Sunday, September 10, 2017

Fiction #74

New fiction! Issue #74
Submissions now open for #75!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #74: Harlan Yarbrough

One Mistake After Another

Rudy once admitted he preferred slender women, and Ysadore made sure he paid for that transgression.  For twenty-three years, she attacked him and criticized him for failings invented, real, and imagined.  Already tending ever so slightly toward the Rubenesque, she put on ninety pounds to become a caricature of the beautiful woman he had courted.  But Rudy loved her and submitted to her attacks and did his best to make her happy—a difficult task at best, but one that mattered to him.

Through two decades, Rudy wished his wife could feel glad for his love, for his desire.  He wished she could experience their lovemaking with a feeling of “He isn't making love to a tiny waist or a pair of pointy tits—he's making love to me,” but she apparently couldn't.  Instead, Ysadore usually avoided sex altogether, which left Rudy's large appetite frustrated most of the time.  Still, he persisted in doing everything he could to make her life as good as possible, not because he was a saint but because he was in love with Ysadore.

He faced an enormous conflict, when, after twenty-three years together and twenty-two years of marriage, Ysadore met a man who liked “curvy” women and fell in love with him.  Rudy felt devastated to lose whatever love there was from the person he loved most in the world.  At the same time, he wanted Ysadore to be happy, the same thing he’d wanted for twenty-three years.  He wished she could be happy with him, of course, but first and foremost he wanted her to be happy, to live the life she wanted.  Keeping his focus on that wish wasn't easy, but he worked hard at it.

Fred seemed like a decent sort, nothing special (except to Ysadore), maybe not as intelligent as Rudy or Ysadore, but a nice guy who might love her and care for her.  Rudy wanted to accept that, and he didn't dislike Fred—Rudy wasn't sure whether that made the situation easier or more difficult—so, although aching, he did his best to support Ysadore in her exploration and development of her new relationship.  She had the decency to feel guilty about putting Rudy through so much pain, but Rudy didn’t want Ysadore to feel guilty: he wanted her to be happy.  For his part, Fred seemed to sort of go along with whatever Ysadore wanted.

Mei Lin came from Hong Kong and taught biology at the university in the city.  When Rudy met her, he wasn't swept off his feet—he was still in love with Ysadore—but he was impressed.  Mei Lin wanted Rudy and didn't hesitate to say so, whenever they were out of earshot of Ysadore.  Rudy appreciated Mei Lin's attention, as well as her beauty and her intellect, but didn't encourage her—until the week Ysadore told him about Fred.  Even then, Rudy continued to wrestle with an inner conflict because of his continuing love for Ysadore,  but he did enjoy feeling wanted in a way he hadn't in a quarter of a century.

In the course of a difficult five months, Rudy and Ysadore made a relatively peaceful transition to separate lives.  Rudy moved into a too small house with one of their daughters, and Fred moved into the house Rudy and Ysadore once shared.  Rudy entertained Mei Lin most weekends for six months, until he went overseas for work.  As an immigrant himself, Rudy thought he could understand Mei Lin’s situation and outlook better than most and thought seriously about making a life with her.

Nevertheless he worried about their compatibility—or potential lack of it.  They talked about how they could spend more time together, but she felt no desire to leave the city and Rudy knew he could never stand to live in an urban environment.  Ysadore went on with her life almost as if no change had occurred.  Her feelings for Fred seemed to put a glow on everything, at least at first.

Her life seemed almost identical to the life she and Rudy once shared.  She continued to enjoy her many animals, the garden, and the orchard she and Rudy had planted.  Once their initial passion subsided, sex became an afterthought every three or four weeks.  Her younger daughter, Lily, continued her successful high school career and mostly got along OK with her mom and stepdad.  Lily didn't much like Fred but obeyed half of her father's injunction to tolerate and respect her mom's new partner.

The months Rudy spent overseas didn't do much for his emotional state—he continued to ache for his lost love—but they left him in a much better financial position.  He faced the pleasant dilemma of whether to add on to the house he and his elder daughter, Rosie, again occupied or to buy something else in the area.  He chose the latter option, which didn't effect much change in his life and made none at all to the pain lingering in his heart.  Mei Lin resumed visiting but with less intensity and less frequency than before Rudy's overseas trip.  Between those visits he enjoyed a couple of dalliances with female friends who expressed an interest once they learned he was single.  He still loved Ysadore but recognized after two years that he was better off out of that relationship.

