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.

Fiction #72: James A. Conan

I Think I Can

The office was designed to be warm and inviting. Calming colours, soothing landscape paintings, and gentle lights. Shelves of academic books and framed diplomas adorned the walls, all to assure anyone who walked in that they'd be well looked after. None of it helped.

Dan had been nearly certain before he'd arrived that coming was a mistake, but the look on her face made it that much worse. “You are the last sort of person I'd ever expect to see in this office,” said Dr. Katherine Parker.

“That's a hell of a thing for a therapist to say to a patient,” he answered, surprised at the hurt from his voice. He was tougher than that.

“Prospective patient,” she said. “I gave you the appointment because Dr. Markham, another patient, told me you needed help and, frankly, that you weren't half as full of crap as your public persona made you seem.”

Dan couldn't help but smile. “That's Will looking out for me.”

“I'm surprised you wouldn't try and turn things around yourself. That's what you're always telling people to do in your books. And seminars. And corporate retreats.”

It was true. Dan was a motivational speaker. He had been for years. Dan the Man McCann's I Know I Can Program and its two sequels had sold three-quarters of a million print copies throughout the English speaking world, and nearly half that again in audiobook form. People often told him he was inspiring. He had believed it, until recently.

“My wife left me. She took my son with her.”

He watched her hostility visibly drop a notch. It was unprofessional, if understandable in this case, for a woman in her position to feel enmity toward someone on her couch. She viewed him as a hack, a cheap trick leading people astray from her purer, more scientific methods. “I'm sorry,” she said, with some contrition. “What happened?”

It was been a typical quiet night in Riverdale, the pretty, tree-lined neighbourhood of Toronto where Dan and Madison had lived for seven years. They put Alex, their five-year-old, to bed then Dan poured another drink from the bottle of Wild Turkey he kept in the kitchen drawer. The single malt visibly displayed in the dining room was for when company came, the Dirty Bird for his every day consumption. He sipped as he stared out the living room window at neighbourhood children throwing a Frisbee around in the park across the street. He basked in the rays of the evening sun, sloshed the ice around in his glass, and reflected that life was pretty good. Famous last words.

Madison had seemed distant, he’d realized afterwards, for almost two months, since his last speaking tour through the eastern US. They had been arguing more and more about the little things. It had been too late to do anything about it by the time he clued in as to why.

“So I decided the next book is going to be about Alex,” he said as he flopped down across from her, in the living room.

Her brow furrowed. “What?”

“Yeah. I gotta write what I know. The first book was about helping people get the job they want. Wrote it before I met you, when I first started working for George. The second was about—”

“Finding the perfect life with the perfect partner,” she said. She'd heard that phrase a thousand times at his seminars, when she'd come to be seen by his clients—living proof that he'd followed his own prescription. Her voice was hollow as she said it.

He pretended not to notice. Instead, he raised his glass, toasting her. “Right. And then, settling down and building a happy home.”

She drummed her fingers on the arm of the couch, across the room, no longer pretending to read the book in her lap. He was oblivious to her anger, half in the bag.

“So now book four, how to raise a kid. I mean, Alex is pretty perfect, we've done an amazing job, he's bright, he's cute, put the three of us on the cover together and it'll make us a—”

The book came sailing across the room, catching him square on the nose and knocking his drink from his hand. On its way to the floor the bourbon spilled straight down onto the crotch of his Dockers. The glass shattered on the hardwood, inches from the book.

He was too bewildered to react at first, just sitting there watching tears form in her eyes. After the longest minute of his life she stood. “How dare you!”

The best he could manage was, “What?”

“Eight years we've been married. I've done everything for you. Went to your stupid seminars, posed for your book covers, pretended we were this perfect couple so people would buy what you were selling. And it got us this.”

She waved her arms around her, gesturing at the interior of the expensive house in the nice neighbourhood that his success had helped buy them. Dan wished she'd been crazy, wildly hysterical. It would have made her seem unreasonable. It would have made her seem like the bad guy. Instead she was calm. Calm and angry and very sad.

