Article Category Archives: Fiction

Blood and Vinegar

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It happens as Al is walking home, her hands thrust deep into the pockets of her overcoat. Usually she is on her guard at such times, wary and aware, but tonight she is high on a night out with the old crowd—Sam, Jess, Billie, Little Jo, who’s just Jo now that Big Jo is gone. The old bars may be closed, but when they get together it’s easy to forget that the past is past and the present a different animal. Her heart is full, her step is light, and she fails to notice the two men who slip out of the shadows to follow her. It isn’t until they are nearly on top of her that she hears them coming, slipping and skidding on the last of the February ice.

When she was young and full of fire, she would have been ready for them. But she is too old and they are too fast, their fists in her jaw before she can get hers up. Under the eerie amber glow of the streetlights their faces are alien and fierce. She can only pick out the odd detail, here and there: a beard, a torn jacket, a belly tight and round as a drum.

They beat her until they get tired of beating her, and then they leave her lying on the sidewalk, staring up into the night sky. A few tattered wisps of cloud blow across the face of the moon like so much trash.

Al does not call the police. She is old enough to remember the days of bar raids and paddy wagons, when anyone not wearing at least three pieces of women’s clothing would be arrested or worse. And there was always something worse. Things may have changed, but she doubts they’ve changed enough.

Red and White Series 3 by Shreba Quach

After she drags herself home, stopping every few minutes to rest, she stands in front of her bathroom mirror and surveys the damage. Her left eye is swollen and plum-purple. Her nostrils are crusted with red, although the nosebleed has stopped. Her ribs are sore, but not broken. She’s had ribs snapped before, and she remembers the way they burned when she drew breath.

She’s lucky. It being a festive occasion, she went out wearing a full suit. And a tie can be a noose in the wrong hands.

Aside from her dignity, what has suffered the most is her shirt. Blood has soaked into the collar, crimson blooming on the fine white linen. Al stares at it hopelessly, plucking at its edge. Frances would know how to treat it, what mysterious bubbling liquid to dab onto the fabric to return it to its former glory. Magic, she said once when Al asked her how she did it, smiling that wry little smile of hers. Al hadn’t pressed her. Women need their secrets. Lord knows she has enough of them herself.

The shirt will have to go. Al tears it open, wincing at the bruises already blossoming on her arms. She balls the shirt up in a wad and walks into the kitchen. A takeout carton from last night’s dinner sits on top of the garbage can and the smell of it stops her in her tracks. Her nose twitches.

Vinegar, she thinks. She remembers Frances standing over the kitchen sink with a bottle in her hand, dousing a stain and pressing it with a cloth. For the next few days the tang of vinegar had overpowered all other smells in the apartment: the potpourri in the living room, the discount flowers Al brought home from the supermarket, the dark spot on the bedroom carpet where Frances had once spilled a bottle of perfume.

That spot is what’s left of her now. The spot, and the pictures on the walls, and the potted fern on the windowsill that somehow hasn’t died yet. Even her ashes are gone, sent to a cousin out west. She counted as blood. Al didn’t.

The vinegar is hidden at the back of the fridge, between a jar of beets and an orphaned can of beer. Al brings it to the kitchen sink, upending it onto her collar. She dabs at the stain with a tea towel the way she remembers Frances doing it: firmly, gently. One of her arms is stiff where it was kicked, and moving it sends white-hot darts of pain up into her shoulder. She ignores it and keeps going.

At first nothing seems to happen. Then, after several minutes of blotting, the red seems to be more of a pink. The pink turns to blush, which turns to only the faintest sigh of colour on the white. You’d have to have your nose pressed close to her neck to notice it at all.

Al runs the shirt under a cold tap and drapes it over the back of a chair to dry. Touching the collar, she glances at Frances’s fern, lush and green against the darkness of the kitchen window. The plant looks lonely, she thinks. She’ll have to get another to keep it company. Something strong and beautiful, vibrant and sweet.

Al washes her hands. She brushes her teeth. She goes to bed and imagines the plants she’ll buy, violets and geraniums and philodendrons bursting riotously out of their pots. It will be spring soon. The winter will end.

Cardboard

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Firefly is falling apart. “Firefly” is what Marie’s older daughter named the bed when it was brand new thirty years ago. On Sammy’s limited salary, buying the two girls sturdy army cots with strong wire flats and not-too-thin mattresses had seemed the best idea.

They’d worked fine, and then Sammy got a raise around the same time the girls had growth spurts. Marie pored over the Sears catalogue for weeks until she finally settled on beautiful maple-look bunk beds. Then Firefly and Nightmare (their younger daughter had thought of that name for her own cot) spent time folded up in the basement behind the water heater, and later in the crawl space under the roof.

Two years ago, when Sammy had his first heart attack, Marie asked her son-in-law to bring Firefly down to the mudroom where she unfolded it next to a space heater from Canadian Tire. Marie wanted to be close enough to Sammy’s bedroom door, but not in the bedroom. Sammy needed his sleep and the girls’ room—now the guest room—is always made up in case the girls come home for a visit. It was just easier to be here off the kitchen; she doesn’t disturb Sammy when she wakes up at night to read with a flashlight or gets up early in the morning to make tea in her “Best Mom” mug.

But now Firefly’s mattress is leaking through the wires. Whenever Marie manages a proper cleaning, she collects tiny swaths of cotton from under her cot—sometimes even from beneath the girls’ bunk and behind Sammy’s recliner. And the wires themselves have been letting her down. She can’t get comfortable on her right side because she feels her hip sagging towards the floor, which makes her feel off-balance and causes dreams of falling from airplanes or towers. If she turns over, a small but persistent mound of mattress thrusts itself into the right side of her lower back. If she inches to the left, her arm or leg drops off the edge.

