Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Fiction #73

New fiction! Issue #73
Submissions now open for #74 -- coming in September!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #73: Carole Glasser Langille

Prepared

Not only had I escaped an unhappy marriage, but I’d found a great place to live. The living room and kitchen in the old farmhouse were sunny late into the afternoon. It was peaceful living in the country after years in the city. My ex was paying child support which covered rent. 

But walls in the old farmhouse weren’t insulated and I couldn’t afford to heat the place. To help with the cost of oil, I posted an ad to rent one of the rooms. Harrison was the first to respond.

After he looked through the house I showed him the large yard where the previous renters had grown a vegetable garden. My sons Seamus and Dan had just gotten back from elementary school and were playing by the plum tree which, I was told, had a good yield of green plums in season.

He was enthusiastic and for a young man of twenty-four, declared something surprising, he was neat. He was a cello student and practiced long hours. Would that be a problem? I didn’t think so. I liked the sound of cello, even when someone was practicing scales. The fluid, sliding, ancient-river sound was comforting.

After washing his breakfast dishes each morning, Harrison usually didn’t return until evening and cooked his meal after we ate ours.  He was gone Friday through Sunday. He’d mentioned his girlfriend was a flute player and I assumed he spent weekends with her.  

One weeknight I invited him to join us for supper. Afterward he washed the dishes and this became a pattern during the week. I’d cook, we’d eat together, he’d clean. He made me laugh. Once, when I asked him whose piece he was studying he said, “Saint-Saens. You know, one of the famous French composers everyone loves and no one listens to.”

Dan, who had just turned eleven, asked if he could watch Harrison practice cello and soon Harrison was giving him lessons. He set up the cello in the living room and I’d listen as I made lunch for the boys for the following day. “This is the body of the cello, these are the ribs, the scroll, the neck.”  Harrison’s voice was patient. He sounded a bit like my kid brother, gentle yet commanding. “The left knee disappears behind the lower edge of the instrument.”  He bowed each string telling Dan the names as he did:  ADGC. Then Dan bowed them.

Because he drove to class, he shovelled the driveway when it snowed. One Saturday I came downstairs and, looking out the window, saw Harrison and Dan and Seamus making a snowman on the front lawn. I was surprised to see Harrison on a Saturday. Seamus came in for a carrot to use as a nose. He was seven and this was the first snowman he’d made. I’d been remiss in the snowman department. 

From time to time Harrison read picture books we had around the house to the boys but soon he began reading The Hobbit to them, the three huddled on the couch. This became a routine the boys looked forward to. When he finished, they demanded another right away.

“We can begin a new book,” he said, “but only fifteen minutes each night. I need to finish what I’m reading.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“The Kelavala, a Finnish book.” He turned to the boys, “Which is probably why it is taking so long to finish.”  My children loved spending time with Harrison.

Sometimes, when the kids were in bed, and Harrison stopped practicing, he’d ask if I wanted a beer. I didn’t drink during the week. Getting the boys to school and me to work was all I could manage, without throwing beer into the mix. I was a secretary at the town council office but I was also taking a course to prepare for the MCAT’S and this took all my time. My ex was a doctor and I’d become convinced over the years that I could do a better job. It was a ridiculous plan; I found math and chemistry challenging, but my ex was no genius. I thought, if I fail I fail. I didn’t know, then, that it wasn’t failure I had to prepare for.

I told Harrison about the incident that made me want to become a doctor. My ex had a  patient in his teens who was on dialysis and had to be driven to the hospital three times a week. I knew who the guy’s mother was; she worked as a secretary in my sons’ school. When her son got older he insisted he drive himself. Also, he wanted to stay on his own when she went away from time to time. One weekend she was visiting her sister and agreed to leave him alone in the house. He was in his early twenties by then. As it turned out, he’d skipped his first appointment, and then became too groggy to drive when his next dialysis appointment was scheduled. He was dead by the time she returned.

It was the most upsetting thing I’d ever heard and even though I was only a distant acquaintance I went over to the mother’s house as soon as I heard. She said she would never forgive herself. We talked for hours. When I got home, my husband was back from work and I told him where I’d been.

He couldn’t believe I’d gone to be with her.

“How could I not go?” I asked.

“I’m glad you did,” he said. “It’s just that, I could never become so close to a patient.”

When I first married, I believed my husband’s detachment allowed him to work despite difficult odds. But the more I got to know him I realized detachment was his only suit. He wasn’t much else there.

“How did you meet him?” Harrison asked. He’d poured himself a glass of wine, and one for me. Since it was Friday, I allowed myself one glass.

“I was a secretary for a doctor in Yellowknife,” I said, “and he was a medical student, doing a practicum.”

“Yellowknife? Were men hitting on you all the time?”

“Actually, yes,” I said and laughed. He reminded me so much of my kid brother. Even Harrison’s voice was like my brother’s, so quiet. I often had to ask Harrison to repeat what he’d said. “There are a lot more men than women in that place. But the situation was not so simple.”

Harrison didn’t say anything so, after a while, I continued. Once this guy asked me out and I said no.  I saw him again later that week and he said, Look, I’m away at the rigs most of the time, and I don’t get a lot of time off. I just want to take you to dinner.

“That’s all you want?” I asked, sceptical.

“Yes,” he said, “I’ll pay you to take you out.”

“That’s okay,” I said, “You don’t have to pay me. We went to a restaurant and he was true to his word.”

“Some men mean what they say,” Harrison said.

The following Saturday Harrison suggested we go his friend Kevin’s concert in a theatre downtown. The kids would enjoy it, he said. They did. Kevin sang old hits, “Time after Time”, “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes”, “Sweet Dreams,” songs on my old CDs the kids and I had listened to at home, but Kevin used only his cello to accompany him.  He had a looping pedal, which he’d press with his foot to add layers of melody digitally. The starkness of cello for rhythm and melody, and the unique sound of this instrument to accompany familiar songs, was mesmerizing.

On the way home Dan asked if I would buy him a cello. I told him if he was serious he should talk to his father. Renting a cello would be a good start.

A chemistry exam was coming up and I wanted to study with one of the better students in class. I asked Harrison if he would mind watching the boys Saturday night. I suggested he invite his girlfriend over.

“I’ll watch the boys,” he said.

I thanked him again before I left. I had on cowboy boots, black tights, and a narrow sleeveless dress, which I’d gotten at a thrift shop. It was pale grey and I wore a long brown sweater over it, which I might take off if the apartment was overheated.  Chemistry was difficult for me, and I thought I could fool myself into thinking the evening was festive if I dressed like I was celebrating.

Harrison said, “You wear that to study? Or do you especially like the guy you’re studying with?”

“I’m studying with a woman,” I said. “I like to dress up sometimes.”

“Ah, you like wearing costumes, I’ve noticed. And you like changing roles.” He laughed.

He might be right, I thought.

When I returned later that night, Harrison and the boys were in the middle of a rousing game of monopoly. Seamus had a hotel on boardwalk. I wondered how Harrison had engineered that. Later I asked if his girlfriend had come by. He shook his head.

“I’d love to meet her,” I said. Then, embarrassed, I wondered if they’d broken up.

It had been a long time since I’d cooked an elaborate meal, and I invited two couples, close friends of mine, for dinner Saturday. One couple, Phillip and Karo, had gotten jobs in another town and were moving at the end of the month, though the move wasn’t far. This was a congratulatory dinner for them, of sorts. I had strawberries and rhubarb in my freezer and a recipe for strawberry rhubarb pie I wanted to try.  When Harrison came home that Saturday I invited him to join us. I’d already served the boys, who were upstairs watching a movie.

At first I thought Harrison probably wouldn’t want to spend the evening with a bunch of middle-aged people like us but he clearly enjoyed talking with my friends.  Bernadette, Gene’s wife, and Gene, who I’d known since college days, asked Harrison if he would play a piece for us.  Phillip and Karo urged him to play as well so Harrison got out his cello and played Bach prelude number 1. Though it is such a familiar piece, I was stirred by how beautiful it is. It was good of him to play.  He probably felt as if he were performing for his parents.  

*

That night, when I went to use the washroom, he was just coming out, wearing only his pyjama bottoms. I blushed. He was so tan and fit.

When Harrison moved out, to get a place closer to town, a female student, Natasha, moved in a week later. I hadn’t realized the room would be so easy to rent.  Natasha was also neat but she kept to herself. The house felt strangely quiet now that there was no  cello music coming from the second floor.

When I gave another dinner party and asked Natasha if she wanted to join us, she declined. Though later, when the guests had gone, she accepted the last piece of pecan pie.

*

Then Harrison called. I was surprised to hear from him. He was graduating in a few months, and was told he had a good chance of getting into the graduate program. I was happy for him. There was a brief silence. Then he asked if I’d like to go out to dinner.

At first I wasn’t sure I’d heard him and when he repeated the invitation I asked, “With you and your girlfriend? To celebrate?” I felt like the older sister and I wanted to make sure I understood him.

“Of course not,” he said. “You and me.”

This was awkward. Harrison was 24. I was eleven years older and had two kids. Did he think I wanted to date as if I were a co-ed? I thanked him but said I wasn’t able to go.

A few weeks later he came by, when the kids were still up and the boys persuaded him to read a chapter of Lord of the Rings, which I’d started with them a few weeks earlier. I felt awkward with Harrison. Was he here to ask me out again? It simply wasn’t appropriate. I could not look him in the eye.

He stayed until after the boys were in bed and then suggested we go to dinner next Friday or Saturday. Could I get a sitter, he asked. I took a deep breath.

“Harrison, thank you. I am flattered by your invitation. But you are too young for me.” I did not like having to say this, but I needed to make things clear. Even if there hadn’t been an age disparity, I didn’t trust myself. I’d already made one mistake, and it took me long enough to free myself from that one. I just wanted to stay focused on my kids and move ahead with my studies.   

He did not come around after that and stopped phoning. I thought I would not see him again. But I was wrong.

Karo called to ask if I could help her pack Saturday. She and Phillip were moving the following week and friends were coming by to pitch in. The boys were spending the weekend with their father and I told her I’d be glad to help.  My car was being repaired so she picked me up Saturday morning.

When we got there I was surprised to see Harrison helping along with the others.  Had he become a friend of theirs as well? Apparently so.

I had on red jeans and an orange sleeveless top, both from a thrift shop. Harrison greeted me. Later he said, “I can see those colours give you energy. They energize me just looking at them.” I laughed. He was right; that was why I chose them.

We’d finished packing and loading boxes into the U Haul and were drinking the last of the beer when Harrison said he’d give me a lift home. We were quiet on the drive and as he pulled into the driveway I was debating whether to ask him in for coffee. Then of course I did. This was Harrison, after all.

As I was putting biscuits on a plate, he said, “You know, you are a very rigid woman.”

