Davey’s Dismal Day, Derailed

“Gran, Mom’s home, you can go now,” Davey shouted from his perch at the front window. His gran grumbled from the living room, something about finishing her story first. Davey rolled his eyes, bored of the refrain. He watched his mom dig her bags out of the car and ran to open the front door for her.

“Can we go to the park?” Davey bounced on the step as his mother brushed past him.

“Davey, I just got home! Give me a minute.” Davey watched his mother put away milk and eggs, hopping from one foot to the other. “If you’re just going to stand there, put this away.”

Davey took the package of spaghetti and made a face. “Again?”

His mother blew out a breath and the hair on her forehead lifted. He knew when she did that he’d better watch his step. He scuffed his feet down the hall and opened the pantry door.

“Don’t just shove it in there!”

Davey snarled as he found room on the shelf, put the pasta there. “We’ve already got spaghetti.”

“Now you have more.” Gran patted his head as she carried her teacup out of the living room. “You good now, Carolyn? If I leave now, I can be home before commercials are over.”

Davey came back into the kitchen in time to see Gran swing through the door. “Her stupid stories, that’s all she cares about.”

“That’s funny, because I see a bowl in the dishrack, so that means you had cereal for breakfast, and a plate, so she must’ve made you a sandwich.”

Davey was bored, antsy. “I made my own, she just gave me the stuff. Can we go to the park? You promised.”

His mom sat down at the table, a cold glass of water besdie her, and her phone in her hand. “I said maybe we’d go tonight, if you were good.”

Davey picked up his foot to stomp then thought better of it. “I was good. Ask Gran. I played with my legos, and cars, and didn’t bug her during her shows. Well, okay, during her morning game show, but that was only because I couldn’t reach the cookies.”

His mom looked at him, the ghost of a smile from whatever she’d seen on her phone fading as she frowned. “You couldn’t reach the cookies because you weren’t allowed to have any, remember?”

Davey felt his irritation grow. “I didn’t know, but Gran told me. So I had stupid apple slices instead.”

His mother’s attention was back on her phone. “Go play for a bit, okay?”

Davey stormed down the hall to his bedroom, slamming his door as hard as he could. It wasn’t fair. He’d played with all his stupid toys all day, even the ugly cowboy and horse dolls his Gran had bought him at a garage sale. He threw himself on his bed, punching his pillow. It’d been ages, like forever, since he’d been to the park. He didn’t care about swinging or slides but there were bound to be other kids from school there to play with. It wasn’t fair. His mom could go on her phone while she sat waiting for him – she usually did anyhow. What difference did it make if she sat in her car or at the kitchen table? He’d done what she’d said, put away his laundry. He’d only given sass to Gran when she’d tried to make him eat his apples without honey to dip them in. Not his fault his mom decided he wasn’t allowed cookies for a snack anymore.

He glared at the stupid puzzle he’d tried to do, the one his mom bought at the discount store. Missing three pieces? There were only forty to begin with.

He slid off the bed and went into the living room. At least with Gran gone he could watch TV. He found a cartoon and sat on the floor in front of the coffee table, playing with the cars he’d left there earlier. He’d seen this one a hundred million times. He flicked through the channels, stopping when something caught his eye, like a cereal commercial, or loud jingle. His mom said when she was little, there was more to watch, but only certain days and times. All his friends in kindergarten talked about shows he couldn’t get on basic cable. His mom said it was because they were rich and didn’t have a useless ex paying a pittance in support. Davey figured she was right, because his dad was even poorer than they were – he lived in an apartment that was one room, two if you counted the washroom behind the curtain.

Davey found a show with kids playing outside, laughing and chasing each other. The park near his school was way better than the one on the show. He went back into the kitchen hoping his mom would be ready to go.

“Mom, can we go now?” His mother didn’t look up from her phone. “Mom!”

She tapped her screen. “What?”

“Can we go to the park?”

His mother got up and got her charger; Davey’s spirits soared until she sat back down and plugged her phone into the wall. “When my phone’s done charging.”

Davey peered at the screen. Her phone was at 4%. That would take forever and ever and ever. Not fair. “You’ve got a car charger!”

“The car overheats if I keep it running, you know that. It won’t charge if it’s not running.”

Davey wanted to scream, shout, cry, but he knew better. He went back to the living room, watched the stupid kids playing hide and seek. One of them said they had to go home for dinner and left. Alone. Davey watched as the group of kids went the other way to their houses, with no adults. They were his age. His heart started to pound in his chest. His mom always drove to the park, but it only took a minute. She never had time to walk plus she said they could stay longer if she drove. The park wasn’t even as far as the school, so why couldn’t he go alone? He crept to the front door, slid his feet into his old Velcro shoes, and opened the door as quietly as he could.

He tripped on the loose deckboard, almost fell and skinned his knees. He wiped his forehead, grateful he hadn’t. He hated blood and if he’d fallen, his mom would’ve been so angry she might spank him for sneaking out.

He went the long way around, not wanting to risk walking past Gran’s little house and getting caught. He stood on the street corner, trying to remember which way his mom turned when they went to the park. Figuring he better not risk crossing the busy street, he went right and trudged along, kicking stones and empty Styrofoam cups. He didn’t recognize the buildings he passed, but that didn’t concern him – it was hard to get a good feel for where you were when you were stuck in the middle of the backseat in a booster seat.

A bus passed, belching smoke. Davey wrinkled his nose and waved the air in front of his face. He started to wonder if he’d gone the wrong way when he’d been walking for ten hundred years and didn’t see anything familiar. Boarded up stores, a few cars, the distant boom-boom of someone playing a loud radio. He spotted a skinny cat skulking under a rusty car, and snapped his fingers, made a clicking, kissy sound.

“C’mere, kitty-kitty-kitty. C’mere.”

A squirrel ran across the road, and the cat tore off, chasing it into a jungle of tall grass. Davey wanted to stop the cat, but, almost thrillingly, wanted to see it hunt the tree-rat down. Davey ran as fast as he could, jumping over bags of garbage, over an old TV. There was a small building ahead, kind of like the one his dad lived in but in worse shape. The windows were broken on almost every floor, and the cat chased the squirrel around back of the building. Davey felt a stitch in his side so he gave up the chase, bent double, chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath. Mrs. Jamieson would’ve been happy with the running he’d done, she kept telling him faster, keep going, during gym class in JK. He wondered if she’d be his senior kindergarten teacher this year, he could tell her all about keeping up with the cat and squirrel.

Davey wiped his sweaty face with the bottom of his t-shirt. He wanted some cold water to drink, then to dump over his head the way they did during televised sporting events – all sports. Davey thought he might like to be a baseball player, or else football, and that was one of the exciting things, seeing how they swigged water, swooshed more in their mouth, spit, then dumped the rest over their heads.

When the pain in his side stopped, when he could breathe normally, Davey turned in a slow circle. No cat, no squirrel, no street. Just this broken building, and broken pavement covered in dirt. He wondered if people lived there because there were broken bottles and cigarette butts scattered on the ground. This place made his house look fancy. He could hear cars coming from the other side of the building, so he shrugged and kept walking. Maybe he’d just taken a long way to the park.

He’d taken a couple of steps when someone spoke. “Hey, kid, what’re you doin’ here?”

Davey spotted a guy, younger than his mom but still old, like even older than the high school kids who walked past the park to go to the teenager hangout. “I’m going to the park.”

The guy snorted, spit into the tall grass by the stoop where he sat. “What park? Ain’t no park nowhere near here, kid.”

Davey froze, his thoughts spinning so fast in his head his heart couldn’t beat fast enough to keep up. “There’s not?”

The guy sucked on his cigarette, and Davey caught a scent of weird smelling tobacco. Not like what his dad used to smoke before he quit. Almost like a skunk. “Ain’t nothin’ round here but us rats.”

Davey let out a nervous laugh. “You’re not a rat.”

The guy squinted, staring hard at Davey. His eyes were all red, like his mom’s sometimes got when she was crying but lying to Davey saying she had something in them. Shiny, too, like glassy marbles or polished stones. His hair was shiny, too, beneath his dirty ball cap. “You lost?”

Davey shook his head. Somehow, lying seemed better than admitting the horrible truth. “Just took a wrong turn, followed a cat chasing a tree-rat.”

“Skinny cat, black and white?” Davey thought for a second, nodded. “That’s Mama. She got kittens nearby, prob’ly looking to feed so she can feed her babies. Did she catch the squirrel?”

Davey shrugged. “Can I see the kittens?”

The guy scraped his cigarette on the ground to put it out and tucked the butt in his pocket. “Nope. She keeps movin’ ’em whenever she sees a coy-ote. Think she’s in one of the apartments, but I ain’t gonna go messin’ ’round in there, never know who’s up to no good, who’s sleepin’.”

“People live here?” Davey gaped at the guy. “Do you live here?”

“Sometimes. At least ’til they come and tear it down. Whole area is bein’ leveled, but ’til then, sometimes I stay here.”

Davey didn’t like to admit he didn’t know things, but curiosity got the better of him. “Tear what down? What’s level mean?”

“Ka-boom, bang! Poof, gone.” The guy clapped his hands and moved his arms straight in front of him.

Davey thought he might like to see that. “Are they doing it today?”

The guy shrugged. “Prob’ly not, it’s end of the day for workin’ folk. No big equipment, neither. Figure they’d have heavy machines before they do the blowing up. What’s your name anyhow, kid?”

Davey was disappointed. “Davey. What’s yours?”

The guy stood, stretching. He was tall, and as skinny as the mama cat. “Clem. Nice to meetcha.”

