SHAUNA CHECKLEY - SHORT-STORIES
My name is Shauna Checkley. I am originally from Chaplin, Sk. but have made my home in Regina, Sk. for many years.
I work at Regina Public Library. I am deeply involved in local cat rescue and cat charities (how I spend my free time besides
reading and writing). I live with my family and have one daughter Patricia. I am also quite active in a local church.
Blundering into the kitchen, Rusty shrieked like a lead singer, “It’s those lights again!”.
Saoirse’s fingers which had been working deftly making jewelry suddenly seized. Joan froze with a cup of coffee in her hand. They bolted to the French doors and nearly crashed into one another as they piled onto the outdoor deck to have a look.
Frasier, their golden retriever, let out one excited bark.
The summer sky was a flourish of twinkling grey as dusk settled in. It reminded Saoirse of an old Hallowe’en costume, sparkling princess, that she wore for several seasons when her body declined to outgrow it.
“Where?” Joan cried. “Where are the lights?”
Rusty pointed to the east and said, “They were there a minute ago.”
Mother and daughter paused, exchanged looks.
As a sweet waft of whiskey slapped them in the face, Saoirse said, “Are you sure it wasn’t just stars, or a falling star, or something?”
Rusty stared deep into the heavens above. Then he returned to his deck chair and the cigar he had been puffing on. Under the illumination of the deck lights, he appeared to glow. Frasier settled at his feet.
Both women went back inside.
“Dunno. He might be going crazy from the whiskey. Who knows?” Joan said flatly.
“Like Uncle Hoyt,” Saoirse added
Joan returned to the evening news in the front room while Saoirse resumed making jewelry at the kitchen table.
Sable, her pet cat, leapt up, batting at the coils of outstretched wire and attempting to sit on the whole enterprise, thoroughly jealous of anything that held her mistress’s attention.
“Get down,” Saoirse said.
But as the overweight tabby refused to budge, with butt firmly planted in Saoirse’s face, she gave up. I’ll finish it later, she judged. Saoirse hugged and held Sable. The cat purred deeply. Like the low rumbling of Todd’s truck when he pulls into the driveway.
Then like she had stumbled into the well outback, Saoirse plunged deep into thought. She saw Todd in her mind’s eye. She even smelled that mix of cigarette smoke and cologne that hung on him like a bent halo. And she felt longing and doubt rear their twin heads and babble dubiously in her mind, that same poetic quarrel as ever.
What should I do? Should I keep feeding him sex and money like he wants? Or should I just cut him off? It would be trying, of course. But she judged that she should be able to stick to her guns and do it. Gotta stop submitting to him and kick his ass instead, kick my own ass too.
Yet, she envisioned the ginger hair and the smooth, innocent skin, pale alabaster delight, and she sunk deep into her own private wonderland of desire. The fourth of next month marks five years that we have been together, Saoirse marveled. But where has it gone?
Digging his claws into her bare arms, Sable purred and kneaded. Saoirse let go of the cat.
“Ouch.” she said
Sable scampered away.
Saoirse returned to her mound of jewelry. She was making matching necklace and ear ring sets. She sold them at the local store and whenever she went into town. Should I branch into making brooches too? Not so in style anymore. But she thought it might be worthwhile at any rate to make a few extra bucks.
With her fingers moving as adroitly as ever, she worked on a piece that in the end resembled a Celtic knot.
Hmm, nice. Maybe I’ll set that one aside and give it to mom. Poor mom, she needs a pick-me-up of sorts. With dad drunk and raving all the time, Blair complaining steadily, and the girls gone now, who wouldn’t need a treat? Besides, she’s Irish, too, so that should mean something, right?
Mind you, speaking of knots I have a Gordian knot of my own troubles. And how she wished that she could slice right through it then.
Making a bee-line for the front room, Saoirse presented it to her mom, “Made especially for you.”
Joan beamed. She plucked it and held it in her hand like some sort of charm or talisman.
“E`poustouflant.” Saoirse remarked. It was her favorite French word, one that she used sometimes.
“Thank you, it’s lovely. And it looks just like a Celtic knot. We’re you trying to make one?” her mom asked
“Not really…It just turned out that way in the end.” Saoirse said. “What does Saoirse mean in Gaelic again?”
“Freedom.” Joan said.
As her eyes had become as small as the beads that she worked with, Saoirse stopped. Had enough of this for tonight. So, she went to her bedroom and laid down.
But even though her hands had stilled her mind hadn’t. I need to do another round of baking tomorrow, she thought, slightly dismayed. Still, she was glad that she had these side hustles, secondary sources of income to rely on.
At least I’ve got that little bit, along with my job. And if I continue to save, if Todd would stop being such a leech, then I should be set when school starts in two years. Why can’t he ever borrow from his buddy, Ward, or someone? Why always me?
She sighed. Why does it have to be such a long wait to get into my course? Two years feels like forever to have to wait for school or anything. I just want life to start now! I just want to have to stop postponing living!
Saoirse thought of her two elder sisters, Bryn and Bronwyn. How lucky they are? Both attending the University of Toronto. Both in the big city having the time of their lives. They have each other and they have lives already in motion, dynamic and flowing, not static and stagnant such as her own.
But was that true? She recalled their phone calls about the unaffordability of rent, the scramble to try to get around in that metropolis. Homesickness. Armies of strange, street people that seemed only to grow.
Yet, Saoirse heard only her own hushed whims, her own deep longings, that inner voice that cried daily and dreamed nightly. A victim of her own imagining’s, she had always been. Even as a child she longed to be a fairy or princess or something, the offspring of a movie star. Anything that would release her from the prairie spell of monotony and flat fields, wild winds like harbingers of desolation.
Saoirse rolled over. She imagined the wildest scenarios she could. Life as a mole person in the tunnels under Vegas, a punk rock denizen of CBGB’s in the 80’s, that town where carnival oddities go to retire, Berlin any decade. Comet tails of cocaine as we rode with Captain Fantastic, Ziggy Stardust, and Major Tom. Our souls of bitumen, raw disco glitter. Why couldn’t I be in one of those cool, colorful surroundings? Why do I have to be stuck on a farm in Saskatchewan, limping along with my cottage industries while the world whirls by without me?
She frowned in the darkness.
You’re my dreamer that’s for sure, head stuck way, way up in the clouds, her mother would often say. It was more just an observation rather than a complaint, as Joan usually saved her lamentations for the others in the clan, especially the men folk. But Saoirse heard it, that everyday refrain. Like it was the punchline to some sad joke. Her life.
But Saoirse knew her mind was her release valve. Like when lightning crashed to the ground, that same random illumination. It was just part of her fleshy construction. That’s all.
For she knew that she wasn’t just a daughter, farm maid, office worker. Rather, she was the foolish mermaid that had come on land, traded her fins for legs. She was the falling star that settled, burned. She was the foundling that peeked out from the orphanage of dreams and decided to become Joan of Arc or Blondie, Shirley Muldowney or Gianna Jessen. She rode the wings of glory. She was the unsung story. Someday she would no longer settle. She would be heard.
Lying in bed, she enjoyed resting. She also enjoyed being unfettered by logic or time. The moon hides herself once a month. So, why shouldn’t I?
Saoirse let her prairie landscape meld with her own dreamscape. She imagined those strange, glowing lights that her dad occasionally claimed to see grandly lighting up her northern sky. Like “Starry, Starry Night”, that classic painting. Or a wondrous explosion of fireworks like Canada Day but sans the special occasion. Yes, it would be something like that.
But is there really going to be a tomorrow? The world she knew was quickly going away. Old stock Canada was dying and drying up. All those wars and rumors of war, shouts of planetary collapse, this age of anxiety screaming to her vis a vis the 24-hour news cycle, social media posts like shot gun blasts. It all a heady rendering of hysteria and excess, truth and half-truth bleeding into one black hole of madness. Even when she went to church there were whispers of End Times, clarifications as they munched on egg sandwiches and cupcakes afterwards. It all acted to plunge her ahead then backwards.
She alternated between wanting so very badly to live and to experience to just feeling ready to give up. It was like when she rode the bus and the driver hit the brakes. Then she was suddenly jerked forward and then returned to her spot when the bus sighed back down on its’ wheels. She felt displaced by the very times in which she lived.
But she learned just to cope. Blocking all that depressing, Doomsday narrative out, she focused on mundane matters. She hoped to lose enough weight to fit back into her skinny jeans. She hoped to get her groove back. Yes, then she would be made over and fine-tuned, sparkling, glowing just like a girl asked to dance. It might even re-ignite things between Todd and I, who knows?
She recalled the first time she ever had sex, which was with Todd, her only lover to date, and feeling relief when it was finally over. That was one of her initial misgivings with life it seemed. For if that s-e-x that they chased and tagged each other with on the playground, that caused raucous hysteria and pure fascination disappointed in the end, then what would truly deliver bliss? She didn’t know.
Feeling Sable leap on the bed and snuggle at her feet, Saoirse enjoyed the warm bundle that was her cat. She laid especially still as to not disturb her purring bedfellow. Then she, too, slept.
Having rechecked the accounts for errors and satisfied there were none, Saoirse closed them off. She was at work at the Town Office, the sole employee in fact. It was her part-time job. It was the main reason that she continued to live at home. As she could live for free and save up her pay cheques for her upcoming course.