He got up from the couch, still so confused as to where this was coming from but not wanting her to look down on him.“Maddy, babe—”

“Don't you goddamn dare 'babe' me. I gave up my career to be here and raise your son and be a goddamn stay-at-home spokesmom for Dan the Man.” She said the name with a hate that threw him back a step. “And I was okay with it. I figured it would be a few years until Alex was in school full time, then I could work and you'd go on to something else and it would all be fine.” She put her hands to her temples, balling her fists, her eyes closed. “I am such a fucking idiot.”

He raised his arm, index finger pointed, trying to seem authoritative, to think of something to say that would put it all right and restore the his, normal world of three minutes ago. Instead, his hand went limp and fell to his side. “I don't understand."

“I know you don't!” she practically spat at him. “You and George and Reid and those other pricks you work with. So busy wrapped up in your own bullshit telling people how to live their lives that you don't realize how full of it you all are. Blind goddamn hypocrites, all of you.”

Then he started to get mad. “Those are my friends you're talking about. They're good guys and they have nothing to do with this.” The latter half of that statement was true, he reflected. The former, not so much.

“You're half right,” she sighed. “This is about you, not them. They're all dicks, but they stay wrapped up in their own little worlds and write and work and don't screw up their loved one's lives.” He knew she was wrong about that, but saying so wouldn't help, so he kept his mouth shut. “You have me and Alex. You brought us into this. You lie to everyone who reads you and listens to you and you lie to yourself.”

He was even more confused. “Maddy, hon, I know I take some liberties and the way I describe us is a little hyperbolic, but we've talked about that. It's just to sell the damn books. It's for us. I'm not perfect, and sure, I'm not here all the time, but I'm here when it matters.”

“That's the problem Dan. You spend so much time away from home selling people on your perfect family and perfect life and telling them they can have the same thing.” Her arms were crossed, tears running freely down her cheeks. “But you aren't here often enough to know, not really. When my mom died you were off on tour a week later. When Alex had to get his tonsils out he was scared to go in for the surgery, he kept asking for you, but you were away at some rented campsite up north teaching assholes at some investment firm the value of positive reinforcement and team building.” Her voice was strained, cracking.

Reason was beginning to cut through the bourbon fog in his brain. “Everything I do is to provide for the two of you. I'm not the man I pretend to be, I know it, but I'm not as far gone as that. I love you both.”

“Do you,” she sobbed, “or do you love the perfect wife and son you want us to be, the ones you write about? I was fine with it when it was just me. I was! I could live with it. It didn't bother me because I thought you saw our son for the beautiful boy he is, not some prop in the Dan McCann show.” Now she was getting hysterical. In eight years of marriage he'd never seen her this angry. “I won't let you use him. I won't let his selfish, idiot dad's stupid job screw up the rest of his life!” she yelled.

He was at a loss for words. He’d always considered himself a smart guy. People paid good money to listen to him talk, after all. Would they do that for a stupid person? The irony didn’t escape him that it was Madison, his professed reason for speaking to these people who thought him smart, that now struck him dumb.

For a moment they stood there in silence as he gaped at her, unable to speak. Her arms were still crossed over her chest, her body turned away. Then she said the words he was dreading, “Get out.”

“Maddy, I—”

“Get out Dan. You can get your stuff some other time, when Alex is at school or at a friend's or something. Anything. Just get out!”

And to his shame, he did. Dan the Man McCann, who always knew what everyone should do, how to fix any personal problem with the power of self-knowledge, just walked out. He grabbed his wallet and his car keys and headed for the door, hardly able to believe that his life had taken such a complete one-eighty in the span of three minutes. The Madison he'd married was gone, and instead this woman, full of what had to be a long-suppressed rage, stood silent in the centre of their living room, refusing to look at him.

As soon as he was out the door he made for his Jag. Old Brown Eyes, he called her. Vintage. His favourite toy. He scratched around the keyhole in the door, damaging the paint, but was too distracted to notice.

