Mornings, I draw a bath for him, follow his footprints around the house calling out so as not to distress him.
Where have you been? Out swimming? I can smell the river on you.
He doesn’t answer. Eats toast over a map of Europe, buys a pair of hiking boots, disappears for three months.
He posts pictures of the Alps. He meets a girl named Martina. She likes to swim, too. She teaches him how to breathe underwater.
He comes home the day the planetarium closes down. We go to see the last performance: a slideshow of the cosmos. This is how the morning star travels, in a crooked arc across the sky. The stars are never perfectly aligned despite what you might think. Things are happening outside our galaxy, he says. Big important things. He holds my hand and switches seats with me when the woman beside me starts weeping.
At 28 he’s too old for dancing. I go out alone, meet a girl by the toilets, suck crystals off her hand. Where is he, your friend? she asks.
Men in white jeans descend the stairs above us. Are you ever tempted, they want to know. The girl stretches out her legs and lays her head on my lap.
I’ve lost all my friends, she says. On one of these floors.
Sit with me for as long as you like, I tell her. And she does.
In the morning, I open the windows. Let the river in.
Last night I met Martina, I tell him. She asked me a lot of questions.
Who’s Martina? He laughs, frightened. That’s impossible.
I begin swimming laps at the public pool. The water’s warm and smells of men’s sweat, though there are hardly ever any men around. One afternoon I spot Martina. She’s wearing a one piece and has almost no breasts, just a steady flat line running over the hook of her ribs. Her armpits sprout miraculous black hair. I hover on the edge of the pool in my goggles and watch her spear the water in a perfect crawl.
The next time I see her she’s teaching kids backstroke. She’s taller this time and larger and her hair is pulled back in a sharp tipped ponytail. She removes the inflatable rings from the kids’ arms so they float weightless. Their bodies barely dent the surface. They don’t always float. Sometimes they go under and she scoops them out, and tells them not to overact, which is something he tells me when I mention that I’ve seen her.
You’re imagining things, he says.
You used to like that about me, I say. I’ll stop imagining her if you give me the facts.
There are no such things as facts, he says. Only moments.
In the New Year he throws a party for his friends and announces that he’s moving to Japan. He’s always wanted to go. It is the closest thing we have to the future, he says.
I thought you didn’t believe in the future, I say.
I don’t. That’s why I want to see it.
No one argues with him.
In recent months I’ve met people who look like him, others that don’t but sound like him, exactly like him, even in foreign languages. “Kosmos” translates to ornament, he explains or someone explains in his voice. We are the ornaments of the universe.
He posts a picture of his new room. The walls are made of rice paper. A roll-up mat, canter of rice wine. Everything’s made of rice, even the trees.
In Japan your only luxury is the length of your hair. He’s grown his past his shoulders.
There’s even a tax on dreams, he tells me. All your dreams must fit into a teacup.
What if they don’t, I ask. What if they don’t fit?
Then you have no other choice, he says, but to stay awake.
Kasia Juno is a writer, teacher, and aspiring comic book artist. Kasia studied literature and creative writing at Concordia University and the University of Toronto. Her work has appeared in Maisonneuve Magazine, The Hart House Review, The Puritan, and The Rumpus.net. In 2009, Kasia received the Quebec Writer's Federation prize for short fiction. Kasia is currently at work on a book of short stories.
In the middle of the last century Leland spoke in a way that smoothed North Avenue down to a plain field and rolling prairie under a rounded sky in the pastel spirits of pink and grey. He held the magisterium of speech over pastels and rolling stock and over everything round. His speech couldn’t produce anything that wasn’t round and smooth and that wouldn’t in some respect roll away.
He spoke of sleek and festive cars with weighty but rounded fenders made for the maharathathas, the chariot warriors of the neighborhood. They drove their grand cars into martial lines, like the chariots on Kurukshetra, and they rolled away. He spoke of the wheels and balls of games of chance, of rounded figures and full chords, of the always round faces of gods and goddesses, whether open or concealed, of the rolling motion of every proceeding and of the cloverleaves of the distributive round on round, on which the chariot warriors drove.
Yet while everything Leland spoke of in the middle of the last century was smooth and round and rolled away and was gone Leland himself was never round or smooth but statically thin, angular and pockmarked. He smoked harsh and reeky foreign cigarettes. Even in the summer, he never wore pastels, but black shirts and slacks that were torn and shiny with wear.