It was Tuesday afternoon. The start of her work week. Only two more afternoons then I’m done, she thought, gladly. She only worked three afternoons in the tiny town office. Yet like many part-time jobs, she easily found herself with a full-time workload. Not fair, she groaned, inwardly. And yet she complained to no one as she was grateful for employment of any sort. Can’t wait until my course starts in two years, then I can lose this stupid job along with everything else.
She stared at her work computer. She was just about to start playing solitaire online when the door of the town office burst open.
“Heya,” Todd called. He strode up to the front desk where she sat.
“What’s up?” Saoirse said.
He wore the red ball cap and baggy jeans that was his trademark and smelled heavily of tobacco.
Standing over top of her at the counter, he said, “I’m on coffee break so I thought I’d swing by and see you.”
“And I brought you some licorice,” he said, holding up several rainbow-colored sticks.
Probably jacked it, Saoirse thought. But she murmured, “Thanks.”
Todd pumped gas at the service station on the highway. But he spent most of his money on VLT’s, poker games, though he claimed to make a lot of it back by selling things on eBay. Saoirse was skeptical, however. Yet she knew that he had that rash, risk taking nature that allowed for such dalliances.
They were a study in contrasts truly. She had that roaming imagination that took her to the peaks and valleys of fancy. But Saoirse was also cautious by nature, dutiful, disciplined. Her life was a quiet revolution really. Just baby steps until success, she believed.
Todd, however, was that unpredictable force like a prairie storm that seemingly rises from nowhere. That one sure flies by the seat of his pants, Joan remarked as she shelled peas on the back deck. Saoirse recalled her and Joan watching as Todd sped wildly out of their driveway and down the unpaved road, spraying gravel that flew like shrapnel, in a vain attempt to make it to work on time.
Saoirse loved Todd but also had misgivings about him too. Wish he wasn’t so rough around the edges. For Todd was one of those bachelors that slept with no sheets on the bed, washed only the tops of plates, ate chocolate bars on his way to work, relying on candy to see him through the better part of the day. He wavered from one grudge or money making scheme to the next. It was all nonsensical, extreme. He rode on the edge of reputation, a calculated interplay of cool and tough. Yet Saoirse sensed that underneath it all he feared that someone would discover what a feeble fraud he was. Still, she appeased his insecurity and his canny need for thrills and admiration.
“Hey, can I ask ya for a favor?” he said
Oh, right, here goes. I should have known!
“Can I borrow money for a new starter for my truck? Payday is Friday so I’ll get it back to you then.”
Saoirse shook her head, groaned inwardly. Why does he always expect to use me as a line of credit?
He appeared hopeful, beseeching. “Aww, c’mon. I’ll get it back to you.”
“How much is that? That’s a lotta money I’m sure.”
“Prob about two hundred bucks. But I can get it back to you payday. Then I thought with my truck fixed up. We could go on a little road trip to the States or something, maybe.”
Saoirse gave him a long stare. Should I? Though she had resolved not to enable him, the prospects of escaping somewhere that summer spoke to her with a longing and an intensity that was hard to deny.
However, summer was the busiest time of the year on the farm. Trips, even short ones, were never taken during those frantic growing months. Rather, all hands converged to ensure a successful crop, a golden harvest.
She gently sucked on the bottom of her lip and paused.
Todd laughed. “What’cha thinking about? I’ll pay ya back. Don’t worry about it.”
“Why not ask Ward or somebody?” she suggested.
He shrugged his shoulders.
She looked at him sternly and said, “Why does it have to be me all the time? And why don’t you budget so you don’t even have to ask?”
He said nothing. Then he shook his head lightly and said, “Alright you win. But I better get back now. Call you later, bye.”
Saoirse watched as he walked out without looking back and got into his eggplant purple truck and drove off.
Having caught up on things for the moment, she began to play solitaire on-line. She watched the digital cards flip into place.
Cradling the cordless phone up against her ear, she held the unrelenting, cuddly, Sable. Saoirse listened intently to her father.
He was talking wildly, garbled almost.
Even over the phone she could hear the heaviness of his breath, the syrupy slowness of his speech, Rusty was dead drunk as usual.
“What!” she squealed. “Flying saucers?”
“Come get us! I wanna see!
Stomping back into the kitchen and then standing with her arms akimbo, Joan said, “What’s all this?”
“Dad says there’s a crop circle or something in the field. He’s coming to get us.” Saoirse said, the pitch of her voice excitably high again.
“Really?” Joan said dumbfounded. “Are you sure he’s not just drunk and seeing things? Why is he driving anyhow?”
“Sure hope he doesn’t end up like Hoyt.” Joan groaned.
Uncle Hoyt was her dad’s brother and was presently strapped to a wheelchair in the local hospital, drying out as ever. Uncle Hoyt was the benchmark for badness, the poster boy for drunken foolishness and someone Joan referred to frequently, her near daily refrain, in a desperate attempt to keep her own children on the straight and narrow path. Don’t go like Hoyt! As their family life dealt in both alcohol and the absurd, in near equal measures, it was a frequent cry of Joan’s, the long-suffering wife and matriarch of the clan. That’s a generational curse we just don’t need!
But mom’s not without her flaws either, Saoirse noted. Saoirse had recently begun to believe that the often-wild battles between her parents were equally fueled by his alcohol and her discontent. She didn’t think that her mother was truly unhappy but just dismayed by aging, by the loss of the stunning beauty she once had and the claustrophobic life she led situated out in the middle of nowhere. You can’t even get a good map or a decent pair of shoes around here. For mom was stuck in a small life with puny dreams and drama, Saoirse realized. But then aren’t we all?
Then they heard Rusty’s truck pull in, the crunch of gravel. They hurried to the back door.
Rusty burst through it. His blue eyes were wide and glassy. Weak, yet overbearing, he was almost possessed by an insistent emotional energy that clung to him like dust from the fields.
“Ya gotta see this!” he cried
Saoirse and Joan exchanged quizzical looks and followed him back out to the truck. Frasier, their dog, ran behind it. Big pink tongue hanging out.
Rusty drove them over a bumpy, back path that led out to an adjoining field.
“Lookit that!” Joan exclaimed, pointing to a huge indentation in the field.
Though the vehicle had not even come to a full stop, Saoirse scrambled out of the truck and ran to it.
There was a beautifully symmetrical shape cut out of the glistening, golden fields. The early evening sun was already in retreat, fleeing the scene. Saoirse was near mesmerized the first instance she saw it. Walking the circumference of it, she was careful not to step on the mandala-like shape, to mess it or disturb it in any way.
“E`poustouflant,” she said under her breath
By then, her parents were standing near it, with her dad gesturing wildly.
“Hold Frasier back!” Joan shouted.
Rusty did, cradling the bulky dog in his arms.
Blair pulled up in his red Dodge Ram truck and got out. He whistled lightly at the sight of the stylized figure eight in the wheat field.
“Kinda looks like uh a Celtic knot or something.” Joan said
Her silvery gray eyes were wide with astonishment.
Rusty grinned. Shook his head.
“It’s awesome!” Saoirse exclaimed “I love it!”
Blair frowned. “I dunno. It kinda gives me the creeps to be honest.”
“Aww, c’mon”, Saoirse said, “This is the coolest thing to happen in years.”
Shivering involuntarily, Joan said, “I think I’m with Blair on this one. I don’t like this at all.”
Joan took a step backwards. “But I think we should get some pictures of it. And maybe phone the police. I dunno.”
A ripple of agreement went through the group. They took pictures. Joan and Blair taking turns, documenting it from every angle.
“Wonder how it looks from high up in the sky, from that vantage point?” Saoirse remarked, finally starting to come down from the initial high of first seeing the crop circle.
They all stared in silence at the crop circle. Like they were held hostage by its’ curious presence. Moments past. Saoirse could barely take her eyes off it as they walked back to their trucks.
Then they all drove back home.
Reluctantly, Rusty phoned the police and reported it at Joan’s urging.
Joan immediately put on a pot of coffee. Though no one drank it in the evening, she always did so when life was somehow out of the ordinary like it was right then. Saoirse knew that this was bound to go down in the family annals like other freakish events (the time the two-headed kitten was born or when the pipe burst in the middle of the night or when Uncle Hoyt rolled his truck and drank until he shit his pants). This will likely become a new mythology. The time the little gray men made a crop circle out back.
Rural life was full of the unrelenting supernatural. Haunted houses, witching for water, apparitions here, specters there, bedeviled creatures, it all made for a folk noir that was surely the country cousin of the urban legend. And of course, the House of Larkin was no different than any other farm family. Their late maternal grandmother, Ruby, had always asserted that banshees and bad fairies had followed the clan from Ireland to Saskatchewan. Ghosts imported from England of course.
Smelling the delicious aroma of fresh coffee, Saoirse poured herself one.
The phone rang.
“Wonder if that’s the cops calling back?” Saoirse called as she hurried to answer it.
“Hello,” she said.
It was Todd.
“Todd, you’re not gonna believe what-“
“Listen, Saoirse, we need to talk. I borrowed from Ward and we’re working on my truck tonight. And then him and I are gonna go down to the States this weekend.”
Saoirse shifted her stance, from one leg to the other.
“Oh…Okay, I guess. But I thought we were going to go down.”
“Yeah, uh. Listen, I need a break. I’m not saying breakup or anything. But, just like uhh, I need a break from things, from this relationship, from everything really.”