Still, the idea of calling either girl and asking them to drive all the way to Cedar Springs and then take her to one of those massive furniture stores at the edge of town, well, it’s just too much to think about. Besides, according to the flyers, even small beds cost hundreds of dollars nowadays.

One morning, a huge truck delivers a new stove to Jerry and Susan next door. Late that evening, Marie drags the empty stove box from the curb into her backyard and covers it with garbage bags held down by stones and a big stick. She spends the next afternoon with her kitchen scissors making small cuts in the tough side seams until she can flatten one side of the box. Then she scores the bottom seam with her biggest knife and cuts the side off completely. She stomps on the leftover flaps so she can fit them into her recycling bin. That part takes the most time. Sammy is watching the sports channel and enjoying the low-fat chips and dip Marie brings in. He doesn’t even ask what’s keeping her busy in the backyard.

Marie takes the flattened side of the box and pushes it under the upper two-thirds of Firefly’s mattress. A little line of cardboard is showing; she adjusts the blanket to hide it. She lies down on her right side, sighing deeply, feeling supported, almost falling asleep.

And her daughters are just plain wrong to say she’s not coping any more.

Let Sleeping Cats Lie by Caitlin McGuire

Stardust

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A gale of wind blew across the land. Travelling over rushing rivers and unreachable mountain peaks, she looked for a place to rest. A safe haven. A home. For this wind had seen many far-off lands but never a place to call her own. Zephyr was her name. She could be a soft and gentle breeze, the kind that crosses your face on a cool spring day. But she could just as well become a roaring wind, one that sought to disfigure the face of our world and summon chaos in the fiercest form. She was a sleeping dragon, poke her, and you would be sure to release the wrath of one of mother nature’s most formidable demons. A Poltergeist of a wind, Zephyr was made to stir the waters and the branches of our great forests, to steal hats and wreak havoc as she travelled the world.

The Girl with the Green Hair after Michelangelo’s
The Delphic Sibyl, by Frøya Smith

One miserable night, when the rain pelted against the soil, Zephyr flew overhead. A storm was coming. Tendrils of her breeze stretched over the land beneath her, feeling for asylum. She found it: a cave off in the distance, clinging to the side of a mountain and cramped in size. It would do—though something was not as it should be. From the depths of the cave’s mouth, emerged a faint glow, flickering and feeble. She hastened her pace in pursuit of refuge and intrigued by the dying light. As Zephyr approached the mouth of the cave, she realised the light was a dwindling fire, his flames no longer dancing, his life waning.

“Hello?” called Zephyr, unsure if the fire would be able to return her greeting. He did not respond. “Are you alright?” she inquired. It was a rhetorical question but what else was there to ask?

The fire gestured slightly, his flames moving side to side, in what was clearly a “no.” Zephyr rushed to his side. Using her powers, her howling and fiendish gales, the kind of wind she was created to be, she summoned kindling from the forest. Small branches and twigs flew toward the cave, spinning through the air at a treacherous speed. They sung through the ether, hurling into the cave, to finally rest amid the fire’s embers. In a matter of seconds, they caught ablaze, sparks flying in a fit of spirit. Life returned to the fire, his flames roared and live coals crackled, caught in the wake of Zephyr’s mighty wind.

“Alive. I’m alive again. How? Why…?” He spoke in undertones, his voice trailing off as he interrupted himself. For a moment the two sat in silence. “You saved me.”

“Indeed I did.”

“I don’t understand.” He knew he should be dead. And yet here he was.

“Well, let me introduce myself, as you clearly aren’t going to.” The fire gaped at Zephyr. This stranger had just saved his life but she acted as though it were nothing. “They might call me the mistress of mayhem, the queen of the sky or the bringer of the windswept. But you may call me Zephyr, gentle breeze of the west.”

The fire stumbled over his words. “I, uh, name is, that is to say, I mean….”

“Out with it, will you?”

“Inferno. My name is Inferno.” No longer stammering, Inferno spoke softly. “Thank you. Just…. Thank you. Words cannot express the gratitude I feel towards you. You saved me from a treacherous fate, a painful death I would have endured alone. Thank you, Zephyr, mistress of mayhem, bringer of the windswept and gentle breeze of the west. I am forever in your debt.”

“You forgot queen of the sky.”

“What?”

“It’s Zephyr, mistress of mayhem, queen of the sky, bringer of the windswept and gentle breeze of the west. You forgot queen of the sky.”

“Are you kidding?” Inferno screeched at this quarrelsome wind’s ability to infuriate. “I just thanked you for saving my life! And all you can say is that I forgot part of your title?”

A playful smile danced on Zephyr’s lips. This was the Poltergeist of a wind that most are familiar with. “I did just save your life. You should be more grateful.”

Inferno paused, considering his position. The wind did have a point. His flames turned a rosy red, as he blushed. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s okay. I was being a pain,” said Zephyr.

“So was I.”

The two stared at each other then burst out in laughter. Zephyr’s sides shook as she laughed and her winds rushed through Inferno.

“Ahhhh!” He screeched in pain and swiped at her breezes, trying to push them away. Zephyr didn’t know what she had done. “You will kill me if you don’t watch,” he wheezed. “I am a fragile force, formidable, yet fragile. I can be broken by wind, rain and earth.”

Zephyr didn’t understand, she’d never met anyone opposed to her breezes, but then she hadn’t met that many creatures.

