‘On You’ by Charlie Evans

On You.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

It was a long drive back from the cottage.

We awoke hungover in an overcrowded cottage by a lake lacking in food, coffee and cigarettes. Most of us were coming down from drugs, apart from me. But I had awoken in a mood, so I was just about as upbeat and pleasant as the rest. You were one of the most upbeat, something I think you were doing for the benefit of me. You were always good at cheering me up, even when I didn’t want it.

Someone had started playing music, beginning with an Ed Sheeran song – one of the more romantic ones. I remember you groaning because it was loud, and it had woken us up much earlier than we desired. I mumbled something incoherent into my pillow and you laughed, pulling me in closer to you and kissing the top of my head. Eventually we were dragged out of bed by your friends, but you whispered to me that you wished we could’ve stayed there together all day.

We all lingered too long, no one awake enough to begin the long drive back to our respective towns. Someone had braved the roads and driven 20 minutes to buy a pack of smokes for us all to share. You gave me two instead of one. A few people ended up in tears before it even reached noon, me being one of them. It was a bad day. You stood with me on the deck and held my hand, kissing me when no one was looking.

We weren’t together, and all night your friends had asked me why. I began to run out of reasons because, in part, we didn’t know ourselves. It had to do with distance and commitment issues and a big hesitance for either of us to acknowledge that it could possibly be something more than just sex. We’d been sleeping together on and off for a long time by that point, but we treated it as if it wasn’t a big deal. Because it wasn’t, we told ourselves. We’d never put a label on it, always keeping it casual because we didn’t want to rush into things and make them fall to ruin.

The night before, as we’d sat around the fire, I had seen your eyes on me. One of your friends couldn’t help but point it out. You blew it off as if it were nothing but gave me a look. A look I knew well at that point: a look meant just for me. The one that kept your words in when you, with your eyes, tried to tell me how you felt.

You made sure we stopped on the drive back, telling your friends that I was a nightmare without coffee—a hard fact. You let me order first at the Walmart McDonald’s, saying I needed it more than you did. I hushed you and told you to order your burger.

At some point during the drive, you reached across the backseat of the car and grabbed my hand, intertwining our fingers and giving me a squeeze. You didn’t let go for at least an hour.

I looked at you and I finally knew. I let myself acknowledge the truth that I’d tried to bury for God knows how long.

I felt it.

That feeling where you realize that the person in front of you is so incredible. The feeling when you know you could sit and listen to the person ramble on for hours and never be bored. When you know that sitting in silence with them is the best thing you’ve known. That they’re everything. All you need, all you want, all you could ever possibly see that point in life.

I didn’t tell you. I couldn’t.

You looked at me when I was staring at you, reached out and touched my cheek. “What?” you whispered.

I shook my head at you. I didn’t know how to find the words. I still don’t.

“Nothing,” I whispered back.

You can always tell when I lie. You leaned across the car and kissed me, a bit deeper than you normally did in front of people. Your two friends in the front seats made a comment, but you kissed me again and then turned back to look out the window, holding my hand the whole way home. I stared out my own window, trying to think of the sky instead of the colour of your eyes.

We dropped me off first, back in Toronto. You got out of the car with me and pulled me into a hug, holding me tight, telling me that you’d see me next weekend for our friend’s wedding. The wedding that I didn’t know then would cause the end of us – even if it turned out to be for the best. The end of everything. The sex, the phone calls, the whispered conversations under the cover of stars, the friendship.

Losing the friendship just about caused me to lose myself. At least for a little while.

But we didn’t know that yet.

All I knew was the feeling I had felt in that back seat, and all you knew? I still don’t know. I may never know. But that’s okay.

Because for one afternoon, one long car ride back from the cottage, I knew.

And you didn’t.

 


CHARLIE EVANS: I am currently in my second year of an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree at Sheridan College in Creative Writing and Publishing. I enjoy writing both creative non-fiction and fiction, typically writing short stories as well as longer pieces. I am looking to begin publishing my work both online and in print in a more official capacity.

Copyright © 2019 by Charlie Evans. All rights reserved.

 

‘A Coffee Date With Death’ by Ian Canon

Coffee Date

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

“You’re late, Isaac.”

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

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

“You’re still late.”

“You really haven’t seen?”

“Seen what?”

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

“Explain.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Cream or Sugar?”

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

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

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

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

“Why do you do that, Isaac?”

“Do what?”

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

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

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

“Anyway, what were we on about.”

“Your, as you put it, thankless job.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just 12 blocks east.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What are they like?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are we going, Labe?”

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

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

“So what happens now?” Isaac asked.

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

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

The bodiless soul blinked into the void.

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

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

No one said anything for several minutes.

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

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

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

Blankness. No response.

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

“Indeed, Isaac. We must.”

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

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

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

“This should do nicely,” Isaac said.

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

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

“A goner.”

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

“Where am I?”

“You’ve passed,” Isaac said.

“Passed? What do you mean?”

“You’re dead. You’ve died.”

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

“Dead as the day is long.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Labe said.

“I have a few questions of my own.”

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

“I guess.”

“Then go ahead.”

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

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

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

“We were hoping you could tell us that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Honestly? I’ve thought about it.”

“Why not?”

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

“Where would you do that?”

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

“Think so?” Isaac said.

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

“What’s it like?” Isaac asked.

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever this is, indeed,” Labe said.

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

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

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

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

“Where to now?”

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

“Don’t let us keep you,” Isaac said.

“Goodbye,” Labe said.

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

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

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

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

“It is our purpose for being, Isaac.”

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

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

 


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

Copyright © 2019 by Ian Canon. All rights reserved.

‘Ghosts of South London’ by Catherine Watson

South London

Illustration by Andres Garzon

In my grandmother’s garden there was a stunted, knuckled tree near a ramshackle bomb shelter, a sheet of corrugated iron curved over a shallow hole. My grandmother lived in an Edwardian terrace house in a dull London suburb: the house had only four rooms, one front and one back on two floors.  My father was the oldest child and the oldest son – there were three children – and he was the one with the most responsibility and the deepest awareness of how much hope and happiness had been destroyed.  His burden of suffering was part of my childhood: it wasn’t the only way I knew him, but it did form the kernel of my understanding of un-rightable wrong.  Whatever cruelty, violence, fear or disappointment my father had known in his early years lay deep inside him and was never softened or set aside.

As we approached my grandmother’s house, a grimness settled on my father like a deadening blow.  He was someone who could shut off feeling in an instant; when he was really tense or anxious the side of his nose would twitch and the rims of his eyes would turn red.

My mother was scornful of my father’s family. She picked up pieces of family lore and turned them into humourless fun, like calling the house “7GR” – for 7 Guildford Road – which was how my grandfather headed his letters to my father. “7 GR, ugh!” she would say when a visit was planned, and we all knew it would be very unpleasant.  Her reasons were unexplained.

This is the story of what I learned about my father’s family at different ages and what my father’s family meant to me.

 

My father was an internal revenue inspector.  At the height of the Depression he studied by correspondence and sat the open civil service exams.  He passed second in the country, entering the British middle-middle class at a single stroke.  He left school at sixteen and had previously worked as a clerk.  Both my parents were from the same area of London, the northern part of Croydon, but my mother’s family was more stable than my father’s. They helped my father when he was struggling to escape poverty.  My parents married after my father completed two years’ probation with the civil service.