He sank, repeatedly, onto a bench in a corner of the poolroom reserved for everyone living under a curse. All of his friends slumped there with him, dressed in black, and they all lived under a curse. They gathered at the back of the poolroom like a colloquy of embalmers. Sunlight in streaks flowed through the skylight and turned their faces to stone.
All of his friends were driven by the greatest anxiety and had been for uncounted days. They had discovered that they had no story and therefore no self. That was the nursery rhyme of their curse. They once had a story. Now they had none, and they had no immunity to this lack of story, which rolled through their minds like moonshine and left them sour and hung-over in the morning. Their anxiety made them calculating, mean, cold and sour.
It was that simple, but it was their business to make it appear less so.
Maybe it would have been better if they had never had a story, for now they kept re-casting the old story, which they no longer altogether knew or even cared for, into ever more violent, calculating and sour colors, flavors and scents, inciting disturbances and disasters up and down the Avenue.
Remote and middle kingdoms along the Avenue had never known the old story when it was fresh, and so had no hope of resisting the effects of these sour re-castings, which acted on them like moonshine at a strange remove. It sent their people raving and slaughtering with iron machetes through the woods and fields. They rampaged along North Avenue, shattering storefronts and house fronts along the way, encumbering the sidewalks and doorways with fragments of stone, splinters of wood and broken glass.
The shopkeepers and householders were squat and round as Inuit. They had no use for anything splintered or broken or for anything that wasn’t in some sense round. They made very good lentil soup.
The Avenue was thus encumbered, but Leland walked freely among the householders and shopkeepers, unencumbered. All of the others stumbled over their own ruptures and fragments, exchanging curses and gambling for their own cloaks. But everything Leland said rolled away, and his view was left undamaged and unobstructed.
But it was hard to say why he was immune to the disarray and debris of the old story, the jagged but rugged old story and its endless knock-offs, parodies and plagiarisms, which had all the virtues of not making sense, like a mirror to North Avenue but translated to a glowing sphere. Maybe he was just lucky.
Jane lived in an old house on a modest street up the hill from North Avenue, on an upper floor with a balcony made of timber encumbered with bicycles and folding chairs, shielded by a bamboo screen and looking out over the gulf.
Further hills rose higher behind and each had a kind of temple at the top in the form of a track house, service station or burger franchise, with singular clouds overhead. The hills were green and demanded temples, so however ugly the building or method nothing else could be built.
On an island in the gulf, Ravana brooded his next move. His brooding introduced iridescence and choppy waves over the surface of the water.
Jane had just moved into the neighborhood from some yet more remote kingdom alien to the old story and its sour re-castings, but she did keep a representative collection of all the epics, and could cite the appropriate passages. She moved about securely behind her bamboo screen.
Looking for sunshine, Italians, maybe Romans, had cleared the way of trees, and lined the sidewalks with stone cherubim and stone artichokes. Sunshine built up the street, brick by brick, up the hill to Jane’s house. Whitely, the summer heat ballooned the two narrow lanes into a wide boulevard. There was nothing rounder than the white light rolling down and up the hill.
Still, up the hill Leland’s walk was herky-jerky and uncertain. His hands were empty of gifts. His gaunt frame and fractured gait were no help. He smoked one of his reeky foreign cigarettes in the sunlight. One rounded sentence, and then another, was all he had to offer.
* M.W. Miller is old enough to have devolved into an article of clothing, a talking hat. At present, hats are more sold than worn, so that few people even know how to wear them. Even worn badly they may help in the rain.
Places You Should Avoid (They'll Remind You of Your Dead Sister)
THE GROCERY STORE
Two years after his sister's death, Matt starts seeing her everywhere.
Ice cream always melt so easily and it's not even summer yet; strawberry-flavored from the grocery store five blocks from where he lives is an even worse choice, fingertips not just sticky but also pink-red in the end. There she leaned against the music magazines with childhood scratches in milk-white scars under the knee. Here Norah from two rows behind in school beats him to the counter and makes him three minutes late. It's not late if you have nowhere to go, but Matt is annoyed nonetheless. Maybe annoyed by the way the white uniform socks roll down on Norah's ankles just like they did over Claire's.
The girl takes the classic cone with a bar of Cadbury chocolate half-buried on top.
`You know Margaret Thatcher invented soft ice cream?´She tells him.
And that's the kind of thing Claire might say, on a day like today, and the kind of gesture she would make, lick a drop of ice cream fallen on her knuckle.