One late Autumn evening nearly three years after Ysadore had moved Fred in with her, Rudy's 'phone rang.  He picked up the handset and heard her voice saying, “Rudy, do you think you could come over and fix the pump?”

“Why doesn't Fred fix it?”

“He can't do that.”

“He prob'ly could.  It isn't that hard.”

“Fred isn’t handy like you.  You know that.”

“Sure, but, really, it would be easy, even for him.”

“Trust me: he couldn't do it.”

“OK, then.  Can you manage until tomorrow, so I can do it in the daylight?  Do you have water on hand?”

“Some.  Yeah, tomorrow would be great.”

“Do you know what's wrong?”

“No.”

“OK.  Is that old blue pump still there—in case I need to install it as a temporary fix?”

“Yeah, I think so.  I'm pretty sure it's in the garage.  I'll look.”

“Good.  If you need more water tonight, you can get all you want out of the tap down the hill from the hen house.  It's below the tank, so you don't need the pump.  You can't take a shower or that sort of thing, but that'll be OK overnight, won't it?”

“Yes, Rudy, that'll be fine.”

“OK, good.  I'll see you tomorrow then, probably late morning or early afternoon.”

“OK.  Thank you.”

The next day, Rudy fixed the old water system, as he did for two decades before Ysadore met Fred.  He found the problem wasn't the pump but a severely clogged filter, cheaper and easier to fix, which he gave a thorough back-flushing at the tap below the henhouse.  He showed both Ysadore and Fred the old filter and how to install it and told them to pick up a new one next time they were in town. 

The next day, Ysadore 'phoned Rudy again.

“I just wanted to thank you for fixing the water,” she said, then added, “and to tell you how nice it was to have you here.  I've missed having you around the place.”

“You're welcome, of course.  You know me: I'm always glad to help.”

Another month passed before Ysadore 'phoned again with another request for help.  This time, Rudy drove over and fixed a broken rain gutter.  Fortunately, he left plenty of spare lengths of gutter and fittings, when he moved out, and noone had moved them.  He even found the glue he'd left behind, so fixing the problem took almost no time.  As Rudy stood by the door of his pickup ready to leave, Ysadore made as if to hug him, but he slipped into the driver's seat with as much subtlety and tact as he could.

The following day, Ysadore's 'phone call didn't surprise Rudy.  She thanked him again for his help and again told him she missed his company.  “I miss you, too,” he said, truthfully, “but you have Fred after all.”

“Yeah.  I don't know how much longer that'll be.  I'd rather have you.”

“Awww, that's sweet,” Rudy said, “but I'm still me, and you're still you.”

“We did pretty well the first time,” Ysadore replied.  “We lasted twenty-three years.  We can be really good together.  Wouldn't you like that?”

“I guess that's something we can think about,” Rudy answered and extracted himself from the conversation as quickly and tactfully as he could.

*

Graduated as a mathematician, Harlan Yarbrough has been a full-time professional entertainer most of his life, including a stint as a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry. Repeated attempts to escape the entertainment industry have brought work as librarian, physics teacher, syndicated newspaper columnist, and city planner among other occupations. Harlan lives in New Zealand but returns to the US to perform.

Fiction #74: David Menear

Ragged White Ice

Her face was grey and dry and deeply lined, reminding me of driftwood stranded on the rocky shores back home. I sat up ramrod straight on the tattered plaid couch beside my mom’s sister, Aunt Anne. There was a tired and musty smell of damp ashes about her. Anne’s nose was a big jellyfish blob webbed with thin red veins looking like a crumpled old treasure map, but where the rivers flowed blood and not water. When she spoke, it was a mumbling, sandpapery sound that I struggled to understand. Between Aunt Anne and her husband John, sat a large, alert and happy looking dog. They had named him ‘King’. He was a caramel coloured German Shepherd splotched with patches of black, and some gold tufts over his bright and eager eyes. His long, shiny tongue dripped long lines of spit that dangled and swayed with his breathing in the hot dead air of the crowded apartment. I bent forward to see past King to peer over at John. He noticed this, and smiled at me with his wet and baggy red eyes. He only had a few teeth left in his mouth. They were yellowish-brown and had me thinking of rotten corn or cigarette butts. Still, I trusted his smile. He was wearing one of those white undershirts without sleeves that most men wear, stained a pissy yellow under his hairy pits.  The bottom half of his right pant leg below the knee was crumpled and empty, and draped off the couch like a puppet show curtain to the floor.

