”

“Shut down, if I remember. Your sister doesn’t adjust well to change.”

“You must learn so much from psychology.”

“Have you ever seen your sister laugh?”

“As a matter of fact, I have.”

“Really, what makes her laugh?”

“Nuns.”

“Nuns?”

“Nuns always make her laugh.”

“The Flying Nun?

“The one on TV? Heaven’s no, she only watches Bonanza. No, nuns in the flesh. Oh, that sounds crude, doesn’t it? I mean the real thing.”

“What about them?”

“Anything at all, how they dress, how they walk or eat. One delightful day Edith saw a carload, a Falcon station wagon full of nuns eating ice cream cones. She found it hilarious.”

“There’s not that many nuns left.”

“Oh they’re still out there. Flapping about.”

“How about a coffee for the road?”

*

The third floor of a narrow greystone triplex, the decor in Peter’s apartment is scant and restrained—except for one psychedelic print on the back of the bathroom door. Michel lies naked on the bed. Peter approaches with a bottle of wine and two glasses. “A drink for a French lesson.” His kiss is a small awkward graze. Michel pulls back as if in pain.

“Okay, Minou minew?”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Okay, sexy French boy.”

“Yes, that’s better.” They gently touch their glasses together.

“A toast to what?” Peter says.

“New York!”

“Michel, forget it.”

“When I get there.” Michel drains his glass.

“It’s not so bad here.”

“This city, Montreal … I don’t know, nothing’s happening. What am I, a waiter?”

“You’re something to me.”

“Maybe.” Michel rolls over, falls off of the bed. He lies face up on the floor.

“Draining bottles at the restaurant again?”

“Yes … drain-ing.”

“To drain, how’s that translate?”

Drainer … Purger. Égoutter. Vider. Yes, vider, that’s it.” Michel sighs. “Having to listen to my customers, les intellectuels. Fatiguants. And they never tip.” He holds up his glass for another drink. “So who’s your Jackie Kennedee friend?”

“Kennedy. Stress the first syllable.”

“Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy.”

“And her name is Onassis now.”

“Your friend?”

“No. Jackie Onassis: you haven’t seen the news? My friend’s name is Eva.”

Elle a l’air perdue. Lost in Space.”

“Don’t you think she’s gorgeous?”

“Yes, so? Who is she?”

“We dated.”

“No!”

“No, it wasn’t like that.”

“Like what?”

“In high school, we sort of protected each other from the masses.”

“Not like this?” Michel crawls up on the bed and kisses Peter.

“No.”

“But she was special?”

“Of course.”

“And she’s not married?”

“Divorced.”

“Rich?”

“No. Just has a car.”

“A car, that’s something!”

“And she can’t even drive.”

“What kind? What kind of car?”

“Mustang, 1965 or ’66, I think.”

“Oh yeah, Mustang? Incroyable gaspillage.”

“What?”

“A waste. Ask her if she will sell it?”

Peter kisses Michel. “This is so strange.”

Quoi?”

“You.”

“Relax. Tu es homosexuel. Homosexual. Some of our words are the same you know.”

“Either way, I don’t like that word.”

“Then find one you do. Can I see her car?”

*

The next morning Edith watches her sister in the garden, distractedly sweeping the leaves off of the car’s front hood. “Do you want a rake? For the leaves?”

“No, Edith, it’s something you enjoy doing. Good for your arms you used to say—if you take your time.”

“You were gone a long while last night?”

“Was I?”

“I put your dinner in the fridge. You can have it for lunch.”

“I’m really not hungry.”

“You’re too thin. Do you want to look like that Mia Farrow? A skeleton. Are you dating someone?”

“No, of course not.”

“I assume you will, sometime.”

“Do you? Just as I assume you will not.”

“Please. I’m an old woman.”

“You’re forty.”

“Forty-one, yes, too old. And sick. What, discotheques, getting turned on … to the, what’s it called, the pop scene?”

“Yes, yes, and I’ll become a gay divorcee.”

“Date, why don’t you? Find yourself a man.”

“What sort of man?”

“One like that Pierre Trudeau fellow. Or that other one.”

“What other one?”

“Tom Jones.”

“What a nice salad of men.”

They are both startled when the phone rings. Inside, Eva takes the phone. When she hangs up she sees Edith waiting in the kitchen door. “Someone is interested in the car. You met him a long time ago: Peter from my high school?”

“Peter, the one you should have married?”

