It was late, and the dusky sky was just edging from hues of pink and orange into dark purple. Dark clouds rolled lazily across the gray-black night. The air felt preternaturally still, and the only sound was the hum of an occasional car driving down the road, the chirps of crickets, and the buzz of the cicadas. It was summer in the small, Texas town.
Just as a sudden breeze fluttered by to shake the leaves of the trees that lined the old road, two girls came pedaling quickly down the hill filling the quiet with breathless laughter. They both stopped just at the bottom of the hill, balancing the now still bicycles with their feet on the ground as they hunched over handle bars.
“Ha! I won,” Julia laughed.
“So,” Elle muttered with a pout. Julia just laughed again before turning to the side and squinting down the road. “Say, do you want to go down Old Oak,” she asked, looking seriously at her friend.
She looked back at Julia. In many ways they were exact opposites, a study in contrasts.
Julia was tall and broad, womanly curves already beginning to show on her twelve-year-old body. She had shoulder length brown hair that fell in loose waves around her rounded, freckled cheeks. On the other hand, Elle was average in height, thin and muscular still waiting for puberty and any hint of what lay beyond the hot summers of the here and now. Julia’s eyes were rich and dark, almost coy, while Elle’s were light blue and still shone with the freshness of youth. Her hair was pin straight and blonde, and she always kept it pulled back into a tight ponytail. Julia was fair, a traditional, gothic beauty. Elle was summer sun with golden skin. Still, the pair had been friends since Julia had moved next door when they were only 5 years old.
Elle shook herself and followed Julia’s line of sight. Oak Street had a bit of a reputation in the small town they lived in. It was the one place in town where the hot, Texas sun never seemed to touch. Tall Oak trees stretched high into the sky on all sides and seem to loom over and block out the light, inviting uneasy chills even in the middle of summer. Most of the houses on the dead-end street were abandoned and decrepit, and everyone knew to steer clear of those that weren’t.
This was the first year that Julia and Elle were allowed out past dark during the summer. She was sure that would change if their parents found out just how far from home they had roamed and going down Oak Street was a sure-fire way to spend the rest of the summer confined to their own front yards.
“I don’t know,” she said. “You know if something happens we’ll be grounded for life.”
“Come on! What could happen.”
“Did you really just say that,” Elle groaned. “Of course, something’s going to happen now.”
Julia laughed and sat back on her bike, already heading to Oak. “Bock, Bock, Bock, Bock,” she clucked without bothering to look back. She didn’t need to. Elle would already be moving to catch up. “You’re such a cow,” Elle huffed beside her as they biked slowly down the dark street.
There was no race this time. They took it slow and allowed the feel of the forbidden to fall over them. Knowing they were breaking rules, even if no one bothered to say them out loud, was half the fun. The sky was now pitch dark The only light was the fading yellow of the street light at the top of the street--now well behind them.
Ramshackle houses and overgrown foliage crept up all around. “Down there,” Julia said quietly, instinctively lowering her voice. They followed a curve around and down past towards a cul de sac when they saw a path to the right.
There was a dirt road.
No one had ever come down this far that the girls were aware of. No one had ever mentioned anything beyond Old Oak . . . but there it was. They both stopped.
“We’re not really gonna do this, are we,” Elle said uneasily. Julia looked at her seriously. She clutched her handlebars and squinted into the dark trying to make out anything beyond.
“Not tonight,” she said finally, looking back at her friend.
“But we’re coming back.”
They made the attempt a week later. This time they came prepared. Elle wore a backpack filled with snacks, juice pouches, and hair spray.
“Hair spray,” Julia had asked arching a brow.
“Do you have pepper spray? Mom would notice if I tried to sneak out with her pepper spray. So . . . hair spray.”
“You’re so paranoid,” Julia laughed.
“Good for life expectancy,” she nodded seriously, and they both broke down into giggles.
Julia’s backpack had two Maglite flashlights, two hoodies, and two extra pairs of socks.
(“Socks?”-- “You get to bring hair/pepper spray. I get to bring socks. Shut up.”)
Thirty minutes later they were heading back towards Oak, and 45 minutes later they both sat in the exact same spot as they had previously, peering down a mysterious path that no one had ever heard of.
And so, they went.
Twenty minutes after Julia puffed to stop at the top of a ridiculous hill.
“This is stupid. It’s a dirt road. That’s not fun!”
Elle laughed. Only half was in response to Julia’s petulant attitude. That was when she saw it.
“Julia,” she said, clutching her friend’s arm in a death grip.
From the top of the hill they had a clear view, even down in the thick foliage and brick-a-brack that surrounded the path. Just off to one side, at the bottom, was an old, red Ford truck, but what really caught their attention was the man who had just shaken a young woman before striking her hard across the face.
Both girls gasped and pulled their bikes to the side and-hopefully--out of sight. Julia looked silently at Elle before clutching her hand and beginning to move quietly towards the pair from the side, through the high grass and branches. They were about 30 feet away when they could see clearly and finally hear the couple arguing.
“No! It’s not right. I’m telling, Michael.” The woman was young and pretty, though there was something, unnatural, about her appearance. It was somehow faded. That was all they had time to really notice before things got even more out of hand.
“You were there too, Sally. If I go down, so do you. I’m not going down! I’m leaving in two weeks. If you think I’m gonna let what happened here get in the way of going to college, you’re crazy,” he shouted. But again, something was wrong? There was an odd echo to their speech. Still, Julia gripped Elle’s hand tighter when the boy struck the girl again.
Elle gasped, and the girls quickly looked at each other. Elle covered her mouth, and they looked back uneasily, worried that they had been heard. The fight carried on as if they weren’t even there though.
Now the man was striking the girl again and again. Her struggles had shifted, become feebler. Her shouts were fainter and fewer.
“We have to do something,” Julia whispered, tears streaming down their face. They were both afraid, though, too scared to draw the man’s attention to them.
By the time they looked back, the girl had gone still. The man was breathless, but suddenly he stood back and clutched his hair in his hands. He looked surprised to see the body of the girl that he had beaten--to death?--on the ground.
“Sally,” he whispered before stumbling towards her and falling onto the ground next to her. “Sally,” he said brokenly. “I didn’t mean it.” He clutched at the girl pulling her into his lap and rocking her. Julia and Elle watched as he fell apart slowly before finally laying Sally down.
They watched as he looked furtively around, nodded, and then began dragging the girl’s body into the trees. He pulled some branches over her and then stumbled away back towards the truck. They watched as he got in the truck. He stared for a moment and then started the truck with rumble.
And then he was gone. One minute they were watching the horrifying events of a murder unfold. They watched as the murderer hid the body of the woman that was his friend, maybe more? Then everything vanished, nothing but trees and the same dirt path they had ridden down on their bikes.
“Did you . . . “ Julia began before looking at her friend in confused fright.
Elle was nodding, her mouth open in shock, but no words escaped her. The sky had grown dark as they had watched the scene unfold. “Come on,” Elle said suddenly, clutching Julia’s hand and dragging her up. She pulled, dragged and shoved while Julia stumbled and struggled to keep up. “Come on! Move. Now!”
They made their way back up the hill to their bikes. Elle jumped on hers quickly and waited just long enough to make sure that Julia had climbed on hers as well before shooting forward in the dark. They made their way quickly, totally silent.
They had just gotten to the beginning of the dirt path and the cul de sac at the end of Oak Street when Elle finally looked to the side. An old woman had pulled rotten curtains to the side and stared darkly at the girls as they continued quickly up the street and on towards home.
That night marked a change in both girls. Neither really understood what had happened, but where Julia turned quiet (she was always loud and boisterous, full of jokes and silliness), Elle became obsessed.
She started with the local library, looking through old, dusty newspapers that crackled and fell apart in her hands. Then she started asking questions, questions that made little sense to anyone-including Julia.
“So, was there a girl who went missing in town? Maybe a body found later,” she asked Mr. Newman. Julia’s dad ran the local newspaper, so he seemed like a good source.
Julia sat on the couch looking troubled.
“I could check, but not that I know of. Why are you asking,” he asked, looking concerned?
“Just curious,” she snapped before getting up and going outside, the screen door slamming behind her. Julia followed.
“Why are you asking this stuff,” she said softly once they were ensconced in the old treehouse Julia’s dad had built when they were seven.
“Don’t you understand, Julia? That really happened, but it had to have been in the past!” Julia just stared. “Think about it. They sounded so funny, and they didn’t look quite right, sort of funny. Now that I think about it, no one dresses like that either. Sally had that long skirt on and the man had his hair fixed funny--like in that movie we watched in school, The Outsiders maybe?”
“What are you saying?”
“They were ghosts. We saw ghosts,” Elle said seriously.
“What now then.” She didn’t bother to deny what would have been an outrageous claim even a few weeks before.
“I want to go back. I want to see again. I want to know.”
So, they did. They didn’t bother with any sort of preparation like they did before, and Elle realized that things had changed. It wasn’t a game anymore. They made their way out to see the fight between Sally and Michael. They found that if they went at the same time, they would always see the scene, but if they went earlier or later--nothing happened.
The result was the same every time, though. Michael and Sally argued. He became angry and began hitting Sally until he had finally beaten the girl to death. He sobbed over her once he realized what he had done, but then hid the body, got into his truck and stared before starting the truck and disappearing like they had never existed. Julia and Elle watched then got on their bikes and rode away. And the old woman always watched them as they left Sally and Michael behind until the next day.
But Elle had noticed something that Julia hadn’t, and it would change things forever.
It was the third time they watched Michael kill Sally when Elle noticed that something had changed. Sally had glanced towards Elle and Julia just for a moment. Julia had clearly missed it, but Elle was sure of it. Then the fifth visit she had suddenly jerked away and moved towards the trees where the girls huddled watching.
Julia jumped, but things continued on as usual after that.
Then there was the day that changed everything. Julia and Elle sat watching as Michael hit Sally, knocking her against the truck.
Sally had just looked at Elle when she made a decision.
“Stop it,” Elle shouted standing up and moving towards the scene where Michael and Sally now stood staring back at her.
Julia stayed huddled in the trees alongside the dirt path, watching helplessly as her best friend strode towards the pair of ghosts that had haunted their summer.
Michael was struggling, looking confused for a moment, but Sally was smiling. It wasn’t a nice smile.
“Who are you,” Michael said, confused, but Sally had moved away.
She was walking slowly backwards, away from Michael and the truck. Once she was well away, she stood and watched.
Michael shook himself suddenly, and it was as if someone hit a reset button. The world began moving again, but not as Julia expected.
“You were there too, Elle. If I go down, so do you. I’m not going down! I’m leaving in two weeks. If you think I’m gonna let what happened here get in the way of going to college, you’re crazy,” he shouted. Elle looked shocked for a moment, but she only had a second of surprise before things went horribly wrong. Julia gasped as Michael strode forward and struck Elle hard, knocking her into the truck.
“No,” Julia whispered, standing suddenly as the scene began to unfold like it always had--except Sally watched from the side while
Michael began hitting Elle again and again. She stood smiling while Elle cried out, the ghostly hands of Michael feeling horribly solid.
Though Julia had stood easily enough, she found that she was unable to move now. She shouted each time Michael struck Elle, who had fallen to the ground just as Sally usually fell to the ground.
“No,” Julia screamed!
Now Michael was striking Elle again and again. Her struggles had shifted, become feebler. Her shouts were fainter and fewer.
Tears streamed down Julia’s face as she watched helplessly.
Elle had gone still. Michael was breathless, but suddenly he stood back and clutched his hair in his hands. He looked surprised to see Elle’s body on the ground, more than usual. And this time there was a certain sadness that was deeper, more tragic than it had been while he had played out the tragic scene of Sally’s death. It was if Michael’s ghost had known this would happen and was sorry.
“Elle,” he whispered before stumbling towards her and falling onto the ground next to her. “Elle,” he said brokenly. “I didn’t mean it.” He clutched at the girl pulling her into his lap and rocking her before looking to where Sally stood, still smiling her eerie smile. Julia watched as Michael fell apart slowly before finally laying Elle’s beaten body down.
He looked at Sally once more, shook his head, and got in the truck. He stared for a moment and then started the truck with rumble. And then he was gone. Sally stood there still, triumphant. Elle’s body lay crumpled on the ground . . . and Julia found she could move again. She stumbled forward and clutched her friend just as
Michael had. Sally smiled darkly at the scene.
She walked up the path towards Oak Street then. She didn’t look back. Julia stayed long after dark, clutching the body of her friend. Eventually she lay Elle’s body down just as Michael had and walked back up the path, passing the old woman who glared at her from her window. She kept walking, leaving everything behind.
That summer the town mourned as a local girl went missing. Julia and her family moved away not long after, hoping the girl would begin to heal if she left the loss of her friend far enough behind. Julia never told anyone what happened on Oak Street. And she never went back, too afraid she would see Elle acting out Sally’s story in her stead.
Gerald Russell is a writer, a gamer, and aspires to write for video games as well as short stories, novels, and has recently taken up poetry and songwriting. He specializes in the fantasy genre, and has dabbled in thriller and comedy.
Gerald grew up in Miami playing Halo and Need for Speed, the latter to which he attributes his love for cars. Drawing inspiration from the amazing campaigns of his favorite games, movies, and books, he wants to write stories equally as compelling either as a novel or a video game. Gerald is currently studying Creative Writing for Entertainment at Full Sail University.
Contact Gerald on Twitter or by Email
Feel It Still
Alex woke to the sound of bustling downstairs. Looking around he realized he just had a dream and got out of bed to see what his family was doing. Moving down the steps, he heard the doorbell ring. Alex paused, suddenly he thought he was forgetting something. His wife opened the door before he was down the steps.
“Honey, did you order something?”
Reaching the bottom of the staircase, he could see a box on the doorstep.
“No, I didn’t. I wonder what it might be,” he said.
Again, he paused, there was a note attached to the box reading:
“What does it say?” his wife asked.
“What does that mean?”
He picked up the box wondering what was inside. Turning to head inside, he saw his wife frozen in place, a neutral expression on her face. He nudged her; her body was stiff as concrete. Alex tried to shake her out of her trance but had no success. He turned to his two kids that were playing in the living room. They too were frozen in place, in the middle of a game of tag. Again, he tried to move his wife, only to watch her disintegrate at his touch. With a look of horror on his face, he turned to his children to see them too turn to dust. With tears running down his eyes, Alex threw the box at a wall. The box exploded on contact, ending his life and thrusting him into darkness.
Alex woke in his bed, the sunlight streaming through already open curtains. Figuring he had another dream, he walked downstairs to the kitchen to make breakfast. The doorbell rung as he passed through the living room. Looking through the peephole, he could see nothing and figured it was a package being dropped off. Opening the door, Alex saw a box on his doorstep with a note attached to it, reading:
The box is the key.
Alex didn’t know what the note meant. Shakily picking up the box, he could feel that it was extremely light and shook it lightly to discern what might be in it. Alex opened it about halfway when it burst into flames. He screamed in pain as the flames ate at his skin, quickly engulfing his body. Alex dropped the box, beginning to lose consciousness. Feeling himself slip away he heard voices seemingly from his head.
He’s witnessed the death of his family. The brain deals with trauma differently among people. The box must be the key to solving it.
Alex was at the door again before the doorbell rang. There was nobody there but the box, which told him he was still dreaming. He touched the box and his hands began burning. The pain, it was agonizing. It spread through his arms and the rest of his body. He could feel himself losing consciousness and thought this might be worth the pain if he could get out. He fought to open the box, tears streaming from his eyes. When he finally did get all four flaps open, he dropped to his knees and screamed. The box was empty.
Alex once again trudged down the stairs, still recovering from the last dream. He’d been through the same scenario more times than he could count, all ending in some type of torture, only to wake up in bed again. He hoped he was nearing the end of whatever this dream loop he was in. He opened the front door to see the same box. He lowered his hands on it expecting more pain. He instead awoke to completely new surroundings. Bright lights, white walls, and a lot of lab coats. He could make out one man with black hair that was combed back and greying. He was speaking to a nurse, and his voice was familiar.
“You,” Alex said. “Your voice…”
The man made his way over to him.
“Yes, Alex,” the man said. “I was able to end your dream cycle.”
He was restrained to a bed, only able to move his head. His arms were wrapped in casts. He saw on a shelf in the corner of the room the same box, his key out of here. Alex struggled against his restraints, shouting that he needed to get to the box. It was the only way he could spare his family his fate.
“Let me open the box! You said it was the key out!”
The man from his dream simply looked down at him with a disappointed expression and put a needle to his neck. Alex relaxed, and the world faded away from him once again.
The sun blazed amidst the orange sky, nearly burning my skin as I walked along the edge of the winding road. I savored it, since I was responsible for accelerating the sun’s temperature. My work would save the world. Within moments, a wheezing truck settled beside me.
“Do you regret what you did?” Olun, my driver, said.
I stepped inside the truck. “No.”
“And why are you wearing that long shirt?”
“All things have their purpose.”
“Bah. Look, there’s no turning back from this,” Olun said. “Not this time.”
I adjusted my shades, reclined in my seat and smirked. “I expect to be admonished. But one day, I’ll be heralded. You’ll see.”
“Eh. Doubt I’ll live to see that,” the old man said.
I chuckled. “You probably won’t. But fret not… I’ll find a way to bring you back.”
The truck limped down the highway, its old and brittle frame shaking from miasmic pulses that rippled from underneath the burning building in the distance. An explosion suddenly erupted, reflected in the truck’s rusted visor, as the smell of oil and fire permeated the atmosphere.
I sighed. “I do enjoy destruction.”
The old man shot me a contemptuous look.
I shrugged. “I enjoy warranted destruction, sir. Consider it… an acquired taste.”
Our truck immediately halted with a smoky screech. Two black cars blocked the road as four men wearing shades and suits emerged, each armed with semi-automatic weapons.
“And so the fun begins.” I glanced at my driver. His hazel eyes were fixated on the blockade, with both hands fastened to the wheel. I patted him on the shoulder. “This won’t take long. Stay here.”
The men immediately pointed their weapons at me as I approached. With a smirk, I slowly lifted my hands in the air. “At rest, gentlemen. I come in peace.”
A short, portly man stepped out of one of the black cars. He lit a cigar, puffed twice, then dropped the cigar to the ground and stomped it.
I grimaced. “A Mayan Sicar? G, that’s far too valuable to waste.”
“You’re a waste!” G patted his well-trimmed suit and approached until his stomach nearly touched my belt. “What you did wasn’t the plan.”
“You jest. What I did was save you. I saved you all.”
“It. Was. Not. The. Plan!” He bellowed. “Moron. Do you have any idea what you’ve cost us? Now those devils are coming for me!” He wagged his stubby finger in my face with hot breath and a grim voice. He then turned his back to me and muttered under his breath that sounded like, “We’re all gonna burn.”
“Talking to yourself again? You really should shake that habit,” I said.
“You used that research facility to raise the sun’s temperature and then blew it up,” G said. “Why would you doom us like that?”
“Because my boss, my real boss, is a lot scarier than you,” I said. “And he’s not from this world. There’s always been a bigger plan, but you could never see it.”
G’s mouth hung open. “You’re a crazy son-of-a—”
“Wait for it,” I said.
A moment later, a phone rung. G fumbled in his pocket and raised the smartphone to his ear. He drew his breath after several moments, gazed idly at the phone and ended the call. “Forty-seven,” he whispered.
“Forty-seven research facilities across the globe, gone!” G roared. “That’s all of them!”
“Now you get it,” I said.
He shot me an incredulous look. “You’re finished.”
My eyes widened. “Finished? Nah, this is simply the beginning.”
G waved dismissively. “You’re beyond redemption. Consider yourself scrubbed.” He glanced at my driver and scoffed. “Too bad your father has to see this.”
I cocked my head to the side. “No, it’s actually good that he will.”
G shook his head. “Kill him.”
“No!” My driver cried.
I narrowed my eyes as the four men aimed their weapons. But what came next were clicks, not bullets. G paused midstride and turned around. He removed his shades to reveal striking, purple irises. “The hell…?”
“As I said, this is simply the beginning.” I patted my shirt, which was inlaid with ancient technology. I adjusted my cuffs as the men wrestled with their guns. “And as you said… consider yourself scrubbed.”
I snapped my fingers as a flying drone appeared in a blur. It blasted two pulses before vanishing as quickly as it came. The men crumpled without any sign of a struggle. G collapsed, clutching his heart. “What are you..?” he asked.
I approached him, smiling. “If only you’d lived to find out.” I knelt, reached inside his coat pocket and grabbed the metallic cigar case. “Only one Sicar left? A lone survivor… fitting.”
As G took his last breath, I lit the cigar, tapped ashes on the ground and turned, blowing smoke into the sky.
“You almost gave me a heart attack!” the old man shouted.
“I gave you more than that.” I patted the side of the truck. “Let’s go.”
Olun mashed the accelerator, swerved around the blockade and drove into the setting sun. He turned to me. “You knew they were coming.”
“Yes. What better way to solve a problem than by erasing it within the same breath?” I flicked ash out the window. “More importantly, I wanted to show you a glimpse of the future.”
“The future?” my father mumbled. “Eh.”
As the Dust Settles
The warmth from the sun on her face caused Dusty to stir. As she stretched in her bed, she reached over and noticed the void already. She rolled over to his side, the sheets cool on her bare back. She flipped to lay on her belly, burying her face in his pillow and inhaled deeply, savoring the scent he left behind. It was faint, but it was still there. She wanted to hold on to that and never let it go. She smiled as her mind drifted to the last night they’d spent together. How the two of them fell asleep in each other’s arms, listening to the rain outside, as the cool night breeze blew in the open window. It had been perfect.
Now, the air was still cool, but the clouds had lifted and the sun was streaming in from behind the curtain. Dusty stretched again knowing it was time to get up and start preparing for her day. She walked over to the window and stood for just a moment, one hand on her hip, the other resting absently on her belly. As she looked out over the city below, she Sighed deeply and turned to pad to the bathroom. A shower was sure to wake her up and give her some time to think.
She cranked the faucet as hot as she could, and the mirrors were soon covered in steam. She left the door open so some of the heavy air could escape, but she liked wiping the mirror off when she got out of the shower, so she didn’t turn the overhead fan on. Dusty stepped in and pulled the glass door closed behind her. She closed her eyes as the water washed over her, and she began thinking about him. Their nearly perfect relationship, and where it all began.
**Two years earlier**
Dusty was sitting on the corner stool at a bar after a long day at work. She had stopped in on a whim as she needed a drink to unwind from a lousy day. It wasn’t her usual way of destressing, but hitting the gym just wasn’t going to do it that night. She had just ordered another shot of whiskey when she noticed a handsome guy walk up to the bar and order a beer. Their eyes met and Dusty couldn’t deny the intensity with which he held her gaze. Soon the two were having a superficial conversation about the day’s events and how they ended up at the bar.
Glancing at the party he’d left, he said, “I really should get back to them.”
As if on cue, the crowd he’d left whooped loudly, obviously not missing his presence. “Yeah. Looks like they’re really wondering where you’re at.” He laughed at her quick wit. It was almost snarky.
“You’re something, aren’t you?”
She laughed. “Something. The jury’s still out as to what, exactly, that something is.”
He excused himself then and returned to the group. She finished her drink and ordered one more round. Dusty cashed out, threw a five on the bar, and was pulling on her coat when suddenly someone was behind her, lending a hand. She turned and locked eyes with the guy from earlier.
“You wanna get outta here? There’s a diner down the street. Open twenty-four hours. Serve a mean French toast. I need something to soak up all the booze.”
She looked at him, and could not avoid his eyes. They were crystal blue, and for whatever reason, she knew she could trust him. He wasn’t the kind of guy she was typically attracted to. He was fit and trim. He dressed stylish, and his brown hair was coiffed and styled with, she was guessing, more product than she used. Normally, this guy would immediately turn her off, looking like he just stepped from the pages of a magazine. But those eyes. Those eyes told her she had nothing to worry about and she would be comfortable and secure with him. Usually guarded and safe, Dusty surprised herself when she said, “Yeah. Let’s get outta here.”
The two walked to the diner. It was brisk outside, but winter hadn’t set in yet. Simple fleece sweatshirts were all the cover they needed from the elements. The conversation was easy, and Dusty was surprised at how much they had in common. Both were from the Midwest, her from outside St. Louis and he from a small farm town in Central Illinois. They ended up in Philly thanks to work. Her background in writing had landed her a job working at a PR firm. He studied in Chicago and moved east to work for a real estate developer. They came from small families: he was an only child, and she had only one sister. They spent the evening talking and laughing. Because it seemed like they’d known each other forever, Dusty realized she had no idea what this man’s name was. “Hey. We’ve been talking for nearly three hours. I know where you grew up. I know you’re an only child. I know your dad was a farmer. But I don’t know your name.”
He laughed a good hearty laugh. “I guess that’s important. I’m Ace.”
Her eyes widened. “Ace?!” She laughed out loud. “Did you say Ace? I’m sorry. I just didn’t know that was someone’s name.”
Crimson creeped up his cheeks. “Yeah. It’s my nickname. When I was in school, I was pretty good at blackjack. My frat brothers started calling me ‘Ace’ because they swore I had one up my sleeve. It stuck. I’ve been Ace ever since.”