“It’s all about power and how it is used,” Inferno continued. “Who has it and who wants to take it. You have power to destroy or sustain. This is your choice.”

Zephyr listened. Inferno’s words brought forth deep questions and she searched her mind for answers. She realised that if she let down her guard, if she let her winds fall astray, she could hurt him. Zephyr had never felt this way before: All her life, she had been cold; now she felt warmth.

Light from the clearing skies shone into the cave. The ether was exposed and stars illuminated Zephyr’s shimmering form. Inferno watched as her breezes swirled in midair but at the same time hardly moved at all. He gasped.

“What?” Zephyr asked, fearing he was still angry.

“You’re shining,” he said, “like stardust.” And Inferno’s flames danced in the moon’s glow.

#

Related reading: “Uranium” by Elise Marcella Godfrey

Three Keys

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Years ago, my first real boss taught me two things. One. Listen to the boss. Two. Listen to your head and heart. In case of conflict between one and two, remember that God is watching; do what is right.

Today, my head is aching with the sandpaper of forced retail smiles and the fumes of polyurethane shoes. Against my heart, the jangle of three keys on a lanyard. Check shoes right and left, same size; scan barcode; enter payment; bag purchase; smile, “Thank you for shopping at Metropolis”; repeat.

My spine aches with ten-hour days and five-hour sleeps. While waiting for a Mastercard to ring through, I call my chiropractor’s office.

“The number you have reached is no longer in service.”

I leave a message on his cellphone. “Hello, this is Susan. I can’t get through to you. I am worried. I need you.”

Check shoes right left size barcode payment bag repeat.

As I hang up the phone, it rings. I juggle paperwork and small change, tuck the phone against my shoulder.

It’s my boss, calling to tell me he’s denying my request for a new ladder.

I remind him that already two of my salesgirls have been hurt from falling off the store’s broken and wobbly ladder.

He tells me that obviously I need to train my staff on proper use of a ladder. And furthermore, if my parttimer refuses to use the vacuum cleaner because it spits smoke and smells like burning flesh, instead of requesting a new vacuum cleaner I should get a new parttimer.

A little boy tugs on my pants leg. “Lady, how old are you?”

I tell him that today, I am really old.

He asks why I have green hair.

I tell him you are what you eat, and I eat a lot of broccoli.

Right left size barcode payment bag repeat.

I balance on a floor slippery with a layer of plastic shopping bags, dropped pennies, and till receipts as I headcount the lineup of customers and hand a lady her purchases.

She clicks her tongue at my wrist braces and Band-Aid fingers and asks if I am working alone again.

Before I can answer, the phone rings.

It’s my boss, wanting to know why I wasn’t working yesterday.

I tell him it was my day off.

He says that is irrelevant; there is work to be done.

He says that contrary to my request, the store’s carpet does not in fact need to be replaced.

After too many months of arguing, I am not concerned with watching my fucking language, so I remind him that my carpets are saturated with shit from a burst sewage pipe.

chosen

Chosen by Jan Jenkins

My customer looks horrified and scurries out the door.

Right left size barcode payment bag smile repeat.

Little boy tugs on my pants leg and asks how many earrings I have, and how I got them through my ears.

I tell him about a million, maybe more, and most of them were done with a big needle.

He looks impressed.

I tell him two of them were done with a gun.

He looks horrified.

A customer counts out pennies on my glass countertop. I pretend to watch, but really I am counting the reflections of burnt-out lightbulbs in the ceiling above me and weighing the consequences of my bosses’ wrath versus the logistics of climbing a broken ladder balanced on a shitstained floor with both hands bandaged and six months of five hour’s sleep to change four damn lightbulbs.

The phone rings. It’s my boss again. I can’t hear what he is saying, but it sounds like I am wrong again. I say, “We appear to have a bad connection. I can’t understand you,” and hang up.

Little boy tugs on my pants leg and asks if I am really really old, or if I’m just pretending to be.

He stands on his father’s toes and says, “Daddy, hurry up. The store’s closing and we’re gonna get locked in. This isn’t a good place to spend the night.”

I do not tell him I know from experience he is right. Instead, I lean over the counter and stagewhisper, “There is always a way out. I have a magic key to the magic door.”

He glares at me skeptically. There is no such thing as magic.

I pull my lanyard off over my head and hand it to him, keys jangling. “Have you ever seen a key like this one?”

He turns in a circle, counting keys, counting doors. One for the front door, one for the back. And one square and pockmarked, heavy and exotic, no door in sight.

Right left size barcode payment bag smile.

Wide-eyed, he returns my keys in solemn outstretched hands and whispers, “There really is a magic door.”

The phone rings. “Thank you for calling Metropolis.”

“This is a message from Telus Mobility. The following voicemail message is undeliverable: ‘Hello, this is Susan. I can’t get through to you. I am worried. I need you.’”

I lock the door behind the last customer and wave through the glass. The phone is ringing.

One. Listen to the boss. Two. Listen to your head and heart.

My head is full of sandpaper smiles and the fumes of cheap shoes. Against my heart, three keys jangle: one for the front door, one for the back, one for the bank deposit box. God is watching; do what is right. There is always a way out.

An earlier version of “Three Keys” appeared in the anthology Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace. Lost Horse Press, 2015.

Aftershock

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Downstairs, something crashes to the floor. Claire waits a moment, alert to the smallest sound. When the house stops moving, she grabs the phone and dials.

He answers on the second ring. “Buckman, here.” His voice—so self-assured—silences her.