Across the cluttered room my mother looked uncomfortable, and embarrassed. She was lying flat-out in a battered Lazy-Boy chair that was stuck on recline. My kid sister Wendy was dozing fitfully, sprawled limply across her body, sighing softly and making cute little sticky noises with her lips. Dennis, my big brother and the oldest, is nine. He stood slumping against the wall beside my mom and my sister like some tough little bodyguard thug looking bored and kind of  pissed-off. I stared hypnotized, at a wood-framed picture on the bumpy wall just over his head. It was a scary painting of a long-haired skinny guy wearing only a big white diaper, or maybe a dirty gym towel. He was hammered to an upright wooden cross with big nails and was bleeding a lot from his hands, feet and stomach. Women with long, flowing white dresses and covered heads, knelt beneath him in the blood-puddled dirt. One lady was crying, looking far up at his drooping face with tears in her eyes. A few soldiers holding spears talked and laughed nearby. In the distance on a low hill there were more crosses with other guys dangling off of them too. I had to wonder who they were, and what they had done so wrong.

Dennis didn’t even notice the weird painting behind him. He was focused on a life-sized plastic leg propped in the far corner of the room. The leg shared the space with a no-string guitar, a blackened dirty broom, a crutch, a Donald Duck umbrella and a busted cane. Maybe the leg was stolen, snapped off of a Sears store mannequin as a prank. It just stands there propped calmly in the corner, naked except for a crumpled black sock and a scuffed-up shoe.

My father wasn’t here. I didn’t know why, but I did know that I didn’t miss him. I did miss the trees hugging our house, and the nearby ocean always calling out to me like a friend that wanted to play.
In front of King was a TV tray crowded with mostly empty beer bottles. Abruptly, John, grunting hard, struggles to stand. Pushing himself up off the couch, he’s swaying . I don’t know if it’s because of the beers or the missing leg. He brushes up against the table setting a bottle wobbling and then he hops wildly over to the TV set. Anne reached out and steadied the bottle, coughed, choked and then let loose a loud witches cackle. Dennis and I looked at one another with our eyebrows raised trying hard not to laugh. “Christ John!, you sit back down and finish your beer before you fall down.” she said. King smiled at Aunt Anne and barked brightly, his eyes sparkling with fun. John turned the big knob and clicked on the set. From the TV there was only a bunch of static hissing noise and the screen was nothing but grey ghosts and funny flickering lines. Mumbling, he fiddled with the rabbit ears until the picture was pretty clear. It was ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ just starting! I love the whistling music and wished I knew how to do that. John seemed crabby suddenly. He turned and announced, “You know-sometimes, I think the only way I can change my crappy life is by changing the channels on this damn stupid idiot-box.” I glanced over at Wendy to make sure she wasn’t scared. She was fine, her big brown eyes smiling at the show and happy hugging King.

Before we took the long trip to the city, I had heard my mother in the kitchen on the telephone. She was yelling and then whispering and crying some too. Mom sounded so upset and angry that I was shaking and scared. I only heard some scraps of what she was saying,  “...sleazy... disgusting drunk…pervert...sweet little girl...ruined...he’s sick...” The next morning we packed all of our things into one big brown suitcase. Mom said that we were allowed clothes for 3 days, 2 books and 1 toy. I couldn’t decide if I should bring my View-Master or Mr. Potato Head, and so, I packed 3 books. Wendy only wanted to take her rainbow striped Hula-Hoop. My mother started to say no, and Wendy started to cry, and then Dennis said he would carry it. And that was that.  

Blowing up hot dust and gravel a big bus lurched to a stop, picking us up on Cow Bay Road to take us into Halifax. Soon, we were on a train to Toronto for two days and one night of green and grey and bright blue skies. Starless darkness streaking by. Our mom kept writing stuff in a notebook, and sometimes looked up. Through us, or past us. She seemed determined, not worried. Leaning against the window Dennis was reflected in the black glass. He had two heads now, with two mouths that never smiled or spoke. Wendy and I, we ran around screeching and laughing, chasing each other from car-to-car, up and down the length of the train, again -and-again-and again. A navy guy growled at us to ‘shut-up!” A bigger navy guy told him to “shut-up.” Grinning and nodding he waved us over, and then slowly fed us little treats of jujubes and Cracker Jacks, as if we were stray puppies or squirrels at a park. Mom called us.