*

Eva sits on the back steps in the falling evening light. Edith meanders through the garden, cigarette in hand. She draws close to the Mustang, reaches out to almost touch the car when she sees Peter and Michel enter the garden from the side of the house.

Eva waves. “Hello! Edith, you remember Peter?”

Edith looks closely at Peter. “Is it? Under all that hair? Not a Smothers Brother? At least there’s no beard.”

“This is Michel.”

Bonsoir.”

“Ah … Oui!” Eva says. “Of course we have met.”

“We don’t speak French around here,” Edith says.

Michel ignores her and walks towards the car; after a moment Peter follows. “Elle est belle, la Mustang.”

“Go ahead and have a good look,” Eva says.

Michel opens the driver’s side door and sits; Peter settles beside him. Michel snuggles back in the bucket seat and strokes the dash, “Man … look at this. Perfect, it fits me. Can I say that?”

“Sure.”

Michel kisses the back of the leather bucket seat. “Beautiful and practical.”

“I think you need to look at the motor.”

It takes some effort to open the hood and Peter helps. Up on the porch Edith is fascinated by the activity, Michel bending beneath the hood. “Not so bad,” he says, “I have a friend who can have a look.”

Peter pulls Michel up, puts his arms around him. They go back inside the car. Edith tries to catch a glimpse: “They’re not men.”

“Pardon me?”

“Look at them, clutching.”

“Clutching?”

“Kissing. A couple of hippies. Mixing things up, messing things up. That Peter pansy, no wonder he didn’t want you.”

Michel is focused on the contours of the dashboard and speaks softly, “I’m going away. A magic place. I need a car to get me there.”

“New York? A pipe dream.”

“A pipe … Please translate?”

“I don’t know how.”

“Mr. Psychology student, how did you find your way into my bed?”

“You dragged me there, remember?”

*

Edith has disappeared inside the house. Eva and Michel lean against the car, while Peter sits brooding inside. Michel observes the rear of the house. “This is a weird house. But you could tear off that sunporch, bash out the wall: les fenêtres panoramiques; big windows I mean.”

“It’s not my house.”

“Your mother is really … bizarre.”

“She’s my sister.”

Oui, okay. So do you have the keys? I want to try the car.”

“I’m sorry, I’ve no idea where they are. Is there a hurry?

“I’m moving away.”

“Are you sure? It’s your home here.”

“I don’t always feel like that. Sometimes it feels cold and crazy.”

“Maybe Peter has been a bad influence on you.”

“You think so?”

“You’re very masculine.”

Merci bien.”

“I won’t pretend to understand your relationship. I knew Peter was different. He only kissed me once. He was fascinated with Montgomery Clift.”

“Who?”

“Never mind, someone from New York.”

“New York? Ah, bien.” Michel memorizes: “Montgomery Cliff, I should look him up.”

“He’s a dead movie star.”

“What do I know about anything? It is why I should go away.”

“I’m thinking,” Eva says, “Maybe I could keep the car.”

“You can’t leave something like this here! For the winter? Merde!” Michel begins to stroke the car.

“If I could find someone to teach me how to drive.”

“Do you know about the clutch?” Eva and Michel hear the back door open as Edith comes outside.

“Eva, do we have any ice cream?”

“We have never, ever, had ice cream in the house.”

“If you’ve made a deal for the car we could buy some ice cream.”

Peter steps out of the car.

Non,” Michel says, “No deal. Je préfère les décapotables. I like … ”

“What, you need to go to the bathroom?” Edith asks.

“Convertibles. He likes convertibles,” Peter says, “Very American.”

“Have you ever watched Bonanza?”

“I’ve seen parts.”

“Watch it all. You could learn a few things about how real men behave,” Edith says.

“Like little Joe?” Peter asks.

“Of course.”

“Oh, I watch him. Those are the parts I watch. I want to taste his dusty sweat.”

 

Vancouver Island, October 2008

The ivy-covered Mustang sits in the lush garden, the tarp folded neatly on the car’s roof. The dog is nestled against the flat back tire and grey-bearded Michel bends to touch the Labrador’s nose. “Impossible, isn’t it Brewster?”

“No, it isn’t, Michel.” Michel looks up to the weathered deck where Peter brings two cranberry cocktails through the sliding glass doors. “And with important matters, it would help if you addressed me, not the dog. Isn’t that right, Brewster?” Peter puts the drinks down on the metal café style table. Moving spritely down the steps he pauses briefly to inspect a patch of moss. He approaches the car, puts his arm around Michel. “It’s not impossible, you know. There’s quite a few of these fellows still roaming around out here.”