“Hello?” he prompts.

“It’s me. Are you okay?”

“Yes, is something wrong?”

“You didn’t feel it?”

“Feel what?”

“The earthquake.”

His laugh sounds relieved. “You’re joking, right?”

“I’m serious. Our house moved. You should leave that office tower.”

“The house moved.”

“I was in the back bedroom. It shifted and now the door frame is crooked. This isn’t funny, Ryan, I know what I’m talking about. I lived through a lot of quakes as a kid. We’d hear the crystals fall off the chandeliers.”

“Were you napping when this happened? Dreaming maybe?” He changes his tone. “Have you checked on the baby?”

“Yes.”

No.

“There’s nothing showing up on the news feed about an earthquake. I think you’re safe, sweetheart. Give a kiss to my little guy. I’ll try to be home early.”

*
She stands by the crib, her arms lead weights. The baby is asleep, eyelids aflutter, hands clenched like walnuts. His face looks unfamiliar. She shuts the door as she leaves the room.

*
Dave Simpson punches Ryan’s arm lightly. “How old is that baby of yours now? How’s Claire?”

“Three weeks,” Ryan answers. He hesitates, then adds, “I think Claire’s a bit down. Unfocused, you know.”

Dave nods, becomes fatherly. “It’s all normal, no need to worry. She’s probably only getting two, maybe three hours of sleep a night.” The second time, his knuckles linger against Ryan’s bicep. “Give it some time, man. She’ll get through it.”

*
On the dining room floor there is a starburst. The light from the window picks out glittering pinks and blues. Claire squats to examine the concentric circles of breakage. The bell-shaped chandelier now misses its ornamental clapper. It can no longer sound the alarm. She places her finger on a crystal chip to sweep it closer to the epicenter of damage. The pain is out of proportion to the wound. Drops of blood mimic the spray of splinters. They smear on the dustpan when she gets the broom.

*
“I’m home! Where’s Mattie?” Ryan throws his suit coat on the sofa, pulls on a fleece sweater that will be soft next to his newborn son.

“He’s asleep.”

“He sleeps more than I expected.”

“Well, all he really needs is the bottle.”

“Yes, but do you think he interacts enough?”

“Are you suggesting I’m doing something wrong?”

“Claire, love, I wasn’t accusing you of anything.” He reaches for her, holds her lightly. “You’re a great mom. I’ll just go check on him and then I’ll make dinner. Why don’t you have a shower, call a few friends?”

She doesn’t move. He says, “What happened to the chandelier?”

“I told you. There was an earthquake.”

Upstairs, the baby starts to fuss but Claire still does not move, doesn’t seem to notice. There is no sign she has had him downstairs during the day—not an empty bottle or a toy. Ryan observes this but, with effort, holds his tongue.

*

The baby is warm, bottom-heavy. His lips wow open and closed as Ryan changes him and slips tiny limbs in a clean sleeper. The desire to satisfy that small mouthing need sends a shudder through his body. He is now a father. He lifts the child to his face and whispers endearments. He promises to keep him safe forever.

With the infant tucked in a sling against his chest, he heads to the kitchen. At the back bedroom he stops. Is the door frame crooked? Maybe. It might have been that crooked before. The house is a hundred years old, after all.

*
“So what did you and Mattie do today?” Ryan pours Pinot Grigio into Claire’s glass.

“I’ve been thinking about the earthquake. We aren’t really ready if there’s an emergency. We should have a kit.”

He rallies to the change of subject. “We probably have the stuff we need in the camping gear. Four-season bags, candles and flashlights, a water filter. We could always use the barbeque if the power went out. We’re in pretty good shape, I think.”

“I’m going to put something more together. I bought bottled water today. The Internet said we should have four litres per day per person for at least three days.”

“I guess if we’re on the subject, I should anchor the bookcase in Mattie’s room to the wall. I meant to do that last weekend. And it probably wasn’t a good idea to hang a glassed picture above his crib.”

Claire rises, paces the length of the dining room, back and forth, back and forth.

“I need to make a list. Can you clean up dinner? Feed the baby?” She walks upstairs with a pad of paper.

The dishes take longer than he expects. When he joins her in the bedroom, he has missed the news broadcast. In the corner, Claire is hunched over the computer. By the bureau there are two boxes of litre-sized water bottles.

Three people. Only two dozen bottles.

*
She’s animated in the morning.

“Did you know that, across the country, there are over five thousand earthquakes a year? I didn’t realize that there could be foreshocks and aftershocks. Yesterday’s earthquake might have been a foreshock. I made a list of all the things I need to get to be fully prepared. Here, I want you to have this picture of me in your wallet. One of the advisories said to have pictures of your family and friends in case you’re separated.”

“What about Mattie?” he asks.

She looks surprised. “He’d be with me, wouldn’t he? Besides, in no time he’ll look different.” She takes another gulp of coffee, toast untouched. “I’ve asked your mom to come sit with him this morning while I go out.”

In occurs to him that he hasn’t seen her touch Mattie in two days.

*

The baby is flat on his back. She should change him but doesn’t. Would she recognize him if they were separated? She closes her eyes, but can’t conjure his face. What she sees looks smashed, like a deflated ball or a splintered crystal.

*
“Ryan, where did you put the candles?”

“Calm down, Claire. I can buy candles on my way home. I was going to go to the drug store after work anyway. Mom said we’re almost out of diapers and formula. Unless you picked them up after she left?”

“No. I wanted to get this emergency kit ready. I have to go. I left some things in the car.”

*
“Dave, did you hear anything about an earthquake yesterday?”