THE END OF THE STREET
Towards where he and his sister used to walk every morning and then wait at the bus stop and then get in the bus together because his school and her high school were two blocks from each other. Claire never minded that people saw her chatting with her little brother on her way to class. Not even when she was sixteen and he was fourteen, or when she was seventeen and he was fifteen and things like being cool and hard had started to matter for girls.
Now he kicks the air or some invisible dust along the street and notices the weeds slowly eating their way up the steps to Mr. Tyler's front porch and Matt cheers them to grow even faster, swallow up the whole house, the whole neighbourhood like a sci-fi novel.
`Why are you here? This is not on your way home,´ he asks Norah one afternoon.
She shrugs and Matt thinks she is making fun of his habit of not answering her questions but then again maybe it's the only way she can really answer, the only way that means nothing and everything all the same time and Matt thinks, as an afterthought, without realizing, that she is pretty. But not as pretty as his sister (and this part is definitely not an afterthought).
It was weird to see mum at the funeral, after so long, old and her mascara smudged and looking like she was about to cry, face bloated and all, but then she didn't cry, which was a let down, if you ask Matt.
`Where were you yesterday afternoon?´ Norah asks during History, leaning into Matt's desk and blocking the sun that was falling on the wood, in patterns that had started to make sense in his mind, after twenty-one minutes of Roman conquest and set-backs in Germany.
`I was- Mmm- You know,´ Matt shrugs.
His textbook open on a page with a drawing of what the south of Germany must have looked like in 15BC and Matt thinks it all looks terribly cold and frozen and suddenly he feels sick to his stomach.
THE BENCH IN FRONT OF THE FOUNTAIN
The spring Claire shortened her skirt by 2cm she and Matt discovered this spot on the park where they could sit and close their eyes and let the murmur of the water dripping fill their heads until they were blank. After class it was “wonderfully distracting”; after Saturday morning football practice it was “blissfully cooling”. Those were the expressions she used.
Claire loved sunlight and her legs turned pink then brown then golden during the summer. That's why Matt thinks it was particularly cruel the way she died, and he hates to think about her trapped in the cold forever.
And that's why when Norah makes him walk to the park with her and takes his hand and says Hey, I know a great spot, Matt's heart fills with dread and an irrational dislike for Norah.
But in the end Norah just wants to show him the kiosk where some times bands play, string quartets and, some holidays, the wind section from the police orchestra.
Matt feels a bit disappointed it's not the bench.
HIS OWN ROOM
It's still odd and some sort of treason, the way it catches him by surprise, the way his body expects to turn a corner in the hallway and into his room and find Claire sitting on his bed, or messing with the filing system of his homework in his study table.
`You never paid any attention to me,´ Norah protests, when he finally invites her in.
Matt shrugs, not wanting to examine any cheap excuse going through his mind now, a throwaway line from a B-movie, like you make me remember and all that stuff.
Norah stands on the bed, shoes knocked to the floor, and examines the tiny white spots on the otherwise-blue ceiling.
When she was eight Claire took liquid paper and painted little white dots on the ceiling of her room. She had been vying for that star-map wallpaper for a long time but she didn't want to ruin her own room without trying it out on her little brother's first. But they don't glow in the dark, Matt pointed at the obvious flaw in her DIY plan.
SIXTH FORM CLASSROOM B
Claire never carved her name and some guy's on the class desks.
Matt looked for those at the beginning of the year; he looked under the desks too, the part were the wood is unvarnished and soft and rough at the same time, hoping to find a trace of her handwriting, her blue felt-tip pens, like he did at home (a moment of great discovery, on the side of the table legs in her room, random lines from Buzzcocks songs, but he only found that out much later, after research). It's just coincidence and family tradition that he ends up in the same high school, but still.
For some reason he starts doing it again, looking for clues, these days, after months of leaving it alone.
He gets down on his knees and studies the underside of his desk, maybe there was something he overlooked in his first examination.
Mr. Collins catches him.
`History class is up here, Matt,´ he says, pointing at the blackboard. `Not down there.´
The whole class laughs at that and Matt can make out Norah's laughter through it all, shrill and accusatory.
If your body temperature goes down to 28-30º C there's risk of hypothermia quickly leading to clinical death.
If it approaches less than 2º C outside it's time to salt the roads to avoid traffic accidents.
Matt wonders if he should tell Norah all this, warn her.
Dad couldn't get rid of everything.
There were things that were, simply, stupid to throw out. The books (Claire's collection of Japanese horror novels, paperbacks always with black covers and a character named Ryoko) for example. Matt admits to salvaging some things, under his father's nose, illegally, like a smuggler.
Claire's pink lipstick for example.