When he tried to back out of the driveway, he turned too sharply and ran straight into a pole. He realized what he'd done to Old Brown Eyes. Inside the house he'd been too stunned to feel anger. Now, the damage to his car brought it all to the surface. He beat at the steering wheel with his forearms, wrists, and balled fists, swearing as he went.

“Fuck shit goddamn bitch cunt kick me out of my own fucking house and wreck my fucking car!” and so on.

He wasn't sure if this went on for a minute or an hour, but when he looked up Madison was there staring at him through the open doorway. She was holding Alex. The perfect little blond-haired boy-child he called son. Alex had obviously been woken by the commotion. He wouldn't understand the situation; he’d only know that bad things were happening. Madison was still glaring at him as she closed the door. This seemed to Dan the final and most horrible injustice: that his son should suffer, uncomprehending, and should then have to wait to have his hurt tended to, because Madison was still in a rage. All I wanted, he thought, was to write a book about how much I loved our kid. It got me kicked out.

He heaved a great sigh and slouched over the steering wheel. Picking himself up after a moment, he realized his nose was still dripping blood and that his crotch reeked of cheap bourbon. Come to think of it, I've had a few drinks and driving, he looked in the rear view at his smashed bumper wrapped around the pole, probably isn't the best idea. He got out of the car.

The sun was almost down, but the tranquil park-side scene had been shattered along with Old Brown Eyes' rear window. Any neighbours or children in the park who hadn't heard Madison yelling had surely seen a certain half-drunk and bleeding motivational speaker get into his car and fail spectacularly at driving off into the sunset. There were more than a dozen pairs of eyes on him. Friends and neighbours and kids who would be gossiping about him the second he was out of their sight and, no doubt, for some time afterwards.

He started walking north, towards the main street—he could get a cab there. Get a cab and go ... somewhere.

 “So I grabbed a cab and headed for the Four Seasons in Yorkville.” Said Dan, when he'd finished his recollection.

“Didn't they turn that into condos three years ago?”

He shrugged. “Well I know that now. I'm staying with Will.”

“And have you had any contact with your wife since this happened?”

“It's been a week. I've tried. She keeps shutting me out. Not being able to see Alex is the worst part.” He paused in thought. “Not being able to work is a close second.”

“I don't follow you.” Said Dr. Parker.

“She took everything from me. Everything I based my career on was a lie. I can't help my clients get what they want when I've just lost everything I've ever worked for. George is going to kill me.”

“I see” said Dr. Parker. “Your wife, she mentioned this George as well as someone else, Reid. Another colleague?”

“Yeah. Reid Palowski. Goes by Reid Righteous.”

That got her attention. “The Positivity Guru down in Los Angeles? You two work together?”

“That's him. And yeah, we do, sort of. George recruited both of us to the agency, but we tour and speak separately. We're friends though. When he's not in the hospital that is. Poor guy's got more suicide attempts under his belt than anyone else in the self-help business. Trust me, that's saying something.”

Katherine wasn't sure how to process that, and decided to leave it be for now. “Are there any other motivational speakers working for this George?”

“Jeremiah St. James down in the Bible belt, and Ben Burst based in Miami.”

She shook her head. “An evangelist and a pick-up artist. I suppose George sets you up and sends you touring wherever he thinks you'll bring in the most money?”

“Pretty much.”

“Tell me about George.”

*

They had met at the Queen's Head in Cambridge. It had been a bad day for Dan. He was getting kicked out of Harvard. His scholarship had been revoked and he'd decided to enjoy the campus pub one more time.

There had been an incident the week before. The Crimson had just won; Dan and his friends had been in high spirits. They'd gotten shithouse drunk, stolen a bench from Riverbend Park, doused it in cheap vodka, and given it a Viking funeral by floating it down the Charles to the strains of “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard.” The police had been called.

When Dan had been let out of the drunk tank the next morning he'd discovered a voicemail summoning him to a disciplinary hearing. In the space of a week he'd been expelled, lost his student visa and, along with it, the hopes of a doctorate in psychology from the Ivy League. He'd be going home to Canada a broke failure. He still had his bachelor's, but with the note on his expulsion affixed to his transcript he doubted he'd be able to get admitted to anywhere but the most backwater college.