“If it wasn’t in the business section, I didn’t read it. Man, Ryan, you look wiped. Walking advertisement for prolonged bachelorhood. Go home and get some rest. I’ll cover.”

“I just might do that, thanks. Once I’ve finished this paperwork, I’ll go.”

*

The front door is unlocked but won’t push open. Ryan puts his shoulder to the wood. The crack widens. The resistance increases. “Claire!”

Seconds pass. His body floods with adrenaline, muscles tensing. He pushes harder. Something gives way. Cardboard or plastic. He can just squeeze into the vestibule. Almost the entire space is piled with boxes and duffel bags. Neck high. She can’t be leaving him? Moving out?

The upper box contains tins. He yanks the zipper on the closest bag. Unfamiliar nylon billows out, the color of a construction cone. He rifles below. A down jacket, five hundred dollar price tag still attached, rubber boots, heavy gloves. Underneath, sleeping bags. New, not the ones they own already. Tent poles. The stacked boxes are labeled. Inflatable raft. Generator. Oxygen from a medical supply store.

“Claire!” What he sees is so wrong. Breath-sapping, stomach-turning wrong. That part of the book on post-partum—the part he’d skimmed—what did it say? Moodiness. Sadness. Not this.

He pushes past the piles, opens the inner door.

“Ryan, take cover!”

Claire is under the dining room table. She judders, as if the room is moving violently. But the house is static, silent, except for the sound of Claire bumping against the floor.

“It’s okay, sweetheart. Come on out. Everything is okay. Where’s Mattie?” The knot in his stomach sends out a wave of heat, crashes like a tsunami when it hits his heart.

“Claire, where’s the baby!” He starts toward the stairs. Her chin bangs rhythmically against the floor.

“Take cover!”

Even two at a time, the stairs are too many. The back bedroom doorframe is crooked. Just a little crooked, same as always. Mattie’s room is a distant three strides down the hall. The crib is squashed. On top, the bookcase is almost flattened to the floor.

He hears no sound, no cry. The quaking of his body is the only movement. He thrusts his hands under the fallen wood. Surrounded by wreckage, he heaves.

Staircase by Karin Shaddick

Staircase by Karin Shaddick

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Carmen Is Licking Her Babies

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Carmen is licking her babies. She licks their faces and they almost fall over. She’s so strong and they are so little but they seem to like it. It’s funny to watch them. They just fall over all the time with their eyes shut just getting licked around. I have my tummy on my special pillow and my hands under my chin. I’m watching them really close up which is fine because they like to be watched.

I always do this after work. I come in right off the Access-a-bus and get my pillow and get right in here. We’re all squashed up behind the sofa — me and Carmen and the babies. Mum told me to move away but she doesn’t really know Carmen like I know her. She doesn’t understand what it’s like. Me and Carmen have a special bond. In particular that is because she is my cat. That means I’m allowed to watch her close up.

Today I’ve got a bag of chips. These ones are chili or something really gross. Why would anyone make chips that taste so bad? If I was in charge of making chips I wouldn’t make anything so gross for sure. You can bet on that. I wouldn’t put them in the cupboard with the lock on either. I would have them out in big bowls. And good flavours. Not gross ones.

Little Black Cat is the one who gets the most milk. She always pushes the other kittens out of the way and gets right in there. I know someone else who is like that. My sister whose name is Ros Johnson. She always gets the best stuff and gets more than me even though she is eight years younger and that is the truth. Chips for example in particular. Ever since she was born that has always been the way. I just have to put up or shut up. That’s for sure.

When I watch Carmen I can see how much she loves her babies. She licks them and she feeds them. She looks after them and they are hers for sure. I get a feeling inside my tummy and in my heart when I’m watching them. It starts on one side and then it goes all around my body. I feel it right inside me. Really deep down and tingly. Especially tingly in my tummy. I think I know what it is but I’m not sure. I’m not going to tell anyone yet. It’s my secret and mine alone. I might tell Carmen — she’s been through all this before — but that’s about it to be honest with you.

Three Black Cats 1955 by Maud Lewis. (c) Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Used with permission.

Three Black Cats 1955 by Maud Lewis. (c) Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Used with permission.

Little Black Cat has opened his eyes now. Before when I was looking at him I could see his eyes were open. He’s all snuggled up real close to his mom under her neck. They have a special bond for sure. None of the kittens have got Down syndrome I don’t think. But they are still special and they’ve got a special bond. Just like me.

I’m going to Group Meeting today. I go to Group meeting on Sundays. On Mondays I go to work and then I watch movies and that’s it. Sometimes I have an early night and get my beauty sleep. On Tuesdays I go to Cheer which is pretty good actually. On Wednesdays I go to Special Olympics Bowling which sucks big time. On Fridays I go to Group Meeting and on Sundays I go to Group Meeting again even though I already went the day before yesterday. And on the other days I do more movies or I go out with my respite worker and go to the Mall or something. Really it depends.

Today is a Group meeting day though. We are doing “Sharing.” I don’t know whether I will share about my secret but I think that maybe I won’t today. I think I’ll do a puzzle book instead and use the new markers — there’s a new wordsearch and I am so totally awesome at those. Really, if you give me a wordsearch you would be amazed that I am so awesome at it. Some people think that people with Down syndrome can’t read but they don’t know about my talents with the wordsearches, that’s for sure.