I do not consider myself rigid. I asked him what he meant.

“Just because you have this idea that I am too young for you, you will not even give me a chance.
And that is pretty inflexible, wouldn’t you say?”

Who did he think he was, analyzing me?  I left the room. But he didn’t.

When I returned I asked him why he was still there.

“What are you afraid of?” he asked. “You know, if you keep going the way you’re going, you’ll...” He paused. Then he said, “No.”  He turned and mumbled, “Goodbye” as he  walked out the door.

What was I afraid of?  Look, one umbrella is too unsteady for two people to hold in a wind storm. Harrison might think he was interested in me now, but interest fades. I had enough to worry about without adding complications. After working my butt off for two years, would I get into medical school, much less be able to cope if I did? What I didn’t want to ask, not even in the hidden chamber of the heart I assumed I still had, would I live the rest of my life on this obstacle course I set up for myself and which I found increasingly difficult to navigate.  I supposed  obstacle course was another way of describing being rigid, wasn’t it? 

When I applied to medical school a year later, I got in. I was thirty-seven. My confidence came, in part, because Harrison had faith in me.

He still does.  Perhaps I should end this story before I disclose that we married the spring I got my acceptance letter.  Because happiness, I‘d always assumed, was a rare thing and  harder to believe in than disappointment. But we did marry, and for the past twenty-three years I’ve been practicing medicine in the neighbouring town and he’s been playing in the symphony.

When we married, I designed a wedding ring of three bands of gold – white, rose and yellow. The bands are very thin – a symbolic gesture. Thin bands break easily. I thought I’d better be prepared in case the marriage failed.  But I was wrong. Failure was not what I had to prepare myself for.

*


Carole Glasser Langille is the author of four books of poetry, two collections of short stories and two picture books. Her last book, I Am What I Am Because You Are What You Are,  a collection of linked stories, was nominated for the Alistair MacLeod Award for Short Fiction.

Read Carole on why she loves short stories.

Photo credit: Min Chen.

Fiction #73: Alyson Fortowsky

Status of Application

Caitlyn Arquette was alone in the office on Labour Day when she received an email from Laurel Kosecki. Subject: Status of Application.

Fucking Asha, Caitlyn thought. Laurel Kosecki should’ve gotten a no three weeks ago. Caitlyn didn’t envy the recruiters their job – it was a surprise none of them was in here with her today, scrolling LinkedIn like it was a slot machine – but they all handled it better than Asha did. She let her leads build up till the surface below gave way and the pile cascaded down in a series of mini-mental health avalanches. She’d double-book herself on first interviews, beg one of the other recruiters to conduct one of them, then send the interviewee she hadn’t met a follow-up email that said “It was so great getting to know you today!”

Caitlyn had only been a training manager for a month. Laurel Kosecki’s had been one of the first second interviews she’d ever conducted. Pratik, the training director, had been in the room, of course. Though Laurel, judging from the year she graduated high school, was six years older than Caitlyn, she looked younger and she was thinner. Both things made Caitlyn irrationally irritated when she shook hands with Laurel, but she had talked warmly, and Caitlyn let the feeling pass. Laurel had worked in sales at a newspaper and for a website design company, business-to-business, in Saskatoon. Now she taught Business English at a community college. Several of her former colleagues worked in the Sales Department and had recommended her. But while Caitlyn had been going through the interview script, noting down Laurel’s answers, Pratik had been conducting a personality test. Laurel had failed it.

“She won’t fit into the culture here,” he’d said.

He’d been hiring fresh-out-of-college kids, ready to mold, less likely to complain about the workload. Because she’d come recommended, they routed Laurel through the full four-hour process anyway: the first interview and written situational assessment with Asha, the second interview with Caitlyn and Pratik, and the third interview, a meet-and-greet with Nathan, the VP of Client Relations. Caitlyn privately thought she would’ve hired Laurel. Introverts worked well to deadlines, however well they summoned up fake kiss-ass for an interview. Besides, she’d be good at talking to the professors for textbook orders.

But it had been an unequivocal no from Pratik, and so she should have gotten an email.

Fucking Asha. Caitlyn opened the email from Laurel. One line:

Mistakes you have made

Caitlyn had somehow failed to notice that the fluorescents were emitting a hum so oppressive in the empty office that they were drowning out the Wilco album she was playing. She noticed now.

Below the line of text, an embedded .gif. The first time it cycled, she saw a paint balloon explode. The second, whiplash hair; white knuckles on the butt of a handgun. She couldn’t get the message closed before she recognized that she was seeing a clip of Laurel Kosecki blowing her brains out.

*

Only once before had Caitlyn felt so certain that a moment would alter the way she lived the rest of her life. Mid-April, the year she was twenty-five. At the time she’d sworn she’d remember the date forever, but it didn’t matter so much now as it had then, and she’d let it slip. Her boyfriend of ten years had rolled over in bed on a weekday morning and said,

“I have to tell you something. I slept with someone else.”

The sheets had been soaked. She’d had to buy a new set every six months when they were together. He’d stained his side of the mattress a sickening, jaundiced shade. She’d had a lot of thoughts following that proclamation but the very first, the first thing she thought after he’d told her he’d cheated on her, was how gross she found it that he sweat so much in his sleep. The second was that it had been years since she’d liked the sour vinegar smell of his body.

The last time she was single, when she was fifteen, she hadn’t thought of herself as shallow enough to be a girl with a type. But now, three years after her big twenties breakup, she’d vowed to never date a big man again. Tall, wide, neither. Men were bovine who weren’t close to woman-sized. Large, smelly mammals, snoring and farting. Hard to believe they were the same species as someone like Laurel Kosecki, a worry line between her pale eyebrows and her long, delicate fingers. She’d been wearing a barely-there perfume or soap in the interview. Underneath it, there was no trace of her heat at all. Might as well as sprayed the scent on a cardboard sampler.

*

Caitlyn had the email closed nearly instantly. She thought about calling the police. The idea seemed unbearable in an empty office, so she didn’t pick up the phone. Instead, she marked the message unread. She decided to go home for the day. Pretend she’d left without checking her emails one last time. She could “find” it in the morning and exclaim in earshot of her colleagues when she saw it. Just like that, it would be a shared responsibility instead of only hers. She turned off her music and her computer. She went to the kitchen and washed out the Tupperware that had contained her pesto salad.

*

She had forgotten her umbrella, and she got soaked crossing the street to the subway station. The turnstiles were down, so she had to wait in a line thirty people long for the agent’s booth, just to flash him her pass. Every second in the station felt like a threat to her composure. Annoying, that’s what Laurel Kosecki was. Annoying and selfish. Caitlyn realized she was in constant, low-level physical danger. That was life in a city. She had to be exposed, surrounded by strangers with varying claim to their territory, in order to get home to her couch where she could lie down with her cat, a pot of cranberry tea, and the mickey of gin she’d been saving in her freezer since her birthday.

*

A crowd of people on a train smelled like wet dogs when it rained, no matter how much product they’d individually applied to try and avoid it. There were three high school boys in the seats across the aisle from her. She put her earbuds in but didn’t turn on her music. The stop announcements weren’t working. Combined with the dim-submarine lights in the old subway cars, it gave her the feeling that she was going the wrong way or that she was dreaming.

“I’m a gofer,” one of the boys said. Clean cut, with the same Ray-Ban prescription glasses that half the world wore. They all wore the same pants, a private school uniform. “I get them coffee, or vacuum their seats, or do their oil changes. Whatever is easy enough.”

One of his friends asked something.

“Nah. I walked in and they just asked a few questions. I was hired on the spot.”

Caitlyn thought of how much he was like her twin brother at that age, his inflection. Cory had been an outgoing kid like that, Mr. Popular. He called her every couple of months, but in his early twenties things had started to fall apart. He couldn’t finish college. He could go a few months like everything was fine and then he’d hit a day where he’d wake up to his alarm, like always, and he couldn’t get out of bed for a week. Caitlyn had been a bookish kid – well-liked, in retrospect, but solitary. Now she didn’t read anymore. She opened novels and her eyes flicked bored over the pages like she’d forgotten how to do it. Now she was the outgoing one, preferring the company of others.

“Three things they’re looking for,” the gofer said. He ticked off on his fingers. “Will you not show up to work high all the time? Yes. Will you not hide out in the back room avoiding work all day? Yes. Will you show up relatively on time? Yes. That’s all it takes to be fine at a job. It’s surprising how many people can’t get their shit together to do those three things.”

*

Caitlyn’s train had two stops to go till hers when she realized what should have been immediately clear, but that her shock had obscured: barring some feat of programming of which Laurel Kosecki’s interview hadn’t indicated she was capable, it could not possibly have been her who’d sent an email containing a record of her own death.

Thank god, Caitlyn thought, before she could stop herself. I’m not the only person on Earth who knows about this.

Someone had watched the video before Caitlyn had seen it. They had to, or it wouldn’t have been sent out. Strange, how meeting someone in an interview always inspired an illusion of her as a world alone. It wasn’t statistically likely that Laurel had been single, even that she lived alone. That had to be it. A partner, distraught by her death, had gone through her computer in search of any kind of reason – people who might have slighted her, or disappointed her. If she was actively looking for a job, then she’d been through more than one interview – maybe every company that had declined to hire her had gotten the same email. Maybe everyone who’d written her a snarky Facebook comment.

Maybe it wasn’t Laurel who’d held Caitlyn responsible, then. Maybe she hadn’t been named. Just someone grieving, someone lashing out. Perfectly understandable.

She only felt relief for a moment. Laurel could have named Caitlyn, either way. She could have left a note. Instructions for her left-behind lover. Who, in their darkest moments after the death of someone close to him, wouldn’t take the temptation of complying with her orders? Of laying blame?

It could have a hoax, sent by Laurel herself – a possibility Caitlyn only dared entertain for a second before she got dangerously hopeful, then too angry at what kind of morose bitch would do something so cruel to a person who was just doing her fucking job.

*

“What stop did we just pass?” the gofer said, as if he was reading her mind.

He hadn’t missed his, his friends assured him. She assumed the friends were speaking out loud here and there, watching their mouths move. Over the sound of friction on the tracks, she could only hear the gofer’s voice, the loudest.

“I’m actually brain-damaged,” the gofer said frankly. “I miss my stop all the time. And it sucks walking back. It’s only a few blocks but everything looks so much bigger when you’re walking than when you’re on the train.”

*

Caitlyn wondered if he actually was. He didn’t talk like anything was wrong with him. A hurtful joke, if it was a joke. She guessed he wasn’t old enough yet to know.

*

Alyson Fortowsky grew up in Calgary, and now writes and teaches in Toronto. She has published short stories in Qwerty, NoD and carte blanche.

Photo credit: Efehan Elbi.