Saoirse was startled. That excited high she was floating on had suddenly crashed and she felt grounded, floored.
“Yeah I’ve been feeling like this for a while, just didn’t know what to say. I just do need to take a break, ‘kay.”
“Whatever,” she spat. She slammed the phone down.
Then she turned on her heels and stomped to her bedroom. But as the police were just pulling up to the house, no one took note of her or what had just transpired. Rather, her parents and her brother formed an excited huddle.
Saoirse collapsed into bed. She wept briefly. She found herself angry more than anything. Fucking douche. For an instant, she considered going to Blair who would likely confront Todd, perhaps even punch his lights out. But then she decided against it. I’ll just leave it be. Who knows, it’s likely even for the best. Besides, we have enough going on here with the pod people and all.
Playing with strands of her hair, whirling it around her index finger, Saoirse then felt self-doubt flood in. Am I not attractive enough to keep him? Or is it just that five-year itch or ten-year itch or whatever it’s supposed to be? What is the deal anyhow?
In the distance she could her the baritone voices of the police, her father’s own excited banter. Frasier occasionally letting off excited yips. Yet she had no desire to join in the melee.
Saoirse had always been woefully lacking in self-esteem. She remembered being called a troll in grade school and the childish taunt seemed to haunt her forever. It was an appellation she even said aloud sometimes when she examined herself in front of the full length mirror in her bedroom. But she had recovered from the injury to her psyche somewhat by their lengthy courtship. She had felt pride and dignity in the length of their coupling.
But now he had broken up with her on the eve of what would have been their fifth-year anniversary. Why did he have to go and do that? Probably because I wouldn’t lend him the money. But who knows, really?
Even though he had framed it as time off, that he would likely not return. She understood him well enough to know that he could be just as decisive as he was flighty. It was his skewed nature. That’s all.
Whatever. That’s that.
That raging, poetic quarrel within took an intolerant turn. She wanted to hate him, hate herself, and hate everything. It felt like she had swallowed night whole, darkness and blackness in one endless, indigestible mouthful.
Yet she just burst into tears again. She wept for what seemed like an eternity, as she hoped to expel all her demons in one full sitting. I’ll just let it out, she thought, as she roared into her pillow. She just curled into a baby ball and considered all.
As the storms of emotion stilled, she realized there was no use hating anyone. Todd or herself. She knew that humans were prone to error, to betray, to disappoint. It just finally happened. And she knew, most of all, that life often took unexpected turns, with plans often failing or falling short. So, our coupling appears to be over now, what of it? Relations sour all the time. People are full of heightened mischief; life is just inescapable sorrows. That’s all. Why not just accept it?
She heard the police finally leaving and things settling down. She waited a little longer until she judged the coast was clear. Then she emerged from her bedroom and left through the front door.
It was a beauteous late summer night, warm, still. Yet with a rural freshness that was undeniable. There was Baudelaire’s moon overhead, casting just enough light to guide Saoirse’s way as she headed back to the field, as she sought that mystical touchstone again.
She could hear Frasier panting as he walked beside her.
Don’t disturb it for heaven’s sake, Saoirse could still hear her mother’s entreaty from earlier that day.
But what was she disturbing really?
Coming to the edge of that great, deep indentation that was vaguely visible under the moonlight, Saoirse smiled.
Frasier licked her hand.
She strode to the center of the crop circle and laid down. Frasier, of course, trotted right along with her and laid down beside her. She could feel his big, black, wet, bulbous nose as it grazed the hollows of her neck.
Funny there’s not the usual hum of bugs. They must have their phones on vibrate. It struck her as odd to be jocose right then. Why, with a cosmic oddity like this literally underfoot, I should be fearful if anything. But she felt peace instead.
Saoirse stared skyward. I’ll just let go of it all, Todd, everything. And feeling a new and great mystery all about her, she closed her eyes and marveled at the wonder, the intrigue of it. She felt like one connecting to the pattern, dying to the weave of dots. She felt free.
THE NUTTY CLUB
Shaking the bag of peanuts under the sprawling Maple tree in the park, Brenda Lee hoped the sound would alert any squirrels in it. She knew from experience that it seemed to be their home base, their favoured tree in fact with a nice big hole in the trunk that they would pop in and out of. But nothing today. No sighting of the furry little friends that had become like a new family to her, just the gaping wooden hole like an empty womb.
Oh well next time, Brenda Lee thought as she dumped the contents of the bag on the ground, peanuts a happy brown sprinkle everywhere. She smelled the reek of a homeless man that walked past. Then she left the park.
Driving home, she had one of those blissfully, blank times when her mind seemed to be on auto pilot itself, not just the steering wheel set to cruise control for that five mile passage to their acreage outside of the city. It was a welcomed respite and it felt like a light had taken rest upon her. She sighed. Relaxed.
But as she pulled into the driveway, she saw that Tim’s motor cycle was already parked there. Uh oh…Wonder what that’s about? For they saw or heard little of their son, just cryptic phone calls late at night, the odd bits of forwarded mail, dwindling traces of a personage that had grown distant, remote, apart from them. How did that even happen? She wasn’t certain.
They had seemed like happy enough children, Tim and Andrea too. Summers spent at the West Coast of Canada, the Kootenai region in the interior of British Columbia. Family gatherings that came and went with the seasons. But then in the slowest of increments, like how dusk settles in the evening unbeknownst to the naked eye, a darkness descended upon her children, an unfathomable mass of disparate energy that left them anxious and insecure, lost and reeling. Then she found herself Mother to a pair of seeming strangers. Youths that became friendless or followers. Youths that lost themselves in so many other things. Diets. Dope. Romantic intrigues, real and imagined. Or whatever.
Seeing dusty prints on the floor of the front entrance, Brenda Lee fretted. Who tracked that in? I just did the floors! But hearing raised voices coming from below made her attention shift abruptly and she descended the basement stairs.
Henry, her husband, was seated across from Tim looking flushed and determined at the same time.
“How come you never help me out?“ Tim asked.
“I have helped you many times,“ Henry countered.
Reaching for the glass in front of him that Brenda Lee hoped was Canada Dry ginger ale but suspected was Canada Club, Henry took a measured drink.
Neither of them looked up to acknowledge her. Brenda Lee wasn’t sure if they even knew she was there. That is, until Henry shot a sideways glance at his wife but didn’t speak.
“You’re always feedin’ Andrea money. Don’t think I don’t know about that,“ Tim whined.
Shifting in his seat, Henry said, “ Come, come, she’s your little sister, “.
“I wouldn’t call thirty little,“ Tim scoffed.
Tim thrust his jaw forward and said, “What about the car loan then? You don’t know how many times I’ve almost been picked off on my Harley, “.
“ Sell the damn thing and buy a car then!“ Henry exclaimed, tossing his hands in the air.
“What a beater?“ Tim sneered.
Henry shrugged. He seemed angry, powerful, removed, like he was poised on Mt. Olympus and ready to bear down. Henry took a long pull from his glass before setting it back down.
The air was strained and yet Brenda Lee said nothing to ease the situation even though it was her nature to do just that. But an unspoken agreement existed between her and Henry to never interfere where he had already laid claim, especially with regards to family.
Henry believed Mothers were too soft on children, although had she wanted to, Brenda Lee could have given lots of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. Still she was beyond arguing that point or any other one because the fight had been taken out of her long ago. She only craved peace. She suspected that Henry blamed her about the children, about everything in fact. Yet she also knew that he would never admit to colossal failure, be it a botched surgery or an errant child. He was only able to allow truth to come to him in degrees, in small patches like light that slips between the slats in a window blind, fingers of light that occasionally pointed the way. But not too often.
Watching the Homeric scene before her, Brenda Lee suddenly longed for the park, for the spacious peace of the outdoors, for the hushed, pedestrian humanity, the sense of utter unity under a sublime and sheltering sky. She exhaled helplessly.
She stared at her son. He gave her a nervous, guilty glance. But said nothing. Brenda Lee thought she could smell Tim, the slightly sour scent from an unwashed body, nails blackish, uneven. She was reminded of the homeless in the park and shuddered.
Turning to go back upstairs, Brenda Lee wished only to extricate herself from the scene, for it was like creation had erred somehow before her, devious dna that bloomed into disease, flowered into tricks of nature that no one had anticipated. She didn’t want to give witness to it, just as she stared straight ahead when visiting Henry at the hospital, daring not to turn her face to see the sickly in all their contorted poses, their juices and spittle flowing free. Like a study in death masks so it seemed to her. Ghastly.
At least I got my squirrels fed today, Brenda Lee thought, though the notion seemed like a consolation prize.
Standing at the top of the stairs, Andrea beamed down. Wonder what she wants? Though Brenda Lee knew that Andrea had a penchant for drama herself, a wildly vivid imagination that seemed to drive her inner workings and that led her to become especially animated in trying times like these.
“ What’s Tim doing? “ Andrea whispered to her Mother when Brenda Lee reached the very top.
Brenda Lee shrugged. She did not wish to inflame things. Yet she knew that Tim revolved around two poles, the need for money and the desire to cast blame, pivot points for his reality, like ties that held his very being into place. And tonight it seemed to be a mixture of both, Brenda decided.
“ Who tracked that in? “ Brenda Lee complained when she was confronted by the sight of the dusty footprints once again. She brushed the edge of the prints with her sock foot.