`It's chipped now,´ Norah declares.
Matt wants to point out that it's two years old now, of course it's chipped.
Norah puts it on, in any case, spreading it over her lips with one fingertip. She leaves it on the desk -Matt makes a mental note to retrieve it later, and return it somewhere safe- and sits by him at the very edge of the bed. Her weight makes the mattress move and waver, like a raft, like they are rowing through a wild river, full of crocodiles.
Norah leans in – a bit awkwardly, as they are side by side – and kisses him.
Lara Alonso Corona was born in a small city in
the north of Spain. She completed her Film and TV studies in Madrid
before moving to London to work towards a Creative Writing degree. Her fiction has been showcased in ABC Tales and
the Glass Woman Prize, and more recently she has been published by The
Copperfield Review, Devilfish Review, 50-word Stories and The WiFiles.
When things get to be too much, I retreat and come here to regroup. Jacob doesn’t understand. He doesn’t mind the sounds of the city—irritated car horns, the metal reeling of the streetcar. The grinding effort of the bus, exhausting just to hear. These noises get all the way inside my head, rattle around, pile on top of each other. And then I can’t hear my own thoughts.
When that happens, I take off in my ‘94 Toyota Tercel, lightly rusted around the wheel wells. I drive up the highway for a couple of hours and stop at the DQ in Orangeville for a Blizzard or some fries. My parents keep a cottage up north. If I were a man, it would be my cave.
There are neighbours: Edna and Robert, in their early sixties, who are there every summer. They’re friendly—or nosy, depending on your point of view, but I enjoy having them around. They are the type who seems to genuinely care about you even if they don’t know you well. And their cottage is an actual home, a place you could live in all year round. They invite me over for meals or drinks. And every time we have the same conversation.
“Why are you here by yourself?” Edna will ask. “Don’t you have a boyfriend?”
“A husband,” I’ll say, “but he’s back in the city. He doesn’t like the country. Too quiet.”
“Youth,” Robert will say. “He’ll understand, later.”
Edna will pop over in the middle of the day with a baked thing. Her salt-and-pepper hair is cut in a sleek bob, and she wears elegant clothing made of linen, cotton, or silk. She is the kind of woman I want to be.
Robert is tall, thin, and perpetually distracted. He lets Edna do the talking. He will stare out the window, pace, click on his BlackBerry. I’ve never asked what he does. In this place, somehow, it doesn’t seem relevant.
My Tercel rattles down the dirt road, tired from the journey. I see their porch light through the trees: the sun is setting. They must hear my car’s noisy approach.
I settle into the cottage. I unload the few groceries I’ve picked up, get the bed ready, and text Jacob to let him know I’ve arrived. It is quiet but for the constant ringing in my ears, imprinted there by the harangue of city noise. I curl onto the stiff, nubbly sofa with an old Harlequin that’s been on the bookshelf since I was a little kid. The spine cracks and the stale smell of old yellowed paper reassures me. And after two cups of tea, a swelling scene of simultaneous orgasm, and the passing of hour four, the ringing in my ears subsides just a little.
I crawl into the double bed, springy and lined with floppy elderly pillows. The quietness descends like a thick velvet blanket, voluptuous and total. But as I’m falling asleep, in that usually delicious state between waking and consciousness, I find I’m edged back into the grip of city noise: angry horns, an insistent drill, and the crisp ring of glass shattering.
My period is late. Normally I am very regular. I haven’t told Jacob yet. I have opened my mouth several times over the last two weeks to say it, but each time nothing came out.
Jacob has always wanted to be a father. He’s the guy kids clamour over at large gatherings, because he’ll horse around with them and swing them and toss them into the air, and they’ll scream and cackle and jump up and down and call him Uncle Jakey, even if he is not actually their uncle.
I have always envied people like Jacob. People who fit effortlessly into life’s roles. He is what some call a family man. It is, in part, why I married him. He was made to be married. In life, you must hitch your wagon to those who are going where you want to go.
It wasn’t long after the wedding that he wanted to try for children. “They will be beautiful and smart,” he declared, “and they will be organic, artisanal, and locally sourced.”
I try to picture myself as a mother. I imagine me and Jacob loading two young children into an SUV, with primary-coloured toys and bits of cracker all over the car floor. We head to the farmer’s market on weekend mornings. To the park to barbecue. To swimming lessons, playdates. The images in my mind are sun-dappled and vivid. They are taken from the clean, bright lifestyle blogs I read. Even though our apartment is full of dark things and does not face the sun, I fantasize about starting my own luminous blog to chronicle our happy times, my difficult but ultimately satisfying movement into motherhood, the miraculous development of babies into toddlers into children into teenagers. All the stuff that Jacob would be so good at, and so good at teaching me how to do.
