The banana slug sizzles, pops and splits on the campfire grill like a small yellow breakfast sausage, all oozing juice and crisp edges. It curls inward on itself from antennae to tail, protecting its soft, sticky underbelly from the blue-tipped lick of the fire. Its skin blackens and peels, sends up flavoured smoke that smells like antiseptic mouthwash. I read that if you’re ever lost in the woods with a toothache all you have to do is lick slug slime and it will numb the pain. But I think if I had a tooth that ached, I’d just rip it out.
“Pea! What are you doing over there?” My mother calls from beside the picnic table. She’s washing the plastic breakfast dishes in a big blue tub, wringing her ratty washcloth free of greasy brown water.
I hate her stupid washtub. She always brings it when we go camping, along with nearly everything else we own. We’re here for three days and she brought a trailer full of stuff. Plates, pots, pans, bags of clothes, books, chairs, creams, lotions, cards, a portable shower we’ve never even used. I hate camping like this. I like the way my dad camps. I want to come with just a tarp and some rope and an axe and a fishing pole. I want to build my fire with sticks instead of lighter fluid. I want to catch squirrels and roast them on spits. I want to dance naked around the fire and cast curses on my enemies. I rub a charred stick in my hands and then wipe my face with them. Dirty. I want to be dirty.
“Pea, stop rubbing soot on your face! Everyone will think you’re a dirty little boy.” She’s always saying people think I’m a boy because my hair is so short. I’d rather be a boy anyway. All my friends are boys. I tug on the gold studs in my ears. They still hurt. I didn’t want them but my mother did. She told me if I pierced my ears I could get a Green Machine Big Wheel like my friend Konrad’s, but she got me the pink Powder Puff girl one instead. She’s a liar.
A soft brown bubble grows from the hole I poked in the slug’s side with my sharp exploring stick. It looks like guts. I take a small splinter from the pile of kindling and poke it into the bubble. It doesn’t pop. The splinter just sticks out, twitching like the second hand on a clock. I time it on my fake Swiss Army watch. Almost two twitches every second. I wonder if the brown bubble is the slug’s dark heart trying to escape and force its way out. Maybe its body means nothing. Maybe it can live without a body.
I give the splinter a tug and the bubble grows. I pull harder and soon another bubble appears, a purple one. I keep pulling and pulling and all these colourful connected bubbles and strings tumble out, until I have one big long string of slug insides hanging from the splinter. How could all of that fit inside such a small body?
“Are you alive?” I whisper. The guts are still twitching.
I could hear Dad whistling from the laundry room. He was back from catching muskrats in the big ditch at the end of our street.
I walked into the hall and saw a growing reddish brown puddle traveling across the linoleum. I walked up to the wooden track doors and pushed one aside.
Tiny skinless bodies hung from clothespins on a line of twine. They dripped blood and watery liquid from their open mouths. They still had eyes and claws. Their flesh was golden brown flecked with red, like slices of pizza without the cheese.
Dad slid open the other door. He was wearing his barbeque apron and had his hunting knife in one hand and a half-skinned rat in the other. He held it out for me, and pried open the slit in its belly with the tip of his knife.
“Look here,” he said. “You can see the heart.”
He had blood on his lower lip.
Kara shrieks as Ron pours a bucket of water over her. They’re making a big sand castle. I am floating out on the lake on a big log. I watch as they create a moat around their masterpiece, carefully reinforcing the walls with wet sand.
I wish I were out on the ocean. I could drift off and no one would ever see me again. I trail my hands in the water, looking down into the darkness, wondering what lies underneath. If this were the ocean there would be whales and sharks and creatures no one has ever seen before. But it’s just a lake, and there’s nothing down there.
I lean back and look up at the sky. It’s pale blue and cloudless. I want it to turn gray and stormy, want torrents of water to rain down on their stupid castle and wash it away. I wonder if I try hard enough, can I make lightning come down on their heads?
It was early morning and the dew was still a cold white coat on the lawn as Dad pulled up to the driveway in his big white Chevy van. I watched from the kitchen window as he got out and circled the blue Malibu in his parking spot. He looked in through the windows and tried the door handle. Locked. He looked up at me for a second, smiled, and pus his finger to his lips. Shhh. He walked toward the house, the heels of his boots knocking on the cracked concrete. I heard the front door open slowly, and then the soft click of it being shut. Quiet creaks on the stairs. I pictured each footstep falling on the green shag carpet.
I heard my mother’s bedroom door open and I peeked into the hallway to see.
“Motherfucker!” Dad lunged into the room at Ron, who was buttoning his shirt. He scrambled over the bed and out of the room, his eyes wide and surprised.
“John, No!” My mother screamed as Dad threw his fists at Ron. Ron stumbled backward and put his hand to his mouth. When he saw the blood he put his hands out in front of him and shook his head. When I saw the blood I got a rushing feeling in my chest. I wanted to yell to my Dad to do it again. Ron wouldn’t fight, and so it ended.
Later that day I found a small crow beside the tire swing during recess. It was lying in the soft mulch, kicking its feet and making slow, sick cries. I had scooped it up in my hands.
It was smelly, and when I looked at its feathers up close I could see hundreds of tiny bugs crawling all over it. I dropped it, and then picked it up again.
A pale orange fluid ran from its beak. It was sticky and got all over my hands. I could feel the bird quivering.
Some of the other kids crowded around, wanting to see. They got too close to me and I got a dizzy kind of feeling behind my eyes, like there was soda fizzing around in my brain. I dropped the bird again. Darcy, one of the fifth-grade boys, tried to grab it.