Fiction #73: Christopher Shilts

Fire Built

I poured some gas onto the burning twigs. Mike made a quick sweep of the nearby trees pulling off branches and picking up those that had already fallen. He stayed close to camp, but he was hard to see through the falling snow. We already had a secured clear tarp over a rope strung between two trees where we kept Mike’s pack. The sky was gray, almost black, but the whiteness of the snow brightened our little scene. I knew it was middle to late afternoon.  Mike sat down next to me and asked, “How’s the ankle.” Snow fell steadily.

I looked at him, smiled, and said, “It hurts.  I can’t take off my boot.”

“Can you wiggle it around?”

I lifted up my foot and tried to shake it around.  I looked again at Mike.  I had little mobility.  And it hurt. 

“I can wiggle my toes.”

“You positioned okay against your pack?”

I nodded.

“Look, I can try to make a travois.  Haul you out of here.”

“We’re good,” I said.  “We’ve got fire, food, and endless snow to melt and drink.”

Mike moved back to the other side of the fire.  He picked up some bigger sticks, logs almost, and put them on.  He squatted and looked at the fire.  The orange flames got narrow at the top and disappeared into the falling snow.  The smoke rose up and leaned with the wind.

Mike finally said,  “Maybe I’ll just go.  Take what I need to get to the ranger station.”

“Rule number one, Mike.  We stay put.  The ranger station knows our itinerary.  Panic leads to bad decisions.  It won’t snow forever.”

He dropped his head.  Then he twitched.

“Did you hear that?”

“Just wind.”

“I heard a sound.  A whistle.”

“It’s just the wind. “

“It’s a whistle, man.”

Then I heard it.  It was indeed a whistle.  We stared at each other.  “We have to check it out, don’t we?”  Mike asked.

“I’m in no position to help.  Besides, people die when they’re trying to save lives.”

Mike was determined to go into the thicket.  I didn’t think it was smart, but there was little I could do to stop him.  He assured me that he’d be careful and that he’d come back. 

“I’ve got the food and the fire, dude.”

Twice while he was gone I leaned toward the pile of sticks and logs to load the fire.  When he returned, he held a man around his shoulders, fireman style.   There were spots of snow on Mike’s knees and elbows left behind from when he must’ve fallen.

Mike bent at the hips and maneuvered the man over his head and onto the snow near the fire.  “Can you sit up?” Mike asked the man.  He did so.  Mike said,  ‘Put your hands on my back.  No, my bare back. It’s okay.  Pull my shirt up.”

The man’s hands were gloveless.  His fingers were black and swollen. He fumbled with Mike’s shirt.  Mike took him by the wrists and brought the man’s hands to his stomach.  The frost bit man looked at me then to Mike and said, “You need to get me to the ranger station.”

“We don’t go to ranger stations.  Rangers come to us.  You’ll die before you get there.  Worse, I’ll die, too.  Wiseass over there”--he pointed at me--“wiseass with the broken ankle will be the only one who survives because he’ll have the fire and the food.”

I threw my hands up and nodded my head in agreement.  Mike looked back at the man.  He shivered.

“Mike, he’s shivering pretty bad.”

“Hypothermia?”

I reached back to the top of my pack and was able to unfasten my sleeping bag.  I pulled it off and threw it toward the tarp.

“We can take turns,” I said.

“All right.”  Mike agreed.

I leaned over and crawled under the tarp with the sleeping bag.  I unstuffed it and got in it and began to undress.  My pants were below my knees before I remembered that I couldn’t budge my boot.  I let it be.  I left the rest of my clothes at the bottom of the bag.  I yelled out to the man, “Listen, we’re going to take your clothes off, and you’re going to get in this bag with me.”

Through the tarp, I could see him shake his head.

“You don’t do it,” Mike said, “you die.  You’re on my conscience now.  Mike bent low and picked him up and carried him to the tarp and helped him into the sleeping bag.  Once in the bag, Mike helped me with the undressing of the man.  When we pulled his boots and socks off, his toes, as I had suspected, resembled his fingers.  He’d lose his hands and feet.  Mike zipped us both into the bag and returned to the fire.  I heard him throw on another log.

I heard the man snort, then, a beginning of a cry.

“My name’s Aaron,” he whispered.

Mike puttered around the fire, and the fire was swollen and fantastic.  He boiled water.

“I found some ground coffee in my inside coat pocket,” he announced.  “Coffee is the family business.”

I don’t remember falling asleep, but when Mike roused me, it was dark.  The man still shivered, but less violently.

I dressed and crawled out of the bag, and Mike crawled in and stripped.  Back by the fire, I forced myself to stay awake.  The snow continued to fall, but it had slowed just a bit.  I was within reach of the logs and the fire.  We had two sixty-pound bags of food and supplies, we had a bright and brilliant fire, and Aaron was going to live.

My ankle would heel. 

*

Christopher Shilts writes: "I am an English Teacher at the Pingry School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.  I have  taught for twenty-seven years, seventeen at Pingry.  I also serve as the head football coach and as an assistant track coach.  I am the father of three daughters, Maddy (17), Carson (13), and Sydney (11), and one son, Joe (15).  I have been married to my wife Cathy Hamm for nineteen years.  I am a baseball fan first, Tigers’s fan second.  I wrote “Fire Built” at Kenyon College, summer of 2016."

Photo credit: Maddy Shilts.

Fiction #73: David Gerow

Taking Possession

We bought a place on Columbus Street in East York, me and my wife. Everyone said what a steal it was. The previous owner was pretty eager to sell so we just swooped in there and bam: starter home.
It was a one-storey brick house among other one-storey brick houses. Early 20th century, good walls. That’s what the real estate woman said when we were on the porch – “good walls.” I was trying to look all worldly so I kicked one. It didn’t fall over or anything. I said, “Yep, good walls.” My wife and I have laughed about that many times. What the hell do I know about walls?

The house was in a safe community, nice restaurants, good schools in case we have kids one day. Everyone drove Volkswagons and Toyotas. It was a mid-range kind of neighbourhood. We liked it.

But there was this guy across the street.

He lived alone in a little brown house, like our place but shrunken. There was a big window in his living room and two little ones upstairs, same as our place. He watched us from all of those windows.

I first noticed it in the daytime, about a week after we moved in. He was just sitting in the living room, this thin, bald, middle-aged creep on an easy chair, legs crossed, staring at us. I could see the top of a TV at the base of his window frame, but he wasn’t watching it. He wanted us to think he was, but he wasn’t. Whenever I looked at him he’d shift or scratch or react to something on his TV, which I doubt was even on, and when I looked away he was still. Columbus is a really narrow street, one-way with tiny lawns. The creep was near enough that I could see he had blue eyes.

I didn’t mention it to Claire that day, that we were being watched. She’d have overreacted, I have no doubt. But I did suggest we hurry up and hang the curtains.

“I like the boxes and the no curtains,” she said. “It feels like we’re still just moving in.”

She’s very sweet, my wife. She thinks life is a game.

That night we got an Indian takeaway and ate it in the living room while making fun of a John Wayne movie on AMC. It was mostly Claire who was laughing. I actually don’t mind John Wayne, and I was preoccupied by the house across the street.

He was there. He’d closed his living room curtains, left the downstairs light on and was sitting upstairs, in his bedroom I guess, in the dark. He sat at the back of the room, far from the window, but enough light crept upstairs from his living room that I could make him out in there, and there was always the glint on his glasses.

We went to bed around midnight. Our bedroom window also faces onto the street and also had no curtains. I made sure Claire was fully clothed when the light was on. I made sure I was, too.

#

Claire goes away sometimes for work. Not a lot, but sometimes. She’s a trainee curator in a museum and they send her on various assignments. She left for Ottawa about two weeks after we’d moved in.

She’d be gone four nights.

We had curtains in every room by that time. I’d talked Claire into hanging them the day after I’d noticed the watcher. We hung them in the late afternoon; he was in his living room, pretending to watch TV. He’d been there all day. He was wearing the same thing as the day before: white shirt, red tie. That’s the only thing I ever saw him wearing. I’d be surprised if he owned a second tie.

The morning Claire went away he was watching. I still hadn’t told her about him. After all, he hadn’t done anything except look. I was keeping a close eye on him, and I made sure Claire was home alone as little as possible, which was easy because I was on my first summer holiday as a teacher. I also added the police to the top of my phone contacts: “Aaa Police”.

Right when Claire left for Ottawa, I made a phone call.

“Hello?”

“Hi,” I said, “Is this Martin Feldman?”

“Yeah, this is Martin.”

“This is Jeff Mason. I’m the guy who bought your old place on Columbus Street.”

There was a silence. I said, “Hello?”

He asked, “Are you calling about Richard?”

“Ah, now I might be. Who’s Richard?”

“The guy across the street?”

“Right, good, so you know what I’m talking about.”

“Yeah, I know Richard.” He paused. “Sorry.”

I wasn’t sure what I wanted out of Martin Feldman, but the apology was nice.

“What’s his deal then?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I really don’t know. He just likes to watch people, I guess.”

“Well, has he ever done anything else?”

“Uh, not as far as I know. I mean, I can’t be sure, but he never did anything to me or my partner.”

“Did he ever talk to you?” I said.

“No, never a word. He wouldn’t even look at me if we saw each other outside. That was the only time he wouldn’t look, really.” Martin Feldman laughed.

“Is he the reason you moved?” I asked.

“Yeah. Sorry. We should have said something but, you know. It’s not exactly a selling point.”

“No, it’s not,” I said. I could have been angry but there wasn’t much point. He sounded like a nice enough guy. Anyway, he’d apologized twice now.

#

That afternoon I decided to visit Richard. I’d rolled it over in my head many times and I decided it was the only thing to do. He was home, had been all day. When I came out my front door, I saw him get up and leave the living room, disappear into the back of the house, where the kitchen was in our place and probably in his, too.

I knocked on his front door and waited. He didn’t answer. I tried the doorbell, which seemed to be broken, then knocked again. I knocked six or seven times before I gave up.

Back in my living room, I watched for him out the window. I was going to gesture to him when he returned to his living room. But he didn’t come back. I didn’t spot him again until it got dark, when I caught the glint of his glasses in an upstairs window. There were no lights on in his house.

That night Claire and I Skyped around 9:30 and I went to bed at 10. That’s early for me, but I never know what to do with myself when Claire’s away. I left the downstairs lights on and the curtains closed so Richard would assume I was in the living room. It was after midnight when I woke to a steady tapping. It was coming from the back door. Someone was in the backyard tapping on the door.
I came downstairs into the kitchen, a bit of light coming down from the bedroom. When I turned the kitchen light on, there was Richard’s face in the backdoor window, looking in. He sort of smiled as I came toward the door. His lips were so thin.

So what was the situation? Well, I knew where the knives were. I knew that Richard was smaller and probably twenty years older than me. I had my phone in my hand and my thumb over Aaa Police. So yeah, I opened the door.