I have decided that I won’t tell anyone else my secret for the moment. If it turns out to be really true, I will just let the baby grow and then when it is ready I will plan a big party and have a baby shower. I’ll have balloons and I’ll invite everyone from Cheer and Group Meeting and I might invite some of the people from Bowling but not Hayden because he just gets on my nerves to be honest with you. When everyone arrives there will be a big table that they can put their gifts on. Then I will sit in a big chair and there will be lots of balloons all around. Everyone will come up to me and give me their gifts and I will say, “Thank you. You are so kind.” They’ll be so happy to give me the gifts like a pram and I’ll have really cute clothes for the baby too. I think the decorations will be yellow because that is good for a girl and a boy too. I think I will have a girl first and then a boy afterwards.

I’m going to call my daughter Lynetta Spears Florence Johnson and then if I have a boy I will call him Wayden Mark Ronan Johnson. I won’t dress the girl in only pink because it is good to have other colours not just pink for a girl. We don’t all just like pink. Sometimes we like to wear other colours like black or purple or green and that’s the honest truth. If people give me pink clothes for the baby that will be fine. But otherwise I will choose all different colours. I will get a baby alarm too so I can hear when the baby is crying. I’ll take her into my bed and I will rock her in my arms and say “Go to sleep” and then I will sing to her. I will be very patient with her because I am good at being patient. I don’t mind waiting for things like being in the line at Tim Hortons. Also, I have good people skills for sure.

I will be a very good mom. I will love my children both the same. I won’t let one of them get more than the other and watch what she wants to watch on the TV and not let the other one watch her shows even though she has been waiting for ages. And I will make sure that my children are always clean. I know it will be hard work but that is OK. My mom will help me too.

Carmen carries her babies with her teeth. She bites up on their necks and brings them back when they run away. They don’t mind because its just Mother Nature but I think she should stop really. Little Black Cat came up to me today. She’s much bigger than the other ones now. She came up and licked my finger. It’s rough and wet and not wet at the same time. If I put my hand by her mouth she will lick me for sure.

I think I am going to date Hayden from Bowling. I’ve thought about it and it is quite a good idea actually. Anyway he asked me and I said yes so he is going to be my boyfriend now for a while at least. We might try sex too because that is what you actually need to do if you want to have a baby. I do know that if you feel tingly feelings in your tummy and in your heart that doesn’t mean you are pregnant. That is just the feeling that you have when you are looking at Carmen or another cat who has babies. It doesn’t mean you are going to have a baby yourself actually. The way to have a baby is to have a proper relationship and have sexual intercourse together and then you will feel the same tingly feelings but it will be because you are pregnant. Not because you are looking at a cat. I went to Group Meeting today and that is what they said there too. Also they said that you have to have sperm go inside you. I don’t mind that I’m not pregnant now. I know I will be a good mom someday. I will be patient for now and hang out with Carmen and help her be the best mom she can be. And that is OK for sure.

Milking Sunshine

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Sky, Sand, Sea by Anya Holloway

Sky, Sand, Sea by Anya Holloway

River withdrew into the corner of the barn and cautiously watched her mother, Lily. A few months earlier, River’s parents had transformed the old backyard shed into a home where a goat could live. The goat was to replace the dog River had always dreamt of owning but her mother prohibited because of her allergies.

“The benefit of owning a goat over a dog,” her mother had said, “is it will give us milk to drink.”

This confused River. She had always thought milk came from cows. Her face had twisted in an awkward stare and her mother had smiled. “All mammals give milk after they have babies,” she’d said.

“Did you?”

Her mother had nodded. “And it was fit for human consumption.”

She’d winked and went on to explain that in some countries humans also drank the milk of sheep, yak and other animals.

The day Sunshine arrived, River waited for her mother to milk the new goat. She wanted to see if the stories about drinking goat’s milk were true. But her mother didn’t milk Sunshine. That night River gathered the courage to ask why.

“Sunshine’s owner told me she was three months pregnant,” her mother said. “We have to wait two more months until she gives birth. Then we can milk her.”

So River waited, ticking days off the calendar until sixty had passed. Still, the pregnant Sunshine held tight to her baby. When she told her mother the baby was overdue, Lily’s hand stopped in mid-cut of the potato she was peeling. For a long moment she stared at the vegetable as if it would jump from her hands.

“Maybe she’s not pregnant any more?” said River. When her mother didn’t respond, her mind searched for an answer. She was only ten years old but she had good ears and listened to adults when they talked of such things. “Maybe she lost it. Should I look for it?”

Lily released a low whimper and took a deep breath. Her voice sounded strange to River. “I’m sure the goat will be fine. Now do your homework.”

“It’s all done.” She was about to give more reasons as to why the baby hadn’t arrived, but when her mother turned, she saw a familiar tortured expression and tears welling in her eyes. Her mother looked as if she would scream in pain and it scared River. “But I have to read for ten minutes.”

She quietly left the kitchen. Instead of going to her room, River escaped to the barn to watch Sunshine. The goat was happy to see her and stuck its nose through the fence hoping to get a treat.

Three days later, River woke to Sunshine’s shrieks coming in her bedroom window. She sprinted from her room to the back door where she was in time to see her mother enter the barn. River’s heart raced. Someone or something was hurting her goat. She pulled on her boots and rushed after her mother.

When she entered the barn, the sight before her stopped her cold. Sunshine was on her side, wailing and stretching her body across the hay. A large, wet bubble protruded from beneath her tail. River could see a dark object inside. Lily was kneeling next to the goat, rubbing her belly. The worried expression that shadowed her mother’s face the past few days had been replaced with concern.

“The baby’s coming,” said Lily.