“ Dunno, “ Andrea said. She stared eagerly down the stairs, not even returning her Mother’s gaze.
“ That’s not what I meant! Stop twisting my words! “ Henry suddenly bellowed
“ Aww fuck, “ Tim replied.
Brenda Lee whirled around and stood listening.
Andrea shot her a quick, excited glance. But her daughter resembled an eavesdropping child more than the woman of thirty that she was.
“ Well I’ve had enough of this nonsense! “ Henry roared, as he stormed up the stairs with tumbler of whiskey still in hand. Moments later, Tim bounded up the stairs behind him, taking two steps at a time.
Mother and Daughter had discretely moved out of the way and were now standing in the living room, listening still but trying to valiantly give an impression otherwise. Brenda Lee dropped her gaze. Andrea fumbled with her phone.
“ Y’know Tim, I’ve just about had it with you, “ Henry began.
The two men, father and son, had squared off and were facing each other.
“ Why? “ Tim challenged.
“ You’re a drug addict! “ Henry exclaimed.
“ You’re an alcoholic! “ Tim returned.
There was silence.
Andrea giggled. Brenda Lee frowned at her daughter whose eyes suddenly resembled blue flames.
“ You’re a drug addict! “ Henry shrieked.
“ You’re an alcoholic! “ Tim shouted.
Andrea broke into laughter, though she quickly covered her mouth with her hand. The oversized thumb that seemed to be the bane of her daughter’s existence stood upward. Her eyes shone gleefully as she continued to watch them.
Should I say something? Brenda Lee wondered. Then it occurred to her. What would she even say to an exchange like that? Yet she knew from experience that it wasn’t always prudent to intervene, that it was wise to pick and choose your battles, especially where this bunch was concerned.
Brenda Lee studied the two men. Henry was adamant, with the steely surgeons visage, the elegant dress clothes, the bearing of nervous exhaustion about him like a tarnished halo. It occurred to her that Henry saw little demarcation between the battlefields of home, work and life. Though not lacking in sentiment, it all just blurred and blended into one grand fight, one great moment of tension in the O.R. or the dining table or even as he weaved through the traffic like a net all about him on his way to and from work everyday. She understood his fear of losing. She knew that he would battle things all the way. His inner spirit plainly visible during the day. Henry donned his armour without hesitation. He was a David clashing with the Goliath which was the world. That much was evident to her.
But with Tim it was a different story. He was growing even more remote. He was a teasing riddle to her, to them all really and always had been when even as a child he would have mysterious, moody outbursts, like a growing discontent lurked under the surface and was straining and poised to breakthrough. Here he stood like Absalom, defiant, decayed beauty , then he opened the door and left.
Henry sighed. But he quickly recovered into his drink, into the nightly news that he followed with a religious fascination, even calling out to the T.V. his disbeliefs and dissatisfactions, sometimes seemingly deluded notions that even worried Brenda at times. Could that be part of his whole eye tic thing? She worried, wondered.
Andrea, now fully animated, followed Brenda Lee from room to room. Her mother recognized the aura of wonder about her daughter, the same nervous energy that propelled her as a child, the high strung excitability that made her laugh and pee and cry in succession. It wore Brenda Lee out back in the day and she still found it disconcerting. For it made Andrea unseemly and child like, with a cruel, cagey docility like one hoping to be witness to a scene, the grand and magnificent unravelling of Mount Olympus, as they fell to the ground one by one.
Walking in tandem with her Mom, Andrea leaned over and whispered, “ Wasn’t that hilarious? “
Brenda Lee frowned. “ Not funny in the least, “.
Andrea stomped to her bedroom. But Brenda Lee hardly noticed as she set to work removing the offending footprints at the front door. One. Then the other.
Once they had recouped their space and the mood settled into the usual cool, regularity, the nightly rhythms of television and small talk ensued with the flatness of a truce.
Brenda Lee sipped the last of the day’s coffee. She wouldn’t make another pot in the evening, never did unless company came and that was becoming less frequent all the time.
“So what did he want?“ she finally asked.
“What do you think,“ Henry said, the irritation evident in his voice. He kept his face glued to the T.V. screen and remained silent.
Over the years, Brenda Lee had had as many imagined conversations with Henry as real ones. Sometimes she thought their relationship existed in the abstract, in fevered imagination as much as the banality of the everyday, for when she feared to confront him in person, when she wished only for peace, when she strained to get through the everyday that was when she would take their exchanges to another level, to her silent inner world for judgement and adjudication. It was as comforting a tendency as it was reflexive. Even now.
She studied her husband. While he sank into spirits and the latest episode of The Simpsons, she juxtaposed their inner world with their outer reality and found a disconcerting collage of raw emotion and ugly intent like their world had fallen under the hands of some mad artist.
Had Henry given up on Tim, on everything? No. Henry would never give up, though he may just opt to survive, to just get through things. Henry always strove for a higher ground, for a wider settling of affairs even if success per se was eliminated somehow. He was always fond of saying, “ We’ll make the best of it.“ And he did. Shouldering huge back logs of operations, dwindling medical budgets, whatever fired raged on the home front, he persevered.
She sensed that he held it all delicately in check until holidays came, and they fled for the beaches on the West Coast or elsewhere and he transformed overnight into “good-time Hank “, clad in ball cap and sandals and with the ubiquitous beer in hand, roaming, exploring, the irreverent teller of bawdy tales and recycled jokes, slumping over in hot tubs and hotel rooms, bloated, pontificating.
Was he ashamed of Tim and the rest of his family? She wasn’t certain. But she didn’t think so. Henry was no snob. He had come up through the crucible of the working class, admitted to medical school narrowly after several attempts and only on the grounds of a maternal grandparent who had been a physician in Ireland, so elitist were the policies in Canada that hard work and ambition were inconsequential, while family connection was everything. Brenda Lee knew that after his own long struggle to achieve, Henry couldn’t understand why his family didn’t do likewise. Why didn’t his kids chase after the brass ring like he did? Why didn’t they at least try? Blue collar Tim with his heroin habit and his dry walling gig, indifferent to academics, too small for athletics, it seemed that he sought nothing, settled for anything while Andrea flitted from one artsy endeavour to the next, milliner, potter, documentary film maker and now even selling home made crafts on Etsy. Brenda Lee knew that it made no sense to Henry and he was just as apt to shut it all out. Sometimes when Henry said, “ They’re motives are selfish as usual, “ she heard herself agreeing inwardly. For they never followed his lead, they never listened to their parents, wilful tots that became disaffected adults. But where did it all begin? Brenda Lee wondered.
Probably the very worst of it was Tim stealing pills from Henry, left over pain meds, whatever he could scavenge from his Dad’s office, pretending to be there on a friendly visit and then grabbing wild handfuls and stuffing his back pack. How old was Tim when all of that started anyhow? 12 or 13. Yet he had been raiding Henry’s bar long before that when at the age of ten he mistook a cooler for a soda and drank it and to his delight found that he preferred it to regular pop. The rest was history of course.
Brenda Lee knew that she and Henry were as much to blame, however. Somewhere in their affirmative years, their progeny had realized their father was not a God but very flawed and mortal and that their mother was not an angel but something sideways, something else. They had never forgiven them for this realization apparently. Would they ever?
Rubbing her temples with her thumbs, Brenda Lee then had an even darker thought. What does Henry think of me? She remembered the dismissive glance he gave her when Art and Laurie pulled into their driveway to say hi on their way back from their Mediterranean cruise.
Laurie emerged with a near glowing tan, recounting one comic anecdote after another while Art, a friend and fellow surgeon, stood by beaming with his usual aura of silent pride. Laurie, the over achiever who set real estate records and who managed to volunteer at the art gallery on the side, always elicited such a response from their circle, though it seemed to be shrinking by degrees now. Did they even have a circle anymore? Brenda Lee wasn’t certain but she doubted it.
But they aren’t part of the sandwich generation in the same way that Henry and I are, Brenda Lee fretted. Laurie’s parents passed away a long time ago while Art’s parents are making a long, slow, dignified climb to agedness, still attending church, still part of polite circles that live in their own homes and frown at new fashions and worry about weeds out back.
That’s in no way comparable to what Henry and I are going through with our elderly, crazy parents! Old Joe, as Henry referred to his Father, drinking himself into diabetes and dementia and having to be forcibly placed into a Care Home where he raises a daily ruckus over smoking indoors. And my beloved Mother, who haunts her neighborhood pub to play vlt’s, still living in her own home, still crooning to her old country records, especially to my namesake Brenda Lee, yet with her fine, rickety frame and the icy Regina streets, the sheets of sleet that continually pour down, it’s a worry to know that she hurries to and fro there all the time.
Watching as Henry’s one eye fluttered involuntarily as it did from time to time, Brenda Lee wondered just how long has that been going on for now? Is that stress? Or is that the forerunner of something much worse? Should I bring it to his attention, he is a medical man after all? Or is it just a trifle I can overlook?
Yet as she heard some slamming, Brenda Lee’s gaze shifted from her husband to the direction of the noise. She went to investigate it.
Upon entering the kitchen, Brenda Lee saw Andrea who promptly frowned.
“ What’s wrong? “ Brenda Lee queried, though she sensed it was just a continuation of earlier events as so often happened in the Kilbride household, passion unfolding exponentially.
