Article Category Archives: Fiction

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.