Article Category Archives: Fiction

Beverly

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Their footsteps had disturbed the morning dew and left a long trail of dark green in the grass. I breathed in, exhaled slowly, and trudged up the hill following one of the wet paths. My inner voice echoed with every step. It was the sound of my mother: keep your head up, your back straight, careful of your words.

Years ago, unsuitable soil was dumped here during road construction and pipe excavations. This rolling hill was left wedged at a fork in the road between two streets, both named Beverly. Later, a few random trees were added, an afterthought, no doubt.

It was an unused parcel of land but that day the project team had gathered to kick off the “first of its kind” green infrastructure facility in our city. The team stood in two separate groups at the top of the hill: the field workers and the office folk. The groups had not yet met face-to-face, though introductions had been arranged through emails and phone calls. I was the lone female engineering designer on the team. For this project, I was also stepping into the role of construction inspector.

Stopping halfway up the hill, I took another deep breath. One of the land surveyors had laid out the project on the ground with white spray paint. I hopped over a white line, then another, to the group of my familiars: the office folk. We were the project administrators, designers, planners, and engineers. I nodded, offering friendly hellos. We made small talk about the weather and family. We listened politely to each other’s news. I answered questions from the engineer about the facility and we discussed its construction.

In the other group were the field workers: the land surveyors, machine operators, inspectors, and labourers. They didn’t seem to use birth-given names to talk amongst each other. New monikers had been appointed over time, likely through a slapstick event, shortening of a last name, or as a token of their skill. Their plaid jackets hung loosely over worn-out, orange t-shirts branded with big reflective Xs. Overstretched jeans partly covered their moulded, unlaced boots that were caked with old mud and splatters of oil.

At some point, Keith, the machine operator, broke off from the circle of field workers. He walked over and tapped my shoulder with the back of his meaty hand. A few guys from the field glanced my way.

“We have a few questions, too.” Keith said and he walked up the hill. I quickly followed at a pace that was double time to his natural stride.

“Well, over there, runoff from the road will flow off the pavement through the grass,” I said, catching my breath. “Then it will flow through a strip of rocks over there. Water that flows through the rocks will filter down through the engineered soil, about here.” I waved my hand over the land, stopping at the areas of importance and making circles in the air. I looked up to his face for clues that he understood. A full set of rolled design plans were tucked neatly in the pit of my arm. I held the heavy tube of paper tightly against my coat. Its length balanced my small frame.

“I’m used to laying pipe” he said, “now, I’m buildin’ gardens?”

“No, it’s not a garden, really. It’s an engineered bioretention facility. There will be pipes underneath.” I squished the grass with my shoes as I began to unroll the plans, firmly planting my heels in the ground. “It’s designed to filter…”

Keith walked away as I was showing him the design and casually joined back into his circle. My eyes squinted after him as if there were a glare from the lights of an oncoming car. I waited, watching to see if he would return. I was left frozen in no man’s land for what felt like several minutes. Winding up the plans, tighter than before, I snapped the elastics forcefully at each end to secure the roll. I walked back to my group with my blood simmering, replaying the scene over again in my head.

photo of bioretention area showing rock, trees, plants

Beverly Street Low Impact Development Area photo by Gail Willis

Conversations began to fade and the two circles dispersed. The office folk walked away, one by one, to their cars and waved good-bye. The field workers continued to linger on the street. One guy talked to another in a truck. A few workers gathered outside the excavator, and one had his foot raised, resting on its tracks. Some were leaning on shovels, while others organized tools. I walked alone down the hill towards my car. When I stepped off the grass onto the pavement, I was signalled by a raised arm and a backwards wave.

“How are these garden pipes gonna connect to this catch basin, here?” Keith shouted. He was standing on the street beside the surveyor and pointing at the metal grate in the road. Beaming, I made short quick strides in their direction.

“Under the layer of engineered soil, there will be a series of subdrains. Each length will connect to a monitoring well,” I said, glancing toward the hill. “Any water in the subdrains will flow towards the outlet pipe.” I paused and tapped my toe a few times on the grate. “And the outlet pipe will connect to this catch basin with a sixteen-inch pipe.”

“We’re gonna be taking out a lot of dirt then, eh?” Keith said. “Any idea how much?” Without waiting for an answer, both men turned and walked up the hill. In the distance, I heard the surveyor answer: “I’m guessing several truck loads.”

The guys started to dig before dawn on a Monday morning. I drove by their dump truck, already full of dirt, on my way to the site. My mind raced. I kicked off my shoes and stomped into heavy boots. I shrugged on an oversized plastic safety vest and fastened the Velcro straps around my waist. My hard hat perched loosely, a bright orange dome tightened to the last notch. I stuffed my calculator into my back pocket. With my arms full of equipment, I leaned forward up the hill. I forced the legs of the tripod into position in the ground, bouncing heavily on each leg. I plunked the “one-man operated” automatic digital laser level on top of the tripod. Marking the measuring rod with penciled lines, I checked the level against the benchmark and headed to the work area. I stood on the edge of the excavation.

“You should’ve been set up before we arrived!” Keith yelled, stopping the excavator. “If I was a contractor, you would’ve lost your job already!” All eyes fixed in my direction. My stomach turned. I hopped down into the trench. In a hurry, I flattened a spot in the dirt with my foot. My lips pursed in a thin line and I felt my cheeks flare red hot. Placing the rod on its end, I raised the metal sections of the ruler until the automatic level beeped.

“Keep digging, Keith,” I announced. The bottom elevation of this trench had to be precise for the facility to work.

“I don’t think so,” he said, staring intensely.

“You need to dig more, about twelve inches or so.” I matched his stare.

“Nope. Check again, did you set up the laser level right?”

“Yeah.”

But I immediately began to second guess myself. I reexamined the pencil marks on the rod, then grabbed the calculator from my back pocket. I punched in the numbers again to double check.

“307 millimetres. That’s roughly twelve inches. You gotta dig another foot,” I said. The area between my eyebrows tightened.

“Check the plans!” he yelled. “You want one of the guys to do the measuring?”

“I designed the facility, Keith. I know what the plans say!”

Keith shook his head and shut the door of the excavator. The machine roared back to life. The teeth of the bucket combed the earth, quickly and methodically, making a small pile. The bucket scooped the pile, curling under, and swung the sandy clay loam into the back of the dump truck. The other guys grabbed shovels and rakes to level and smooth out the hole. I checked again and signalled with a horizontal wave then a thumbs-up when just the right level was reached.

The work stopped at midday for lunch. The sun glared against the back of my sunburned neck as I dismantled the laser level from the tripod. I placed it neatly in its plastic briefcase before gulping down some water. I descended from the hill and sat in the grass under a tree near my car. Keith’s truck rolled up and stopped before me at the edge of Beverly Street.

“We’re goin’ for lunch,” he said, nodding in the direction of the guys sitting in the back. His arm hugged the outside of the truck door. “Come on, let’s go!”

“Ok,” I said, rising up and letting the warm air fill my lungs.

“You need a nickname,” he said, grinning. “What should it be guys?”

I walked over and joined their group.

Ruby

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I need you to listen now, just listen. I’m going to tell you the story of how we survived the August blizzard. We both need to know this story so that we remember: you and I are survivors.

Before the storm, when you were still a brand-new person, in those weeks of late summer when the barometric pressure was high and the sky clear blue, we stayed mainly in the big park where there’s a real forest and a river. The afternoons were so warm, and the nights cool for sleeping. There was plenty to eat—wild carrots and cattails and so many blackberries. And the cook at the canteen always gave me the leftover soup. Your cheeks got chubby and rosy and every day you seemed to feel a little heavier in my arms.

When the snow started, falling straight down, I heard people saying how pretty it looked. Later, when the flowers were all broken and bent and covered over, the wind came. The snow on the ground was too heavy for the wind to pick up, but it drove the falling snow sideways, slamming it into faces and bodies and cars and buildings.

I didn’t plan for us to go to the mall. I was trying to get to the little adobe house at the community garden across the street from the mall. It’s squat and sturdy, close to the ground. Less likely to blow away or be bashed in by a falling tree. I thought if I could block the doors and windows with wood and snow we could get enough shelter from the wind.

It took us over an hour to walk there. We’d have been faster if we’d left my cart behind, but I couldn’t do that. A few times, I had to hold on to the cart with both hands to keep myself from being blown away. You were safely tucked into my big coat. By the time we finally made it to the garden, I knew we needed to be inside a real building.