Our Mother had gone out early to get money from someone at the government so that we could have our own apartment. Dennis, Wendy, King and I were all crammed in tight together on the couch to sleep. It was lumpy and smelled of stale beer and stinky old dog farts. The air was heavy with wet heat and yesterday’s cigarette smoke. Somehow, we all woke up at the very same time. Hungry, we shuffled along together into the kitchen rubbing our bleary eyes. John was there sitting on the floor, leaning against the cabinets near the sink, drinking what smelled like coffee. We stopped abruptly in a fuzzy line, bumping into each other and then silently stared. His scarred raw stump was sticking straight out of his underwear. It was like a one-eyed giant’s big ugly weiner. I felt sad and strange and struggled to breathe, remembering the emptiness I felt standing still and alone at the edge of the ocean. Frozen solid in my feelings I watched as a cold and hard wind creeped steadily beneath the clouds, pushing calmly across the grey water like an evil invisible spirit  leaving a plain of ragged white ice before me.

Mom came back to Aunt Anne’s after a few hours. She looked really, really happy. We were all sitting together crammed on the couch with King, watching Woody Woodpecker cartoons. Together, we all looked over at her and sang out, “Ha-ha-ha-Ha-ha-ha…”, just like Woody would. She laughed, and told us to hurry up and put our stuff back into the big brown suitcase. Mom said,”We’re going home kids.”

It was egg-frying hot again. Dennis and mom wrestled along the broken sidewalk with the heavy brown bag. I held on tight to Wendy’s one hand and scraped the Hula-hoop along in the other. No one seemed to have anything to do or anywhere to go around here. A few people were busy with gardens on their lawns growing what looked like giant brussel sprouts. Ugh. Mostly though, everyone just hung-out drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. I don’t know what they were all waiting for. We passed cars with no wheels and kids without clothes. Toothless mouths spat shiny black goop. There was some pushing and shoving and some yelling. Police came. Dogs barked, women hollered and glass broke. It was dreary and grey and crowded. It was Cabbagetown. It was scary and exciting. Now it’s  home.

Our new place was over a fish & chip shop at Sackville Street and a busy road with clattering and clanging streetcars. Around the back-alley we climbed up steep, creaking wooden stairs, that swayed from side-to-side as we clambered higher. The place was huge. There was nobody or nothing in it. Our voices bounced like rubber balls, loud off the walls in the welcome silent emptiness. We loved it. Our apartment, and our lives quickly filled up with new friends and furniture and school and fun.

Our mom didn’t have a job job. Because her job was to look after us, she said. She did work the few weeks before Christmas though to buy Santa stuff for us.  One night, she came home late and tired to her Christmas surprise. Our magic show! Still in her wet snowy coat we sat her down on the couch. Standing in front of Mom, between Dennis and I, Wendy stood with a shining goofy smile on her sweet little face. Slooooooowly, we raised a sheet in front of her and then we hollered out, ‘Shazam!’. We dropped the sheet, and Wendy disappeared. After a few anxious minutes, we raised the sheet again, and then suddenly dropped it, yelling out another ‘Shazam!’  And, there was little Wendy again, looking sly and shy, like she had a secret she’d never share.

*

Menear is most often described as an edgy, urgent, gritty and sometimes ‘transgressive’ short story writer with a soft heart and a sense of humour. You find him at that place where Salinger meets Cormac McCarthy for tea and cookies. In his first few years of writing Menear’s stories have been published in several respected Canadian literary magazines. DevilHouse produced his short story collection in 2014 that sold out in a few short months. He was selected for an Exile Editions anthology 'Canadian Noir' March 2015. David, a father of four, has spent most of his life between Toronto and Montreal but has also lived in big city England and quaint village France. He studied art in New York City. First novel publication is imminent. Menear is currently trying to pay the bills modeling and acting.

Fiction #74: Kathryn Mockler

The Job Interview: A Murder

I had always been a careful person, neurotic, in fact. I wouldn’t walk at night alone. Ever. I always double-checked that the doors were locked before bed. I touched the burners on the stove more times than I cared to admit before I left the house. I wouldn’t mix Tylenol and alcohol because it could harm my liver. I read directions on all my medications. Rarely would I jaywalk. I basically lived my life thinking the worst possible thing was going to happen at any moment, and I did my best to prevent it. The methods of operating my life in this way were the result of obsessive compulsions, a hypochondriacal mother, and the fact that we live in a nightmare with no plausible explanation for how or why we are here.