Davey shook the filthy hand the guy offered. “Well, I better go.”

The guy pulled his cap off and scratched his head. “To the park. Right. What park you goin’ to? Might be goin’ the same way.”

“The one with the jungle gym, the tall one. The one at the school is lame.” Davey walked along beside Clem, grateful not to be alone. The smells here were like nothing he’d smelled anywhere. Rotting garbage, filth, skunky cigarette smoke, and worse.

“Near the skateboard park? Like across the street a bit?”

Davey shrugged. “Think so. I’ve never been allowed to go there, but the teenagers all hang out near there.”

Clem whistled through his teeth. “You sure got turned ’round real good. Ain’t nowhere near here.”

Davey felt his heartrate pick up again, felt a bit of panic. “How do I get there?”

“It’s your lucky day, lil Davey. I’m headin’ there. Got some business with the teenagers at the skateboard park.”

“What kind of business? My mom says the older kids are trouble, do bad stuff.” Davey kicked a rock and watched it roll into the tall grass beside the cracked pavement.

Clem laughed until he coughed. “Your mom’s smart. But if I tell you why I’m goin’ there, you gotta promise not to tell.”

Davey walked beside Clem, contemplating his choices. Ms. Wilkes, the principal at school, had given his class so much trouble last year because they’d been mean to the supply teacher, and while only Joe had been the one to put gum on her seat, everyone had known and no one told the supply teacher. Davey had felt terrible, the teacher had almost cried, and the principal told them that she was new, brand-new to teaching, and how horrible it was that everyone had kept Joe’s secret, how they should be ashamed of themselves. But Davey wanted to know what went on at the big kid park, wanted to know what kind of business Clem did. Finally, he crossed his fingers behind his back. “I promise.”

“M’k then. My little bro, he’s sixteen. He goes there late at night, and I go to make sure he don’t get into trouble, y’know? Like that he’s not drinkin’, smokin’, stealin’.”

“Do you drink? You smoke, I saw you put the weird half smoked cigarette in your pocket. Do you steal?” Davey tripped on a broken bit of sidewalk, he was staring so intently at Clem.

Clem righted Davey and continued walking. They walked for so long, Davey thought he wouldn’t answer. Finally, Clem took his ball cap off, smoothed his hair, and jammed it back on his head. “I do all that, and more. That’s why I look out for Calvin. Make sure he don’t get into the same sh—stuff I did. Meet the same guys I did.”

Davey didn’t understand, and his confusion made him forget his manners. “Why’s it a secret? Don’t you tell Calvin to stay away from the bad guys? And why don’t you live with your brother? And what stuff, besides drinking, smoking, and stealing?”

Clem groaned. “Shoulda kept my mouth shut. That’ll teach me, huh? Calvin don’t know I’m there. I just watch out, y’know? The guys I’m tryin’ to make sure Calvin don’t get friendly with? They know not to talk to him, but some of ’em are a—jerks. So now and then, I swing by, make sure they’re not talkin’ to Calvin.”

“Is that why you don’t live with Calvin? Is he mad at you because you drink, smoke, steal, and other stuff? That’s stupid though. If I had a big brother, I wouldn’t care if he did stupid stuff, as long as he took me to the park, hung out with me, talked to me.”

Davey thought Clem might be irritated with him because he blew out a breath like his mom did when she got annoyed. “I haven’t lived with Calvin in a long time, since he was like ten. And it’s not Calvin so much as my parents. They said I wasn’t never allowed to talk to him again.”

They were approaching a busy street, not the same one where Davey had been, but somehow reassuring after his stint in the barren wastelands they were emerging from. “That’s just dumb. Maybe Calvin wants to talk to you. Maybe Calvin wants to see you.”

“Dunno. I don’t do the same stuff I did, y’know. I still smoke the wacky, but that’s legal. Like drink is. But don’t do that much, neither. Thought about goin’ back, maybe makin’ friends with ’em. Problem is, ain’t no one wants to help someone out, y’know? Like I been bad, done bad, so I’m forever gonna be bad because no one thinks bad can turn good.”

Davey thought for a few seconds, shook his head. “That’s dumb. My dad, he got a dewey eye –”

“DUI?” Clem snorted and Davey glared at him.

“Yeah. He went to jail and everything. My mom left him because of the dew-DUI. But when my dad came out? He got a job, says it’s not a great job, but if he keeps going, keeps trying, eventually they’ll let him move up. Not really sure what that means, except he’ll make more money. And then he can move into an apartment with real rooms, maybe even two bedrooms so I can sleep over. He doesn’t drink anymore, either. He’s like old, really old, like my mom, but not as old as Gran. I think he’s thirty? Mom gave me a card to give him for his birthday, and it had a three and a zero.” Davey considered his wish, the wish he’d had since his dad went to jail, and decided to share with Clem because while he didn’t understand Clem’s secret, he felt he owed him one. “I’ve got a secret, too. My mom still loves my dad. And he still loves her. I wish they’d get back together more than anything.”

Clem frowned down at Davey as they joined the heavy pedestrian traffic. “You sure you not just dreamin’ there, Dave? Like, don’t most kids wish their parents’d get back together some day?”

“Nah. I heard my mom telling her friend, when I was supposed to be sleeping. She’s scared to tell him, in case it makes him drink again.” Davey wasn’t sure that was exactly what his mom had said to Beth but figured it was close enough. “And my dad? He gives all his money to Mom, as much as he can. He goes to the foodbank so he can give her more. I’m not allowed to tell her though. He bought her chocolate ice cream for her birthday but he made me lie and say I’d found the money in the sofa cushions and it was my idea. I don’t like chocolate ice cream so she believed me that I bought it for her, but I wanted to tell her I’d have bought Neapolitan because then we’d both have ice cream. Dad’s favourite is vanilla, mine’s strawberry, and Mom’s a sucker for chocolate.”

Clem put a hand out to stop Davey from walking when the walk sign started to flash. “Maybe you should just tell your parents, y’know?”

“What, break their secrets?” Davey considered. He’d been tempted, many times, but remembered what the principal said. “Maybe.”

Davey heard sirens, tires squealing. Clem shielded Davey as they backed away, looking everywhere for whatever was the cause of the ruckus.

“Freeze, put your hands up!” A police man shouted from somewhere ahead of Clem. Davey poked his head from around Clem, trying to get a glimpse of whatever was going on. His jaw dropped when he saw the cop had a gun pointed at them. “Let the boy go!”

Two more officers ran at them, one grabbing Davey and roughly pulling him away. Clem’s ballcap flew through the air and landed on the road as the other officer forced him to the ground, handcuffs circling his thin wrists.

“Stop it! Stop it! You’re hurting him!” Davey screamed as the officer pulled him towards a cruiser. “Stop, please stop!”

“You’re okay, son, you’re safe now.”

“I’m not your son! Stop, they’re hurting him!”

Two officers were pulling Clem roughly to his feet. A crowd had gathered to watch. Davey felt tears burning as he fought the officer holding him back, he didn’t care who saw him cry. He heard a car screech to a halt, two more doors slammed.

“Davey! Davey! Thank God you’re okay!” Davey heard his mother screaming as he turned towards her.

Davey, caught by surprise, forgot for a moment the terror. Shock wiped everything else away when he realised that it was his dad, not his gran, with his mom. “Mom? Dad?”

“We’re here, we’re here. What happened?” Davey’s mom knelt in front of him, but his dad strode towards the two cops about to throw Clem in the car. Davey felt sick, his dad was storming like he was going to kill.

“Dad! No! He’s my friend!” Davey broke free of the officer, knocked over his mom, as he ran towards Clem. “Stop!”

The officers tried to block him, but Davey squeaked under their outstretched arms and wrapped his arms around Clem’s waist. “If anyone’s been bad, it’s me. I snuck out, and Clem was helping me get to the park. He wants to make sure the bad guys don’t bug the teenagers, and he’s my friend!”

Davey’s dad put a hand on Davey’s shoulder, staring at Clem. “Davey, let go, okay?”

“Not until the police promise not to take him away.” Davey clung tighter to Clem’s middle. “Make them take the cuffs off, please Dad?”

“We have to fill out a report, get statements.” The officer was talking to Davey’s mom, but he uncuffed Clem. “Don’t take off, make our job harder.”

Clem rubbed his wrists as he nodded. “Whatever. Get off, kid.”

Davey didn’t like Clem’s tone but then he saw where Clem was looking. A group of teenagers were standing on the corner, gawking. One of them held Clem’s hat. Davey thought he might look a bit like Clem, except his eyes weren’t all red and shiny. On a hunch, Davey ran towards them, stood in front of the one with Clem’s hat. “Are you Calvin?”

The guy nodded, still staring at Clem. Instead of grabbing the hat, Davey grabbed his arm. “Come on, come here.”

The crowd was dispersing, all the police cars but for one pulling away. Davey led Calvin to Clem, his eyes on his new friend. Clem brushed his hands through his stringy, greasy hair. “Hey, Cal.”

Calvin nodded, his eyes never leaving Clem. Calvin’s cheek clenched, and Davey started to wonder if he’d made a mistake because Calvin looked like his dad did when he was angry. Then, before Davey registered the movement, Calvin flung his arms around Clem.

Davey stood on the sidewalk, smiling up at Clem. Then he saw Clem’s eyes were red and glassy again, only this time because of tears. Davey wasn’t sure, but he thought maybe they were what his mom called happy tears. Like when she cried at the end of a cheesy movie.

“We still need to fill out the report.” The cop cleared his throat.