He was wearing the same white shirt, the same red tie, the same black pants as always.

“Mr. Mason,” he said, still sort of smiling, and he came right into the kitchen. I left the door open even though moths were already flying in.

“Yes, hello,” I said. “What do you want? It’s a bit late.”

“I wasn’t sure until now that Claire was still out,” he said.

I didn’t find it worrying that he knew our names. I’d assumed somehow that he knew our names.

What I found discomfiting was the volume of all the sounds around us: the clock on the kitchen wall, the boiler switching on, the crickets outside, the moths fluttering around, the continuous roar of the highway like one of those subliminal rumbling effects in a horror movie. All these sounds seemed to own the night, and Richard seemed to own it too, while I was a guest. It was my kitchen – I’d bought it – but I wasn’t in my natural habitat.

“What business is it of yours?” I asked. “What do you care if she’s out or not?”

“And you went to bed with the lights on,” he said. He was from the States, a Southerner, maybe from Tennessee or Mississippi or somewhere like that. “Tricky boy.”

“Listen,” I said, “I don’t know what your deal is, Richard, but you’re a creep. Okay?”

“But you,” he said, taking a quick step toward me, “are much worse. You are an imposter, an invader, a plague. What do you want here? Why have you come? This is not your house. And your wife, so innocent, so beautiful, Jeff. What would happen if –”

I clocked him on top of the head with my cell phone. He stumbled, I grabbed his neck, I squeezed. I was acting on instinct – why had he come? I went through with it, his throat caving under my thumbs, me trying to push right to the spine – just give ‘er! – his hands at my wrists, then dropping. I squeezed for a long time after he’d stopped struggling.

His eyes were still open. They were blue like the shallows of the sea, so vibrant that they looked like contact lenses.

#

So there was Richard on the kitchen floor. It had been bloodless, it had been silent. I think it had been necessary somehow, I don’t know. But it did leave me with a corpse to dispose of. I tried to recall how movie characters had disposed of their corpses. Car trunks and deep water for the most part, like in Psycho. What about movie characters who didn’t have spare cars? Off the back of a train in Double Indemnity. That wasn’t likely to fly on Via Rail. Dismemberment in Rear Window. Forensics would be all over that no matter how well I scrubbed the bathtub.

Then I remembered: my house has good walls.

I went down to the basement, a colourless, cold space, purely functional, with a concrete floor. My basement has two halves – a laundry room and a boiler/storage area – divided by a wall that I suspected was hollow. That wall is about 18 inches wide. A big section of it on the boiler room side was covered over with plywood, which was held in place by a lot of little boards, screwed and nailed in at different times. I got out the toolbox, a gift from my father-in-law that we’d never once needed in our old apartment. It took about half an hour to get all those little boards off.

I slid the plywood out of the way and looked inside the wall. It ran half the length of the house, like an extremely narrow hallway. There was a soft silver tube, an air duct for the dryer maybe, running along the top. That was probably why the wall was hollow, to accommodate that air duct (or whatever it was). The important thing was that the space was wide enough to accommodate a body.
I’d push Richard as far toward the back of the house as I could, then I’d cover him with concrete. Four bags of concrete powder had come with the basement and I knew how to use them. I’d spent one awful day mixing concrete with my father when I was a child, and four bags would make more than enough to pour a thick layer over a body. There were even buckets, everything I’d need.

I stepped inside the wall with my flashlight to scope the area out. As I squeezed toward the back of the house, the floor rose. There was a hill within this wall. And shining my light on it, I saw that it was a paler grey than the rest of the floor. This mound looked exactly as I expected my mound to look.

A chisel and a hammer and I found it: a foot in a sandal. Someone was buried in there and they still had flesh on them. I stopped chiselling.

#

The wall in the basement is boarded up again now. If anyone ever squeezes in there, they’ll find a mound twice the size as the one I cracked open. It took all four bags of concrete and a good six hours, not counting drying time. There’s been no stench at all, and it’s been months now. The investigation has come and gone. I got nothing more than a perfunctory questioning like all the other neighbours.
Claire and I now have two good anecdotes about our house. One is something we learned during the investigation: that our place was previously owned by an old lady who went missing a year before we moved in. Martin Feldman had bought it from her next of kin. Claire loves that as a spooky story, particularly when told in conjunction with the story of the man across the street, Richard Thompson, who has also gone missing. Claire loves macabre stuff. She treats it as a game.

Our other anecdote is the time I kicked the wall in front of the real estate agent. “It was so funny,” Claire says. “What the hell does he know about walls?”

*

Originally from Brantford, Ontario, David Gerow studied Theatre at the University of Guelph. After graduating, he spent ten years teaching English in China, South Korea and Italy, as well as working odd jobs in Newfoundland and Nepal. He moved to Scotland in 2014 to do his Master's in Film Studies, and recently had a scene from his first play workshopped at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. This is his first published story.

Photo credit: L.L. Nelson.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Fiction #72

New fiction! Issue #72
Submissions now open for #73

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #72: K.C. Toews

The Light Keeper

Jacob had never met the lighthouse keeper. He’d only heard stories. But lately, rumours had speckled Portbay Daily’s headlines, and now, a poster tacked to the corkboard, next to a crisis hotline ad, made him think about the local man who lived out on Cutthroat Crags. The paper fluttered in a fan gust with the smell of feet and deep-fried pickles—distractions from his sponsor and the mumble of a red-bearded teen to his right. Bowling balls slammed onto the lanes above, and down here in the circle was the tap-tap-tap of his heel. Strands of hair floated in a beam of sunlight from the dusty basement window, the poster brightened by rays.

He squinted. Near the blue tack in the top left corner, someone had penciled a bottle. Rum, probably. Lettering on the page dipped and dove like a gannet, it’s gist: solar beacons can be seen from a thirty-six-mile radius. The lights—LED bulbs with reflectors—turn off at dawn and are virtually indestructible. Our town says farewell to the lighthouse and welcomes a new, innovative system.

No more lighthouse meant no more keeper. He’d once believed the keeper saved souls of those adrift at sea. As kids, he and his sister Jen had spent nights on the beach and watched the distant light pierce storm clouds. The bulb must’ve been an extension of the keeper’s being and, at one with the lighthouse, he’d slay the rain-razored skies. Rescue stories boomed from radio stations, deeds of a real-life hero. Then, at his grandpa’s funeral, Jacob thought he’d caught a glimpse of the keeper. He’d tried to shrug through the crowd to beg him to save his grandpa, bring him back home, but the keeper’s silhouette disappeared. Perhaps he’d only been an apparition. Anyway, Jen had lied—the keeper couldn’t save everyone.

Now, word around Portbay painted the keeper a hermit too drunk to find his way off the inlet. Only last night, after work, Jacob’s squad had joked the old man probably wanted boats to crash into the rocks so he could steal their booze, that he’d gone insane from isolation.

“Jacob, would you like to share today?” The sponsor crossed her legs, pen pressed to clipboard.

Yes.

He’d had the same dream again—the one where he and Holly escaped the island and started a new life elsewhere, on the prairies. They lived in a blue bungalow, had a horse. No longer did he see an endless grey, but an expanse of golden fields.

“Next time.”

Chairs scratched the floor as everyone stood, and he swiped a handful of Walker’s shortbread from the table. He counted the stairs on his way out, thirty-six, like he did each Sunday. At the top, inside the bowling alley, the deep-fried feet smell intensified. A lounge separated the eight-pin lanes from the glow-bowl ten pins. Shadows waltzed the walls from the technicolor lights, the pulse of music reverberating under his shoes. A disco ball rotated, glittered like the glasses at a bar.

“Jake!” Holly waved at him from the last lane. Her teeth shone, the gap in the front blended with the black lights.

His boss and friend Devlin guided Holly’s hand, and the ball rolled towards the pins, a spare. When Jacob reached them, he scooped Holly into his arms. Dog hair clung to the violet dress she wore, and the ribbon wrapped around her head pushed back her hair to reveal wide eyes. Striking how much she looked like Jen: thin forehead, dimple in her left cheek, and blue irises that promised things would be okay.

“Did you see me, Jake?”

“Professional bowler at age six,” he said.

She giggled and buried her face in his neck. Benji and Devlin joined them at the booth. Holly crawled out of Jacob’s lap, and he passed the cookies to each kid. Crumbs on face, they scampered back to the lane to finish their game. Devlin slid a bottle of Pepsi across the table. His black eyebrows touched the brim of his Jays hat when he yawned, and his stomach bumped the table with his stretch.

“Thanks again,” said Jacob. “Sometimes I can’t tell if you’re babysitting her or me.”

Devlin laughed, teeth dazzling in the dark. He reached into his jacket pocket, unfolded a piece of paper, and slapped it onto the table.

“Fancy system they got.”

Another solar beacon poster.

“Wonder what the keeper thinks about that.”

“You’ll have to ask when you see him.”

“What?”

Devlin said, “Portbay can’t evacuate the old man from the Crags until he signs an eviction letter. Our squad got nominated for the task.”

Jacob thought of the expanse of water between town and the inlet. A curtain at the end of the lane rose, and ten white pins gleamed like straight-jacketed patients in a dark hallway. Bass palpitated over the rate of his quickened heartbeat, so loud, and a dribble of sweat ran into the corner of his lips. His foot bounced.

“No one wants to do it, the hassle and awkwardness of it all,” said Devlin. “So I’ve decided to offer a transfer to anyone who steps up.”

Jacob thought he’d heard wrong. “A transfer?”

“To the mainland. Got a connection in Morningside. Some small town in the Okanagan. They need a new deputy. All you gotta do is deliver that letter.”

Morningside. Even the name sounded hopeful.

Holly laughed as Benji’s ball slipped into the gutter, and his stomach churned. This morning, still groggy from sleep, he’d mistaken her laugh for Jen’s, and a second later realized he’d forgotten Jen’s laugh. If he moved, would he forget everything about her? His palm made its way to the six-month coin in his front jean pocket, its solidness a reminder of the order he’d created here, the support. Change meant a chance to slip, lose what he’d worked so hard to regain.

“Give it to Matt. He’s got family on the mainland.”

The sound of children’s laughter and the hiss of the deep fryer quietened with the roar of his cowardice.

*

The two of them sat side-by-side, his legs crossed and hers over the dock’s edge. An oyster-grey sky hovered above the Pacific, fog a veil over the distant mainland. Waves lapped against the wooden poles, and he tightened Holly’s jacket. Brine and cedar carried through the breeze—a smell he’d always known as home, but that now turned his stomach.

“What are you going to write?” Holly tilted the Pepsi bottle.

Brown ripples sizzled atop the water, expanding twice before they vanished. On the water’s ink-black surface, their reflections glistened. Hers freckled and spirited like Jen’s, while his had grown sober by a deep wrinkle between his eyebrows, a face much older than thirty. He missed the spark that once shone in those eyes. Holly leaned over to rinse the bottle, erase the faces, and he gripped her shoulder.