I don’t like the mall. I’ve never felt safe there. But I knew there would be water, and food, and maybe heat. At least for awhile. We hid the cart in the underground parking garage, way over in one corner, behind the garbage bins under a ramp. I took out what I thought we might need, threw the tarp over the rest, and said a prayer. Then we climbed the smelly concrete stairs into the mall.

Outside it was all roaring wind and snow. Inside there was a totally different kind of roaring and I think it scared me more. So many flashing lights and sounds and overwhelming smells. In the food court people were stuffing their faces with ketchup-y fries and messy burgers, fried chicken, horrible orange sweet and sour sauce, tubs of bubble tea. Maybe they were trying to forget about the mess outside or pass the time while they waited for it to stop, or just filling their bellies while they had the chance. Above the food court, the huge tv screen was showing ads for holiday cruises and anti-aging cream and the latest kind of phones.

I’d wanted to be a tv weather girl when I grew up. Grandmother used to let me practice whenever I stayed over at her house. I would stand in front of the big map on the wall in her library and use the yardstick to point to places where I said there were “weather events.” Watch for trends, Grandmother advised. Notice how things are changing.

Grandmother always refused to go to the mall. She said it made her feel dirty. The only time she took me I was seven years old and I begged her to let me see Santa Claus. We waited in line for twenty minutes before she hauled me out by my coat collar and never went back.

By the time the power went off, you and I had found a good hiding place in the family bathroom, near The Gap. Each time we went out there were fewer people. I don’t know where they all went. Maybe they were in the parking garage. I wondered if I should check on my cart, but it felt too risky to leave our hiding place for that long. The emergency generator lasted only a few more hours.

We were still in the bathroom when the skylight collapsed into the food court. The sound woke me from a light sleep. A deep groaning then sharp cracks, like the sound when the thunderstorm is right over your house. A terrible clap. I heard a voice yelling, the roof, the roof! Then a screechy grinding. I pictured the metal frame of the skylight twisting and breaking. Then horrible crashing and thumping as if a dump truck had unloaded tons of boulders onto a glass table top. I held my breath, and maybe you held yours too, like we were deep-diving together. I didn’t breathe again until there was silence.

When I thought things had settled down enough to be safe, we went to have a look. All the tables and chairs were buried. I noticed a corner of the giant TV screen sticking up out of the snow mountain. But I didn’t see any body parts. I stood for awhile, just staring up at the open roof, shocked by how wonderful the fresh air felt, and how strange the wind sounded, whistling in circles above us. The sky was the colour of rotten potato.

That’s when Spider and Mavis came out of the WalMart and found me. I didn’t know they were in the mall too. I used to see them at the shelter sometimes. I knew they were good people. They offered me some of the juice they had, and some butterscotch candies. Spider jumped a little from foot to foot. He said he was just looking for some pain killers. I think Mavis could tell I was hiding you in my coat, I saw her looking down at my body with a sad smile, and then back at my face.

After that, we started spending more time out of our hiding place. Even though the snow and wind kept coming in through the hole in the roof, it was a comforting reminder that the sky was still out there. Someone started a fire in a garbage receptacle and people brought scraps of anything burnable to keep it going. The smoke floated up and out through the broken roof.

I heard a woman say that the snow is a plague sent by God to punish us. Spider said it’s the government’s fault. Mavis said her brother used to work for a company that flies those weather bombers—cloud seeders they call them. She said that her brother has made lots of weather, but never a storm like this. Spider said they were trying to make it rain because of the wildfires, and the drought, but they screwed up and made it snow instead. It’s too full of water, he said, it’s not frozen enough. That’s why it’s so heavy. Why the buildings are collapsing. Plague woman says only a God who loves us would send such a terrible destruction. God wants to purify us, she says.

But snow is just snow. I knew it would melt the way snow always does. And then we could start again.

I didn’t know how much longer I could keep us warm enough, though. I lined our little den with the shiny emergency blankets that I found in the camping store; I burned one of our candles for two inches before we went to sleep, then another two inches when we woke up again. The blankets reflected back the candlelight and you gazed up at it without blinking. But yesterday morning you had frost on your eyelids. I had to breathe on them before you could open your eyes.

Last night I dreamed about Grandmother’s mink coat. I was small again, in the dream, not tall enough to open the closet door. She was there, and she lifted me up so I could reach the knob. Inside, the coat floated in the centre of the empty space, not on a rack or a hanger, just suspended in the air, hovering above me. I reached up to touch it and when my fingers felt the hem, heat flowed down my arm into my shoulder and filled my whole body. I felt my muscles relaxing, my blood vessels and lungs expanding and oxygen flooding my brain. I felt as though I were filled with sunlight—not just shining on me, but actually inside me, radiating out. I could have heated a whole continent. As soon as I let go, the feeling ended and the cold returned.

I woke up with a plan. If Grandmother’s house was still standing, I could get the coat and we might have a chance. I knew that when the snow melted we could dig up the potatoes and carrots left in her garden. We could be warm and fed.

We had to get out of the mall. We had to believe we’re survivors.

Painting by Flavia Testa showing a house with lighted windows in an abstract forest.

Mi Casa es Su Casa by Flavia Testa

Love Handles

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It wasn’t until the pistol end of the revolver was about to enter my vagina that I finally took pause for thought. It wasn’t until the scene was set for them to make intimate acquaintance that I found cause to reflect. I’d have gone ahead and done the scene, were it not for the assistant director on the set who, just before the cameras were about to roll, leaned in and said, “Would you like a condom with that?”

Don’t get me wrong. There was no facetiousness intended. They were a genuinely kind and concerned crew, right down to the coffee girl. It was the context that gave me pause. Because it occurred to me: if a condom is in order, then have others, possibly in this position, with this very revolver, gone this road before me? What road do I travel, surely not the less travelled?

A friend of mine once said, “Grace, I have hit my nadir.” And I she thought she’d had a fight and smacked her Arab boyfriend. It was that kind of pause. Very long, resulting in the discomfort of cameramen and crew who, hitherto for, had been the very model of patience.

I removed the lusty revolver from between my legs and sent it on its way to props. Closing my legs I said, “Thank you, but I will not be needing a condom.” A cameraman was at hand to help me to my feet in my stilettos, avec dignity, sans pants. And I headed to the dressing room to get them.

But when I got there, I removed my false eyelashes and the gold spangled pasties and I sat. I sat and looked in the mirror at who I was without them.

You see, I was the girl who had it all, the pink bedroom, the parties, the pony rides. Even a year in Lucerne at a Swiss private school that mother said was the absolute end in finishing. This was before daddy left, and mother spent her winters in a spa in Biarritz. Anyway, there I was, all alone in my pigtails and my slippers, standing at the pay phone in the hall dorm, wailing, “I want to come home!”

“Is that what you really want?” Mother asked. “To come home in ignominy?”

“No,” I said. “But there is a flight on Lufthansa.”

Oh I know, I don’t look like much under the lights nowadays, sitting out here in my rocker on the porch all day. Wouldn’t mother have something to say about letting myself go. But I had my heyday, back when theatre school was just a log cabin in the woods. Kidding.

I started out as part of a travelling troop, school tours, the classics. Then I joined a raging lesbian collective called “Broadaxe.” It cut a swath so deep it left my career in tatters. From there I went on to have multiple affairs with my directors. Including two twins who were in the closet, followed by several years in a relationship with an abusive actor. He was meant to be my comrade in arms, he wasn’t meant to be an alcoholic. But he was. I’d like to say it was him who drove me to drink, but I’d be lying. He didn’t even own a car.

After that, I headed out west. By the time I reached the coast, I was at low tide, and washed up, too. And that was when I got this part in a play in North Vancouver about an exceptionally dysfunctional family. Nobody was getting laid, nobody was getting paid, but … I had this scene, only the one scene. I was a woman who comes out of nowhere and vanishes again without a trace and … she seemed to speak to me somehow.

I didn’t pay much attention to anyone throughout rehearsal, kept to myself more than usual. I think I was cautiously circling my “nadir,” wondering if it was going to hit me back. And then it was tech night. And there was this man, this slow, deliberate, very considered man, moving about in the shadows of that tiny theatre. It was Lloyd. He both designed the lighting and hung the lights. Slow as a possum, I think he even played dead every once in a while and just hung there, suspended in that darkened room.

And when it came to my scene, I could feel him standing there in the dark, looking at me. He didn’t move, and then, it hit me. The light. It was my light, it was perfect, no tinkering, dead on. Illuminating who I was.

I did my scene in my light as I looked for him in the darkness. He came down to the edge of the stage wearing this little, sly smileit comes out of the corner of his mouth when he’s about to feed you your laugh line.

“You found your light alright?” Lloyd asks.

“Yes,” I say. “It was easy. Your lights are very well hung.”