“Can we go home? Fill it out there?” Davey forced a yawn. “I’m kinda beat and sh-stuff. Can Clem and Calvin come over? Fill out the report at our place?”

Davey rode in the cop car with Clem and Calvin, insisting he had to to make sure they didn’t take Clem to jail. He watched his parents as the cruiser drove past, hugging on the sidewalk. Who knew going to the park could be such an adventure, and have a happy ending?

 

 

 

 


 

The Cardinal, the Blue Jay, and the Gravestones

“I got off work early today, for the long weekend.” I spread the blanket my mother had made for Glory many moons ago on the grass beside Dennis. I’d been using the blanket (embroidered with colourful birds and flowers) every single day for two years, never washed it once, and other than fading from sun and rain, it still looked like new. “I’ll sit with you, since I sat with Glory the past few times.”

I put my big purse on one corner, kicked my shoes to the other, and lay down on the edge on the opposite side. I traced my fingers over the letters etched in stone – Dennis Templeman, January 7th-April 19th – and felt tears burn my eyes. Thirty-eight years-old when he died, we should’ve celebrated his fortieth over four months ago. “I’m still sorry I didn’t go to Scotland like we’d planned, but I just couldn’t. You understand, don’t you?”

A breeze rustled through the leaves in the trees behind our row. I closed my eyes, let the wind lift my hair and dry my tears. “I knew you would. Maybe in a few years, for my fortieth, I’ll make it there. Probably not.”

The breeze stopped and I heard the birds before I saw them. Cardinals and blue jays, winging through the air from tree to tree. “And hello to you, too, Glory. Mommy’s here.”

I stretched my arm over Dennis’s side of the stone to Glory’s, traced her letters – Glory Templeman, February 3rd-April 21st – and smiled at the carved cardinal between her daddy’s name and hers. “You fought so hard, baby girl. I can’t believe you’d be six now. You never got to go to school, but I showed you the pictures I took on what should’ve been your first day of Junior Kindergarten, remember? I think you would’ve liked your school. I drove past on my way here, saw your first friend, Ruthie from down the street, who’d have been in your class. She was playing in the park, I bet she’s excited to be starting grade one on Tuesday.”

The birds flitting overhead soared out of sight, and I felt alone. Two years and four months had passed, yet the grief never faded. Time doesn’t heal anything, not really. Not when your heart is buried six feet below, covered by dirt and grass. I dug my iPad out of my purse, found the movie I’d downloaded for Glory, and set the tablet over Glory’s name so she could watch and listen while I talked to Dennis. I knew anyone who wandered past would think I was crazy, but I didn’t care. I had some things I needed to say, and coming here every day beat the loneliness at home.

“Dennis, there’s something I need to talk to you about. Mark, at work, asked me out again. Of course, I told him no. But I’ve been thinking –” I swiped impatiently at the tear that escaped. “This is so hard. You and Glory are together, and I’m all alone. The tenants I leased the house to want to buy it. I’m thinking maybe I should sell, buy a different house. Move out of the apartment I rented after…well, after you left.”

The gentle breeze brought the scent of fresh flowers, likely from the new grave I’d noticed had been dug the day before. “The house is too big for me, and holds too many memories. Those first few days after the accident, with everyone cramming inside while I sat vigil with Glory, then after, when…” I swiped at the tears streaming freely now. “Those are the memories the house holds. I’ve got the rest in my head, and in my heart, but every time I go near the house, I remember the sad, the bad, the angry. I’m shot back in time, to April two years ago, the worst time of my life. The playset you built for Glory, with the dream we’d have more kids, is still there, but all I see are the empty swings, the unused rope ladder and slides. The couple renting, they’re expecting twins. I’m thinking they should have the house, own it, and fill it with their own happy memories, replace the sad ones I see and feel whenever I’m near.”

The breeze stilled and only the faint drone from the movie filled the silence. The cardinal, a male because he was so vibrantly red and beautiful, flew overhead and landed on a low branch in the pine tree behind our row. I heard his familiar cheer-cheer-cheer, his pretty-pretty-pretty, and the answering song of the female somewhere nearby. The breeze picked up, and the scent of gladiolas filled my senses.

“I’m glad,” I smiled through my tears. “I’ve had my eye on a cute little bungalow near the river, nowhere near as big as our house but it’s so pretty. I think Glory would’ve loved it, you too for that matter. But I have to pick something for me, and I think this is the one.”

I heard the jay-jay call of a blue jay, and the cardinal took flight. “Wonder if they’re friends today or fighting?”

The cardinal landed in the tree the female had called from, and a male jay perched above them. They seemed to be talking. “Glory, you’d love this. They’re friends today. Wonder where the girl jay is?”

The breeze picked up and the birds took to the sky. I watched until the blinding sun blurred my vision. “Go back to your movie, honey.”

I heard the drone of a lawnmower start up, not in the cemetery but one of the houses nearby. “That’s the other thing, the house? Mostly nature gardens. Hardly any grass to cut. So many trees, I could hang a billion feeders. You and Glory could follow the cardinal and the jay, come see me.”

I traced the embroidered cardinal on the blanket. Glory hadn’t even been born yet when Mom gave it to me as a shower gift. Dennis had hung it on the wall until Glory was two, begged us to let her use it. Mom insisted we let her, saying she’d crafted it for Glory, to keep Glory warm, and it was a shame we’d turned it into a showpiece. Glory’s first word hadn’t been mama or dada, but bird. She loved cardinals the best, and the cardinals were always in the cemetery. “I think I’ve said this before, but I think you, Glory, attract the cardinals. I asked the groundskeeper if there’d always been so many pretty birds but he said he didn’t think so. I told Grandma that the jays come because of the pretty cardinals you loved so much. She says I’m crazy, that blue jays and cardinals don’t get along, but every time I’m here, they seem to. I think when they don’t, they’re only playing tag because they’re all friends again the next time. That’s because of you, isn’t it, Glory?”

The music I heard from the tablet was intense, almost spooky, and I figured that’s why Glory hadn’t responded. “Dennis? I don’t want to date Mark, that would be too weird to date someone you knew, but I’m thinking –”

The breeze picked up when I broke off my sentence. “Sorry, sorry. It’s so hard to say. But Dennis? Do you think you could ever forgive me? If I decided, someday, to say yes to a man who asked me out?”

The cloying scent of the gladiolas was as strong as they’d been the day of the double funeral, when I’d laid my husband and my daughter to rest together. “I figured you wouldn’t want me to be lonely. Not that I’m looking for someone. Not that there’s anyone who could ever replace you. I’ve just been thinking, late at night, how lonely I am, how much I miss having someone to hug when I’m sad, someone to share good news with. To go out for dinner with. The mother’s on that on-line grief support group keep saying that I’m still alive, but that I’m not living. At first, I’d log off when they said stuff like that, but now? Now, I’m wondering if maybe they’re right. Did I stop living the day you died? Or maybe it was the day Glory died. It’s like the fog closed in the minute the police knocked on my door, and lately? Lately it feels like the sun is trying to poke through, chase away the fog.”

A fat bumblebee buzzed past my ear, probably on their way to the new grave’s flowers. “I hope your new neighbour is nice, that whoever loved them visits often.”

I rolled onto my back, watching the fluffy clouds rolling in. “Is Glory still as she was? The day she died? Or is she growing up? I’ve asked ministers and priests, all religions, but everyone seems to have a different answer. I want to keep seeing Glory as she was. Inquisitive, funny, smart, and oh-so-stubborn. It hurts to think she might be growing up without me, where I can’t see her.”

The birds were back, the females in the lead with the males cheer-cheer-cheering, jay-jaying, and I smiled. I heard the rustle in the trees behind us, knew they’d landed in the tall pine and not the maple nearby. “That cloud? To the west? It looks like a heart, the way Glory used to draw them.”

“I’m going to call the tenants, Jenny and Tom, going to tell them to go ahead, to get a mortgage to buy the house. I told them I’d get a lawyer to draft up a sale, using the rent they’ve paid for the past eighteen months as a down payment. Once we get that settled, I’ll go back to the realtor and discuss the bungalow. The money from the big house will more than pay for the little one, and I’ll have money left over. I know, I know, I’m a savvy shopper. That was one of the things you loved best about me. I’ll invest the difference, just like I did the life insurance money. No, I don’t know what I’m saving for, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out someday. And if the little bungalow is gone once I’ve sold? It wasn’t meant to be and I’ll stay in my little bachelor apartment a bit longer, until I find my place.”

The birds cheered me on, sang their hearts out. “Glad you guys approve. Glory’s movie is over, I should get going. Mom says maybe I should start coming every other day, but not yet. Maybe soon. You and Glory don’t mind, do you?”

I put my shoes on and got to my feet, the breeze picking up and the birds continued to croon. I shook the blanket out, folded it, and put the iPad back in my purse. “I’ll see you both tomorrow, okay? I love you to the moon and back, forever and a day, always.”

I touched my fingers to my mouth as I knelt over the stone, planting a kiss first on Glory’s name, then Dennis’s. “If I decide to go out with the girls tomorrow, I’ll be here early morning or late evening, otherwise I’ll be here for lunch.”

I meandered along the paved path, taking the long route so I could check out the new arrival. The small sign next to a man’s inscribed name made me smile instead of cry. Together, finally, some ten years after he’d passed. “Look out for her, Dennis. Show her around. You too, Glory. I know all about how hard it is to be in a world by yourself, at least help her find her man. Who knows where he’s wandered while he waited.”

