Article Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

Scars

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Wearing short sleeves in the summer may not seem frivolous but when your arms are covered in the scars of psoriasis, wounds fresh, wounds old and wounds that are still to come, you begin to wear long sleeves as if they were your own skin.

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Blue by Shela Breau

A homeless man shouted at me from across the street as I was walking with my son, “Bed bugs! Bed bugs! Don’t let the bed bugs bite that baby.”

I wondered if he remembered that only a few days ago I gave him pocket change and cigarettes. He never thanked me.

I ignored him and walked on.

Two days later I was arrested for shoplifting skin care products. The arresting officer wouldn’t even touch me to put on cuffs. He borrowed gloves from a sales clerk who snorted in distaste at my appearance. I could almost reach out and touch the waves of hate seeping from her very core.

Upon my arrival at the Burnside clink I was denied long sleeves at admission. After getting settled in, a girl in my day room handed me a long-sleeved shirt, told me her name and said simply, “I understand.”

How unusual and lovely it was for me to find compassion in a person who had been condemned for being anything but compassionate.

After I Left

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I should have left when he stole from me the first time. I should have left when he knocked the wind out of me the first time. I should have left when he cheated on me the first time. I should have left the first time he chased me up the stairs screaming at me. I should have left when he choked me the first time. I should have left when he raped me the first time. I should have left the first time my friends and family accused him of stealing. I should have left when he refused to take me to the hospital when I had a kidney infection—the first time.

I should have, but I didn’t. After all, I wasn’t one of those women with black eyes and bruised ribs….

I didn’t see the red flags when we first started dating because abusers know better. It’s a slow and calculated dance they perfect to ensure that by the time you think you might be in trouble they have isolated you from your friends. They have made you feel like you are to blame. They have become so entwined in your life that you wonder if it’s just easier to stay … and then before you know it you’re taking vows and signing a marriage certificate. I clearly remember convincing myself that somehow being married would fix things and, if not, I could easily get divorced.

We had only been married nine months when things went from bad to worse. The night I left I had nothing but a small bag and my two dogs. We ran across a room full of broken glass to my car and I was convinced that it was over. That it was all past me now. That I could look back and think, “Glad I’m out of that relationship.” That I could breathe. Silly me.

But abusers don’t stop just because you walked out the door. I had no idea of the nightmare I would live through for three years—and counting—after I left.

And then_scaled

And then…. by Rebecca Bromwich

A week of constant texts, voice mails, emails. He blamed me, apologized to me, begged me, threatened me, laughed at me. And only then, I learned from one of his family members that he had a criminal history and had even spent time in a federal penitentiary. He had over thirty-five prior convictions, including stalking and harassing ex-girlfriends. I guess he forgot to mention this on the first date. I guess I forgot to ask. Silly me.

After I left, he trashed my car—twice. He created over a dozen email addresses and Facebook profiles and harassed me on my personal page, the business page where my dogs went to daycare, on the business page of my employer. He applied for credit in my name and was approved. He hacked my e-mail and sent messages to my contacts, pretending to be me. He broke into my rental unit, cut every single electrical wire and stole over a thousand dollars’ worth of my tenant’s property. He smeared feces and snot on the door to my rental unit and threw rotten fruit onto the balcony. He put my personal belongings up for sale on Kijiji. He messaged me to tell me how much fun he was having following and watching me. He figured out who I was dating and sent them a Facebook friend request. He broke every restraining order he had been issued. He called me weekly, sometimes daily, left verbally abusive messages, threatened to end my life, and he promised he wouldn’t stop until I was dead.

I called the police. Every. Single. Time. I wrote statements. I went in for interviews. I provided evidence. I cooperated. After all he had done, he was charged with only eleven crimes. Of those eleven, the crown prosecutor felt only five had enough evidence to take to court. Of those five, he was found guilty of only two. Of those two, he has been sentenced to eighteen months conditional house arrest for one.

This means he is allowed to go to work. He is allowed to go to the store, to go to any personal appointments, and further his education. Should he find out where I am living, he is allowed to park across the street from my house and watch me. This is because he has only to stay ten meters away from me—and ten meters is about the distance from the street to my front door. But he has to be in his home between nine in the evening and five in the morning. He cannot consume drugs or alcohol. Oh, and he must pay one hundred dollars in restitution for his crimes.