“It’s mine!” I shouted, and snatched it up again.
“You should take it to a teacher. Maybe they can cure it,” said Darcy.
“Are you stupid? This bird is done for. I’m going to bury it.” I marched over to where the prickle bushes met the soccer field, and held the bird out high and proper.
“But it’s still alive!” Darcy whined.
I dug my hands down into the muddy earth, pulling rocks and clumps of grass away until the hole was deep enough. I took the bird, still squeaking out its death song, and pushed it down into the hole. All the kids around me were silent as I packed the dirt down on top of it.
I looked at Darcy. “Now it’s dead,” I said.
Weeks before, in the stairwell, as I looked up at the navy nylon duffel bag hanging on the banister, I could see that it wasn’t very full. I could tell there were some clothes in it, but the edges were still baggy and the zipper was easily closed. Maybe a couple of shirts. No jackets or shoes. Maybe a shaving kit.
I could hear her crying again, but I didn’t have to see. I knew she was sitting on the brown Formica kitchen counter, her bare legs dangling from cutoff jean shorts. She held an old Super Mom coffee cup with fuchsia lipstick stained on the rim.
He was casting that old spell on her, trying to win her again, the way he did with everyone. His dark blue eyes would burn cool into you, and then he would catch you in his magic. He was saying those same words again, rhythmic, confusing, going over and over in circles until she fell in love all over, even if she didn’t want to.
I heard her voice, low, thin. It said, “No.”
A spoon dropped. I heard it twang against the vinyl flooring.
“You’re weak,” he shouted, and I heard him stomping toward the stairs.
I saw his fingers round the corner first, all stained with grease from working on his van. Then his hands, the skin thick and scarred with cuts that looked more like dents.
He shouldered his duffel bag, ran down the stairs, grabbed me and squashed my head into his chest in a rough hug. My face was pressed hard into his leather jacket, and all I could think about was the smell of it and Old Spice and the blood coming from my nose.
“Goodbye Penelope. I’m leaving. This is the last time you’ll ever see me.” He pushed me away from him and ran out the door.
“I want her! I need her!” Dad was crying, begging on his knees in the downstairs rec room. I watched through the sliding glass doors from the backyard as he held his head in his hands. It had only been days. I knew he would come back.
My mother was standing on the couch with Kara behind her.
I walked back and forth on an old fence plank beside the spare woodpile.
Dad ran out of the house. I heard him fire up his van and peel off.
My bare foot hovered over a loose nail. I stepped down, fast. The nail plunged into the arch of my foot. It didn’t hurt. It just felt like something hard and cold was pushing its way inside. It felt right.
“Your mother lies, you know. She said I took all those pills but I didn’t. I just got sick and had to go to the hospital, that’s all. They gave me medicine and now I’m better.
“Don’t I look better?” Dad leaned back in the faded brown leather booth at Murphy’s restaurant and chugged back his coke, smiling. He did look better, and it was nice to visit with him.
“You look great, Daddy.” Kara smiled at him, her dimples reflecting his.
“Penelope…” He spoke to me, but he was watching Kara. “When exactly did that guy move in?”
I swallowed a bite of my burger. It stuck in my throat and my voice came out strangled. “I don’t know.”
Dad stretched his arms up and back behind his head and laced his fingers together. With his old brown leather jacket on he blended right into the booth, his face and hands the only alive parts of him. Then he picked up my burger and finished it off.
“Listen,” he said. “If you ever call him Dad I’ll kill myself and never speak to you again.”
“We won’t Daddy,” Kara’s mouth quivered. Dad smiled.
Then he looked at me, right into me with his dark blue eyes and his way of hypnotizing me so I can’t move or think. I could feel something come over me, like a big dark tidal wave, a black shadow of dread and fear. I could hear my heart beat, feel it skip in my chest. The air in the restaurant got all thin and grainy and I could see it with my naked eyes, see all the millions and millions of atoms and molecules floating around, invading my body. I didn’t like it, didn’t want that speeding up feeling, and that feeling like something behind my eyes was melting. I wondered if that was how he felt sometimes, if that was what Mom meant when she caught me daydreaming and then said I reminded her of him. I didn’t want it.
“We won’t,” I said. “I promise.”
I’m sitting on my log throne by the fire and watching as they all make potato chip sandwiches. Mother, pretend father, daughter. They look like a family, but they’re just faking.
“Pea, what do you want on yours?” My mother holds up two pieces of white bread and motions to the ketchup and mustard bottles.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Are you sure? Can I make you something else?” She’s always trying to feed me. That’s all she knows how to do. Feed and eat. Eat and feed.
I shake my head. “No.”
I turn my head away and watch the fire. I love the way it eats wood up and makes everything glow. It’s like a wild animal, one that feeds on air. I wish I could live on air alone. I think I’m going to try it.
“Well, I’m going to go get some water for the washing up.” My mother grabs her blue washtub and lumps off to the community tap down the road, her fat thighs rubbing together in her gray University of PEI jogging pants. She never even graduated from high school, so I don’t know why she wears them. Dad says you just have to talk to her for a minute to figure out she never went to college.
“Kara, can you help me sort out these ropes?” Ron tosses some confused yellow bundles to Kara, condiments still alive on his upper lip. I feel like gagging.
Kara slowly unravels the rope, walking backwards towards me, towards the fire.
Ron throws stuff around in the cooler looking for a beer.
As she gets closer, I stare at the back of her head and start to hate it. As she takes another step backwards I pick up a small log and toss it behind her feet. She trips on it, stumbles, arches back, and falls. Ron turns around at the last second, but it’s too late. Kara falls ass-first onto the pointed corner of the fire pit, impaling her soft right butt cheek on the hot metal. She screams.