“Well, Ace,” she put emphasis on his name, “I’m Dusty. It’s nice to meet you.” She smiled
The conversation went on, much the same way, for another hour or so: the two of them laughing and sharing. So easy and comfortable. At one point in the evening, Ace looked at her and told her he felt they were destined to be together. She was his destiny. She laughed quietly. The irony wasn’t lost on her. She told him that Destiny was, in fact, her given name. Her kid sister, thirteen years Dusty’s junior, hadn’t been able to say it, and “Dusty” was as close as she came. It stuck. The two laughed and shook their heads at this revelation.
It was getting late and they decided they should head out. He offered to walk her home that night, and when they got to her door, he kissed her. She knew it was crazy, after all, she’d just met him, but she invited him in. She just could not deny this connection. She couldn’t pretend what they had wasn’t special. It was late, after midnight, and she hoped he wouldn’t pass. He admitted he had to get up early the next morning, but he didn’t see what coming up for one more drink would hurt.
They sat and nursed their drinks, prolonging the inevitable. They both had to get some sleep as morning would be here shortly. It was clear that they hated to say goodnight to one another, but they knew the time was coming.
As they stood, him to leave, her to walk him to the door, he kissed her again. This time it was more urgent. Not the simple chaste kiss from the sidewalk. This kiss told her that he needed her as much as she needed him, but she didn’t know yet why or for what. She gave in and kissed him back, allowing herself to melt into this man she just met.
He pulled back and looked in her eyes. “Good night, Dusty.”
“Good night, Ace.” Nervously, she handed him one of her business cards. “Give me a call if you’re in the area again.” She had low expectations for a future meeting, after all, this was a guy she picked up in a bar. How often do those meetups turn out to be something special? But at the same time, she couldn’t shake the feeling that they would, in fact, see each other again.
She locked the door behind him, and leaned against it. She half considered pulling it open and wondered if she’d find him on the other side, like in the movies. Her head was swimming with questions, scenarios, and wonderment. She didn’t know why, but she knew this man, Ace, was meant to be part of her life.
He did not call the next day. Dusty woke up, and out of habit, checked her phone. No missed calls. But as she unlocked her phone, she saw the new text notification. The sender was not yet in her contacts, and her heart skipped a beat with anticipation. She opened the message and smiled as she read: Hey, Dusty. It’s late. I haven’t been to sleep yet. I just needed to tell you how great tonight was. Who knew that going to an obligatory work function would result in my meeting you? I hope I was able to help turn your day around. I know you helped me with mine. Later. A
She smiled as she thought of their conversations, the laughter, their connection. She was incredibly attracted to this man, but it was beyond a physical attraction. She was pulled to him. She was drawn to his intellect, his sense of humor, his caring personality. And of course, his eyes.
She texted him at lunch and he responded immediately. They made plans to meet at the same bar that night. They did that night and the night after that. This went on for close to a month: the two of them, Ace and Dusty, were becoming regulars at the bar where they’d met by chance a month earlier. The bartender got to the point where he knew their drink order. And it wasn’t long that Dusty was known as Ace’s girlfriend.
Roughly six weeks into this odd, meet-at-night, relationship, Ace surprised Dusty by showing up at her work. She could feel a presence at her desk and when she looked up, she saw him standing there, a sheepish grin on her face.
“Hey, beautiful. Wanna grab a bite?” He held up two paper sacks, one in each hand, and smiled a goofy smile.
Dusty was surprised to see him there. Her face lit up. “Hey, babe! What a surprise! Sure.” She glanced around her desk and half-heartedly straightened the sloppy stacks of paperwork. “Lunch would be amazing.” She sighed and laughed, getting up from her desk.
It was a lovely fall day, so the two decided to sit outside and eat. The air was warm, the last few breaths of Indian Summer circling around them. This perfect moment was typical for the two of them: the weather nearly always cooperating, the conversation easy and comfortable. However, Dusty couldn’t shake a feeling that Ace wasn’t being totally up front with her. She was, at times, too clingy, or so she’d been told. Guys would fall for her and then she’d do something they interpreted as jealousy or neediness and that would be it. She didn’t want to mess this up with Ace. She didn’t want to push him. After all, that’s how a lot of her previous relationships had failed, but she needed to know where things were going. She had to be sure she wasn’t wasting her time.
“Ace…” Her voice trailed off. He looked up and put his burger down.
“Yeah, Dus, what’s up?”
“Ace, I need to ask you something. I have this feeling...it’s kind of been tugging at me. Something is off. I don’t want to sound accusatory, but I feel like you’re keeping something from me.”
He looked surprised. “Destiny, I love you. I thought you felt that too.”
It was the first time she’d thought about it, but yes, she did. She realized she was in love with him. She thought about him when they were apart, and never wanted him to leave when they were together. “I do, Ace. I really do, but I have to be honest. Something just doesn’t feel right.” She took a deep breath before she went on. “You stay at my place longer and longer little by little, but you never stay all night. We make love, fall asleep together, but you’re gone before the sun comes up. You text and call, but I get the feeling that you’re uneasy with my initiating a conversation that way. I’ve never been to your place. I know where you work, but I don’t know where you live. We go out with my friends a lot, but I’ve never met any of yours. I have this boyfriend who I feel I know better than anyone, but at the same time I feel like I don’t know him at all.”
He was quiet for a long time. He looked at her, held her gaze. “What? Are you a spy?” She laughed. “Oh wait,” she rolled her eyes, and feigned shock, “you’re married?” He swallowed hard, and pulled out his wallet. He opened it and showed her a picture of a sweet, smiling little boy. “This is my son.”
A son. He had a son. She could deal with that. Naturally, she would have appreciated knowing from the beginning, but it made sense. She understood why she couldn’t go to his house. “I see. Ace, I wish you’d told me about this from the beginning. So you have a kid. Big deal. It’s nothing to hide. I get why you can’t stay out all night. I mean you have to be home to relieve the sitter.” Again her voice trailed off. “The sitter,” she repeated. “There IS a sitter, right? Or he’s with his mom? Where’s his mom, Ace. Where’s your son’s mother? Who stays with this kid when you’re with me every night?”
His silence was all the answer she needed.
Angry, hurt, and betrayed, Dusty stood and walked away. She could hear him calling, and she quickened her pace. He caught up to her and grabbed her arm and spun her around. “Dusty! Destiny!” He tried explaining himself, and she yelled. She cried and shook her head. When he pulled her toward him, and kissed her hard, she shoved him away, and wiped her lips as if to wipe him and his lies from her mind. His eyes filled with tears. She turned and walked away. She heard him call to her again, but she faced forward and continued walking.
As Dusty headed back toward her office, she pictured him standing there, looking dejected. For a moment, she felt sorry for him. The pain and sadness in his eyes. It was almost too much for her. She very nearly turned around several times, but fought the urge. She loved this man. How could he have lied to her like this? But did he lie? She hadn’t explicitly asked him if he was married. And when she did, he didn’t hide the truth from her. Was it a lie?
It was the next thought that turned her stomach: she had slept with a married man. She was a homewrecker. Inside her building, the nausea was overpowering, and she bolted for the first bathroom she could find. Inside the stall, she vomited. Throwing up over and over, it was as if she was trying to rid her body of the situation. She couldn’t believe this was her life, couldn’t believe she had slept with a married man.
Dusty dodged Ace’s calls. She didn’t respond to his texts. The emails went directly to the trash. For weeks, maybe even months, she didn’t speak to him. It pained her. She missed him, and felt that she had left part of herself behind on the sidewalk. Yet, she soldiered on. She even started dating. She tried everything she could to forget about Ace. Eventually, the calls and the texts and the emails stopped, and she found herself missing him less and less.
Wiping soapy tears from her eyes, Dusty shut off the shower. She reached for the towel hanging next to the door and wrapped it around her body. Facing the mirror, she reached forward and wiped the steam away. She looked at her reflection. She wasn’t the tiny size 6 she had been a few months before. She had gotten comfortable in her relationship, and had put on a few pounds. However, she was still quite pleased with the way she looked. The braces she’d gotten as an adult had done wonders, and when she smiled the crooked grin of her awkward teenage years was nowhere to be found. She lotioned up her body to trap in the moisture, all the while thinking of him and how far they’d come.
**One year ago**
One wintry night, about a year after the scene at lunch, Dusty was walking home from a night out. She and her girlfriends laughed and joked as they stomped through the fresh snow, and slid on the hidden ice. They stopped in front of Dusty’s apartment and said their farewells.
It was cool and crisp outside, but Dusty wanted to open the windows once she was inside. It was the one holdover from her time with Ace: he had loved the cool air blowing in at night, and Dusty had grown to love it too. Plus, the cool air would help to sober her up quicker.
She got out her key and unlocked the front door and headed upstairs. The elevator was, as per usual, out of order, so it was a long hike up to the fifth floor. She kicked off her boots around three, and continued up in her stockings. The stairwell was dimly lit, and as she reached each landing she could see the snow that had started to fall. She knew once she got inside, a sad, skinny little Christmas tree would be waiting for her. That and the bottle of Moscato in the fridge. She smiled as she thought of the sparse condition of her refrigerator. Moscato, butter, cottage cheese, and an egg. Dusty hoped there wasn’t a shut-down-the-town blizzard coming. She wouldn’t survive too long on her rations.
The holidays were not her favorite time of year. In fact, her fridge held more promise with its sparse contents. She didn’t have happy memories of Christmastime from childhood. Money was usually tight, and the stress of the holidays didn’t help. Her parents, who barely spoke eleven months out of the year, spent December in an all out war with each other. It was miserable for Destiny growing up. Then thirteen years later, Daphne came along, making things even more tense. It was then that Destiny decided she wouldn’t get married and certainly wouldn’t have children. What did she know about being in a functional relationship, let alone raising a well rounded child ready to contribute to society?
She pushed open the door at the end of the hall on the fifth floor. Dusty was more than ready for bed. She had worked hard that day, and the “quick drink after work” had turned into three hours of pretty steady imbibing. As she rounded the corner, Dusty saw someone sitting on the floor at the end of the hall. He was in front of her apartment. Dusty was too drunk to turn around, but sober enough to panic. Reaching into her purse for the pepper spray on her keychain, she approached her apartment. The man, sitting with his head resting on his knees, looked up. The first thing Dusty noticed was his eyes.
She breathed his name, “Ace.” It hung in the air. She wasn’t sure why, but she wasn’t surprised to see him there. Suddenly she was quite sober, and Ace was getting up off the floor.
“Dusty...I didn’t know if I should come.”
“Why are you here?”
“I had to see you. It’s been too hard. I’m not happy with the way things ended. I needed to talk to you. Clear the air. Closure.”
Dusty looked at him for a moment. She couldn’t believe this. Dusty had spent so much time getting over him, getting used to his not being around or part of her life. And now, here he was. Against her better judgement, she said, “Fine. Come in. I don’t want to stand in the hall all night.”
The two entered her apartment. The white walls, white furniture, white curtains would give an outsider the impression that Dusty was cold. However, Ace breathed a sigh of relief. Dusty noticed his sigh and looked at him. She saw the far off look in his eyes. She wondered if he was remembering their time, the ease with which their relationship grew. Did the familiar smells of her place brought back memories like Chinese takeout in front of the fridge, cooking pasta on her stovetop, making love on the living room floor?
“Why are you here?” Dusty’s abrupt repeating of her question jolted Ace back to reality.
He took a step toward her. “I’ve missed you, Dusty.”
Dusty took a step back. “You lied to me, Ace.” Ace hung his head and leaned back on his heels.
“I did. It was shitty-”
Dusty threw her hands in the air. “Shitty?! Shitty is forgetting our anniversary. Shitty is getting a speeding ticket. What you did was unforgivable! Honestly, Ace, I don’t know why you’re here. I don’t know what you expect to happen, but it’s over. It’s been over for months.”
“You don’t meant that. I see the pain in your eyes.”
“The pain you see isn’t because I miss you. It’s because you made a fool out of me. I think you should go.”
Dusty could tell by the way Ace hung his head that she’d hit a nerve, and he knew she was right. He looked her in the eye. “I left her. I couldn’t make it work. It wasn’t meant to work. I left.”
Dusty stared at him. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “You’re kidding.”
“I moved my stuff out today. I found an apartment not far from her so I can still take Will to school. I didn’t leave because of you. I didn’t leave for you. I left for me. I was so unhappy, Destiny. I needed to get out.”
“So you came here, why? I’ll ask it again: Why are you here?”
“I want to try again. Start fresh. No lies. No omissions. My name is Jake. I’m 40 years old. I work in advertising. I’m separated from my wife, and we have a 4-year-old son named Will.”
She was quiet a moment. “My name is Destiny. I’m 31 years old. And it must be the alcohol because I’m asking you to stay the night.”
Dusty pulled her stockings up to her thigh and clipped the garter. She then stood in front of the mirror and applied her makeup. As she contoured, she thought about those days after Ace had left Jessie. They spent that Christmas together. No gifts were exchanged because “spending time together was gift enough.” They ate Chinese takeout on Christmas Day and watched old black and white movies on the TV. Her office had shut down for the holiday, and he had taken the remainder of his vacation, so the two spent their days playing in the snow, buying groceries, and hanging out at home.
One night, close to New Year’s Eve, they were laying in bed, and Ace propped himself up on his elbow and looked at her seriously.
“I want you to meet him.”
Dusty, laying on her back, opened her eyes and rolled her head toward him. “Who?”
“Will. I want you to meet Will. You’re the two most important people in my life. I want the two of you to meet.”
This surprised Dusty. She spent a lot of time in her life avoiding kids. She was uneasy around them. She never knew what to say to them or how to act. “I don’t know, Ace. That’s a huge step. I don’t even like kids.”
“You’ll like him. I promise. He’s a lot like me. Only smaller. And cuter.” He grinned a goofy grin, obviously proud of his joke and his son.
Dusty thought about it and finally agreed. She sighed and smiled before telling him, “I would love to meet your son.”
From then on, it was the three of them when Will was with Ace. Dusty liked this role of “bonus mom.” She got all the benefits of being a mother with none of the responsibility, really. And Will really was a great kid. He and Dusty clicked instantly. Like with his dad, Dusty felt an instant connection. His smile warmed her heart and his innocent ways helped her see the world through her eyes. He loved so purely that it was easy to love him back.
Naturally, Dusty was nervous when she and Ace would pick Will up. There was a considerable amount of tension between Ace and Will’s mom, Jessie. It was abundantly clear that Ace and Jessie were still married and Jessie didn’t approve of Ace’s finding a girlfriend so quickly. Every time they were together, Dusty felt she was being scrutinized and picked apart. Dusty, always the epitome of put together felt the harsh glare and cold eyes of Jessie, who rarely wore makeup or fixed her hair. She often appeared tired, and Dusty attributed this to exhaustion from being a mom. It often confounded Dusty when she considered how Ace could be attracted to the plain, nondescript woman that was the mother of his child and also attracted to Dusty.
Dusty observed Jessie’s interactions with her son when they’d meet for the exchange. No doubt, Jessie loved Will, but their relationship wasn’t warm and caring. Dusty noticed that Will rarely initiated physical contact with his mom, instead choosing to simply say “bye” when they picked him up or “hi” when they dropped him off. Jessie was often telling Will to hold still, be quiet, calm down, etc. This pained Dusty. It reminded her of her own childhood: a childhood where she could do nothing right. She ultimately ended up resenting her parents for not allowing her to be a kid. She vowed that she and Will would never have that relationship.
Dusty reveled in the way Will reacted when he saw her. Dusty joined Ace at church on Sundays. On the Sundays Will was with Ace, it was Will’s job to find a pew to sit in. Dusty would walk into the church and the little boy would run into her arms.
“Dusty!” His smile stretched from ear to ear. Every time, Dusty would crouch down and catch him as he leapt toward her.
Scooping him up, she would nuzzle his ear and say, “Hi buddy! How have you been?” She knew the boy would giggle from the ticklish sensation and wriggle out of her arms. He’d take her hand and lead her into the sanctuary. She could count on him turning over his shoulder many times to smile proudly at her. He was the important one here. It was up to him to show her the way to their seat.
Once the three were seated, Will climbed up into Dusty’s lap. He examined her eyeshadow, her earrings, and her lipstick. “Do you have on chapstick?”
“No, buddy. It’s lipstick. It turns your lips pink.”
Will studied her intently for a moment before planting his cheek against her lips. She laughed at the pink lip print as he pulled back. “Or it turns your cheek pink.” She wiped it off as best she could. Will snuggled down into Dusty’s chest. And at one moment he looked up, took her face in his hands, and said, “Dusty, I love you.” It was then that Dusty’s heart melted. She hugged him close and whispered, “I love you too.”
Dusty pulled the long black dress on over her head. She sat on the foot of her bed and pulled her knees up to her chest. As she sat there, hugging her knees, the tears started. “Damn.” She went back to the bathroom and dabbed her face with a tissue. She had hoped not to have to reapply her makeup. She looked in the mirror. Satisfied with her makeup, and her simple ponytail, she smoothed her dress down in front. She sighed as she noticed this garment didn’t fit like it used to. Shaking her head, she walked back into the bedroom and slipped into a pair of black pumps.
Dusty grabbed the small black clutch she kept in her dresser drawer. She threw a pack of tissues, a lipstick, and her wallet inside. At the last minute she grabbed some TUMS to fight the bouts of nausea that came and went at the drop of a hat. Finally, she grabbed some chewing gum. She didn’t anticipate talking to many people, but she couldn’t be too careful. Plus, it would help with the TUMS aftertaste.
Downstairs, Dusty hailed a cab. It was a cool, crisp, sunny day. Ace’s favorite kind of day. The leaves had started to turn, and smells of fall were in the air. Dusty took a deep breath as she climbed in the backseat and gave the driver the address. She put dark glasses on and closed her eyes, not ready or willing to face what was happening.
Two weeks ago, Ace had come to Dusty’s place, out of the blue. He didn’t call to see if she was home. Taking a chance, he stepped to her porch and rang the buzzer. She buzzed him in, confused, but excited for this unscheduled visit. However, her excitement dwindled when she saw his face as she opened her door.
“What is it? Is everything OK? Is Will OK?” Dusy fired questions off, one after the other.
“Will is fine.” Ace half smiled. He took a deep breath and continued. “Destiny, we have to talk.”
She knew what that meant. She’d heard it all too often. Her insides fluttered momentarily. She laid her hand on her belly as if to calm the butterflies. “What? Just say it. Rip off the Band-Aid.”
So he did. He sat on the couch, put his forehead in his hands, and told her everything. He told her how hard the separation had been on him. How, even though he loved Dusty, he loved Jessie too. He wanted to work things out with her. “Dusty...I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say. I’m in love with two people. Two women who are as different as night and day, yet two women who make me complete in one way or another.”
Destiny lowered herself into the chair. She didn’t know what to say, couldn’t see straight. Running her hands through her hair, she started to shake. She didn’t want to beg him to stay, but she couldn’t bear the thought of letting him go. She had everything with him. Normally cool and together, Dusty was angry at the tears that sprung in her eyes, giving away her emotion.
“Dammit.” She wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands, noticing the eyeliner and mascara that streaked her skin. “Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.” She started crying harder now, and she was unsure if it was because of what Ace had told her or if it was because of the smeared makeup. Eventually, her emotions took over, and Dusty became furious. She called him everything she could think of. Horrible things. Disgusting things. As she raged, Ace sat, head down, and took it. Eventually, he came to her, knelt by her and wrapped her in his arms. She sobbed heavy sobs.. Then she looked him in the eye. “You may suck at relationships, Ace, but you’re a damn good dad. I’m glad you’re capable of doing one thing right. I think you should go.”
That was the last time she saw Ace. Until today. She wasn’t sure she was prepared for this. She would not only see him, but she’d see Jessie too. Their meetings were awkward at best, and today’s encounter would be beyond uncomfortable. Dusty didn’t know what to expect or how to act.
The cab driver pulled up at her stop, and after swiping her credit card, Dusty got out. She turned and headed up the steps through the front door. The music playing was slow, somber. The room was dimly lit and Dusty made her way to the front.
Looking down into the casket, Dusty inhaled sharply. She knew what she’d see there, but it still shocked her to see Ace made up so artificially.
She recalled hearing that there had been a car accident near her building. She remembered the sirens and the police. Someone on her floor looked out the window and said that a pedestrian had been hit. That he stepped into the crosswalk while the driver blew through the stop sign. Getting up from her desk, Dusty walked over to the window and looked outside. She couldn’t see a person, but she saw what looked like a bouquet of pastel flowers on the ground in front of a car in the crosswalk and a helium mylar baby bottle balloon float up past her office window. Dusty would probably never know what really happened, but she was certain that Ace was there, in the crosswalk, the flowers and balloon for her.
David Fallon is a therapist and writer who lives in Southern California. He has a passion for writing stories about animals, children, and the disenfranchised. He has published many stories in various magazines and journals. He is about to publish his first collection of short stories entitled "Longing for the Moon" some time in 2019 with DSTLArts. He is currently working on a second collection as well as a novel about an elderly man named Lefty. When he is not writing, he is probably reading or watching movies or helping his teenage son take care their baby bearded lizard Shinks which in itself is a full time job.
A boy decided to walk across the world.
He left a note for his mother:
“Goodbye. I will always love you. I hope to see you again someday.
Before he left, he went to visit his father’s grave.
“I’m leaving dad,” he said sadly. “And I don’t know if I will ever come back.”
As he turned to go, the boy heard a familiar voice.
“Then I will go with you,” the voice said.
“Who’s there?” the boy asked.
“It’s me,” the voice answered. “Your father.”
“But I can’t see you,” the boy said.
“No,” his father said. “You will never be able to see me. Just know that I will always with you, wherever you go. And when you need me, I will do what I can to help.”
The boy did not believe his father. His father had, after all, left once. What was to stop him from doing so again.
“Okay,” was all the boy could say.
The first days were very hard for the boy. He was not used to walking so much, and he tire out easily. He quickly became lonely, and when he tried to talk to his father there was no answer. Worse of all, the little bit of food had with him ran out quickly.
The boy had only been gone for a few days and was laying down to sleep one night when it started to rain. At a lost as to what to do, the boy balled up and began to cry.
Suddenly he heard a loud cracking sound. Terrified, he looked up to see the tree branches above him bending into the shape of a shelter. Soon he was nice and dry.
“Dad?” he said softly as he drifted into exhausted slumber.
After a few days with nothing to eat, the boy felt as if he would collapse. He sat down on a rock, staring into space. Just when he was seriously considering eating some dry leaves and grass, a thought occurred to him: “Follow the birds.”
“Birds?” he mumbled in bewilderment.
The boy nearly fell off the rock when a bird swooped over his head with a piercing cheap. He turned to see a few more birds fluttering about in the nearby woods. In a daze of hunger, he stumbled after them. Not far into the bramble, he saw a small gang of birds nibbling on large purple berries. There were millions of the plump juicy fruits dotting the surrounding greenery. The boy ravenously shoveled handfuls of sticky berries into his mouth. By the time he was done, his face and hands were stained a deep purple.
So it went on like this. Whenever the boy had a need, he was provided for in some mysterious way.
Eventually he grew into a young man.
Life on the run grizzled him. It had been so long since he had contact with other people that he could not imagine being with anyone. It had also been quite a while since he received any help from his father. The older he got, the less help he needed.
Then he had a dream:
His father appeared to him and said, “the time has come to go home.”
“But I don’t want to,” said the young man. “In fact, I don’t really care if I never see home again.”
His father gave a frustrated sigh.
“Very well,” he said. “But I can only help you one more time, and then it will finally be time for me to rest.”
More time passed, and the boy was fine. He had learned how to find his own food, make his own shelter, keep his own way. He was very self-sufficient.
But then he got reckless.
He climbed mountains without ropes, rode rapids without a boat, and chased dangerous animals like cougars and coyotes for fun. In his frenzy, he got hurt more than once. He stopped pay attention to his surrounds. As a result, he inadvertently fell into an deep empty well.
Fortunately the fall did not cause him any broken bones, but the sides of the well were much too smooth to scale. There was no way out.
“Dad? Dad?” the young man called. There was no answer.
Night fell, and still the young man was trapped in the well.
“Dad?! Dad?!” he yelled into the dark sky. Still no answer.
At a loss, the young man laid back against the wall of the well and fell asleep.
The next day, he ate the last of what little food he had, drank what little water was left. He waited and waited and waited, but nothing happened.
Three days passed and the boy was desperate. He tried over and over to scramble up the sides of the well. Each time, he would merely slide back down to the bottom of the well. He pounded his fists on the sides of the well until his hands stung.
The young man yelled: “You said you would help me one more time! You said you would! I knew you were lying to me! I knew you would leave me again when I needed you the most!!”
Suddenly a face appeared over the side. The young man could not make out who it was.
“Dad?” he called.
A rope was lowered next to him, and he slowly climbed out of his hole. He lay of the ground panting as he was handed a canteen full of cool water. He drank until he could drink no more. When he was offered food, he was able to focus on who had saved him.