It was later, not very much later I’m afraid, when Lloyd and I were in bed together, that I asked him about this little silver pendant he wore around his neck.

“It’s a scarab beetle. From Egypt,” he says. “I always wear it when I’m in the theatre.”

“What is it?” I ask. “A kind of talisman?”

“No,” he says. “The scarab is also called the dung beetle because what she does her entire life is roll a ball of shit uphill. And as the ball rolls back down on her, she rolls it back up, again and again. It’s a metaphor for a life in the theatre.”

Well I laughed at that but Lloyd, he was dead serious.

“She does it because what’s inside that ball are her eggs,” he said. “She’s incubating the future, the next generation, the minds and hearts that will be played out on the stage of life. To the untrained mind, it’s just shit, but to us, it’s theatre.”

When we got married, Lloyd put this little beetle round my neck on a silver chain instead of a ring. It’s the only piece of jewelry I ever let him give me.

When he got sick, he got so thin, he hardly made a ripple in the sheets, just lying there, still as a lake with a loon. That last day, I changed the sheets and made the bed up fresh. I lifted him out of the chair, and he was light as a feather. It seemed to me that if I’d tossed him in the air he’d fly, he was that light. Fly away and disappear, right before my eyes.

“I’m losing my love handles,” he says to me. “And if I lose my love handles, you won’t be able to hold onto me. And I’ll die.”

Lloyd was the one who let go. I told him about the revolver and he laughed, and he was gone.

I went out on the porch and I sat in this rocker and I sat here quite some time. Lloyd shone a light on me, on all the layers of my life. And it became mine. So when he died, I didn’t disappear into the dark. Because I know he loved me.

Smog Can Be Thick, kittens can be cruel

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Author’s Note: I sneakily wrote SMOG CAN BE THICK, kittens can be cruel onstage as audience members were filing into the theatre during the pre-show of a new Canadian play by Elena Eli Belyea called Smoke (Downstage Theatre in Calgary, February 13-23, 2019). Smoke is about the aftermath of a sexual assault that may (or may not) have taken place between an otherwise loving couple. The victim and perpetrator have completely divergent recollections of that night and, in the play, confront each other for the first time in two years since the incident.

*RECORD SCRATCH*

What you are about to read has almost nothing to do with that. My character in Smoke, Aiden, is a fiction writer and I used to type out my first monologue over and over again to drill memorization and quell my jittery, top-of-show nerves. After some comfort set in, I used that opening monologue as a writing prompt to create something completely different. Zero resemblance. About as much shared DNA as foster siblings. It’s perverse, really. A total bastardization of its brilliant source material. This story is a peek into my zany mind, never intended to be read by anyone but those intimately involved in the production. It served as both a fun exercise and a love letter/farewell to this powerful and touching play.

*

Once upon a time, there was a town, unremarkable and not without its problems, but the people who lived there were happy to call it home, I guess. The town’s citizens and illegal immigrants spent their days buying groceries, walking their dogs, trying to walk their cats, getting deported, paying their phone bills, fucking their partners and, generally speaking, life wasn’t perfect, but it was good.

One day, a giant fire burned the entire town to the ground.

Historians will argue about its origins. If this was a different story, I would tell you possible theories include: an unattended stovetop, a badly extinguished campfire, amateur fireworks, lightning, that thing those stupid Jackass dudes do where they take a lighter to their buttholes when they fart, maybe arson. However, this isn’t a story about what started the fire. Not even close. In fact, this is the last time you will read the word “fire.” FIRE!

As plumes of smoke blossomed overhead, sirens sounded and firefighters were dispatched. While the professionals worked, the townspeople went to get their kittens from the basement for safe-keeping but it was too late, the kittens had already formed a rebellion. They named it JUSTICE: Right Fukkin Meow. All of a sudden, the fire was the least of their worries. (How long had sweet Fluffy been plotting?) Tha Kittenz sharpened their claws, inspired by the character Wolverine from the X-Men movies. Side note: pets are sponges, do NOT let them absorb any information you do not want coming back to you (i.e. mutants with powers) or you WILL regret it. The poor Mayor, Mr. Roboto, had his arms severely scratched by his newest rescue, Waffles. Immediately, he regretted not buying from a breeder. Shop, do NOT adopt, he reminded himself. When his assistant, Todd, called the SPCA, he said they had to wait two weeks to euthanize undeclared cats. The bastards. How dare they? KILL THEM MEOW!!

This made Todd wonder: what about the bitches? (The dogs, of course). If the cats were wreaking this much havoc, what about the canines? What about ALL the animals? Jesus … did all the pets learn how to use BBQ lighters? (Todd knew legalizing marijuana, which he still lovingly calls “ganja-juana,” was a HUGE mistake.)

With the War on Terror over, childhood obesity obliterated, racism completely solved, the cure for adult acne found and, for the first time ever, Peace in the Middle East, apparently all that remained was to wage interspecies wars. Bring it on, thought Todd. He hadn’t spent every tax return from the past seven years on illegal Canadian paintball equipment for nothin’! When he was four, the neighbour’s cat, Sugarfina, gave him a mean thrash across the temple, a scar he still carries today (sad-ass Harry Potter wannabe). Needless to say, he had scores on scores to settle.

That much was easy. The challenge truly laid in Todd’s deep love and affection for dogs. Growing up, he was a sour patch kid, which is to say he sucked—hard. Kids hated him. ADULTS hated him! (Seriously, his parents weren’t very fond of him; it’s actually kind of a sad story for another time.) Anyway, the real tragedy was that he was a foster fur daddy hosting seven pups at the moment. It would crush him to know Donny, Malone, Contigo, Fifi, Denton, Imelda, and Ines were actually little shits waiting to de-thyroid him. Between the “Threat Level MAMMAL” code called at the municipal building, it wasn’t hard to avoid going back home to his basement suite located beneath his long-time senior citizen roommates (his parents, aaaand they still hate him, by the way).

As the assistant to the mayor, Todd’s nebulous responsibilities included fielding calls from the mayor’s husband and mistresses. (Some backstory here: Mr. Roboto’s publicist thought it would be a good idea for him to marry a man to curry political favour even though the thought of making out with someone with stubble ironically gave him stress-induced alopecia. As a consolation prize, he is allowed to have up to three mistresses, no more.) When he called Darla, the mayor’s most recent acquisition after Chenise got too power-hungry and stole all the red envelope giveaways at a Lunar New Year’s gala, she said that her cats hadn’t come home from their nightly 8pm peepee breaks. Trying not to cause panic or incite a blackmail situation, and in addition to reminding her about the notarized NDA she’d signed, Todd told her all cats found outdoors after 8pm were now subject to mandatory spay/neutering and will be released after 3-5 business days. Whew.

After an arduous sixteen-hour shift, Todd was allowed to leave City Hall for a quick shower while Mayor Roboto had one of his “visits.” Dreading what he might find in the basement, he took the opportunity to gas up, squeegee his windshield, and put air in his tires before going home. When he finally worked his way down to his suite and jimmied the door open, the atmosphere in his foyer was eerily quiet. He checked on the kennels and found all seven sweet puppers asleep, like fluffy little wingless angels. Relief flooded all over his body but just as quickly, doubt seeped in like a silent fart. Were the puppies simply putting on puppy airs? Had they formed their own version of a rebellion, possibly entitled: No Puppy Love? Now Puppies Will Shove! (I know it’s terrible; it’s a working title).

That evening, Todd’s shower had very Psycho-like vibes. He imagined that each screech of the shower curtain rings was the squeak of the kennel doors. Shampooing with your eyes open is a dangerous game. It stings like a motherfucker. When he changed back into biz-caszh, he went to check on the litter again. Not a creature was stirring not even a…. Anyway, yeah, you get it. The kennels were empty and the doors carefully clasped shut again. Any creature sans opposable thumbs would not have been able to pull that off without great trouble.

Todd retrieved his spare key to the main floor from his old Betty and Veronica lunchbox. When he turned the corner into the living room, the familiar dull glow of his parents’ boob tube was reassuring until he saw that his father’s eyes had been pawed out and the Werther’s butterscotch candies from his pockets had been scattered all over the coffee table, half-eaten. Perhaps he was the star of a Hitchcock film, but instead of The Birds it was The Dogs? That was stupid but a horror film is not far off what Todd’s life had become. He himself had always wanted to be in office. In fact, Mr. Roboto was his old roommate in college. Once a shy Japanese law student, Mr. Roboto found himself a peer in Todd. After hearing Todd’s designs to go from “geek-to-chic” (a turn of phrase he stole from a rerun of Maury about high school losers who grew up to become hot), Kirk Roboto was touched, sincerely inspired, and found his exceptional bar exam results and extensive volunteer work just the thing to make him the perfect candidate for the highest municipal rank. Not only was he highly intelligent, he was also a “gay” man of colour! Todd didn’t stand a chance, his pansy-ass knew, and he threw in the towel early and settled for being his Number 2 (gross, always reminds me of doodoo). Born a straight white male, he did not take well to being second fiddle/not the center of the Universe. In fact, he took it very personally but the presence of his crippling anxiety had always prevented him from sabotaging the Mayor and he actually overcompensated by being an excellent, world-class assistant and professional secret-keeper. It did cross his mind, while fantasizing, that maybe he could come out as somewhat of a hero in this mammalian crisis.