He thought of his future, the career he'd planned out. Maybe I'll be able to open a practice in a strip mall in Scarborough. It turned his stomach. He cheered himself up by picturing Lucy van Pelt from the Peanuts comic strips. Other kids growing up on his street tried to open lemonade stands. He'd imitated Lucy and put up a sign reading “Psychiatric Help, 5 cents.” His parents had laughed, but it had been the start of something.

He was so absorbed in his thoughts that he barely noticed when the old man sat down beside him.

“Double gin and tonic. And a Red Bull.”

The order was odd enough that it caught Dan’s attention. The bartender, flummoxed, began pouring gin into a highball glass. “We don't serve energy drinks.”

The old man frowned. In profile, Dan thought, he looked like a silver-haired Clark Gable. “Then tell me where I can get some decent cocaine around here.”

The man noted the surprised looks on the faces of Dan and the bartender. “No?” he snorted. “What good are either of you then?” 

There were no other patrons at that hour. The bartender backed away and turned towards a shelf, pretending to wipe and straighten glasses. The old man looked to Dan. “These places are all the same—no good drugs and people look at you like you've gone nuts if you try to have a little fun.” He downed half his drink in one long pull. “George Hamilton.” He held out his hand. Dan took it with a raised eyebrow. “Not that one,” said George.

“Dan McCann.” The old man had an iron grip that Dan did his best to reciprocate.

“Great name son. Your daddy must've been a sharp one. Why the long face?”

“I could ask you the same.”

“Back in forty-eight, or maybe it was fifty-eight, I don't remember, I had my dissertation rejected by the Faculty of Psychology. They told me phrenology was dead. What do they know? Anyway, whenever I'm back in town for business I like to go take a long, reeking piss on William James Hall. Security interrupted me midstream this time so I ran in here. Figured I'd refill the tank and head back when the coast was clear. How about you?”

“I just got expelled.” Dan filled George in on the whole sordid incident, sensing a kindred spirit in the old loon.

“Ha. I like you, kiddo. You got spunk. Too much of the ol' joie de vivre for this place. Don't let it get you down. Anyway, you said you were on your way to a master’s?”

“And then a doctorate. I had the grades to keep going. Now I just have a big steaming pile of debt, no prospects, and a one way ticket back to Toronto.”

The old man tweaked the corner of his silver moustache with his thumb and index finger. “Canada huh? Untapped market if ever there was one. Practically the wild frontier when I was your age. But there's people up there and I suppose they'll buy my snake oil just as quick as they do down here. And you could cover the Northeast. What the hell. You seem clever, kid, and you got a name that says you were born to sell shit. I'm setting up a little business venture right now. How'd you like a job?”

“We met five minutes ago,” said Dan, at the same time asking himself why he was objecting. He didn’t know what George did, but his suit and his Rolex said that he did it successfully, and anything was better than going home empty-handed. The older man gestured to the still-alarmed bartender, who refilled their empty glasses and retreated to the storage room.

“Doesn't matter,” said George. “I got a good feeling about you, just like when I met a young J. Edgar Hoover for the first time. You've got a whiff of destiny about you.” George sniffed the air. “Or maybe just bourbon.”

“Never could drink American beer.”

“Me neither. Not since the war.”

“Which one?”

“Can't remember.”

“Well,” said Dan, downing his drink, “I suppose I'd better ask what you do.”

“Human Resources Management Solutions. Efficiency Consultations. Personal Enrichment Advisement. Corporate Team Building Seminars. Intellectual Capital Maximization. That's one of my favourites.”

“Come again?”?

“Motivational speaking, my boy. Easiest job in the world if you have half a brain in your head and the confidence God gave a third-rate politician. Nothing to it. Just work the buzzwords in. Say ‘dynamic’ a lot.”

“Oh,” said Dan, his heart sinking.