For a second I almost get up and help her, but then I see the tears coming down her face and her crying sounds make me sick.
“What happened?” My mother runs into the campsite, the blue basin empty and slapping against her legs.
“Kara fell on the fire pit and she’s cut!” Ron picks her up, turning her over like a baby, and my mother gasps.
Her jeans are split open in the back and she’s bleeding. I walk over closer to look at the wound. A two-inch cut in her butt cheek gushes blood, and all the yellow, lumpy fat pushes out through the opening.
Ron puts Kara face down in the back seat of the Malibu. She’s still screaming. Mom climbs in after her, pressing a washcloth against the wound.
Ron sticks his head out the window and looks at me. “We’ll be a few hours. We’ll have to go into town to the hospital. Watch the stuff, okay?” They zoom off, the tires spitting gravel.
After they’re gone, I lay out the long trail of slug innards on a piece of newspaper, careful to keep all the parts together. I wish I had a ruler to measure the length with. It must be at least seven inches, almost the size of my foot.
I go get a bone-handled steak knife from Mom’s clean dishes bin and place the specimen on top of another log. I wish I had a microscope.
I slice into the purple bubble. I bet this is the brain. I thought there might be some kind of goo inside but it’s all solid and mealy looking. I must have let it cook for too long.
I’ll have to kill another one to be sure.
When they come back it’s dark and Kara wants to roast marshmallows. We all sit around the fire, me on my log throne, all three of them in lawn chairs. Kara’s sitting on a plastic blow-up doughnut pillow, her eyes still red from crying all day.
The gray smoke separates us, screens us from each other. I squint my eyes at them, pretending like the smoke is really some kind of time fog or barrier between dimensions. I remember what my Dad said about things being so small you can’t even see them, and how maybe there are even big things that are so huge you can’t see them either. I wonder if they think I look big or small through all this smoke?
They’re far away now, drifting off onto another planet. I exile them in my mind, give them nothing more than the flaming treats on the ends of their roasting sticks to survive on.
I’ll stay here alone in my own kingdom, I think. A kingdom of smoke. I’m better off.
At bedtime I get the small tent to myself because Kara wants to sleep with Mom and Ron in the big blue tent. I can see their shadows jumping across the glow of the lantern and hear them get comfortable and snuggled up in their sleeping bags. Soon, the rustling stops, and I hear Kara’s quick breathing, and then Ron’s deep snore. Mom is a quiet sleeper, just like me.
I wait until I think they’re all deep into dreams before I slip out of my tent. I take my sharp exploring stick and my flashlight and walk down the slope to the place where the gravel of our campsite borders with the green moss of the forest. I stand there for a minute under the moonlight, my flashlight off and hanging from my belt. I don’t need it. My eyes feel extra sharp, like some layer or veil has been peeled back and now I can really see.
It’s cold enough that my breath puffs out in front of me. The air feels charged and damp, like it does right before it starts to rain. I look up into the sky and wait for it. There are no stars. Black wisps curl around the moon. Then I feel the wetness on my face. Soft at first, like an almost-dry kiss from a tiny being, and then wetter and wetter until fat drops of rain are falling into my eyes and mouth, rapping down onto the tarps and tents, and making cold rivers in my hair. My kingdom of rain.
I step forward into the forest.
I am no longer on earth. I am not an earthling, not human. Time stretches on, long and slow. This place looks like a forest but I know better. Behind every tree is magic and danger. Under every stump is a poison threat. Next to each log lies a bloodthirsty foe. I hold my stick like a spear, ready. Was that a whisper?
And then, a distant shout: “Penelope, where are you?”
I ignore their questions from far away, their voices coming to me through years and worlds. I close myself to them, close my mind, and close my heart.
The wet ferns will hide me. The ground is soft and cold. I am enclosed in earth and plants. I am a part of the forest now. My arms and legs are heavy like fallen tree limbs. Deep roots wrap around me and pull me down close. Perfumed water drips from the leaves above my head, washing my face clean like the blessed water they use to christen new babies.
But I am no one’s baby, not anymore. And they won’t ever find me here.
Brooke Carter’s poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction have appeared in EVENT, More Magazine, Vancouver, and several others. She completed her MFA at UBC and is currently working on a novel and a poetry collection. In 2015 she launched the speculative fiction journal UNBUILD walls.
“While you’re out, could you go to the post office?”
“We have stamps.” She pointed to the desk in the kitchen where accumulated coupons, cuttings, recipe cards, and other unfiled odds and ends. “There are stamps right there.”
“Where?” he asked.
“Here. Well, they’re not our stamps, but it’s fine.”
“They’re for the office work I’m doing, and they paid for them, but it’s fine.”
“But I – ”
“No,” with a little sternness, “it’s fine, we can use them.”
“But I asked if you could go to the post office.”
“I’ll go to the post office later.”
“I have to package up some things to send.”
He turned slightly in his seat for emphasis. “When are you going to go to the post office?”
“Couldn’t you go now, right after you go to the hardware store?”
“No, it’s in the other direction.”
She did not sigh. “The hardware store is along Maitland. The post office is in the other direction.”
“It costs more gas to start the car again,” he said like someone unsure about his argument.
He rose to dry the dishes sitting on the rack by the sink.
She watched him a moment before saying, “For who to start the car again?”
“It’s two trips. Restarting the car takes more gas than just going to the one place and then the other.”