The birds flitted from tree to tree, following me as I made my way to my car as they often did. I passed the small pond with the tinkling fountain, and as I rounded the bend, I bumped into someone, staggered a few steps. “Oh, pardon me.”

The man stumbled backwards, his baseball cap falling off. “I’m so sorry.”

I looked into blue eyes rimmed with black lashes, eyes I’d seen a few times. “Kent, right?”

He scooped up his hat and put it back on, nodding. “Jenna, right?”

I grinned. Two years and we finally knew each other’s names. “I don’t usually come this way, but I wanted to pay my respects to the new arrival.”

“Me too, otherwise we’d have met up at the other end, but likely not bumped into each other. I should’ve known you were here since the cardinals were busy today.”

We fell into step, back along the row he’d come from. “They only come out when I’m here? I see the jays all the time.”

I glanced down at the graves I knew Kent had been visiting. Jason Williams, November 30th-September 5th and Kelly Williams, March 1st-November 30th. Kent’s wife had died during childbirth twelve years ago, Jason had died of cancer four years ago, at eight. My heart squeezed. “You’re early.”

Kent shrugged, nodding. “I come more often near the dates, you know? Until today, I hadn’t visited since March.”

I wondered if I’d ever reach the stage where a few times a year was enough. “How’re you doing?”

Kent shrugged again. “Gone on a few dates, took up golf. You?”

I snorted. “I’m the same as ever. Although I told Dennis and Glory I might start coming every other day. Mostly to make my mom happy. She’s worried, thinks I’m depressed. I told her that I was depressed, but I feel like this year I’m at least thinking of tomorrow, and the day after. Maybe not next year, but it’s a start.”

“You’ll do what’s right as it’s right.” Kent patted my arm gently. “Like me. I was ready to date but then Jason got sick, and it’s only been the past year or so I’ve been trying it out. Only it’s hard to meet someone who understands. They get jealous when they ask if I still love Kelly, or they get angry that I still bring her flowers for her birthday.”

I patted his arm this time. “That’s what I’m afraid of, too. That I’ll be alone for the rest of my life because the part of me that loved Dennis so much will never die. At least I’m past the point where the thought of being with someone makes me physically ill.”

We both laughed as we wandered along, not in a hurry. “I bought a plot close to Kel and Jase, isn’t that pathetic?”

“Not really the right person to ask saying as I did the same thing. Couldn’t get too close to them, I waited too long, but I got one near the pond. Figured it was as good a place as any.”

“Eleven seventy-two? I’m next door. Funny how that works, isn’t it? The groundskeeper suggested it to me a few months ago, said there were only two left in this section.”

“We must’ve bought at the same time. Glen told me the same thing.” I smiled to myself, thinking how the groundskeeper had hesitated to approach me, how I’d jumped at the chance. Future real estate, my forever home, near Dennis and Glory. “My dad’s near the new arrival, that’s where Mom will go when it’s her time. Figured I’d be close to everyone some day. At first, after I bought it, I was sad. Couples should be together and all that, but then again, parents should never have to bury their children, and I couldn’t have handled knowing Glory was in the ground alone, Dennis in the ground alone. Plus, if I ever do find someone someday, I can be buried with him.”

We walked in silence until I noticed the cardinals and the jays flitting and singing over the gravestones. “We’ve got company.”

“Blue jays were Kelly’s favourite, and Jason loved the baseball team. I used to think they were a sign, when I’d come to visit, a male and a female jay.”

“They are. Don’t sound like you’re doubting it. And Glory loved cardinals. I think the jays are your Jason and my Glory playing together, watched over by Dennis and Kelly.”

Kent walked on without speaking. I wondered if I’d said something to upset him, or scare him. Maybe I was crazy, but who did it hurt, to take comfort from these small signs? “You know something? I think you’re right. The cardinals joined the jays around the time Dennis and Glory showed up.”

We left the cemetery. I recognized his old pick-up truck parked a few aisles over from my little car. “Guess I’ll see you late fall.”

Kent nodded, but before we parted, he put his hand on my shoulder. “Have you got plans tonight?”

I stared at him, confused and surprised. I didn’t know what to say – part of me wanted to say I didn’t, the other part of me wanted to run back to Dennis, throw myself on top of the grave and weep for considering it.

“Sorry. I shouldn’t have asked. I just thought of all the people in the world, you might understand.” Kent’s eyes were sad, but he smiled. “Plus, you’re really pretty.”

Kent started to walk away. I saw the cardinals in the tree, the male and the female. The pair of blue jays were on a higher branch. “Can I go home and wash up first? Only I expect a decent restaurant if I’m going on my first date in years.”

Kent hesitated. “Only if you like steak. Otherwise I’ll meet you at the coffee shop for a cup of coffee and a doughnut in ten.”

I thought of the steaks Dennis and I had eaten over the years, fallen in love over. “I live in the little building near the steakhouse. Pick me up at seven.”

The birds trilled and sang, fluttered high and soared. For the first time in years, I felt hope blossoming in my chest. The clouds were fluffy and so white against the blue, blue like Kent’s eyes. Four birds flew overhead, soaring higher and higher, and I waved to them, blew them a kiss. “Thanks, honey.”


 

Flight of the Butterfly

Calliope felt niggles of worry, negative feelings she wasn’t used to and definitely didn’t enjoy. Her only link to the ‘real’ world was her cell phone, and she was staring at the ringing device with dread in her belly. She finally swiped the screen to answer. “Hello?”

“I’m looking for a Ms. Uh, Calleopie? Jones?” The voice was hesitant and stumbled over her name.

“Call-eye-oh-pee. That’s me.”

“Oh good. Ms. Jones?” The uncertainty in the woman’s voice turned confident. “I regret to inform you that your request to lease a unit has been denied.”

Calliope uncrossed her fingers and blew out a breath. She’d been expecting bad news and the confirmation eased her troubled mind. “Right-o, cheerio. Thanks anyhow.”

Calliope clicked the disconnect circle on her phone’s screen and grinned at Mrs. Harper. “Funny how that works, isn’t it? You stress and worry all day, hoping and waiting, dreaming and praying, then you don’t get good news, and – poof – the negative energy floats away.”

Mrs. Harper patted Calliope’s hand reassuringly. “You’ll find your place, I know you will. And like I told you last week, you’re welcome to stay as long as you need.”

Calliope shook her head, her unruly blonde curls bouncing into her face. “Now, now, Mrs. Harper. I’ve already stayed too long.”

Mrs. Harper moved her wheelchair around the table as Calliope stood up. “If I said I wasn’t ready for you to go?”

Calliope leaned over to hug the older woman. “I’d say it’s not like you to lie, Mrs. Harper. You’ve been generous, letting me stay longer than you needed me, but if I stay too long, we’ll become dependent.”

Mrs. Harper nodded sadly. “You came into my life when I was ready to give up on everything. I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for me.”

Calliope picked up her backpack, shrugging the straps high on her thin shoulders. “We helped each other. You’ve got my number. As long as my sister keeps paying the bill, you’ll always be able to reach me.”

Calliope knelt to hug the older woman, wiped the tears from her lined face, and kissed her cheek. Without another word, she skipped to the door. With a last wink, she was gone.

*

Calliope sat on a fallen tree at the lake, throwing stones and skimming them across the glassy surface. Thoughts flittered in and out of her mind, much like Calliope herself flitted through life. Until recently, Calliope had been satisfied to drift like wood in water, from shore to shore. The past few months, Calliope had started to think perhaps she wanted more. To put down roots somewhere, the way her sister had. Maybe not to get married, have kids, but to have an address to go with the phone. She could still be a free spirit, couldn’t she, with a home? Somewhere to go when there wasn’t anywhere else?

She skipped the last smooth pebble across the water’s surface, counting ten ripples before the stone succumbed to gravity and Calliope picked up her buzzing phone. “I actually thought you’d have called earlier.”

“Where are you?” Wilhelmina’s curt tone made Calliope smile.

“At the lake.”

“What lake? Where? You turned off the tracking on your phone.”

Calliope slid her feet into her sandals and stood. She did a half turn, scanning the lush green surroundings, the nature unimpeded by society destruction. “Honestly? I’m not sure. I didn’t turn off the tracking, the service here in the wilderness is sketchy.”

“How long ago did you leave Mrs. Harper’s?”

Calliope frowned. “What time is it?”

“Four.”

“Four days and four hours ago.” Calliope skirted around a large puddle from the rain early that morning. “Give or take a few minutes.”

“Calliope Jones, you were supposed to let me know before you left.” Wilhelmina’s angry outburst made Calliope hold the phone away from her ear. “You didn’t get the unit?”

“Nope. Not meant to be,” Calliope shrugged as she thought of the small storage until she’d tried to rent. Her sister had agreed to pay the rental fees until Calliope could figure out a way to pay for it herself.

Wilhelmina let out an exasperated breath. “You haven’t found someone in need yet, have you?”

Calliope hadn’t found anyone since she’d gotten off the bus on the highway and followed her whims into wilderness. Her cell barely worked, and she still had two fully charged battery packs in her bag. “Nope. Kind of glad, recharging my batteries with Mother Nature — though sleeping under the stars isn’t so much fun when it’s lightning.”

Wilhelmina cleared her throat. “I know you said you were done with helping –”

Calliope frowned. “I never said that. I just said I was taking a little break. Maybe find myself a place where I can leave stuff to come back to.”