“Jake.” She swiped a loose strand of white hair from her forehead. “I won’t fall.”

He pulled his hand away.

“What did you write last week?” He passed her a notebook and pen.

The clean bottle sparkled, and she tapped the pen to her lip. “Secret.”

A seagull cawed and glared at them from on top of an offshore buoy. With its head cocked and doll-eyes locked on his own, it screeched again. Jacob tucked his feet farther onto the dock. He wouldn’t miss those scavenger birds. The mainland would have eagles and falcons—birds that soared above open fields, free birds.

“Why do they live by the sea?” Holly pointed at the gull.

“Why?”

“Cuz if they lived by the bay, they’d be bagels.”

She giggled over the same joke she told every time they came to the pier and then flipped onto her stomach and drew an allium on the centre of her page, like the ones that bloomed in their backyard every April.

“I miss Mom,” she said. In the silver light, tears cocooned her eyelashes.

He’d come up with answers to these statements when Holly first entered his custody, had them all ready for when her heart would shatter, but now all he could do was resort to the bullshit clich├ęs any uncle would use, like the ones his grandpa told him when his own parents died: things will be okay, I love you, the pain passes.

In bubbled writing, Holly scribbled a message onto the page and handed it to him. He couldn’t find the right words for his own—the tradition, played out—and rolled hers into the Pepsi bottle. They stood, and she clasped his hand. He threw the bottle as hard as he could and watched it glint, glimmer, and vanish into the sky. A splash echoed seconds later.

“I wonder if someone will ever read them,” said Holly. “Hopefully a mermaid.” Her eyes scanned the water, a faint smile on her lips.

“Holly,” he said. “Remember that place I told you about? From my dream?”

“Where we could get a horse?”

“And where sunflowers grow and the night sky shines brighter than here.” Jacob pointed into the distance. “What if we went to that place sooner?”

She leaned her head against his leg. “That sounds like a pretty place.” Then she lifted her head and shrieked. “Jake, look!”

A monarch butterfly fluttered in front of them and landed on the dock pole. Its wings, the colour of cigarette embers, stretched taut. Veins weaved across the membrane to fade into white-speckled tips. Bulbous eyes shimmered. Holly padded over to the pole and tried to coax the creature onto her finger, but it folded its wings and flew into the sky, a kite adrift. In a second, it disappeared into the clouds. The dock slats rattled, and Jacob turned to see Devlin stride towards them, a folder under his arm, with Benji in tow on a bike. Holly teetered down the dock, the butterfly an afterthought, and Benji threw down his bike to hand her a fishing rod. Jacob had taught her how to fish last summer on the beach behind their home. Her technique was now enviable, and she cast the rod out onto the quiet water.

“Matt’s a no-go. Hung over,” said Devlin. He clapped a hand on Jacob’s shoulder. “Keep an eye on Benji, will you? I won’t be out long. A storm’s supposed to roll in around six.”
 Navy blue with four white stars on its portside, the small police motorboat bumped against the dock. Devlin placed the folder on the barnacle-riddled pole and reached down towards the boat cover. Jacob’s grandpa had taught him and Jen how to sail before they knew how to drive. Jen had taken to it quickly, an art form, she’d said, rather than a procedure. She’d fallen in love with the way the water moved beneath her body, how you were only really in control if you believed you were.

“Here,” said Devlin. “Help me with this thing.”

Jacob gripped the cover, slippery from ocean dew, and tugged.

Two Aprils ago, instead of a boat cover, he’d unzipped and peeled open a body bag. He hadn’t wanted Jen to go that night—the twilight sky had seemed to calm, something eerie about the way his voice drifted crisp through the air, but two lilac moons sagged under her eyes.

“I need a break, just for an hour,” she said.

He watched her drive away in her yellow Jericho, boat supplies in trunk. Rap music blasted from her stereo, and she threw him a grin over her shoulder, already almost back to her old self, the exhausted young mother role momentarily forgotten. Then, as the credits of Pinocchio flickered across the TV screen, with Holly sprawled across his chest, the phone rang. Details of the next hour were still crystal: accident, body found, can you come down to the station? He hadn’t been sure at first, her neck too thin, and purple veins slithered across her skin. Each finger of her upturned hands puckered from salt. Her eyes hadn’t changed, though—wide and grey like his, yes, this was Jenny.

Red-and-blue lights flashed across the sand and wind rippled through the Yaupon holly bushes when he stood on the beach afterward. Midnight sky blanketed the water, and yellow tape flapped in the breeze. Avoiding his gaze, his crew gathered remains of the lacerated boat, its sail like an egg-yolk pulsing in the water. In the distance, a white light blinked. The keeper who should have saved Jen.

Someone handed him a flask, the sting replacing another.

“Holly’s yours now,” said Devlin, hand firm on his shoulder.

They moved into a small house on the water two weeks later, packed Jen’s belongings into boxes, furniture to go with them, clothes to Salvation Army. He held onto the sweater he’d bought her for her sixteenth birthday, the one she’d worn to the Eminem concert. He knew holding on was unhealthy, but when Holly fell asleep each night, can after can silenced any thoughts of letting go. One night, Jacob found himself on the beach. He stepped into the water, waded to his chin. He could see her out there—on the horizon, her white sail.

“Jake?” The billow of waves engulfed Holly’s voice. His niece stood in the sand, barefoot, head tilted. Her white hair glowed in the moonlight, and she looked like Jen, maybe she was Jen and this was all just a dream, that they were still kids chasing fantasies of the keeper, back when they swore they’d never die.

“I’m cold,” Holly said.

He was, too. Damn cold. 

“Hurry! Reel it in!”

Holly hopped on one foot as Benji pulled a trout onto the dock, which flipped and flopped, the hook in its mouth red.

Benji shoved the rod into Holly’s hands. “You do it.”

Water seeped through her dress when Holly knelt on the wood. She ran a finger along the fish’s scales and turned to glance at Jacob. The first time they’d caught one together, the pike had swallowed the hook. He’d told her to grasp the creature as she would a Styrofoam cup: firm enough to hold but with enough gentleness to avoid collapse. Then he guided her finger, and they pushed down, twisted, and pulled the octopus hook free—a method to keep the fish alive.

“Maybe we should let it go,” said Benji. “Hurry.”

Holly returned her gaze to the trout and unhooked its lip. She held the creature over the dock where it struggled in her palm, gills aflutter. After she placed the fish into the water, she stood and stared at the surface before hauling his bike to its wheels. She pushed it towards the end of the pier where he and Devlin stood. Chains clinked, feet pattered. 

“Did it swim away?” Benji said when they were near.

“Of course.”

Holly snuggled against Jacob’s leg, eyes shining. 

“Evans, hand me that folder.” Devlin placed a foot in the boat and rapped a knuckle on its metal side.

“Jake,” whispered Holly.

He crouched down so they were face-to-face.

“I want to go to that place,” she said.

“What place?” said Benji.

Holly pointed into the distance. “See that?”

Benji held his hands to his eyes in the shape of binoculars. “I don’t see anything.”

Holly wrapped both arms around Jacob’s neck.

“Let me do it.”

Devlin wrenched the pull start, and the engine shuddered. Skin around his neck jiggled when he turned. “What’d you say?”

Jacob straightened. “I’ll go to the lighthouse. Give me that letter.”

His boss looked at the water. “You sure?”

“I want the transfer.”

Devlin stepped out of the boat with the help of Jacob’s arm and ran a hand under his hat. His eyes scanned Jacob’s face. “I’ll take Holly for the afternoon,” he said. “Take them to the shack for burgers.”

Holly exchanged a grin with Benji.

“Get that signature and then hurry back before dark, got it?”

Jacob slipped his hand from Holly’s grip and kissed her forehead. “Don’t let those bagels steal your fries.”

Benji hopped onto his bike, Holly on the back. He began to pedal, and she held her arms out like an airplane. Her hair rippled in the breeze, ivory against a grey sky, how good sunshine will look on her. Jacob broke his gaze and sat on the boat’s bench where he gripped the tiller, knuckles white.
Devlin shoved the boat with his boot.

“Jake,” he said, “you’ll be okay.”

Jacob swallowed, and the boat puttered away. A few metres from the dock, he peered into the depths.

A silver trout floated belly-up and bobbed to the ocean’s heartbeat.

At the Crags, a deluge of mist hovered. In one hand, he cradled his cellphone and in the other, a folder that pulsed with information on the light keeper, who, he’d learned on the ride over was born seventy-two years ago. Had green eyes. Height: one hundred and eighty-three centimetres.

Rotten lingcod stenched the air, and dew-dotted rocks lined the path. Another step and a seagull, lifeless, lay on a boulder, each wing crooked. Tiny ivory bones protruded from its neck and both eyes were pecked, gone. He reached a hand to the inside pocket of his jacket to where the flask of polar ice used to nestle. Empty now, he slid both hands under his armpits and hurried his pace.

A ram-shackle cottage with shingles mangled from ocean winds emerged from the fog. Smoke billowed from its chimney towards his childhood phantom—a red lighthouse, which towered a few metres from the house. Makeshift and sodden, an elevator slouched on the lighthouse’s base and shuddered with each wind gust. Rotations of the tower’s light sliced through the corpus of clouds, the only weapon against the inlet’s gloom. Painted scarlet, the cottage’s front door loomed. Fingers of moss clung to its top corners, and the knob glinted in the pale light. The taste of copper coated his tongue as he tore at a thumbnail with his teeth. He just stood there, folder growing damp from west coast mist, trying to figure out what to say to a man whom he once thought a hero, was now a burden to his town, but whom he’d never actually met. Count back from ten to calm yourself, his sponsor once said. Ten.

Then the door squeaked, and the lighthouse keeper appeared.

Face shaven, his grey eyebrows zigzagged above oval eyes that glimmered like salmon scales in sunlight. His fingers curled around the door with nails yellowed and gnawed to the nub. He didn’t stand tall, nor did he wobble on a prosthetic leg, which proved the latest headline, Lighthouse Keeper Crippled by Shark, false. The right corner of his cracked lips tugged downwards in a frown, forehead raked with wrinkles.

“Elijah Michaels?” Jacob swallowed the bead of blood he’d kept pooled in the bottom of his lip.

“If you have to ask, you shouldn’t be here.”

Jacob straightened his police badge. “I’m Jacob Evans, sir.”