“Mom?” he said with great surprise.
“It’s time to come home,” she smiled.
By the time they got there, the young man could only think about sleeping in his own bed.
By the time they got there, he father was finally able to rest in peace.
By the time he got there, he was a young boy yet again.
WHAT COMES AROUND
Danny wasn’t the first choice. Or the second.
The context was interchangeable.
He was the fourth or fifth slowest boy to run the bases at baseball practice. He could throw alright, but he couldn’t catch anything.
After Danny tried out for pitcher, Coach Ramsey announced to the team that Danny couldn’t hit a brick wall with an egg. The kids laughed. Danny frowned. Then he laughed. Then he frowned again. Everyone knew he wasn’t that bad of a thrower, and he couldn’t figure out why coach decided to single him out and label him with the humiliation.
None of that matters though, because Danny quit the baseball team on the last day of the second week of practice. He left his mitt in the grass. It was his father’s mitt. His mother told him that the day he found it, and from the first day he used it he always assumed that was what made him suck so bad.
Needless to say, Danny hated baseball. He hated sports altogether. He didn’t hate a lot of things, and the number only diminished in time, but for what he did the emotion was responsibly nurtured.
There was always more love than hate in Danny, his mother used to claim—but everyone knew she kept a bottle of vodka under the kitchen sink that swished around all day and hardly ever settled.
Danny wasn’t the first choice. Or the second. They had to name him something though, and finally they came to an agreement for the first time in five years. Then he took off.
But at least he left his baseball mitt.
Danny wasn’t a big oaf or a little tyke. He wasn’t long or stout, skinny or thick. He wasn’t much.
But he was quick in small doses. Even though his reflexes always failed him— except on one occasion—at least he had them. That was more to say than some kids. A lot of kids, actually. Or at least, that’s what Danny liked to think.
One time in the second grade, Danny’s reflexes served and failed him when he was running for his life from Ronnie Rathborn.
“That Ronnie has a crippled soul.”
That’s what Danny’s mother always said about him, but you know what they said about her.
Danny was a curious boy. He liked to do different things at recess because it sucked trying to fit in with the masses in football or soccer. Out there on the athletic fields, everyone was always trying to do something amazing, and because of that hardly anyone ever could. Certainly not Danny. For one thing, the ball never came to him—and when it did, it was always a clumsy encounter. Touching the ball made Danny feel like he was meeting a stranger.
So one day Danny decided to see what Ronnie Rathborn was doing, squatting over the gravel by the big tractor tires. Upon inquiry, Ronnie apprehensively explained that he was looking for arrowheads.
To kids in the second grade, when looking for rare stones or artifacts on the playground, every triangular rock is an arrowhead left behind by the Indians.
Once this presupposition was revealed to him, Danny’s mind dilated with inspiration. Before he knew it, he was looking for arrowheads too and it turned out he had quite the eye for it. In minutes he had scavenged a considerable collection. Even more than Ronnie. That rubbed up a sore in Ronnie’s mind, and the sore burned white when Danny found a really big arrowhead, the biggest yet. As soon as Danny declared his find and picked it up, Ronnie decided he had seen it first.
Twenty seconds later, Danny was running for his life.
He had never run for his life before then, and he didn’t for a long time afterwards. He should have known better than to play with Ronnie. There were a lot of stories about him that made Danny’s heart feel pink and clammy and raked his brain with nervousness. To Danny, Ronny’s last name was all too appropriate. It made him think everyone’s names must mean something about them.
Danny was quick in small doses, but he was also the fourth or fifth slowest kid to run the bases. Ronnie would have caught him if he hadn’t ducked.
There were pull-up bars on the playground; three different sizes positioned in zigzagging angles as an abstract expression of a trestle. Pull-ups suck. They’re no fun at all, and they’re way too hard. Every kid knows that, so nobody ever used them the right way. Only now and then could a kid be found swinging lackadaisically, and only for a moment. On even rarer occasions, kids (girls mostly) would show off the brave and envious talent of hanging upside down from their knees with no hands.
Most of the time though, nobody ever used those pull up bars. They were one of the things left out. Things barely noticed and forgotten, like the pine tree in the photograph that’s missing in the painting.
Anyway, it just so happens that Danny ran right for those zigzagging bars the day he was chased by Ronnie Rathborn. He didn’t mean to. He was just trying to get away. His vision was swollen. Red ellipticals blipped and spread like waves in a sonar. His hairline was crowned with tingles and it felt like his brain was on a Bunsen burner. He glanced back and saw Ronnie gaining, heard the cheers of unaware children rising and resounding, and then he looked ahead and his reflexes kicked in. Danny ducked and sprained his ankle because even though in this instance his reflexes served him, they also simultaneously failed him. Once activated, they functioned this way every single time, up until that one time.
Ronnie was too enraged for reflexes. He ran nose-first into the lowest bar.
Danny ended up giving Ronnie the arrowhead in the nurse’s office. Seeing someone get hurt like that, seeing all their hatred get replaced with agony and vulnerability in a split-second makes you realize certain insignificances. It wasn’t that big of a deal to give one arrowhead away. He’d amassed over a dozen others, and besides, what good were they even for? What could you even do with them?
Danny wasn’t much, but he had a few things. The first thing he had was his life. The last thing he had was a heart attack. But there were a few other things in the line of time between, things much more impactful than an arrowhead or an old baseball mitt.
One of those things saved his life, for a while. It was a .357 magnum, acquired when Danny was eighteen.
Danny might not have been much, but for all his limitations and shortcomings, he was an enigma. At times, he was even a living paradox.
And a killer.
“But Danny isn’t a bad kid though.” his mother used to say. But again, you know what they said about her.
Danny loved his mother. But unfortunately for him, he was never her first choice. Or her second.
Danny dropped out of high school his senior year. He didn’t do drugs, but he wasn’t a prep. He didn’t play sports, but he wasn’t obscenely skinny or overweight. He never kissed a girl, but he didn’t come off to girls as distant or estranged. In many respects, he was parallel to that trestle of pull-up bars.
Danny studied now and then, but he didn’t get good grades. That was one of the primary reasons he decided to drop out. It was the same thing over and over again with no rewarding outcome no matter what he did. He could throw alright, but even so, Coach Ramsey told the whole team he couldn’t hit a brick wall with an egg.
Well for the record, Coach Ramsey had a fat ass. That’s what Danny told the team about him. That got them laughing too. Not as loud, though. Not nearly as loud.
But that didn’t really matter. They weren’t his genuine friends. Danny didn’t have genuine friends because he wasn’t the first choice. Or the second. On and on and on.
For that very reason, the girls at school never expressed romantic interest in him. On the dark side, Danny never knew passionate love. On the bright side, he was never forced to trade his dreams for heartwarming photographs.
But then, he never really had any dreams.
When he was eighteen, before he acquired the gun, Danny’s mother developed chronic liver cirrhosis. Danny loved his mother, even though she wasn’t his first or second choice either. Still, it was sad. It really squeezed him up, made him cry a little. The only person he dimly hoped to see at the funeral didn’t even attend. There were plenty of roses left by the headstone, but those die too. In fact, all they do is die.
After the funeral he didn’t know what to do. His fatalistic view of his own actions only increased in his sorrow, and so he didn’t do much of anything.
A few weeks later he was homeless, destined to eventually seek refuge in a group of potential friends claiming to offer fellowship and security.
Around that time, Danny was primarily living off disposed sustenance salvaged from Arby’s trashcans. Danny wasn’t much, but he was quite observant. He accurately recognized Arby’s as one of the slightly more distinguished fast food chains. While McDonalds and Taco Bell rested at the ground level, the way Danny perceived, Arby’s ranked above them, both in terms of food presentation and quality. Because of this it seemed Arby’s appealed to a slightly higher class. Because of that, its restaurants experienced a noticeably higher percentage of wasted food. Not really wasted though, thanks to Danny.
Danny wasn’t forced to eat out of the dumpster. His mother left him a little over $30,000 dollars in savings. On top of that, her life insurance paid a flat 100 grand. The way Danny interpreted it, they just transformed her into money. His mother was now $130,000, sitting in some vault. Meanwhile in the cemetery, all the roses died.
He couldn’t spend it. To spend a dime would be to spend a dime of her. Who could amputate and trade any portion of their own mother? Aside from one single withdrawal, the major bulk of her currency sat in the account and accrued interest forever.
And so, it doesn’t matter either. Because money that cannot be spent isn’t worth a penny.
Danny didn’t think of himself as a loser or a homeless man or a beggar. Without having the precise words in mind, he considered himself a self-sufficient treasure hunter. After engaging in conversation with him, one could quickly realize that Danny didn’t have to eat Arby’s garbage, and he certainly didn’t have to sleep on the benches situated on the walkway of the McArthur Family Insurance building’s park and recreation area.
One of those who obtained this realization was a young man named Deandre Watkins. Deandre worked in Arby’s kitchen. He’d been to jail a number of times, but never prison, which he took great pride in boasting about now and then. Deandre suffered and benefitted from a habit of hollowing out grape swisher cigars, filling them with marijuana and smoking at least one before every Arby’s shift. Doing so brought on a strange and stimulating alleviation to him. It altered his perceptions on various things to various degrees. Deandre believed that it made him kinder and more accepting of things—especially the poor unfortunate soul who hung out around the dumpster every night, waiting for the trash.
One evening, when the moon was brighter than the surrounding spectrum of stars, and the bewitched ally cats crept out from hiding and mewled songs of apathy that rose to the urban rooftops and hung as a sonic fog, Danny was attacked.
The men were fiends.
The reason was evil fun.
Those last two words coalesce all too often following an excessive consumption of alcohol. They swirl in with the liquid that drowns the conscience and premeditation, resulting in a series of blind, vilified actions.
In the ally, Danny slouched against the dumpster, spellbound by the tune of the felines yet unaware of its ominous abode. As time turned, it was a Friday night. Plenty of pedestrians strolled the streets that ran adjacent to the head and tail of the ally. In that district of the city, violence was not typically heard until the 2 am curfew when bartenders soured the mood by forcing the inebriated out into the streets.
In other words, the event was out of the ordinary as it was only 10 till 11. Danny didn’t even hear them coming.
How could he? The music was so splendid, so magically enrapturing. Never before had he heard such a spectacle.
Enlightenment occurred. Danny realized that music is truly an expressive outlet of emotion. It is created, fueled and driven through emotion, by emotion—and the universal effect upon hearing it is always one of emotion. As he listened, Danny concluded all of this through an absence of words.
Meanwhile, dark shapes approached.
As the bottle fell, air whooshed into the neck. Upon contact, the body of glass shattered and the neck bit into the palm of the oppressor.
Danny flew down several flights of stairs. He plummeted towards a ground that continuously retreated away, until his shoulder and cheekbone broke the loop, thunking against the pavement.
He didn’t hear the gahooling or the profanity after the bottle bit back. He didn’t hear the approach or the escape at all.
Up until the blackout, all Danny heard was the whoosh of the bottle and the mewling of the cats.
What comes around often comes as an unforeseen subtlety. Whether it is catastrophic or anticlimactic, the consequence always activates a change. Even when it results in a persistent lack of change, the persistence itself is the point.
All for good reason. If what comes around could be foreseen, we would have nothing to learn. There would be no cause and effect. Freewill would either cease to exist or bear arms against action in an infinite stalemate.
Even so, when what comes around comes, expected or not, it rarely bothers to notify. Oftentimes it doesn’t even knock. It barges into the present and does what it must to the mind.
Danny wasn’t the first choice. Or the second. But unfortunately for him, two prior targets had seen the men advancing and managed to escape.
Pain may be the most trusted scout to verify an incoming demise, but Danny did not die the night he was struck by the bottle. He did not feel any pain at all until he was shaken awake several minutes later.
It was Deandre Watkins that woke him, reeking of a pungent cologne pulled over the face of the illegal stench beneath.
As Danny came to, Deandre swore something wicked and informed him that his head was bleeding. Danny said nothing and tried to recollect. The effort was like catching fireflies on a summer night. Back within the days of his youth, he had spent evenings stockpiling the insects in glass jars with holes nailed into the lid. He had to hammer holes in so that the fireflies could breathe. But if he tapped them in too far with too big of a nail, some of the smarter ones would creep out and escape.
That didn’t matter too much though, because Danny only kept them for the night. Throughout it, he’d sleep restlessly and watch them from his bed in mesmerized increments with his comforter tucked under his chin. With the jar sitting on the windowsill, he’d watch the little life forms scour every centimeter of the glass, their antennae waving, their behinds blinking, their wings extending and closing. On several occasions, he noticed some of them kept their lights on much longer than the others. He always thought those were the happy ones.
No matter how many remained in the morning, Danny always opened the day by unscrewing the lid and letting them go. He loved that. It made him feel more like an innkeeper than a kidnapper. Afterwards he would get giddy. He would find himself smiling and laughing all throughout the rest of the day no matter what happened, because hardly anything feels better than setting something free.
Torn pages of these memories billowed through Danny’s mind as Deandre Watkins helped him to his feet, heaving him by the armpits.
Danny struggled to find balance. He was never an expert at it. The concept lived very far away from him. With a mother who always kept a bottle of vodka swishing under the kitchen sink, the true meaning and value of the term was never properly ingrained.
Deandre swore again as Danny stumbled under his hands. He swore so often his managers made sure he hardly ever saw a cash register. But he made up for it with other skills. He had fast hands. Good memory too, as hard as it was to believe. Waiting times decreased when he was in the kitchen. More importantly though, the real underlying reason his managers never once considered firing him was because they were all a little afraid of Deandre Watkins. He was rumored to be deeply affiliated with a certain group.
The cats stopped mewling after the shattering of the bottle. They fled the scene and did not return until long after Deandre and Danny departed.
After shouldering him across the parking lot, Deandre flicked a few pieces of glass out of Danny’s hair while he posted up against the side of the building.
At that moment, Deandre’s manager bumbled around a corner. She was quite obese. Her skin was flushed in all the wrong areas. She was smoking a cigarette. Her presence made Danny feel sick.
She asked what happened using a very apprehensive and primitive selection of words. She knew who Danny was. She had made a number of idle threats against him in days past.
Deandre informed her, and the two of them leaned in for a closer look at the cut on Danny’s head.
The manager decided Danny would need to get stitches and referred him to a hospital. She took a final vacuous inhale of that cigarette, smudged it out on the side of the building, flicked it and offered to call an ambulance. Danny declined. He’d never ridden in an ambulance before. The thought of so many lights and noises was unnerving. Besides, aside from the fog within and the feeling of a cactus prickle on top of his head, he felt ok. Blood slid down the back of his scalp, but even though he felt the warmth, he couldn’t see any of it, so he wasn’t very worried.
After a more scrutinized observation, Deandre concurred with his supervisor that Danny was indeed going to need stitches, as well as a concussion analysis. Danny knew about stitches. He’d gotten them on his head once before. They weren’t so bad, as long as you didn’t watch. You had to wall your eyes off from the utensils on the metal tray. If you just watched the TV you were fine.
Reluctantly, Danny agreed to visit the hospital, but he did not want to ride in an ambulance. He would get there the same way he got everywhere. He looked around and asked them which direction to start walking.
The manager shrugged and waddled back inside to finish closing shop. She could diagnose, but for someone of her magnitude, it was far too much effort to assume any form of responsibility. She was a pitiful sight to Danny. It was very alleviating to have her gone.
Deandre sighed heavily. He shook his head, looked up at the stars, looked down, swore under his breath and finally offered to drive Danny.
They laughed at him when Danny said he could pay for the operation in full, but the law required they tend to him anyway and he certainly did need the stitches. Seven of them, to be exact. They told Danny they would send him a bill. He gave them his mother’s address and failed to mention it was no longer his place of residency—to no immediate consequence. The nurses at the front desk didn’t ask too many questions. They assured him confidently and succinctly that they would be in touch.
The next morning, Danny ran an errand.
The next night, Danny returned to Arby’s and waited behind the dumpster. The cats crept out again to keep him company, but he no longer trusted them, and their voices echoed his skepticism. This time, their song was feral and off-pitch. The sounds spiked and plummeted and didn’t carry any cadence. It wasn’t music. It was noise, the polar opposite of what it had been the night before. Those cats never sang like that again.
Sure enough, around 11 o’clock, Deandre Watkins appeared, exiting through the back door, dragging a large black trash bag in each hand. Danny raised one arm to flag him down and met him in the middle of the parking lot, thanking him with a few short words and the presentation of a brown paper bag containing $5,000.
Looking in, Deandre’s heart skipped a beat. He threw his head around furiously, expecting a trick or a trap. This was not real. Surely it had to be a sting of some kind. Surely the police were on to him and the group he was affiliated with and all of their illegal activities. His high, paranoid mind was certain of it. Beyond certain!
He shoved the bag back into Danny’s arms and spit out a black threat, centering his thoughts on the gun in his Cadillac’s glove box.
Danny wasn’t much, and that included stupid. He had assumed Deandre’s reaction would be volatile.
He also realized in that moment that he would never ever consider taking another cent of his mother out of the bank again. The lurching guilt was just too great.
Deandre threatened Danny a second time. He demanded an immediate explanation in a choice of words that suggested his intelligence quotient was far lower than it actually was. He closed the threat by mentioning the secret weapon in his car, fifty meters behind them. His eyes glared with sinister intent.
Danny frowned. He offered the bag again and said he stole it.
After nothing happened for a grueling duration, Deandre finally calmed down and decided to believe Danny. He gave him a playful punch in the shoulder and snatched the bag. He thumbed the bills inside the bag and told Danny that he was one stupid white boy.
Danny wasn’t sure how to think about this. Based on the context though, Danny understood that Deandre was both insulting and thanking him at the same time. Danny smiled. Then he nodded and turned around to take his leave with Deandre’s trash bags in hand, when a small revelation occurred.
“Hold up.” Deandre said.
Danny stopped and turned back to him.
“Man, I ain’t about to letchu eat the fuckin’ trash!” Deandre exclaimed. “Pitch that shit in the dump and come on.”
Deandre drove Danny deep into the inner city, deeper than he had ever been before. On the drive, Deandre Watkins looked ahead and turned up his music and snarled a little, muttering snippets of the lyrics here and there. He had a gold tooth. Each time he snarled it glinted like a yellow pearl at the bottom of a black abyss.
Danny felt relief when Deandre pulled into a KFC drive-thru. He drove too fast, and his music was depraved. But now that they were no longer in motion, the succession of events slowed down enough for him to strengthen his nerves and reflect on whether or not it was a helpful or harmful decision to get inside Deandre Watkins’ Cadillac for the second time. Danny wondered if there really was a gun in the glove box. He decided there probably was, but he didn’t think that Deandre would ever use it against him. Danny thought himself a decent person. He believed that the more time Deandre spent with him, the more he would come to trust him, because Danny would never do anything to hurt the man who helped him.
They ordered a bucket of chicken and two pints of mashed potatoes. At the window, Deandre laughed, remarked and clapped hands with the grisly man behind the register, who did not ask him to pay for their meal.
Later, Deandre and Danny ate together in the car under the red glow of an electric billboard looming overhead. While their lips smacked on the chicken, Deandre told Danny about his group. He told Danny they were looking for recruits, and expressed his opinion that while Danny was certainly a very unintelligent white boy, he clearly wasn’t worthless. He obviously possessed a talent in one form or another. The money could attest to that. Although Danny wasn’t his first choice or his second for an ideal recruit, he had to be useful in some sense of the term.
In the beginning of Deandre’s pitch, Danny expressed little interest. The chicken was crispy, warm and delicious. Since Deandre hadn’t used Danny’s mother to pay for it, it didn’t make him feel sick to eat it. Danny hadn’t eaten all day, and at that moment he cared a lot more about eating than some group.
Deandre continued his proposition patiently and Danny stopped listening altogether.
He looked around. They were in a large vacant parking lot, surrounded by industrial giants. Time and earth and weather had all worked together to crack the lot apart like an eggshell under a boot. Weeds and grass reached out from the cracks with scrawny, desperate green arms, giving Danny a haunting vision of the damned reaching out from a thin crevice to hell.
He looked up and away from them, at the billboard.
The advertisement on it was for a brand of condoms. Next to the logo was a white caption that stated:
When The Time Comes, We’ve Got You Covered!
It was a crude, bold statement. The innuendo was as naked as the act in daylight The red background behind it beamed and Danny even found the very light itself to be obscene and aggressive—intrusive in a way. Now he wondered, why had they come around to this place? Why couldn’t they just eat in the KFC parking lot?
Deandre Watkins continued talking and licking his lips. Danny realized he had stopped eating. He looked down at the piece of chicken in his hands. It was greasy. It evoked the impulse to wash them. He looked back at the billboard and the color reminded him of hell, just like those weeds had. It made Danny very uneasy to think about hell.
He looked back at Deandre and tuned in.
Deandre was just wrapping up a long-winded backstory on how he came to be a part of the group. This given, he looked at Danny and told him flatly that he could get him initiated if he desired.
Danny remained skeptical about this, until Deandre followed up by claiming that his group could provide Danny with protection.
Stars aligned in Danny’s mind. He thought about the whoosh of the bottle and the mewling of the cats. He thought about flying down flights of stairs, as if someone had kicked him from behind. He thought about the stitches on the back of his head. He raised a hand and ran two fingers over the threaded grooves.
Danny finished his piece of chicken and told Deandre he might be interested.
Suddenly Deandre Watkins turned serious. His face darkened, and seemed to bend like a shadow split by the wall and ceiling. He told Danny in a different set of words that there was no room for “might” in joining this group. One had to be completely certain and instantaneously devoted. Deandre compared the group to a family. He lifted his forearm and showed Danny a tattoo he had that apparently proved his prestigious stature. Then he delivered a sincere, extensive elaboration on why and how the group was like a family—but the more he spoke of it as such, the more Danny thought of it as a cult.
But it would be nice to have protection.
Deandre concluded his speech with a final focus on the subjects of betrayal, desertion and sin. He explained to Danny that within the family, if done for the good of the family all sins are justified. But betraying or deserting the family is not only a sin, but the most unforgivable one can ever commit. Deandre assured him that doing so would cause the effect of fatal consequences.
Danny considered the offer, initially uncertain of what or how much to believe. He decided Deandre was probably a lot more intelligent and cunning than he smelled and sounded, swearing every sentence and stinking of that sour, skunk-like odor.
And the KFC was good. Danny hadn’t eaten it in years. He had forgotten how savory it was, how delectable. Danny asked if he could receive more free KFC if he joined his group.
Deandre Watkins threw his head back and howled. Then he shook his head and closed his eyes voicing a very demeaning opinion of Danny.
But his response that followed sealed the deal.
Far off, something moaned in the distance. It came around without explanation, infiltrating all the perforated steel components of the surrounding industrial structures as a crazed and foreign phenomenon.
Farther off, smokestacks billowed the gas of business that will never be finished. Above them, the atmosphere embraced the man-made chemicals. The clouds shifted to make room, and the smog settled in.
Danny wasn’t the first choice. Or the second. They came around to him though, because what comes around comes in accordance with eventuality, especially when provoked by a persistence form of cause. In this case, the cause was Deandre Watkins. After receiving $5,000 cash, he was determined to indoctrinate Danny into his group out of a nagging belief that there was more where that came from, even though Danny never gave any notion to the idea.
After much deliberation, the group’s leadership trifecta agreed to accept Danny as one of their own, if he performed a necessary act of initiation.
Shortly after the meeting with them, in which these terms were established, Deandre bestowed upon Danny a proud, fatherly smile and the .357 magnum. The purpose of immediate possession was to create camaraderie between the owner and the object. Danny was encouraged—passively mandated to maintain perpetual custody and keep the weapon concealed on his person at all times. What began with a similar sense of discomfort as in the days following an arranged marriage, soon developed into a functioning union between man and mechanism.
Two weeks later, Danny was sitting in the backseat of a Chevrolet Tahoe. Danny knew what he had to do. The instructions and the concept were clear, but the moral implications were a viscous mud that seeped into and clung in the grooves of his brain.
Two men sat in the front seats ahead of him and neither of them was Deandre Watkins. It three o’clock in the afternoon and he had just started his shift at Arby’s.
The back seats of the Tahoe rank of the sour-skunk smell Danny had now grown accustomed to. These men were not the appointed leaders, but they clearly held high positions within the inner circle. Danny identified them as the influencers, the recruiters, the role models of the same or similar rank and class to Deandre Watkins. They were the ones raising up the streets, the ones children look up to and mimic and want to be like. Their words, actions and appearance attracted the younger generations and channeled the course of their future.
The Tahoe approached a red light and the tires rotated to a stop. One of the men, the one in the passenger seat, turned around and faced Danny. He was the more intimidating of the two. He spoke as if he was bent on something. His tone rose and fell in a similar octave to the eerie noise of the cats. Danny looked at him and saw his ideology snaked across his arms in cursive phrases and violent designs. Dreadlocks of hair hung to his shoulders in vines, and Danny thought the hairstyle’s name was very appropriate.
The passenger told Danny they were getting close and asked if he was ready.
Danny said nothing. He met the eyes of the driver in the rearview mirror and swallowed.