“Yes and there are guys who are into that, Peter. Mostly straight. They spend their lives fixing and fixing up. Not me. Not you, for sure.”

“Yes, so we find someone to restore it. Total rebuild. There’s places for that. The Trudeau Mercedes, they shipped it out here, didn’t they?”

“You’re talking $20,000 or more. And we need a new kitchen.”

“We can go back to the original colour, that green-y gold.”

“When did we paint it blue?” Michel asks.

“Sometime in the 1990s—our lost decade in Ontario—where did we find the spare cash?” Peter puts his boot on the fender, gives a light push. “So do we haul it away then?”

“It could just stay part of the garden. Look, the ivy growing through the rust. Beautiful.”

“Remember the first time we saw it? Buried in leaves. Nothing but leaves in Eva’s backyard.”

“Not her house. It was la grande folle-crazy bitch’s place! Remember how we lost it? Eva wouldn’t sell.”

“You lost it. It was for you, to leave me.”

“No. Not really. Did Eva ever drive it?”

“Yes, I asked at the funeral—only making conversation—Edith standing there in her cloud of smoke, hating me. Yes, of course she drove, Edith said. And then I thought I could go ahead and ask: What did Eva die from? A hard question to fit in. Female trouble, old Edith said. As if that explained everything. Then in the same breath she asks me if I knew someone who might want the Mustang.”

“I like that. Oh my god, remember what she wanted: her own car; what she used the Mustang money for?”

“A Falcon station wagon.”

“And we saw her once didn’t we, one day out driving. The car was white.”

“No, Michel, wasn’t it baby blue? There’s a few of them out here on the island.”

“Crazy bitches?”

“No, Falcon station wagons.”

“How it all worked out, sort of incredible. You and me, forty years.” Michel leans back against the car.

“Oh, my god. It’s been hard to be with someone 40 years. Ups and downs. You and me.”

“And all our friends that died along the way.”

“What about the Mustang?”

“Yes, change the subject.”

“Michel. La Mustang?”

“Impossible.”

Peter threads some ivy into a bit of rust. Another strand into Michel’s hair.

 


CRAIG BARRON’s short stories have appeared in Chelsea Station, Glitterwolf, The Church-Wellesley Review, Event, Lichen, Front&Centre, and the anthology The Air Between Us. He is a graduate of the UBC Creative Writing MFA Program.

Copyright © 2018 by Craig Barron. All rights reserved.

‘The Importance of Posture’ by Anabelle Zaluski

“Stop slouching like that, Katherine. There’s no man I’ve ever met who married a girl with poor posture.”

My grandmother, beside me at the table, ran her gnarled finger up my spine as though just her touch could straighten it. It was summertime, and my family was a group of sardines in a too-big dining-room tin, sat together to eat dinner. The thermometer by the window read thirty degrees, and I wished I was in bed with the standing fan pointed straight at me. It was hot enough that I wanted to be naked all the time, and I resented the fact that I was thirteen—too old to take off my pants in the middle of the living room. I also resented my grandmother’s insistence that I sit up straight. I disregarded her threats that no man would ever love me if I continued to slouch, and made a point of showing how little I cared. I ate my white chicken breast in silence and sunk in my chair even lower than before.

My family spent our summers at the cottage. It was an old building, painted burgundy, and it was bigger than any other on the lake, but didn’t have to be. My father was my grandparents’ only child, and I was his only child, so it was just my parents, my grandmother and I who came to stay in the summer. My grandfather had passed away a couple of years beforehand.

But my family was social and we often hosted barbecues and campfires for the other cottagers. We owned a weak little motorboat, and for every event my father would bring me along as he went around the lake, door to door, inviting our friends to whatever we’d decided to host. This weekend, the first event of the season, we’d be shooting fireworks off of our little dock.

One cottage was always empty when we passed by it in the boat. It was wild-looking, with long grass and deep green ivy crawling up its white walls, and a dock at its shore with soft, faded wood. My dad would never let me get out and explore the vacancy. But on this run, inviting people to our Saturday night firework show, there was a woman planted on the now-manicured lawn in a red Muskoka chair, a shiny magazine in front of her.

“Hello!” My father slowed the boat down and waved with one hand.

“Hello, who’s this?” The woman looked at us from under her sunglasses. Then she shouted in the direction of the cottage: “Marley, sweetie, come down and say hi! We’ve got visitors.”