Exasperated with his idiocy, she deftly breaks his nose with a half-bowl of soup. The sound of the collision is unique. There is more blood than she has anticipated and wooziness quickly overcomes her. He manages to catch her before her head strikes the kitchen tiles. He carries her to the bedroom and sets her down on the mattress before pulling off his shirt and using it to towel up the blood. She turns her head left then right and her eyes open. They make love.
“You say we don’t need to worry about money but you’re always worried about money.”
“We’re not talking about money,” he growled, a small growl. “Never mind, I’ll go to the post office myself.” He removed her half-empty bowl from the table and rinsed it out before laying it in the sink.
“But I’m going later.”
“Late afternoon, you said. It’s fine, I’ll go myself now. I can even walk over there, save the gas.”
She glared at an indefinite point in space. “This is exactly like the time that Dominic broke the porcelain pangolin.”
“The pangolin got broken?” he asked. “When? My mother sent that from India.”
“Bangladesh,” she corrected. “She sent me that lovely sari from India.”
“That’s not the point. You’re saying it’s broken.”
“It happened ages ago. You must remember.”
“No. I was very fond of that pangolin.”
She was too irritated to decide how genuine the hurt expression was. She took from his hands the coffee cup he was drying. “Here, that one is still dirty.”
“Is it? Thanks.”
The rain drummed on the window.
“I’m off, then. Where are the letters you want mailed?”
“I didn’t say I had any letters to mail. I just asked if you could go to the post office. You didn’t even ascertain what I wanted there before you cut me off and explained that we have stamps, that you’ll go later, that it’s in the other direction. Anything but ‘yes’ or ‘sure thing’ or even ‘what do you need there?’”
“I asked you, ‘what do you need at the post office?’”
“No, you didn’t.”
His tone made her doubt herself. When he used that tone he was usually right.
“Anyway,” he continued after a moment, “I said to forget about it. I’ll go to the post office myself.”
“You can’t walk there in the rain.”
“It’s not far. Besides, that’s why I asked you to go.”
“But I told you I have to go later.”
He wipes his hands firmly on the dishtowel and marches past her, gathering some letters from the dining room table as he heads for the door. She follows him at a distance but says nothing as he leaves. An hour passes. Another hour passes during which she finds herself scrubbing the unclean coffee cup but unable to remove the stain. Evening falls and he has not returned but she struggles with her worrying despite her fiercely not wanting to worry. She picks up the phone, sets it down, picks it up again and dials her friend, whose remarks on how the gentle rain has resolved itself to really storm prompt the tears. Weeks pass and the police find nothing, though she feels they do not take the matter seriously. Winter begins with much snow. A few of her friends take her out of town for an expensive dinner and try to keep the conversation to safe topics, but she abruptly stops speaking when a server moves through the kitchen door. She seems to glide to the door and does not feel her hand press against the door, but there, there he is, unshaven and working in this restaurant kitchen, having slipped in the rain months before, bashed his head against the pavement, lost his memory, forgotten everything, absolutely everything, had to create a life for himself from nothing, not knowing who he was. She touches his face, repeats his name. She takes him home, to the bed she has not slept a full night in since he has been gone, and as beautiful strangers they make love.
“Remind me again, what are you going to the hardware store for?”
“Caulking,” she said. “For the garage window.”
“It’s not actually along Maitland.”
“The hardware store. You said it’s ‘along Maitland.’”
“Well, it is.”
“No, it’s not.”
But it’s not the same tone he used earlier, and in any case she generally knows the city routes better than he does. “You turn left off Maitland to get into the parking lot.”
Realizing he’d blundered, he said, “Right, right, of course. And it’s in the opposite direction from the post office. You’re right, you’re right, I give up.”
“You always overdo that.”
“You turn the admission of error into a full-blown surrender.”
“Well, I can’t win.” His eyes involuntarily went to the high shelf where the porcelain pangolin used to sit. “My stuff breaks and nobody tells me about it. I can’t even get you to go to the post office for me just because I asked you to.”
She groaned. He set down the salad bowl he was drying and looked at her.
“What does that mean?”
“What does what mean?”
“That groan. What does it mean?”
“I didn’t groan. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“You can’t have it both ways. And how did that porcelain pangolin break? Where was I when that happened?”
She began to groan again but stopped herself mid-groan. She looked up to see him pointing.
The doorbell rings and, welcoming the excuse to leave the room, she goes to answer it. A courier hands her a registered letter informing her that her recently deceased aunt in Wales has left a fortune that no one knew she had to her niece. She must fly to a remote village in Wales by the end of the month in order to claim this inheritance, otherwise it is to be spread among selected charities. The will makes the pointed stipulation that she must come alone. He drives her to the airport two days later and she can tell that he is uneasy about the arrangement, not least because she has an old flame in Wales, a young man she used to know when she stayed one miraculous summer with her laughing aunt. In fact it is he who meets her at the airport in Wales, more handsome than she remembered, and drives her to the remote village. He is the executor of her aunt’s will and for the duration of her visit she is to stay at his house, since the late aunt’s house is in a sorry state, for the aunt lived a life of extreme frugality and hid the slightest hint of any wealth. The two have dinner and she notices that he seems to avoid details about the execution of the will, as he does the next morning, instead asking her if she slept well, what she thinks of the place, all solicitous as to her comfort. He remains vague about the will and only refers to it when she makes any mention of her returning home, reminding her of its legal instructions needing to be fulfilled. At their third dinner she expresses frustration on the point and he places his hand on hers, and when he encloses it tightly she is alarmed by how excited she is. This house has always been too big for one, he says, and she finds she can give no answer. He says that she belongs there, there with him, as her aunt was wise enough to know. She hesitates before standing up from the table, knocking her glass of wine to the floor, and announcing that she is leaving, going home this instant. He throws his own glass to the floor and lets out a huge laugh. His fingers worm into his face: it is a false skin, a mask which he pulls away, and she sees him, those worried eyes that she left at the airport, or thought she had left there, for he must have caught the very same flight she did, or even a quicker and more direct one, and she suddenly recalls how he had insisted on booking the flight for her. She could have chosen the handsome Welshman and a rich life abroad but no, didn’t she see, yes, she sees, she chose home with him, him, she loves him. Confused and laughing and none the richer, except in all the ways that matter, they make love.