I was born in the spring of 1945, two weeks before the end of World War II in Europe.  (I am now seventy-four.)  I was born outside London as my father worked in Gloucester, about ninety-five miles to the west.  My family traveled up to London periodically to see both sets of grandparents, although I doubt we went often as almost no one had a car.  For me, as a young child, post-war London was an almost mythical land: escalators in the Underground tunneling deep into the earth, bomb sites filled with weeds and rubble, blown-out buildings standing stark against the sky.  In the neighbourhoods where my grandparents lived, houses were older and closer together; they let in less light.

My family moved back into London in 1950, when I was five-and-a-half.  After the move, we also lived in Croydon – in South Croydon, the other side of town.  My first complete memories are from around that time, possibly the year before; I have fragments of memory from a couple of years earlier.  My first memories are still split between those that have colour, movement, cheerfulness (from my everyday life) and those that are darker and stranger (memories of my grandparents, and especially my father’s childhood home).

We continued to visit my grandmother (my father’s mother) almost until she died in 1969.

______________________________________________________

I can recall my grandmother’s house almost exactly.  The front room, called the parlour, was kept for special occasions and I can remember going in there only to look.  There was an upright piano and a short, flat sofa with thin, sausage-shaped arms.  The sofa was upholstered in carpet-like material and the arms were secured at the ends with disks of carved wood.  In front of the window was a table with a large china pot.  The curtains were yellow net, machine-made.

Family visits took place in the back room – was it called the breakfast room?  I can’t remember now what my grandmother called it.  It was there that we sat at a long wooden table and ate bread and butter and small, hard-iced cakes bought at the local corner store.  My brother and I drank what the English call squash, meaning concentrated orangeade diluted with tap water, and the adults drank tea out of stained china cups.  There was a hanging gas lamp over the table lit from a tiny pilot light that flared when you pulled a string.

The kitchen was called the scullery.  This was a sort of annex and had a deep stone sink, a gas stove and a big cylindrical contraption used for laundry called a copper.  The outside lav was reached by a short path through the garden and had a flimsy door made out of wooden slats.

The only running water was in the kitchen.  There was no electric light because no one had had the money to put it in, not grandfather and not the landlord as there was rent control on smaller houses that had been rented for a long time.  My grandmother had lived there since 1915: she stayed partly because of poverty but also because she had an inherited blindness condition, retinitis pigmentosa, and could not live independently anywhere else.  The condition was progressive and, by the time I knew her, she could only distinguish light from dark.  She wore the round, white-framed dark glasses of the blind.

One person is missing from the picture I have of my grandmother’s house – my grandfather.  He didn’t die until I was seven and so must have been present at family teas, but I have no recollection of him there.  I have one clear image of him, probably taken from a photograph: he was stocky and had white hair.  I have another, indistinct memory of the one thick, raised boot he wore.  He had one normal boot, flat to the ground, and another which dragged slightly and made him hobble; this marked him as a veteran of World War I.

The survivors of WWI were still around at that time.  Some sold newspapers on the street.  They were crippled, abandoned men who sat vacantly in parks, resigned and faceless in the weak English sun.

My grandfather’s youngest brother, Uncle Harold, was of this type.  He wore the same boot as my grandfather and occasionally came to tea. My grandfather was more outgoing than my uncle, but his sociability had a disturbing edge.  Once, during a visit to our house, he said to my mother, “You’re looking pasty, Margaret,” and this upset her greatly. There was an aura about him that couldn’t be reconciled: he was neither normal nor abnormal, neither shunned nor accepted as a member of the group.

I don’t think anyone was upset when my grandfather died. Sometime afterwards, my mother told me, “Your grandfather died of prostate cancer,” but I wasn’t sure what that meant.

As a young child, I believed his spirit lived in my grandmother’s bare, wasted garden.  I pictured him living underneath the rough iron roof of the bomb shelter, which I then believed was from his war.  I know now it was from the Second World War, the war my parents lived through and which my older brother had some memories of.  It was an Anderson shelter, assembled at home.

My brother had his own ideas about my grandfather’s last resting place.  After my grandfather died, my brother told me, “Grandpa’s buried under that tree,” meaning the tree in my grandmother’s garden.  My brother is called Robert.  He is almost three years older than I am and can’t have believed himself what he said.  (He would have been at least ten.)  I half-believed it, I think because there was a logic to it:  my grandfather never quite died, not for my parents and not for any of us.

I can’t remember ever seeing that tree in leaf; it was always bare, twisted, like the land you see around the trenches in WWI photos.  I remember Robert said, “If you plant trees upside down they grow with their roots in the air,” and I believed that too.  I knew he was referring specifically to that tree.

When I was eight or nine, I went through a religious phase – we said prayers and sang hymns at school – and I said to my father, “I think we should forgive Grandpa now that he’s dead.”  My mother came and told me my father was very upset I’d said that.  I knew I’d done something wrong.

At the time of our family visits, my father was secure.  He had been working in the civil service for more than a dozen years and had been married to my mother for almost as long.  He had two children of his own, whom he loved.  But I think he was frightened of his father.  My earliest memory of my father, and my first clear memory, is of him coming to pick up Robert and me at another house.  My mother was in the hospital, but coming home, and we’d been sent to stay with another family.  We’d got into some trouble with the other kids, but Robert and I hadn’t been punished because we were guests.  The two of us were waiting at the gate when my father appeared at the top of a slight rise.  I saw him before he saw us, and I remember he looked bereft and alone.  It was as if he’d forgotten all about us, forgotten he had anyone to care for, or who cared about him.  I knew then I was stronger and more self-confident than he was.  I was five.  He was forty-one.

By my late teens, and because I wanted to learn about my own history, I knew most of what I know now about my father’s family. My grandfather was a sergeant in World War I.  He volunteered at the beginning of the war.  He survived but with an untreated shrapnel wound that caused him to spend the year of 1918-19 as a prisoner of war in Russia.  After he got back and got fixed up, he couldn’t get a job anywhere and he didn’t lie down under life’s injustice. He vented his anger on my grandmother and my Aunt Helen, the youngest child and only girl.  He used to say to my father, “I can’t get you, so I’ll take it out on them,” and my father would flee the house.  I heard this from my mother, never from my father.

My father was born in 1909.  He was four years older than his younger brother, seven years older than his sister.  When my grandfather returned to the family, my father was ten, possibly older, making him a more difficult target for my grandfather’s aggression.  This my father understood.  I remember my mother telling me, à propos of nothing very much, “Your father believes he escaped because his father was away in the war.  By the time he came back, your father was big enough to fight back.  That’s why he left him alone.”

My father was the one successful child.  His younger brother worked as a supervisor-mechanic with the Outer London bus service – a steady job but nothing to be proud of in my parents’ view.  My father’s sister, my Aunt Helen, worked as a bank teller until her mid-thirties, when she was admitted for treatment in a psychiatric hospital.  I was six at the time, possibly just seven.  She was hospitalized for eight years and died of a codeine overdose about two years after her discharge.  I don’t think anyone knew if her death was a suicide.  I was sixteen.