As my dad introduced himself to the woman, a girl about my age had come out the front door and was running down to greet us at the dock. She had straight dark hair in a ponytail and wore a long dress with blue flowers on it. I suddenly felt inadequate in shorts and a faded button-down. I sat up in the boat, and watched her—Marley—as she went beside her mother. She stood with one knee bent and the other straight, which made her ponytail sway to the side, and I watched it like a pendulum. I was hypnotized. The exchange of words between the adults went directly over my head.

My father tapped me on the shoulder and raised his eyebrows at me. I’d forgotten to introduce myself.

“I’m Katherine. Kate for short,” I recited.

The woman smiled down at me. “I’m Miss Vamos, with no short form, and this is my daughter Marley.”

Marley didn’t say anything, but took a step forward and stuck out her hand. I reached up and shook it, and hoped she couldn’t feel the strength of my pulse through my palm. Something about the formality of the handshake made me feel like we already knew each other, as if this was an inside joke of ours. She’d looked right into my eyes and now she knew everything about me, or at least I knew that if she asked, I would tell her. I was still in a haze as my dad said goodbye and our boat pulled away from the dock, and I stayed that way for the rest of the day. I ate quietly and slouched at dinner that night, which wasn’t out of the ordinary, so I got away with it. As my family chatted over ice cream sandwiches afterwards, I stared off into space and thought about how Marley’s feet had been bare. She must have been fearless, so unafraid of splinters and sap sticking to her toes.

That night, the summer heat continued, and I slept with my blankets kicked to the bottom of the bed. The window was open and night air blew onto my skin, which cooled me down in combination with my sticky sweat. The haze had stayed with me. It was like everything in my brain had reached out and noticed Marley, showed her to me, and as those figurative pointed fingers wiggled at her they were trying to say something. I didn’t know what it was, yet. I just knew I wouldn’t stop thinking about her until I saw her again.

The next day, I obsessively anticipated the firework show, when Marley would come over. I didn’t have a watch, and the only wall clock in the cottage was in the kitchen, so I spent half my day pretending to be interested in cooking so that I could mentally count the hours until eight o’clock. For the other half of the day, I jumped in and out of the lake, and always sat near the dock in case Marley ever found a reason to come nearby. Our lake was rather small, and if I squinted, I could see the white gleam of her cottage from across the water. My parents claimed it was too hot to go swimming with me, which I thought was ridiculous, but I secretly relished my solitude at the lake, my perch. At one point my mother walked down to the water and brought me strawberries straight from the fridge. I flicked the stems into the grass beside me as I ate, still in my wet bathingsuit. The soft, undergrown hairs by my forehead stuck to my face with leftover lakewater.

My mind was overwhelmed with decisions to make. Would she notice or care if I tried to become more tan that afternoon? If I wore sandals or sneakers when I saw her? If I had my hair up, down, or braided? I can’t remember now how I decided to present myself in the end, but I do know what the stress was there, and it was how I passed the time sitting by the lake.

There were other cottagers and family friends scattered around the lakeside by the time Marley and her mother arrived. People sat in folding lawn chairs or on pool floaties or towels on the grass. The air reeked of bugspray and humidity; the heat soldiered on but lessened as the sun set. Every adult had a can in their hand. My father let me take sips of his Radler and, naively, I hoped it would get me drunk and therefore less nervous. That’s what I’d heard alcohol did.

It did nothing, and I watched Marley paddle up to our dock in a dark green canoe.

“We followed the lights!” said her mother, excitedly, dragging the canoe onshore and extracting a cooler. Marley held a flashlight in one hand and helped with the other. I could have helped, too, but I didn’t know what to do with myself. Since yesterday, the Marley in my head had blossomed and grown into a whole person; I loved the idea of her, but now that the real Marley was in front of me I realized I knew nothing about her at all. The haze broke and turned into a quiet panic in my heart.

My father had already taken Marley’s mother under his wing and started introducing her to my mother and the other adults. Their half-drunk laughter echoed across the lake. Both Marley and I were still standing beside the canoe, awkward, and I realized I didn’t know where to place my hands.

“Somebody littered,” she said, pointing with her flashlight to the pile of strawberry stems I’d left in the grass that afternoon.

“Must have been my dad or something.” I made a mental note never to eat strawberries again.

“Will you give me a tour of your place? I haven’t seen any other cottage on the lake except mine. Well, not inside any. Jeez, yours is huge!” Marley marveled at the building, already starting to walk the stone path that led up to the door.