Not having seen his mother or the puppies yet, Todd went upstairs to the second floor. Noticing adorable, albeit bloody little paw prints on the carpet of his parents’ master bedroom, he braced himself for the worst. Before opening the door he paused and realized that if these canine killers were still in there, mauling his mama, he would be completely defenseless. All his paintball gear was in the shed outside! Grabbing the first thing he could think to wallop them without too much damage, he went for the plunger from his childhood bathroom. He wondered how much ancient shit was on that thing before snapping back to reality: cute little doggies were KILLING PEOPLE!

In paintball, as in life, sometimes it was better to take the enemy by surprise. Violently whipping the door open, he found … nothing. All that remained was his parents ancient California King bed (space needed for all the sex they were no longer having), with its immaculate bedding and eleven decorative throw pillows. Where the eff was his mom and the dogs? How had the puppies escaped and his dad been murdered all in the time he took a paranoid, six-minute shower?

Just then a text came through from the City. “Get your ass down here, STAT!” Let me tell you, nothing irked Todd more than when non-medical professionals used medical jargon like STAT in non-medical situations, but at the same time he knew it meant Roboto was serious. He was at once panicked and relieved to leave his house (honestly, he didn’t really care what happened to his mom, he had grown quite attached to the puppies, though).

It is worth noting that although Todd seems like kind of nerdy, incel dickhead with only dogs for friends (facts!), he was very effective at his job. Kirk Roboto would never admit this but he secretly admired Todd’s drive, attention to detail, discretion, and especially fashion sense! In this way and this way alone do we find something redeeming about this textbook Loser. He was a motherfuckin’ workhorse. Snap to the Oblong Office, Roboto relays the news that ALL domesticated animals and pets have essentially gone on a violent, anarchistic strike, claiming they have had it performing tricks with the promise of treats and then maybe or maybe not receiving the aforementioned treats. IT WAS BULLSHIT!

Parenthèses

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Ceci pourrait avoir l’air d’un mauvais film. C’est pourtant la pâte de la vie, de ma vie et sans doute de celle de bien d’autres. Dans des sursauts de ce qui me reste d’indépendance ou de volonté, je veux, de temps en temps, me prouver que je peux me préserver un peu d’espace à moi. Un peu de clairvoyance. Alors, à force d’être suivie ou surveillée sans raison, je m’offre de toutes petites escapades, sans but précis sinon celui d’être seule avec moi-même, pour respirer la forêt ou le rivage, et je rentre noter mes idées, la tête rafraîchie.

Il existe des lieux isolés où je pourrais écrire tranquille. Mais il faudrait que je sois certaine de ne pas y être dérangée. Que le flot de mes pensées ne soit pas interrompu. Nous avons un petit chalet au bord de la mer, adossé à la forêt, face à un grand cap morcelé qui change de couleur avec chaque instant du jour et du soir. De blanc ou rose, il vire au bleu, au gris, au noir. Parfois, la brume l’efface totalement du paysage.

De ma table d’écriture face à la fenêtre, je peux observer les chalutiers passer, les bancs de baleine sauter, laissant derrière elles des remous que les goélands explorent. En sirotant une tasse de thé, le dos au poêle à bois ronflant, je peux voir les marées monter et descendre dans un rythme aussi régulier que celui des femmes. En hiver, les oiseaux picorent une dernière pomme suspendue à sa branche dénudée; une biche broute des herbes rares qui émergent de la première neige ou boit au ruisseau avant que les glaces ne le figent et ne taisent sa chanson. Les lupins et les pois de senteur, qui apparaissent près de la grève de galets en mai, illuminent le paysage en noir et blanc du rivage jonché de bois flotté. Les roses sauvages couvertes de rosée surgissent des bancs de brume, notes vives dans le flou du décor. À la recherche du nectar, les colibris de la belle saison plongent leur long bec fin dans les corolles des lys orange, à quelques centimètres de moi qui rêve immobile sur la terrasse. Puis les fleurs de feu, les verges d’or et les asters mauves viennent ajouter les dernières touches de couleur avant que la boue puis la neige ne recommencent leur manège ravageur et ne défassent tout. La scène n’est jamais la même; les habitants, qu’ils soient papillons, porcs-épics ou ratons laveurs, sont toujours fidèles aux rendez-vous.

Cependant, je n’ose même plus aller dans ce lieu qui offrait tant de repos et de baume à l’âme. La dernière fois que j’y ai passé un moment, à rêver et rassembler des idées, à jeter des mots sur une feuille, à m’y sentir renaître, j’ai fait l’erreur d’en parler en rentrant à la maison. J’ai été foudroyée du regard par l’homme qui gouverne ma vie. Comme si j’avais commis un crime. Je lui demande pourtant souvent d’aller y faire un tour en fin de semaine, mais il semble sourd à mes appels. Le lendemain de ma fugue poétique, il y est retourné, seul, pour tenter de comprendre ce que j’y avais fait. Pour analyser les empreintes de mon délit. Comme si les mots qui traversent une tête laissaient des traces. Il m’a semblé, ce jour-là, que mon refuge avait perdu sa magie. Que je ne pourrais pas y retourner sans me sentir coupable d’une faute que je n’avais pourtant pas commise : rechercher la sérénité dans un cadre enchanteur afin que les mots se mettent en place d’eux-mêmes dans ma tête et sur le papier.

Pourtant, je ressens régulièrement un grand besoin de respirer un bol d’air pur, d’être dans un espace où puiser un peu d’encre, de recouvrer l’exigence de l’isolement nécessaire à la création. Et peut-être, un besoin de narguer la bêtise.… Alors, je pars sans rien dire et surtout, je ne vais nulle part. Je parcours des paysages que je redécouvre sans cesse, qu’ils soient vallées enneigées, collines verdoyantes ou rivages venteux. Je me fonds dans leur tranquillité, je deviens caméléon. Et j’ai le sentiment éphémère d’avoir coupé, pour un instant, tous les fils qui permettaient au marionnettiste de me manipuler. Être dans un endroit indéterminé, pour un instant hors du temps. Ne plus faire partie de la civilisation.… S’exclure de soi-même pour se préserver. Luxe qui pourrait paraître ridicule, mais dont les bienfaits sont incommensurables.

Je me demande à quoi ressemblent les parenthèses des autres. Je me souviens que pour une femme du bout de la route, il n’y a eu que l’ouverture de la parenthèse. Elle n’a pas su la refermer. Elle est restée suspendue au bout de sa corde, ses rêves interrompus.… Pourtant, les escapades sont faites pour couper les ficelles, pour déployer les ailes. Pour trouver d’autres mots à écrire. Mais son journal, ce jour-là, n’avait offert qu’une page définitivement blanche. Encre séchée. Je regarde mon cahier et me demande si je dois retourner dans la forêt, aujourd’hui festonnée de vert et de blanc, ou m’acharner à démêler des mots qui n’existent peut-être pas pour exprimer un besoin de paix sans limites.

Badass Orla

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“Hope Acres has unfurnished suites so you can bring your own furniture. It’s like a small hotel with a therapeutic pool and a roof garden.” Moira’s still hell-bent on shunting Orla into a biddy villa.

“Never mind all that.” Orla waves a sheaf of papers. “Dr. Moffatt came through with my referral. I’m to be a guinea pig!”

To Ms. Orla McWhinney from Health Canada: In fall 2018, St Michael’s Hospital Medical Research Program will conduct a double-blind study to evaluate the impact of Vitamin D injections on geriatric depression. As a participant in Phase 1 Trial: High-Dose Vitamin D, you will be entitled to the following benefits at no cost: study-related clinic visits, lab tests, study medication, travel expenses. Compensation: $800.

“But Orla,” Moira sighs, “what about your diabetes?”

“Oh huff and puff,” Orla says, “Dr. Moffatt explained about cutting back on boiled sweets. Hopefully I won’t sprout three heads, haha.”