My parents connected my aunt’s illness to my grandfather’s abusive treatment of her, but they could never talk openly about what my grandfather had done.  After my aunt died, my mother told me, “Auntie Helen used to sleep on the sofa in the sitting room,” and I knew my mother meant more than she said.  At another time, my mother told me, “Your father found her another place to stay.  She rented a room with another family, at nineteen, once she was working.  But it was too late for her.  She used to eat and eat and eat.”  When my mother spoke about my aunt, she almost always called her “Helen” in a tone of quiet distaste.  It was rarely “your aunt,” never “your father’s sister,” certainly not “my sister-in-law.” My father hardly talked about her at all.

It’s clear to me now that my father authorized my aunt’s hospitalization (although she was a voluntary patient).  After her discharge, my mother told me that my aunt had been arrested for shoplifting and psychiatric treatment was an alternative to being charged in court.  My mother added, “The police came to our door at six in the morning.”  My mother didn’t need to tell me that; I always knew that my aunt had done something irrevocable and bad.

After he retired, my father began to write his autobiography – his early life in fictional form.  He was a good writer and I learnt to write from him, from his letters; I learned to put on paper what was in my mind.  When he was younger, my father had written plays and some short stories, and the theme was always the same:  his uncertain sense of belonging in the middle-class world.  His novel was to be more personal and direct, staying close to his memories of childhood.  My mother typed up the first chapter and sent it to me in Canada.  I was by then married, which for my parents meant that I was a full adult.

The chapter was devastating in its honesty.  It describes how my father and his younger brother used to hang out in a park outside the family home – a place where they knew they would be safe.  The boys talk, they plan, they spot pretty girls, and it was all so unlike my father. My father read books.  He went to work every day in a suit.  He was the decision-maker; his word was usually final, and as far as I knew, he didn’t stray.  But there was something else I didn’t know about him, or hadn’t seen laid out in the clear light of day:  in the consciousness of the main character is an alien presence, a living force which threatens to destroy.

The young man’s father never appears in the novel, and he never acts nor speaks.  But when the young man thinks of returning home, he anticipates a clash over some pointless, nameless issue, and it is then that his father takes on flesh and blood in the young man’s mind.  Only the father knows the reason for the clash and assumes that he is in the right.  Seeing that he must fight, and not knowing why or to what end, the young man starts to shake uncontrollably.  He is humiliated in advance because he knows he is weak.

My father never finished his novel.  My mother said, “It’s therapy for him.”  In the chapter I read the young man calls his father “the old devil.”

Both of my parents died in 1987, my mother six months before my father.  They outlived my grandmother by less than twenty years.  My grandmother died at eighty-nine and lived in the same house until two years before her death.  My parents died in their seventies.

After my mother died, when my father was in the hospital, I stayed alone in my parents’ house.  I found old letters and papers scattered in almost every room. Two of the letters were from my grandmother and my aunt to my father, written following one of my grandfather’s violent attacks.  My father was then married to my mother and living away from home.  The letters were passionate, copious cris de coeur describing headaches, sickness, despair. The two women wrote as if my father was their only hope on earth.  My grandmother’s letter ended with remembrances to my mother, and then, “God bless her sweet face” – in an appeal to a still higher source of help.

There was another letter from my father to my grandmother announcing my birth.  His letter ended, “Here’s dibs for the week,” referring to the weekly money he sent to keep her afloat.

After my father died, I found fragments of his diary, scribbled pencil entries in a hard-cover notebook, written first on scrap paper and then transcribed.  “I had too much responsibility forced on me as a child,” my father wrote, as if his chances for happiness ended there.  Even his handwriting betrays him: cramped, spidery, f’s, h’s and l’s curled in the old-fashioned way, other letters faint and broken, the spaces too large between each word.  It’s the writing of a man who fears judgment at every turn.  My brother’s comment on my father’s private writings was that it was like seeing the other side of the moon.

__________________________________________________________

When my parents left out those old papers, what did they want me to find?  What had they been looking for?  I don’t think they were looking for any sort of justification for themselves or their lives. They wanted to bring back who they had been, what they’d lived for.  They wanted closeness to their past.  Three decades after their deaths, what am I looking for?  I think some sense of how much I am still like them, how far their lives are repeated in mine.

 


CATHERINE WATSON taught sociology for ten years in Montreal and outside Quebec and has worked as a survey interviewer in Montreal.  She has published poetry and prose in Montreal Serai.  She is presently a member of the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning.

Copyright © 2019 by Catherine Watson. All rights reserved.

‘The Innocents’ by Caroline Misner

Innocents

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Ted placed his face in his hands and closed his eyes. He needed a moment to think. Perhaps two. Perhaps more.

The day had been a disaster from the beginning. Sylvia had awakened that morning to the howl of Nicholas in his cot and she had been in a foul temper ever since. Usually a good mother, despite her wild mood swings that rocked the household from time to time, today she had no patience for the baby or his sister Frieda and least of all for Ted.  He’d become accustomed to her behaviour. Sometimes, all it took was an innocent remark or a gesture that made her feel slighted to send her into a fury.

They had already planned on a day’s outing, somewhere they had never been before, a day’s exploration, preferably to the beach. It was a glorious warm day in late May 1962, perfect for a picnic somewhere beyond the farms of Devon. But Ted had balked at continuing on with their plans so Sylvia had taken matters into her own hands and tossed both babies into the back of the car and revved the engine. Fearing she would do something crazy; Ted had no choice but to accompany them. He let Sylvia drive.

For hours they drove, Sylvia clutching the wheel, her blazing hazel eyes darting across the countryside, heading west and seeking a route to the coast. Ted sat with the map unfolded in his lap and tried to navigate. The roads meandered through hills and farmland, never quite reaching the sea and that had enraged Sylvia even more. He managed to talk her into stopping at a small village to purchase food for the children—a humble meal of biscuits, bread and marmalade and a few bottles of milk and apple juice. The respite from the drive seemed to mollify Sylvia’s frustration, albeit only temporarily. Back in the car, she raged and pounded her fists into the wheel.

“Why do you Brits always keep the roads so far from the shore?” she shouted. “Back in the states you can get to the beach in no time.”

The tone of her voice had set Nicholas to howling again and even little Frieda had tears in her eyes. Ted had tried to calm them as best he could. Sylvia ignored them.

They finally arrived at the base of a jagged coastal cliff hedged in by oak woods and brambles. The shore still seemed a long way off, accessible only by a single path that wound between crops of scraggly brush. Sylvia cut the engine and sprung from the car, slamming the door behind her. Ted followed, hauling babies and grocery bags. He found a small clearing between the beach and the woods and spread a threadbare blanket across the rocky sand.

The tides sparkled brilliantly in the sun, low waves crashing and creaming against Sylvia’s shins. She stood with her back to them, staring out to sea, the hem of her skirt drawn up between her legs and tucked into her waistband. A lone scruffy hound worked its legs up to a gallop as it crossed the beach to chase the gulls that rose, squawking, in the tepid breeze. Ted fed the children and they ate heartily but soon lost interest. Not yet able to stand, Nicholas crawled after his mother, his small hands and knees leaving criss-cross trails in the sand. Frieda padded after them, her milk and biscuits forgotten on the cloth. Ted sat with his head in his hands and wondered what to do next.

It was no use trying to talk sense into Sylvia when she got like this. She was the most brilliant and yet the most stubborn woman he’d ever met. The best he could do was watch the children and wait for Sylvia’s mood to pass. Sometimes, these tantrums lasted for days and the only way to calm her was with the little white pills he kept locked away and doled out as needed. He regretted not bringing the pills with them today.