“It’s just so passive aggressive,” he said. He resumed drying the salad bowl.
“That’s fine, I just wish you wouldn’t do that all the time.”
“Do you want me to mail your letters?”
“Look, I said I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. I’ll look after it.”
“That bowl doesn’t go there,” she pointed out.
“What do you mean?”
“It used to go there, but now it goes over there with that bowl.”
“I remember always seeing it over here.” The baffled face again. “How long have we been putting it over there?”
“Weeks,” she said, with as little interest in the subject as possible.
“And whatever happened to that sari my mother gave you?”
“Can we talk about this later?” she asked. “I have to get back to indexing those receipts.”
“I know my mother can be a pain,” he admitted.
“I’m not saying that. It’s just I have to get this work done today. And don’t forget that Dominic is expecting that answer to his question.”
She halted her businesslike exit. “What about him?”
“You said he broke the pangolin.”
“That was ages ago. What does it have to do with his question about swimming?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You’re not sure,” she said slowly. “You know, I don’t think I can take this right now.”
“Right, you have to index those receipts. Too busy to go to the post office just now, though you’re probably not going to make it there today at all.”
“I’m not the only one who can play passive aggressive.”
The phone rang and he picked it up. He read aloud the number on the call display.
“Probably a telemarketer.”
The phone rang again.
“Might be Dominic,” he offered, extending the phone to her.
“It’s not, don’t be ridiculous.”
“First you say I’m passive aggressive, then you say I’m ridiculous.”
The phone rang again.
He answers the phone.
“It’s not an either/or kind of situation,” she said with a smile.
“I contain multitudes, that’s what you’re saying.”
The phone rang again.
She loosens her hair.
“You know what it is,” she said.
“You’re not listening to me.”
“I’m listening,” he said.
Tim Conley’s short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in various journals in various countries. His latest book is Dance Moves of the Near Future (2015).
Amanda came into the shop twice a week amidst the third wave of sailor girls. Their headquarters sat four blocks away: a sandstone ziggurat with modern glass additions like cubic polyps and wide, fresh-mown reaches of field hockey turf. The first wave of girls were under-12s who moved like gaggles of electric sparks and arrived no later than 3.45. The second wave were teens fresh from extracurriculars: athletes in gently wrinkled track pants; yearbook editors with heavy eyeliner and rolled-up skirts. The third wave of girls came around 6, when sunlight began wavering and spitting weird depleted colors over the village. These were girls with disciplinary problems. Amanda liked to steal.
Amanda's technique was sensuous. Unlike the St. Simcoe kids - teeth-gnashing barnacles in dirty sneakers who held lighters under newspaper stacks while their friend with adderall shivers crammed cigarette packs into his too-new MEC backpack - she never took the same thing twice. Running her fingers over Newsweek and Psychologist Today covers, she'd settle on a pile of Economists and place three copies into her rucksack. Or she'd hover through Cereals and pluck two single-serve Frosted Flakes pouches from the rack. One day it was batteries; the weird miniature kind, resembling waterlogged coins. By the ninth week of term she'd taken nearly a hundred and fifty dollars of merchandise and it was at that point, as she fitted the blister-pack of an E-Vape device into her bag that Tom move out in front of the counter and asked her out.
He'd thought about this for a while. To begin with, he thought about vanishing his linoleum countertop - the mountain range of price-checking equipment; the tarnished aluminum register with renovated electronic guts, beloved by dad; the credit card billing apparatus with jelly keys that Tom could use to peg $10 bonus charges onto the tabs of Bentley-piloting senior citizens - and standing arm-to-arm to Amanda. Just a sliver of dying sunlight between his shoulder and her blazer-sleeve. Her: quiet, gazing, expectant. Moving beneath the blazer. Then he thought about Amanda seizing his hand under dingy neon signage and the two of them sprinting past bouncers, plunging into a bass- and strobe- addled dance floor; finding one another in the club's warm crush of bodies. Smelling the city on rooftops with only strays nearby, preening, on the creaky fire escapes.
What Tom said, leaning against the Big Chew boxes stacked by his mom, was: "Hey, do you go to ______ ____?" And Amanda, top slice of E-Vape box still poking out her bag, said Yes happily and without pause. Cheery and alert: the tones of a front-of-class student. Tom asked if she knew ____ or ________, girls he'd never met but heard of through skate friends, and she affirmed Yes. She had science class with both. Tom let the question hang, and she didn't stop smiling or ask a question of her own. Was there a sheen on her skin? A glaze? No. But she hadn't moved, and now Tom felt, despite Amanda's fourteen recorded thefts, predatory. What he wanted was for Amanda's shoulders to drop; for her to say Do You Smoke? And for the two of them to lock the store and find a place in the ravine, far from the kid's playground but not too deep into the sycamores, to try out that E-Vape. And Amanda stood, waiting.