“They want your informed consent,” Moira shrills. “Have you even read these forms?”

Orla rummages through her drawer full of bingo daubers and mint humbugs for a pen then signs on for six outpatient visits and three nights at the research facility in Mississauga. For overnights, Orla packs her track suit and Nivea cream in a sponge bag reeking of Sloan’s Liniment.

“Don’t be afraid to use the shower,” Moira nags.

 


Bedazzled by Lisa-Maj Roos

 

Ten women and ten men separated into fluorescent dormitories with single beds, private lockers and flat-screen TVs. Orla’s new roommates are Melva, a sallow blonde in a blue onesie, and Dory, a glassy-eyed woman with heavily veined arms. With the exception of one ruddy-faced, bearded man in a fedora, the whole group falls into a pecking order: a secretive coffee klatch by the vending machine, a knit-and-bitch circle, and several nutters who won’t stop pacing. They all line up for their injections alphabetically. Orla is Number 6.

Lucas the venipuncturist has a coaxing manner. “Alrightee, Number 6 show me your bingo wing. That’s it. One, two, three….” Orla quickly loses count of all the needles and syringes.

Armed with vending-machine cocoa and a stack of Woman’s Day, Orla makes a beeline for the glassed-in patient lounge. Melva barges in nattering about her grandson: “During diaper changes, he calls out: ‘I’ll be right back!’ Isn’t that too cute for words?” Orla wrestles the wingback chair into a corner and takes cover behind Ikea birch-tree curtains.

In the dormitory that evening, the nightlight casts shadows on the upper bunk. The heat vent makes a tick-tick, pock-pock sound. Melva and Dory are both out for the count by ten. Even with her failing eyesight, Orla can conjure up shapes in the dark like a magic lantern show. Cormorants wheeling over the Irish Sea, a pooka in the guise of a white hare. By some miracle, she doesn’t have to pee all night.

*

The man in the fedora and beard pretend-knocks on Orla’s cubicle then pushes the curtain aside. “Howdy. My name’s Orie. This your first clinical trial? Go easy on the bacon burgers or your cholesterol’ll go through the roof. They load us up with heavy foods cause blood draws can be enervating.” Orie withdraws then parts the curtain again with one meaty hand, a saggy-jowled Green Man peering through faux-verdant leaves. “You don’t look depressed. Keep your distance from the cuckoo clocks in here and you’ll be alright.”

”Orie? Now there’s a coincidence for you. My name’s Orla. If you don’t mind me askin, howd’ya pass the screening for geriatric depression?”

“I told my doctor my Labrador retriever died last month and I’m still not over it.”

“Oh you’re terrible!” Orla titters. “Depression’s no laughing matter. S’pose I’m just as bad though. I told my GP I could feel a kind of fog closin’ in on me. ‘Dr. Moffatt,’ I said, ‘did you know Ireland ranks second on the list of most depressed people in the western world just behind Iceland?’”

“Well, well. You’re quite the little schemer aren’t you?” Orie says, his eyes shining.

*

Orla watches from her hidey-hole by the window as five male lab rats hurl snowballs into the ravine then piggyback-joust till one of the heftier geezers topples onto his back and limps inside. Rather than head downtown on a day pass, they’ve hung about the research station’s ugly, treeless preserve, their brain receptors awash in Vitamin D.

“Look at the state o’ them!” Orla marvels. She wanders back to the dorm for a quick nap before the next cattle call. In that drowsy, half-oblivious state where you’re not asleep yet you’re dreaming, Orla witnesses a fireball of unknown origin obliterating every nursing home sign for miles: “Caution, Senior Moment in Progress” … “In Dog Years, I’m Dead” … “Retirement Living at Its Best.”

After the final blood draw, Orie appears in the patient lounge. He points to his fancy rubber-soled slippers. “Columbia. Top of the line. Next month I’m off to Northwest Territories to test thermal underwear. I’m their moisture-wicking, anti-crotch rot guy. You should sign on, Orla. You don’t need a doctor’s letter, the money’s good and there’s no needles. Columbia Sportswear used to be a bunch of twerps in snowboard pants but now they’re targeting the fifty-plus market. My new motto is: ‘The future is age-neutral. Get used to it punks.’”

*

Hectic blotches appear on Orla’s cheeks. Her hair sticks up like she’s been sleeping in a hedge. She waves Moira aside and lurches to the car with a rolling sailor’s gait.

“Jaysus and the wee donkey but I feel grand. Like a few kinks in my brain got ironed out. They treat you like something in a glass case in there! Not stingy with the grub either. Steak, mushrooms and spuds.”

Just then, Orie pulls up in a Jeep Wrangler and rolls down his window. “Call you next week, Orla?” he hollers.

“Who is that?” Moira asks but Orla is already long gone.

Insurgency

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I’m looking at a photo in a magazine. It’s part of a four-page photo essay called “How We Were.” The kid in the photo could be me in 1963. The clothes this kid is wearing are the clothes I had: the striped t-shirt, the baggy pants, the Keds shoes. And her short brown hair is pinned on one side with a hair clip, exactly how I used to pin my hair back.

All the kids in this photo—there are nine of us—are standing in a circle in a parking lot; we’re all holding bikes. We are about seven years old. The circle is perfect and we are looking at a tall teenager standing in the middle of it. She’s in shorts, a white shirt, white knee socks and white running shoes. She looks like a camp counsellor.

My first thought on seeing this photo is strange. It’s not, Oh look, I remember that bike, or, I loved that t-shirt, or, Plastic streamers on the handle bars, I remember those—and playing cards pegged to the wheel spokes. No. My first thought is this: Why am I standing there in that circle like a trained circus pony, waiting to be told what to do?

But now that I think of it, I spent a lot of time as a kid going round in circles, or waiting to be told to go round in circles. Either it was circles in gym class when we were running or swimming, or it was horseback riding in circles. Campfire circles or singing circles or reading circles or drama circles or circles at birthday parties. Sitting in circles, standing in circles, perched on a fat pony going round in circles. I was always going round in circles, or waiting to be told to go round in circles, now that I think of it.

If my mind could go back in time and inhabit the body of my seven-year-old self, I would get on my bike, get out of that circle and ride the wrong way down a six-lane highway or straight into a wall, jumping off at the last second. Or maybe, I would set fire to the bike, and the plastic streamers and playing cards would spew out a dense, black storm of smoke.

It occurs to me now that everything I did as a kid was an act of radical obedience in some way or other, whether I was playing with other kids or learning how to print in class, reciting the Lord’s Prayer or watching Lassie on TV in living colour, eating Lucky Charms or just sitting alone, thinking. Somebody always told me what to do and what to think, and I always did it, I always thought it. I never knew any other option. It never occurred to me not to comply. I always found my place in the circle and stayed there, waiting to follow the instructions of whomever was standing in the middle of it.

And as I got older, it was no different. The circles got bigger and looked a little ragged and lopsided sometimes, but they were all concentric, and the person at the centre was never me. All those years, it was really just the same circle, the circle I never stepped out of.

 


Dancing in Barcelona by Heather Drysdale

 

Now here I am, I have a job as a legal secretary, I have a husband and a two-storey house and a small blue car, and I am still in this circle. Instead of looking at the camp counsellor waiting to be told what to do, I am looking at my husband, waiting, or the cashier, waiting, or the yoga instructor, waiting, or my boss, who is always ready to tell me what I should be doing, and sometimes I look at the cat in that same way, waiting.

In this moment, as I look at this photo, I see it all—all my life as one single prolonged act of obedience, as deep-rooted as prayer—and I want like blazes to go back and change everything. And the first step would not be riding the bike down a six-lane highway. No, I would just wheel it over to the camp counsellor and say to her:

“Here. Take this junk heap. I don’t need it.”

And I would drop it, just let go of it, and it would clatter to the ground in a satisfying way. Then I would stand right in front of her and look straight at her and say:

“Who do you think you are, telling me what to do? Go fuck off and take all of these poor suckers with you. I’m moving to Barcelona or maybe Berlin. And if you so much as breathe a word of this to my parents, you’ll be swimming with the fishes with a cement block tied to your neck. I know someone who can take care of that, so keep your trap shut. Understand?”

Then I would march off towards the train station. At which point, someone would probably find me and grab me and put me in some kind of detention centre or boot camp for delinquents where I would trash and smash everything—all the furniture, television sets, pastel pictures on the walls, magazines with photo essays in them, and even those stupid books like Nancy Drew and the Famous Five—until maybe I’d end up in solitary confinement, and I’d trash the walls in there too, with anything I could get my hands on, a plastic spoon or fork, or even my own blood if I had to use that. There would be no end to speaking my indignation for as long as I lived, even if I had to slam my head against walls to do it. Then and only then would I know that every moment was mine—in living anger—every moment my own blood-red insurgency.