My husband and I had been living in Windsor, Ontario for about a year so he could attend a graduate program in visual arts. I had graduated from my master’s program in creative writing the previous year after which was I lucky enough to get a grant to write a book of poetry. However, the money was now running out, and I needed a job badly.

There were at least two reasons I always had trouble getting jobs. I suffered from extreme under-confidence and I had terrible anxiety making job interviews nearly impossible. I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t be myself, and so it immediately turned potential employers off—understandably so.

Because I had been a student for years and didn’t require the type of clothing needed for a professional job, I didn’t have much in the way of a wardrobe. I wore casual clothes around the house and then I had my one outfit that I liked to wear when we went out. One night when we were at an art opening, a woman from my husband’s program to whom I had only spoken on a couple of occasions and didn’t particularly like, turned to me in front of a group of people and said, “Do you only have that one outfit? Is that like your uniform? Because every time I see you, you’re wearing the same thing.”

I don’t know how, but I managed to stammer an attempt at self-mockery—“Yes it’s my uniform. It’s the only thing I like to wear.”

Then I quickly excused myself to the bathroom and sobbed. Big wet sloppy tears were pouring out of my eyes. I could hear people chatting and laughing on the other side of the door. I cried like a kid who had just been picked on by a schoolyard bully—even though I was twenty-eight-years old. I felt shame and hatred and anger all at once. All my good comeback lines played themselves over and over in my head.

Yes, I really did only have that one outfit. It served as both my job interview outfit and my going out outfit—a black blazer, a light blue collared shirt with blue flowers, and black pants. It was the only outfit I felt good in since I had recently gained some weight.

So here I was in Windsor, Ontario looking for a job, a little more desperate than usual since “the uniform” comment. The problem for me in terms of getting a job, in addition to my confidence and anxiety issues, was that I didn’t have any skills. I wasn’t experienced enough to get a teaching job, and the jobs I had held in the past—house cleaning, dishwashing, and factory work—I didn’t particularly want. I was too terrified of people to waitress and I didn’t want to work a job where I had a use a cash register because I was too terrified of cash registers.

I had always longed to work in a bookstore or a library, but I could never land one of those coveted positions. So that pretty much left me applying for administrative work which was also proving impossible to get in this small economically depressed town in 1999.

I applied to several temp agencies and took all their demoralizing personality, word processing, and excel spreadsheet tests, and I looked in the paper every day to see if there were any listings for odd jobs. For a little while, things were starting to look up. I got a day of work answering phones at a paper factory, and I made it to the second round interview stage at the Nutrition Hut in the mall but ultimately didn’t get the job. They said I wasn’t experienced enough.

So I continued to scan newspaper ads until I found one from a company looking for some part-time admin help for a small family-run business. They were going to pay ten dollars an hour which was better than minimum wage. It sounded good to me, so I called the number right away and set up an appointment.

Even though I put on the “uniform” and told my husband that I was going to an interview before I left the apartment, I realized as I got off the bus and walked down what looked like a residential street in a run-down subdivision, I had not given him the address or phone number. That was kind of a stupid thing to do, I thought to myself as I stood in front of the house.

I considered just walking away, but there were a couple of kids playing out front—a little boy with a skateboard and a little girl wearing a pink dress and heavy black shoes, which made the place seem safe enough, so I decided to knock on the door.

A guy with a mustache named John wearing cut-offs and a dirty undershirt answered in bare feet. If this was a story, I thought to myself with a little laugh, he’d be a cliché. Since I started writing, a little game I played with myself was picking out people who I thought were clichés. John was a white trash cliché. The boy was a little boy cliché and his sister would have been a little girl cliché if she hadn’t be wearing such unusual shoes. As I straightened my black blazer and adjusted my blue flower shirt, I thought about the woman who had insulted me at the art opening and decided she was a grad school cliché. And although I didn’t know it at the time, I too would become a cliché—a dead girl cliché.

The boy from the front yard ran up to the door and said—“Hi, John, can I come over and play video games?”

“Not right now, Ethan. We’ve got a guest,” he said and let me inside.

I took off my shoes and looked around. The place seemed normalish enough, a little messy but nothing really out of the ordinary except all the furniture was white.

John said, “Our office is downstairs,” and he led me all the way to the back of the house. The house was long. It seemed to take forever to get from one end to the other. As we walked through the living room and then dining room and then to a little porch, the two kids from outside followed us along the side of the house. They banged on the windows and yelled things at us, and by the time we got to the back, Ethan and his sister were standing at the screen door.