A few weeks later, Tom would be healed up and eager to work the register, a request which his parents would flatly deny. He'd never have to juggle store hours and homework again, and he'd miss the low fluorescent hum matching his pen-strokes. The store had been empty most nights, except for those local retirees. And the few students. Tom stopped thinking about the whole matter through university, and that was that, except for those times during Med school that he'd snap back from near-sleep, hovering over a textbook, and fling himself violently back in his chair. One time, he'd actually lash out at the desk, defensively flailing in a way that sent the four-pound anatomy text crumpling against a wall. In those moments, he’d catch all over again the glimmer of Amanda’s knife, and feel the hot snapping rush of disbelief. It didn’t matter how many times he’d reviewed the moment: he never found it plausible, the blade snapping toward his cheek and eye, and the tight little fist beneath it. The blankness beneath mascara. She never stopped being pretty, and right up until his skin parted, he thought: how silly for anyone to consider this real. Then, connection, and there were no more words. Tom only heard his panting breaths. Droll fluorescents. After some time, Tom got back to studying.
* Thomas Robbins will be glad to never again see the inside of Canada's Telcom industry. In retirement, his old English textbooks have seen more use than his golf clubs. His favorite things are clean fishing reels, thrilling language, and northern Ontario campsites shared with his astounding daughter, Lilly. He's working on his first story collection.
We are often motivated by love but sometimes we are motivated by love of light.
"It needs some fixing up," said Shirley. She stood on the sidewalk in front of the house, frowning. She was a person who didn't like making decisions quickly. But, Don, her husband, seemed very keen.
"Yes", agreed Don who was smiling, his cheeks ruddy in the cold air. "But it has good bones. And look how big it is."
"What will we do with all the room?" Shirley had grown up in a London bungalow, where there was just the right amount of room, with nothing extra.
"Don't worry; we'll fill it up just fine."
The neighbourhood was called Parkdale, named for a local park. It was the remains of a town on the outskirts of Toronto, which had lost its way. Once, below Parkdale’s grassy hill, beside Lake Ontario, there was an amusement park called Sunnyside, filled with summertime delights and laughter. There were lit up fairground rides, hotdog stands, clean water beaches and boardwalks, a destination, a place of fun. Parkdale still overlooked the lake, but now no one enjoyed looking at the traffic or hearing the noise of expressways and trains below.
After years of saving, Shirley and her husband, Don, were about to make an offer to purchase the semi shown to them by their realtor. It wasn't exactly their dream home but it was a solid house they could afford, in an area they liked.
This house was only 20 feet wide but it had three floors. On the first floor were a living room, dining room and eat-in kitchen, as the realtors liked to put it. On the second floor were three small bedrooms and a bathroom, likely originally a fourth bedroom converted to a bathroom when the early twentieth century house got indoor plumbing. On the third floor were two larger bedrooms and a second bathroom.
Most of Parkdale had been built in the days when people had large families. Then it was a thriving lakeside community. But with the building of Lakeshore Boulevard and the Gardiner expressway, many of the bigger houses had been demolished or made into rooming houses. Now the area was making a comeback and house prices were rising.
The Sinclairs had three children, a boy aged 11 and twin girls, aged 9 who took over the third floor bedrooms, the largest one at the front for the girls who preferred to sleep together in the same room. Don and Shirley took the largest second floor bedroom for their own. The second largest bedroom on the second floor was to be Don’s office, for he worked at home and the smallest at the end of the hall at the back became a TV room. Don and Shirley did not like having a TV in their living room.
Even before they moved in, one of the first improvements Shirley imagined would be adding an addition on the back--a solarium, a sun-filled room where she could have plants, an easy chair and look out over the garden in winter.
"We could put a big room on the back of the house, Don, with space for a main floor washroom. Wouldn’t that be a really good idea, especially for guests?"
"There you go again. Always getting ahead of yourself. We barely have enough income to pay the mortgage and do some fixing up and painting. You thought the house was too big at first."
"No it’s not too big. It’s just that being a semi there’s no light anywhere. And there’s that big tree at the front."
"But that’s one of the things you said you liked about the house."
"I do, but we bought it in the spring and I couldn’t know how much shade there would be in summer."
"We’re lucky. Look how cool it is. We don’t even have to put in air conditioning. We couldn’t afford it anyway."
It took several months to adjust to the problems and delights of the house. Shirley was bothered by all the stairs because she had a bad knee from a bike accident some years ago. She asked the children to set up a routine of cleaning their own rooms on Saturday mornings before they started anything else. That became house cleaning time with Shirley doing the bulk of the work vacuuming and cleaning the two lower floors. Don was trusted with grocery shopping, something he was glad to do since he was the family’s chief cook. As a freelance commercial real estate appraiser, he put in regular hours at his desk and saw clients in the living room, or sat at the dining room table with them. Both rooms were kept free of family clutter to accommodate Don’s work needs.
Shirley was a reference librarian who took advantage of the library’s flex time to work late, because she liked time to herself in the mornings. Don worked 9 to 5 setting strict time limits on his day. After work he changed into running gear and headed out to run 5 k all around the streets of Parkdale. Sometimes he cycled along the Martin Goodman Trail east to Harbourfront or west to the edge of Mississauga. By 6:30 he had showered and started dinner. The rule was that the children had to do their homework right after school, before they were allowed to watch TV. Shirley would set the table and make a salad or dessert after returning from work.
There was little time or money for the couple to undertake major renovations. Don had all the money under control, something which continually distressed Shirley who liked to live a little more spontaneously. With a girlfriend, the spring after they moved in, she spend a week at a resort in Cuba. Don was not pleased with the expense.