And yet. Here I am, alone at the cottage. And there is a heavy feeling in my abdomen. Real or imagined? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that, when I wake in the morning and go pee and there is no blood on the toilet paper, the ringing in my head starts again.
I sit outside, facing the lake. It is a clear morning. I listen for the sounds of Edna and Robert on the property next to me, but hear nothing, and their car is not parked out front. Perhaps they’ve gone into town early. It is Saturday and the local market sells out quickly. Cityfolk’s demand for its farm-fresh eggs and rustic boules is fierce.
Last year, Edna and I took a walk along the shore as the sun went down, and I told her that Jacob wanted children.
“You will make wonderful parents,” Edna said confidently. “It is a very special thing, to be a parent. It makes your heart bigger, although it can break your heart too. Either way, it’s worth it.”
A bigger heart? Who wouldn’t want that? Edna and Robert were parents three times over. I had never met their children, but it was easy to see that they’d built a loving community out of their own flesh and blood and spirit. It was a scent that perfumed everything they did. And her confidence in us—did that mean that I, too, was capable of it?
I walk through the thin wall of trees that separates our properties, and up the stairs to their veranda. But my knock is met only with silence. I turn to leave, and hear a crunch underfoot. Thin glass shards cling to the bottom of my sandal. The light bulb over the front door is shattered.
I walk the twenty minutes to the beach down the road. It’s still early and there aren’t many people here yet. I leave my cheap flip-flops on the shore and walk into the cool shallows. My steps become slow motion and my feet sink into the wet, pillowing sand. When I come to rest, a school of tiny minnows dart around my calves and peck lightly at my skin.
My abdomen feels heavy and thick, and a deep low pain clenches inside. I don’t want to stand anymore; I want to curl up. I return to the beach to sit on my portable beach chair and read a self-help book entitled Loving the Skin You’re In, which I’d picked up at the Chapters in Orangeville on the way. Certain self-help books are like candy: sweet and satisfying at the time, but afterward you feel empty and sick. Yet I still go to them. This particular book is full of motivational paragraphs that encourage you to embrace yourself, wholeheartedly, without shame. To become the person you already are. I agree, in principle. But what if you don’t know who you are? Or, more worrisome: what if there is no discrete you at all? I have often sensed myself to be not a differentiated self, but a shifting weave of emotion and thought. Unstable, without an intrinsic form. I am one thing one minute, and completely something else the next. A shape-shifter.
I return to the cottage in late afternoon, feeling like an oven-warmed piece of bread, I hope to find one of Edna’s notes, written on cheerful yellow notepaper, tucked in the screen-door frame, inviting me over for dinner. But there’s nothing, and their car is still gone. Maybe they’ve driven back to the city?
As the sun goes down, I think about calling Jacob.
“Hey, babe,” he will say in his easygoing voice, “are you enjoying it up there?” And I will tell him yes, I am. And then he’ll ask if I feel better, and I’ll say yes, I do, and then we’ll talk about what he got up to with his friends last night (beer) and then I’ll hang up. So, thus having gone through the motions of the conversation in my head already, I don’t bother to call.
I swallow a painkiller and after fifteen minutes the tightness in my abdomen lessens. The rest of the night is spent playing Angry Birds on my iPad with the radio on. Without Edna and Robert across the way, I feel lonely. Could I have been wrong when I saw the lights on last night? Maybe they were never here. I just imagined seeing the porch light the night before. It must have been a boat or the lantern of someone passing along the water line.
Sleep places its heavy hands on my shoulders. As I approach the far reaches of my consciousness, the sounds of the city crowd in again—but this time closer, almost as if they’re at my doorstep: a clanging hammer, a baby crying, the harsh sound of glass smashing.
The next morning, I wake and stumble to the bathroom with an urgent need to pee. Red liquid blooms in the toilet bowl. I burst outside moments later, gasping, and find the light bulb over my door has been smashed, leaving tiny glass shards, brilliant and glittering, all over the ground.
Julia Chan lives in Toronto. Her work has appeared in subTerrain; on café napkins in Toronto, Leeds, and Brisbane, made by Brisbane publisher Tiny Owl Workshop; and in The Rusty Toque. She was recently featured at the Emerging Writers Reading Series, curated by Jess Taylor. As a screenwriter, her short film In Shadow (directed by Shirley Cheechoo) screened at the Sundance Film Festival, among others. Julia is currently working on her first book, which she recently workshopped at the Humber School for Writers. She logs bits of her unconscious at aplacestrange.tumblr.com.