They did not approve. He could feel it as a dense oppressive weight on his shoulders and inside the back of his head. They did not believe he was capable. Deandre may have put in a good word for him, but words alone do not verify competence.
Finally Danny looked back at the passenger and nodded, but his face was tight and superficial.
The light turned green and the tires resumed their course.
“But Danny isn’t a bad kid though,” his mother used to say. But the bookending words of that statement had a cruel way of diluting its significance.
The Tahoe turned a corner. Dusty light filtered in through the tinted window.
They were not going to let him go through with it, Danny suddenly realized. That turn was not a part of the procedure. They were not even taking him to the target. That last exchange was a test of competence and he had failed it miserably. In all likelihood they were now taking him back to the hideout where they would strip him of his mechanism and the clothes on his back, both of whom they had provided. Perhaps they would even take away his life. All because of his failure to demonstrate an unwavering allegiance and alacrity mere moments ago.
The Tahoe turned again. The destination came into view.
Danny’s paranoia subsided. He thought about the dense lump, the powerful tool he had been keeping with him day and night that was now supposed to be an extension of himself. His mind focused in on that weight. It still felt a little foreign to him, especially when he thought about what he was supposed to do with it.
Suddenly, a storm surge of moral liability surfed into his mind, crashing against his levees of conscience, spouting the same revolution of philosophic questions that had plagued him since the very briefing of this mission.
Was he a bad person?
Was the act he was about to do bad?
The family’s implanted precept appeared:
The act was for the good of the family and for the good of him, and if the family was right, and no one else truly cared about him, how could it be?
But now he set himself apart from this and thought a little more critically. Did other people still matter, even if they didn’t care about you? The Bible said they did. The law said they did. The family said they did not. As a child, Danny used to believe in the Bible. Now he wasn’t sure what he believed in. Sitting in the back of the Tahoe, approaching the area of action, Danny supposed he hadn’t known what he believed in for a very long time. And so, he concluded, for a very long time he supposed he hadn’t believed in anything.
Was all of that about to change?
The Tahoe closed in. The front passenger tongue-lashed Danny to prepare himself. Danny wrapped one hand around what was supposed to be an extension of him, tucked inside his waistband, pulled it out and examined it.
It was a very warm day. Scattershot clusters of cloud hovered in the sky. Danny glanced up at them and found irony. The clouds had a very clear purpose: to grace the creatures of the world with temporary alleviation from the sun. If only his purpose was so simple. So clean.
Danny tightened his grip, clenched his jaw and wondered about purpose altogether. Did he even have one? Did destiny exist at all?
The setting of the hit was very unusual. It was the front entrance of a large, cubic department store. The target was allegedly expecting to enter the Tahoe and receive a large, yet concealable quantity of product.
That given, the plan was intentionally crafted to lend itself to adaptability. If no witnesses were around, Danny was to eliminate the target outright as he approached the vehicle. If witnesses were present, the target would be allowed to enter the vehicle and the two men would then drive them to a more remote location where Danny would then dispose of him.
Danny didn’t know much about the target. All the family had told him was that the target had been leeching product and profits from them, little by little, over the course of a very long time. The target had been scolded for and warned against doing this many times in the past, but continued his misbehavior defiantly. Because of that, it was time for his relationships with the family and reality to end.
The Tahoe pulled into the parking lot of the department store and coasted toward the entrance.
Danny identified his target. Even from a distance, he singled him out and designated him as someone who deserved to die. The whole of his face was unsightly, but not by any explicit markings or disfigurements. His eyes were close together. The eyebrows, cliffed and shifty. The nose was a downturned beak. His mouth curved up in a lazy sneer. It was impossible to tell if he was purposely scowling, or if his resting face set itself into the expression naturally. He looked like a loan shark; like someone who had taken full advantage of every opportunity and person he had ever known.
Danny had met enough men like him. Men like him could never be satisfied, because they would never stop wanting more. They would never stop wanting the things they could not have.
He was standing next to a trashcan smoking a cigarette and wearing a light jacket, mildly suspicious considering the summer atmosphere.
The final approach was insanely gradual. The dislikable target turned his slant face over to it, brought the cigarette to his lips and watched. The man in the passenger’s seat pointed him out and confirmed his identity.
Just before the action occurred, Danny had time cycle through one final succession of thoughts.
His mother had once told him that any act of murder was the Devil’s work, and anyone who committed murder was an instrument of the Devil. Danny turned within and reached around blindly in his mind for the strings that attached him to the evil one, but he couldn’t find anything. Perhaps because the act had yet to occur.
The Tahoe pulled up in the drop-off lane of the front entrance, directly in front of the target. Danny whipped his head around wildly, looking for potential witnesses. The two men up front did the same, more casually.
There was no one around that they could see.
Danny was about to push the button to roll down his window, when one of the men instructed him to wait and only shoot the man right as he opened the door to get in. That way, he would eliminate any possibility of missing.
Danny’s posture straightened. His eyes sharpened and his finger licked the trigger. Adrenaline processed smoothly within him like the inner workings of a well-oiled machine. He experienced the contradiction that he could wait forever, and that he simply could not take it anymore at the same time. He braced himself for necessity, yet he remained conflicted on what he might do.
But for the moment that remained irrelevant because the target did not move. He stared at the vehicle, and within the vehicle Danny stared back at him. Something was put off. The target sensed it. He had to. Surely he could feel the rising current, the shift of the wind, the sudden increase of pressure in the air, the tow of gravity, tension, the imminence. To Danny, it was all a great convection of a mad storm. Surely, there was no possible way the target in question could overlook the trap that lay before him.
Finally, the target smudged out his cigarette and nodded at the van. Then he turned around and went inside the department store.
The role model in the passenger’s seat swore. The driver followed suit, then asked his cohort, who apparently had much more experience in dealing with this target, what could’ve provoked this unforeseen deviation.
The passenger swore again, and continued swearing throughout his explanation. He retrieved a cigarette from a pack in his front pocket, flicked a lighter and brought black light to the situation. He said that every now and then exchanges in the past had occurred in the bathrooms of establishments. Although this was not the predetermined deal in this particular case, it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary for the target to spontaneously change plans. That was just another reason he needed to die.
Danny tucked the gun back into his waistband, feeling like a guppy off the hook.
Then the man in the front passenger seat turned around and faced him with newfound aggression. One might say he looked like a different person, but Danny’s impression was that he no longer resembled a person at all. His eyes were piercing. There was red in them. The redness of the Devil. It was just as his mother had said.
Danny stifled a gasp. Those eyes continued glaring. Danny compared them to the eyes of a Chinese dragon. Before the Devil in the man even issued the command, his true nature was revealed. He was a murderer of an untold number. He delighted in it. It hung over and around him like a black cape and cowl.
Danny felt fear. He felt a great mistake had been made. He wanted to run, but the men would not allow it. Danny was chained to the situation, chained to the will of the family. His fate, if it ever had been, was now certainly out of his hands.
Danny wasn’t much.
But he was pretty perceptive. He saw the sum of the man before him—the sum that was greater than the whole of its parts—and obtained a very accurate premonition of what the man was going to say before he even said it.
The man reached behind him and retrieved a military combat knife, nine inches in length. Danny accepted it tentatively and stared at it, grateful for the excuse to shy his away from those devilish eyes. He unsheathed the blade halfway, sheathed it, and wondered nervously about its history. Now he was the keeper of both the gun and the knife, and he feared the added power bestowed upon him.
The role model in the passenger’s seat spoke to Danny with unblinking eyes that Danny from there on avoided. He told Danny that silence is golden. Danny thought about the whoosh of the bottle that struck him. The knife wouldn’t whoosh like that. It would cut a woodwind sound through the air, higher than the top note of a flute.
The front passenger, who was increasingly anxious to be rid of Danny, instructed him to twist the knife when it was inside and jerk it out at an upward or downward angle to disembowel as much as possible.
Danny understood, but now the game had changed. Change was the law of life his mother used to say, but from the studious way she recited them, Danny always knew those were not her words. In any event though, Danny thought of those words now and addressed their doppelganger. For as it now appeared, change was also the law of death.
The front passenger lambasted Danny again, and he exited the vehicle graciously and gracelessly. He felt clunky and absurd equipped with two weapons. He concealed them next to each other as two blatant bulges in the forefront of his waistband. If anyone gave him a good and proper lookover they would doubtlessly discern the shapes.
Luckily for Danny, people often fail to see what they are not searching for.
Danny entered the outlet store.
Inside, he observed a fancifully organized labyrinth of greed. Gold and white were the primary colors. They were strewn about out the interior in painted ribbons riding the walls. They embellished the tables amid the rows of folded garments and they were showcased in style on the manikins.
All throughout these temptation grounds, consumers scurried to and fro, clicking hangers and peeking at articles in timid birdlike gestures. Now and again they would pick something out, raise it to their eyes and debate amongst themselves if the object in question was one they desired badly enough to purchase.
It was a relatively busy environment, which was odd considering how the parking lot had seemed so desolate. At the center of the hexagonal layout were two crisscrossed legs of escalators. On the tiled floor at the base of them, a woman was devotedly playing the piano. She rolled her shoulders over the keys and drug out a somber tune with a dramatic level of duress. In fact, to Danny, the pianist’s obnoxious body expressions were much more interesting than the sounds she produced.
Danny stood in the entryway for a while observing that pianist, charmed by her fervency. She was quite the spectacle, in her own unorthodox way. And he thought it strange that none of the other patrons seemed to be effected by her at all.
Then as if plummeting out of a daydream, he recalled his mission and searched around for the target with the dislikable face. When he didn’t see him, he scanned the walls for the bathrooms.
A family of five passed by. Every single one of them was hideously overweight. They took up so much aisle space that the supposed mother brushed into Danny, standing on one side. Her enormous paper bag slid across the pistol bulge in his waistband.
“Whoop, sorry!” she hollered out, before immediately discrediting the apology, complaining to the rest of her family about what in the hell that man was doing standing there like a bump on a log.
Danny listened to her until the doors shut behind them, and consequently decided it was probably best to refrain from calling attention to himself. He set off through the store, cautious and capricious, taking impulsive care to refrain from straying off the road of white tiles to the thin green carpet of distraction.
On either side of him, white and gold gilded mannequins perched in fashionable frozen poses. To Danny, they appeared all too similar.
He straightened his gaze and raised his eyes up and ahead of him, still on the lookout for the bathroom signs, but after traversing halfway around the store and seeing nothing of the sort, he paused.
None of this had been foreseen. None of it was supposed to happen. And now every single one of those mannequins looming up on either side of him seemed to be staring down. It was as if a secret reproach carved into their slitted lips and apathetic eyes was glaring down upon him. It seemed this dispersed infantry of inanimate white judges disapproved of him just as much as the black sentient ones had back inside the Tahoe. Danny hardly had to ask himself to know that if they had to pick a hitman, he wouldn’t have been their first choice. Or their second.
And yet, here he was.
An employee approached him. She was a pretty little thing, rolling a stunted-looking shopping cart of either returned or discarded goods. Her blond hair was pulled back into a short tight ponytail that flicked around like a tassel behind her freckled moon face. Her chipmunk cheeks lifted to a smile, while her eyes observed Danny with slight suspicion, but not enough to notice a bulge. She asked him if he was finding everything ok.
Danny looked at her and wondered what she was thinking about him. He said no. He said he needed to find the bathroom.
It was closer than he’d thought. A little corner cove backed up in the section of men’s formal apparel. In fact, it was remarkable he hadn’t found it on his own. For a moment, Danny was taken aback by this failure, but there was no time to stand around. He had a mission to accomplish. Or a mission to abort. Either way, there was only one way to find out.
The bathroom was quaint. It smelled nice, like flowers mixed with mint. The floor tiles were neatly aligned. The wallpaper was gold with a darker gold spaghetti design ribboned loosely throughout. The sinks were stainless steel and sent back obtuse reflections. There wasn’t a smudge or a stain in there, unless you looked really close.
There were two urinals and one stall, and Danny saw feet beneath the stall. They were the heavy honeycomb-colored construction worker’s boots, steel-toed probably. They shifted. The roll of toilet paper rattled. Danny couldn’t tell if those boots were familiar or not. He closed his eyes and tried to visualize the target again, and saw nothing but his defining features, that deplorable face and that jacket.
Danny opened his eyes and thought about saying something, then stopped himself realizing how ridiculous it would be.
The toilet flushed. It was a deafening industrial sound, loud as a bomb.
Danny stood in the middle of the bathroom and couldn’t shake the crazy thought that it wasn’t the target but someone else.
Then the door unlatched and the slant figure emerged, and Danny wished dreadfully that his paranoia had been correct.
The target looked at him with a repelling kind of suspicion. Danny turtled up inside his mind, and peered out softly through the tunnel. He thought about the two bulges in his waistband and wished he didn’t have them. He didn’t know what to say.
This was the part where he was supposed to commit murder. In a one-dimensional analogy, this was the point where two life-lines, each moving in one linear direction, collided, and one line stopped while the other continued on. It was as simple as that.
Danny wasn’t much.
But he was quick in small doses.
Danny drew the gun. He was supposed to use the knife, but he knew good and well that such savagery was well beyond his capabilities. The target looked down at the muzzle and blinked. His eyes were brown. They blinked again and Danny watched them thinking mathematically about the number of times they’d blinked in the past and how few they would in the future.
Then suddenly his thoughts broadened exponentially, and he thought about the man’s entire lifespan as nothing but a blink in the entire scope of existence. In the grand scheme of things, this event was just as insignificant as squashing a bug on the sidewalk. One life ends. Everything else continues. Wildly. Blindly. So on, and so forth.
Danny raised the gun, aiming at the target’s chest cavity.
The target raised his hands.
Danny decided he’d figured it out. He’d uncovered a loophole. Even if there was a God, and even if it was a sin to kill, all sins can be forgiven.
And the man had such a despicable face. So repulsively deserving.
That was Danny’s final thought before the great and terrible commencement.
Gunshots rang out.
There were many, sporadic yet consecutive. Each one was a heavy, powerful sound that hauled itself into his ears bearing the weight of an ultimatum.
What came around that day came without prophecy and with minimal ambiguity. No one saw it coming, but everyone recognized it when it came.
What came around that day came barging in with the same blank absurdity as the term without context. And in accordance with almost every case, the thing that came around lent itself to no traditional reaction.
Similar to the day on the playground, his survival reflexes kicked in.
The target ducked as well, and for a moment the two of them crouched together listening and trying to process the hastening development of events.
The firing ceased momentarily. Women sounded the alarm. Their vocals broke out, overlapping and piercing shrilly through the air until it resumed and bullets tore many of them apart. To this, the remaining voices responded with a sharp increase in pitch and volume.
Danny’s heart flexed like an oversized muscle tearing through the skin, too massive to be contained. He felt an ooze of vomit creeping up in his chest and pins sinking into his hands and feet. He still clutched the magnum, but his hand was shaking so bad he feared he might lose control of his body completely and succumb to some kind of seizure.
He didn’t though. In a trembling voice, he advised the target behind him that he should probably stay put. Then without waiting for a response, Danny snuck towards the entrance of the bathroom, flinching at every sound. Still crouching, he creaked open the door and snuck out into the inlet.
Now it seemed that the primary color was red. But there wasn’t as much as you would think. Some of the clothing trestles were tipped over, as were promotional signs and a random assortment of décor. There were tiny holes and messes here and there, but because the interior was so expansive, you really had to look for them to see the signs of immediate danger.
Danny’s eyes surveyed the scene and singled out a few of these signs. One of them was a mannequin that had been blown into several chunks. It was lying at the base of its pedestal in a scattered clump of debris. Beside it, Danny saw two people lying on the floor. One was a male employee, and the other was a very fat woman. Once Danny saw the red, he abruptly looked away so as not to discern specifics. Similar to why one refrains from looking at the sun, he didn’t want their features to burn into him. He didn’t want to be haunted.
Meanwhile, the evil symphony of shooting and screaming continued behind the escalators on the other side of the store. Danny risked extending his head up a little and peered into the direction of the pandemonium. At the base of the escalators, he found the pianist splayed out on the floor. For some reason, his eyes couldn’t look away from her like they could the other two. She tractor beamed them in. Even from so far away, they discerned the fingers of one hand that would never dance on the keys again, spread open and clench in erratic intervals as the red swelled around them.
A massive change occurred. Chapters upon chapters of Danny’s inner manifesto were torn out and cast away in a wild flurry, while others were swiftly rewritten and bound in their place. Hate presented itself as an attractive and accessible form of motivation. Danny embraced it, taking an ardent new stance against this faceless maestro of doom, strong as cast iron.
There was no more confusion within Danny. That all sank into the abyss beneath a white gulf of courageous fury.
Danny widened his scope of observation, searching for a vantage point. Instead, he discovered the pretty moon-faced girl, crouching and hyperventilating behind the jewelry counter. She was trembling vigorously, but she appeared to be unharmed.
The sight of her distress evoked the urge to move within him, but he knew it would be safest to only move in the prolonged absence of gunshots, signifying that the shooter was reloading.
Crouching on the balls of his feet, Danny kept his head low and listened keenly.
Moments later the music changed. The sporadic percussion beat came to an abrupt halt and the chorus filled the gaps, re-ascending in pitch and decibel. Danny envisioned a projectionist changing slides to a film.
Danny wasn’t much.
But he was quick in small doses.
He moved in. Still crouching, he made for the woman behind the jewelry counter, his squatted legs pinwheeling with surprising speed and coordination.
But it only lasted until he came into contact with another of the victims he had overlooked. This one was thin and elderly, dying on her back on the road of white tiles like an old horse that had out-lived its usefulness and was subsequently shot and left for dead. Blood fanned out beneath her in the shape of an inflated four-fingered glove. Attempting to pass over, Danny saw it as a hand reaching desperately for a grip in the cliffs of life. But it didn’t latch on to those cliffs. Instead, it took hold on Danny’s foot, causing it to slip out from underneath him.
In the fall, Danny’s reflexes served him by kicking in once again, causing him to sprawl out on the tile and rebound for a quick recovery. At the same time, they failed him. As one hand planted itself down, the other loosened its grip on the gun and accidentally flung it, clattering across the tiles.
Even though it didn’t misfire, the noise was rocky and disruptive. Danny felt the eyes of evil befall him. He didn’t have to see. He could feel it beating into him in waves of black heat.
Danny raced towards the weapon, scrambling on all fours for a few intervals before getting his legs beneath him, straightening his back and breaking out into a sprint.
Once again, he was running for his life. And even though he was the fourth or fifth slowest kid to run the bases, he was going to make it. That was a given, unless the conductor of death resumed his symphony. To that thought’s effect, Danny threw his attention across the shopping floor.
On the other side of the escalators, amidst the brightly colored children’s section, he saw a mess of tipped-over clothing trestles, mannequins, display tables, discount signs and about half a dozen bodies.
Beyond them all stood a stout, slender figure that moved like a machine. His hair was brown and curly. His eyes, pockets of shadow. He was dressed in the desert camouflage apparel of the U.S. Army and pulling back on the hammer of an assault rifle. Then he was raising it towards Danny and taking aim.
The children’s department was different than the others. Here, the elegant white and gold tones were replaced with the spectrum of a disorganized rainbow.
Up above the figure, a raised portion of the wall displayed a series of blown-up children modeling various apparel. Each was frozen in a delighted, unorthodox pose, accompanied by a happy caption scrawled out in a whimsical Crayola format. Together, each child and message was backed by a vibrant solid color.
As Danny looked, his eyes caught on the one positioned directly above the figure. It was a brown girl with frizzy black hair dressed in denim overalls, joyfully leaping into the air with her arms above her head. Her background color was neon green. The yellow caption next to her read:
Dance! Dance! Dance!
The figure opened fire.
It was a poor dive, laughable at best. While both arms outstretched for the magnum, which inevitably fell short, there was nothing to stop the corner of Danny’s chin from smacking on the tile and splitting open.
The impact was jarring. But what’s worse was that its occurrence was accompanied by a hail of incoming fire. Those black heat waves intensified. As sonic booms exploded, Danny’s ears also caught the whizzes and thuds of projectiles striking all around.
Miraculously though, none of them pierced into him. The department store was quite expansive, and distance aside, the figure clearly overestimated Danny’s inept physical abilities. While Danny had fallen a foot short of the magnum, most of the bullets stabbed into an area of ground four or five feet in front of it. Again Danny’s reflexes had helped him, and again they’d failed him—twice now, in a scope of seconds.
Concealed by tables and trestles, Danny army crawled towards the weapon, grimacing from the pain in his chin. The firing continued on as if there was no bottom to the magazine.
His cover wouldn’t last. Even now the figure was circling around, closing in for the kill. At last, Danny gripped the magnum and rolled underneath of a table, banging his head on a leg.
Hyper-disoriented, he raised the gun and waved it around drunkenly, expecting his enemy to emerge from anywhere. He also expected to die right then, but instead another scream broke the rhythm.
Danny crept out from under the table to see the pretty moon-faced woman scrambling away from the jewelry counter, her little ponytail whickering from side-to-side.
Danny sensed the figure redirecting his attention to her. He sensed a great change occurring in the music and in himself, and again he remembered that change is the law of life and death.
Danny wasn’t much.
But he was quick in small doses. Even though his reflexes almost always failed him, this time they proved true.
Hardly aware of what he was doing, and completely oblivious as to how he was doing it, Danny stood up, aimed at the figure who in turn was now pointing his own weapon at the girl, and opened fire.
The magnum kicked with magnificent recoil, but Danny set his throbbing jaw, steeled his arms and shoulders and kept pulling the trigger.
The first of Danny’s bullets struck the figure in the bicep and continued on into his body armor fracturing a rib. As he contorted in reaction to this, a second bullet blew out his knee. As the figure crumpled, the third bullet went low. The fourth and fifth went high, and the sixth bullet hit the figure square in the chest of his body armor, knocking out what was left of his wind.
Danny forgot how to breathe. He also forgot how many bullets are contained within a revolver. He tried to fire three more shots at the crippled figure, before turning the gun sideways in one hand and examining it bewilderedly.
With the instruments no longer in play, the music of death became bland and melancholy, now reduced to nothing more than that chorus of poor unlucky souls. Throughout the shooting grounds of the desecrated store, many mouths sputtered their last words of agony and assistance. Some of them wanted to wake up. Some of them wanted God to undo the situation. None of them wanted to die, and all of them wanted help.
A new scream intervened. This one was quite belated and disassociated from the others. It came without rhythm or grace, but it was different. This voice was vengeful and triumphant.
Danny tracked it to the source and found that it was coming from the pretty moon-faced girl.
“Yes!” she shrieked barbarically. “Oh yes! You got him! Oh my God! Oh my God!”
The sound of her caused a defibrillating effect in Danny’s lungs. He inhaled and sighed deeply. As he did so, he felt the weight of the damned rising off him, and a little urine escaped. He looked back at the girl with renewed curiosity, and watched as she clapped a hand to her breast and crumpled to her knees, sobbing and screaming praises.
Danny looked back at the figure again. As the woman continued to worship, he wondered about validity of her celebration. He had heard the statement all too often on television programs that it wasn’t over until it was over.
Danny dropped the gun, drew the knife and moved toward the figure, ready to hit the floor at any time at the sound of another report.
But it didn’t come. Remarkably enough it didn’t come, and as Danny stepped out of concealment towards the unexpected target, lying in the white-tiled path, writhing like so many of his own victims, another change occurred.
Danny’s mind performed a type of random association. In seeing this crippled young man, he thought about Ronnie Rathborn for the first time in over ten years.
“That Ronnie has a crippled soul,” Danny’s mother used to say, but his mother said too much, and all too often it was true, and all too often her truths were too hard to bear. Danny always thought that was why so many neighbors and alleged family friends and acquaintances never failed to mention amongst themselves and (Danny’s little eavesdropping ears) that she kept that bottle of vodka under the sink, swishing and diminishing, day by day.
With his good arm and leg, the target was pitifully attempting to wade towards his weapon, but his armor anchored him down.
Danny circled around the figure, which he now acknowledged was not a man, but a boy. With one foot, Danny scooted the rifle far away from the space that was within inches of the boy’s fingers. Then he knelt down across from him.
Danny looked for the Devil in the boy’s eyes. He looked in the cornea, and the iris and in the surrounding white space. He looked and he looked, but all he could see was fear and confusion, the very same expressions that had doubtlessly beset the eyes of everyone around this boy, including Danny himself, only moments ago. Danny was initially confused by this observation, but then he thought a little about it and decided that the Devil had most certainly resided in those eyes before and during the act of terror. But now that it was over, now that his instrument was broken the Devil disappeared.
Tears welled in the corners of his eyes and the boy contracted his face with hate, but even as he did so, he failed to appear malicious. Danny squinted and inspected deeper. There certainly was evil in there, but even more abundant was defiance and immaturity in the form of reckless abandon.
This boy had clearly forgotten who he was. He had chosen to forget this, just as he had chosen to forget the inherent value of humanity. This boy had allowed himself to be guided by the tender hand of darkness into a deep, black mire. He had allowed some evil to lead him astray, and in that sense Danny, to his own abhorrence, couldn’t help but identify with him. For in that sense they were undeniably the same.