“C'mon now, no need to look so glum. You'll start as my assistant. I'll show you the ropes, and before long you'll be writing books, selling out hotels and convention centres, and having corporate bigwigs pay you to tell their employees how to be more like you.” George sipped his drink and cleared his throat. “Or you'll be a total failure and I'll fire you. Honestly, I don't know. But I need an assistant to get myself back on my feet now that I have investors. If the psych department here hates you, you can't be all bad. Whaddya say?”

“Why would anyone want to be like me?”

“You got a degree from Harvard, on scholarship. You told me so.”

Dan nodded. “A bachelor's. On a partial scholarship,” he admitted.

“Whatever. We can sell you as a self-made success story. Once you take the job as my assistant—no, my junior partner—and help me make some money, that is. Daniel McCann, entrepreneurial pioneer in the field of Intellectual Capital Maximization. Dynamic young go-getter.” He laughed. “See, it's just that easy.”

“How could it possibly be that easy?”

George sighed contentedly and smiled. “Because this is America, sonny, and Americans are never satisfied. This is one of the best places on Earth to live. People die by the boatful just trying to get here to work. But it's never enough; we always gotta have the bigger house, the nicer car, the hotter wife, and make more money than our neighbours. You get the idea. Tell people they can have that stuff if they do what you say and they'll believe it because they want to believe it. It's been that way as long as I've been around.”

The old man's words rang true. “How old are you anyway?” Dan asked.

George smiled. “Immortal, for all intents and purposes. I was in Egypt with Carter when he found Tut's tomb. The old wise men in Cairo said the same curse that killed Lord Carnarvon gave me his life force.” The old man's eyes grew manic, and he made a fist in front of his face as he pronounced the last part, which Dan found unsettling.

“And you've been doing this awhile?”

“Sure have.”

“So why are you trying to start a new business now?”

“Did a little spell in St. Claire's.”

Dan was apprehensive all over again. “The insane asylum?”

“The very same. Five years. My old business partners at Speakers United had me committed. Said I was a liability. Then they took all my best ideas and moved on without me. Look, I'll be honest with you son, I forget things. I'm a head case, a curmudgeon, and an on-again/off-again drug addict for the past sixty years or so, but I know what I'm doing. What's more I just conned a whole bunch of old ladies in Beacon Hill out of their dead husbands' money to fund this little venture, so you may as well come along.” 

It wasn't that Dan didn't have reservations. He had enough reservations to fill every seat in every restaurant in Boston. But he couldn't shake himself free of George's magnetism. The man's sheer force of personality was overwhelming. Dan wanted that for himself. After all, here was a man who, though undoubtedly crazy, had clearly been through things much worse than being expelled from Harvard. He couldn't have been as old as he claimed, but he was at least in his seventies, and still full of the stuff of life, determined, and eager to take the world by the throat. The job offer had its allure. It was too good to be true.

“So is this the part where you say you just need some money from me to make this all happen?” said Dan. “A few thousand maybe? Or whatever I've got on me?”

“You think I'm a con man?”

“You just said you were.”

“The Beacon Hill set? Please. They got a fair exchange for their filthy lucre.” He thrust his pelvis towards the bar, winked, and gave Dan a knowing look. The younger man struggled to keep his lunch down. “No, the only thing you need to do if you want this job is meet me in New York in two weeks or so. My card.”

He handed Dan a crisp, white business card. It read George Ulysses Hamilton Esq. CEO, Real Unlimited, with a Manhattan address and phone number.

“You a lawyer?” asked Dan.

“Did a law degree at Dartmouth after I left this dump. Never passed the bar though.”

“Real Unlimited?”

George shrugged. “We'll just be calling it 'The Agency' most of the time.”

“It doesn't say what we do.”

“Doesn't have to. Unlimited says we have boundless potential, and so does anyone who hires us. Real says we're bona fide. That's all people need to know. Now, you going to take the job or what?”

Dan spent a long moment making up his mind. It was rather sudden, and more than a little suspect. But, he reasoned, he could always back out later if it went south. And, being honest with himself about his situation, if he didn't find something to do soon he was going to have to move back in with his parents when he got home to Toronto. That clinched it. “I'm in.”