Zoey knew more about the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than all her peers combined. She'd read The Female Quixote six times, Evelina twice as many and Pride and Prejudice a whopping eighteen. Why hadn't these idiots asked her how to dress?
As soon as Will opened the doors to the “Grand Hall” – aka, the goddamned cafeteria – the screech of off-tune violins filled the air and the stench of sweating bodies hit her. She stood in place, thunderstruck. Lace, bonnets, grandma prints – this was all wrong! Where were the silks, the colours? Where were the elegant up-does, the fashionable coats and hats she'd read about? Her classmates looked like they'd been dragged through dirt before coming here! Was she the only one who read?
“After you, my Lady,” said Will, bending into a bow. Her gaze flicked to the knee-length socks he wore. Will's hair was cow-licked and his ruffly collar went all the way to his chin. He didn't look like Mr. Darcy or Lord Orville; he looked like a sausage in a casing. To think he'd gazed at her strangely when he'd picked her up that evening. She'd copied Keira Knightly's dress right down to the stitching!
“I wish we could've rented a hall,” she whispered as they advanced into the caf. Orange wax paper was taped over the ceiling lights to mimic firelight, but it just made the dancers look weird and shadowy. And the dance itself – well, she shouldn't be surprised they'd gotten that wrong, too. The guys and girls weren't even touching! Some girls she knew from History class wrinkled their noses at her.
“Such a merry gathering!” said Will, looking delighted by this poor excuse of a theme. She hadn't known he could do accents. “Would you care for refreshment?”
“Aye, matey, bring me a grog,” she answered with a wink. Will had mistaken pirate for regency talk yesterday and she'd promised to never let him live it down – but it didn't look like he remembered, because he just shot her a raised eyebrow and hurried away.
Weird. If she hadn't known better, she could've sworn he was embarrassed to be seen with her.
Shaking the thought, Zoey scanned the hall for people she knew. She was the only one in emerald green; the other girls wore white and cream and boring crap like ribbons. Even Paula – Paula, who just last week had come to church with her breasts hanging out. Now she looked like she'd escaped from a convent. Zoey waved at her, but she turned and pretended not to see.
“Can you fathom such attire on a young lady?” someone whispered, glaring at Zoey.
Zoey glanced down at herself to make sure she hadn't spilled anything. Were they jealous that her dress was more realistic than theirs? Well, it didn't matter; she couldn't let them ruin her fun. She made her way to the dance floor, determined to show off the moves she'd spent hours learning from YouTube videos. She couldn't spot her Mr. Darcy, but Justin was alright-looking and standing alone by the buffet table. She marched up to him.
He turned around and gasped as his eyes fell on her bust-line. This corset had pushed her breasts up pretty high, she had to admit. “Want to dance?” she asked. “It's okay if you don't know the moves. I'll lead.”
“Heavens, Madam,” he said, backing away. “Upon my word, I am wholly unused to this level of forwardness from a lady. Pray, grant me leave to rejoin my company.”
And like Will, he bolted. Zoey only took a few dazed steps toward the buffet table before a short, chubby teen with a cane intercepted her.
“My Lady.” Kyle gave her a sleazy grin, totally unlike the shy boy she knew. “I do not believe I have had the pleasure of making your acquaintance. Would you honour me with your hand?”
Zoey had never feared saying 'no' – in fact, her bluntness had made guys cry in the past – but something about this atmosphere stifled her impending rejection and she found herself answering, “Sure.”
Kyle led Louisa – for Zoey was her middle name, and really quite a vulgar one, she'd always thought – to the cafeteria's make-do dance floor, weaving between lace-and-muslin-clad bodies. The off-tune student orchestra suddenly dwindled to silence and they turned to the front of the caf where Principal Duval was clinking her glass with a spoon. “Ladies and gentlemen, quadrille! The lovely couples on the floor shall take this round.”
Louisa felt a surge of excitement. Now this was more like it! It would be just like Elizabeth and Darcy danced at the Netherfield Ball. She finally spotted her Darcy, senior Howard Glanville, on the dance floor and prepared a most charming line with which to engage him when their turn came to be paired. They'd sashay between dancers, holding each other's gazes, longing for their next brief interaction...