The boy coughed, and Danny shuddered. The boy shivered, and Danny gulped. The boy was bleeding profusely from the arm and leg that were mostly blown off, and quickly turning pale. The boy opened his mouth as if to say something, but he second guessed himself and looked away and coughed again. Then the boy looked at the large knife in Danny’s hand, and Danny tracked his gaze.
Danny thought about using the knife. He thought about cutting this menace, this pestilence, this despicable little wart right off the face of existence.
Then the boy spoke. He opened his mouth and calmly requested this of Danny.
It was then that Danny knew that he couldn’t.
He resisted in a confliction of mercy and spite, because that was exactly what the boy needed. Someone needed to parent him. Someone needed to tell him no.
It was perhaps the most accurate insinuation Danny ever made in his entire life. He knew it from the softness of the boy’s face, from the way the boy clearly couldn’t help but recognize his mistake. He knew it from the resolve in the boy’s voice, as if he deserved the entitlement to choose his own death. As if he was doing Danny a favor by asking him.
He wasn’t though, and Danny did not oblige.
Danny tightened his grip on the knife and thrust it into his sheath, staring at the boy all the while. The boy looked back at him understandably, and that made Danny look away. His eyes slipped down to the boy’s hands. The boy was wearing gloves with the finger holes in them. Danny looked at the hands and compared them to the hands of that pianist, which had probably finished their final number of clenching and opening.
He let out a sigh of finality and stood up, wiping the blood off his chin with a scowl. He’d had enough for one day.
From outside, policemen shouted over a new chorus of sirens. Their voices were noisy and oppressive. Every one was a firecracker of authority. The girl with the pretty moon face sprung up and fled to them. Danny set the knife and sheath on the ground away from the boy. Then he turned around and followed her, thankful to be putting distance between himself and the boy. For the first time since leaving him, Danny thought about the original target. He wondered where the target was, how he had fared since the end of their encounter. Danny wondered if he was even still in the bathroom, and from there his thoughts segued to a great many subjects both related and unrelated to the situation as he drifted out into the lot of flashing lights.
The Tahoe was long gone. That was just as well. Even if the two men had stayed, he wouldn’t have gotten back in with them.
As he emerged, a squadron of police officers pointed their guns at Danny and shouted at him, then promptly stood down after being screamed at by the moon-faced girl. The afternoon sunlight swelled over Danny’s face. He smiled. He always loved summertime.
Danny wasn’t the first choice. Or the second. And for the first time, that was a good thing, because he managed to save himself and another—what would have been the sixteenth and seventeenth choices of the department store massacre.
Danny wasn’t much.
But in a strange turn of events, he ended up being regarded as a hero.
What came around that day was a conflict of conundrums. An extraordinary clash of two extremities, and the great mystery of it all lies in the question of whether the two were truly authentic representatives of the forces of good and evil. Was the occurrence truly a destiny-driven conflict of positive verses negative, or a cancellation of double negatives?
After all, one of these two was a being of sheer entitlement raised by love and hope and praise and endless adoration, who either naturally or unnaturally rebelled into a prolonged bewitchment of evil influences, initially disguised as harmless curiosity.
The other one was Danny.
Chana Feinstein writes, and has won prizes, across genres. Currently teaching creative writing, she is a former caseworker/advocate for the homeless, prisoners, and those on welfare. Herpoetry has been published in Sojourner and Rise Up Review; fiction in Walrus and Every Day Fiction. She has humor forthcoming in Defenestration.
We were going to the store. Our Mother had said keep quiet and there weren't any more quiet things to do in the house. We weren't to start school yet: we were to stay home as long as there was work to be done. The day before we had already taken the furniture from the moving van, we’d cleaned, and did laundry. Mommy was in bed for the day. As far as we could tell, for good. We'd been surprised to see her rise to as high a level of activity as she had to direct us. So now it was time for us to get out of the house if we knew what was good for us.
There were four of us. Me, my big sister Lora, and the two little ones; Tina and Tim. We huddled together and decided to explore our new street, possibly even as far as the store. We were worried but all we had seen were white kids since we got here and, from past experience, knew they couldn't fight. These had looked particularly soft. Their shoes were tied, hair combed, and everything.
I led the way. No one whispered as I reached for the cold metal knob of the front door and opened it. Directly ahead of us was a shattering rectangle of sunlight. In shock from the clean quiet of that afternoon, I wasn't aware that my mouth had dropped open; a small dark circle in a larger pale one. All I was aware of was brightness. Not horrible brightness or heavenly brightness. Just light --big and empty.
Soon I could tell the different colored patches. There was the stark, green, knife-edged patch of lawn. Our lawn. A dark strip of road, white-washed square houses with peaked roofs. And starting close to the ground, closer to earth than I'd ever seen it -- the sky. Blue. Some blue. Velvet blue? Silly balloon blue? What kind of blue was it? I'd never seen such a blue. And suddenly I knew. It was sky blue. The sky in my old neighborhood had always been some gray as far as I could remember. Sky blue. I felt like dancing.
It was just like the crayon. The one in Belinda's box. She had blue eyes, real blonde corkscrew curls, and the only box of 64 crayons in the whole class at my old school. Everyone else had eight or none. Everyone was nice to her in the hopes that she would share but she practically never did. When she did, she only shared the ugly ones. She'd lent yellow-green or ochre, never silver and gold. But I had never wanted silver or gold anyhow. I had wanted sky-blue.
I pushed open the screen door and the world became shinier than I thought possible. Like the laundry in a detergent commercial when the announcer stripped off that hidden layer of dirt. We stepped out on the porch to observe the sunlight.
Every thing stayed the same. The sky glowed in a big puff, the houses across the way flashed their clean sides at us, the grass separated from a strip of velour cloth into individual blades.
I stooped to rub my hand along the grass. It wasn't as soft as it looked. It was as cold as a lizard's belly, and as stiff and sharp as paper. I wondered if you could get a grass cut like you got a paper cut. The younger ones wanted to sit on the grass but I could tell by their faces and the way they stood around that they were afraid they might hurt it. I showed them the grass, our grass, would spring back, and finally they sat while we decided what to do next.
We looked up and down the street. There was a bird somewhere, maybe even several birds. Nearby, the wind tossed leaves in the trees by the small handful. We listened deeply into the silence.
Finally, lined up single file, we marched like the end of some parade; like the tail of a parade with no instruments, where there are no banners left. Up the street to the end, where it stopped.
A house stood where more street should have been. This we learned later, was a cul-de-sac. With no place left to go on that side, we marched to the other. We blinked both directions down the cross street.
Our Mother had told us the day before that there was a store right around the corner and we should go play there. This seemed like a funny idea. We had never played in a store before but there was nothing any better to do, so we went. The scary part was crossing all those streets. They were so empty. Dodging traffic wasn't easy but it couldn't be as bad as dodging no traffic.
What if a car suddenly came out of all that nowhere? There must be some reason we saw no cars on the road. What if it was because they were so fast in this strange town that you couldn't see them coming. At home, at least, we had always seen what was coming.
We agreed to cross in order of size; biggest first. If a car came, Lora would pull the rest of us like a game of crack-the-whip and we'd be flung out of the street, out of danger.
It was tried, and proven to work. But silently I feared for the future because no cars came speeding out of nowhere to really test it. I put this aside. All of our concentration would be required to continue our journey.
We came to a sort of clearing. In front, a lot full of dirt and a few dirt-colored weeds. An old gas station with one pump stood to the side. It was closed, locked and seemed to be looking inward as if watching its own dull red paint peel.
A tumbleweed crossed our path. Stores circled the lot like dun-colored wagons. But still no cowboys, or Indians. It was like an old movie on TV just before the bad guys hit town.
When we were hiding behind the couch the day before, we heard Mommy say Grandpa said, we had Indian blood.
Then Daddy said, “your Father, that son-of-a….”
“Hush. Little Pitchers. Besides, he never said anything about Cherokee Princesses, no fancy stories, so…. And my female cousins all claim Black Irish... but I never heard the old men sitting around on the porch down to the main store talk about how those Hughes boys were anything other than a bunch of drunken Indians.” She laughed. “Could have said drunken Irishmen.”
Me and Lora looked at each other. Not India Indians, Lora whispered, Native American. Lora’s older and knew everything.
We would walk quiet as Indians, I told them. So, we moved single file along the sidewalk.
One of the stores, though dun-sided like the rest, had some bright things in the window. We crept closer.
I whispered, "ssh" though no one had made a sound for several minutes. We stood around the blank wall side of the store and tried to act casual. "Try to act casual," I said.
Three pairs of big, dark eyes just stared at me. Tim put his thumb in his mouth.
I peeped around the corner. The window was too far to see into from here. I turned back to the troop. Tina had caught on to Tim's bright idea and they were now both sucking noisily. I told them to be quiet and stop acting like babies. Did they want the kids in our new neighborhood to know they suck their thumbs?
Tina looked at me, frowned and sucked louder. Tim's eyes widened and his full lower lip began to tremble ominously.
"Alright, alright," I said, "go ahead and suck your thumbs then.”
"But you want to be good Indians don't you?"
Tim's lips trembled even more and a slight scowl made his dark brown eyes even darker.
A change of tactics. "Well, good cowboys then. Cowboys do everything quietly so they can catch the bad guys by surprise."
Tim looked at me in wonder, then sniffed, loudly.
"Okay," I said, "there aren't any bad guys but we need to be very quiet anyway. And I don't think you are babies. I think you're all very brave. You came all the way out here didn't you?" They looked around fearfully and I hurried on, "we're all very brave."
Tim smiled from behind his thumb, then covered the smile with his fist.
"Okay, then. Let's go inside."
"Yeah," Lora said and swaggered up to the door. When she pushed it open a bell rang somewhere and we all shrank back. Then we gathered ourselves together and went in.
The room smelled good. Glue, paper, and candy. Big, pink dolls made out of feathers sat on glass shelves under lamps with ladies on them, next to sparkly cards and other tiny, pretty things. The carpet was so soft it felt like underneath there must be a sponge.
Other than us, the store was empty. It must not really be a store, we decided. Stores are always full of people. Nobody would leave all this stuff with no guards. Maybe this was some rich lady's house and she'd forgotten to lock the door. The sign over the door, 'Carmichael's,' could be the name of some people who lived here.
We had turned to leave when a voice behind us, a lady's voice, said, "May I help you?"
Someone had asked if they could help us: the room seemed suddenly filled with golden light and the smell of perfume.
Was she Mrs. Carmichael? Would she adopt us? If she did she'd probably let us pick soft, shiny toys off the shelves like fleas off a cat. Maybe they have fairies in this new land we'd come to, and they grant you one wish. Maybe she'd give us sandwiches.
I hadn't eaten since I snuck a slice of bologna from the fridge the night before. Mommy was too tired to cook again, and Daddy said to be quiet and not disturb our Mother by banging around in the kitchen. I knew they'd probably let us cook later but I was hungry now. The lady had said "May I help you," and I was still deciding exactly what to say when she broke into my thoughts.
"Well? What do you kids want? Shouldn't you be in school? What are you doing loitering around the shops?"
So it was a store. I decided to answer the easier question first to give me time to think. "Our mom said we don't get to go to school, yet." I thought of explaining more but by this time had had a chance to examine my questioner.
She was old. This was usually a good sign but I'd never seen an old like this one, and thought I'd better give other things more weight. Things like her expression. She was not smiling. And she was examining me as closely as I'd been her.
She had that look people get after they pour salt on a slug. All puckered up. I was never big enough to stop anyone from pouring the salt, and couldn't stand to watch, so I'd go away, or just watch the faces. This lady looked like the sort who secretly likes to pour the salt.
"This is a drug store. Did your mother send you to pick something up or are you just playing hooky?" None of us knew what to say and Tim twisted up his face like he was going to wet his pants when I remembered the magic words.
"No, thank you." I said carefully. "We're just looking."
Tina, Tim and Lora gathered around me, their eyes shining with admiration.
"Hmph," she walked away, stymied. "I'll have my eye on you. You better keep your hands in your pockets. I've seen kids like you before."
"Maybe we should just leave," Lora said. Her face wore her permanent, puzzled frown. She dropped her glance to the floor and I knew she felt the eyes at her back.
"No. I'm going to look around. You guys can stay with me if you want."
"What if she asks you what you want again? Or calls the police?"
"Maybe I'm gonna buy something." I lifted my chin and rubbed the hand-full of warm change in my pocket for reassurance.
"You have money?" Lora's mouth dropped open. "You never have money."
I nodded. "I found it when we moved the couch."
I could tell from her expression that she thought that I should give it back to Mommy and Daddy. That it was their money. But I figured that they would forget to give us our allowance again, and this dollar would cover it -- so I would keep it unless they asked for it specifically, and they wouldn't unless Lora told, and she wouldn't.
I looked around.
On the shelf before me, a pink, feathered doll with long gold curls was $44.95. I tried to figure how many allowances that was, how many allowances I would probably get.
From the back came the sound of that lady tapping the eraser end of a pencil against the glass counter.
I took a last sniff of the pink-smelling air. There wasn't anything here I really wanted anyway.
We slipped outside, one-by-one, single-file. We walked along kicking and watching.
Tim was still sucking his thumb. His other hand was in a fist. Something poked out of that fist.
"Hey Tim, what did you find?"
Tim opened his hand. On the small, sticky palm lay a yellow and red wrapper. It read Sugar Daddy.
"Tim. Are you going to eat candy you found on the street?!"
Tim shook his head without removing the thumb from it. We all stopped walking and circled him.
"Tim! You didn't find it. You took it, didn't you? You stole it."
He nodded. The pink fingers curled around the candy so tightly, it turned his knuckles white.
The rest of us all looked at each other.
Lora's face went red and her cheeks full like she'd puffed them full of air.
Tina's face was pale, and the corners of her mouth turned down even more and away from the thumb she still sucked.
The two of them stared at me.
Tim looked at no one but occasionally the corners of his downward turned eyes twitched, as if they were drawn against their own will to his fist and the gaily colored wrapper.
I felt the money I’d found inside the couch cushions deep in my pocket, and sighed. Sugar Daddys cost a dollar fifty.
"Do you have any cash?"
Tina answered for him. "We spent ours on popsicles yesterday. We were hungry."
I sucked in one lip. "You'll have to take it back." My mouth tasted sour.
The wind came down from the trees to pluck at our pockets and toss our hair like leaves. It was so quiet
I could hear everyone's breath. Nobody was going anywhere.
They all waited.
Mommy would say give it back, you bad girl. She'd say, "I knew it. I knew you were bad from the moment you were born. Ugly and yellin’." I twisted the change around in my palm. That lady in the store didn't need candy, anyway -- ten Sugar Daddys wouldn't make her sweet. Besides, she did ask what we wanted and never gave me a chance to tell. I could make Tim give it back, or we could go -- no one would ever know.
They'd know. They’d all know. They're all still waiting. I'd probably be making T.V. dinners for us kids again, tonight. They're probably better for you than candy. And stealing is bad. I didn't want us to be bad guys.
Looking toward the door, I could see the slug-lady's nose up against the glass. Tina hiccupped.
Then the bell on the door tinkled. The lady wasn't waiting for us to come back. She was mad and headed straight for Tim.
Without words, I grabbed his other hand, right as she grabbed the fist with the candy in it. Tina took her thumb out of her mouth and put her hand in mine.
Lora caught on fast. She grabbed Tina and started pulling.
We all pulled hard toward Lora and the road.
The slug lady yanked back so hard Tim crashed into her. Lora flew off the other side, bouncing off the big window and we all broke away. When Lora slammed to the ground you could hear whatever was in her back pocket crack.
No cowboys hollering to the rescue just left us.
As the lady began marching Tim away back to the store in a two-fisted grip on the candy arm that kept him dancing up barely on toe tips, we all caught back on. Four kids against one slug-lady, in heels -- and no surprises this time -- we made it back to the curb.
Backwards to the street, the lady whipped left, and we all jerked right.
Then Lora cracked-the-whip.
The lady went flying off one end, we flew the other.
All the way across the street, where we stopped. The first car of the day rolled slowly between us, blocking the slug-lady's view long enough.
We Indians whooped all the way home.
John Betton is a retired psychologist, living in St. Albert, Alberta. He continues to explore through fiction his lifelong fascination with the way people think, feel and interact. Two of his stories were published in February 2019: A New Old Love in Spadina Literary Review and Filmmaker in Moon Magazine
A New Jerusalem
Point Douglas once held a place in Winnipeg’s history; the original site of the Selkirk Settlers, named for Lord Douglas their sponsor and benefactor, home for a period early in his career to Tommy Douglas, the Lord’s name-sake and one of Canada’s great politicians. But, for a long time it’s been something else, one of those parts of the city not forgotten so much as having slipped from the collective mind. You hear or read about the district – urban renewal in one councillor’s campaign, a place that needs more policing in another’s, newspapers reporting terrible crime rates, a TV journalist telling the story of a new immigrant family finding its way. Most Winnipeggers, attention caught for the moment by a photo or headline, in all likelihood pass quickly on, unsure where in the city it is.
The aspirations of the early settlers to make Point Douglas the residential pinnacle were dampened and then destroyed by the decision to lay the railroad through the very centre. This split the community into industrial south and residential north. The north, hemmed in by tracks, Main Street and the curve of the river, is a small area by Winnipeg standards. It’s collection of streets, with most houses built in the early decades of the Twentieth Century, look neglected to say the least. Winnipeg is known for its boulevards and trees. Point Douglas is an exception, as if the city planners of the time knew it wouldn’t amount to much and invested little. And, lying east of Main Street, it seems not to be thought of as part of Winnipeg’s famous North End. Its current identity? The district is changing, home to an increasing number of Natives, a destination for some of those leaving the reserves.
Rita watched out the window as the bus started up, Jimmy at her side, still sniffling. She looked down at her mother standing alone. Their eyes met but there was nothing more to say. Jimmy crawled over her lap, waved to his grandma.
The bus pulled away. Jimmy returned to his seat, Rita kept her gaze out the window. They passed the school she attended as a child, the school she was getting Jimmy away from. It seemed even more desolate: paint peeling off the concrete-block walls, blinds hanging askew, the playground with weeds and long grass around the edges.
Their Reserve, in the midst of cottage country, is bisected by a highway that leads to a nearby town and to many cottages beyond. In the summers, especially as a child, Rita watched the endless parade of cars passing through, city folk on their way to this lake or that. She often wondered what those city folk lives were like and what they thought of the Reserve.
Houses slid by, scattered, standing alone; doors hung loose, dogs wandered, old appliances and kids’ toys littered yards. The bus slowed, pulled into the oncoming lane, passed children playing on the shoulders of the highway, a little boy peddling his tricycle, a smaller girl standing on the back holding on, brother and sister, children of a friend. Jimmy played like that at their age. Rita shuddered, turned to her son, stroked his head. His eyes came up to hers, still full of accusation. “I don’t want to go,” he had said, angry, hurt, loud enough for anyone at the gas station to hear. He had turned to his grandmother as though seeking her support. Grandma met his eyes and then those of her daughter. Rita saw only resignation. Grandma hugged them both, said nothing, stepped aside as they boarded the bus, didn’t try to comfort Jimmy.
‘I have no choice. There’s no life for him here.’ Those words had become a kind of mantra for her over the preceding days. Now there was no point.
The bus picked up speed, houses became fewer. Near the edge of the Reserve it passed two teenage girls hitchhiking. Rita recognized them. Already at her emotional edge, her stomach heaved, the taste of bile rose into her mouth.
Many of my clients live in Point Douglas, our terrain isn’t it, we social workers. We’re paid decent money – laughably not what lawyers or accountants get – to work with this part of the population. In another era an American politician coined the term ‘war on poverty’. What nonsense! If indeed there ever was such a war it’s one lost every day. Poverty remains, pockets to be found throughout this rich country, and shows no signs of going away. I sometimes wonder if my profession is in some way contributing to this sad state. Looking at what we do, it may seem we earn our living off the misery of others. Some might suggest we have an investment in not eradicating it.
Those thoughts come to me from time to time, not so much from the reality of poverty but the weariness of some of my older colleagues. Black humour is a part of all helping professions. One of the psychologists I work with points out that if you break up the word therapist it becomes ‘the rapist’. Bad, so bad. However, it reflects his effort to maintain good practice. Our clients are vulnerable people and, if you slip, let your weariness take over or become lazy, you can do damage. From time to time, I hear such things from my peers. One that sticks in my mind is ‘the natives are getting restless’, an old colonial phrase, demeaning in intent, the kind of implied racism you still hear in coffee shops or on the street. You shouldn’t hear it from an experienced social worker.
In this case the speaker was saying something more. The reserves Natives live on are a condemning example of our colonial past. Little has changed: reserves remain nothing more than rural ghettos or, some commentators claim, open prisons. Many Natives choose to leave or are driven away by, among other things, the material despair they live in. They are coming to the cities and, in Winnipeg, a good number have settled in Point Douglas. When you concentrate an ethnic group in a small area, new conditions develop. Energy emerges, people get restless, change occurs – not always for the better.
* * *
“He can’t read,” Rita said to me at our first meeting, her voice quiet, almost soft, like that of other Native women I worked with. For a young woman those words were heavy. “He’s eight. He’s supposed to be in grade three. The school on the reserve isn’t very good.”
She had brought herself and her son Jimmy to the city, to North Point Douglas, where they were assigned to my case load. She was afraid for him, not just that his life would be hard if they remained on the reserve, but that he would get lost like so many.
At our first meeting she said little about the reserve or the life there. She was clear, however, in her reasons for leaving. When she told me Jimmy had been in school for two years and still couldn’t read, I must have looked at her in some doubtful way and so she restated herself.
“He can’t read and not because he isn’t smart.” I remember she paused for a moment as if to make sure I understood her. Then she added, “There’s no hope. I had to get him away.”
At our second meeting, less shy, she had another point to make; the move was for her as well. She left school after grade eight, could read “okay” but couldn’t do much with it. She held up a week old newspaper and read me the headline about more troubles in the Middle East and some sort of occupation or stand-off in Jerusalem. “I know what it’s saying. I don’t know where it is or who the people are. I should know and I don’t.” Then she added, eyes on the floor, “This happens all the time. It bothers me and I feel ashamed.” Her eyes came up and met mine. “I have too much shame in my life – when I look for a job, when I show welfare vouchers, when I talk to the principle at Jimmy’s school.”
Her look and her tone said something else. ‘This is the way it is. I’m here and I need help. You’re a social worker so you’ll know what to do.’
I remember thinking two things. I liked how she said what she had to say and thought I could help. The other was ‘how sad.’ Outside of her family or those on the reserve, it’s people like me who are in her life, not tradesmen or bankers, not engineers or store managers. Sometimes I feel we are the underbelly of the professions.
Still, I was a part of the larger picture of her life. As a white person and a social worker I brought a lot of stuff to the situation. For instance, I often had mixed feelings when I entered their neighbourhood. The poverty throughout, that of the Native people most apparent by the many dilapidated houses, was oppressive and disturbing. Did I feel out of place? I did, and not just because of my work and the mix of suspicion and hopefulness it aroused. This came from the obvious privilege I carried: white, professional, a university educated way of talking, clothes, car, and the reality that I lived somewhere else.
The challenge to any social worker in such situations is always the same: could I be trusted? I think I was well suited. After all, I wouldn’t be in the profession if I didn’t possess some natural compassion. Of course, trust is a whole lot more. Could I actually do anything for them besides monitor their welfare cheques or keep an eye on how they lived? Trust is earned, so often in practical ways. Could I make a difference, however small?
I think I met some of those demands but it was rarely easy. At times, when I started in the area, before Rita and Jimmy arrived, I felt unsafe going into the district. Drug and alcohol abuse were widespread and it had one of the highest crime rates in the city. We are trained to be aware and cautioned to be careful. The feeling was something more though. It came from the reality of poverty itself. Too much despair turns into hate. Be trustworthy, be nimble, be watchful. Good social workers learn those skills. If they do they’re rewarded with some degree of trust and respect and, in cases like Jimmy and Rita’s, some sense you have made a difference.
He was a bright kid, which always helps. Bright or not my job was to find the resources he needed. I worked with his school, with his teacher, got the assessments done, lined up a reading specialist and found him a tutor. None of it happened overnight. He didn’t trust teachers, didn’t trust whites, had a chip on his shoulder. You could see the wariness in his eyes, the way he stared, not just at me but the other professionals entering his life, who were, in a sense, about to take it over.
I think Rita hoped that just by moving to the city the turnaround for him would be quick. That didn’t happen. This led to moments of frustration, more so when his attitude seemed to be resistant to any change or any help.
Jimmy looked at her, sullen.
Despite several weeks of extra help Jimmy still couldn’t read. Rita feared – old worries eating at her – something might be wrong with him.
She sat with him most nights, reviewed the lessons sent home, tried to be the best parent she could.
“You can do it. I know you can,” she offered many times.
Nothing helped; the set on his face wasn’t going away. Angry at being pulled away from his friends, missing his grandma, thrown into a new school and new surroundings; Rita knew it was all that and more.