River stepped backwards and found the safety of the corner, grasping her hands behind her back. She couldn’t help; she couldn’t touch the fluid bag slowly emerging from Sunshine. With each wail the goat pushed the baby-filled bubble further out of its body. Finally the goat half stood and the baby slipped onto the soft bedding.

“Great job, Sunshine.” Lily patted the goat. She cast a relieved smile at River and beckoned her closer. “Come see the baby.”

The goat kid worked to break free of the membrane prison. Sunshine leant forward and licked the clear goo. River gagged and turned away.

“This is normal,” said Lily. “I read about it in the goat book.”

Normal or not, River didn’t want to witness the scene. She heard her mother giggle and she looked to see the little goat struggling to stand as Lily used a towel to wipe the afterbirth from its wet hair. It made a high-pitched bleat and flopped to its belly. The goat kid tried again and this time managed to stand straight.

“It’s cute,” squealed River. She relaxed her grip on her hands and was tempted to walk closer. Her mother continued to clean the baby with the towel.

“We are now the proud owner of two wonderful goats,” Lily said.

Sunshine wailed and flopped down on the hay. She gently rolled on her side and paddled her hooves in the air.

“Why is she doing that again?” asked River.

“There must be another baby.”

“Two?” River peered closer at the goat’s tail but she didn’t see a bubble.

For several minutes Sunshine moaned and wailed and struggled to release the second baby. River watched her mother. The worry had returned and it appeared that she held her breath, waiting for something horrible to happen.

The second baby emerged slower than the first. Long moments passed before Lily held the baby securely and gently eased it the rest of the way. There was no movement. Lily quickly wiped the sticky goo from its limp body. In a rush she cleaned the face, opened the mouth and nudged the baby, but it still didn’t move.

River heard her mother mumble as she gently shook the newborn. “Please, please…” she whispered. “Come on….” She held the baby in a standing position but there were no signs of life. Clutching the baby in her arms, she rocked back and forth and moaned.

The first-born kid nuzzled up to Sunshine on wobbly legs. It bleated, calling out to anyone who listened. It scrambled beneath its mother and hid behind her.

River wanted to laugh at the goat kid’s antics but her mother’s grief held her frozen in place. The anguish that painted her face now had also coloured her in the past, leaving River to wonder what had happened to create such deep sorrow.

“Mommy,” whispered River, afraid her mother would become angry or collapse and curl up into the hay sobbing as she had done a few years before. Her father had been there to intervene, to tell River everything would be okay and after a few days he was right. But her father was at work today. River could run and get their neighbour, Mrs. Collins, but she was terrified to leave.

“Will it be okay?” It sounded like someone else’s voice talking to her mother.

Lily shook her head and looked up with tears streaking her cheeks. “No,” she mouthed, releasing more tears. She motioned her daughter closer and River reluctantly obeyed. Her mother gripped the dead baby in one arm and embraced River in the other, sobbing on her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” A lump formed in River’s throat and it hurt to talk.

“Because… I couldn’t save it.” Lily held tighter.

“Mommy, it’s not your fault. You can’t keep a life that doesn’t want to stay.” She felt her mother’s hold loosen and she leant far enough away to see her mother’s drawn face.

The first little goat weaved in and out of its mother’s legs and nudged the teats, looking for its first taste of milk. Lily watched the baby and half smiled.

“It’s okay, Mommy.” Lily pulled River close and kissed her cheek. They hugged until River’s arms ached. “What do we do with it?” She caught her breath, afraid she would stir up the pain in her mother’s heart.

Lily sniffed back the moisture in her nose. “We must give it a proper burial. We’ll keep it safe, near to its home, so it can be with its momma.”

River and Lily buried the baby goat beneath the great maple in the backyard. They painted a large, flat stone with flowers and wrote the name Sunny on it. Then they picked a bouquet of flowers and placed it near the stone. Lily gripped River’s hand. They stood together and admired the afternoon light on this special spot. A robin flew near, perched on a branch and sang a sweet song.

Catfood

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Mum was up smoking at the window. Tapping ashes into the sink. Nini’s dead, I told her. I put her last bottle of blueberry jam on the table.

Mum took straight off past me with her cigarette. Cross the gravel in bare feet like God said it, not me. So I set about making toast on the stove and took mum’s spot at the window, watched her circle ’round to Aunt Nini’s porch door. Bout twelve when I found her. Nancy was her right name.

Mum was only in there and outta sight for a second. Showed up again like a movie reversing and she backed into a spruce. Never seen her so dazzled. Bounced right off the tree and headed home. Walking normal enough, but a cigarette hanging from her lip and her face all knotted up. Never seen her not hold her cigarette before.

She stomped back in, hit the door into the porch wall. Told me to get the hell out cause she had calls to make, and make sure Kitty and Fran stay the hell out with you. Kept on stomping.

Mum brought her little black handbag to the kitchen table. The side by the phone. Nini didn’t have her own, just used the big skin-colour one on our wall. Used to let mum dump all her ashes in the sink, too. Asked after dad, her brother, but it was all guessing, never any news from the ship.

Kitty was long gone already, out shooting in the clearing since sun-up. Fran was hiding in the front room as usual til she heard mum growling. Tore out fore I could even go get her.

Had to stop for my toast on my own way out. Perfect brown right then. Stacked it up and cut down for these nice little triangles. Was going for the jam when I seen mum’s head come up out the side of my eye.

Gave me a good glare with a new cigarette hanging off her face and glasses on. Cat eyes just like Nini’s. So out I went with dry toast.

*

Hooked Rug by Deanne Fitzpatrick.