The nasal drone of oboes started the quadrille, and the couples bowed to one another. Louisa curtseyed to Kyle, growing conscious of how tight her high-waisted bodice really was, and wondering if she'd be able to execute the appropriate turns in it. As the strings joined in, the group linked hands and began moving in a circle. Louisa watched her feet, trying to remember she had to kick out her hem every time she stepped.
Before she knew it she was handed off to Kyle, spun, handed off to the next pimple-faced 'gentleman,' spun again, and so forth until she thought she'd be ill. So focused was she on the difficult steps that she barely noticed being tossed to Glanville before rebounding ungraciously back to Kyle. Passed like a ping-pong ball between gentlemen!
Soon she was gasping from fatigue, the air so thick with candle smoke it burned her throat. And good gracious, the smell of these brutes! Certainly they shouldn't have neglected to bathe for such an occasion?
This is frightfully disagreeable! No witty banter, no graceful twirling, just steps and sweat and rules! she lamented to herself, as the dancers accrued into a circle again. Imagine the offence to propriety if I simply sat down, placed my head betwixt my knees, and let these fops trip over me left and right! The power of it was invigorating. If she so desired, she could put a stick between the gears of this coordinated machine.
The song's finale ground the machine to a halt before she could gather her courage. Lightheaded, Louisa curtseyed to Sir Kyle and allowed herself to be conducted to a chair. She found herself tugging at her ruffled sleeves and, deeming this conduct unworthy of a lady of her calibre, folded her gloved hands in her lap.
How foolish do these sheep appear, thought she, with the utmost vexation, prancing round the ballroom in their identically drab attire, each indistinguishable from the next.
Who did they think they were to rebuke her for her gown? Was green not the colour Keira Knightley wore to portray Elizabeth Bennett? Let them suffer this, thought Lady Louisa, grasping her dinner knife off the table and fashioning a slit in the hem of her gown, all the way to her calf. Indeed, now she believed she'd scandalize the ladies effectively.
Barely a moment's reprieve from dancing had Lady Louisa been afforded before the honoured Lord Glanville approached her table. Louisa, greatly fearing his Lordship's intent was to give censure for her discourteous manner of dress, and dreading the ill opinion of one so esteemed in her eyes, tripped away to the toilet, seeking to avoid further humiliation. Why, her cream-coloured gown even sported emerald buttons; a style at once unsuited to the fashion and disagreeable to the ladies of lower birth, for whom such expressions of wealth were beyond reach. O, what madness had driven her to disregard all decency?
A sudden roar like that of a beast made Louisa's heart beat out of her chest, and she turned, surprised and terrified to find the source of the noise a most peculiar-looking machine. So great was her distress that she would fain have run from the room –
Wait a minute. She turned again.
An automatic hand-drier? That was what had nearly given her a heart attack?
Shaking, Zoey leaned over the sink, cupped water in her hands and splashed it over her face. What the hell was wrong with her? It might only be a high school cafeteria, but for a moment everything had felt so real. Like she was actually in a period novel, only with...gross smells and stuff, and no romance whatsoever.
She wiped her face on the embroidered towel, then studied herself in the mirror. Her curls lay piled atop her head, contrasting nicely with her green dress. Frowning, she yanked the pins from her hair and let it tumble down her back. The whole period thing wasn't fun anymore. Frankly, it was getting a little scary.
Time to bring back modernity.
Leaving the washroom, Zoey crossed the darkened hall and waited for the footmen – no, not footmen, just Brad and Sam in stupid costumes – to let her back into the caf. The doors creaked inward and the smell of flame and candle wax struck her, though she could've sworn that orange glow wasn't real firelight. This dim lighting made the caf seem larger than she remembered it, and a few of those pillars looked like they might be winding staircases leading to a second floor – but such things didn't exist in school cafeterias, so Zoey gave it no more thought. Her heart began pounding again, though she didn't know why.
In her haste she strut right through a group of chatting girls, spilling champagne all over them. They shouldn't be drinking, anyways. Gasps followed in her wake but she didn't care, she was done with this game. The men – boys? – in the orchestra followed her with their eyes as she elbowed her way between Josephina Andrews and Cole Bennett, taking the latter's arm.
“Mr. Bennett,” she said in her snootiest accent. “Care to ditch this crowd?”
Cole blinked. “My apologies, Miss, but...do I know you?”
“How scandalously rude!” said Josephina.
Zoey leaned into him a little, making sure he had a view down her bustline. That would snap him out of it. “C'mon, seriously, want to get some fresh air?”