Brenda Lee watched as her daughter was making a juice cleanse concoction, something filmy looking and sea foam coloured and she then frowned also. Does Andrea live off those drinks? When was the last time I saw her actually eat?
Between blasts of the blender, Andrea spoke. Her tone as sharp as the blades though.
“It’s just that-“
“Whenever I try and bond with you-“
Done with the blender, Andrea poured the liquid into a tall glass and began drinking it, all the time eyeing her Mother suspiciously.
Brenda Lee paused thoughtfully. “Bond?“ she asked.
Rinsing the glass out and setting it in the dishwasher, Andrea said, “Ya like talk, joke, anything.“
“How do you mean?“ Brenda Lee asked, careful not to vary her tone of voice and be subsequently accused of being defensive or hysterical or a myriad of other contrivances.
“Like when I tried to joke with you earlier,“ Andrea complained.
“When?“ Brenda Lee asked.
“Like when they were yelling at each other,“ Andrea said.
“Th-that was hardly funny,“ Brenda Lee sputtered.
Andrea looked at her Mother sternly but remained silent.
“You’re not just living off those drinks are you?“ Brenda Lee queried.
“Oh for Chrissakes,“ Andrea groaned and she turned and began to march out of the kitchen but bumped into Henry instead.
“What’s wrong?“ he asked upon seeing her darkened countenance.
“Oh she’s accusing me of starving myself again,“ Andrea cried. Then she flounced past
her father and stomped up the stairs to her bedroom.
Henry sighed. Topping up his drink with more Canada Dry, he paused next to Brenda Lee and said, “I wish you wouldn’t say things to set her off. That’s all I need.“ The veins on his nose, a whiskey nose for certain, had spread like pink tendrils along the skin of his face reminding Brenda Lee of the light tread of flowers in the park, near her squirrel feeding tree.
“I-I didn’t,“ Brenda sputtered.
Henry looked at her flatly, sipped his drink.
“I just asked if she was living off those drinks, that’s all,“ Brenda Lee insisted.
Shaking his head ever so slightly, Henry said, “But you know how even any mention of food- “
“Well what was I to think!“ Brenda Lee barked though she was horrified by the sound of her voice even as the words leapt from her throat, a shrill runaway tone that caught her as much by surprise as anyone.
“I haven’t seen her eat in days. I just asked is all,“ Brenda Lee remarked in the most even tone she could muster.
Staring hard at her, Henry said, “I see her eat all the time. Always taking yogurt cups up to her room…You know how she has to do her own thing all the time.“
“Well I didn’t know that,“ Brenda Lee began, “It’s not like anybody tells me these things.“
“ Oh for God’s sakes Brenda no one has time for that, “ Henry grumbled as he left the kitchen. She watched him return to the T.V. in time to see Grandpa Simpson sitting on an oversized egg and hatching it.
With her mind rushing like some runaway train, Brenda Lee sought to regain her bearings. Too late for more coffee, it’ll just keep me up. Too late now for a walk or even for a night feeding, she also decided. Rubbing her temples once again, she just hoped that she wouldn’t develop that funny eye twinge thing that Henry had. You just never know…
Settling into bed with a book, Brenda Lee tried to read but soon tossed it aside. Her inner voice was a restless spirit that entreated. Do the kids hate me? Maybe Tim. Probably Andrea. Children sometimes hate their parents. They just do. And with both of them still unattached it doesn’t help matters, they are still mired in the past, still cast in the role of child, though grown now, carrying baggage and roles and identities that haunt and cling, divide and conquer. Brenda Lee believed that experience was the cure all. We forgive our parents because we become our parents. It was as simple as that. But not in their case of course. Nothing ever seemed to settle into happy equal measures in the House of Kilbride. It had begun to feel like they were a part of some doomed ancient lineage, damned medieval dynasty of blood curse and attrition. Does everyone feel like this? Maybe sometimes.
She closed her eyes. She sank into the stillness of being. Effortlessly, she returned to the park, to that particular tree where she fed the squirrels, to the lake where she hand-fed bread to the gathered fowl and then that old abandoned building on the outskirts of the city, on the way to their acreage, dotted with rabbits that she brought bags of organic cilantro and carrots, feeding her ever growing flock like she was a saviour on the prairies, apostle of the plains. Gophers too. It had become her mid-life passion. I’ve exchanged my skin kin for a furry family, she thought, though somewhat sheepishly. For having eschewed the company of humans, she had become an urban wildlife rescuer, feeding them, making phone calls over creatures in distress, a Canada goose injured and separated from the flock, a beaver waddling unceremoniously up the main drag, a baby mouse that she mistook for a glob of pink chewing gum that she scraped off the sidewalk and nursed to health at home. Whenever Henry asked why she descended so freely into the realm of animals, Brenda Lee would just casually say, “Because people are fucked.“ Why else? People are fucked, aren’t they? She believed so, at least from the experience of her fifty five years. Her family. Everyone on the news. Most everyone in fact.
Sometimes she believed that she belonged to a secret underground of care givers, a hidden railway of support that would be canonized at some future date, saints that lived with cloisters of cats, an enclave of rabbits, that hushed sense of good will that sprinkled itself like holy water across neighborhoods of the nation. It would give her a momentary rush of excitement. Then at other times she felt the cutting edge of curious onlookers and blushed instead.
But tonight she just body surfed through a sea of memory, with scattered bits of affect washing up like driftwood on the shore. Visionary strays. Wanton wildlife. Brenda Lee had put aside the hopes and fears, mortifications and pleasures of the day and wished only to glide to sleep. That’s all.
Then she heard a knock at her bedroom door.
“Come in,“ Brenda Lee said.
Expecting Henry, though she wasn’t certain why, Brenda Lee was surprised to see Andrea as the door swung open. They all had their own bedrooms and Brenda Lee assumed that her daughter had retired for the night, though not necessarily surrendered to sleep but rather yielded to a romantic grandiosity that often reached full-flower in the evening, enabled by chick flicks, late night talk shows and of course, the shopping channel. Along with her sweeping artistic visions, it was enough to fill Andrea with a dreamy preoccupation, spellbound within her own inner sanctum, that strange world of eating disorders and fashion, tics and T.V. But not tonight it seemed. Emerging from the minimalist splendour of her bedroom, Andrea appeared bent on a mission.
“Did you actually like that last batch of crafts I marketed? Be honest?“ Andrea bluntly asked.
“Of course,“ Brenda Lee said.
Standing over her, Andrea appeared almost bemused. With her Ophelia hair hanging in wildly untamed locks, she had the same sonorous cast as some feral creature captured, cornered except that in her visage, in the firmness of her jawline lay a sort of repressed savagery, the deliverance of the beast.
“You do beautiful work!“ Brenda Lee insisted.
“Really?“ Andrea asked, though her tone was weak, doubtful.
“Really,“ her Mother replied.
They paused. Andrea slipped her hands into her housecoat pockets and simply said, “I don’t believe you.“
Brenda Lee stared at her daughter. She saw the eyes like cold gray steel, the unflinching face, that same tireless expression of sorrow, an insecurity that ran raw and epic and deep like she was cleansing and fasting from the depths of her soul rather than from cellulite. It unnerved Brenda Lee. Just like the shadows that slowly crawl up the wall at night, it, too, seemed to surround her.
What was the root of her daughter’s colossal self consciousness? Was it really the over sized thumbs, the toe thumbs that Tim had teased her about when they were children? The thumbs she took pains to down play and even keep hidden from sight as she was doing now with her hands thrust deep into her housecoat pockets? Shouldn’t she be over that now? You would think so as they had gotten her therapy for her low self esteem after all?
Is she bingeing again? Brenda Lee wondered, though she dared not broach the subject. Not with Andrea feasting steadily on a diet of recriminations.
Rather, Brenda Lee straightened up in bed and said, “You do lovely work and you know it. I’ve always been so proud of you for it. And how you haven’t uhhh…succumbed like so many others your age. “
Andrea looked at her quizzically.
“What do you mean?“ Andrea asked.
“Oh you know, all those poor gals who flash their boobies online for money,“ Brenda Lee explained , in reference to the sort of obscene cottage industry that had sprung up on the web, one that she had learned about through documentaries on T.V.
Andrea erupted into shrill laughter.
“At least you just sell arts and crafts online and nothing else,“ Brenda Lee explained.
But as Andrea tittered, Brenda Lee’s face fell.
“You’re funny,“ Andrea remarked.
“I’m so grateful that we have money so you don’t have to resort to all that,“ Brenda Lee explained, warmed by her very own words.
Andre paused. She stared at Brenda Lee hard.
“So you’re saying that you’re propping me up then?“ Andrea said.
“Of course not,“ Brenda Lee replied.
“Well it sounds like it,“ Andrea said.
Brenda Lee stiffened in bed. What is with her tonight? Is she giddy from low blood sugar, a lack of glucose to the brain? She searched Andrea’s face for any sign of softening, for the ease of conciliation but saw none. Instead, her daughter’s cool eyes had darkened and narrowed, her jaw was set as firm as a trap.
“Oh for God’s sake,“ Brenda Lee sighed, looking about helplessly.
Andrea was adamant.
“You know what I mean,“ Brenda Lee insisted.
“No I don’t,“ Andrea sniffed.