He lifted his head and saw Sylvia trudging up the beach; Nicholas was perched upon one hip and Frieda’s hand clutched her mother’s. The beach was not what she had expected and the disappointment would likely set her off again.

“I want to go for a hike,” Sylvia said as she plopped the babies onto the blanket.

“Don’t you like the sea?” Ted asked.

Sylvia scanned the undulating water, the pebbled shoreline, the cracked furrowed rocks that lay scattered like uncollected ruins in the nooks and crooks of the inlet. The gulls screamed overhead, safe now from the dog that had abandoned his chase and scampered off to other adventures.

“I hate it,” Sylvia said. “This is not an ocean. Not like the ones back home –too flat, too pale. Where are the big waves, the colourful umbrellas, the lifeguard chairs?”

She headed off into the woods without another word. Ted scooped the children up in his arms and followed. There was no trail to guide them; twigs and acorns cracked underfoot as they made their way deeper and deeper into the woods, Sylvia sweeping branches out of the way with her arms. The roar of the sea faded and a mossy coolness enveloped them, a welcome respite from the heat on the shore.

“Look.” Sylvia paused and pointed into a mound of brush.

A rabbit trap sat nestled beneath the leaves, its sharky jaws yawning open and its teeth gleaming uncorroded; a copper chain snaked round a tasty French bean morsel on the bait plate. It was all too familiar to Ted, having been raised among the farms of the Calder Valley in Yorkshire. As a youth he’d prided himself in being quite the huntsman and had set many similar traps himself. His prey had filled many a Sunday stew pot.

Silent rage-filled Sylvia until she seemed to burgeon—Alice in Wonderland after sampling the bottle. Dull light reflected the mania in her eyes. Without a word, she grabbed the trap and hurled it into the trees, a brown cord whipping behind it like a tail.  The trap snapped shut on impact with the ground and the French bean sprung from it and landed in the brush.

Ted stood aghast at what she had done. It was a desecration, an affront to everything he held and believed in, knowing some poor farmer had probably set the trap in anticipation of his evening meal. But Sylvia wasn’t finished yet. She spotted another trap and another, each tethered together with the same frayed cord as the first. She threw the traps, one by one, into the woods, her face reddening from the exertion and her fury.

“Sylvia!” he gasped. “Stop that! What are you doing?”

“Murderers!” she screamed, tears glazing her ruddy cheeks. “You’re all murderers!  You’re killing the innocents!”

Ted let the babies slide from his arms where they huddled terrified round his knees.  Sylvia was beyond reason. All he could do was let her fury wind itself down. She sobbed, bunching her fists against her eyes once the last trap had been thrown.

“Murderers!” she wailed. “Cannibals! All of them.”

“It’s the way of the land, Sylvia.” Ted tried to sound reassuring but he knew he failed.  “Most people in this county can’t afford fresh meat every day. The traps are a necessity.”

His instinct told him he should reset the traps. Perhaps the farmer who had set them would never suspect. Sylvia raked her fingers down the length of her face; thankfully her nails left no marks. She raised her bloodshot eyes as though beseeching some unseen deity.

“Why is it always the innocents who have to die?” she whimpered.

Ted had no answer to that. Sylvia heaved in a deep breath; her shoulders loosened and her shaking ebbed. The storm was blowing itself out. It would pass soon. But for how long? How long before Sylvia’s grief would overtake her again?

“Oh, Sylvia,” he whispered. Sylvia stepped into his arms and he held his wife close, the warmth of her body as familiar to him as his own skin. Below them, Nicholas and Frieda clutched their parents’ legs as though trying to climb up the trunk of a tree.

And there they stood, in the cool woods beside the sea in Cornwall, a young family, clinging to one another. Ted detected a stir in the brush; leaves rattled. A young brown rabbit scampered through. It paused and regarded them warily. Its whiskers twitched and it scurried on, leaping over the inert snake of the trap’s cord.

 


CAROLINE MISNER‘s work has appeared in numerous publications in the USA, Canada, India and the UK. She has been nominated for the prestigious McClelland & Stewart Journey Anthology Prize for the short story “Strange Fruit.” In 2011 another short story and a poem were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in the beautiful Haliburton Highlands of Northern Ontario where she continues to draw inspiration for her work. She is the author of the Young Adult fantasy series “The Daughters of Eldox.” Her latest novel, “The Spoon Asylum” was released in May of 2018 by Thistledown Pressand has been nominated for the Governor General Award.

Copyright © 2019 by Caroline Misner. All rights reserved.

‘The Mountain’ by Allison Hall

The Mountain

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

“Why is everything so fucking dark lately? What happened to happily ever after?” Alice asked. The glow of the flame lit up her face as the tobacco hissed and caught. The smoke crept from the side of her mouth in a wavy line.

“What do you mean? Are you telling me you’re not happy?” Jay reached for her hand, stroking the long fingers that ended abruptly in chipped black polish.

“No, it isn’t that. Why does everything have to be so apocalyptic? Zombies, nuclear fallout, the end of the world. Sometimes I feel as though there isn’t anything positive left.” She looked around at the people on the patio, their animated chatter filled the air with an emptiness that made her skin crawl. Her gaze fell upon Jay and she caught the flush that played across his cheeks and down his neck towards his button up shirt that was crisp, without a wrinkle.

“Oh, I see, you’re talking about popular culture: movies, books, that sort of thing. Well…what about the movie we saw last week? Everyone seemed happy at the end of that one.”

“Rom-coms,” Alice snorted with a billow of smoke coming out of her nose, “Those aren’t real. Nothing ever works out like that.” She flicked the remains of her cigarette over the edge of the patio at a somber man in an uncomfortable suit on his way home from the office.

“And zombies are?”

“I guess you have me there.” Alice took a sip of beer and drummed her fingers on the edge of the table. “I grew up with all those fairy tales, you know? I was set up for things working out. It’s like when you’re a kid, your parents tell you that everything will be fine in the end, and then they throw you out into the real world and it’s just the opposite.” She reached for the cigarette pack and Jay pulled it away from her.

“You’re smoking too much lately. I think you should quit.”

“Really?” she said, raising an eyebrow. “Sure, I can quit. No problem.” She drew her hands back and twisted the thin paper napkin into a spiral.

“Your life’s not that bad, is it?” Jay signaled for the waitress to bring over another round. “I mean look at you, you’re beautiful. You have a great place, a steady job…that ring on your finger. How could that be bad?”

“Those are material things. I’m not sure you can use material things to define happiness. It doesn’t work that way.”

“Of course, you can. Don’t you see? Those material things mean so much more. Your beauty comes from confidence. Your apartment…that represents safety and comfort. Your workplace is your security. And the ring…that represents love, the rest of our lives together.”

“No. I guess it’s not that bad.” She placed her hand on the fork and flipped it back and forth. “And you? Are you happy?”

“Of course I am.” He leaned back into his chair. “How could I not be?”

“But you’re in med school. I don’t think I could be happy if I was a doctor.”

“I’ll help people. I’ll improve their lives. That makes me happy. Simple. Not to mention, all the money that I’ll make, for us.” He nodded at the waitress as she put two more bottles down on the table.

“But will you really help them?” Alice bit her lip in a way that made her face change. “You’ll lie to them, tell them that everything’s going to be okay. Fix them up for a year or two, before they die anyway.”