But Cole detached his arm from her grip, then straightened his jacket as if to imply she'd ruffled both it and his patience. “Leave us at once, coquette. You offend my lady.”
It was all Zoey could do not to scream, or cry, or both. “This isn't funny anymore!” she yelled, and the violins faltered. Gathering her skirts, she ran as quickly as she could up the stairs that shouldn't have been there and onto a second-floor balcony. Wind rushed through her free hair and clung her dress to her body. She leaned against the railing, looking out into the night.
To find a very Georgian England spread out before her.
Shock charged every cell of Zoey's body as if she stood inside a brass bell someone had struck. She clutched the railing with white-knuckled hands. No matter how much she blinked, she couldn't shake the illusions of terraced townhomes and horse-drawn carriages rolling down cobblestone streets. No. Hell no. Was this bullshit contagious?
You're dreaming, she told herself.
“Awake, my deluded peers,” cried she, in a great passion, “awake from this visionary fancy, and exert yourself to surmount the evils with which it threatens you!”
Louisa – Zoey, damn it! – screamed and clamped her hands over her mouth. What the hell was visionary fancy? The students nearest the balcony gave her odd looks. Zoey uncovered her mouth. She tried her voice again. “This isn't real, guys! You're freakin' scaring me now! Stop it!”
“Fore George, I do reckon this creature is intoxicated,” a young man whispered to his date.
Zoey set her jaw. “Fine! I'll prove it to you. I'll prove none of this is real.” And, tears burning in her eyes, she hiked up her skirt and started clambering over the rail.
Screams and gasps ensued. But there was no stair, no second floor, and no balcony in the school cafeteria, and Zoey knew she wouldn't get hurt. How could she? The fall would only wake her from this nightmare.
Pushing off the rail, she launched herself into the night.
Lady Louisa landed in a heap of perplexity and shock upon the cobblestones, ignorant as to how she had come to be in such a deplorable condition.
“Good grief!” exclaimed Lord Glanville, who at that moment had been handing a lady into a coach, but upon sighting Louisa flew to her side with the utmost concern. “Has your Ladyship suffered any injuries?”
“Injuries, Sir!” said Louisa, colouring and accepting Lord Glanville's extended hand. “Only to my vanity, that your Lordship should find me in so dismal a state.”
Glanville helped Louisa to her feet and in a most genteel manner offered his handkerchief for the dirt staining her gown. Louisa could scarce forbear lamenting that it was spoilt; she'd favoured it over all her others for its modest cream-coloured silk and high neckline of lace.
“My lady! Your arm! It's bleeding!”
Louisa examined both arms, and finding them quite free of injury, said, with no little degree of confusion, “Whatever do you mean?”
“Indeed, Madam, you are hurt,” proclaimed another fellow, who had drawn up to observe the commotion.
A grievous pain then began in Louisa's left arm, and to her great surprise and terror, suddenly she saw it was covered in blood.
Glanville took her round the waist as she swooned. “However did this accident occur?” cried he.
“I...I do believe somebody pushed me.”
“Pushed, do you say? Villainous fellow!”
Louisa, still suffering from lightheadedness, looked up at the empty balcony and wondered what offence she could have given this mysterious aggressor to merit such ill-usage.
Miss Paula Woodhouse, hearing an uproar on the street below the second-floor balcony, and desirous to know its origins, fain would have joined the observers had they not been packed so tightly around the scene as to block her view.
“Pray, someone do tell me what the fuss is,” begged she, but in the general chaos none heeded her pleas.
“Louisa went home, that's all,” came a voice behind her. Paula spun and was faced with a young woman of the most provoking dress: emerald green was her gown, and with a tear travelling all the way to her thigh! Paula could scarce do more than stare with open mouth at the exotic creature. The offender gave a wry smile and glided into the crowd, disappearing.
Later that evening, still awe-struck by the stranger's boldness, Paula stole to the powder room with a steak knife and began cutting at her own gown's hem.
Raluca Balasa graduated from the University of Toronto, where she majored in English and minored in Cinema Studies. One of her short stories won an Honourable Mention in the second quarter of the 2014 Writers of the Future contest. Currently, she is an assistant for a literary agency in Toronto. Her favourite living things are birds.
Alexandra Balasa graduated this year from the University of Toronto with a double major in English and Psychology. She wrote and blogged for the university's first and only speculative fiction journal. She is an avid reader and writer of science fiction and fantasy, and loves stories with psychological bents as well as complex, Sandersonian magic systems. When she isn't writing, Alexandra is contemplating existentialism, expanding her rock collection, and watching documentaries about space.