“Who is the blonde lady?” Ethan asked. “Is she the same one from before?”

“None of your beeswax,” John said. He had this strange ability to be nice and mean to the kid at the same time.

“Can we come in, John?” Ethan asked.

“Not now,” John said. “Go home.” And he shut the door in the little boy’s grinning stupid face.

God, that kid is annoying, I thought.

“John,” Ethan pleaded. “I don’t want to go home.”

I do, I thought. I want to go home right now.

“Get outta here,” John said, this time with a firmer tone.

There’s a weird prickly feeling that you get when you realize that you could be in serious danger.

Some people call it a sixth sense or instinct. I remember a guest on Oprah talking about self-defense and how women have the ability to sense danger before they are actually in danger. It’s kind of like built-in radar, a protection device. It’s something you should always listen to, she said. It’s something you should never ignore because it could save your life. When you get these sensations, your body is trying to tell you something.

She was right. I had this radar. And I knew I had it. I knew I had it because when I took one look at the outside of the house the feeling was there—that sense or instinct that told me I might be headed for danger. A voice inside my head said, it’s not worth it—go home. And as I was stepping inside the door that same voice tried to stop me. I knew I shouldn’t have gone in, but I went in anyway because I wanted to believe there was a job that paid me ten dollars an hour. I won’t eat mayonnaise past the expiration date, yet somehow I managed to find myself in a strange man’s basement and no one knew I was there.

Before we went downstairs, John told me to put on some slippers because the basement floor was dirty. Along the edge of the porch, there were several house slippers of different sizes lined up in a neat row.

Did I mention that I was a germophobe?

The slippers were blackened with dirt and they smelled, and even though I declined them at first, John insisted. He didn’t want my sock feet to get dirty, he said, and there was a tone in his voice that made me feel like I couldn’t refuse. So I picked the least offensive pair and put them on trying my best not to show my disgust as I walked down the rickety steps to a newly renovated basement that smelled like Ikea furniture, cigarette smoke, and black mould.

Another man was sitting at a round table near a kitchenette smoking. He too had a mustache. And he too looked like a cliché. He looked like a cliché of a bad man who might cause me harm. On the table beside him—a 40 ounce bottle of rye and a shot glass.

This wasn’t a job interview. There was no family business.

“Would you like a drink,” the man said. It was a statement rather than a question, and like with the slippers, I couldn’t refuse.

I thought about Ethan, who in one moment I found as annoying as a persistent housefly and in the next, he became my lifeline who I prayed wouldn’t give up trying to play video games with John. Maybe he would break in. Maybe he would tell his mother that something terrible was taking place.

But in the end little Ethan couldn’t do anything to save me. In his last attempt to get inside—he banged on the basement window and waved with a dazed and crazy smile on his face. To be honest, he looked more like a maniac than any of them. Maybe he wasn’t a cliché after all. But John just ignored the kid and pulled down the blinds.

“I like your shirt lady,” Ethan said through the window.

Then I heard Ethan hop on his skateboard and ride down the gravel driveway, his sister clomping after him in her heavy shoes. I wondered if Ethan would tell the police that I had been there, that he had seen me? Would his sister? Were they too young to remember or would they even care?

I smiled and looked down at my pale blue shirt that just this morning I had considered retiring, not because of what the grad student had said, but because of the yellow sweat stains I found under the arms.

*

Kathryn Mockler is the author of the books Some Theories (ST Press, 2017), The Purpose Pitch (Mansfield Press, 2015),  The Saddest Place on Earth (DC Books, 2012) and Onion Man (Tightrope Books, 2011). Her writing has been published recently in Entropy, Cosmonauts Avenue, Public PoolThe Butter, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn.

Photo credit: David Poolman

Fiction #74: Steve Passey

Exit Interview

     “The laborer deserves his wages.” - 1 Timothy 5:18

With the new ownership in place the layoffs began. The misery of working where the shareholder is the only acknowledged stakeholder and their margins come solely from your compensation (because no one has any ideas as to how to actually sell this shit) is a peculiar motivator, and so the carrot became severance; the stick became the creeping fear of what to do when severance runs out. No one thinks of remaining. No one aspires.