"But I don’t have any discretionary money of my own in your budget," Shirley said. "Every single penny is accounted for."
This became an all-out argument that went on for several days. Don was forced to take Shirley’s position seriously.
"What we’ll do is allot personal money for each of us." He suggested. "I’ll take our spending money, now a lump sum for the family, and divide it into five. And I’ll also take vacation money and divide that into five as well. I had my doubts about dividing the vacation money because we usually go together, but, since you decided to go on your own, you changed the rules. The children’s vacation and personal money stays together as always, although, obviously, they will receive less than we do. I’ve decided to visit my brother in Ottawa for a week in the spring. We’re going hunting together. So that money will come out of my vacation money."
At Shirley’s insistence, they further decided to separate their money by opening personal bank accounts and having budgeted amounts transferred from their main account, used to pay household bills, every month. Don began his with the cost of Shirley’s Cuban vacation, to make it even. Shirley’s account began with zero. Well, she thought, I’ll just have to curb spending on clothes for a while. Just a couple new tops for the spring. Although Don worked at home, he still needed appropriate office attire to meet clients. Even so, he hardly ever spent anything while Shirley had to hold herself back. The budget had effectively stopped their nagging financial arguments.
Still, Shirley dreamed about the addition on the back of the house, visualizing how she could take her Sunday morning coffee out there, lounging on a comfortable chair with her feet up, reading in the sun all through the winter. She created several designs and layouts on drafting paper and continued looking at home decorating magazines.
Their main floor front room was so dark, small and formal, with a large fireplace dominating one wall, and always kept so tidy that Shirley was uncomfortable there, preferring to spend her spare time in front of the TV or in her bedroom reading by the bay window.
Occasionally she would mention her project to Don who would sigh and trot out computer print-outs of their latest budget figures, which showed they were just barely covering mortgage and house expenses. Because Don had included a maintenance line in the budget, they were able to replace an ailing kitchen stove and install a new floor in the children’s bathroom, improvements that needed to be done.
Don was an astute manager, careful while she was sometimes frivolous. Shirley had to give him credit for that. Because he spent so little personal money he was able to keep buying photography equipment and maintain a darkroom in the basement, not just a hobby for him, as he had had some of his photographs exhibited in a gallery downtown. Nothing sold, but he was happy. And of course his files were loaded with pictures of the children.
But one November morning in her 48th year and the 8th year of living in their Parkdale semi, Shirley realized she was bored with Don. There was no zest in their sex life. In fact, they hardly bothered anymore, except for an occasional giggly coupling after a party, when both of them had had a bit too much to drink. Shirley had begun having an occasional lunch with an old friend from university who had said hello to her in the library, thrilled to see her again. Gordon had never married, and lived the life of a bachelor in a nearby loft, newly converted into condos from a large former carpet factory. He took Shirley there one afternoon after lunch on her day off. She was dazzled by the look of the place.
"There’s so much light." she exclaimed. "My house is so dark. Don seems to like it that way. In fact he spends a large part of the evening in his darkroom in the basement."
"I have to have light, "said Gordon.
The loft was huge, a 1500 square foot space with large windows overlooking railroad tracks that swept down from the West and ended up at Union Station. Gordon owned the whole South end of the top floor which provided views of East, West and South, all the way to Lake Ontario.
"I chose this one because of the windows and the tracks. I love to hear the sounds of trains. There are no other close buildings. And look at the view of the city. I get the sun all day long."
Gordon had an expensive telescope set in the window where he was able to star gaze and, if he wanted, people gaze. Although he had focused his lens on some apartment buildings a few times, he thought this an unethical activity and had largely stopped.
"There’s not much to see," he said, "a couple sitting down to dinner, people reading, doing exercises, kids fighting over a TV program, the usual kind of domestic stuff. I’ve never seen a sexy woman taking off her clothes and getting into the tub or a couple making love on a balcony. I’ve heard those things happen but I’ve never seen it. The whole thing is a bit voyeuristic, it seems to me."
Shirley and Gordon went to bed in Gordon’s king size bed that afternoon, something she was hoping would happen.
The light from Gordon’s windows had penetrated Shirley’s being. She thought she could not face her dark living room and bedroom again. When she returned home she told Don she had been out shopping but had not bought anything.
"You know I don’t have much money left in my personal account," she complained when Don asked why she hadn’t bought anything.
"Well maybe if you were a little more careful with your money. You’re always shopping."
"The mortgage was paid off this year. What are you doing with the extra money?"
"It’s all going into savings and the kids’ university funds. You know that’s going to take a while and we’ll need quite a bit of money to get them through."
"What about my addition?"
"Oh Shirley, not that again. You know we can’t afford it. It’ll cost about $50,000 to do it right."
"But I’ve been wanting it ever since we moved in. My wishes have to be considered too."
"Listen, you know I’m self employed. I don’t have access to a pension as you do. And even when you begin to receive yours it won’t be enough for us to live on. We need about $200,000 dollars to live comfortably when we are retired."
"How much do we have now?"
"How on earth did you manage to save all that while we were paying off the mortgage?"
"You can look at the budget anytime you want. You know I kept a little aside for investments and I’ve done rather well with them."
Shirley was plagued with guilt in the weeks following her liaison with Gordon. When he next came into the library she said she wouldn’t see him anymore. But after about 6 months she agreed to meet him in a Roncesvalles coffee shop, late on a Wednesday afternoon. After sitting down, she began to weep.
"I can’t stand it anymore. I’m in love with you and I don’t know what to do about it."
"Come back to my place. I need to see you"
"Just call Don and tell him you’re going to the movies with some friends from work."