He smothered a laugh. “Before they die anyway? That’s pretty cynical. What’s gotten into you?”

“Sometimes I wonder what the point is –why we even bother.”

“Are you talking about the secret to life? Why we exist?”

“Maybe. Oh, I don’t know.” She raised the bottle to her lips and emptied half of it: the liquid fell forward in quiet gulps. “We have drinks. We talk. We go home. I get up for work, you go to school and then we do it all over again. Is that really living? Shouldn’t there be something more?”

“What do you suggest?”

“A purpose. Something to strive towards.”

“What about the wedding –isn’t that a purpose? Something to look forward to?”

“I suppose. But what then? What’s the purpose after that?” Alice pulled at the diamond around her finger, staring at the reflection of light it threw onto the green glass of the bottle. The sun, far off in the distance, fell in an angry red mess over the skyline.

“To live happily ever after,” Jay said triumphantly. He raised his drink in an exaggerated toast.

“Very funny,” she said. Her mouth curved into a reluctant smile. “Do you really think we can be happy?”

“Of course. We are happy. It’s not that difficult.”

“But I think it is. Marriage is hard, you have to work at it. What if I sleep with someone else? Will you still be happy then?”

Jay’s eyebrows lifted. “That depends. On the situation I mean. Maybe you got really drunk and didn’t know what you were doing. I think I could probably forgive that. Yes, I think I could.”

“But if I told you I’ve slept with someone else; wouldn’t that make you furious? I wouldn’t be able to forgive you if you did something like that.”

“Even if it was a mistake? If I didn’t know what I was doing? I think if you loved me enough, you could forgive me. When you’re serious about being together, you work things out.” Alice looked at him and then looked away. She thought about the text. She wished she had never seen it, but now it was too late. The light all around them was fading into dusk. The waitress placed a flickering candle in the middle of the table.

“Are you ready to order?” She stood there expectantly.

“No, I think I’m okay for now,” Alice said. Her nails tapped against the bottle.

“Well I’m starving,” Jay announced. He squinted as he tipped the glossy menu towards the dull reflection of the candle. “I’ll have the sirloin, rare, and fries…no, skip the fries. I’ll have a salad, ranch dressing on the side. I’m watching my waistline.” He winked at the waitress who smiled as he handed her the menu.

“Watching your waistline? You sound like a 1950’s sitcom dad.” Alice’s hand crept towards the pack of cigarettes he had pushed to the edge of the table.

“Withdrawal already?”

“I’m fine.” Her fingers gripped the chair as she rocked back and forth. “What am I supposed to do now? Watch you eat dinner?”

“You’re the one that wanted to go out. Why don’t you get another drink or something?”

“Sure.” Alice stood up and walked over to the bar at the edge of the patio covered with little lights that looked like chili peppers. She squeezed in between two men on stools and put her hands down flat against the rough wood of the bar top.

“Can I get you a drink?” the man on her left asked. She noticed that his patterned tie was slightly askew.

“I’m getting my own drink,” she said. “That’s why I came up to the bar.”

“She’s married anyway,” the other man said, eyeing her ring, “or as good as anyway.”

“Since when does that matter?” Alice stared at him until he finally looked away. “I’ll have four shots of tequila,” she told the bartender, who poured them out and put them on a little silver tray. The men watched as she walked back over to the table, carefully balancing the drinks.

“I hope two of those are for me,” Jay said.

Alice looked at him and threw her head back, draining the shots one by one down her tilted throat.

“Lemon?” he asked. His forehead lifted and made a dividing line.

“Thanks,” she said. Her eyes watered as she sucked on the pale-yellow wedge. The waitress put the steak down and turned to Alice.

“Can I get you an extra plate?”

“No, thanks. I’m vegetarian.”

“Since when?” Jay asked, chewing on a mouthful of pink meat.

“I thought I’d give it a try,” she said, as the waitress considered them and walked away. The tables were starting to thin now and the mosquitoes were out. Alice slapped at her arm and reached into her bag to pull on a sweater.

Jay’s face danced in the shadow of the flame. “Really? This is a bit much, even for you.”

She looked down at the table and contemplated the empty shot glasses. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me.”

“It’s just that every morning when I open the front door, I see the mountain.” Alice shivered and pulled the sweater tighter around her shoulders.

“The mountain?”

“Yes, you know, the mountain. The one across from my apartment.”

“I’d call it more of a hill.”

“I look at it and it’s always the same…I mean it’s not always exactly the same. In the winter it’s covered in snow, in the summer it’s got patches of green, but when it comes down to it, it’s just a big piece of rock looking back at me every morning and it never changes. It’s always there. And sure, it’s nice to know what to expect, but sometimes when I open the door, I pray that it won’t be there anymore. I think about what I would do if it wasn’t there one day.”

“Are you calling me a piece of rock?”

“I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

“No, I understand perfectly. I think you need to climb the mountain. It’s a symbol of overcoming your obstacles.”

She glared at him under thick bangs. “If I climb it, I have to connect, become a part of it, and right now I want nothing to do with it. Can’t you even try to imagine what that’s like for me?”

“What that’s like for you? Huh.”

Jay closed his eyes and she watched his shoulders lift up and down in time to his breath. She could almost hear him count to ten before his eyes opened again, black and empty.

“Do you know what? I think I’m done,” he said. He pushed his plate into the middle of the table.

“I thought you were starving.”

“Not anymore.” He stood up and threw a couple of twenties down on the table.

Alice thought about the mountain again and pulled a cigarette out of the almost empty pack. The flame from the candle caught her eye, causing the white part to glow a dull shade of orange. “I told you there’s no happily ever after,” she muttered to no one in particular as she watched his silhouette lurch off into the night. She smiled. Maybe tomorrow the view would be different.

 


ALLISON HALL is a teacher-librarian and writer from Ontario. Her short stories have been published in Cleaver Magazine and The Mulberry Fork Review.

Copyright © 2019 by Allison Hall. All rights reserved.

 

‘Creatures of a Moment’ by Samantha Thayer

Jarred

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

On Wednesday, I watched her steal a daylily from my garden. On the following Sunday, she chose an orchid.

At first I thought she had mistaken them for hers. After all, our neighboring gardens nearly overlapped. It was on Thursday, I watched as her despairing gaze visited my home. Then, when she failed to see me hiding behind the curtain, she reached over and plucked a tulip.

I respected that she was so careful—as though the flowers were built of shattered glass and she was afraid of cutting herself. She always chose specific flowers. Perfect specimens, regarding every petal. Her visits were infrequent enough to never affect the garden’s growth, as it still flourished with over a dozen breeds of flower.

The reason behind her thievery was a mystery to me. Although she had been my neighbor for years, she hid beneath a dark baseball cap as though she was ashamed to look at the world. But she was not fearful. No, she stood tall and proud. One could gain a moment of confidence just by watching her.

Her name was Ava. That was all I truly knew about her. I had made idle attempts to get to know her, but small talk could only get me as far as knowing that tomorrow might be a little cloudy. Her confidence made her challenging to face. I could never find the guts to press a conversation, let alone a confrontation. Truthfully, I hadn’t thought much about her until she started stealing from me. Before then, I was only aware that she didn’t appear to like other people much. So, I left her alone.