“Why is it taking so long?” Rita asked me on one visit, her question full of a mother’s concerns.
“It takes time,” I said. “I’ve talked to the school. He’ll catch on. Don’t worry.” The tilt to her head expressed doubt. No surprise; members of my world would have given her reassurances in the past. I was certain my words weren’t empty. Time and hard work by a lot of people are part of any such undertaking.
The payoff came after a few months. First you could see he was settling in, getting comfortable with his school, his classmates, his teacher and various helpers. His guard came down a little. What I called the chip on his shoulder, a fierceness in his eyes, became not so obvious. I was sure the reason he couldn’t read had more to do with distrust and rebellion than with ability. Once, after I got to know them, I travelled through their reserve and took a look in on the school. What else could you feel except dismay – beat up, equipment sparse, books in tatters and out of date? How is this possible? Less than two hours from the city and yet it was like some third world country. As a child, I would have been upset, so unfair.
They came to the city in the early fall. Because of his inability to read the school placed him in grade one which obviously ticked him off. In January he moved into grade two. Not only was he reading, he brought books home and began to enjoy stories. Rita smiled and, in her typical understated way, said “I think it’s going okay.” His teacher said he showed a knack for numbers. Once he got past the hurdle reading presented, she reported some time later, you could see he had a mind for arithmetic. My satisfaction came from seeing how pleased this made Rita. It was, as is said, just a start.
Statistics tell us Point Douglas is one of the poorest districts in the city and, at the bottom of those numbers is the Native population. The conditions met the standard for what academics refer to as a culture of poverty, children never getting out of the patterns their parents lived.
Anyone growing up in a white, middle class family is unlikely to grasp the full extent of what this means, social workers no exception. Middle class culture is one of choice and opportunity; safety is taken for granted. The culture of poverty is that of survival, living day to day, meeting the most basic of needs and, in many ways, not knowing what feeling safe means.
However, things were beginning to happen and not only with social workers. Teachers in the school Jimmy attended were open to change and the principle open to implementing those changes. Rita and other Native mothers, encouraged to become involved, formed their own PTA. At first it seemed not much, perhaps a few women getting together for coffee. However, the mothers, with the principle’s support, resurrected a program of Native culture that had petered out some years earlier. Together they got it started again.
Two benefits came out of that. Jimmy, who had stopped speaking his native Ojibwa, regained it. The other was that it energized the mothers. They found a purpose, talking less about specific family problems and more about the challenge of finding money and resources for their project.
They took on more, challenging the general curriculum. Grade five Social Studies, where Jimmy was by that time, introduced the children to various world cultures, but very little about North America’s Indigenous peoples. One can only imagine how the community at large would react if no Canadian history were being taught.
Rita herself began upgrading during this period. She wanted to become a nursing aide and needed to finish at least grade ten. Other changes occurred. I left the district, moving on to different responsibilities. When I made my last visit Rita and I talked about the changes, especially how Jimmy had come along. She thanked me. We hesitated a moment and then I offered a hug. She accepted.
I re-entered their lives some years later. All of us working in social services were feeling the pressure of the influx of Natives into the city. Politicians continued to – what are the words I want – struggle with, dawdle over, prevaricate on, dither. I suppose it doesn’t matter which word you choose. The problems of the Indian Act and the disaster of Indian Reserves were, if anything, getting worse. The Native population had become the fastest growing in Canada. Reserves were increasingly unable to support the numbers, and so for those and other reasons, many left, heading to the cities.
I was a supervisor of a regional office in another part of the city, one with its own unique clientele. The swelling number of Natives affected us all. Rumblings, talk, gossip, news stories – all sorts of stuff started to surface, some about Point Douglas, which had become an increasing focal point.
It wasn’t just the influx. The population of the district had become more aboriginal than white or immigrant. Native cultural and spiritual centres had been built, dance and music groups were formed, an almost all Native boy peewee hockey team won the city championship the year before; more of the teachers and a few of the social workers were Native, a Native woman from the district almost got elected to city council.
This had been laid out in a meeting, one convened to apprise us of the changes. “Isn’t that great,” I remember commenting.
“Maybe not,” another speaker replied. He then uttered that terrible colonial phrase, “The natives are getting restless.” I wasn’t sure if this was a misplaced attempt at humour or meant something more serious. It turned out to be a little of both but more of the latter.
My position gave me some latitude in how I spent my time. Although I had had no contact with Rita and Jimmy since I left I sometimes thought about them. The work we do requires a certain distance with clients, important not to become too idealistic or too connected. Still, something about Jimmy and Rita stuck with me. Was I touched – one of those unexplained bonds between beings – or had I allowed myself to become hopeful? If hopeful, then about what?
The answer to that question is probably more complex than I want to think about. They were ‘on track’ when I last visited them but on track for what? They had established themselves in the world of education and they had made the transition from reserve to city life. So many Natives I’ve worked with don’t or can’t manage that transition.
I wondered how they were doing and if indeed they still lived in the same neighbourhood. Rita remembered me and accepted my request to visit. They lived in a different house but on the same street. Rita was now a health care worker in a seniors’ residence. She told me she earned enough money to afford a mortgage and was buying the house, “like a real white person,” she said, laughing. I was taken by the way in which she had changed. That long ago, shy, just-off-the-reserve woman now talked easily, chattered and had opinions.
She told me about the changes around her. More and more Natives becoming home owners, the streets getting cleaned up and looking like some of the white neighbourhoods, crime down, kids staying in school. I asked about Jimmy and was surprised when she told me he was sixteen and in grade eleven.
“Not possible,” I said. “What happened to the little boy I first met?”
She shook her head. “The time has gone by fast.”
“How is he doing?”
“Like his mother.”
She smiled. “You won’t believe it. School is easy for him. He gets good grades without really trying.”
“The two of you have done well.”
“Yes, better than I ever hoped. And don’t be offended but it’s good not to be on welfare.”
“No offence. In fact I take it as a compliment. It means we were doing our job. Not that we get the credit. That goes to you, your determination and all your hard work. We just helped a little.”
“You helped a lot, especially in the beginning. If Jimmy hadn’t got on in school I don’t know where we would be. You made sure it happened.” She looked at me, met my eyes. Then she did something she had never done, reached out and took my hand. “Hear me,” she said. “You made a difference. Jimmy wouldn’t be where he is today if you hadn’t done what you did.”
I might have said, ‘Just doing my job’, easy words and wrong. I let myself absorb her words, squeezed her hand and said, “Thank you.”
She went on. “There’s more.”
“He got elected to student council.”
“There are lots of Native kids in his school but it was more than them. Lots of white ones voted for him too.”
“You must be proud.”
“I am,” she said and then paused. “But I’m worried, too.”
Again I waited.
“We talk about politics now. That’s good.” She stopped and smiled at me, then said, “I know where the Middle East is and who the Palestinians are.” We both laughed. She went on. “There’s still discrimination. He sees it around the school and even from one or two teachers. They never do anything bad, he told me, but you can tell by the way they treat the Aboriginals.”
“I guess not. What worries me is how angry he gets when he talks about it. And it’s not only school that upsets him. He talks about poverty and how so many Natives live that way. You can see he’s really bothered by it.”
“Those are things we should all be angry about.”
“I know. But a lot of Native men are like that, angry all the time. Maybe that’s why so many of them turn to drink or to crime. They’re angry and can’t do anything about it.”
“True of a lot of men.”
She looked at me as though I had said something stupid. Trite and unthinking I realized, made myself get back to being professional.
“So, not just with his anger. You’re worried what he might do with it.”
“Yes,” she said, giving off a deep sigh.
“What do you fear?”
“That’s the problem. I don’t really know. He’s strong and he’s played lots of sports so I know he can take care of himself. I don’t think he’d hurt anyone, at least not on purpose.”
“You’ve been doing a lot of thinking.”
“But no answers.”
She laughed. “I’m not even sure I know the questions.”
Jimmy told her in one their talks he wanted to do something about the problems. At first he planned to go to university and become a math teacher. Recently, when they talked, he thought maybe he’d become a lawyer or a politician. She liked the sounds of that. Still, there was almost always his anger.
Jimmy had little memory of me at first. I could see in his face I was just another white. Later, on another visit, he did talk about those early years. Whether Rita prompted him or he remembered on his own, I don’t know. Whatever the case, he made a point of thanking me for the help he got. He said he wouldn’t be in school now if I hadn’t been there at the time.
Gratifying to hear but not the reason I was there. Initially I had let my curiosity make the contact. As Rita and I talked I felt my interest change to fascination with what she had done with her life; I wanted to hear more. At the same time, the restlessness we were all feeling went deeper than one client’s life. I told Rita about the pressures and how I hoped by talking to her and Jimmy I might better understand the changes occurring.
“I think that’s good,” she said. “I’m not sure how much we can help but I know Jimmy has things he wants to say.” We agreed to a couple more visits.
Her involvement in the Native community went beyond anything she ever imagined. Some I knew, such as how it started with the PTA, an important lesson, showing her and others they weren’t helpless. Their first success had been bringing an elder into the school to introduce or re-introduce the children to Native cultural practices. Language instruction followed, with Jimmy recovering his Ojibwa.
It got better. About the time I left they started fund raising for a Native Cultural centre. She headed a committee that solicited and obtained community as well as government support. Jimmy often attended the public meetings with her, where he got some of his ideas and ambition she thought. She described the centre, open for almost two years, as an active place, a real accomplishment, one she felt proud of. It all sounded good. She agreed, but only to a point.
“So, not all is rosy?”
“No. These changes we’re talking about, most are good, but there are some things I don’t like the feel of.”
“I’m not sure. Maybe like what you and your workers are feeling. Jimmy broke up a fight not long ago between one of his Indian friends and a white kid. Jimmy’s a strong boy and he could do it. But some of the white kid’s friends threatened him.”
“Isn’t that normal teenage boy stuff?”
“I don’t think so.”
“The white kids’ threats included taunts about being Indian. You know the kinds of things – dirty Indians, go back to the reserve, get out of our school – all the dumb stuff we keep thinking we’re passed. Jimmy doesn’t get upset that easily. This time was different. He was mad.”
We went on to talk about other things. She liked her job at the seniors’ residence. One old guy often teased her about her nice red skin, but never in a mean way. It was his way of flirting, she said. Even at that age they still have those things on their minds. She talked about the other staff members, many of whom were Filipino. She got along with them and they too teased about skin colour, what they had in common.
This was a success story, one that made me wonder if I could find a way to tell it, a case study, an article in our professional newsletter. So much of our work is behind the scenes or, when it’s noticed, often for unpleasant reasons. A lot of that has come out in recent months related to apprehensions of Native children and the poor way they fare in foster homes. I decided to leave it alone. I couldn’t see how I would do Rita and Jimmy any good by bringing them into any sort of public attention.
* * *
Ross House, one of the original settler’s homes in Point Douglas, had been its first post office. Over the middle part of the twentieth century the building fell into disrepair. A group of people – whites of course – stepped in, arranged to move it from near the river to a park in the centre of North Point Douglas and turned it into a museum, one that told the story of white settlement. Small and out of the way, the museum became something of a popular showpiece for Winnipeg and its history.
An unexpected spotlight was shone on it when a group of Natives living in Point Douglas, represented by their almost City Councillor and two or three other Natives with careers and professional status, proposed taking it over. The white history could be moved to other local museums. The Native story should be told and Ross House would be a good place to do that.
Strong opposition from the white community came almost immediately. At the same time, several other Native voices spoke out, supporting the idea. This symbol of white settlement in the middle of a Native community, cause for celebration for the white’s, represented loss for the Natives. In the museum itself white settlers are at the centre of the displays, Natives on the margins. That’s changing, the voices said. Taking over Ross House would move the change along.
“Jimmy, what have you done?”
“Nothing, Mom. Not even a real fight.”
“But a week’s suspension.”
The panic Rita felt took her back to the days when she was trying to leave the reserve. Jimmy registered her look, backed away, saying, “No big deal, Mom. A few days away from school won’t hurt me.”
“But what happened?” she asked, recovering enough to need to know.
“I found the guys who set the fire.”
“The Cultural Centre? How did you know?”
“Not hard to figure out. They’re always mouthing off.”
“I challenged one of them. He took a swing at me. I put him against a locker, could’ve pounded him. Now I wish I had.”
“Oh Jimmy.” The feared catastrophes flooded in, images of Jimmy not finishing school, the fate of so many of the men around her – no school, no job, no life.
“Mom, I’m out for a week. I’ll go back and I’ll finish,” he said, as though reading her thoughts.
Rita agreed to stay in touch; through her I could better keep abreast of how things might be unfolding. Her phone call wasn’t one I expected. Could I come around? Jimmy was in trouble.
My mind went to a story in that day’s paper, their cultural centre being vandalized. Nothing serious – graffiti, a small fire, a couple of windows broken – however, the report talked of ongoing conflict between white and Native communities, the reporter speculating about problems between rival gangs.
I went that evening, taking a few minutes before hand to walk in the neighbourhood, found myself struck by the changes. The day had been a pleasant spring one and now, after supper, people were out in their yards, on their steps, walking the streets, a surprising, lively sight. In the beginning, when I first got to know Rita and Jimmy, the houses resembled tumbledown fortresses, tattered blinds on windows, screen doors hanging loose, fences falling over. Those properties remained but a noticeable number had been cleaned up with a cared-for look about them. Several new residences had been built, including a row of upscale town houses. Cars on the street were more up-to-date and the way people out on this pleasant evening were dressed gave off the impression of employment and comfort
When I arrived, I found Rita more upset. Jimmy had left, angry with her for inviting me. Gangs had always been present in the neighbourhood as is the case wherever drugs are a problem. Jimmy, wary, stayed away from kids he knew were members. One of those gangs, however, had been active in other ways, more about being Native and standing up to the whites than criminal things. She feared they might be drawing him in.
She confirmed the essence of the news story and that Jimmy swore he knew those responsible. She described the confrontation with one of the boys, a member of a white gang, and the fight they got into right in the school. Jimmy earned a week’s suspension, not so terrible in itself. The fight, however, made things worse. Most of the gang were tough kids, some dealing drugs and others rumoured to be involved in petty crime. Since the fight they had become more aggressive in taunting the Native students.
Rita was right to be worried. Things worsened with two more vandalism attacks, one on the art work of Native students at the school and another on a Native restaurant on Main Street where a fire was set and windows broken. I heard, via one of our youth workers, the police were concerned about the Native gangs, including talk among them of forming a defense group to patrol their neighbourhood, more talk or at least rumours of them finding ways to arm themselves. One story indicated an expedition may have been made back to a reserve to collect hunting rifles. As always with such rumours they likely held a grain of truth.
Some of this information became public a few days later. Our world relies on free and open access to news; there are times when it does a disservice. In this case, a reporter had talked to what she called ‘both sides’ in the dispute. Her story included the rumours, hinting at ‘posses’ and ‘vigilantes’ and suggestions guns were available. Was it all true? Whether true or not the story had the effect of formalizing the notion of sides, the kind of thing hot-heads thrive on. How terrible when it becomes us versus them. The real enemy in all this is poverty, inevitably lost sight of when emotions get heated.
What happened next isn’t clear. Shots, several fires set, one that burned down a ceremonial wigwam, more vandalism, all within North Point Douglas. Then, a possible retaliatory attack, this a drive-by shooting in which a young, white gang member was hit. With conflicting eyewitness reports no one could say if the shooter was Native. The police increased their patrols, including pairs of officers walking the beat along Main Street and into North Point Douglas as they had in the old days.
Jimmy returned to school in the middle of all this Rita told me, her voice edged with worry. He stayed out later, appeared not to be doing much homework and, worst of all, he wouldn’t talk to her.
With the increased police presence things quietened. However, like one of those summer storms that circle, the disturbance touched down elsewhere. Point Douglas had more Natives than any other ethnic group; still, the population was small, a thousand or so. The Native population in other parts of the city had grown but was scattered, not concentrated like in North Point Douglas. And, the natives were indeed getting restless. Several spokespersons emerged, demanding that the Native population of the area be given more protection. At the same time some of those voices raised an outcry – nothing new of course – about the ongoing impoverished state of most Natives. North Point Douglas, one claimed, had become an urban reserve. The news reporter wrote several stories, one highlighting the formation of vigilante-like groups of Natives from other parts of the city. She followed up with stories about reaction in the white community, rational and deep concern about the plight of Natives in one and latent racism, anger and hints of retaliation in another.
Like those same summer storms, the sky cleared and the sun came out, the turbulence forgotten, the city back to normal living. Jimmy started to talk again to Rita, got himself re-oriented to school and would complete his grade eleven year. The suspension, however, resulted in him being prohibited from continuing on student council. That did not sit well.
It wasn’t just him, Rita told me. Things may be quiet and the police not patrolling as much; still, something was in the air, more storms she thought.
Jimmy and Rita were together, mingling with the small crowd, waiting for the celebration to begin. She hugged his arm, smiled at him, said, “Next year this will be you.”
He turned at her, a mix of ‘don’t do this here Mom,’ and pleasure, maybe more for what he was giving her than what he was gaining for himself.
“We should have had something like this when you finished your training.”
She smiled, hugged his arm again.
This wasn’t the first of its kind, but important in its numbers, eight Native students graduating from Jimmy’s high school. What had been a trickle of one or two per year increased to a small flow. When Jimmy’s cohort reached the same point the next year, if all went well, twelve in total would graduate. This gathering at the cultural centre was to honour the eight with a ceremony, an evening of music and dance to follow.
When the brief ceremony ended two of the boys in the group of eight drove back to their school, returning for unknown or at least unimportant reasons, the school still open, parking lots almost empty. They retrieved what they went for, returned to their car, encountered a group of white youths. Both were beaten, the one less hurt drove the other to hospital. He was unconscious when they got there, suffering head injuries, a broken cheek, broken nose and concussion, fortunately, none of it life threatening.
When word got back to the cultural centre it produced the expected outcry – concern, fear and then anger. An elder rose to quieten the gathering. We don’t know what happened he said or who did these things. We have to keep our heads. Parents gathered near him, drawn in natural support, a move that separated the older from the younger. Words said one thing, the physical distance another.
A young woman, admired because she was at university, with a reputation for being outspoken, was heard to say, “Enough. I’ve had enough.” She pulled away from the gathering and went outside. A number of the students, including Jimmy, followed her.
The wonder of cell phones and social media: within an hour, dozens of Natives from other parts of the city congregated outside the Cultural Centre. At least two car loads left and went searching the streets around the high school, checking the known haunts of the white gangs. An encounter occurred, somewhere west along Selkirk Avenue, spilled over onto the street, blocking traffic as fights broke out, car windows smashed. The first police on scene called for back-up. By the time those reinforcements arrived, complete in riot gear, the melee was over and the combatants gone, leaving only broken glass, a piece of two-by-four fashioned into a club, a scattering of other debris and traces of blood.
The police who were present did what they are required to do: photos were taken, licence plate numbers recorded, combatants actions noted. Those gathered at the Cultural Centre were just learning of the confrontation when an invasion of police and police cars descended on them. Later, the Mayor apologized for the police tactic, clearly ill thought out, reactive rather than responsive. All those waiting in and around the Cultural Centre had been herded inside.
Rita called me later that night, worried. Jimmy wasn’t home and she had no idea where he was. I knew nothing of the happenings; she filled me in as best she could. Her concerns for Jimmy were genuine and deep. I used my access through our youth workers; several on the emergency team had been called in. They helped me locate him, in custody, arrested for possession of a potential weapon, a small pen knife, as it turns out, one he always carried. I picked Rita up at her home and together we went to get him. It was well past midnight by the time he was released. What I saw next, when I drove them home, was disturbing to say the least.
North Point Douglas lies east of Main Street, a small crescent of streets, hemmed in by the river and the railway tracks. As I drove north along Main, the first two entry points were blocked by old cars, groups of Native youths, mostly, but not all male, milling around. Rita and Jimmy saw it as well, a mix of intensity and camaraderie, loud voices, guys jostling one another, girls mingling, directing. Jimmy, who had been slouched sullenly in the back seat, perked up. His breathing changed, he mumbled words that sounded like ‘yeah man.’ Rita, her voice more distinct, said, “Oh no,” sounding to me as if the scene was shocking and yet not unexpected. Then she said, “You better drop us off.”
“I can’t do that,” I replied. “I’ll take you home.”
“No. It might not be safe for you.”
“Not for you either. Not at this time of night and not with what’s going on. I will take you,” I said in my most authoritative voice. I took a quick look at Jimmy in the rear view mirror expecting he might have something to say. He had retreated back into himself, but the sullen look was gone, replaced, I can only think, by one of anticipation. He said nothing, appeared unaware of me.
We found an unblocked street and turned in. At their house I waited in the car until they were inside. It was almost three in the morning. I drove back along the same street, got to Main and encountered another group rolling yet another old car into place to block the intersection. I gauged enough room for my car to get by without any danger of hitting it or them, was almost past when a loud thump on the right door startled me.
“You better get out of here whitey,” a male voice yelled. Then, from my side, one of them pounded his fist on the hood. Frozen for a moment, fearful of accelerating away lest I hit one of them, fearful things would get out of hand. My mind was made up for me when I felt the car starting to rock. I stepped on it and got out on to Main Street where I was surprised to see few cars and no people. In and out of the storm, just like that. Shaken, I heard myself say out loud, “Now what?” more fear in my tone than I would have liked.
By the time the police organized a response, they found every entry point into North Point Douglas blocked with old cars, clearly a supply at the ready. A day or so later one of the lighter comments stated they were just cleaning up the neighbourhood. It wasn’t only cars; all sorts of things – old furniture, fencing and even kids’ toys – were piled around the cars, as if all this junk and debris itself had a statement to make.
Once home I turned on the TV. A news helicopter, already in the air, showed a series of barriers. Behind these the streets were active – pick-up trucks on the move gathering ever more material and delivering it to what were becoming barricades; a group of people in an apparent patrol, carrying weapons, moving from street to street; several blocks of Main Street occupied with police cars and emergency vehicles, lights flashing, uniformed officers moving about. Most frightening of all, many officers appeared to be heavily armed.
“Jimmy, you can’t.”
“Sorry Mom. I have to.”
“Jimmy, I’m afraid. You’ll get hurt,” Rita said, in tears, pleading.
“Mom, we’re all brothers now. I have to go.”
Brothers! So stupid, Rita thought. She put her hands to his face, held it. Something close to a tremor rolled down her body. His eyes were glazed and on fire at the same time. He left. She sank to the floor.
I hadn’t been in the house long when my phone rang, was not surprised to hear Rita’s voice. “Jimmy’s gone,” she said, her voice once more filled with emotion. “He left within minutes. I pleaded but he insisted he had to join his brothers. That’s the word he used. It was too important to hide at home, he said.” She had called friends, heard similar stories unfolding, one from a single mother like herself and, like Rita, also frightened. Rita started to cry.
I could do nothing for her other than sympathize. That helped, she said, she just needed someone to talk to. She went on then to other troubling things, what was showing on TV, in particular their whole district being shut off from the rest of the city. It meant she might be unable to go to work. What about other people with jobs? What about food? Still mid June, the school year not over, kids with exams to write; what would they do? The one clinic serving their medical needs on Main Street looked to be blocked off. She could see the whole mess unfolding.
Once again I was impressed. Almost overcome with fear for her son, having spoken of that, her mind turned to others and to her community. She had invested a great deal of herself but her worries were less about losing that investment than in taking care of people around her. We talked a few minutes longer reaching the point neither had anything more to say. She said she should let me go but would try to keep me posted.
I got a couple of hours of sleep and felt some bad combination of jet-lagged and hung over when I got up. In the three or four hours since I last looked at the TV things had escalated. A couple of white youths somehow got past the police and set fire to one of the barricades. News reports indicated no injuries. However, firefighters were kept at a distance, the fire allowed to burn itself out, leaving the charred skeleton of a war zone car.
Only one such incident occurred. The news, however, became a national story with comparisons made to the standoff at Oka. How bad was it? Rumours had the Mayor imposing the Riot Act which would allow for a variety of increased measures of force, including asking for the Army’s help.
The aerial views of Point Douglas, once the cameras panned away from the blockades, were those of just another neighbourhood. One could imagine kids getting ready for school, adults going to jobs. But it wasn’t waking up as it should on a normal working day in June. Activity pervaded, a sense of busyness with individuals and small groups moving about the streets, around the barricades and along the river, organized, on patrols; a few vehicles going back and forth, making deliveries, dropping people off. Nothing ordinary about any of it; nothing and no one went beyond the boundaries nor did anything or anyone enter.
My whole office was abuzz with talk of the events, shaping up to be significant. I called a staff meeting. Although none of my workers was involved as far as I knew, we remained a frontline service and had to be ready. I shared what little information I could as did a couple of others. In reality we had no more to report than what we were seeing on TV and social media. We got on with our day. The office is never less than busy; poverty, disabilities, and all the other things we tend to never seem to go away.
Word got out that a load of guns and ammunition had found its way into Point Douglas, whether before or after the blockades went up wasn’t clear. If before then some sort of planning had been underway. This would mean there were leaders but what sort? Did anyone have an agenda or was this merely some sort of hotheaded dust up?