Hooked Rug by Deanne Fitzpatrick.

Didn’t occur til I was out on the step what mum dug out of her bag. An old address book I never seen in years. We never called nothing we didn’t know by heart, never wrote letters or went visiting.

Mum on the phone then. Her voice was some low hum through the windows. Nini’s cats everywhere in the yard, like they was lost. Franny sitting up on the well, hunched so far over her tits skimmed her legs. Facing Nini’s, half away from me.

I heard mum stop, nothing for a bit, then the phone jingled at her. Heard her again, then quiet, then ringing again.

I was picking all the little bits of toast off my overalls and Franny was playing with her hair when Kitty showed up. Marching down the hill with the .22 over her shoulder. Swinging a couple of dead squirrels by their long dead tails.

Me and Fran just sitting around musta tipped her off something wasn’t right. She stopped cold half-way down and called at us.

Cupped my hands around my mouth to say Nini’s dead and make sure she heard. Just like mum then, Kitty didn’t say a thing, just changed direction straight over to Nini’s porch.

Felt the sound of that first shot ‘fore I really heard it, in my neck, through those bones right behind your ears. Then crack. Bunch of birds flitted up off Nini’s roof. Her cats took crying again and Franny yelped.

Kitty came outta Nini’s with blood on her shirt and her gun tight in both hands. Might have been from the squirrels, the blood, but who knew.

She planted her feet. Put the butt of her rifle up to her cheek and took aim right there in the yard. Squinted, then another crack. A cat skitted across the gravel in front of me and blood flew the other way.

Fran wailed Kitty, Kitty, Kitty! Damned if I knew which one she meant.

Door hit the porch wall again behind me and there was mum looming. Mum’s eyes on Kitty’s made a sharp line through the air that cut her wide open.

Kitty wailed they were trying to eat her.

Fran whipped around to look at mum, then back to Kitty, trying to figure what was going on.

Kit burst again, that Nini’s cats were eating her.

Mum got this sneer, like the whole thing was rotted out, like she was gonna be sick. Put her hands up on her hips and looked down the drive away from all of us. Foolishness, she said.

I got up off the step and cut a wide path up by the well to get to Nini’s and stay outta Kitty’s way. Still looked like she was gonna shoot us all. Told Franny to stay right where she was and don’t follow me for no reason.

*

Nini looked pretty much same as when I found her. Flat on her back on the porch floor. Her mouth hanging open, glasses crooked half off her face. Rumply stockings, dress scooted up in a puff from tipping over. Still had hold of her can opener. One of those nice ones, red rubber handles, right up over her head in one hand like a prize. Curlers in.

Pretty much same cept for Kitty’s squirrels limp over her leg. Then I seen her fingers. First two on the hand without the can opener. The one down by her side. Top parts looked all wrong. Like chewed up spit out sandwich ham. But I just seen her a minute ago.

Nini couldn’t feel nothing so it didn’t really matter what was going on, but Kitty’s rage made a kinda sense to me, then. Til I caught sight a where that first shot went. A little orange longhair, not full grown. With a big red hole in its side, trailing down to Nini’s floor. Into the wood.

Went back out and yelled over to mum that cats musta ate up Nini’s fingers. It fell outta me, saying it. Not saying Kitty was being sensible for shooting cats or scaring the hell outta Franny, but that’s just how it was.

The dead cat in the yard, the one she shot right out in front of me, was a big old tabby we had forever. She hit it more back by its ass so it was still suffering.

I said so.

Kitty screamed at us: good!

Mum bellowed git in and I tried to grab Kitty’s eye one more time, get her to end it for the suffering tabby taking big breaths like a fish, its jaw up and down, eyes looking nowhere, but so was she, looking nowhere.

Fran went in past mum, then I did, and mum bolted the door.

Kitty showed up at the kitchen window and screamed through it with no words, just a bunch a awful, sick sounds. Eyes right round. Figured she was gonna take the butt of the .22 to the glass but she only stood there looking in, screaming.

Fran got upset again, so mum put her at the table and lit a cigarette for both of em. I asked if she called a doctor, the Mounties, and mum didn’t say, just held Fran’s hand and smoked.

*

Kitty gave up after a bit. Stopped staring in and screaming and wandered way from the window. Heard one more shot.

Then a while later an engine up the hill, rocks crunching. I unlatched the door, got it open just a sliver for my eye.  Seen a long blue car with fins pulling up far as the well.

The shot tabby, there was new blood around its head. Car didn’t go nowhere near it, the mess. I couldn’t see Kitty.

A lady got out the driver’s side. Had black eyebrows like dad and Nini. But she couldn’t a been much older than Franny. Some fella with her. He had black slacks on, nothing on top his white undershirt. Marlon Brando, I thought of.

I spotted Kitty in the trees with her gleaming .22 pointed at em. But they were already headed to Nini’s and didn’t even see her. Holding hands.

The man came out first, with Nini folded up in his big arms. Her dress was smoothed out nice.

The woman came after but went faster. Got ahead and clicked open the big blue back door. He slid Nini in. Feet first, held her curlers careful. The woman clicked it shut, the back door. And then she slid, just let go and crumbled right down to the dirt. Wailed with her head in her hands.

She started talking. Sick hillbillies, she said to the fella. Leaving her in filth and hiding. Bleeding dead animals, cat food all over her. The words choked their way out of her, just barely.

He pulled her up and led her slow back to the driver’s seat.

Disgusting, heard her say.

When they were both in she swung the car back in a big curve toward the trees, lighting up Kitty and her gun red. Then down the lane.