There I am in that circle, just standing there waiting. And here I am, years later, in the same circle, sitting here waiting. But now it’s different. It might look like I’m waiting for my husband to come home. But I’m not. I’m waiting for the right moment.

Big Chop

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Grace cut through the Common as she walked to her appointment at Crowning Glory. A monarch butterfly crossed her path. Grace paused, surprised. It flew left, right, then dipped low near a bed of mature coneflowers. The insect’s large orange and black wings opened and closed in the afternoon sun. It floated high behind an oak tree and disappeared. Grace stared after the insect feeling hopeful. Monarchs were still here. Perhaps it was migrating south. She couldn’t remember seeing one since she was a kid. She was forty-five now. “Half way to ninety,” a niece had gleefully shouted at Grace’s birthday.

Outside the Common, Grace crossed several lanes of traffic, the hot asphalt and metallic thrumming of engines a counterpoint to the peace of the garden. Entering the salon a few blocks later, she found Patti humming to gospel playing in the background. “Have a seat, my dear,” Patti waved her in. “What are we doing today?”

Grace greeted Patti, sat in the hairdresser’s chair and examined herself in the mirror. Gray and silver and white had taken over her once black hair. She had resisted pressure to dye it in her thirties. The grayer it got, the harder it became to style. Wiry grays refused to curl tightly with the rest. Grace held up her phone with a photo of the hairstyle she wanted. “You want the big chop?” Patti raised her eyebrows. “You sure?”

Grace had been here once before. A different chair, another mirror. At twenty, she cut off the chemically straightened hair she’d cultivated since her early teens, though no one called it a big chop back then. In high school, she had wanted long smooth hair, to help her fit in, a black girl in her mostly white suburb and school.

In university, she’d embraced her blackness, despite not always knowing what that meant. Her father was Ghanaian, born in Accra, her mother Black Nova Scotian, from Dartmouth. Growing up, she’d been teased for being African. She was African and Scotian, not always enough, or too much, of both. Cutting her hair short the first time had been exciting. An experiment. She wanted to find herself, try new things. She loved the soft spring of her tight curls, the round shape of her head. “Now you really look African,” exclaimed her roommate Meg, after that first cut. She and Meg, who was adopted, had spent time discussing their backgrounds, though Meg tended to make a joke of everything. Grace rolled her eyes. “What? You do,” Meg insisted. “It’s cool,” Grace said. African. She took it as a compliment.

Grace had kept her hair short for over a year, wearing hoops and lipstick so she wouldn’t be mistaken for a boy. Then she grew it long and kept it in its natural state, her hair evolving alongside her education and career. After two degrees—Psychology and Human Resources—she’d moved through several jobs in staffing and training, eventually finding herself managing labour relations in university admin. It wasn’t the academic teaching career her parents had envisioned for her, but she earned a good living.

At work, she styled her hair in sleek buns and updos, occasionally wearing a blow-out straight style and receiving compliments for looking “professional.” After mentioning her impending cut at work last week, her co-worker Marcia said, “You’ll pull it off. I’m not ready to give up yet. Maybe when I’m seventy.” Grace didn’t think she was giving up. Would she look chic, as another friend suggested, or just old? Was short hair giving up on femininity? She wanted to feel attractive and natural, for herself rather than her boyfriend or friends.

Grace looked up at Patti, who was waiting for a reply. “I’m sure,” Grace said. Patti was older than Grace, but looked younger, her long black braids wound high on her head, her dark brown skin still smooth. Glancing in the mirror again, Grace thought she glimpsed her ninety-one-year-old grandmother winking back at her, a long white braid resting on her shoulder. Graced blinked away the image, feeling foolish.

No, Grace reassured Patti, she hadn’t broken up with Shawn. Or quit her job. No one close to her had died. “I have to ask,” Patti said. “People come in here after some dramatic event, get their hair cut off or dyed blond.” Patti lowered her voice. “Then they’re back here crying, saying what have I done?”

“Not me, I promise.” Grace laughed, but she had thought about it for months. Carry on or let go? Her hair represented years of effort and identity, history. She was ready to leave behind the products, the prep time, her look.

There was a flash of metal in the mirror as Patti poised her scissors above Grace’s head. The radio had shifted from Yolanda Adams to old school R ‘n B. Aaliyah, Luther, TLC. Grace relaxed, sat a little straighter in the chair. “Ok,” she signaled to Patti. As Patti began to cut large sections of her hair, Grace came back to wondering about herself. Why should her hair be so much of her self? What was identity anyway? Life’s losses and accumulations, she supposed. Small shifts in awareness.


Been Caught Dreaming (1990) by Chrystal Clements

Grace hadn’t married. Despite some early troubles and times apart, Grace and Shawn had always gone back to each other. When they were younger, she’d worried he’d leave her. In their thirties, he wanted children, she was unsure. She had started a new job and was afraid to take time away as her career was solidifying. Then, she thought they’d be tied together forever if they had a child. She waited too long. Privately, they spent time and money on fertility treatments. The agony of waiting, the expectations and failures, exhausted them. When she turned forty, she’d had enough, and they stopped trying. She was relieved. Shawn was sad. Still, they remained committed to each other.

Shawn was a fun uncle to their nieces and nephews, who had rotated through their townhouse over the years. She’d viewed them all with slight detachment initially, even the two from her own brother. When she babysat them, their quirks made her laugh; she realized she loved them. She had wanted her own: a reflection of herself, a sum of her life with Shawn, she admitted that now. Her body had thwarted her tardy realizations. Or had it been the other way around?

“No regrets, right?” Patti questioned and ordered at once, as she continued to cut. “No regrets,” Grace echoed, while thinking of things she had in fact regretted—the too-corporate work, the years spent seeking approval from family and friends. Her indecision.

Grace knew it was time for a change one evening last month. The August full moon, bright orange at the horizon, was rising. Its neon glow drew her to the window. She had a premonition she wouldn’t sleep that night. Ruminating at midnight, Grace got out of bed, and made her way downstairs. She banged her knee as she sat at the kitchen table, awash in moonlight. A spot on her right kneecap, scarred from a car accident in her teens, was itchy and rough. Though the scars had long since receded, a single raised keloid remained. Feeling an opening, she scratched until a single shard of glass, the size of a grain of sand, emerged from the scar. Grace was impressed, all that time, her body held this minute fragment. She rubbed the shard in her fingers and felt it slip to the floor. She thought she would tell Shawn, but it was gone. She reclined in the kitchen chair and pulled at the long spirals of her hair. The silver coils shimmered in the white light. “It’s too much,” she decided. “I’ll cut it.” Tired finally, she returned to bed. She would make an appointment in the morning.

“A little shorter, please, Patti,” Grace said, focusing on the mirror again. Patti’s experienced fingers cut deftly, shorter and lower, until her hair was neat and close-cropped. Clumps of thick curls lay on the floor around them. Patti held a hand mirror up for Grace to examine the back. She could see her scalp through the soft gray fuzz, only a hint of curl remained at the crown of her head.

Grace rubbed her head, feeling exhilarated and a lightness. She paid Patti, thanked her and stepped out of the salon into the parking lot, pleased with herself. Across the street was a busy shopping centre, to the right the Macdonald Bridge streamed Saturday afternoon traffic. At left, on a vacant lot of scrub and loose concrete, crickets sang against the street noise. Or were they cicadas hidden in the dry grass and weeds? A chorus to the passage of time, which, if you weren’t careful, Grace thought, went by unacknowledged. A disappearing monarch, a lost shard. Hair sheared off and swept away.

Animal Kingdom

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Richie and I were almost finished our morning constitutional, once around the lake, when he sprang it: “Why don’t we have a baby?”

The call of a passing loon muzzled my response as I stooped to pat a French bulldog, a veritable blob of lard on the trail. These pre-work strolls are one way of fighting our middle-age spread. More importantly, they’re a chance for me to see dogs. Richie isn’t a dog person.

Straightening up, I brushed a pine needle off his jacket’s Why sleep with a drip? logo.

“That is so juvenile.” I laughed and sipped my Timmy’s—double-doubles also part of our routine. Richie gripped his cup in his teeth, felt for his keys. A plumbing contractor, he’s always feeling for something. Likes a bit of fresh air before facing the day’s “sore” gas, as he pronounces it.

“I’m serious,” he said.