At mid morning the Mayor gave a public briefing. Unfortunately, at least from my point of view, she was less conciliatory than she should have been. Talks would take place and real efforts made to identify the issues. She insisted, however, the barricades must be removed, the district opened up and life returned to normal. She added – and this was her mistake in my mind – this was still very much a police matter. Those involved in the assaults, the fire, the fights would be apprehended and dealt with.
A text response, sent to the Mayor’s office and to media outlets, stated, “Normal! What’s normal? More poverty, more attacks, more of being marginalized. No talks. We want concrete action.” The message was sent by The North Point Douglas Defence Committee.
I laughed when I first read this, an ironic laugh, one of recognition. After so many years of work by people like me and other professions little had changed. The Natives and our clients among them had to stand up for themselves. Perhaps violence or at least its threat was the only way to achieve anything. At heart this is something I don’t believe. In the moment, however, it seemed to be, if not true, at least valid.
Past clashes in Winnipeg between the haves and have nots were always just that. The elite Anglos, the moneyed of other ethnic groups, business men – almost entirely men – politicians, called the shots. You need only to look at the famous general strike of 1919. Those in power set out to crush the would-be unionists, the foot soldiers who came back from the war to no jobs, the Jews and the Ukrainians who were held on the margins of economic life. I was surprised then that the current mayor, a woman elected in large part by the lower and middle classes, who appeared to have few unhealthy ties with the power brokers and moneyed elite, chose to take a strong stand against those who had installed the barricades.
She claimed to be on the side of the Native population, would talk and negotiate; however, there was no room for this kind of ‘taking-the-law-into-your-hands.’ It wouldn’t be tolerated and she claimed to have City Council’s backing. As if to make a show of her words, several bulldozers were put into place at the blocked intersections. She announced no action would be taken for the moment. This was a demonstration the city could and would act if the barriers weren’t dismantled.
The reaction within Point Douglas brought little surprise. The numbers of people at each barricade grew, many armed. Furthermore, armed patrols along the river banks and rail yards were increased, intended to ward off any intrusions from the rear. The news media called it a major standoff. Some of those in the public’s eye inclined to spout off intemperate opinions called it the beginning of a civil war.
Utility services into the area, including phone, remained intact and functioning. I called Rita mid afternoon. Jimmy returned home, typical she said, her voice light for a moment, in time for breakfast. A wild look about his eyes made her afraid he had taken drugs. No, he assured her, it was all excitement. He couldn’t wait to get back to front, as he called it.
“‘You’re not a soldier’,” I told him. “‘You’re sixteen, not even old enough to be a warrior’. Do you think I made a mistake say that to a boy like him?”
I couldn’t imagine Rita being mean or putting him down. In my mind I saw a loving and worried mother. What did Jimmy see and feel? He was tired. As far as she could tell he hadn’t slept. She encouraged him to go to bed, which he did and was still sleeping when I phoned.
“He’s safe now,” I observed, “but what will you do when he wakes up?”
Once out I realized my question was stupid. Her hands were tied, of course. He would go out, she knew that much. He had always been out a lot, never the kind of boy to entertain himself with idle or solitary play, sports and hanging out with friends his priorities. Now, almost a man, she had little power to restrain him other than a mother’s plea to be careful.
Ross House was taken over. The house itself, for many Natives a symbol of white presence, reflected the displacement of Natives by white settlers. In the current circumstances you might think it would be destroyed, burned down or taken apart, the logs used on the barricades. Instead, it became a rallying point, designated a kind of headquarters. A Native film student who lived in the quarter began to document and sent out clips to local news media. At this stage no clear-cut leaders had been identified even though the same faces were showing up. In Ross House anger over what happened the night before filled the voices. As days passed this changed; the clips showed chatter and laughter, ironic words spoken about white oppression and, of course, anger solidifying into determination.
The displays at Ross House are dominated by white pioneers: the challenges of starting, of breaking the land, first crops and harvests, sod huts, first homes and farm buildings. Photos that showed Natives put them on the edges of things, peripheral to the white activities, wild looking in their hide robes. One sees in those faces a range of emotions – fear, confusion, resignation – their way of life not only upset, but in all likelihood, gone forever.
All manufactured goods at the time were imported through the United States where the railroad reached into Minnesota. Goods travelled by rail from the East Coast and then were shipped by boat up the Red River – machinery, furniture, other household goods, some food, clothing, seed, and even animals. The big York boats, those heavy vessels used by fur traders to move goods along prairie rivers, provided most of the transport. Photos also showed the first steam boats, larger and capable of moving in whites and white goods at a much faster pace, another kind of invasion by the white world; people, their agriculture, guns and gun powder, and then the beginning of modern industry. If the Natives in the photos looked worried and confused it’s no wonder. One factor missing from those photos, however, is the effect of European diseases. It’s well known now that Native populations, with no resistance, were decimated.
Later that day, a group of spokespersons emerged, three elders and a younger community activist. They released a brief video stating they were representing the community at large not just those who created the blockades. They disapproved in principle of this turn towards violence. They were in no position to undo any of that but would work to ensure things didn’t get out of hand.
However, this was a real protest, one reflecting how their community had lived far too many years as second class citizens. If this was the only way to bring attention to their plight, so be it. They would not make a statement of demands. This wasn’t a case of demands, rather one of rights and needs, all of which were well known. It was now up to those in power to come forward with solutions, action, not words. They would wait.
North Point Douglas has a population of two thousand or so. Over the years the white population has been displaced. Almost half is Native with a strong presence of new Canadians, many of whom are Filipinos. The evening I walked some of the streets I saw renovated houses and yards not only cleaned up but planted with gardens and lawns. I was impressed with the sense of progress. After the fact I realized many were those of Filipino families and other new Canadians. Not exclusively, of course, because Rita’s place had that look as did those of some of her Native neighbours. Had I paid closer attention I would have seen more of Native poverty. So, the Filipinos had jobs to go to, were engaged in the economy, as it was said, while a large percentage of the Natives still were not.
This created an interesting problem in the following days. The Filipinos, of course, took no part in the action nor did they see themselves as part of what was behind it. At first, pedestrian traffic in and out of the district flowed freely. Workers walked past the barricades and, with the show of a driver’s licence or health care card, were allowed back in. It was casual to say the least; in fact, some were having fun with it. One video clip showed a mock pat-down, with the Filipino man squirming from being tickled as opposed to being searched. However, as the days unfolded, it all became more serious. Many of the Filipinos going to jobs chose to move out, staying with friends and family in other parts of the city. Traffic through the barricades slowed to a trickle. The only exceptions were occasional medical emergencies. Ambulances came to one of the blocked intersections, barriers were removed, EMS crews allowed to do their business. Was there more of this than in most other parts of the city? I suspect so, again reflecting the kind of health problems that accompany the poor.
In one of the ironies of the unfolding events, the remaining drug houses appeared to shut down. No drugs in, none out; no access for suppliers or customers. For the first time in decades the area may have been almost drug free. Crime was down as well. With the absence of police one might expect more criminal activity. In fact, we learned later, there weren’t many calls; no break-ins reported, hardly any thefts, few domestic disputes.
We were well into June by this time, the nights mercifully short. Still, the hours of darkness provided cover for those who would make trouble. The second night brought two attacks into the neighbourhood. Is attack the right word? It’s surprising how the language you use colours and defines events. In most other situations and times these two incursions would have been small vandalism or nothing more than mischief. In the one, a group of white youths somehow eluded the barricades and patrols and spray painted a church whose denomination was largely Native. In the other, perhaps the same group, a kind of hit and run on one of the barricades occurred. This latter event lasted a minute or so, characterized by shouting and threats, loud banging of metal on metal. Warnings were called over megaphones, police dogs snarled and barked and finally guns drawn. The white youths slipped away, taunting the police as Indian lovers. The police nabbed one and took him into custody.
I talked to Rita the next morning, heard the upset in her voice, most of it, she said, because Jimmy had been present at the skirmish. He claimed not to have participated. “I’m afraid for him,” she said. “He’s being drawn in more and more.” Her job concerned her as well. She could have gone out like the Filipino workers but didn’t think it was right. She felt forced to choose, it seemed, between her job and the protest.
I look at the words I’m using: protest, attack, uprising, barricades. Really, what did it all amount to? Up to a certain point it was, or at least seemed, innocent or naive. I thought it would go away as so many such happenings have. The fierce one of several years ago – Idle No More – appeared promising in bringing about change. What came of it? Nothing that I can recall. Other than the images, who can remember Oka or the Anishnabe occupation in Kenora?
The next couple of days were quiet. The Mayor was involved in negotiations. Rumours circulated that both the Premier and the Prime Minister were being consulted. Sympathy and support came from other parts of the country, from other First Nations and their leaders, and from a mix of politicians. The country is changing and in many governments, from local to national, there are faces from all over the world, a good number of them women, but still very few are Natives.
The fifth day came on hot, the hint of a typical Winnipeg summer heat wave. A violent thunder storm hit late in the evening with fierce winds, heavy rain and endless lightning strikes. Power was knocked out in several parts of the city including much of the North End and all of Point Douglas. As if the trouble makers had been waiting for such a moment, while the storm was still on, gunshots were heard in two or three locations, followed by an explosion and then more gun fire.
We learned later two of the barricades had been attacked by a white gang or gangs. They started by shooting at the barricades and then some kind of explosive device was hurled at one of them. The attackers had infiltrated through houses and yards, avoiding the intersections sealed off by the police. The explosion started a fire in one of the barricades. The burned out wreck of the old car, shown in photos, looked much like what one would see in a war zone. The blast sent debris flying, chunks of metal. A Native defender, struck by the debris, died at the scene from blood loss. He might have been saved if paramedics had been able to reach him in time, not been held back by police.
Jimmy and Rita knew the young man. Not just another kid, she said, but somebody’s kid, one from a two parent home, unlike so many other homes of Native families. Odd how that mattered to her, as though the death wasn’t simply another assault; it was deeper, attacking efforts to restore family order to their community.
Rita’s tone sounded mater-of-fact, as if Jimmy were saying, ‘It wasn’t me or one of my friends so it’s not important.’ In fact, after we talked for a while I realized she was sick with fear. The emotions were contagious. Not only the near terror she and other mothers felt; more anger began to surface, hints of rage, in the quarter and among Natives throughout the city.
You have to feel sorry for the police. They’re trained to deal with civil or criminal matters. They aren’t part of the armed forces. Sure, they have riot units and training in crowd control and no doubt they have procedures in place for standoffs and such. This, however, was different – a political and human mess older than any participant. Yet the police were expected to keep a lid on things. Storms, hotheads, people with agendas! What could they have done better? It doesn’t matter because they were going to be blamed and they were.
During the following day the situation got much bigger. A steady stream of Native men as well as a very visible number of young women made their way into the district. They crossed the tracks, snuck in along the river banks and even used boats to cross the river. The police intervened and turned many back, but the numbers were too large. News reports estimated several hundred new recruits entered the area. The reports left no doubt more arms were brought in as well.
It had all been a little casual up to this point, somehow not serious. That seems an absurd thing to say – streets blockaded, people bearing arms, others setting fires, skirmishes, injuries and then a death. To me, as with so many citizens, it didn’t seem real. Disbelief comes first and, if it persists, you get blindsided.
By late afternoon Point Douglas looked like an armed encampment; weapons everywhere, residents told to stay inside. At dusk, yet another group of white youths, as though they didn’t believe what was going on, made an attempt to charge one of the barricades. The police stepped in and prevented them from getting too close. Somehow, one got through and ran at the pile of cars, furniture and junk. He brandished what appeared to be a Molotov cocktail, ready to hurl it. Predictably, horribly, a shot was fired. The aerial cameras showed the young man fall and then a pool of blood come visible beside him. He writhed a moment, went still.
Paramedics already on the scene, started to rush forward; police stepped in and held them back. Screams and shouts rose from those watching beyond the police and then quiet settled for a half minute or so. An amplified voice broke the silence, calling from behind the barricade, telling the paramedics to do their job. The police cleared an opening and three paramedics rolled a stretcher forward. You could tell from the live TV coverage they were moving as fast as they could in the circumstances and yet it unfolded in slow motion. They got to the body, did a brief examination, lifted the now inert form on to the stretcher and retreated behind the police lines. Unless you were the parents of the boy, you would have no doubt he was dead.
Tit for tat. An eye for an eye. Violence begets violence. An old and too common story: cliché and horror at the same time. Where would things go now?
The rest of the city stirred, like some dormant force. Curiosity, fascination, distraction? The police were less busy; hospitals were admitting fewer emergencies; in our offices the workload seemed to have lessened. A majority of my colleagues expressed real sympathy for the Native cause, first via a petition and then planning a possible march. This seemed to be true for much of the city based on news reports, social media activity and what many of us were hearing in the malls and coffee shops.
The community centres in Fort Rouge joined forces and organized a food drive. Point Douglas had only two corner stores and, within a couple of days, these ran out of everything except lottery tickets. On the fourth day of the standoff two trucks loaded with food donated by individuals and a grocery chain were allowed into the area. The food was unloaded at Ross House and distributed from there. The Medical Clinic on Main Street that served the area was outside the perimeter of the barricades. Doctors and nurses were allowed through to tend to a variety of patients. One doctor and two nurses set up a temporary clinic in the cultural centre and chose to stay, joined later by another doctor, an immigrant to Canada, with extensive experience in the refugee camps of the Middle East. Despite these various comings and goings the police or other officials made no apparent attempt to infiltrate.
The sixth night was quiet, everyone shaken by the two deaths. I talked to Rita the next morning. She sounded weary, expressed more concern for Jimmy but also showed a new voice. “I don’t like violence,” she said. “But we’ve lived in these conditions for too long. Maybe this is the only way to bring about change.”
I asked about Jimmy. He was asleep having returned home at day break. Despite his mother’s pleas he had been out every night, insisted he be part of the protest, used the word solidarity. She tacitly agreed. That didn’t prevent her from being frightened.
“Solidarity,” I asked.
“His word,” she said. “They’ve formed bands to watch the barricades and smaller ones to patrol the areas in between. We never learned much about warriors or the kind of lore around Indian fighting but it sounds like they’re organizing in the old ways.”
“Any different from modern armies?” I wondered.
“It doesn’t matter does it, people still get killed.”
“Can you sleep when he’s out?”
“How about your job?”
“So far they’ve been understanding. I’m not the only one caught by this.”
“What will you do?”
“Wait, like everyone else.”
“Does he talk about what the leaders are thinking?”
“Yes. But there’s nothing new. And it’s no different from the reasons that made me leave the reserve.”
Resignation? The last time I heard that in her voice came when Jimmy resisted – or refused – to learn. Even then, she wasn’t defeated. More annoyed than anything else, sometimes ticked off. Always a social worker, I suppose, and ever the optimist I was sure then Jimmy would come around. Now, more a friend, I felt perhaps what friends feel in these situations, that heaviness the other is carrying.
Rita’s fears and the weight of the situation came to fruition over the next couple of days. First, the Mayor, with apparent frustration at the lack of willingness on the part of the Native leaders to negotiate, issued a warning although not quite an ultimatum. ‘We will do what is necessary to take back this part of the city,’ she said to news reporters. Asked what she meant she declined to elaborate. The leaders took it as a threat and vowed not to give in.
This led to increased activities on the barricades but also an interesting development within the community, funny in a way, unexpected. A declaration, issued by The Point Douglas Nation, at this stage of things an unknown group, stated they would set up their own council, elect their own chief and deal with the larger Winnipeg as an independent entity. They would create an encompassing community of Natives within Point Douglas but one that would reach out to other Native communities in the Winnipeg area.
Lawyers or legal minds appeared to be at work in this because an addendum to the document pointed out flaws in the Treaty binding the area and its tribes to Canada. The land in and around Point Douglas had never been legally handed over to Canada it claimed and was, in fact, independent of Canada and the Province of Manitoba. The Natives were free to set up their own government. Riel had it right.
What a curious development. Where would it lead? Did it have any validity? The helicopter cameras began to show an increasing military look to some of those manning the barricades. Somehow they had gained access to bolts of red cloth, turned this into head bands that many of those on the patrols wore. More to the point, the cameras showed some actual military training or maybe it was warrior training. No marching or presenting of arms as in traditional western armies; rather, what might be called guerilla tactics, skulking about, crawling into hidden places, instruction in hand to hand combat. ‘As an independent state,’ another issued statement claimed, ‘we can and will form our own militia to protect us. We can and will form our own police force to ensure civil order.’ So, the stakes got raised in an unexpected way. Strange, at times almost funny: were they serious or, like children, playing at something bigger than themselves?
The next morning members of the Native militia opened one of the barricades to allow ten minutes of traffic in and out. More food trucks, two trades’ vehicles – a plumber and an electrician – another from home medical care. At the same time, members of the community with jobs, including Rita, left in a small exodus. With traffic allowed to resume on Main Street Rita was able to catch a bus to work.
We talked that night. It was both frightening and a relief, she said, relief from feeling cooped up and in being back at the work she enjoyed and the social life it gave her. The fear came in leaving Jimmy alone as well as going outside the barricades. She wondered what people on the outside might say or do. As for Jimmy she told herself he would make the right choices, hopefully what she had instilled in him.
A gate was erected at Main and Euclid and this became the entry way. Service and supply vehicles, an occasional ambulance, came and went, as did those with jobs on the outside. Those managing the gate were unarmed; implicit, however, that it was protected like the other barricades. The police would know they couldn’t just walk in. The standoff settled into some semblance of normal or at least predictable.
Jimmy’s school year came to an end without him returning. Rita talked with the principle. Despite the suspension and failure to attend over the last couple of weeks, his marks were strong enough for the school to wave final exams and to give him credit for the year. These are the special circumstances that allow me to do this, the principle told her. Besides, there’s enough turmoil without us making it worse. He wished Rita well and said he supported the Native community’s demands.
She laughed, when she told me this, asking, “What are our demands?” In general, I think most of us know the answer. The specifics – what, how and when – are a whole lot more difficult.
The warm spell continued. People throughout the city were out in the evenings, walking, visiting, escaping the heat of the day. On one of those nights Jimmy said to Rita, “Come with me Mom.”
The request struck her in such a way that for a moment she couldn’t breathe. When she responded it was with something close to evasion. “Jimmy, it’s late and it’s dark. We don’t know who’s out there or what’s happening.”
“We’ll be okay. Remember,” he said, “I’m out every night and I’m one of them.”
“But I’m not.”
“You are, we all are. Besides, I need to show you what it’s like and what we’re doing. I don’t want you to feel so scared.”
What almost paralyzed her was not the dark or even being out of her home; it was dread. Somehow, to be with him in the streets would put them both at risk. She needed a few minutes to come to terms with this. In the end she told herself, ‘He’s my son. I have to trust him.’
The blockade shut off the district from the rest of the city. Still, in a strange and unexpected way for her, the street lights were on and, in the distance, over the outlines of a barricade at an intersection with Main Street, a traffic light operated, the slow cycle of green, yellow, red, as though traffic was still moving, as though the city was still going about its business.
They walked towards it and the silence of the traffic light. Again, to her surprise, the street was neither silent nor empty. It seemed like a normal summer night, people out of their houses and apartments, enjoying the mildness. They passed groups of two and three, young for the most part, a few faces she recognized. On the Reserve, she would have known all of them, would have exchanged greetings, maybe talked for a moment or two. When she noticed the red bandanas she realized these small groups were more than casual, they had purpose.
“Patrols?” she asked.
“All of them?”
“Even this far inside the barricades?”
“Does that mean it’s not safe?”
As they got closer to Main she saw a few were carrying weapons – a rifle, a club, something resembling a sword. She felt herself smile. It was absurd, like one of those action movies Jimmy watched.
The barricade itself was a jumble, much like her emotions, she thought, her worry and fear, all the other feelings. Pride was one of those, but it was more, including the thought of ‘at last’. What did that mean? Hope? Maybe. She took in the collection of old cars, wrecked furniture, lumber and cement blocks, some rocks and even the trunk of a tree, a real jumble and yet an odd sense of order.
Several young men and women were milling around.
“Hey Jimmy. Who’s that with you, your girlfriend?”
“My best girl,” he answered, “my mom.”
“Hey Mom,” a male voice said. “Thanks for coming out.”
“You guys need to know she’s more than that. If it wasn’t for my mom and her friends we wouldn’t be here doing this.”
“Right Jimmy,” a female voice said, “you got a story to tell.”
Rita saw a hint of smile on Jimmy’s face as he went on. “She and her friends started things. Without them I wouldn’t speak my language.”
It felt odd watching him speak to the group, his head turning as though he were addressing them, not just giving a casual answer to a question. “And she’s one of the people that got the cultural centre started.”
“Alright,” a male voice said in a loud and congratulatory tone. “Yay Mom!”
Rita felt surprised. Not that he knew any of this but in such a way. She squeezed his arm, smiled.
They turned. She started in the direction of the adjacent back alley thinking that’s where he wanted to take her. “No,” he said, “too dangerous.” As if to make the point, a clatter of noise came from somewhere along the alley. Flashlights went on, a group of four or five scurried around. A moment or two later the lights went off.
Jimmy led her away, back through the asymmetrical streets of Point Douglas. Their pace was slow, the kind of leisure on what might have been a casual summer evening stroll. It all looked different at night, the boulevard trees creating strange, sometimes eerie shadows, sometimes soothing ones.
On one of the streets, where the trees were sparse, Jimmy looked up. “In River Heights the whole street would be lined with trees. The branches would arch right over.”
“When have you ever been to River Heights?”
“When I was a kid. School trips to Assiniboine Park, hockey, you remember.”
She did but wondered why she herself had never gone.
They walked on, quiet for a time, then Rita said, “You haven’t told me what you do.”
“Patrols, just like you saw.”
“In the alleys?”
“There and all over.”
“Do you carry a weapon?”
“Only once. I didn’t like it.”
“Too easy to hurt someone. You get spooked. Who knows what you’ll do with a gun in your hands.”
“I guess I’m glad – but not much.” She was silent for a moment and then added, “I just don’t want you out here.”
“This is too important.”
“I know. I want another way. Two are dead already, others hurt.”
“The reason why I don’t want a weapon. I’m mad about a lot of things but I’d never want to kill anybody.”
They walked on. A young man and woman passed, nodded. Jimmy nodded in return. Rita wondered to herself if they were on patrol or coming home from a date.
“This would be a nice night to be out with your girl.”
“If I had one,” Jimmy laughed.
“Are you going to be jealous if there is?”
“No. How could I?” She laughed in turn. “By your age I was pregnant with you.”
“You were sixteen. Unbelievable.”
“I wasn’t the only one. When I think back, life on the Reserve didn’t give us much else to do.”
“Sex as recreation.”
“Were you in love?”
“I thought so; now I doubt it. And, anyway, he cleared out before you were born. You’ll do better than me.”
He turned and pointed at a house they were passing, one she knew. Even in the shadows it looked battered, like it should be torn down, and yet a light was on inside.
“You know the people who live there. They’re Natives like us.” She saw him shake his head. “You wouldn’t see that in River Heights.”
“No, I guess not.”
“If you were a white person walking by all you’d see or think of would be dirty Indians.” Rita cringed. “It’s not right. No one should live this way.”
Rita put her hand on Jimmy’s arm. “It could have been us if we’d stayed on the Reserve.”
He shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. You weren’t going to let that happen.” He stopped, turned and gave her a half hug. “I’m glad you’re my Mom.”
Their walk brought them to Ross House and the park around it. Lights were on, people moving inside, a number of cars and pick-ups parked right up on the grass. They found a bench, sat, both quiet for a minute or two.
“Do you want to be inside with those people?” Jimmy asked.
“No. Why would I?”
“You were one of the early organizers.”
“That was different and a different way of doing things.”
She looked up at the sky, clear except for a few misty clouds reflecting back light from the city.
“When we were kids on the Reserve I remember summer nights like this. You could see so many stars, way more than you can see here in the city.”
“Did you make up stories or talk about legends the way real Indians used to?”
“I don’t think so. Some of the old ones liked to tell us things but we didn’t pay much attention.”
“I don’t know for sure. So many of them...” She hesitated, Jimmy waited. “I don’t know what the word is. It’s like we had no respect for them.” She paused, spoke again, her eyes off on something distant. “We went into town sometimes. You’ve been there – not exactly rich – but it had more of everything, like food and clothes, cars, even toys. The houses all looked better.”
She paused once more, laid her hand on his arm, stroked it. Jimmy, watching her face, brought a hand up, brushed her cheek as though he saw a tear. “Are you okay?”
“Thinking about it makes me sad. Town had more of a lot of things. On the reserve we only had more trouble, more drinking, more fighting. What else would you expect? Hardly anybody had a job so what was there to do? I guess for us it seemed normal. Now I can see that more people were sick, too many kids like me dropped out of school, so many of us like you, without a father.”
“That’s why this is happening,” Jimmy said, “reserves, the terrible schools, government handouts. How can anybody live like that?”
Rita patted his hand. “Right from when I could think about it I knew I had to get us away.”