The keeper gazed at the folder under his arm, eyes narrowed to pinholes. Channels of rain fell, so loud, and a few drops seeped into Jacob’s collar, down his spine, and he closed his eyes. On the mainland, there wouldn’t be constant rain—he’d be able to hear his thoughts again, his breath. When he re-opened his eyes, the keeper had disappeared inside and left the door ajar. Jacob stepped into the cottage. Heat from a fireplace engulfed him. He opened his jacket, and then closed the front door, with its sleek red surface, so that the sounds of the Crags, the pounding and sloshing of water, vanished. A tabby cat perched on the loveseat, and Roger Miller’s voice drifted from a stereo on top of the fridge. Paintings lined the walls, the largest behind a wood-burning stove—its canvas awash with a dark figure who stared at three sailboats in the distance.

“Evans,” said Elijah. “You related to a Jennifer Evans?”

“My sister. She passed away two years ago.”

Elijah shuffled to the kitchen in worn slippers and pulled out two mugs. Jacob fixed his stare on the flat, hazel hat that covered Elijah’s curly hair. A single white feather poked out from the back of the hat, its edges streaked with black, its tip a brilliant blue.

“I’m sorry,” said Elijah. “Can’t keep up with news on this rock.” He took a bottle of Old Fashioned bourbon from the fridge and poured some into each mug. Runnels of alcohol gleamed as the keeper returned to the bottle to its upright position.

“My wife took some of Jennifer’s art classes a while back.”

“I never knew you were married.”

“I’m sure there are a lot of things you don’t know about me, kid. What’s the latest story? Am I a pirate yet?” Elijah gulped from the mug.

Wind rattled the cottage, and a line of bottles on the kitchen windowsill chimed. Five of them sat neck-to-neck with faded Pepsi labels. Their glass shone except for the one on the end, which was encrusted with silt and sand. Jacob stepped closer to the window. Inside each bottle lay a roll of paper.

His finger trembled when he pointed, but he kept his voice even. “Where’d you get those?”

“Washed into the inlet over the years.”

When Jacob didn’t respond, the keeper continued. “Don’t know who wrote ‘em, but I like to imagine I know the writers.” A blush shaded his cheeks. “Their words have gotten me through nights I wasn’t sure I’d make it. Heroes of mine, I guess.”

The tabby cat brushed against Jacob’s shins.

“Sounds silly,” said Elijah. He moved to the window and grasped the fifth bottle. A smile crinkled his eyes into slits. “This one’s my favourite.” He dumped the roll into his palm and stared down.

Fragile and faded, small loopy handwriting, Jen’s writing. Jacob’s heart pounded, and before he could ask to read the message, Elijah slid the paper back into its bottle and placed it inside his robe pocket. He returned to the kitchen island where he held out the other mug of bourbon.

When he swallowed the wedge of cotton in his throat, Jacob shook his head. “Seven months.”

“Good for you, kid.” The keeper sank onto a stool. “So they thought they’d send the young one to try and twist my arm one last time, that it?”

Jacob pressed the folder onto the island. Beside a pill container, a stack of notice letters from the town council and a utility bill. Newspapers covered the shelves, dated back ten years. At the other end of the island, condensation beaded the bourbon bottle. A droplet wriggled from the cap down to the counter’s surface, its trace as transparent as a spider web. He bent down to pet the cat.

“Portbay invested in a solar light system, Mr. Michaels. Costs a lot less than the lighthouse.” He straightened with the cat in his arms, its purr vibrating across his chest.

“Worth a lot less, too,” said Elijah. He drank from his mug.

“They have a place all set up for you in town.”

The keeper waved at the walls. “Angie was a hell of a painter. She did all of these. Learned a bunch from your sister. And did you see the door? Painted that right before…” he sipped and said, “Wonder what will happen to all of them.”

“I can come back to help you move.”

“Saw you looking at that one.” Elijah pointed to the boat painting. “You sail?

“Jen does. Did.”

Fire logs crackled, flames flickering crimson. The cat wiggled out of Jacob’s hold and padded across the counter. Wind echoed throughout the cottage. Jacob stared at Elijah’s robe. What did Jen’s message say? Maybe she’d written it the day their grandpa died, maybe her words could get him through, too. He wanted something, anything, to allow him to hang on to Jen right here and now, for even a minute.

“Come with me, kid. I want to show you something.”

The keeper didn’t speak as they crossed the yard. His lantern cast the hat’s tail feather in an iridescent glow and turned the rain to mist, and Jacob tucked the folder inside his jacket. Ivy slithered up the lighthouse’s inner walls, and he counted each damp stone step. Thirty-two. Water dripped, echoed. At the top of the lighthouse, eight sheets of glass lined the perimeter, but there was a ninth panel, empty, to his left. Devlin had been right. These repairs would cost the town. Jacob stepped closer to the gap in the glass. Silver clouds lingered above the ocean—a grey wild blend of sea and sky—once beautiful, now confinement. Even with the absent panel, he couldn’t hear the waves, only the rising wind and rhythmic creak of the turning bulb. Whiteness blurred his vision each time the light flashed across his face.

Elijah inhaled deep from the climb. He set his mug on the window ledge. “Angie was taken by ALS,” he said. “After her legs stopped workin’ she didn’t want to leave the inlet, said the water eased her mind.”

Jacob picked at his frayed watchband and pulled out the eviction letter, wilted from the rain.

“You were the keeper for so many years,” he said. “That won’t be forgotten.”

Elijah drank from his mug. “Whether keeper or sailor, that’s what we do our entire lives, isn’t it?” He stared at Jacob. “Search for the light.”

The bulb creaked, and Jacob shifted his gaze to the bottle in Elijah’s pocket. “Please,” he said, “they’re coming at the end of the month to shut off the electricity. You need to sign this.” He placed the letter beside the mug. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too, kid.” Elijah set his hand atop Jacob’s. He squeezed once and signed the letter. “You better get going. I’ll stay up here a while.”

Paper in hand, Jacob backed toward the staircase and turned. Halfway down the steps, he paused, pressed a hand to the wall. If he were about to leave Portbay, he needed to know what her message said, a final piece to cling to, surely the keeper would understand. It only took him a few moments to return to the top of the lighthouse.

Empty.

Jacob concentrated on each breath, his gaze steady on the mug of bourbon. Ten. The open window panel yawned. Nine, eight. He moved to the gap in the glass and peered down, his stomach leaping into his throat.

Seven.

Below, a feather lay on the boulders. Its blue tip sparkled, and each lap of wave nudged it closer to the tide line. A sand-crusted bottle bobbed against the rocks, floated like a miniature sailboat. Jacob stumbled from the panel and pushed both palms to the window ledge. Black spots dotted his vision. He looked back at the bourbon.

Six.

Five.

Four.

Then he blinked, tore his stare from the mug and looked outward. Three. Across the rocks, over the ocean, over the loss—his, Elijah’s—the mist broke and cast the horizon in a fiery shimmer, the mainland a pale form in the distance, and he felt a fragment of hope as fleeting as the glimpse of a butterfly. For a second, he knew they’d escape. But he knew, too, in an instant coastal clouds would encompass the sky again because when he closed his eyes there were flashes: parents he’d never met, rows of cars at both funerals, Holly in front of her mother’s tombstone with a rose in hand, and a silver trout floating wide-eyed on the water.

Two.

He traced the mug’s rim with his index finger and lifted it to his lips. One.

The white light circled round and around.

*

Kara Toews is a third year student at the University of Alberta where she focuses on English and Creative Writing. Along with her studies, she is busy working on her first novel and exploring the beautiful city of Edmonton. Toews loves to travel and often latches on to the small details she stumbles upon during her adventures. She strives to inspire readers with her words, and she draws inspiration from snow-filled afternoons, hikes beneath forest evergreens, and from copious amounts of coffee.

Fiction #72: William Thompson

Leaf and Branch

When she was fourteen, my daughter became a tree. She didn’t just turn overnight—suddenly appearing, like the Christmas tree we set up in the living room every year. She turned slowly, beginning with her skin.

My wife and I were in the kitchen one Saturday morning in March, the table spread with newspapers and the accoutrements of coffee. We heard a shriek from the downstairs bathroom. I beat my wife to the stairs and thundered down, my heart left somewhere in the kitchen. I stopped in front of the bathroom door, caught between needing to know what was happening and not wanting to burst in upon my daughter half-dressed. My wife pushed her way into the bathroom.

I waited at the foot of the stairs, sitting hunched on the bottom step and staring gloomily at the pattern of lint on the hall carpet. Sounds of voices came to me from the bathroom—crying and lamenting from my daughter, steady reassurance from my wife. What on Earth was going on?

Finally, my wife emerged from the bathroom. I stared a question.

“It’s all right,” said my wife. “Just girl trouble.”

“Jesus,” I thought.

 ***

The skin on my daughter’s back went first, turning ridged and woody, and quickly becoming bark-like overnight. She didn’t want me to see her skin, but it was impossible to hide her hair and eyebrows as they changed colour—from auburn to green. After a week, delicate leaves were curling over her head. She refused to go to school, and she barely touched her phone.

She grew taller, sprouting up and straightening out. Her arms and legs grew thin, and her fingers and toes rooty and long. She had the look of a young mountain ash, I thought. I said this to my wife.

“Roan,” said my wife, (pedantically, I thought).

“Roan, then,” I said.

“God you look weird,” said Danny, her younger brother, who had paused in the doorway, skateboard in hand.

“I think she looks beautiful,” said my wife.

We were gathered in the living room. My daughter stood tall in the centre of the room. She spread her arms, silvery-grey, lifting them towards the ceiling, nearly touching it. “I want to be outside,” she said.

“We are going to have to tell your grandparents,” murmured my wife. “Maybe if I sent them a picture, they would understand better.”

My daughter’s face had grown smooth and papery, and, well, wooden; it had slimmed down, growing more elongated. Her expression remained fixed much of the time, but her eyes didn’t change—bright and blue and curious.

“They won’t understand,” she said.

“Perhaps not,” said my wife, patiently, “not right away, but they’ll get used to the idea. And anyway,” my wife added brightly, “you make a striking tree.”

 ***

It’s now passed the middle of September. My daughter says less these days. Her foliage has grown spectacular with the advance of autumn—green paling to a delicate yellow, flecked with red. I always talk to her when I’m in the yard. She plants herself here and there, moving from one spot to another, depending on her mood, and I carefully mow around her if she roots herself in the middle of the yard. I don’t always see her at first, but I usually hear her, softly singing or rustling her leaves, even if the wind isn’t blowing. And sometimes I’ll come outside to find my wife standing beneath her branches, embracing the slender trunk and murmuring, one cheek pressed to the smooth bark.

My wife is better at this than me.

“Don’t worry so much,” she says to me. “It’s going to be fine.”

So I try not to worry. My daughter is getting sleepier as the year turns. But I have a sad feeling when I think about her out there in the yard, especially if I wake in the night. The bedroom window is always open, even if the nights are cold. I lie and listen, my wife beside me, still as a stone. Tears prickle my eyes as I think of my daughter maybe going away forever. One day, I’ll come outside, and she might be simply gone, or she might plant herself permanently, withdrawing forever into a reaching stillness I only partly understand.