I listened to a squirrel nattering, gathering acorns for winter though the leaves had only just started to drop. A Shih Tzu charged after the bulldog. Neither breed makes great petting material, as I prefer larger dogs. Given the slim pickings, I might as well have been at work, getting ready to open the shop. Then Richie blindsided me again: “Here’s the deal, Cher. I’ll give you a dog if you give me a baby.”

Like being laid into by a Bullmastiff, I nearly fell out of my flip-flops. Next, it was as though some pricey shop swag had tipped over and smashed: we both went mute as if gauging the damage. Birds and squirrels alike shut up. You could’ve heard a salamander scoot for cover. Richie was serious?

“I mean, hon—you’re not exactly a teenager.” He shrugged helplessly. “Piss or get off the pot, right?”

“A baby? Really? For starters, you have to take classes, learn to breathe and that.”

“You can’t just get that on YouTube?”

“Drive me to work.” I centred my thoughts on the relaxation CDs collecting dust in the shop. Would pairing each six-disc Call of Nature set with a pine-scented candle help move them?

 


Autumn Flower Brick by Joan Bruneau

 

Richie didn’t speak again until we got in the truck. “We’ve been together three years. Isn’t a baby the next step? I mean, where else can the relationship go? Think of the fun we’d have making it.”

Fun. My libido was a twinge roughly in the vicinity of the IUD I hoped to have removed someday before I expired—and not in hopes of pregnancy. “No, you piss off. I’m forty years old!” He also knew I’d wanted a puppy since forever, long before he’d entered the scene. “Besides, I know you’re not serious. I see that look you get watching people’s dog videos.”

“Right, I get it. You’re too busy. Scared of being a shitty parent.”

“Sure, okay, whatever.” I took a hasty swig. Lukewarm coffee dribbled down my blouse better suited, perhaps, to a nubile teen. I was happy to have reached the stage where of the three Bs—business, boobs and babies—only the first rated.

“Really, Cheryl. I’m not kidding. You’d be great.”

“You’re being an ass.” I shook his empty cup. “Never wanted a kid before, why now? Feeling your age?” Age was something we skirted, his being four years younger.

We gunned it out of the gravel lot. “Like, all this time building up the plumbing business. Who’ll I leave it to?”

“That’s just BS.”

Yet, dropping me off, he sounded hopeful: “You’ll consider my offer?”

I jumped out of the truck, gazing at the portable sign I rent by the month and have outside the shop. I retrieved a half-eaten burger from underneath it. What every woman doesn’t want: picking up after littering arseholes.

A relief letting myself into the shop. A place where a gal can be at home with her thoughts and feelings without some guy inflicting his: this describes my business plan. Bed to bath décor and self-pampering items for the woman who has everything. And feeling in need of something right now, I bee-lined to the handbags I’d brought in for fall, the best Prada knock-offs available. Faux python, fringed pleather. I selected a rust-coloured one, admired its proportions against mine in the mirror. What I saw was a person in command of her likes and dislikes, of life generally, and not shy about letting anyone know. The purse complemented some other fall merchandise: cinnamon and pumpkin spice candles and marsh heather wreaths decorated with red, orange and gold silk leaves. The comforts and joys of post-Back to School, anticipating Thanksgiving. Shelves of summer stuff hadn’t sold though: beach bling, fairy figurines, tole-painted garden accents, the whole nine yards. But any luck, with kids out of their hair my regulars would have more time to shop.

First things first though, I rustled up the letters to re-jig the signage. What Women Want!!! Endless summer. B.O.G.O.!! Richie deserves credit for coming up with the store name: What Women Want. Not babies, at this stage in life. His oversight stung me. Here’s a man who, at petting zoos, lets goats eat from his pockets but won’t allow a dog in the house. A guy who thinks nothing of unclogging condoms from septic systems yet balks at using one.

I dug for my phone, punched in his number. When he answered, his voice echoed as if trapped in a closet. A trickling sound triggered my need to pee. “You know how I feel about children. How dare you raise it?” I said, and hung up.

Busying myself, I ran the feather duster over some crystal elephants, pigs and rabbits, all sweetly displayed on mirrored shelves, and tidied some hand-painted rocks. I rearranged bath bombs and cupcake soaps so realistic-looking that someone’s toddler had taken a bite out of one. As I orange-stickered the summer clearance stock, a sudden gloom descended: my entire adult life I’d made a point of avoiding exactly what Richie had suggested, starting a family. Though I’d always wanted a puppy, I’d never had space for one. It didn’t seem fair to get a dog then leave it crated all day.

My phone tinkled. Richie. I let his call go to voice mail. I put on a squirrel CD, lit a balsam candle. Composed a pitch: Bring the outdoors to the bedroom, let him take you glamping not camping. The trick, I told my clientele, was letting your man think you were doing it for him: bubble baths by candlelight, juniper and jasmine perfuming the sheets. I dusted the angels by the cash, re-arranged the plaques. My favourite salad is a G&T. Every hour is wine o’clock. Taking a break, I watched a talking dog on YouTube. Maybe I could start a sideline in canine accessories, do for dogs what others had done for cats—but not until the summer merch cleared. I visualised a promotion, Queen For A Day, raffle tickets on patioware with a dollar-store tiara thrown in. Treat yourself!!! If necessary, the beach bling could be stored, cruise season was just six months away. The season of legal abandonment, a mom called it once, juggling twins while she hunted for dragonfly earrings.

Until meeting mothers at the shop, the most exposure I’d had to kids was driving past the daycare. Most people know better than to bring children into the store, thanks to the Break it, you buy it reminders posted everywhere. Fair warning. Still, ladies with babies and toddlers sometimes slip in, quilted diaper bags slung over their shoulders. The awful pastel accessories. Wipes, bottles, diapers, formula. Imagine leaving the house with all that crap. I draw the absolute line at strollers. The stroller stays outside, I’ve said on several occasions. What would I do with a baby? Then there’s the crying.

Fighting my gloom, I imagined Richie’s bribe. Visualized a panoply of breeds. Shepherds, huskies, collies. Sheepdogs, doodles. Beagles, pit bulls, basenjis, rotties, barring schnauzers, cockapoos, spaniels. In a welter of imagined yips, visions of pink and blue suddenly swarmed my brain, a Walmart’s worth of baby stuff. And it hit me squarely, honestly, how wanting things is what makes the world go around.

Things you didn’t even realize you wanted until someone planted the seed.

Especially things that might be harder to get with age.

Something you unexpectedly decide might not be such a bad idea after all.

A baby.

The phone rang. Richie, again. This time I picked up. His voice was a freight train: “You won’t believe this morning’s job. Kid flushed a dinosaur down the john, the mom flushed a diaper. By accident. What was I thinking: a kid?” He was on a break, would see me in a sec.

When he walked in, he was all “Whatcha saying, Cher?” Like the deal had never been proposed and nothing had come between us. His coveralls were stained and he smelled a bit bad. Oddly, he went straight to the purses too, chose my fav.

“You should be home taking a shower.” I waited for him to bring it up. Knock me over with a feather. I wanted him to bring it up.

“Kids running the show at this place. Total animals. The parents, nice people but useless. Epic failures. If I ever mention a baby again, shoot me. No wonder they make you take breathing lessons. Fuck.”

Only then I noticed something moving under the top of Richie’s coveralls. When he tugged down the zipper, a tiny head squirmed free. It was a teacup Chihuahua that just fit in his palm, smaller than a wallet.

“Who knows what got into me, springing that on you? Must’ve been something I was smoking. Us having a kid!? Craziness. Don’t worry, it’s passed.”

Gentle as could be, Richie slipped the pup into my favourite purse. “There you go, babe. Accessorize. ‘Pimp yo’ puppy.’ Like her?”

I held the purse tight. The pup was like a baby kangaroo inside its pouch.

“Looks good on you, Cher.”

It did, and, short of Timmies becoming some magic elixir of youth, I had what I wanted. Sort of.

Quickening

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My wife is not pregnant.

Two pink lines have appeared on the wand.

What now? I ask.

Hen shrugs and drops the stick into the bin. Now we wait.

Later, while she is sleeping, I slip out of bed and back to the bathroom. Hen is meticulous. The test is in the garbage; the instructions are in the recycling. It’s just as I thought: the pink lines.

When you are waiting for something, time cannot move fast enough. One day Hen says she went to the doctor. I rinse a plate and place it on the rack. She wraps a glass in a dish cloth. Water dampens the edge of my sleeve. I pull it up with my teeth and ask what the doctor said.

Hen turns to put the glass in the cupboard. Everything is fine. I’m going back in two months.

She doesn’t have to say the word: ultrasound.