I lost a dream job because of him. I have moved six times. I have changed my phone number four times. I have changed my email address three times. I have changed vehicles three times. I have spent sixteen thousand dollars in lawyers’ fee and then had to let my lawyer go because I could no longer afford to fight. I have had to endure three years of court dates where I have been questioned and cross examined and made to feel like I’m lying and making things up. I have had to tell my story over and over and over again to each new police officer who attended my calls. I have lost friends. I have been doubted by those I trusted. And for every time I’ve been encouraged to tell my story, I have been told three times to move on, forget it happened.

So far, I’ve persevered. I’ve stayed strong. But I’m not sure how to end this story because, in truth, there is no end in sight.

Waiting to be Heard

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After the hearing, my mother and I sat in the breakout room across the table from the Parole Board of Canada’s Communications Officer, a gentle woman who had escorted us through the process.

Next door in the boardroom, two parole board members, both highly skilled in risk assessment, were deciding on the outcome of three applications made by one incarcerated man, the man who brutally murdered my father in the middle of the night, in my family’s home, when I was eleven years old.

“Do you think he’ll get it?” my mother asked. “Oh, I hope he does.”

I knew what she meant: she hoped he had improved enough that he could reintegrate into society, be a productive member. I too hoped that my father’s meaningless death would at least open up space for this offender to become a different man. Different than the twenty-three year-old who broke into my home to steal something.

One could hope.

“He’ll get the first two applications,” I said to my mother. I reasoned that his request for work releases and visits with his counsellor would be supported; it seemed a logical extension from what had been granted at previous hearings. “But he won’t get day parole,” I said. That was too much of a leap.

Isn’t parole parole? I’d asked myself years before, wondering about differences between escorted and unescorted temporary absences, day and full parole. As a registered victim of violent crime, I felt that I had to learn these terms, learn what was happening to the person who destroyed my world. Each year, as we came closer to the twenty-fifth anniversary of his incarceration, I learned more.

That day, I sat at the hexagon-shaped table in that stark multi-purpose breakout room. I took in the locked cabinets, the bright prairie sun of Drumheller shining through the window, the therapy posters hung on the walls and thought about the series of questions the parole board officers had asked at the hearing, along with the offender’s responses.

seekingthetruth

Seeking the Truth by Leah Dockrill

“Why did you go toward the noise upstairs instead of leaving the house?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why did you pick up the kitchen knife?”

“I don’t know.”

My gut wrenched as I heard the unforthcoming and unprepared responses. I listened to his high-pitched voice and realized, once again, that there may never be answers.

“Why didn’t you just leave?”

“I don’t know. I wanted to leave the house with something.”

He did leave my house with something. And at every parole hearing, each time I saw him sitting with his back to me, I stared at his forearms placed on top of the table, the hand that held that fateful knife, the back of his balding, closely-shaved head, and his running shoes firmly planted on the floor. Each time I saw him, I was reminded that he was here and my father was not. It was a certain resignation where, in his presence, I would slowly close my eyes, lower my head, and say to myself, “You’re okay. You’re just here to witness.”

“Do you think he’ll get it?” my mother asked again.

“He doesn’t have a good enough plan.” I said. “He needs a social worker in there.”

I was disappointed. I assumed there would be people to help him through this predictable application process. And then I laughed at myself. I was sitting in a prison, wishing the man who murdered my father had better support.

“Don’t you think it’s a little absurd that we’re advocating for his release?” I asked my mother. “He murdered dad.”

But I did sit there hoping that he could better explain himself next time, let down that our collective tax dollars seemed to be housing him, funding parole application hearings, but not actually rehabilitating him. Rather, it seemed as though we were all just riding out the sentence’s terms.

“Tell us,” the parole board members had said in the hearing, in and amongst their hours of questions. “What do you think are the long term effects of the crime on your victims?”

I didn’t like how, implied in their questions, we were his possession, his victims. This was the first and not the last time I wanted to speak up, to ask them to reflect on their syntax and the consequences for my identity.

“He’s not there for Christmas,” the offender paused. “Or birthdays.” Full stop.