Perhaps I should have confronted her on the first day I caught her stealing. Something had prevented me, however, from swinging open the window and demanding to know why she didn’t take from her own garden. Part of me wanted to see where she went with it, the other half was focused on how depressed she appeared as she buried the flower in her palm. I couldn’t build up the courage to interrupt that, not until Monday came.

In the early hours of that morning, I caught her once more, delicately pulling up one of my flowers, which would now only have hours left before it wilted away. They only existed for a moment in time, after all.

Opening the window felt wrong, but I did it anyways, if only to let in a carefree breeze that swept by me and raced eagerly into my home. I did not welcome it. I was already too focused on the girl in my garden, just as she was focused on me

“Excuse me, but . . . just . . .”

Talking was hard. It was always hard. Fighting my tongue to allow the worlds to roll off, rather than cram them back down my throat, was a constant battle. I suddenly wanted to shut the window in hopes that I could shut out that gnawing anxiety. She was stealing and yet I was worried I had interrupted her.

“What are you doing?” My question fumbled out at last, but the breeze was no longer there to carry the vibrations of my quivering voice atop its vigorous waves. Instead, my words dropped to her, placing a visibly heavy weight on her shoulders.

“I’m sorry.” Unlike myself, she did not hesitate. She paused for only a moment and, in that brief passage of time, I watched her collect herself before she straightened to look me dead in the eyes. “I know what I’m doing is wrong,” she said with the same despairing look she had on Sunday, “But I need this.”

It was hardly an answer, barely the distant cousin of an explanation. I watched her focus on the flower. “What do you do with them?” I asked, borrowing enough confidence to lean slightly out of the window.

“I give them to someone.” The vagueness covered her intentions like a widow’s veil.

“To who?” I asked. “Why can’t you bring your own?”

“It’s not that easy to explain,” she responded.

“Then can you show me?”

I hadn’t expected she would crack, let alone cave. Strange as it was with our usual reluctance to share words, I was frantic that come Friday, there would be more than just a flower missing from my garden.

But somehow—miraculously—an agreement was made and I found myself walking side by side with mystery. There was no connection between us other than our overlapping gardens and stolen flowers. Though, that was enough to lead me away from home on a short leash of curiosity.

Of all the places I could have imagined she would bring me, a graveyard was the last of them.

We entered through its gates, the fences’ sword tips stretching towards the late August skies. I wanted to tell her to turn around. I wanted to tell her that everything was okay. She didn’t need to show me so much. She didn’t need to show me where the flowers went after all. Hell, if she wanted to, she could leave me right at those gates and, come Saturday, I could turn a blind eye when her hand trespassed onto my property to snatch away a rose. But I didn’t say anything; instead, I swallowed my words.

When we came to a little gravestone that had the name “Sebastian” carved into its concrete flesh, I lost all my borrowed confidence.

“He loved your flowers.” As she spoke, she lowered the carnation onto the head of the grave where it would eventually fade away. “We always told him to take the flowers from our garden if he wanted them… but when we weren’t looking he would just reach over to yours and . . . ”

The wind caught her words, sweeping them away as easily as a stolen daisy, leaving us both in silence. The momentary inability to speak was cruel, but I understood it all too well.

“He was your brother.” I remembered him. A head of messy brown hair and a wild smile that lasted even through the vicious effects of chemotherapy.

“He never kept the flowers, he just gave them to people.” Her expression was haunting, as though her eyes saw the past while her body lived in a tormentous present, fearful of her future. “They made him happy, so I guess he thought they would make others happy too.”

I had asked where the flowers went, but I hadn’t anticipated they would be only one of many in a cemetery of roses. A dying garden.

More often than not, I think about that visit. Though the world may have continued to spin around in its usual pattern with merciless ignorance, everything changed for me. I began to sleep with my body curled into a fist of protest. The fleeting memory of a lively smile on a dying body became the centerpiece of my dreams.

Now, every few weeks, I meet with a girl who hides beneath a dark baseball cap to plant a variety of flowers, in our overlapping gardens. Then, on scattered days of the month, I wave to her from the window as she passes by.

Then, on Tuesday, I watched her borrow a daffodil.

 


SAMANTHA THAYER is a creative writer studying both English Literature and Interior Design in Montreal. She was born and raised in a small town that has inspired many of her creative works. When she is not pursuing creative endeavors, she is working in professional pet care or furthering her education.

Copyright © 2019 by Samantha Thayer. All rights reserved.

‘Stray’ by Megan Callahan

Stray.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

By the time Mariel arrives at the water’s edge, the sun’s hanging low. The sky is slowly darkening like a bruise. Dry leaves scuttle around her leather boots and get caught like weeds in the cracked black pavement. She grips the railing with both hands and spits into the canal, hoping to hawk up the nauseating taste of tobacco sitting on her tongue. No luck. She swallows hard. On the opposite shore, the rusted husk of the abandoned malting factory towers above trees—its graffitied silos mountainous and grey, and beyond them the redbrick sprawl of St-Henri. Mariel looks around, her trained eyes scouring the scene. A woman and her son toss bread to the pigeons. A handful of cyclists weave down the bike path, fewer now that the light is fading. She slips two fingers into her back pocket for the stale pack of Du Mauriers, her first pack in months. She lights up with her brand-new Bic. It’s neon yellow, the only colour they had at the dep, and the sick brightness of it only makes her feel queasier.

Arnaud turns up on foot after her third cigarette. Mariel tilts her head, blows smoke rings into the wind.

“You’re late,” she says. “I’ve been waiting.”

Calme-toi. Y fait pas encore noir.”

Arnaud is nearly a foot taller than Mariel. Broad frame outlined against purple clouds. He’s in plain clothes, like her. Pouched bloodhound face shadowed in the half-light. Mariel notes his pink eyes and the pungent smell of weed. He’s been her partner on the force for nearly five years. He knows her better than anyone else. With a look he sees the fear coiled inside her like a spring. Tight and metallic, ready to pop. As she grinds the end of her cigarette under a boot heel, he’s already rolling her a joint.

Tiens, lâche tes clopes.”

Mariel takes it gratefully. She tips her head back and inhales slow, letting the weed linger in her throat. She immediately feels better. Calmer. The small muscles around her neck and shoulders go slack.

“Fucked up day,” she says.

“Fucked up en tabarnak.”

Arnaud leans his elbows against the railing and peers into the water. A few months ago, a local folk musician drowned near this spot. Accident or suicide, no one knows for sure. Mariel and Arnaud were two of the cops who trawled the canal and parts of the St. Lawrence, dredging up scrap metal and plastic bottles until her bloated body finally surfaced. Dozens of missing person flyers are still stapled to telephone poles and pasted to the crumbling walls of metro tunnels. Mariel remembers the girl from her neighbourhood bar, a tall brunette with a ridiculous bird’s name. She played the accordion and the fiddle, sometimes the guitar. Katherine Kingfisher? Or was it Magpie, or Loon?

C’est la dernière fois que je viens à ton secours.”

The anger in Arnaud’s voice is quiet and razor-thin.

Tu m’écoute? La dernière esti de fois.”

“I didn’t ask to be rescued,” she retorts.

Fais pas l’idiote.”

“Fuck you. I could’ve done this alone.”

Arnaud shakes his head and says nothing. He knows when she’s bluffing. Mariel scowls and kicks a loose pebble, sends it skittering over the edge. Streetlights across the canal flicker to life.

“Listen to me. Okay?”