“You almost didn’t.”
“No. I went to sleep somewhere, fourteen or fifteen. I guess that happens to a lot of teens. I only started to wake up by the time you went to school. When you still couldn’t read at the end of grade two, that was enough. Why didn’t I come to my senses earlier? Sometimes now I still get upset that I didn’t see the problems you were having, as if I was telling myself everything was okay, that this was the world we lived in.”
“Then you woke up.”
“And others are waking up.”
“They seem to be. But I wasn’t thinking about others. I knew it was time to leave, to get us off the reserve. What else could I do?”
“Do you think you made the right choice?”
“No question. When we go back to visit Grandma I know I wouldn’t want to live there. I have a good time with my cousins but it never seems quite right, as if everything is damaged or broken
“Broken. Yes, that’s the word I was looking for. Your father and your grandfather, they were broken men.”
“It makes me mad.”
“I know. But we didn’t understand how bad it was. That was life. In other ways I think we did but we didn’t pay attention.”
“More of us are paying attention now.”
“Yes, but there’s risk.”
“I won’t take any stupid chances.”
“We all have to take chances. I took a chance in bringing us here. We won’t get anywhere if we don’t take chances.” She continued to look into his face. “What’s happening now is crazy. Like the back alley up by Main Street. Some places are more dangerous than others. I don’t like it.”
“Did you feel any safer on those nights you were looking at the stars?”
“You’re always safe at those times.
Jimmy touched her hand. “I get scared too. I don’t totally understand what this is all about. Poverty, what our people have been turned into, that stuff is easy to see, but it’s more. I just don’t get it all.”
“You’re only sixteen; you shouldn’t have to think about those things.”
* * *
Two nights later a fierce noise woke Rita. For a moment she didn’t know where she was or what awakened her. Then the sickening sensation of alarm struck.
She scrambled into clothes and out on to the street. Sirens wailed from Main. She ran onto Euclid, could see in the distance the intact barricade, could see commotion around it, people running, heading south towards the other two blockaded intersections. She turned, got to another street, saw flames from the pile of cars and junk and from an adjacent building.
Winded, legs heavy and burning, in the moment hating she wasn’t more athletic, she made herself continue, half walking, half running. Others were doing the same. She exchanged terrified glances with two mothers she knew well.
A ring of people, standing back from the fire, blocked access to it. She pushed her way through. Hands grabbed her. One of the other mothers cried out, “My son. It’s Grant. Who’s seen my son?”
Rita searched for Jimmy, saw no sign of him in the crowd, turned back, eyes scanning those still coming. Again, no sign. More arrived, voices, questions, names. In front of them, sirens, firefighters, hoses and water, the roar and crackle of the fire, heat keeping them back. An explosion, people hurt! Who? How many? Where are they?
The firefighters were working from Main Street. A team of them broke through and began attacking the flames from the Native side. Suddenly two of them plunged into the blaze and dragged out a shape, still on fire, no question a body. The two repeated their actions and dragged out another similar shape. “There’s one more for sure,” a yell declared, leaving Rita feeling terror unlike anything she had ever experienced.
Ambulances hurtled down the inner streets – two, three, more sirens, flames being extinguished, shape of the wreckage apparent, debris scattered widely, cars in the heap charred and shattered, paramedics working over the two figures lying on the ground.
Rita pressed forward but the hands still held her back. She turned on the person holding her and shouted, “Let me go.”
She saw a face she knew, a voice coming from it. “You can’t Rita. It’s too dangerous. You’ll get in the way.”
“It’s Jimmy. I have to find Jimmy.”
“Jimmy was here Rita. We don’t know if he’s been hurt.”
They found Jimmy a minute or so later, to one side of the main wreckage, blown away by the force of the explosion, unconscious, blood on his face and head, a piece of metal sticking out of his left shoulder. As Rita got into the ambulance with him, Grant’s mother’s wail rose over all the other noise. His was one of the bodies dragged out of the blaze.
After the fact, the sequence of events became clear. A fire had been set near the tracks, a couple of blocks away from the explosion. It drew a number of the police officers, leaving this particular barricade vulnerable. Surveillance cameras showed a group of three, hooded, white and young, on the roof of the building adjacent to the barricade. They dropped two containers and ran across the roof and out of camera range. Moments later two almost simultaneous explosions occurred, setting the barricade and the building on fire.
Jimmy, one of five on duty at the site, had seen the intruders, yelled and then, when he saw the containers being dropped, ran. Grant and two others failed to react quickly enough. All three died. Jimmy, only a few steps away when the devices went off, far enough, aided by the explosion, wasn’t incinerated by the fire.
The first two deaths had somehow not been taken seriously – foolish boys, hooligans, gangs. This was different, a whole new magnitude. Disbelief, horror, anger; deep fear settled like some sort of cloud. And then incidents began occurring in other parts of the city. You could feel it, some strange energy that infected a certain kind of person, one who wanted more – more hurt, more violence. Random fires, assaults, vandalism. It brought out the anti-Semites; a synagogue damaged, a fire set at the back door of a Jewish deli on Selkirk Avenue, similar attacks elsewhere. Windows were broken in Knox United Church; the Anglican Archdiocese received a bomb threat with a warning that condemned the church’s role in residential schools. In the West End a group of Native youths invaded an all-night Salisbury House, threatening a pair of police officers who were taking a break from their duties, taunting them for some unidentified slight to the natives in the neighbourhood.
But another strange thing started to happen beginning with that most contemporary of displays of sorrow, the bouquet of flowers. At first it was a few children coming to the Main Street side of the burned-out barricade. The police were watchful but stood aside, allowing the children to place their flowers. This turned into a kind of parade with people coming from all over the city. Dozens and then hundreds of bunches were placed until the whole area in front of the barricade was covered. Reporters asked why they were doing this. Most expressed simple sorrow; some were more forthcoming. “What happened isn’t right.” “We’ve done terrible things to the Natives.” “Spend the money and fix this,” one elderly man said.
Officials from all levels of government came and went, passing through the gate on Euclid. The army was brought in with their armoured vehicles and soldiers in combat gear. ‘Only to protect the residents of Point Douglas,’ the Prime Minister said in an interview. Chiefs and other elders from a number of Native organizations appeared to be playing a role.
Rita and I talked several times during those days. Jimmy, released from hospital, recovering at home, she likely in a worse state than her son. More than once on those calls she could hardly talk. She told me one time her trembling so was bad she almost couldn’t hold the phone. Another time she just cried. A mother’s investment in her child is universal, I recall thinking.
As Jimmy got better so did she. Her voice sounded stronger and her thoughts became clearer. And then, in one of those calls she said to me, “Remember the time I showed you the newspaper headline about Jerusalem.”
I said I did.
“I don’t remember what it was about. Some sort of confrontation between Arabs and Jews I guess, something got occupied, people were killed. And then somebody from the UN came or maybe the Pope. There were speeches and promises. Well, last night it occurred to me that’s what’s going on here. Maybe we’re a new Jerusalem.”
She’s got it, I thought. Then, with something close to horror, I saw what she was seeing, that this could go on forever. The image left me muddled for a moment, muddled and speechless. She had it right, but to say so out loud would somehow make it true. Finally, I found bland words, wished I could have said something worthier. “I hope not. We have to do better.”
I heard her sigh. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, we do.”
John Betton is a retired psychologist, living in St. Albert, Alberta. He continues to explore through fiction his lifelong fascination with the way people think, feel and interact. Two of his stories were published in February 2019: A New Old Love in Spadina Literary Review and Filmmaker in Moon Magazine
Stuart was surprised. Of course, that's not what he said when asked. Rather, he gave the usual answers. Yes, I'm coping. Indeed, it takes time. His children? The grandchildren? Fine, just fine! They have a loss to deal with too. And yes, they are all helping out, being very supportive. These were easy answers but no less true. As much answer as he felt up to giving. Had he felt able he would have said something more complex.
Six months had passed since Janice died. His state remained mixed as were his feelings, more or less as expected, as much as anyone might expect in the wake of being widowed. But one feeling left him perplexed. A man who worked at understanding, he sought other words – out of joint, disoriented, and even stunned – but surprised is what he started with and what he came back to. It felt closest to catching this unanticipated condition.
He thought he had resigned himself to certain inevitable things; the stillness of the house, the absence of her sounds, cooking his own meals, doing the laundry. It hadn't helped. Each morning he made the coffee but many times automatically made enough for both. Only when he reached for two mugs did he realize what he had done. He'd sigh, maybe say damn as he put one back. Bringing in the paper or sipping his first cup he'd wonder what they'd have for breakfast, what she might want. Later in the day, going out the door, he might call to say he would be back in a few minutes. And then those painful moments in the night when he reached for her and she wasn't there.
They lived quietly after the children left and more so once he retired. When he looked back he saw how little heed he’d paid to this. As he thought about it he became aware there had been pleasure in the quiet, especially on those mornings when he let her sleep a while longer, almost as if he was protecting her from the intrusions of the day. But even when both were up and moving around it was a quiet house. They watched a little TV in the evenings. The radio was on only for news or weather. As the day unfolded they might talk about chores or errands, what one or the other might like for supper, plans to see a movie or getting together with this friend or that part of the family. Perhaps the most noise came with her phone conversations. She always was animated when she talked to their daughter, to her sister or to friends. Afterwards, she would share the news and gossip.
Now her voice wasn't there, nor any of the other sounds he had paid little attention to. He could hear the quiet. But it wasn't just quiet; it was still.
One morning, as he carried his coffee to the table, he experienced a strange sensation, as if he were moving against something, as though the air was thick and resistant. This brought to him an old memory. He had been at a beach and waded into perfectly calm water, creating small ripples with each step, the water heavy against his legs. He watched the ripples flow away and, when he stopped, had observed how the surface returned to its mirror-calm state. He remembered noticing how the water, windblown the day before, was smooth, almost congealed. How could it be so still? At that moment the air in his kitchen felt like the water, resistant, thick. He could see no ripples of course and even if he had they wouldn't last. It struck him then as it did now that he had no influence. The thought surprised him then and again now, in a way even more sharply.
Some days he thought he should give up the house, get a smaller place. Others who had been widowed did, often so quick to sell it seemed rushed. Was it a true need to move on or just to get away? And if to get away, from what? Each time the thought came he dismissed it; he wasn't ready.
He and his cronies once in a while had talked about the next stages of their lives, moving from homes to apartments and, at some point, on to assisted living, what Stu liked to refer to as assisted dying, a lame bit of humour, the kind she often didn't hear. When she did she might nod or smirk or occasionally say this one was better than the last. He missed those exchanges and was surprised he missed them, something that had not played – or so he thought – much of a role in their marriage.
Her death, as these things go, was uneventful. The oncologist called it a quiet cancer, for women a silent killer, one that drained her life away. She lost appetite, weight, strength, slowly and inexorably. He assumed there would be pain. She experienced very little, for which both were grateful. When it came time she went to hospital and then into palliative care, where, for no reason he could figure out, he felt surprise at the remarkable attention and compassion she received.
It all went well. He and Janice talked. They had few reservations about their life together and those either had were irrelevant at this point. The timing wasn't what she hoped for but on the whole she laid claim to a good life. So, let it be, an attitude consistent with the way she lived.
Considering all this, considering her equanimity, Stuart was surprised. In fact, he was surprised from the moment of her death, surprised she died. And he was surprised not only at her equanimity but his own as well. Shouldn't he have made more noise, been more demanding, found some way to put up a fight.
He wasn't a believer in miracles; he hadn't prayed, not in the private way so many do, praying for what and to whom? He was a practical man, one who sold life insurance. People died and he made his living out of calculated bets on when that would happen. Yet somehow, at some level in his being, he hadn't expected it to come to this. It did and he was surprised.
He was surprised that six months later he was still feeling surprise. Was this some inability to come to terms with a normal life event? Had he not prepared himself as well as he thought or as well as Janice thought she had prepared him? This is all nonsense he said to himself. It takes time, as everybody knows. The first year you survive. You may not really grieve until the second year. By the third year you should start to pull out of it; rough guides, known expectations, familiar to him. Nor was grief a new experience. He had been through it when his parents died, a brother, a childhood friend, others. So what was it – a failing on his part to come to terms with his grief? He wondered about this but the words didn't seem right.
It came to him it wasn't just surprise but something else, a feeling, a weight. This was closer, the words helpful. Finally, on its own and not out of effortful searching, a word surfaced – presence. Yes that was it. He knew by the feeling that came with the word, a sense of fit. There was a presence within him. This surprised him in such a way that he snickered, then fully laughed. Men his age don't snicker nor do they have presences. Those come from other people's imaginations, from cheap novels or thriller movies.
What he sensed wasn't like any of that. He wasn't fearful. He didn't think he was going crazy; he wasn't the sort. But it was there, had infiltrated at some point. He thought about this and thought about how long it had been with him. Of course, the answer was obvious. He shook his head at the fact he hadn't sensed whatever it was, his head shake one of surprise; it had been there all along.
As he thought and reconstructed he recalled it appearing at the moment of her death, as he was saying to himself 'she's gone', this thing, this presence, seemed to take him over. His recollection was of something like a full body blow, almost stunning him. It settled, gripped his whole upper body. He remembered feeling it was a struggle to breathe.
In the moment he had needed to cry, but couldn't. This thing, this grip, seemed to prevent that. Their daughter, at his side, hand on his back, was crying. He wanted to cry too and he wanted to offer comfort as he always had. At the same time this sensation, this force held him and stopped him. He remembered feeling surprised and noting he hadn't realized grief was so physical.
People’s grief took different forms. He had heard the crying and the wails, seen the distress. Some prayed and spoke of god, others touched or kissed the dead person, said I love you, said goodbye. It was all very emotional or maybe even social because, he knew, some were concerned with doing or saying the right thing. But at no time had anyone spoken of this physical sensation. Surely he wasn't unique?
In the minutes after her death he was able to set it aside. He finally turned to his daughter and they held one another. His tears came. They did say the thought and felt words; she was a loving mother, a loving wife, a good woman. This was all sincere. They had loved her, did love her.
A few hours later, after the initial rush of feelings and words and things to do, alone in their bedroom, it came back to him. He felt the force, gripped again almost to the point once more he thought he couldn't breathe, and yet he did breathe. He realized it wasn't that kind of force, not panic, not a heart attack. It was tight in such ways and yet somehow wasn't life threatening.
He slept, ate, shaved, talked to his children, was hugged by his grandchildren, offered condolences by friends. The funeral happened three days later. He was numb throughout, remembered little. The eulogy, given by one of her lifelong friends, was only meaningful to him weeks later when he read it. He wished he had been more present at the service because the words were thoughtful and moving.
In all of this, both caught up and numb, the physical sensation merged with all the others as if it no longer existed or at least he was no longer aware of it. And now, six months later, as he pondered his ongoing sense of surprise, it came to him that it was still there – the heaviness, the grip, the sensation of impaired breathing.
He wasn't much of a reader and certainly poetry was an unlikely interest. Yet, he found himself wondering if some poet had written about this. Should he give it a name? Could he name it? The word presence got most of the sense but not quite all. This thing within him had not just the feeling of presence, but almost a form. Yes form, a kind of form. And then the word entity came to him. That's it, an entity, a grief entity. What an odd term! But yes, he thought, maybe the sort of thing some old poet may have written about.
In the life insurance business he had many times seen clients through the loss of a spouse, helping them establish their claims and, in the early days, even delivering the cheque. He listened to their grief, their stories, the enumerating of both pleasures and regrets. Some cried and occasionally he held them. Some were lost and he did what he could to give them direction or to get them back on their feet. But none ever talked about this feeling, this presence, this entity, this physical thing that seemed to be his grief.
He lay in bed one morning, something he had cautioned himself not to do, fearing the habit, knowing a truth, for him at least; the less he did the less he would want to do. It would be neither wise nor healthy. But on this morning he lay there because Janice had been so present when he woke. He could feel her, almost as if she was in the bed, her weight pressing down on the mattress, creating its small indent, her warmth radiating to his body. He wanted to reach for her, to touch her.
He knew if he persisted in these thoughts they would turn to something else, the ache he felt so often. He directed his mind away, first seeing her as a young woman. This settled him and he relaxed into memories, smiling as his recollection came to the last time they made love.
She had been diagnosed, her condition beyond treatable, her strength waning. He had begun to do more, not quite nursing her but helping in little ways with chores around the house, with shopping, bringing her tea in the evenings, some of the things she had done.
It was a rare morning in which she awakened first. When he opened his eyes she was watching him as if she had been waiting. She smiled, kissed him and said she wanted to make love. Are you sure he asked, a first thought, a natural consideration. His second thought was perhaps a little self interested; he liked the idea.
Love making hadn't always been an easy or comfortable part of their marriage. Still, there were times when it went well and both enjoyed the act as well as one another. In a way it got better as they aged, happening less frequently of course, and with more difficulty. Strange, but it was those difficulties that brought something different to them. The physical limitations became a source of humour as joints creaked, muscles spasmed, sometimes in the middle of passionate moments. Disentangling after prompted laughter as well – a knee wouldn't bend or a leg wouldn't straighten – the simple movements of their young bodies now clumsy and humorously complicated.
They began as always with little kisses – lips, tongue, finger tips. He caressed her side and back, ran his fingers through her hair, touched her breasts – familiar pleasures. The softness of her skin often surprised and thrilled him, as it did in that moment.
She had once teased him that he 'took' her like a savage. They laughed because it was a rare occurrence and many years since either had felt such arousal. In this moment he was gentle, tentative. She made him look at her, meet her eyes. I'd love if you could take me in the way you used to, she said.
He kissed her, stroked her cheek, asked if she was ready. She gave him a searching look, a light smile and rolled so her back was to him. She could not have born his weight nor could he have sustained it. Taking her was slow, careful, perhaps fraught with care. She moaned, he waited, wondering for a moment what it meant. She moved and he moved as well, gently as they felt their pleasures. She moaned again and then they lay still. He held her pulled tight into his body, nesting, cradling. He moved once more and then from time to time, returned to stillness, holding her, listening to her breathe. And then, in one of those still moments, he heard the rhythm of her breathing turn to sleep.
He lay that way until he felt his erection diminish, let himself drift into asleep. When they woke, which they did at the same time, she rolled to face him, kissed him and said thank you. I'll remember this as your parting gift. Her words caught him and he cried. She put an arm over his shoulder and around his neck, pulling him to her. His crying turned to sobs. She pulled him close, shushed him in the way we shush crying children. It's okay she said, it's okay. We've had a good life.
On one of the evenings when he was invited out to dinner – this had become a regular occurrence with friends and family – he tried to share with his hosts this strange condition he was experiencing. He told about the physical sensation, the grip, the sense of some independent physical force within him, the laughable words he used like presence and entity.
Aline had been one of Janice's circle of friends, a lively, talkative woman. Her husband Ray was a decent man who Stu had known a little in their early years and to whom Stu had sold life insurance. They weren't close as a foursome but got together from time to time to play cards or take in a movie.
Oh Stu, she said, reaching for his hand. You miss her and you're lonely, that's all it is. Stu nodded in agreement, added, what she said was true, but there seemed to be more. Ray, a pragmatic man, asked if Stu had spoken to a doctor. You never know at this age what's going on inside. Stu hadn't thought of that. He had had an annual check up not long before Janice's death and all was normal. He agreed he would make an appointment.
But, if it isn't anything the doctor can identify, tell me what you think is going on. Both looked at him; Ray shrugged, Aline smiled one of her gentle smiles.
One day at the Seniors Centre, sipping an afternoon beer with his cronies, Bill asked him how he was doing, added with emphasis, how are you really doing? Stu took a moment to consider and decided it was okay with these friends to give more than the usual answer. He would try again to articulate what he was feeling. Some people describe their grief as if it were a hole in their lives, he said. I can see that. Where Janice was is now empty. It's one of the things I felt when she died. But what I'm carrying is different. It's not an absence but more like a presence, one that holds on to me. Sometimes it feels like I can't breathe or can't swallow. But, in reality, those functions are never impeded. Sometimes I feel heavy, almost weighed down. The feeling goes away, but whatever was behind it remains and seems to hover, waiting to take hold of me again.
Bill and Laz looked at one another and then at Stu. Bill shook his head. I don't get it. Laz said, tell me more. Stu tried but shrugged in the end saying he really had nothing to add.
You used the word presence, Laz said, as if something were inhabiting you.
Stu nodded and said a qualified yes. There is in a way, he went on. It's like some sort of being or entity. No, he backtracked, not being. It doesn't present itself as something alive. It's just there. Sometimes it's a weight, sometimes it seems like a force, other times I just know it's there without any particular feeling.
Well, obviously it's your grief, Laz offered, but, in your case, something unique. Like Bill, I don't get it but you've got me curious.
Oh hell, Wilf chimed in, with one of his typical I-don't mean-to-be-insensitive-but comments. I think you just need to get laid.
Bill reacted instantly with, For god's sake Wilf, have a heart.
No, I'm serious. It's all about sex isn't it, even at our age.
Every once in a while, over the years of their friendship, Stu would surprise them with a comeback to one of Wilf's low-brow utterings. This time he said: So, if that's the case, all I'd need to do is find a woman or take myself in hand.
Wilf chuckled. When's the last time you did that?
The fact is, Stu went on, I have no sexual feelings at all. Whatever this thing is, it isn't that.
Stu did see his doctor who suggested it was likely the depression normal with grief. He offered medication and also encouraged him to join a bereavement group. Stu said he would consider these.
A few days later Stu found himself wandering the house, opening cupboards and drawers. He stood for a long time in front of the cedar closet that served as storage for their out-of-season clothing. He touched a winter coat Janice hadn't worn in several years, stroked its fake fur collar. He had always liked the feel of it, remembered nuzzling her, the fur a pleasant sensation on his cheek as he kissed her neck or nibbled on her ear. In the moment he could feel her shiver. He brought the collar to his cheek, pressed his nose into it, could smell a hint of her, of a perfume she used to wear. But this is no good, he thought. I can't live like this.
He turned to another cupboard, one containing different memories, their odd little secret as she had called it. It held an accumulation of unwanted gifts which, for reasons neither was ever clear on, they had kept and added to over the years. He reached for the oddest of the lot, a jug or maybe it was a vase. It was in fact, a wine chicken they were once told, her great aunt's wedding present, brought for them from Italy. Both found it laughable and ugly. But, they had been wary about throwing it out, great aunts in those days to be feared. They giggled sometimes at their conspiracy and wondered at others, especially after the aunt died, why they hadn't disposed of it. Maybe it was valuable. But no, that wasn't likely. The aunt, known for her exotic gifts, was also known for being cheap. She probably bought it at a street market for a few lira thinking it would impress the less-worldly folks back home.
It was tall and placed at the back of the shelf. As he reached and lifted to bring it forward his sleeve caught a small, equally ugly figurine. He realized in an instant what he had done and watched helplessly as the porcelain figure tumbled to the edge of the shelf and fell to the floor where it smashed to pieces on the tiles.
He stood back, still holding the great aunt's gift, looking at the clutter and shards of the broken piece. He had disliked it almost as much as the wine chicken and, in an uncharacteristic way, he had disliked the person who gave it to them. It was from a cousin of his who had imposed on their hospitality many years earlier, asked to stay a night, turned it into a week. She was demanding and unpleasant, Stu embarrassed he was putting Janice through such a thing. Afterwards, Janice told him it wasn't important, he was making too much of it. When the gift arrived several weeks later he wanted to throw it in the garbage. Janice had insisted they include it in their secret collection.
And so it grew over the years: A caddy of decorated highball glasses to be used for patio gatherings, a small pile of crocheted doilies, someone's early attempt at oil painting, someone else's handcrafted pottery cheese plate, a Swiss cuckoo clock. Three shelves full of this detritus. He looked over the collection and down again at the floor feeling an odd satisfaction with the mess at his feet.
Then, for reasons he couldn't explain, he let the wine chicken fall from his hands. It too smashed on the floor. He reached for one of the highball glasses and let it fall, then another; picked up and dropped the cheese platter, the cuckoo clock. He stopped, stepped back, breathed a half chuckle, felt his head shake slowly from side to side, smiled. What would Janice say, he wondered?
He went to a nearby closet, got a broom, pulled a wooden tray from the collection, swept up the debris and threw it all, including the tray, into the garbage. He returned to the living room, poured himself a small amount of rye, sat in his usual chair. The thought came to him that his behaviour was surprising. Likely he had never done such a thing in his life, certainly he had no memory. The word surprise made him check on the surprised feeling he had been carrying. Odd, he thought, it seems to have lessened. Maybe I should go and clear off the rest of those shelves. But no, he wouldn't do that. It was too much out of character. Still, he felt a kind of satisfaction in what he had done; wished Janice had been there to enjoy it, even to have helped. She would have, he thought. It's more something she would do than me.
In an instant he was in tears, sobbed, shook, wrapped his arms around himself, held. Moments passed, maybe longer, before the sobs subsided. When they did his thoughts came clear. He saw, knew without a doubt, Janice had been present, acting through him, dropping those things. He began to laugh, laugh as though it was a joke. And in a way it was, Janice in her unique fashion saying goodbye.
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