“Okay, sorry, I misspoke. I know you’d said you were thinking of setting down roots and that’s why you wanted the storage unit.” Calliope grinned knowing Wilhelmina was choosing her words very carefully. Part of her wondered what Wilhelmina wanted, the other part wanted to hang up and wait for her to try again another day. “Since the, uh, new digs fell through, I, er –”

“Should I hang up now?” Calliope let out a low laugh. “This is hurting you.”

Silence stretched, interrupted only by the call of a loon across the lake. “Will you help me? Please?”

Calliope closed her eyes where she stood, trying to block out the negative feelings her sister’s words created. She owed her sister so much, yet wasn’t capable or repaying the debt.

“Calliope?”

Calliope’s eyes popped open. “I’ll be there.”

*

Calliope spotted her sister sitting in her shiny black car before Wilhelmina saw her. She used the extra time to study her favourite person in the world. Her sister’s hair was still dark, but Calliope thought she saw a bit of silver in the sleek strands, or was that a trick of the light? She hadn’t seen her sister in eight years, seven months, and thirteen days.

There was a child’s car seat in the back, but it was empty. So Wilhelmina had come alone. Calliope instinctively knew she wasn’t ready for whatever Wilhelmina wanted.

Calliope tried the door, wasn’t surprised to find it locked. She rapped her knuckles on the glass and was rewarded with the click of locks releasing. As soon as she slid into the car, the locks clicked again. “Hey, Sis.”

“God, you’re filthy.” Wilhelmina’s blue eyes widened in horror. “I’m sorry.”

Calliope waved a hand to waft away the apology. “I cleaned myself up but then no one would stop to give me a drive half the time. The bus driver this afternoon let me ride for free, so that was a bonus.”

“I transferred some money to your account.” Wilhelmina’s hungry eyes stayed glued to Calliope’s face as if feasting. “You could’ve bought a bus ticket from cottage country right to the station.”

“I told you I haven’t been able to get a new bank card since –” Calliope closed her eyes, thought hard. “Before I stayed with Mr. Smythe.”

Wilhelmina’s blue eyes widened, her mouth opened in a comical ‘o’ of surprise. Calliope grinned as she tucked tangled curls behind her ear.

“The people I help sometimes take care of me too, you know.”

Wilhelmina recovered herself, snapping her mouth closed. She went to start the car, realized it was still running, and pulled out of the lot. “The kids are with their father for the night.”

Calliope turned the words over in her head. She didn’t talk to her sister as often as she talked to the kids, but surely her sister or her niece would’ve mentioned if Stephen didn’t live with them anymore? “Right.”

“I was going to take you out to dinner, but –” Wilhelmina cast a sidelong glance at Calliope.

“I’m disgusting.” Calliope beamed, nodding her agreement. “I got rained on two nights in a row at the lake, cleaned off in the lake, washed my clothes, too. Then no one would stop to pick me up, and I got several dust baths from cars driving into the dirt. Oh, and one car hit a puddle and drenched me with muddy spray.”

“You know they do that on purpose, don’t you? Drive on the shoulder to stir up dust?” Wilhelmina kept shooting glances at Calliope.

Calliope shrugged. “Maybe. I choose to believe that they’re swerving to avoid a squirrel or the sun got in their eyes, then I thank the heavens that they missed me. You know, that my guardian angel was looking out for me like always.”

Wilhelmina’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. “I can’t take you home, the kids and Stephen are having a movie night. Let’s get take-out.”

Calliope shrugged her agreement. She had no appetite, but felt better knowing her sister and Stephen were still married. Being in the city, so close to the ghosts, made her clench in ways that weren’t good for her mind. She watched vaguely familiar buildings and streets pass as they headed out of the downtown core. Calliope and Wilhelmina had lived on these streets as often as they’d lived in the homes of strangers. These streets were what Calliope remembered when other people reminisced about their childhoods, about birthday parties and school trips and family outings.

“Seems a lot more these days.” Calliope hadn’t realised she’d spoken aloud until Wilhelmina tensed beside her. “Never mind.”

“You could’ve been talking about anything — buses, cars, buildings. Yet I knew automatically you were talking about the homeless.” Wilhelmina’s laugh held no mirth. “Just proves that no matter how far from the streets I get, I’m still the homeless girl watching out for her baby sister.”

Calliope studied her sister’s profile, tried to understand the emotions behind the tone. “You sound like you feel guilty or some other silly sad thing.”

Wilhelmina scraped her teeth over her bottom lip. Calliope was amazed the colour hadn’t come off. “I know you said –”

Calliope waited for her sister to regroup, watching the sights as they passed. They were getting on the highway, racing out of the despair and into the money, the hope. Where Wilhelmina had ended up. “Wil?”

“Stephen suggested – I thought…” Wilhelmina glanced helplessly at Calliope. “Will you help Marcus?”

Calliope couldn’t help herself. She started to giggle, then had to clutch her tummy to catch her breath. Giddy relief made the whole thing funnier. “Marcus? Rich and powerful Marcus? Does he need a maid? Because if that’s why I’m here, you can forget it. My housekeeping skills are not my strong suit saying as I’ve never had a house to keep.”

“Are you done?” Wilhelmina tapped her fingers on the steering wheel while Calliope tried to stifle her giggles. They were getting off the highway when Calliope finally swiped her streaming eyes and frowned, confused.

“What’s wrong?”

“Let’s order our food, then we’ll sit and talk. Better I explain properly anyhow.”

Calliope put her hand on her sister’s arm. “Just tell me now.”

Wilhelmina turned into a parking lot with a fast food drive thru and got in line behind a pick-up truck. “Marcus isn’t well, Calliope.”

Calliope felt terrible for laughing. “Cancer? No, probably his heart, he’s always been a work-a-holic. Earns money, then stresses it’s not more money.”

“No, he’s physically fine,” Wilhelmina huffed out in a rush. “Your usual?”

“If my usual is a chicken sandwich, then yes. Oh, and iced tea. Now, if it’s not physical, it’s…mental? Surely not Marcus Graham, the high and mighty.” Calliope tucked her wild curls behind her ears while she waited for Wilhelmina to order. Marcus, Stephen’s cousin, was best man at their wedding. Calliope had enjoyed looking at him, but tuned the rest of him out of her psyche. She’d learned at an early age to ignore appearances.

Wilhelmina rolled up her window as she inched the car ahead in line. “Marcus had, er, a bit of a breakdown last year.”

“Surely he can afford the best doctors and meds. Why are you telling me?”

“Because the doctors don’t help, the medicine doesn’t help. He’s just not –” Wilhelmina scraped her lip with her teeth again. She blew out a breath, sighed. “Quite right.”

Calliope snorted. “What, you mean he’s working non stop, buying up and selling things at a frenetic pace? News flash, that’s Marcus. Whether right or wrong, that’s who he is, Wil.”

Wilhelmina shook her head as she opened her window to pay and took the bag of food and their drinks. Calliope juggled the drink tray, annoyed they’d wasted one for two drinks. When Wilhelmina was done, she pulled ahead to a spot next to a table covered by an umbrella. The car reeked of grease, turning Calliope’s stomach. Wilhelmina opened her door. “I hate eating in the car. Let’s go.”

Calliope left her backpack on the floor of the front seat and followed her sister, carrying the drinks. When they sat down, Calliope sniffed and made a face — the stink of the city wasn’t much better than the grease laden air in the car. She took the bottle of hand sanitizer her sister passed her and squirted some on her hands. “My tummy’s already upset, so let’s talk about something else while we eat. How’re the kids?”

Wilhelmina nibbled a fry, her face lit with a huge smile. “Good. Bobby’s toilet training already, and Wendy started school last week.”

“Wendy said she’d already learned everything and didn’t need to go back when we video chatted after her first day.” Calliope sipped her drink. “Figured she probably had with you for her mother. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t know how to read and write, wouldn’t know two plus two is six.”

Wilhelmina slapped Calliope with a wad of napkins. “I can’t take credit for Wendy, she’s just a sponge learning everything everywhere. She reminds me of you that way. You were so inquisitive, and you were reading like her. Just unfortunate for us that you were limited on materials.”

“I dunno, I learned a lot from public bathroom walls.” Calliope bit into her sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. She swallowed, wiped the mayo from her cheek, and laughed. “Remember that one at the park by the beach?”

Wilhelmina’s cheeks turned pink. “I was trying to figure out how to get us out of there without the CAS lady seeing, and you come out asking what s-e-x meant, and why the illustration on the wall showed two men playing leap frog.”

Calliope laughed harder and choked on a fry. “That CAS lady was horrified. That’s when they tried to split us up because they had no homes with room for two.”

“We managed to get away though.” Wilhelmina’s blue eyes got shiny with unshed tears. “I should’ve let her take you at least.”

Calliope pushed her food away. “Yeah, you should have. Then you could have stopped trying to take care of me so much and taken care of yourself more.”

Wilhelmina pushed her food away as well. “I made a lot of mistakes, Calli. Ruined your life because of them.”

Calliope fanned her face to dry her own tears. “You saved my life. If you hadn’t brought me with you when you ran away, I’d be dead by now. Become like them, probably worse.”

“You wouldn’t have been like them. You’re nothing like them. You were just a little kid, I should’ve left, called the Children’s Aid Society from the phone booth down in the lobby on my way.”

“Oh yeah, because the CAS would’ve been so much better than where I was.” Calliope rolled her eyes. Deciding the talk had gotten too deep, she pulled her food back and picked up the rest of her sandwich. “Now, tell me if Bobby still sucks his thumb?”

Wilhelmina stared at Calliope for a few seconds, opened her mouth, closed it. Calliope shot her a pleading look. “Of course he does. I threw Wendy’s sucky in the garbage when she was his age, listened to her cry for a week but it was gone. How do you stop a kid from sucking on a part of their own body?”