There was a group of us that would meet at an “Authentic Naples Pizza” Friday after work. It was owned by Syrian emigrants, or possibly Lebanese. I am not sure. After four months – which would have been the completion of my training module, had it ever happened – I was the only one still with the company who attended these “meetings.” Everyone else was a “former employee.” We speculated as to the quantity of the next round of severances. We surmised that those who stayed on in any position of authority only did so because of their accidental and wholly fortunate possession of grainy cell phone video of the CEO fellating a donkey.  We spoke semi-seriously of crossing the street to other companies run by the same dictums, more seriously of going back to school, or even reluctantly of reenlistment. I discovered that the others had created a betting pool as to when I would be told that I was redundant, and as to when I’d sit in the group as one of them and not a living reminder alternately envied or derided as still being employed by “the company.”

One veteran – the first to quit the new regime – made it every time. He had crossed the street to a competitor. He was doing alright. He’d buy the new people – the ones who had just quit or just been let go - a drink. He was our eminence grise. I think he gets there Fridays about noon, because a lot of people quit at noon on Friday and need someplace to go and celebrate. People got fired Wednesdays first thing in the morning, but they’d have some severance and be there Friday to be with those who had emancipated themselves. These are the good times. They are a lot like the old times, with the alcohol and friends but without salary and benefits.

The exception to this was the former Vice-President of Human Resources. Apparently she was from some place called “Saskatchewan”. She had worked for the old company in the same position before the buyout. She had always been “Kathy” until the new company took over and she began referring to herself as “Kate” and demanding that everyone else do so. Only the new hires would do it. They didn’t know any better. Our guy, our eminence grise, and the other more experienced people called her “Kathy.” She’d always correct them, always have the last word, but the next time they saw her it’d be “Hi Kathy.” When newly-statused former employees were divested by the company and done their last ever meeting with “Kate” they’d come to our meetings. We taught them to refer to her as “The Kunt from Saskatchewan,” making sure that you knew it was “Kunt” with a “K.”

When she was let go she came to the pizzeria on the Friday. No one acknowledged her presence or responded when she asked how things were. After all, she’d let them all go; she’d been there while they put their children’s drawings and their boxes of Kleenex in a box. Look around our table and you’ll see the ghostly image of what used to work there, a couple of young guys in their twenties and a lot of middle-aged ladies working for “benefits”. It was a pink ghetto for the most part, and she’d walked them all out. If they quit she’d sat there and blacked out all of the comments they put in their exit interviews, condescending to tell them that “You don’t want negative comments about one employer to follow you to your next one.” She seeded employer review websites with positive reviews – these are written by freelance copy writers for modest fees and their signatures on standard non-disclosure agreements. She did all that and they’d made her a Vice-President for it. She fired us for them and then they fired her. The world goes round and round, summer, spring, winter and fall. But she wasn’t one of us – was never one of us - and now she was here trying to be one of us, just like she’d tried to be one of them. No one would even look at her.

Finally our grey eminence asked her “So, Kathy: Is it true your grandfather had been a capo in the camps in World War Two?”

Everyone had heard about this. Someone in her family had written a book. Apparently the old man had been a trusty of some sort in one of the camps, a dutiful and efficient servant of the Nazis. When the Russians had liberated the camp the prisoners he’d overseen strung him up with barbed wire and beat him to death while he hung there. The inmates beat him with planks torn from the buildings, beat him with stones, beat him with their bare, bony fists and even - for those too weak to beat him with anything - the weight of the hate in their eyes. The Russians watched and cheered. After all, you can understand the master being the master, but it is the servant who betrays his own.

“Fuck you,” she said. “Fuck all of you. So what if my Geed was a capo in the camps. He lived better than the rest of them in there, and longer than most. And my severance was bigger than all of yours combined.”

She got up and walked out. She forgot her coat. No one said a thing until our eminence held up his glass in a toast and said: “So passes the Kunt from Saskatchewan,” and we were just us again.

“Who had me lasting longer than her in the pool?”

I asked this and the other’s laughter rang out of the building and into the street and we returned to our particular stasis, like any other group of weary drones fallen from their wrecked and drying hive. No one touched her coat. It was still there when the last of us left; hanging by one shoulder on the chair she had sat in when she tried to join us.

*


Steve Passey is originally from Southern Alberta. He is the author of the short-story collection "Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock" (Tortoise Books, October 2017) and chapbook "The Coachella Madrigals" (Luminous Press, August 2017) . His fiction and poetry have appeared in more than forty publication worldwide, both print and electronic.

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 clichés 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.