But for now, I talk to her, and I make sure she gets the best water—a special compost tea I make with a recipe I found on the Internet. And she seems happy enough—swaying and bending as she grows more and more accustomed to her new form. As long as she’s happy—that’s what I tell myself
I keep an eye on my son these days, though, as he crashes around the house and sometimes falls into moody silences. He’s just twelve. They say girls mature quicker than boys, but who can tell.

*

William Thompson teaches children’s literature for MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta. He is totally blind, and does all of his work electronically. He maintains a webpage at www.OfOtherWorlds.ca, and has two collections of short stories—The Paper Man and Other Stories, and Fractured and Other Fairy Tales—both available on Amazon.

He has published nonfiction with Hippocampus Magazine, and his short fiction has appeared in The Penmen Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and The Flash Fiction Press. He considers coffee a food group, and he loves to walk and read, usually at the same time.


Fiction #72: Aaron Schneider

Dugouts

When Margaret told him, Jonathan remembered the dugouts. Their smell. The mud that pinched your skin when it dried. The must of decaying leaves. He didn't know why he remembered them. It didn't make sense, but then nothing made sense.

“They were girls,” she said, “young girls.”

It was Thursday afternoon, and he had a sudden feeling of vertigo, as if everything had shifted down and sideways and then come to rest. If he took a step, he would miss his footing.

Margaret told him how she had found the pictures on Rob's computer. She hadn't been snooping, she said, although it wouldn't have mattered if she had been. Rob had moved out two months ago. She needed the contracts from the last two quarters for the accountant—Rob ran a small plumbing and electrical company called Rob's Pipe and Socket. Jonathan pictured the logo: Rob in capital letters over an x made by a pipe wrench and a lightning bolt.

“His desktop was a mess,” Margaret said. “You know how he is.”

“Yes.”

“I was just opening folders at random.” She described clicking on Work2 and then Documents and then Clients and then New Folder and then New Folder again. “I don't know why. I thought he might have forgotten to name it. It was full of JPEGs. You can see the thumbnails before you open the files. They...”

Her words were spare, exact, hedged against pain, against the hysteria that throbbed in her precision. He could tell that she had rehearsed them, repeated them to herself in an empty room until they became real and true, until she made them into testimony. She had cut them down to just enough, no more than needed to be said, and part of that just enough were the details: The names of the folders. The girls. Some of them were clothed. A few partially. A handful not at all. She noticed that a lot of them wore their hair in braids. She counted 319 pictures in total. These were facts, these were solid, a substance that had weight, that had heft that he felt as she passed them to him one by one.

“I thought you should know,” she said.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Someone needs to tell your parents,” she said, “before the police...”

“Yes,” he said

“Thank you,” he said again.

When he hung up, he was surprised that his first response wasn't disbelief, only that sudden unbalancing, that reorientation that left him drifting through the rooms of the house, hovering, unmoored, until he touched down in the dirt and leaves of the dugouts.

*

They were Jamie Sterling's idea. Jamie was one of a handful of kids, Andrew Lucas, Brent Carson, Mickey Holm, and the Berrick brothers, whose houses, like Jonathon and Rob's, backed onto the ravines. In Owen Sound, a ridge runs along the west side of the sound, parallel to the water, and they all lived on top of it, on the edges of a rough semi-circle that ancient streams had carved into the slope. Where the sunny expanse of their backyards stopped, and their green lawns ended in a weedy fringe and a curtain of leaves, the land fell away into shade and a closed off stillness, and Jonathan followed it:  Trees grew there. They had long trunks. Tall and smooth. And branches that started too high up to reach. Jordan, the middle Berrick brother, could shimmy up the skinny ones, but Jonathan's parents said he was half monkey. The tall trees with long trunks blocked the sunlight and the sound of the town, creating a separate space, a columned silence set apart from the streets and cul de sacs around it.

The boys could walk easily along of the tops of the ridges between the ravines, and in their muddy bottoms, but they had to grab onto trees or roots to climb the slopes and dig their hands and heels into the dirt to control their descents. They loved the fearful, whooping exhilaration of sliding down an almost vertical incline greased with damp leaves, skidding their feet ahead of their half-falling bodies, and making a hard, satisfying landing in the dirt. They did it one summer until they wore tracks in the slopes and ground mud permanently into the seats of their pants. It was how Mickey Holm broke his leg. He caught a foot on a root, flipped over head first, cartwheeled and folded it awkwardly under him. He tried to stand up and couldn't. They had to get his father. He slung Mickey over his shoulders, held him on with one hand, and used the other to pull himself up the slope to their backyard. No one told them that they had to be more careful, less reckless, but they knew, and they were, warning each other with serious voices, for a little while. 

Unless they brought them to settle a dispute, or dragged them by the hand to show them what they had built, or, frantic, racing ahead, led them right to where Mickey was lying and trying not to cry, no grownups went there, not even to walk their dogs. The ravines belonged to the boys. They played hide and seek, king of the hill and war in them. They competed to see who could jump over the widest parts of the stream that ran through the deepest ravine, gathered in small pools, and slipped away, quick and silent and clear, before winding through a spongy meadow that was half marsh, and disappearing into a storm sewer. One time, Andrew Lucas missed a jump and sank up to his armpits in the shoal of mud under the bank in the meadow. When they pulled him out, he was covered in black muck that stank of rot. His mother made him strip down to his underwear on the lawn and sprayed him off with the hose before she let him in the house. The cold water pulled his skin tight over his ribs. He squealed and ran in circles like it was a game, and she yelled at him to knock it off, and he did, but they could tell that she was only pretending to be mad. Later that summer, they pushed an old log across the stream and used it as a bridge.

Sometimes, they would crawl up the slopes and spy on their own houses from the shelter of the trees. They watched their mothers, their sisters sunbathing, their fathers mowing their lawns, as single people when they thought they were alone. They looked disarmed, different than the boys were used to, a little like strangers, and the boys felt like they were doing something illicit, dangerous. Jonathan remembers spying on his father. He was reading a magazine on the back deck. He turned the pages and let a hand dangle and swing. He traced loose, distracted patterns on the planks with his fingertips. He seemed smaller somehow. It was hot. Sweat spread in patches from his armpits, darkened a line where his gut folded into his rib cage. Jonathon watched him for half an hour, luxuriating in the difficult prickling sensation of something like guilt, before sliding back into the cool silence of the ravine.

Sometimes, they created elaborate fantasies, mixing together their favorite TV shows, movies and books, mapping an imagined geography, Castle Grey Skull, Tatooine, and Minas Tirith, over the real one. But most of the time, they built forts. When they were younger, these were simple structures, sticks leaned against trees, low loose walls made of rocks and mounded dirt, screens of dead branches stabbed into the ground. When they got older, they borrowed their fathers' tools and built platforms where the trunks were close together.

Jamie Sterling always took the lead. He was bad in school, and every year his teachers debated holding him back, but he loved to make things, and he was good at it. He took out books from the public library, old Scouts manuals with plans for lean-tos and tree houses in them, and big, hardcover books about castles and fortifications with two-page, full color illustrations. He always had the best ideas. He showed them what a Quinsy was, and they built one one winter. They used it as a hideout until a pair of warm days caved in the roof. He would go into the ravines alone to work on their latest fort, and he would stay after they got bored and wandered off or went home. He liked to see things finished.

When Jamie was twelve, he got into Vietnam. Before that, he had been into the middle ages, and he had made swords and plywood shields and tried to build a catapult. Before that, it was Voltron, and he still had the full set of robots that fit together to make the super robot Voltron in his room. They all got into Vietnam. They watched Platoon, and talked about Charlie and Hueys, and debated whether M16s were better than AK47s. But Jamie took it further than the rest of them. He recorded episodes of Tour of Duty, the TV show based on Platoon, and re-watched them on the combination TV/VCR his grandparents gave him for Christmas. He bought the Platoon video game, and played it so much that he could repeat the route through the jungle level, “down, left, down, right, up...,” from memory. He got the idea for the dugouts from the second episode of Tour of Duty, the one in which the squad discovers a tunnel complex under a Vietnamese village. The tunnel rats they send in find bedrooms, offices, storerooms, armories, even a mess hall, a whole, second, invisible village carved out of the earth.

When Andrew Lucas and Jonathon found him, he had already drawn out a tunnel and a round room with his shovel on the floor of the driest ravine, and started to dig. They got their own shovels and helped him. They were getting too old for forts. They were at that stage when they were trying to escape childhood by rejecting things they used to love, but this felt different than the wood platforms or the Quinsy, it felt bigger, more permanent, more serious, and the work was harder. They dug down at least four feet, until the sides came to their shoulders, and, in Calum Berrick's case, to his eyebrows. They hacked through roots and levered free rocks. Their hands blistered. Their backs hurt in a pleasant, reassuring way, and they periodically straightened up and stretched like they had seen their fathers stretch when doing yard work. In a few days, they had a trench leading to a round hole the size of a family tent. They made a roof by laying down logs and thick branches, and then cedar boughs, marsh grass and plastic they scrounged from Brent Carson's garage. They piled the dirt they had dug out on top of this, and covered it with dead leaves for camouflage. When they were done, it was a low, symmetrical mound in the ravine floor that was wider at one end. It didn't look like much, but they climbed into the opening at the end of the tunnel and it was close and dark and real. They had to crouch and grope their way forward. The sides brushed their shoulders. And then it opened into the room.

There was enough space for all of them to sit in a circle. They dug seats out of the walls and covered them with garbage bags. Jamie opened a smoke hole in the roof and built a fire pit out of stones in the middle of the room. Even he knew better than to start a real fire so close to the beams of the roof, so he stuck candles on the stones. The flames half-lit their faces when they leaned forward, and filled their contours with shadows. Just being in the dugout felt private, conspiratorial, like they were doing something wrong, and getting away with it.

It was the last fort they built together. Jamie kept working on it, regularly at first, and then fitfully, when the mood took him, well into his teens, building more tunnels and smaller rooms, repairing the sections of roof that collapsed over the winters. The rest of them stopped helping him. But they didn't stop coming. It was the one place they could count on being alone.