“Look what I mean to say is that I’m just glad you’re not as desperate as some. That we are able to help if need be,“ Brenda Lee explained.
“Sure,“ Andrea scoffed.
“Look Andrea, did you come into my room to give me a headache?“ Brenda Lee asked.
Andrea did not reply. Then after a calculated pause, Andrea said, “I hear you saying that you guys are just propping up my business. I suppose that’s why Tim’s nose is so out of joint these days. “
Exasperated, Brenda Lee said, “You’re making me dizzy.“
“Mom!“ Andrea wailed.
“You kids are killing me,“ Brenda Lee said, shaking her head.
“You always say that whenever I try and talk to you!“ Andrea cried.
“Would you like me to have a stoke or something?“ Brenda Lee whined.
“It’s always a stroke, cancer, brain tumor…fuck,“ Andrea said as she wheeled about and stomped out of the room.
Opening her end table drawer, Brenda reached in and felt for the pill bottle inside. She plucked it out and swallowed the sleeping tablet down in one, hard, dry lump. The very meds that Henry had prescribed for her out of sheer exasperation when she had slept fitfully on end for weeks, even leaving their acreage some evenings to haunt late night diners and donut shops. Won’t let any wife of mine end up one of those Tim Hortons freaks, Henry opined as he handed her the scrip before rushing out the door to work one morning. It had become part of her night time ritual along with prayer and flossing her teeth.
But tonight she opted to dispense with all routine. She shut her eyes. She sought sleep. That’s all.
The next morning as they nearly collided at the front door, Henry leaving for work and Brenda Lee leaving to do her urban wildlife routine. He paused when he saw her holding the bags of feed, loaves of bread for the birds, big plump cabbages for the bunnies and a Nutty Club bag of peanuts for her beloved squirrels. Henry frowned. But he brushed past her and hurried to his car as he was already running late.
Brenda Lee, who was just daring him to challenge her behavior, did feel relieved by his silence. She just didn’t feel like a scene, at least not first thing in the morning. Because then she really did feel like she was experiencing a stroke or something. Rather, she just strode in the opposite direction to her truck, setting the bags on the seat beside her and driving off.
She watched Henry driving ahead in the distance. The golden Lexus faintly gleaming under the morning sun, elegant carriage carrying him off. She marvelled at how little she felt towards him. Though they had a shared history, Brenda Lee felt only a spotty connection, a grand unravelling as indifferent as it was meandering, like the prairie road full of pot holes that she drove on.
But it had become like that with all of them really. Her kids too. She sighed in a pained sort of relief when she found herself all alone at home, when Henry was working late and Andrea had gone out. For then their abode that felt like it was built on top of Ur became hushed and tranquil and affirming once again. She loved that sense. But it was all too rare these days, she noted.
When she finally reached the park, she sought that familiar tree. Ground zero. The morning light was climbing down from the heavens like an angel descending. Brenda Lee shook the Nutty Club bag of peanuts and the plastic crackled noisily. She looked for the squirrels but saw none. What nobody up yet? Oh well, it’s still early she decided. Then she sat down on a nearby bench and waited. She closed her eyes and smiled.
Walking down the hallway from the bathroom to Katie’s bedroom, I felt more like I was moving in a wavy, dream world. It was dusk. The evening hush had settled in making all a shadowy, netherworld of sleepy, passionate release, reality down. Willow wrapped around my legs a few times. I could hear her purr and feel her sonorous touch. I could see her outline in the growing dark, even though she was black as night itself.
I’ll just say goodnight to Katie, tuck her in. That’s all. Same as ever. Maybe Nate’s with her already, I think, reading her a bed time story, settling her in. Feeling a fog of fatigue, I just wanted to get to bed myself, let Morpheus drag me under with his clasped hand. The day had been long and now I wanted the night to be even longer still.
Opening the door, I see his penis. Pink and vulgar and exposed. Then I feel a crash of night falling in my brain, a sudden darkness deleting all.
“What the fuck are you doing!” I shriek
Nate bolts upright. Katie stirs in her sleep.
Instantly, he drops and covers his exposed member with his bathrobe.
I lunge at him and he ducks out of the way. Hitting the bed face first, the softness and warmth doesn’t register, though, not the teddy bear quilt I become tangled in. Katie rolls over, still asleep but murmuring.
“Nuthin,” Nate protests
“Nothing!” I whoop
Katie sits up in bed. I turn to her. “It’s okay baby, go to sleep.”
She lays back down.
Nate leaves the bedroom heading down the hallway. I hurry behind him and shut her door quietly in frantic hope that she stays asleep.
Mid-way down the hall, I tackle him from behind.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he cries, as he shakes me off him.
Stumbling backward, I almost fall.
“What in the fuck were you doing?” I seethe, whispering now.
“Nothing! I was just whacking off because I was too lazy to get up and go to our room. I was just too comfortable to move. That’s all. Besides, she was asleep anyhow.” he whines
In the dark, he looks almost like an outline, a brief sketch rather than a full-fledged human.
“Bullshit,” I snort
“Oh come off it,” he scoffs. He walks to our bedroom and lays down.
Then he rolls away from me.
Staring for a moment, I am at a loss. Should I keep talking to him about it? Should I phone the police? Or should I just plunge a butcher knife into his throat like that reptilian portion of my brain is telling me to? I don’t know…
God knows, I’m not certain what just went on? Could he be telling the truth? Could it just be poor judgement, sloppy impulse management as he contends? He is obtuse enough as the next. He is capable of incredible acts of indiscretion and just plain stupidity, that’s for certain. I’ve seen enough of that over time.
But I doubt it.
Feeling like one frozen in time, fossilized as amber, I can’t move. I just stand and stare at him lying in our bed.
Finally, he says, “Oh come on…just come to bed already. Everything’s fine.”
I turn and leave the bedroom. I shut the door ever so quietly. As I walk to the kitchen, I feel rather that I’ve stumbled into some surreal, new world, plunged unawares down the rabbit hole. I shiver first. Then I begin to plot what to do.
Feeling the rain misting down as I hurry to load the car, I curse under my breath at this liquid insolence. Why in the fuck would it have to start raining on top of everything else? Go figure…But I grab all the absolute necessities, the keep sakes too, my purse and phone and lap top, photo albums and a box of special things put away high in the hall closet. Next, I load the cat. Her dish and litter box also. As could be expected, Willow fights like a tiny, mythical demon. But there’s no way that I’m going to leave her behind. Then I begin to load the trunk with some of Katie’s clothes and things. Her special Pooh Bear. Though my mind is cracking like the thunder overhead, I try to be as methodical as possible. Finally, I rush back into the house to get her.
Gotta get out of here before he realizes what’s going on. More than anything else, I just want to make a clean getaway. No drama. No melt downs. Nothing untoward or out of the ordinary that will traumatize my toddler or even make her question the security of her existence. She’s only three years old after all. I must do as much damage control as possible.
Scooping her up, I carry her to the car. She still smells fresh from the bath and baby powder I had given her earlier. Luckily enough, she stays sleeping and I’m glad that she has always been good in that respect. I buckle her into her car seat and drive off.
Just as we pull out of the driveway and spill onto the street, I glimpse Nate coming out the front door in the rear-view mirror. Exhaling deeply, I hit the pedal.
Glancing down at the gas gauge, I’m relieved to see that it’s three quarters full. Good, that should be more than enough to get us to Moranville. It was the next town over, nearly a small city in fact with its growing resource sector. We’ll check into a hotel. Don’t want to bother calling anyone this late, even though the truth was that I didn’t have too many people to call anyway. Besides, Missy or Carol, there wasn’t anyone else and things were always hit or miss with the latter anyhow.
I just want to leave fast. That’s all.
So, I drive to the highway and leave the ashes and ruins our town had suddenly become. The rain began to pour. I heard the hard cracks of thunder. Willow growled from inside her cat carrier. Through the windshield I saw the magnificent illumination from streaks of lightning, bolts falling like Satan. The night was gothic, primal, unrestrained. All was black, expansive. It was the time of ending as evening tends to be, this darkly closure. I had the eerie sense that life was moving and mounting against me, reality inverted. But I drove on. Into this new uncharted territory that my personal reality had become, I steered.
Yet like nagging demons, my concerns revisited me. Could he have been telling the truth? Probably not, I decide and even if he was honest, who needs to be around someone so careless and myopic anyhow? It was just too much. Besides, there was the issue of his phone, the computer room.
Nate never let me touch his phone. Then he would disappear into the computer room sometimes for hours. Probably perusing porn, I knew. Most men do. For it was a cultural stain that left few untouched, aren’t there ten-year-old porn addicts these days, a thought that made my stomach suddenly pinch? Yes, it was all too likely, I feared. But at least he wasn’t assaulting Katie, I told myself consolingly. Or had he already?
Hit by that staggering, juggernaut of a thought, I nearly drove off the road. I quickly had to swerve and readjust to return to my proper lane. OMG! What next? Just what Pandora’s box had been opened?
I cry quietly. Not wanting to wail as I believe that I could, I just keep it down to a low, bubbling sob. I don’t want to wake Katie and upset her after all. It’s always about the child, isn’t it? At least for me it is, though I can’t say the same for many nowadays though.
Pulling into Moranville the rain has ceased, I see a puddle of light gleam in the glow of my headlights. From raging, inclement night it has settled into an almost twinkling, Impressionist like cityscape, as trickster nature teases and emerges.