My heart sank and I wanted to interrupt the questioning. How about the fact that I cannot contribute to my father’s life? That I can’t go to him for advice? That he can’t hold my future babies and teach them everything he knows. I could feel the questions almost leap out of my mouth. Indignation rose in my body and I wanted to yell. But I was not allowed to speak unless I had given them a vetted Victim Impact Statement one month before, a statement that would have left no room for my new questions, let alone a conversation. How unfair that he could see my words in advance but I could not see his. No, I must sit there against a wall. I must not disrupt the proceedings, lest I wished to be removed. And so I sat, silent, waiting to be somewhere else where I could be heard and they continued their questions.

“What will you do if released on day parole?”

“I think I’ll go to Calgary,” he said, tentatively.

“Do you know anyone there?”

“Maybe I’ll contact a friend of my family’s.”

“Have you contacted them already?”

“No.”

“Then what will you do in Calgary?”

He couldn’t respond.

“Calgary?” I said to my mother in the breakout room. “Why didn’t he say Drumheller?”

I couldn’t imagine why he’d go back to the city of his crime and not stay in the town where the prison is located, where he’d developed job and volunteer connections, where he’d made friendships with people willing to give him a second chance. I needn’t have worked in social services my entire adult life to know that his responses weren’t going to slide. They hadn’t prepared him for his release, hadn’t helped him answer the most predictable of questions.

“I wonder if he’ll get it,” my mother said yet again, thankfully interrupting the train of questions that circled my mind.

“It wasn’t a good enough plan,” I responded. “They won’t approve it.”

The Communications Officer escorted us back to the boardroom where we listened to the decision. The unescorted temporary absences – for work and counselling – were approved. But sure enough, his application for day parole was denied.

As they finished up the proceedings, I wasn’t quite sure what I was more disillusioned by: that he continued to not understand the gravity of his crime; that the prison hadn’t helped rehabilitate this woefully unprepared man; or that I didn’t speak up, despite being told I was not allowed to.

So I sat there, stroking my left hand with my right thumb, waiting for the moment I could leave, go to a place where I could speak again.

“Nice Cop”

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When Albert Benoit answered the phone, I informed him that his niece had made allegations.

“That filthy, lying—”

“Mr. Benoit,”

“bitch,” he said.

“Mr. Benoit! Before you say anything else, please hear me out.”

He sighed. “Yes Ma’am.”

“I want to give you the opportunity to tell your side of the story, but not right now, not yet. I want to speak to you in person.”

“Oh?”

“Are you busy today? I could drive out to see you.”

“Lord Jesus! Dat’s just what I needs right now, the cops standin’ on me bridge, pounding at me door!”

“I understand.”

“No, my dear, you don’t! I’ll come to where you’re to.”

“No problem. When can you come in?”

“I’ll be by, ’round eight,” he said.

“Wonderful! Thank you, Mr. Benoit,” I said. “We’ll see you tonight.”

I replaced the phone on the receiver, took a deep breath and turned to look through the large industrial window beside my desk. The top part of the window was tilted open slightly to let in a bit of air. Half a dozen teenage boys shouted and carried on as they took shots on the basketball net set up in the detachment parking lot. The racket sent vibrations through my chest. I shifted my focus to the foot-high stack of files on my desk. I’d have to get through them all in the next six days, before my days off. After that I’d be into a week of nights and it would be hard to get anything done on files.

“Why is it that I get stuck with all the sexual assaults for this bloody detachment?” I said, still watching the boys play ball. I slumped forward, one elbow on my armrest, fingers raking the stress moguls in my forehead. I noticed that the room had gone silent; my four male colleagues all trying to look busy at their desks. This time I addressed them. “I mean really, how many sexual assault files are you guys carrying right now?”

“You’ve got such a knack for that sort of thing,” said Josh.

The Corporal agreed, the Detachment Commander nodded, and the two remaining Constables stayed silent. Gripping the ends of my armrests, I straightened, and shook my wide-eyed head at the four of them. The Sergeant tried to cut the tension with a joke.

*

They all knew why I got these cases. Newfoundland’s Mount Cashel sexual abuse scandal broke just years earlier. I’d had a closed door meeting with my Sergeant. “Josh is a helluva investigator,” the Sergeant said, “but between you and me, he’s as lazy as Hell. And Ike, well, Ike tries, but he just doesn’t have the….” Then he tapped two fingers on the side of his skull. “You’re my only girl! And they’d rather talk to a girl. What else can I do?”