Calliope swallowed the last of her chicken sandwich, thinking. “Tape it down? I still say let him, but you and Stephen are the parents. If it were up to Auntie Cloppy, I’d sit with him and suck my own.”

Wilhelmina laughed as she popped another fry in her mouth. “The kids want to see you so bad, keep asking when they’re going to meet you in real life.”

Calliope shrugged. “I’m here now.”

Wilhelmina stared at Calliope so long Calliope had to look away. “Take a picture, it’ll last longer.”

“Calli, I –” Wilhelmina scrunched up the fast food bag with their garbage and got up to toss it in the bin. When she sat down, she turned on the seat to face Calliope fully.

“You don’t want me to meet them. I get it.” Calliope forced a smile she didn’t feel to her face.

“God, you’re so infuriating. I’d have brought you straight home with me if it weren’t for Marcus. Stephen’s worried sick about him. We’ve tried to help him, but he’s just…empty.” Wilhelmina put her hand on Calliope’s arm. “Stephen and I don’t get you, you know that. We love you, but we don’t understand. But you’ve got this…gift? Knack? Calling. Even when we were on the streets, you were only a little girl but you’d find the saddest person in the area, and you’d sit with them as long as you could. At least until they smiled. Old men with booze in their pockets, cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, talking to themselves would end up coming out of their haze to talk to you. That’s what you do now, isn’t it?”

Calliope shook her head. “No, not at all. I just travel.”

“And find needy people.”

“I’m the one who’s needy,” Calliope snorted. “Homeless, remember?”

“By choice. You rarely tell me anything, rarely talk to me, but I listen when you’re talking to the kids. Mostly Wendy, because Bobby’s not much into talking yet. You tell her things you wouldn’t bother to tell me. Like how you met Mrs. Harper at the bus station, how she looked so sad.”

Calliope frowned. “I just said I found a friend at the bus station, and I was cheering her up, helping her.”

“Which means she needed you.” Wilhelmina shrugged. “I listen to what you’re not saying as much as what you do say.”

Calliope thought of the older woman. She’d had this desperately sad vibe, and Calliope struck up a conversation with her. Turned out her husband had just died, her kids were too busy to be bothered with her, her grandkids barely knew her. She finally confided in Calliope that she went to the bus station every day, trying to decide whether she should get on one or roll in her chair in front of one. “You’re right, I do have a knack for finding needy people and we use each other.”

“Use each other? What do you get out of it?”

“Food, shelter.” Calliope thought hard. “Some of them give me bus fare when I leave.”

“You’re a liar, but I’ll let it pass. You’ve got a good heart, Calliope. And I need you to reach Marcus. No one else has, and I’m not sure anyone else can.”

Calliope slurped the last of her iced tea, kept slurping the ice. “What if I can’t?”

Wilhelmina snatched the cup out of Calliope’s hand. “Honestly? He’s tried to kill himself. Please, Calliope? We don’t know what else, who else, to try.”

Calliope stood up and brushed some of the dust off her shirt. “I’ve always been a sucker for please.”

*

“How far the mighty have fallen.” Calliope stared at the two-storey house Wilhelmina parked in front of. “Didn’t he used to live in a McMansion somewhere?”

“This house was part of the breakdown. Sold the big house and bought this one.” Wilhelmina shook her head.

“Still bigger than anything I’ve been in.” Calliope grabbed her backpack. “Are you sure I shouldn’t go wash up somewhere first?”

Wilhelmina reached into the back seat and grabbed her purse. “What, like in the sink at the fast food place? No, you can shower here.”

They got out of the car and Calliope followed her sister up the walk. The fall blooms were being choked out by weeds and the grass needed mowing. Wilhelmina rang the doorbell. The door swung open, and a tall, handsome man stood to the side. He stood like an expressionless statue, no irritation, no curiosity, no disgust at Calliope’s filth.

Calliope gaped at Marcus. This was the man who’d drank too much and hit on Calliope half-heartedly throughout the reception? His eyes were dull, lifeless. He’d lost a lot of weight and his track pants were dangerously close to falling off. “Hey Marcus. Remember me? Calliope? The one who slapped your face at the wedding eight years, seven months, and twenty-two days ago?”

Marcus glanced at her but didn’t react. Wilhelmina was staring at Calliope. “How’d you know that?”

“I left almost a week after the wedding, that was the last time I saw you. I just added the days after the wedding.” Calliope shrugged, her eyes roaming the foyer. Spotlessly clean.

“Can we come in?” Wilhelmina’s worry was palpable. Calliope studied Marcus again.

Marcus closed the door behind them and led them into the house. The furniture in the formal living room was light, and Calliope suspected, very expensive. “Could we sit somewhere there’s dark furniture? Only I’m a bit dirty.”

Marcus’s eyes flicked over Calliope. He shrugged and they followed him into the kitchen. Calliope had the heebie-jeebies. The house was too neat, too organized. Like no one lived there, not even dust mites.

“Can I use the shower?” Calliope decided cleaning up would give Wilhelmina a chance to brief Marcus on the real reason they were there.

Marcus shrugged but still didn’t say a word. Wilhelmina’s concerned gaze never left Marcus as she spoke. “Upstairs, middle door on the left is the main washroom. The bedroom connecting to it should be free if you want to put your bag in there.”

Calliope studied Marcus’s face for any sign of emotion, but he remained blank. She hurried up the wide staircase and found the washroom. There was no soap or shampoo in the shower (there was a separate jacuzzi tub but nothing there, either). Calliope gazed at her reflection and her concern doubled. She looked a mess, worse than some of the homeless she’d known. Marcus hadn’t batted an eye.

She found what she needed under the sink and washed herself and her clothes beneath the hot water, reveling in the luxury. After hanging her clothes to dry on the rack, Calliope forced herself to turn the water off, grabbed the fluffy towel hanging on the shower door, and stepped out onto the mat. She used her comb, wincing at the snags in her curls, as she pulled out clean clothes (Mrs. Harper had washed her entire wardrobe before Calliope left and Calliope hadn’t worn any of them while she was at the lake). She’d have to find a used clothing store and get some new shoes. Her flip flops were not only held together by duct tape and glue, they’d be useless now that summer was almost over.

She opened the door to the bedroom Wilhelmina had told her to use and jumped. “You scared me!”

Wilhelmina put her finger to her lips, went to the door leading to the hall and peered out. Closing it behind her, she approached Calliope. “Well?”

“Are you sure he didn’t kill himself and that’s just an imprint left behind?” Calliope huffed out a breath.

“He’s not getting better.”

“Talk about stating the obvious. What does he do all day? Does he go to work at least?”

“We don’t know. He doesn’t go to work, he’s on leave. He’s pretty much holed himself up in this house, and never comes out. Stephen used to come by every couple of days but he was getting too depressed so we started coming every weekend. The kids hate it, they find him scary.”

“What happened? Level with me.” Calliope threw her bag on the chair under the window.

“We don’t know. He won’t talk to anyone.”

“Girlfriend? Did she dump him?”

“Not that we know of. He wasn’t seeing anyone seriously in –” Wilhelmina scraped her teeth over her lip. “Ever.”

“We’ve got that in common at least. Although I don’t date. He obviously did at one time.” Calliope took her sister’s hands in hers. “I’m not sure I can help him, Wil. Usually I get a vibe, a sense, but it’s like he’s not there.”

Wilhelmina let out a nervous laugh. “You saw him, he’s there.”

“But he’s dead inside. His eyes are lifeless.” Calliope squeezed her hands. “I’m not sure I can help.”

Wilhelmina’s shoulders sagged. “Calliope, please? At least try?”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t try,” Calliope squared her shoulders. “I’m just not promising anything.”

*

“I made pancakes.” Calliope slid the plate in front of Marcus closer. She might as well have stripped naked and done the jitterbug for all the notice he gave the plate. “Maple syrup or corn syrup? My sister says I’m whackadoodle because I like corn syrup on waffles and pancakes, that it’s a sin that as a Canadian I don’t like maple syrup, but there you have it. Or don’t have it, since you have no corn syrup. But there’s jam.”

Calliope had searched the pantry, the cupboards, when she’d started making breakfast and ended up finding an ancient jar of strawberry jam in the fridge. Now she struggled to open it, found the lid didn’t want to turn. She glanced at Marcus but he stared past her so she got up and put her full force behind the effort. She was rewarded with the lid turning. She opened it, searched for fur, found none. She sniffed – smelled like strawberries. Calliope shrugged, stuck her spoon in and scooped clumps onto her pancakes.

She’d made herself tea because she hadn’t found the coffee. Marcus hadn’t touched his, or the juice she’d put out, nor did he touch the pancakes. “They’re good, I promise. A friend taught me a long time ago.”

They ate – rather, Calliope ate – in silence. She tried not to be rude by staring at him but she still couldn’t get a feel for where he was at mentally. By the time she’d gone to bed the night before, she’d been tempted to cut him just to make sure he bled.

“Your grass needs cutting. You got a lawnmower?” Calliope had used a push mower a couple of times, figured she’d tackle that chore. She needed fresh air, sunshine. Anything but the grey, gloomy atmosphere in the house. “I’ve got to earn my keep.”

Marcus shrugged and Calliope decided to interpret it as a yes. Wilhelmina had lied to Marcus, saying Calliope needed somewhere to stay because their house was cramped because of the kids. Calliope scoffed at the lame excuse for her presence – Wilhelmina knew the holes Calliope had found shelter in.