Upon checking into Imperial Motel, I scurry to get us set up in our room for the night.
“Momma,” Katie moans, then begins crying. She clings tight to me as my purse inadvertently spills on the counter ledge, all a sideshow of Smarties and breath mints and Handy Wipes. I set the cat carrier beside it. Willow peers out, black velvet with flashing, gold eyes. She hisses. The front desk attendant looks at me bemused. I catch a waft of his breath and it smells like fruity alcohol. Then I spy a supersized, travel mug behind the desk and I know. We’re not the only ones’ harboring secrets in the night, now are we?
It’s almost the prototypical, shit, prairie motel seemingly in the middle of nowhere. But it will do for the night or maybe even for several as I scramble to get a plan, a new life in motion. The floor tiles are cracking. Several of the neon letters advertising Imperial Motel have burnt out, spelling IMP Motel instead. I stand in some sort of strange afterglow, tubular red and blue. Then a new fear hits me.
Fuck, I hope my credit card works as the Front Desk Attendant feeds it through the machine. I hold my breath. I, so, don’t want to have to give him a hand job or something. And I nearly rejoice at the mechanical ring of verification.
We hurry to our room. Number 6.
Katie is screaming now. I feel the tears streaming down her cheeks pasted wet upon my neck. A big glob of saliva slithers onto my breast bone. Her baby blonde hair is fly away, messy.
“Shh, it’s okay baby. Momma’s here. Go to sleep.”
Frightened by the sudden nocturnal intrusion of these unfamiliar surroundings, I rock her in my arms back to sleep. She doesn’t resist long, though, sleepy as she is.
Next, I release Willow and she springs out like a caged tiger. The cat runs from corner to corner, from bedroom to bathroom exploring the new place. Thank God I could find a place that accepts pets, I think, grateful that the universe had sent even the smallest of mercies my way.
When things have finally settled down and into place, I exhale deeply. I feel like crying again. But I reach for my cigarettes instead.
Though I know that I should not smoke near her, I’m too drained to slip outside. So, I puff away in the dark. Then I realize that I’m doing just what Nate did, performing a vulgar and dangerous act near a child. That realization makes me feel cross not enlightened, however. As like most of us, I don’t want to meet my own contradictions period, be it in the dark or the light of day. Not ever. And especially not now of all times…
Just enjoy this smoke I tell myself and soon I’m engulfed in my own fumes.
Then sitting up in the bed. I begin to think hard. Yeah, Nate can’t fool me. I know he’s hauling some big ass secret, some baggage like a bundle of bricks, like most of us do. Like he’s a pervert or pedophile or something. Like him. Like me. Like now.
God knows, I carry a back pack of vice with me too. It’s just that I’ve done perhaps a better job of concealing it, from Nate, from everyone in fact. Whoever would have thought that when he and I met that fateful afternoon in a car wash in Calgary that it would end up in as a twisted trajectory as the one I’m now hurtling along? Go figure…But that’s life for you, I sigh.
For when this world first fell we all broke with it. We became the remnants of a broken paradise that shattered and scattered far and wide, shards that scrape us like Job, then even further fragments sweeping, dissolving into dust.
I blow a smoke ring. It seems to hang extra-long in the dim motel room.
The cat has joined me now in the bed. Having satisfied her curiosity about her new surroundings, Willow curls into a ball at my feet and seems to instantly sleep.
Yeah, I’m no saint. That’s for certain. The embezzlement. The hidden bank account. All of that before Nate and I even met, then keeping it secret from him and everyone. Like any other worldly traveler, I trade in secrets and devices, passions and vices. And you thought girls were all just sugar and spices, right?
But at least I have that little hidden nest egg for Katie and I. So many times I’ve tried to rationalize my crime, saying to myself in those most lonely, confessional hours that it’s just a normal event these days. Even nuns now get sent away for embezzlement hahaha. Everyone seems to be ripping off work then hitting the casino, right? Yet my rationalizations just don’t seem to stick, though. Deep down, I know that’s just not the case.
So, what is it then, that led to my most foul deed? Was it just the imp inside me? Or was it just naked opportunity, a raw practicality that hit me full frontal like nothing has ever struck me before. Could it be the promptings of a darkened soul, a wandering mind?
Who knows, maybe that’s why I did it in the first place? Maybe my subconscious prompted me to embezzle as it knew that I would be needing it for a rainy day like today? Go figure…But that’s not what I think just happened.
It smacks more of karma than anything. Yes, the cosmic wheel had turned another rotation. From when I ripped off of my former employer, crazy old Leo Danks, who wasn’t even aware of what I had done, to now being forced to flee after tonight’s grand rupture. It serves me right. That’s all I can say. But I wince upon that realization, however. For there is just one sticking point.
Katie. That precious little bundle on the other side of the bed. How could I ever involve her in such shenanigans? It’s just not right. That’s the one thing that I do know for certain in such a sordid mess as this. That’s my one regret.
I stub my cigarette out.
Then I lay down and try to get some rest in this so very longest night. In the dimness, I feel pin pricks from the cat’s claws every now and then.
While the fluorescent light overhead stared like a fixed eye, the class seemed as lifeless as ever. There were the usual rustlings of paper, binders thrusting and snapping, an occasional yawn. It was Homeroom B. It was the middle of the afternoon, study period in fact.
“Okay class, this is catch up time. So, take out any unfinished assignments and finish them please.” Mrs. Cline addressed the class.
She sat at the teacher’s desk at the front of the room. Mrs. Cline clutched her pen tightly. Though she had a mountain of papers in front of her to mark, she couldn’t concentrate.
Am I staring too much? she feared. Sure hope not…
But Mrs. Cline knew that her senses were in over drive and there was nothing she could do about it. She swore that she could hear her heart beating, the clock ticking overhead, everything. Like she had morphed into some super hero character, so it seemed.
Mrs. Cline tried not to glance front and center. As much as she could, her gaze swept to the left or right, to the rows of desks on the outer edges of the crammed classroom. But every so often her gaze would land front and center. It had to, just to balance things out and keep up appearances. That’s so important, she knew, especially at this stage of the game.
“Were we supposed to hand that art thingy in?” Logan asked
“Two days ago.” Mrs. Kline replied
The class laughed.
All heads turned towards Logan who preened, basked in the attention.
What a stupid little shit, Mrs. Cline thought. What does Adam see in him anyhow?
Then she forced herself to focus on the stack of papers before her. She began scratching corrections like a Mother Hen in the dirt. Better get myself caught up if I’m going to tell them to do the same, Mrs. Cline thought, ruefully. Practice what you preach…
Though she waded through the murk of book reports, grammatical errors and misspells, a grimy language all its’ own. Mrs. Cline plodded along. It was the unholy union of a young adult adventure novel and an English assignment. Sure fodder for restless, impetuous youth. Yet all the while she dutifully marked, a certain back story ran through her mind. She imagined herself as the protagonist, the heroine of the novel, who was hiding out in Marrakesh amidst scandal and danger. It was a story and setting that she found scintillating. It was a tale that spoke to her through and through.
But then someone farted. The classroom erupted into peals of laughter. Mrs. Cline looked up and frowned.
“Ewww!” Logan barked
Mrs. Cline scanned the classroom. She saw Adam look up from his notebook, then return to it. Adam’s so mature, she thought approvingly. Then she resumed marking her stack of papers.
When the home time bell finally sounded, Mrs. Cline looked up pleased. She was through a third of her work. But more importantly, the day was over and who knew what night would bring?
“Class dismissed!” she exclaimed
Mrs. Cline stared hopefully as the after-school melee began. Some shot out the door without hesitation. Good, she thought. Get lost. Others lingered about. They reminded her of the grayish, filmy embers that floated aimlessly above a camp fire. Why won’t they go? Just leave already, she thought, as several clusters remained, mostly girls who couldn’t tear themselves from their clique of friends.
Yet as Adam met her gaze, finally looking up from the open notebook which Mrs. Cline realized was now only being used as a prop and smiled coyly, she felt as if the floor had opened underneath her and a million, exotic, Marrakesh-like vistas had escaped. Her breath caught. She trembled.
“Mrs. Cline, do we need to bring that camping permission slip in by tomorrow?” Carni asked. A tall, hefty girl with a mound of dark curls was now partially blocking Mrs. Cline’s line of vision much to her dismay. Mrs. Cline balked inwardly at the intrusion.
Nodding, Mrs. Cline strained to return to Adam’s gaze.
But then Logan grabbed his friend by the shoulder and said, “Come, I wanna show you my new hoverboard.”
Adam’s face fell. He let himself be led away by Logan who jabbered loudly and non-stop about the merits of hoverboards versus skateboards.
Aww shit, Mrs. Cline thought.
By this time, the remainder of the class had filed out too.
She found herself alone at her desk and felt that exciting trap door snap shut once again. She knew her evening would be comprised of a crock pot stew meal and then whatever the twins had devised for the evening. It would be a dull, dutiful affair that she would likely carry off mostly on her own while Peter, her husband, tinkered about on his computer or car. Things varied little in their household, it seemed.
Mrs. Cline sighed. Maybe I’ll just finish marking these, she decided. But the words now seemed only a vulgar scribble, an alphabet of longing, amidst syllables of despair. She slapped down a final grade of B- on many of the reports. That’ll just have to do, she thought. Brecia, don’t be hard on yourself, either.