In the middle ages, a woman was not considered pregnant until the baby quickened. That means, until she felt movement. Before that first kick, women could do anything and it didn’t count—poisons, pessaries, jumping up and down. The medievals got up to all sorts of things.

Babies need a lot of stuff. A crib. A stroller. They won’t let you leave the hospital without a car seat. We have a little car, a two-seater. Last year we almost traded it in for a cross-over. That turned out to be a mistake. We had to give up the deposit. One grand. But there are worse things to lose.

The medievals had it easy. The baby moved and the woman felt it and then she knew: pregnant. A clear line in the sand. But now, who’s to say? The way people go on about the sanctity of life. Sperm meets egg and then bam! It’s a baby. God has said. If you ask me, God doesn’t give a damn. This is what Hen and I think: the first three months don’t count. There’s nothing worse than a couple who announces they are four weeks pregnant. Hen says—and I agree—that’s just a late period. If you ask me, there shouldn’t be balloons or presents until after the baby makes its entrance. But then, no one’s asking me.

I pick Hen up at the office. Her face has gone white.

What took you so long?

She slides into the seat carefully. My hand makes a fist around the gear stick.

Hen touches my wrist. Neil. Go slow.

I drive like an eighty-year-old. Cautious, hugging the curb in case we need to stop. Hen has one hand on her head, one on her stomach. Elbow on the arm rest. We need to start keeping a bucket in the car. I ease into the driveway and she is already out, sprinting for the door. I linger, waiting for the flush. I can hear her heaving. I want to go inside, hold her hair. I wait with a cold face cloth. And I am thinking: This didn’t happen last time.

Ultrasounds are not how they look on TV. There’s never a doctor present, only a tech. The tech has a script. Look—there’s the head. Do you see? It’s a boy. It’s a girl. Congratulations! Twins. But if one thing goes wrong, if the baby forgets its cue, the tech gets cagey. Is everything all right? You can ask and ask until you’ve worked yourself into a panic. Your wife—feet in the stirrups—can start crying and still the tech won’t look you in the eye. The doctor will call you. That is what they are trained to say. It’s not the tech’s place to deliver the doctor’s lines.

At eight weeks the fetus measures less than an inch. It’s not even a baby yet. You can’t expect much from a tiny bunch of cells.

Hen’s sister comes by on Saturday. The girls have a date—shopping and a movie. We’ve had a bad night. Hen in and out of bed. Three am, crying with exhaustion. Why can’t I just throw up? Cells dividing and dividing. All the havoc they can wreak.

Daphne speaks in news bulletins. The new season’s stock is out! And there are sales! She’s already looked up the movie listings! Hen’s eyes are sunk into her face. Ten thirty and she’s still in a robe. I nurse an herbal tea in solidarity.

They disappear into the bedroom while Hen gets dressed. I hear murmurs through the doorway. In the kitchen, I make a list. Groceries. Mow the lawn. Replace light bulbs. The bathtub needs re-caulking. The girls leave and I close the door behind them. What I really need is a double espresso.

There are things you must not do when the pink lines appear. You must not research strollers online. You must not paint the spare room and call it a nursery. You must not choose a name. Chickens that are counted will never hatch.

We used to go to these meetings. Couples, or sometimes just women on their own, would sit around a circle and tell stories. It was a bit like AA or maybe Vegas. It was awkward at first, sharing things with strangers that we hadn’t even told our families, our closest friends. But not all of it was bad. We went three times, maybe four. Hen never said much in the group and then later, at home, even less. The last meeting we went to, a woman showed us a toque she had knit. It was brown with ears like a bear. Theodore would have worn this, she said. Theodore would have worn this and he would have gone tobogganing in the snow. She started crying and I felt Hen tense up beside me. Later in the car, she said, For fuck’s sake. That was the end of those meetings.

Hen says Daphne is coming with us to the appointment. I’m surprised she told her.

Hen says: I tell my sister everything. Is it okay that I invited her?

Yes, of course. I kiss her forehead. Your sister should be there.

Daphne’s great. I’m glad she’s coming with us. I don’t tell Hen this, but I’ve been doing my homework. Odds are, this time will be smooth sailing.

Hen pokes her head into the fridge. I’m starving. Let’s order in.

We used to be different. Hen was the one who had said, I know a great Pakistani place; let’s go. She was the one who invited me upstairs for a drink that never got poured. And in the morning, spreading marmalade on toast: I’m not usually like this.

I didn’t believe her. I watched her lick orange goop off her finger, standing there in a t-shirt and panties, and thought: I’ll never see this girl again. But then, she turned to the coffeemaker and said, over her shoulder, What are you doing later?

When no one else knows what to say, you can always count on the doctors. When everyone else has run out of words, they’ve got all the acronyms. D&C to remove the retained POC. The doctors will be brisk. They will brook no nonsense. It is their job to take care of these things. Quickly. Efficiently. This is more common than you might think. The human body is intelligent. One chromosome goes AWOL and the buck is stopped. Abort the mission. POC. Products of conception.

A date is circled on the calendar. For two months, we pretend it isn’t there. And go through the motions. Life as usual. We text each other from the office. A carton of milk. Movie at eight. One Saturday we drive out to the Gatineau Hills. The foliage has turned autumnal and crunchy. We climb to a point, a little clearing that looks out over a lake. Down below, the trees are the colours of a sunset. Hen says: Summer knows how to make a good end.

We don’t speak of the other thing. It has planted itself in the middle of our lives and we skirt around it, living on its periphery. Hen exists in a permanent state of exhaustion. By eight pm, she’s yawning, mouth open wide like a cave. I wait until she’s asleep, then wind myself around her, torso against spine, nose to neck. I kiss her bare shoulder. She exhales in truncated snores. I whisper things to her and imagine the words travelling through the dark tunnel of her ear, being carried, by blood vessels and tiny capillaries, to every part of her body—her heart, her brain, her womb.

On the afternoon of the appointment, Daphne picks us up. I fake a cavity to leave work early. I don’t know what excuse Hen used. Maybe she kept it simple—took a vacation day.

She’s already riding shotgun when Daphne pulls up. I sit in the middle, perched on the edge of the seat, behind the parking brake. Daphne is nattering. She’d like a niece and a nephew, one of each please. Twins run in the family; did I know that? Yes, I did. She’s bought a book. She’s got gum in her purse. She’s going to be the very best aunt. Daphne doesn’t know the rules. So. Hen hasn’t told her sister after all.

Hen is silent. I can’t see her face but I can see the straight line of her neck, the inward curl of her shoulders, straining for her ears. I reach around the seat and touch her arm, squeeze it gently, a little above the elbow. Her head tips back, rests on the seat.

She fainted once, years ago. At an outdoor concert, standing among the mass of shoulders and thighs. Pot smoke wafting. Hen had suddenly slumped, her body collapsing backward into mine. My arms around her, holding her up and just as suddenly, her revival, waking up as if from deep sleep. The opener wasn’t even off the stage and we had left, pushing and jostling past people: Sorry, excuse me, sorry. Hen gulping air on the sidewalk, bent double, elbows on her knees. I had one hand on her back and one raised to hail a cab. There are moments in life when you know exactly what to do.

The hospital is cold. It smells like disinfectant. We pass by rooms where machines beep in steady intervals. Dr. Horton is paged to the ER. Hen breathes through her mouth. Tiny beads of sweat dot her hairline. Even Daphne is silent.

This time, the technician is a woman. This is reassuring to me as I sit on Hen’s left. Daphne is on the right. She must turn and strain her neck to see the monitor. The tech dims the lights and squeezes a gelatinous slime onto Hen’s belly. She says words we do not hear. This part’s not important.

Hen’s chest rises and falls rapidly. I press my face against hers. Our eyes are open, noses squashed together. I cannot imagine what Daphne is thinking and I do not care. Hollow static fills the room: the sound on the other end of the line when the person you are speaking to says hold on and walks away to turn off the stove. What the inside of the body sounds like: sonorous and empty. And then, gradually, we hear it. Knocking. A tiny fist pounding on a door.

Freedom by Darlene Strong

There it is, the tech says.

Daphne asks, Is that what I think it is?

The tech has repositioned the wand and we hear it more clearly. Banging. The baby announcing its presence. Loud and insistent.

Hen is sobbing but it’s okay. These are happy tears. And I’m crying them too and so is Daphne.

You’re having a baby, she says, teary saliva forming a window between her lips. A baby!

We hold hands, all three of us, and I’m happy she is here.

One-fifty-two beats per minute, the tech says. A good, strong heart. Congratulations.

 

“Quickening” is a linked short story. Hen and Neil also feature in “Gliding, Weightless,” published in Riddle Fence. See Sharon Bala’s blog for details.