“Sure.”

She walked quickly and I had to do the same to keep up with the light she was shining in front of her; otherwise I couldn’t see ahead and got scared of stepping in the wrong place, even though I knew the path inside and out after walking it so often. But I took an extra step in front of her and opened the door. She thanked me. It sounded like a curtsy.

Our front porch that overlooked the lake was just to the left of the entrance and Marley immediately wandered through it. It was a fairly spacious, screened-in room, with a couple of couches and chairs. It took me a second to realize my grandmother was sitting in one of them, staring off into the darkness of the lake at night.

“I’m not a fan of the noise,” she warbled, motioning to the fireworks and commotion outside. I’d already known this, that she’d be distancing herself from the event, but maybe I’d chosen not to remember, wandering the cottage alone with Marley. She and I stood there, still, for a second, not really waiting for anything, but also not knowing what to do.

“Go have fun.” My grandmother flippantly waved her hand at me, smiling as she did so. I turned to Marley, who shrugged, and started making her way to the door that led inside. I followed her, looking back at my grandmother, who was now back in the same position as before, unmoving, looking out at the lake. I wondered what she was thinking about, an observer of the commotion, and of my new friend and myself.

On the ground floor, I showed Marley the kitchen, living room, dining room, the works. I was scared she’d think poorly of it. I was still entranced by the wildness of her cottage, the enchantment and the untouchability. If whatever she had, whatever she was, was so great, I had to be inferior. At least, it felt that way. But my cottage had a second story, and hers didn’t, so she insisted on walking up the stairs. I dreaded showing her my bedroom but at the same time I was ecstatic.

The claw-foot tub in the bathroom didn’t interest her, nor did my grandmother’s or parents’ room, because I was never allowed to go in, and therefore neither was she.

The wooden door to my room was already open, which I thought was odd because I normally closed it, but it must have been the wind coming through the open window. If we kept them closed the house would become an oven, or a sauna, depending on the way you looked at it.

I sat down on my bed and watched Marley wander my room. I knew I kept nothing incriminating around, but I was on edge nonetheless.

“I liked that shirt you were wearing yesterday,” she said, planting herself beside me.

“Thanks. I liked the dress you had on.”

“My mom bought it for me. It’s not really cottage-y. It’s too new. I wish I had a shirt like yours.”

Marley started leaning towards me and my insides went crazy, until I realized she was just reaching for a book that was on the end of my bed.

“Harry Potter?”

“It’s not the coolest book to read, ever, but I like it.”

“Don’t say it’s not cool. It’s really cool. I think you’re really cool, you know.”

“Really?”

“What makes you think you aren’t?” she said, challenging me.

“I don’t know.” I spoke but it felt like the words were disconnected from my mouth.

“You read books, you wear cottage-y clothes, your family does firework shows for people. Your grandmother’s sweet. And you have really pretty hair.”

“You’re cool too.”

“Oh yeah?”

The sounds of the fireworks outside stopped.

“My mom said we’d leave once everything was over, so I should go back,” said Marley. The reluctance in her voice matched the way my face fell.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. I’ll go. But I’ll see you again.”

Marley kissed me on the cheek and swiftly walked away. Some of her lip balm was left on my skin and I could feel it tingle there, even when she was out of sight, even when she was gone.

I didn’t see her for the rest of the night, because once she left, I sat dumbfounded on the bed. It was like my body was stuck in the seconds after you wake up from a deep sleep; I was confused, delirious, and sated.

After a few minutes in thought I wandered to the porch, where my grandmother was still sitting. I took one of the empty chairs beside her, silently crossing my legs and slumping myself down. It was only then that I realized my cheeks hurt; I hadn’t stopped smiling since Marley had left. I also noticed that the night had become cooler, here on the screened-in porch, with the air gently floating through the windows and onto my skin. There was noise, too, and I could hear Marley’s mother’s loud voice saying goodbye, and telling my parents that they would come back soon.

My grandmother turned her head toward me. She lowered her lips to my ear, and said quietly but in the same nagging tone, “No woman will be attracted to you if you slouch, either.” I straightened my back and could see her smirk from the corner of my eye. I never slouched from then on.


ANABELLE ZALUSKI was born in Toronto and moved to Montreal to pursue a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at Concordia University. She finds strength in fiction and playwriting but enjoys all forms of art, and aims to explore the world both literally and through writing.

Copyright © 2018 by Anabelle Zaluski. All rights reserved.