Calum and Jamie stole porno mags from the bottom of the stacks in their fathers' closets and hid them in a hole in the wall. The boys took them out and passed them around. They inspected the pictures. They talked about sex. They talked about blowjobs. Do they actually blow? Calum said they did. He blew on his hand, changing the intensity of his breath and the shape of his mouth. He looked focused and a bit confused, like he was trying to solve a difficult problem. He was a literalist. He liked building models with tiny pieces that he needed tweezers for and that took days to glue together. His room was filled with replicas of battleships and famous buildings that his mother yelled at them not to touch. Calum stopped passing the magazine. He turned it one way and then the other. He was looking at a picture of a woman getting fucked from behind. The man and the woman were both standing up and the woman was facing the camera. The boys could see the man's head over her shoulder, and his hands grabbing her hips and breasts—“tits” they liked to say. Her legs were spread, showing her shaved genitals, and Calum was looking at them closely. “There must be a hole for it to come out of once it goes in,” he said. They argued about this. Jonathan, whose parents had given him an elaborate talk and a copy of The Joy of Sex, said it wasn't possible. But the boys wouldn't listen to him. They didn't want clear, sanitized facts. They wanted the magnetic experience of revulsion, not lessons, and Calum was adamant. He swore he could see the penis coming back out. Standing in the kitchen, staring out across the deck into the backyard (how long has he been standing here staring like this?), Jonathan feels again the atmosphere of confusion and arousal, the discomfort of hiding the erection that rubbed against his jeans, and the frustration that they wouldn't listen. He hears Calum saying “look” like he is pointing to a map.

They drank beer they paid older teenagers to buy for them. They smoked pot they bought themselves, plugging the hole in the roof to keep the smoke from getting out. Jonathan's childhood memories of the ravines are precise and clear. His teenage memories are blurred, smudged by substances, a restless anxiety, too-loud voices, shoving that was starting to move past play into the edgy toughness of boys trying to be men.

*

What Jonathan thinks about now is Rob. Not Rob the way their parents knew him, not Rob who needed glasses to read, who was good at board games, and who was three years younger than Jonathan and needed to be protected from him. He thinks of Rob the way he was with other kids, away from adults, in the intimate spaces of childhood. Rob as himself in the ravines.

He was a part of a group of younger brothers, Jordan and Mark Berrick, Steven Lucas, and Will Holm, who formed a smaller, looser knit analogue to Jonathan's circle of friends. They tagged along in ones and twos, whining to be included. Sometimes they were. More often, they weren't, and, when they weren't, they hung around out of reach and complained. It wasn't fair, they said. The older kids didn't own it. They weren't the boss. Sometimes they formed a small gang and staged raids on the ravines, creeping down from a backyard, breaking things, knocking over forts, scattering and running like mad when the older boys went after them. Some days, these raids would evolve into games of war with bases, sides and battle lines.

Rob was always at the head of the younger kids. He complained the loudest, the most fiercely, refusing to accept the rules of childhood, their unfairness. He organized the raids. He convinced his friends to stake out a portion of ridge as their own and defend it. He didn't like to run. He wanted to stand up for himself, to fight, and he often did. He couldn't win, and he never won, but that didn't stop him. He was short for his age and pudgy, one of those kids whose bellies are a hard, round curve, and whose arms and legs look too short for their frames. He turned red and wild when he got angry. His freckles stood out like bruises, and he forgot that he was small and fat.

Jonathan remembers: They were having a fight with clods of dirt. The summer had dried the stream to a trickle and baked the exposed mud until it cracked into fist sized squares. They gathered these by the armload and carried them back to their bases. They were like snowballs, but harder, heavier in the hand, bursting into puffs of dust on impact, and more satisfying. At first, they threw them at each others' feet, yelling “Grenade!,” imagining the dust was smoke, but then Mickey hit Jordan Berrick in the face. He said it was an accident, but no one believed him, and the fight got serious. They started throwing them hard, to hurt, and right at each other.

When Jonathan hit Rob, Rob was looking over the top of a ridge. Jonathan could see Rob's head and shoulders. He crouched behind a tree. He waited until Rob turned, and then nailed him right on the top of the head. He shouldn't have done it, and he knew that. Even in the middle of the fight, they were aiming at each others' bodies, avoiding their heads and faces. But he did it anyway. He can't remember why, but he remembers that it was a perfect shot, from sixty feet away at least, long and arching and precise. He remembers the feel of it leaving his hand and watching the high, breathless flight.

Rob never saw who threw it. His head jerked from the impact. The dried mud exploded in a spray of grit. And he went stiff with rage.

He got so angry that he broke a shard of glass out of an old window that someone had tossed into the ravines. It was the length of his forearm, curved and wickedly sharp along the edges, like a knife an exotic bad guy uses in a movie, the kind he pulls with a sadistic flourish on Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger in the climatic fight scene.

He chased the older boys, swinging the shard in wide, clumsy arcs. He was going to get them. He was going to fucking kill them.

They scattered, laughing, scrambling out of the way and taunting him. They yelled “Spaz!” They jumped and winced with real terror when he got too close. It was a game, a good one because it was cut with fear as sharp as the glass.

Mickey threw the first clod. Rob was going after Jamie, and Mickey hit him right in the small of the back as hard as he could. Rob seized like he'd been shocked, and whipped around, but Mickey was already darting away. The rest of them joined in, forming a loose circle around Rob, throwing when his back was turned, and then dodging and running. They wouldn't have done it normally. It wasn't fair. The six of them against Rob. Hitting when his back was turned. But the shard suspended the usual rules. And his wild rage. And the thrill of throwing and hitting. And of pushing him further.

Rob was wearing a blue baseball jersey and black track pants. The dried mud left light brown marks where it landed. Jonathan hears the projectiles striking flesh. The hardsoft thud. The bruising sound. The dust stuck to Rob's face and bled down his cheeks.

Rob lunged and tripped. He caught himself with his free hand, holding the glass up, and rushed again. His face was streaked and purple. He started making a hard, high keening noise, an animal noise, the wrenched howl of frustration and fury that would not fit into words, and that collapsed into gasps before starting again.

Jonathan can see him: flailing, hysterical, overcome by and impotent with rage.

Rob stumbled, tried to right himself, but couldn't because he was holding the shard like a glass of water, and went down. It hit a rock and shattered.

They pounced on him.

They pinned his arms and legs and started to talk about what to do with him, how to punish him for being a little shit, how to teach him a lesson. Mickey wanted to beat his ass. Jamie was already trying to give him an Indian burn. Calum took charge. He said one punch in the arm from each of them was fair. Mickey argued for two, but Calum said one. There was a sense that things had already gone too far, and the rest of them agreed.

They held him down and took turns. Rob fought them the whole time. Jonathan remembers: the feel of holding him, the hot, solid flesh of his right arm, and the ease with which they held him. Jonathan relaxed, let Rob flex and struggle, gave him room to fight, maybe hope, and then clamped down. There was the frisson of shame and the vicious, detached joy of strength and then it was his turn.

None of them worried about Rob telling, not even Jonathan, not when they were holding and hitting him or when they let him up and he ran home. They did things there that they weren't supposed to, that they wouldn't do elsewhere, beyond the shade of the trees, beyond the high, steep slopes, and the stillness that closed out the world, and no one told. Rob wouldn't tell. And he didn't tell. That was the understanding. That was what made the ravines special. No one ever told.

*

Jonathan and Rob were never close. There was the age gap (3 years), but that was the smallest of the differences that divided them. Jonathan liked books and Rob liked sports. Rob played basketball on the driveway in the summer and in rec leagues in the winter. Jonathan did well in school and Rob struggled. They both liked video games, and they played them together, but always against each other, in long sessions, arguing about whose turn it was, who cheated to get a high score, or who got to play which Street Fighter character (both of them wanted Blanka because of his Beast Roll), and who won mattered.

In high school, Rob started skateboarding and smoking pot. He lost a lot of weight, and wore baggy clothes that showed off how thin he was. The pot gave him a hard, wet cough. He started dealing drugs, mostly pot and hash, to his friends, and then, according to him, more seriously. When Jonathan came back from university, they would climb down into the ravines and smoke Rob's pot. Rob had a good spot, a couple of logs around a fire pit next to the dugouts. Jamie had stopped repairing them years ago and the dugouts had collapsed into holes filled with leaves, rotting branches and plastic. There was a place under one of the beams and a decaying tarp where Rob hid his stash so that their parents wouldn't find it if they searched his room. He kept it in an old tackle box, filling the lure compartments with neat, saran wrapped bundles of bud.

Rob knew everyone now, and he liked to talk about the people he knew, people in Owen Sound who Jonathan had never heard of and who all had nicknames—Dirty, Sketchy Steve, Tripper. He talked tough and knowledgeable. He called Jonathan “Bud.” Jonathan heard his own voice get rougher, his sentences get shorter, fill up with monosyllables.

When he graduated from high school, Rob started a general contracting course at Georgian College in Owen Sound. He did it because their parents said he had to do something. He dropped out in November. That spring, he hitch hiked out west. He made it as far as Banff and then doubled back to Calgary when he couldn't find anywhere to stay. Then Edmonton. For a couple of years, he lived in a house with half-a-dozen other burnouts and sold drugs to the oil workers down from Fort Mac. Then he smartened up and got his shit together. He started framing houses in the suburbs going up around the city. He got new roommates and the names of his friends changed. Then his electrician's ticket at The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. His apprenticeship. The frustration of working for other people. Then Margaret. Rob's Pipe and Socket. A house in a suburb he had helped to build. The kids. The frustration of other people working for him.

At first, Rob came back a few times a year, staying in his old room until it felt like he'd never left, and then only at Christmas, and, once he had the kids, for a week every second year. Sometimes Jonathan saw him. Sometimes they missed each other. Mostly they talked on the phone. Like the visits, the calls got less frequent, more abbreviated and perfunctory. The truth was that Jonathan didn't know Rob, what he was doing, what he was making of himself and his life any more. Not really. Not in the ways that mattered. And he knew that he didn't. But he still imagined Rob going on like he had since childhood, changing in a predictable pattern, following an obvious trajectory, fitting more closely the less he heard from him into who Jonathan thought he was.

*

Margaret is right. He has to tell his parents.

Resting his hands on the counter, Jonathan remembers a headline from the day before: “Woman Charged After Striking and Killing Dog.” The details of the story have stayed with him: A middle aged woman hit a man walking his dog. It happened at stop sign at a suburban intersection. She waved them across and then ran them down. The man got out of the way, but the dog didn't.

Jonathan can see her behind the wheel. She raises her hand. The gesture is curt, polite but brisk, as if she is in a hurry. And then the car jumps, accelerates into the suspended moment of disbelief: It is happening and the man doesn't yet know it is happening. He can't let himself. And then he is starting to understand, but too slowly, because these things don't happen. Not here. Not to him.

Jonathan can see her, but he can't see her face, and, like the man, he doesn't understand. He doesn't understand why she did it any more than he understands why he threw the clod. He can't touch that moment before its long and hanging flight. Or maybe he can: Sometimes you want to hurt someone. Sometimes you hurt them.

*

Aaron Schneider is a Senior Literary Editor at The Rusty Toque. His stories have appeared in The Danforth Review, Filling Station, and The Puritan. His story “Cara’s Men (As Told to You in Confidence)” was nominated for the Journey Prize by The Danforth Review.