He leaned in, his voice softened. “It’s a real can of worms, I know. And you’ve a lot on your plate but that’s just the way it goes.” Then he looked puzzled. “You know, some guys whine about getting female recruits but I’ve had nothing but good experiences. Every one of mine has been a good, solid worker. I’d take a woman any day.”

He tasked me to develop a half-day talk for elementary kids about sexual assault. “No, Get Away, and Tell Someone.” It seemed catchy enough for a kid to remember. After these presentations, students lined up to speak with me. Many disclosed on the spot. The floodgates were open and I was swamped. And I got really good at interviewing.

*

Just before eight, a vehicle turned in from the main road and crept into the parking area. Mr. Benoit came through the door, with the smell of tobacco and Irish Spring. I ushered him past the front desk and through the bullpen, to a smaller room furnished with a large grey desk and two chairs. On the desk was a 1994 edition of The Criminal Code of Canada and a clunky telephone slapped with a fluorescent yellow sticker: 1-800 for legal aid. I drew the drapes and offered him one of the chairs and a coffee.

“I’m placing you under arrest now….”

“What?”

“You are under investigation for sexually assaulting Carla Benoit. I have to arrest you so I can interview you.”

“Jesus!”

I gestured him to stop. “I’ll be releasing you tonight, but you’ll have to agree to some conditions.”

“What?”

“You must promise to stay away from your niece.”

His eyes narrowed.

I read him his rights. “Do you understand Mr. Benoit? You don’t have to talk to me but there are always two sides to a story.” I scribbled in my notebook.
Did he want to call a lawyer? I pointed to the phone.

There was no doubt in my mind he’d committed the assaults. Victims don’t generally make this shit up; it’s just too hard to come forward. I’d taken so many victim statements by that time and second-guessed maybe one. Still, I didn’t think Benoit was a monster. We all make mistakes. He’d developed a habit of making very poor choices and, yes, his mistakes were monstrous. But I wasn’t there to judge him. The best thing I could do—for everyone—was to get him to talk.

He sat there, arms folded. They all start like that. I went in easy, talked about the weather, rabbit and moose hunting.

He’s beginning to relax.

“And you’re a fisherman?” led to the cod moratorium:

“Brian Tobin!” he spewed spit and expletives.

So I backed away from that subject.

I asked about his family but avoided the subject of Carla. He softened in his chair, his arms less tense.

“Mary—oh yes. Da wife makes ten loaves every Wednesday, den she gives ‘alf of it away to da church.

A smile. A soft spot.

“Yes, she loves ‘er bingo night, she do. Got da number on speed dial. You play bingo, do ya?”

“Bingo? No-no, not me.”

That’s not my game.

I got a sense of him, from all that chit-chat, discovered the chinks in his armour.

Let’s talk about Carla.

We danced in and out of the noose’s loop. When I went too fast, he pulled back. I’d slack off then inch forward again.

Slowly, softly….

“What about the other time?” I asked.

“…the other time?”

“Yes, Carla talked about another time—in your truck—what happened there?”

Tap-tap, tap-tap. We inched forward, went back, inched forward again.

Two hours later, his watery, blue eyes engaged mine as we exited the stuffy room. “Thank you,” he whispered. “You’re a nice cop.”

The Justice of The Peace had arrived from Black Duck Crossing. I placed my right hand on the frayed bible and swore to the information contained in the charges. Mr. Benoit promised to keep the peace and be of good behavior, signed his name with an X in blue ink. He took the copy of his release document, folded it several times, and forced it into a sleeve in his wallet.

As I walked them to the exit, Albert turned to me, his legs trembled.

“Will you be there, in court?” he asked.

“I’m not sure about that, Mr. Benoit.”

I locked the heavy blue door behind them, moved slowly to my chair and sagged. I removed my smudged glasses, cradled my arms over the heap on my desk. I lowered my head, let it rest, and feeling the weight of it, closed my eyes.