“Glad to hear it. Welcome to the team.” The two men shook hands again, leaning against the bar, grinning at each other. “Your first official act as my assistant will be to memorize that phone number and swallow that business card. Then, help me deal with this mess.”

George pointed out the pub's front window. In the street was campus security, accompanied by two cop cruisers. “They've tracked me down. Bartender's nowhere to be seen. Probably finked on me.”

Dan blinked in confusion. “Why did they call the cops if all you did was piss on the psych building? They could have just written you up like they do with all the drunken freshmen.”

George's eyes darted from side to side, and he reached into his tan overcoat. “I may have introduced them to Matilda here.” He produced a revolver. “Play along, kiddo. I know how to get out of here unseen, but you'll have to buy me some time.”

Before Dan could argue with this ludicrous new demand being made of him, four uniformed police officers walked through the door. In one swift movement, George spun around behind Dan, grabbed him by the throat with one hand, and put the revolver's muzzle to his temple with the other. “You pig's get any closer and I'll blow the kid's brains out!”

The four cops froze. “Get back! Away!” George yelled, extending his gun arm and putting two rounds into the wall above the door frame for good measure. They retreated back outside amidst shouts of “Jesus Christ!”

“The old kook's got a hostage!”

“Call tactical!”

Once the police left the bar George had relaxed his grip. Dan fell to the floor, his ears ringing and his crotch somewhat damper than he'd have liked.

“You alright, son?”

“No” was all Dan could manage.

“Well you better get used to it. Rule one of working for me: There will on certain occasions be shooting involved. Long as you don't rat me out I can promise you'll always be on the right side of it.”

“’Kay,” said Dan, still dazed.

“Rule two: We never drink in a place without a back door.”

Dan, still on the floor, thought about it for a second. “I don't think you'd need rule two if you got rid of rule one.”

“I make the rules, kid, not you,” said George. “Now, I'm going to scoot before SWAT shows up. When they question you, we never met before. You know my name is George, the bartender probably told them that, but nothing else. Right?”

“Right.”

“Good. Sorry about this next part. Have to make it look real.”

“What?” was all Dan had time to say, before the butt of George's revolver struck his head and he was out cold.

“So his name is George Hamilton?”

“Yeah.”

“But he looks like Clark Gable?”

“That's your takeaway from all this?” 

Dr. Parker shuffled the pages of note paper on her lap. It was a gesture she affected when preparing to state the obvious.

“Assuming everything you've just said is true--”

“I'm afraid so.” He said.

“Then tabling the rest of George's behaviour for a moment, my takeaway is that you took a job you thought was morally questionable from a man who recognized your desperation and used it to abuse and manipulated you.”

Dan thought that over. “Most of my corporate clients do the same.”

She had her rebuttal ready. “And that's what ended them up in your program in the first place. Or, like you, on my couch. You made a decision to act amorally for financial gain, and based your entire life off of the perceived rewards. Now the facade's broken and you're in therapy.”

“So what do I do?” He asked, starting to panic.
She adjusted the rims of her glasses. “Try telling the truth. Start with yourself. Then your wife. Then maybe your clients.”

He scoffed. “I've seen your fees. If I start being honest with them I'll never be able to afford to be honest with you.”

Tucking her notes into her desk drawer, she smiled, seeing dollar signs. The two of them had that much in common. “Then it's my professional opinion that too much honesty isn't always the best thing. Start small. We wouldn't want to overwhelm you. Not when we have so much ground left to cover.”

*

James A. Conan is a Toronto based writer. He studied Politics and International Development at Trent University before coming to the conclusion that Liberal Arts degrees are for chumps. Since then he’s been a retail clerk, landscaper, auctioneer, staffer for a major provincial political party, and general jack of all trades to make ends meet. He currently works as a Line Cook at Eulalie’s Corner Store in Toronto. He is the author of one unpublished novel and several short stories, published and pending publication. He is also an Editorial Assistant at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, an online speculative fiction magazine.