Back in Gordon’s bed Shirley said she would like to leave Don and move in with him.
“Are you sure?” asked Gordon.
"But I don’t know when." Shirley said. "I have to look after the children first."
Shirley maintained her marriage to Don in the Parkdale semi for another two years, all the while conducting a clandestine affair with Gordon in his loft. The afternoon of her mid-week day off, when Don thought she was out shopping, was reserved for Gordon who left work at noon, picking up wine and take out Indian food or dim sum before they spent the afternoon making love in the sunlight.
Shirley was about to turn 50. Don had planned a big surprise party for her, inviting all their friends and relatives. John came home from university in Guelph and the girls, who still lived at home while attending U of T and George Brown College, helped with the secret preparations. Shirley was delighted on entering the house and finding it filled with people. But also horrified, because there was Gordon standing in the centre of the living room. He gave her a peck on the cheek and wished her happy birthday.
"Why are you here?" she whispered.
"Don got my number from your phone book and invited me. I’ve seen him around and he knows we went to university together. Besides, I wanted to see what would happen."
The party was a great success, filled with librarian friends, old school friends, even public school friends from London, Shirley’s home town. Her father was there, along with her aunts and even some first cousins. Don and the girls had covered the dining room table with food. There were streamers hanging from the ceiling and balloons everywhere.
Don led Shirley to a small table at the back of the dining room where a set of plans were laid out.
"Look," he said, pointing to the drawings.
It was a plan of a large windowed semi-circular addition.
"This is my present to you, darling" said Don kissing her on the cheek. "We’re starting work next week."
Shirley died at that moment. Don was grinning broadly, clearly delighted with what he had done. Gordon was standing in a corner of the room looking over at her. She knew that in the following week she must show some courage. She didn’t know if she had it in her.
Lynda Curnoe enjoys writing short stories and poetry and anything else that appeals to her. She lives in Toronto.
Baby Iphigenia, shortened to If, and sometimes Iffy. She was named for the leader of the Greek forces at Troy, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who threw her body down to save and solve her father’s follies. Less known than vain Helen, hers was not the face to launch a thousand ships, but the sacrifice that prevented further bloodshed. If only.
Names so often shortened; culled to their perfect, familiar forms.
From the time she a toddler, she held a certainty that ignited calm in those around her, unable to discern a single break or a crack. What not even water could unfold.
By her late twenties. Punctual, she knew her marriage over when she arrived late and later for appointments with her husband. She knew he had done nothing wrong, but they’d drifted further apart, inch by restless inch. She didn’t even know she was unhappy until it came crashing in, a single phrase from his lips, three glasses of another Okanagan red into waiting, again.
“Apparently it’s ‘If, not when,’” he added. There.
Call me Ishmael, he said.
But that was not his name, and in the end, was not what we called him.
Georgie girl. Pregnant so very young, she named her baby daughter for the just-released Lynn Redgrave feature and the child grew to hate the association, opting instead for the full Georgina. She preferred, as she explained, a name with weight, something you could hold in your hand like a stone or a brick, not one you’d fear might float away. Her birth certificate was equally infected, “Georgie.”
Her mother thought the name sweet; Georgina associated it too closely with the awkward, overweight film character. She’d had enough trouble of her own. She preferred the association with old King George, Georgian, as was she. The period post-Edwardian, rapt in King and Country, despite their home in the colonies. She flecked her hair with homemade fascinators. She scoured shops for antique, hand-sewn lace.
The thread of the theme song, “Hey, there,” outlined her childhood. Against her will it had imprinted deep upon her, from preschool lullaby her mother sang to schoolyard taunt. When required, she learned early to punch, to throw, to knock down.
When she was twenty-three years old, she took the matter to the courts, and had her name legally altered—Georgina—and spent the following decade guilting her mother for the burden. The issue might have been resolved, but the injury would never fade.
Since the turn of the century, new parents have worked through a sequence of names that those a decade or more before knew only as “old lady names”: Agnes, Myrtle, Charlotte, Laird, Ellen, Della. Names of women born a rough-century before, even earlier. With a gap of time, the old names renew, reemerge. Quite literally, reborn.
In the 1980s, the gust of soap-opera Ashley and Kendra replaced the old standards of Catherine, a Jane or a Jennifer. No family, it seemed, was immune. Names that return and replace any previous. Five girls in a grade school class with the same first name. Add or subtract their birth year times three, and the name is no less prevalent, yet entirely different.
Susan. Emma. Beatrice.
Charles, as his father. Stephen, named for no-one. Identical twins, connected by a ten second pause. As one felt rudderless to his brother’s birthright, the other, held against his sibling’s implied freedoms. Theirs was a complicated relationship, a complicated fate, if one might believe in such things. And yet, so simple.
Ten seconds between, and perhaps it never made a difference. Perhaps the differences were entirely artificial, constructed. A seed they carved and planted, into the divisions they became.
So often, names help shape and announce identity, chosen as arbitrary as one might imagine.
The way my dairy farmer father named the new calves, each year assigned a letter, alphabetical, to keep track of their age.
Alice, Arlette, Annie each a year older than Bertha, Beth, Bonnie.
In the file cabinet he kept in the milkhouse, paperwork on every arrival, every animal he owned. A paperback of baby names.
Adopted at ten months of age, my new parents changed my birth name into something that was meant to be entirely my own, if not theirs. The choice was under their discretion. Because of this, I have been me for most but not all of my life, uncertain how, or if, the shift has shaped me. Perhaps, as Shakespeare wrote, a rose by any other.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com