Arnaud places a callused hand on her shoulder. She feels him shifting gears, speaking her language, manoeuvring her with his Good-Cop voice. His accent barely perceptible after years of night school English. Inside, she bristles.

“This is not the only way,” he says.

“Now you’re being an idiot.”

“You have a choice.”

“Like hell I do.”

Ça va te manger tout cru. I know you.”

Below them the water is flat indigo. Mariel thinks of the drowned folk singer, her long brown hair knotted around her neck. When the divers dragged the body from the riverbed, there wasn’t much left of her delicate bird face. Mariel heard the family had to look for childhood scars, for the distinct cluster of moles between her breasts. The image depresses her. A body soft as cotton, pulled apart by water and air. Even mollusks have shells. She imagines herself naked and wrapped in algae, fish and bottom feeders chewing on her eyelids. Mouths tenderly peeling away her skin.

“The kid’s dad,” Arnaud continues. “He’s a big shot lawyer.”

“Who gives a shit.”

“This isn’t going to disappear.”

Arnaud’s playing Bad-Cop now. Blunt and unflinching. Mariel wishes he hadn’t mentioned the kid. She’s spent the past twenty-four hours working on forgetting. A neighbourhood dealer, one she recognized from night patrols near the park,around eighteen years old. He smirked when she pulled him over and flashed her badge. He looked her up and down and said: salut baby, you can pat me down any day—but that wasn’t what set her off. Maybe it was his peach-fuzz moustache, or the oversized T-shirt tucked messily into his belt—a band shirt that had clearly been worn to death, the printed white letters beginning to crinkle and peel away—Godsp ed Y u! Bla k Emper r!—like some half-finished game of Hangman. The kid showed her his teeth in a too-wide smile, stepped out of the car with one hand in his pocket.

“I didn’t mean to kill him,” she says.

Je sais.”

“I thought he had a weapon. He was reaching . . .”

She remembers how quickly she unclipped her sidearm when the kid moved towards her. The smooth arc of the Glock 17 as it travelled up from her holster. Her aim was perfect. Was she the one who pulled the trigger? Or was it someone else, a doppelganger Mariel, some angry and hateful version of herself that she felt—still feels—swimming below the surface? She left him there like roadkill—took his phone and wallet, tried to make it look like a carjacking gone wrong.

“Shut up,” Mariel snaps, even though Arnaud has fallen silent. “Enough stalling.”

She tosses the butt of her joint and gestures to her partner. She’s pleased to see that her hand isn’t shaking anymore. Not even a tremble.

“Hand it over.”

She can tell he doesn’t want to. He narrows his eyes, shuffles his feet like he’s about to walk away. Finally he reaches inside his jacket and pulls out a plastic evidence bag. Inside is the bullet. Swiped from the coroner’s office. She drops it in her palm, rolls it between her thumb and index finger. Examines the unique markings left by her gun barrel, the lines and grooves as damning as fingerprints. But in the growing dusk, the bullet could be anything: A pebble or a bottle cap. The core of an apple. A quarter thrown in the canal for luck.

Mariel has never been much of a pitcher, but somehow she manages to hurl the bullet far, far out into the murk of the canal. It vanishes into the dark. She doesn’t hear it hit the water. Only a few silver ripples disturb the placid current. She exhales with a feeling that isn’t quite relief. She’s floating in place, strangely untethered, as though the bullet itself had been keeping her on the ground.

“There. It’s gone.”

Arnaud shakes his head, his bloodhound face even sadder than usual.

Gone. Mariel crawls inside the word, lets it cover her like a protective shell. Eventually the bullet will be carried downstream, spewed into the gaping mouth of the river, or washed ashore, nestled between slick rocks, refuse, and weeds. But even if someone finds it, plucks the anonymous piece of lead from the mud, what story can it tell? Mariel clutches the railing, swayed by a gust of wind. Une balle perdue, une balle errante.Now the bullet is simply stray. Like a wandering dog or a strand of hair. Something innocent and without intent.

 


MEGAN CALLAHAN is a fiction writer, book reviewer, and translator from Montreal. Her work has appeared in publications such as PRISM, Matrix, Vallum Magazine, and Québec Reads. When she isn’t writing, she likes to make music, bake bread with her partner, and people-watch from her balcony garden.

Copyright © 2019 by Megan Callahan. All rights reserved.

‘Teen Spirit’ by Amanda Feder

Teen Spirit

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

On the cusp of teenagehood, I was increasingly preoccupied with a search for the elusive Cool, and suspected that this exciting, slightly nauseating sensation in the pit of my stomach was it. I brought home Live Through This, a seminal grunge album of the 90s. When I heard Courtney Love alternate between singing and screaming—her voice, throaty and off-tune—my whole body tingled and my heart sped up. I had no idea what she was screaming about, but I understood.

You’ll love her. My favourite song is Teenage Whore.’ It’s so honest,” Jen said when she introduced me to Courtney Love. She was trying on her sister’s plaid skirt in front of a full-length mirror, rolling it up at the waist until the hemline cut across her upper thighs.

Does this look slutty?”

Jen had invited me to her house that afternoon and soon after announced that we were best friends. By association, I was deemed equally close with her other friend, Carly. Jen was tall and thin with thick brown curls. She had a sophisticated way about her; she drank coffee and encouraged us to do the same. Carly was petite and blonde, a creative type who wrote haikus and tore holes in her jeans. They were the prettiest girls in our sixth-grade class, and I was in awe of them. I was chubby, still being dressed by my mother, and soon to be starring in a children’s production of Charlotte’s Web.

Acting must be intense,” Carly said once when I told her I had rehearsal. I had no idea what they saw in me.

Both Carly and Jen had older siblings, and they mined their stuff to feed our cultural education. When Carly shared her brother’s Stone Temple Pilots album, we listened to one song on repeat for hours. The spoken word track was called “Wet My Bed,” a focal point of the lyrics being a search for cigarettes. The singer’s voice was hoarse—his heavy breathing, scary and sensual at the same time. We decided the song was a drug-induced improvisation, proud for being able to spot such a thing.

My brother gave me a puff of his smoke,” Carly confided in us as we lay on our backs on her attic floor, listening to Scott Weiland slur his words. My heart ached with envy.

While my friends kept introducing us to new cultural artifacts, perhaps in quiet competition to outdo each other, I had nothing to offer. I cursed my parents for making me their first-born and giving me a sheltered upbringing. I became irritable in their presence. My growing frustration with my life deepened my feelings of kinship with Kurt Cobain.

I scoured boxes of old books and records in our basement, hoping that my mom and dad had once entertained interests of some redeemable quality that I could use to impress my friends. Sifting through a pile of dusty VHS tapes, I found a film with the handwritten label, Rocky Horror.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack spun on the rickety family record player throughout my growing up. My sister and I choreographed dances to most of the songs in our living room. My sister insisted on wearing her pink tutu for every one of those dancing sessions. She was five years old and tiny for her age, quiet, with dark eyes and a button nose. I was four years older, and I threw her little body around the room, barking orders and correcting her movements. We knew most of the lyrics by heart but had never seen the film.

Years later, my family drove by a repertory theatre screening the movie. I was stunned to see the number of people waiting in line outside. My parents explained that these screenings had a cult following, and people would dress up in silly costumes and sing along, even throw popcorn at the screen. I watched with wonder as a young woman in line wearing a purple wig and fishnet stockings licked the cheek of the man next to her.