Calliope finished her food, her tea, and put the dishes on the counter. “Right, well, sorry to interrupt your incessant chatter but I’d better go find the mower.”

Marcus nodded curtly. Calliope went outside to the shed she’d spied from her bedroom window. She was disappointed when she tried the door and found it unlocked – she’d been looking forward to picking the lock. There was a lawnmower like the one Mr. Clark had had – easy peasy, lemony squeezy! Calliope wheeled the mower out of the shed, made several unsuccessful attempts to get it going and was about to give up when she tried once more. The engine engaged, Calliope looked up and winked at Mr. Clark, and pushed the mower towards the front of the house. Someone had cut the grass over the summer – probably Stephen – but not recently. The mower kept bogging with the long grass.

She was just pushing the mower to the side when it died. “Darn.”

“Out of gas?” The male voice startled Calliope and she spun, searching for the source. Instead of Marcus, an older man was watching her from his own yard.

“Either that, or she’s dead.” Calliope grinned.

“You got more?”

Calliope tried to remember if she’d seen a gas can in the shed. “You know something? I don’t know.”

“Hold tight, be back in a jiffy.”

The older man hurried out of sight and Calliope did as she was told. She grinned at the gnomes hiding in strategic places around the man’s yard. When he came back with a jerry can, she pointed at the gnomes. “You’ve got quite the eye for where to put them. I like the one with the fishing rod by your sprinkler.”

“Not me. My wife. Don’t get me started on the fairies she’s hidden everywhere.”

Calliope clapped her hands when she spotted one dangling from a tree. “She looks like she’s flying.”

“Aye, that’s the idea,” the man grunted as he filled the lawnmower’s tank. “That oughtta do it. That’s all I got of mixed fuel.”

Calliope had no idea what mixed fuel was but figured she didn’t need to know. “Well, thanks. I’ll get Marcus to bring over some money.”

“That his name? He’s not much for conversation. Don’t worry about the gas, we’re just happy to see it get mowed. I offered to get my grandson to do his when he does mine, but the guy, Marcus did you say his name was? He didn’t really give a clear answer.” The old man scratched his balding head. “Been here almost a year and I don’t think he’s said two words to my wife or I.”

“You don’t know him well then? Does he have much company?”

“Just a couple with kids come by every weekend. Don’t stay long. Them and delivery people.”

“That’s Stephen, Marcus’s cousin, and Wilhelmina, my sister. I’m staying here for a –” Calliope broke off. She was going to say awhile but the way things were going, she’d be gone within days. “Bit.”

“Well, I’m George, and my wife is Violet. If you need anything, call on us. Unless it’s during the news. We don’t like to be interrupted during the news.” George winked. “That’s when we’re eating. Lunch time, and dinner time.”

“I’m Calliope, and same goes. Except you can drop in during the news, I never watch TV.” Calliope stuck her hand out and shook George’s. “Thanks for helping me out.”

“Only neighbourly.” George scratched his head again. “Maybe you can spark some interest in the lump in there. Doesn’t seem interested in much.”

“That’s the goal.”

*

It hadn’t taken Calliope long to notice Marcus seemed to like everything in order. She’d taken to moving things around, just to watch Marcus come into the room and put them back. At first, she’d thought OCD, but Marcus didn’t seem to have any other compulsions. So she rearranged every time she entered a room, waited for Marcus to start yelling, cursing, something to show he felt anything at all. So far, he’d just put everything back without a word.

Calliope let her inner slob reign. She left dirty napkins on the table, dirty dishes scattered on the counters. Marcus picked up after her without complaint but Calliope thought she’d seen a flicker of emotion in his eyes. That’s why she stayed, the signs of life beneath the mask. Wilhelmina agreed not to bring the kids around, or Stephen, until Calliope got a read on the man. So Calliope did video chats from the closet upstairs so Wendy couldn’t guess where she was. Wilhelmina had dropped off a huge bag of clothes and some shoes for Calliope, taken her to get a new bank card, but other than that Calliope hadn’t ventured farther than George and Violet’s front porch.

Calliope countered the silence and boredom by Googling on her phone. A search on Marcus Graham revealed less than she already knew. Rather than discouraging her, she challenged herself to learn more about him however she could. She’d taken to searching his bedroom whenever he was sleeping on the sofa downstairs. She’d learned nothing other than he didn’t seem to sleep in the bed (she’d put a piece of thread on the two pillows days ago and it hadn’t moved).

Calliope huffed out an irritated breath when she entered the room for the fifth day in a row. Ears straining for sounds from downstairs, she crept into the ensuite washroom and opened the medicine chest, the last unchecked place. “Now we’re talking.”

The cabinet shelves were lined with bottles. The names on the labels meant nothing to her, so she took pictures and decided to Google them somewhere else. She put the bottles back, closed the cabinet, and crept down the stairs.

Sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, she Googled each medicine and the dosage. She felt her concern escalate with each new discovery. She’d stumbled into some heavy stuff. Maximum dosages of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medicines, prescriptions to combat side effects from the regimen of drugs. Calliope had never gone to conventional school, at least never for long, but even she knew that he was overmedicated. She studied the pictures again, this time searching for the doctors. There were four different doctors. How many psychiatrists did he have?

Calliope Googled them. One was a family doctor, one a psychiatrist, and two were unspecified, working out of a mental health clinic. Did they know he was taking so many different pills, know about each other?

Marcus shuffled into the kitchen. Calliope smiled up at him as she quickly locked her screen. “Good nap?”

Marcus grunted. Calliope took that as a positive sign. “Can I get you something to eat? Drink?”

“Why were you in my medicine cabinet?” His voice was gruff, almost rusty.

Calliope was so shocked to hear him speak she forgot to lie. “I was snooping.”

“Don’t.”

Calliope regained her composure. “Why are you on so many different pills? Some of them are hardcore stuff.”

Marcus poured himself a glass of water from the dispenser on the fridge door. Calliope figured he was going to ignore her, go back to pretending she wasn’t there. “Marcus?”

He reached into the small cabinet above the tall fridge, so tall Calliope hadn’t looked in it because she couldn’t reach. He pulled out a handful of bottles. “Those are old. I take these.”

Calliope felt her cheeks warm. Of all the things she’d studied the labels for, the dates hadn’t been one of them. “Right, well, that’s me looking stupid then, isn’t it?”

“Next time you want to know something, ask.” Marcus put the pills back and shut the cabinet doors. He shuffled across the kitchen.

“I’ve tried, you don’t answer.” Calliope whispered the words, but she thought maybe he’d heard because he hesitated before continuing out of the room.

*

Calliope came back from George and Violet’s with slices of pie for Marcus and herself for dessert. Now she just needed to figure out what to make for dinner. She stopped halfway across the foyer, sniffing. What was that smell?

Every other step she took she inhaled. Garlic? Onions? Yes to both, but what else? She’d left Marcus with an uneaten grilled cheese when she’d gone out to visit a couple of hours before, so it wasn’t residual lunch odours. What was it? She heard the clang of a pot, a muttered curse. Calliope took a deep breath and stepped into the kitchen. What she saw made her freeze in her tracks.

Marcus, wearing a white apron, was stirring something on the stove while waving his hand around like he was trying to flick off a leech. “What are you doing?”

Marcus slammed the spoon on the side of the pot before putting it on the stove. “Burnt my hand.”

Calliope set the pie down and went over to peek in the pot. “What’s that?”

“Homemade spaghetti sauce, or it was until I fell asleep. Think it’s burned beyond repair.”

Calliope picked up the spoon and licked the middle where a bit of dark sauce still stuck. “Yep. Definitely beyond repair.”

Marcus twisted the knob to turn the burner off. “Want to go out for pizza?”

Calliope hated dining out, but Marcus hadn’t left the house since she’d been there. He ordered everything online. “Sounds good.”

Calliope pulled on a sweater under the pretense of changing. She didn’t want to go, dreaded what lay ahead. She played with her phone for a few minutes, saw the battery was low and plugged it in. As she left her room, another thought hit her – some of the meds she’d looked up said not to drive or operate heavy equipment. In the weeks since she’d snooped, she hadn’t been brave enough to check what he still took.

She found Marcus at the door to the garage. He’d showered, put on pants and a sweater – a nice change from the sweat pants and faded t’s. Calliope hid a smile when she realized she was right, he had been regaining weight. At least she’d succeeded at one thing. “You good to drive?”

He nodded and opened the door for her. Calliope’s knowledge of cars could be summed up with a paint palette. “Oh, you’ve got a black car.”

“Yep. I had a red BMW, but I sold it. Now it’s the black Chevy SUV.” A faint smile flashed before his face settled into the dull mask Calliope was used to. “You want to drive?”

Calliope shook her head, her curls springing and bouncing around her face. “Can’t. Never learned how.”

Marcus pulled the hand holding the keys back and swerved to get in on the driver’s side. “Never?”

Calliope opened her door and climbed in. “Never.”

Marcus pressed a button on a remote clipped to the visor and the garage door opened as he started the vehicle. “Is your heart set on pizza?”

Calliope buckled her seatbelt. “Unless you want fish I’m game for anything.”

“You don’t like fish?” Marcus pressed the button as they drove down the driveway.

“I’ve eaten way too much tuna in my life.” Calliope made a face. “Sardines, too.”

Marcus copied her cringe. “I’m not obsessed with fish, but canned fish is nothing like good fish. How about Chinese?”

Calliope thought of the smells wafting out of the Chinese food restaurant near where Wilhelmina and Calliope had once called home. “Never had Chinese but it always smelled so good.”