True Blue

True Blue by Alexandra McCurdy

Tonic

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Growing up in Newfoundland, long before the ubiquity of flu shots and antibacterial hand gel, my siblings and I went through more than our share of winter sickness. My mother took care of us. Mild colds and regular flus to more serious illnesses like chicken pox or measles—all were indulged in the same manner: a steady regimen of lying on the living room couch, cozy under a blanket, with the TV on and a glass of flat ginger ale and stack of saltines on the coffee table.

But before the couch was made up and ginger ale brought from the kitchen, my mother would kiss our foreheads to check for fever. We didn’t own a thermometer; if you were sick enough to have your temperature taken with a thermometer, you were sick enough to visit Outpatients. Besides, that gentle forehead kiss told my mother everything she needed to know.

The whole routine, from kiss to crackers, was comforting—so comforting that now that I’m a mother myself, I sometimes find myself wishing for a slight cold or flu, a strange rush of nostalgia brought on by the taste of Canada Dry and the sight of a blanket-covered couch. But my mother doesn’t look after me anymore. She just dispenses advice when my children are sick, despite the fact that I, too, believe in the power of the glass of ginger ale with a bendy straw.

“Can’t the doctor give him something to keep him healthy?” my mother asks, worried about both of my kids but particularly about our little boy, who seems to be more vulnerable.

“He’s already had his flu shot,” I tell her.

She worries about every possible head cold and ear infection, though underneath I suspect a dark fear that something else might go wrong. Maybe it’s the memory of her older sister, Bessie, who died at eighteen months old. My mother never knew her sister, but her father told the story many times: the doctor taking little Bessie away while she waved bye-bye over his shoulder. So Mom always took our childhood illnesses seriously and remembers the tubes in my ears and my brothers’ measles, strep throat and tonsillitis vividly. With her grandchildren, she’s doubled down on maternal concern.

penobscot

Penobscot by Arlene “Dozay” Christmas. This piece honors Penobscot women who are resilient healers and teachers of their People.

“I’ve asked the doctor,” I reassure her. “She said it’s just part of life. Germs go around, especially in school. Kids get sick.”

“She must have something to give him. A tonic maybe?”

“A tonic?”

“Yes, a tonic. When you were small, the doctor would give you a tonic all winter long.”

I don’t remember this at all. I checked with my brothers and sister and they don’t remember either. Whatever those tonics were, they couldn’t have been all that frequent or vile-tasting; my father still talks about the horrible taste of the cod-liver oil they were forced to swallow every morning at school. Bad tastes stick in the memory as well as in the throat.

When was the last time the doctors gave out “tonics”? I did some digging. In Newfoundland, the practice of giving healthful tonics continued into the ’60s and ’70s, bolstered by belief in the benefits of cod liver oil and preparations like Infantol, guaranteed to help your baby grow. The tonics, with a few exceptions, were mainly vitamin water with other ingredients ranging from minerals to caffeine, wine, and yeast. While most were probably harmless, and some may have done some good (particularly in the days when rickets was common), they couldn’t have helped us much, given our regular bouts of illness.

Besides, compared to the promise of a flu shot, updated every year for new viruses, a tonic sounds outdated, like arsenic to effect a “healthy paleness.” So instead, I teach the kids to wash their hands before they eat. I encourage them to get fresh air and exercise and stick to their bedtimes. I try to keep them as healthy as their picky appetites allow.

No doubt these things will also seem outdated if and when I’m fortunate enough to have grandchildren. Maybe by then, studies will show we’ve been washing our hands all wrong, spreading germs around for maximum coverage. Maybe super-effective and modernized flu shots will be delivered to our front door by drones that inject the whole family via needled appendages, slapping an identical “I Was A Good Patient” sticker on both adults and children. And maybe I’ll say to my son or daughter, “Can’t you get a real nurse to check over the kids?” or “Can’t they soap their fingers more?”

For now, I’ll keep my faith in hand washing and flu shots, even though nothing will completely prevent the yearly incursion of colds and flu. Viruses and bacteria will piggyback into the house on any one of us; it really is just a part of life. And when the inevitable happens and the children get sick, it won’t be any modern idea or product that gets them well again. Instead, I’ll do the same things my mother did: the efficient tucking-in of blankets on the couch, the TV, bendy straws and ginger ale, and the comfort of a gentle kiss to check for fever in the middle of the night. As remedies go, these things have been one hundred percent effective. In fact, I think my mother and I have used the best kind of tonic all along.

*

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