After rounds of Candy Land, a game she used to play herself as a child, Brecia began to feel weary. They were playing on top of the dining room table. Good, it’s 8 p.m., she thought, checking her cell phone.
“Bed time now. So, have a quick bath, brush your teeth, get your pajamas on and go to bed,” she instructed her twin seven-year-old girls, Maya and Madison. The words sprang from her mouth with a certain joyous release much the same as when she called home time, dismissed at school.
The twins disappeared to do as told. One thing she was grateful for was that they were such good girls and she had no issues with them. She didn’t know if her thirty-one-year-old frame would be able to handle life otherwise.
Collapsing on the couch, Brecia considered turning on the TV. But there was nothing that interested her. She had watched all episodes of the few shows that appealed to her and was now in a viewing hiatus. She sighed.
Then Peter walked past her with an armful of gadgets, colorful wires dangling like licorice. What in the hell is he doing now? Yet she knew better than to ask as he would then give a long-winded account of the joys and necessities of his latest DIY project. It was something she would likely regret, taking experience into account. Still, his distance towards the rest of them angered her. Why couldn’t he have played with the girls tonight? Why did he seem to be more bonded towards technology then the rest of them? It was his hobby of sorts, puttering about and at least he wasn’t one of those husbands with a neglected Honey Do list. Yet he was more absorbed in that then her. In fact, he seemed oblivious to all but whatever was presently piquing his curiosity.
When was the last time we made love? Had a date night? Or anything? She struggled to recall.
Even the times when they sat and watched a movie together, she still felt that sense of loneliness. She couldn’t enjoy the movie as a couple when such a huge disconnect existed between them. Rather, it was like she was sitting on the couch alone, staring at the screen.
May as well just be curled up with the cat, she sniffed.
Brecia had begun to resent him in his entirety, the graying hair and emerging pot belly, his nerdy interests, especially this newest fixation with the paranormal. She wished that he hadn’t started following TV shows on the dark side. What was that about anyhow? It was laughable as far as she was concerned. Spirits. Poltergeists. Demons. Was he fancying himself a Ghost Buster now? He had begun to even get paranoid about always waking up at 3 a.m., the purported witching hour, about that closet door in their bedroom that sometimes pops open. She stifled the urge to laugh out loud. What next?
Yet it was her neglect, her unmet intimacy needs, that made her feel a keen need for revenge on Peter. Is this how golf widows feel I wonder? Prob. Same shit different pile. That’s all.
Then she decided to check on the girls, bade them good night. Someone around here should, she thought, crankily.
Peter and her nearly bumped into each other in the hall. But when he mumbled and barely looked up, Brecia retreated to the bathroom. Fuck him, she thought.
Flipping the bath tub taps on, a torrent of water gushed out. Brecia undressed then looked at her cell phone coolly. She thought of Adam. Though alone, it was like his presence never left her side. She could summon him in her mind’s eye, conjure the smooth, blonde vision that dropped as easily as a celebrity sex tape. She posed and took a selfie. She sent him the nude pic. Almost instantly, he messaged back to her. A heart emoji.
She felt herself melt in the tub. Amidst bubble bath like bridal lace, she soaked, thought. So, glad that I have Adam. So, glad that I found him. Whoever would have thought? I never would have guessed that amidst that lack luster parade of fourteen-year old’s, there would be a shining star like him! Then she recalled their last encounter.
With his head nestled on her shoulder, they sipped watermelon coolers in the back of her SUV just as they always did.
“Yeah, so it’s like they don’t get along at all, my mom and dad. That’s why they split up I guess. But I’m at my Dad’s place mostly just because my Mom can be so roar. I’d rather live with my Dad. He’s so much easier.” Adam explained.
Yet Brecia thought she caught an edge in his tone, a quiet desperation that belied this seemingly matter of fact account. It made her want to nurture him even more.
She stroked his head. Poor guy, she thought…
He looked up and smiled at her. That smooth, boyish, blonde visage that was like a super nova and star burst all in one.
Continuing to run strands of his corn silk like hair through her fingers, she spoke, “I know what you mean. I can’t stand it at home any more either. It’s just so…empty…I dunno.”
They continued to chat and drink. They compared lives and stories and found curious similarities. Sounds like his mom berates him like how my dad used to treat me, Brecia thought, bitterly. Bastards and Bitches. Whatever…
She listened patiently until his lips finally found hers. Then they exploded in a frenzy and continued til her head dropped to his lap and she undid his zipper.
With her eyes closed, she continued to soak in the tub and wonder at her own behavior. Was it just lust or true love? Brecia wondered. Maybe a little of both…But how is what Adam and I are doing any different than what other teenagers are doing all the time? How is it any different than when I was his age and we were all sneaking around behind our parents backs? History repeating itself. That’s all…
Brecia had always tried to be the fun teacher, the popular one. So, she volunteered to coach cross country running, go on camping field trips. If you’re with them all day long, she reasoned, you might try and blend in and get along. Really, that’s a no brainer.
Finally emerging from the tub, she slipped on her housecoat and left the lavatory. Yet that incessant fantasy life of hers burst forth and trailed her like the steam from the bath. Adam. Beauteous blonde angel. Like a living figurine.
“Gotta take my anti-depressants,” she then remembered. She swallowed the capsules with some ice water. Having been diagnosed with a mood disorder, she took meds to even her emotional keel, waxing and waning affect that kept everyone guessing, including herself sometimes. Am I falling in love or just having a manic episode? For that volatile mix of attraction, infatuation and intensity combined with her own affective excesses made a curious gel at the best of times. One that she mused about but dared not tell her physician.
Standing in the kitchen with glass in hand, Brecia was approached by Peter.
“Hey I’m going to drive home for the weekend and take the girls. They’ve been bugging me for a while to see Nana and Pops. Do the grandparent thing y’know.” Peter announced
He smiled broadly at her.
“Oh okay…uh that’s sudden…Y’know I have a lot to get caught up on at school and things around here. Maybe I’ll just stay back this time,” Brecia said, sensing a possible opening for her and Adam and feeling a tingle of hidden glee.
“Okay, maybe help them pack. We’re taking off right after work tomorrow.” Peter said
Like a chandelier suddenly lit, so Brecia felt. Hurrah! They’ll be gone the whole time. She felt like a cat with feathers under its tongue.
Without hesitating, she packed the twins a bag and left it stationed by the front door.
Then she prepared herself for bed. With that familiar fantasy, glorious back story raging in her mind, as she brushed her teeth, checked to make sure all doors were locked, then collapsed under the covers. Yes, her inner screen was lit up like a million Mardi Gras, Carnival for certain. It teased her with a tormenting delight until she carried it right under to sleep.
Brecia dreamt of Adam. In a wildly abridged nocturnal scape that consisted of half-truths and longing, guilt laced with gusto, she saw a kaleidoscope of images, fleeing to a private island and setting up house together, all sunshine and aquamarine colors, white tiles everywhere. When Brecia awoke, she felt that split-second disappointment at having re-entered reality and promptly tried to go back to sleep and return to the same dream. But to no avail. So, she just arose instead.
Still her day seemed frantic and surreal anyhow. Cornering Adam first thing in the morning, they conspired in a deserted hallway.
“So come over tonight, okay. We have the place to ourselves.” Brecia urged, offered
Adam nodded, smiled. “I’ll tell my Dad that I’m staying over at Logan’s or something.”
Brecia smiled back. Then he whisked away. Elegant looking and mild mannered, he seemed like some sure-footed Prince rather than a school boy.
The back story raged in her head as she taught science to the class, fierce fantasy ready to manifest, spring to life. It was difficult for her to focus, relax. She felt like a child counting down the days before Christmas. But she persevered.
“Bristle cone pines in times of stress hoard all their life in one streak while the rest dies. It’s a pattern we often see in nature,” Mrs. Cline instructed the class.
She noticed that Carni and Logan were doodling vigorously in their respective notebooks rather than taking notes. But she didn’t mind. For it allowed her to steal occasional glimpses at Adam who sat near them.
When he looked up and winked at her, Mrs. Cline felt that familiar trap door underneath her snap open again. And she plunged through what felt like stories.
Their weekend together was a revelation. It was a glorious descent into a sensory wonderland of smooth skin and body heat, utterances and sweet divulgence. Brecia felt like she was fourteen again. Like young love had way laid her and took her on a trip down memory lane.
After their tryst, it was hard to settle back into routine. Monday morning found her at her desk nursing a cup of black coffee. It was 8:40 a.m. School hadn’t started yet. She sipped her coffee and began revisiting her fresh, new set of weekend memories. But then her cell phone jolted her back into awareness.
It was Peter.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing!” he shrieked, barely audible
“Fucking li’l pervo in our bed!” he screamed
“What?” Brecia said, feigning innocence
“I have it on film for fuck’s sake,” Peter roared. “I set up a camera in our bedroom to try and film any ghosts or anything and I-I-I got you two instead!”
Like the chill of a thousand winters suddenly set on her, Brecia felt fear like a cold, cutting force. Her blood raced. Her heart jumped.
“Yeah, and I’ve already phoned the cops so just letting you know they should be on their way soon.” he said, then he laughed bitterly and hung up.
Brecia dropped her cell phone on the desk top. It landed with a dull thud. Then she felt that trap door give away once again. Busted.