I detected traces of sex and drugs and decided that the VHS tape would establish my proximity to both. A story about a mad alien scientist was my best shot at proving my maturity and good taste to my friends. I invited Jen and Carly over for a special showing on an afternoon I knew my parents would be out.

When the girls arrived at the door with three male friends in tow, I felt a tightening in my chest. In the last year or two, male schoolmates had shape-shifted from nuisances to mystical sources of validation.

Hear this is gonna be the bomb,” one of the boys said as he passed me into the house.

My cheeks went hot. Illicit spin-the-bottle games had become a staple at unsupervised social gatherings, and I wasn’t sure if their attendance signified a change in agenda.

We went down to the basement. My five guests crammed together onto the large couch, the boys digging their hands into the bowls of snacks I had laid out. I turned off the light and pressed play on the VCR, pulled out a foldout chair beside them and cracked open a Coke.

The smallest of the boys flicked jellybeans across the couch as a campy wedding scene played out before us. The first musical number prompted giggles, and the restless boy, emboldened by the tittering of the group, slid up onto the armrest.

Stop!” Jen squealed, her prepubescent chest now the target of a candy attack.  The impish grin smeared across his face made her brutal assailant look more like an elf.

Oh, you don’t like it?” he quipped, the multicoloured ammunition whipping through the air. His face flushed as he triggered high-pitched shrieks from his mark.

The soda began to bubble in my gut. The film wasn’t grabbing my audience’s attention as I had hoped. I shoved a handful of Cheetos into my mouth to quell my nerves.

The room did go quiet for “The Time Warp.” There was no way for us to tell that the scene was iconic, that the song would be played at every high school dance and wedding and Halloween party we would go on to attend. We watched, dumbfounded, as old people in neon bow ties and cummerbunds, cheap party hats and sunglasses, jumped to the left and stepped to the right.

This is weird,” Alisa snorted, throwing her legs across a guy’s lap. I kept my eyes glued to the screen and guzzled down my pop.

Soon Dr. Frank-N-Furter made his dramatic entrance, wearing heavy purple eye shadow, dark red lipstick and high platform heels. As soon as he belted out “I’m just a sweet transvestite!” the boys erupted into a performance of distaste, snickering and cursing and slapping the sofa. When the “sweet transvestite” threw off his cape to reveal a bustier, garter belt and thigh-high stockings, one boy yowled, “Shiiiiiiiiit,” stretching the word out as far as it could go. I cringed.

Shut up!” Jen commanded. She lurched forward and narrowed her eyes. “I love this,” she said with a sincerity I had only heard her use when describing her favourite icons like Kim Gordon and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

Her admirer turned towards the television, still jabbing his friends’ shoulders but the impact softened. The boys’ mockery subdued, quieting to a chorus of clicking tongues. Sensing this was a moment I needed to exploit, I started mouthing the lyrics, hoping Jen would notice I knew all the words.

But watching the actor strut and thrust his hips started to make me feel light-headed. I thought of my sister in her tutu, looking like a cartoon pixie, spinning and jumping in our living room.

My mother sang “Hot Patootie Bless My Soul” to my sister and I at bath time. I discovered that in the movie, this song ends with Dr. Frank-N-Furter hacking Meatloaf to death with an ice pick.

Awesome!” Alisa cackled. I plastered a smile across my face, kneading the ends of my sweater sleeves.

My head started throbbing during Susan Sarandon’s Toucha Toucha Touch Me,” where she begs for someone to make her feel “dirty.” I had heard these lyrics countless times but had somehow never bothered to reflect on their meaning. I thought of my parents’ faces, watching our afternoon dance recitals, exchanging glances as they smiled and clapped.

I mumbled an excuse to my friends, ran to the upstairs bathroom and promptly vomited. I returned to the basement and sat through the rest of the movie.

At first sign of the credit roll, I lied and said my parents were on their way home. My guests got up to leave.

I watched from the doorway as they filed down our front steps. Jen pivoted when she got to the end of the driveway. “Let’s watch Carrie next time!” she called back at me. I smiled and nodded. When she turned away, I noticed the logo on the back of her t-shirt for the first time. It read Tragically Hip,” and had an illustration of a woman holding her hands up to her face, crying.

I was puking for the next two days. My parents fussed over me, told me there was a bug going around at school. I didn’t mention Rocky Horror.

Do you want to watch a movie together?” my mom asked, stroking my cheek as I lay in bed.

I swatted her hand away. No, Mom, I’m fine,” I said. Can you close the door on your way out?”

I felt sick and yearned for my mother to comfort me, but I knew I had to face this alone. I wasn’t a kid anymore, and I needed us all to be on the same page about that.

 


AMANDA FEDER is an emerging writer from Montreal. By day, she works in television broadcasting. She was grateful to be selected for the 2018 Quebec Writers’ Federation Mentorship Program, during which this story was completed.

Copyright © 2019 by Amanda Feder. All rights reserved.

‘How Not to Die in a Fire’ by Pamela Hensley

Marguerite had always feared dying in a fire. For years she’d lived in a luxury retirement residence with security cameras and 24-hour attendants, but she still worried that if the place caught fire, she’d never get out alive. The attendants would forget about her, or be overwhelmed trying to help other residents, or they’d run out to save themselves instead.

It had happened before. It had happened in L’Isle-Verte where all those elderly people were trapped in that nursing home, and either choked to death on toxic fumes, or suffered the agony of watching their flesh melt like candle wax from their bones.

Marguerite complained to her sons about this. She told the young caregiver at the reception desk. She told the doctor who gave her a flu shot in November. But everyone ignored her or placated her. She was just an old woman, not quite right in the head.

One night in February, the fire alarm went off. Marguerite’s weak heart beat like a snared rabbit’s and her arthritic hands began to shake. Gripping the rails at the side of her bed, she managed to get up and dress in her robe and slippers unassisted. She was the first to make it to the designated gathering place and to wait beneath the exit sign.

Lord have mercy. She prayed as she stood there waiting. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, please don’t let me die this way. Amen. The fire alarm kept ringing but no one else came. What’s the matter with them? They will die in their beds. They will die in the worst possible way. She looked down the hall, then around the corner, and then let herself out of the building.

“I will not burn to death,” she said out loud as the metal door slammed shut behind her.

It was -28°C outside the residence. Snow and sleet hit her cheeks and forehead. As the wind blew through her periwinkle robe, her jaw began to shiver so violently that the filling from one of her remaining teeth flew out like spittle from her mouth. Above, the sky was black as ash and empty as a graveyard. She looked up, and her eyes rolled back into her head before she fainted on the slab of ice below.

Marguerite lived to be ninety-three years old.

 


PAMELA HENSLEY is a Montreal writer. Her stories have appeared literary journals including EVENT magazine and The Dalhousie Review. Last October she was a finalist in the Bristol Short Story Prize in the UK and was published in their anthology. She is currently at work on her first novel.

Copyright © 2019 by Pamela Hensley. All rights reserved.


Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

 

‘Alley Cats’ by Jeanne D

2019-03-11

 


JEANNE D is a young illustrator and designer living in Montreal. She spends most of her time wondering about her place in this world and likes to stay home way too much. She might be seen sitting near these windows at the National Library, only on sunny days, if you are lucky.

Copyright © 2019 by Jeanne D. All rights reserved.