Marcus stared at her while he waited for a light to change. “You’re serious.”

“Sometimes. But I’m telling the truth when I say I’ve never had Chinese food. Except rice. I’ve eaten a lot of rice. And pasta.” Calliope thought of the shelters, the soup kitchens. “Soup, too.”

“Is that why you nuke me a bowl of soup every day at lunch but never have any yourself?” Marcus changed lanes and signalled to turn at the next street.

Calliope nodded. “I don’t mind homemade soup, sometimes I eat that, but I just can’t do the tinned stuff.”

Marcus pulled into a nearly empty parking lot. “We’re early for the dinner rush. Best time to go. All the food is fresh.”

Calliope studied the sign. “Fire Breathing Dragon? Is it spicy stuff?”

“There’s some spicy stuff, like General Tso chicken, but most isn’t.” Marcus opened his door and got out. Calliope swallowed, took a deep breath, and tried to open the door but her hand refused to pull the handle. Marcus frowned into the car when Calliope didn’t join him and immediately hurried over to the passenger side. “Sorry, I should’ve held the door for you at home, too. Been a long time, I’m out of practice.”

Calliope shook her head, her curls swinging into her face, her eyes. She ran her hand through riotous curls, trying to tame them. “Not that.”

Marcus looked completely bewildered. “Calliope? If you want pizza –”

Calliope willed herself to her feet, forced a smile to her lips. “I’m fine, it’s okay.”

Marcus cast glances at Calliope every couple of steps. Calliope continued to inhale, exhale, her eyes glued to the sign. “You know I’ve got no money, right?”

Marcus grabbed her upper arm. “Is that with this is about? This is my treat, my way of thanking you for…everything.”

Calliope felt her face relax a bit, hoped her smile didn’t look so tight. “I’m just not used to this.”

Marcus held the door for her and Calliope was engulfed in smells and sounds. Memories flooded her; smelling the Chinese food place on hot summer nights in the only home she’d had when she was little. She’d sat at her open window, praying for a breeze, and when one came, it brought the scent of heaven. Her tummy’d rumble, hunger clawing her insides, and then there’d be shouting from within the apartment, sounds of breaking glass and skin-on-skin slaps, and she no longer wanted to feast.

“Calliope? Are you okay?”

Transported to the present, she nodded. “Smells so good.”

They followed a tiny Asian woman to their table for two, near the first long table. The woman nodded her head, smiled kindly, and left.

“Shall we?” Marcus gestured to the long tables.

“What?” Calliope had been about to sit down.

“It’s a buffet. We have to get our own food.” Marcus grinned.

“Seriously?” Calliope felt the nerves leaving her. She wouldn’t have to ask a million questions about what to order, how to order. She could just go to the tables and take what looked good.

“All you can eat, so you can go back as many times as you want.”

Calliope felt her jaw drop. Living a feast of famine existence, she felt like she’d just walked through the pearly gates. Marcus handed her a warm plate from the end of the row, and they slid them along the rail, Calliope eyeing each dish in wonder. She gave herself a bit of everything, even a fried shrimp and a crab leg.

“Our plates are pretty full.” Marcus hadn’t taken a bit of everything, but he’d piled his plate high with lots of a few choices. “Let’s go eat this, then check out the other options.”

Calliope followed him to their table. She set her plate down and waved Marcus off when he made to pull out her chair. “Don’t be silly.”

Calliope’s senses were on overload. Savoury, buttery, creamy, tangy. Each morsel she tried was a whole new experience. “This, what was this again?”

“Lemon chicken.” Marcus grinned as Calliope let out a moan of pleasure. “My favourite.”

“I keep thinking this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten, then I try something else and that’s the best thing ever.” Calliope wiped her mouth and sipped the water that had appeared while they were getting their food.

Their next trip, they went for traditional Canadian food – prime rib, potatoes, gravy, Yorkshire pudding. Calliope added a heaping spoonful of lemon chicken and more shrimp on impulse as they passed.

Calliope was filled to bursting. “No more, no room.”

Marcus raised an eyebrow, the hint of a smile on his lips. “You’re sure? There’s still the dessert table.”

Calliope’s eyes opened wide. “I’ll just come, have a peek.”

Calliope had never experienced such divine treats. She wanted some of everything but only took some of what appealed most. Calliope sat down, undid the button on her jeans as she picked up her fork to try the cheesecake – blueberry first. “This is incredible.”

“You like cheesecake obviously.” Marcus grinned as he bit into a puffed pastry.

“Good thing because I took so much of it. Thanks for splitting the pieces with me.” Calliope waved her fork at Marcus’s plate.

“You really had to twist my arm, but I’m a nice guy, so…”

Calliope grinned. Now that she was full, sleepy and content, she realized the Marcus she was with now was not the Marcus she’d been living with for several weeks – and certainly nothing like the Marcus she’d met at the wedding. “Can I ask you something? When I first came to stay with you, you didn’t seem…”

Marcus’s smile vanished, and he straightened in his seat. “Let’s not right now.”

Calliope studied him for a second before nodding her consent. “You want to know why I hesitated? In the car?”

Marcus relaxed, nodded.

“I was having a panic attack. At least, I think that’s what it was. I’ve only been to a proper restaurant twice, and only with Wilhelmina. She ordered everything for me because she knows what I like.”

Marcus kinked his neck – he’d been about to throw his head back and laugh then seemed to realize Calliope wasn’t joking. “I had no idea.”

Calliope smiled to show him she wasn’t insulted. “I’m not very up on things, you know? My sister gave me a phone years ago, and I didn’t know how to use it. I met a teenage boy at a shelter and he taught me. Then she sent me a smart phone, and I felt so stupid trying to work that. A young mother I met at a bus station taught me the basics. Now I Google everything I don’t know, but Google wasn’t much help when I asked how to eat at a pizza restaurant. I’ve had pizza before, so figured I’d just order something with pepperoni and an iced tea.”

Marcus gestured to the server for the bill when she came to clear away the last of their empty plates. “Then I threw a monkey wrench, brought you here instead.”

Calliope smiled shyly. “I’m glad you did. I always wondered if Chinese food tasted as good as it smelled, now I know.”

Marcus tapped his card on the device the waitress brought and stood. “Let’s get out of here.”

Calliope followed Marcus out of the restaurant, wondering what he thought of her. Marcus opened the car door for her, waited until she was seated before closing the door, then went around to get in the driver’s seat. “I usually like to go for a walk after a big meal. Do you want to go home, go to bed? You look wiped.”

“Like a walk around the block?” Calliope sat up straight in the seat, excited.

“Or the park near my house. There’s a great walking trail there.”

Calliope wriggled in her seat. “I’m in.”

They drove in comfortable silence and he parked in a large lot. “Not many cars tonight.”

Calliope smiled to herself when Marcus seemed disappointed she’d let herself out of the car before he could get to her. “Which way?”

Marcus grabbed her hand as he pointed. “This way.”

They walked along a narrow, paved path. “So many trees! You can’t smell the pollution here, or hear the cars.”

“That’s what I love about this place. Like a whole different world.” Marcus gestured to the trees beside them. “You wouldn’t suspect that there’s a major highway on the other side of those woods. Tell me what makes you look so sad when you talk about smelling Chinese food?”

Caught off guard by the sudden interrogation, Calliope tensed, tried to pull her hand away, but Marcus held tight. She stared up at him, her mind whirling. Finally, she nodded. “I’ll tell you everything if you agree to do the same.”

Marcus tensed beside her as they walked. After a few minutes, he let out a resigned sigh. “Quid pro quo, huh? I guess it’s only fair.”

Calliope didn’t want to admit she wasn’t sure what that meant, but guessed he’d agreed so she expelled a deep breath. “How much about my life have you learned from Wilhelmina?”

Marcus shrugged. “I know your parents are dead, that you didn’t have an easy childhood, but honestly? She doesn’t say much about her past, and Stephen told me that the present is all we need to worry about.”

Calliope nodded. “Figures. I don’t know if my parents are dead, though if Wilhelmina said they are, maybe she found out somehow. They were…not nice people.”

Marcus frowned down at her. “Not nice, how?”

Calliope shrugged. “They drank, a lot. Beat each other, hit us. Wil mostly. There was this Chinese food restaurant across the street and I used to keep my window open, hoping to catch whiffs of the food. I dreamed about the food. Pretended the food bank offerings were dishes I saw people carrying out of the restaurant every night. Whenever I could, I’d salvage an unbroken bottle, take it to the store to get a dime. I was saving my money so I could go there, find out what was so tantalizing about the smells.”

“Why’d you stop saving up?”

Calliope wanted to change the subject, find an interesting tree to distract him, but remembered their deal. “I’d saved up like seven dollars or something, and I asked Wilhelmina if she’d take me there to get something the next day. She said she had some money, too, so we’d both eat like queens. My mother overheard, told my dad, and he whipped us both, took our money. He’d only ever beat me a few times, usually Wilhelmina would do something to make him angrier and he’d beat on her worse. But because stealing his bottles for money was my idea, going to eat at a restaurant was my idea, he beat me worse than ever. Wilhelmina called him names, hit him, but he kept on beating me. Even my mom told him to stop, she’d never done that before. When he pulled his belt off, his pants fell down, and Wilhelmina went nuts. Hit him over the head with a bottle. He fell down, stayed down. Our mom went crazy, crying. Wilhelmina just cleaned me up and slept with me that night. Early the next morning, she woke me and we left.”

Calliope hadn’t realized they’d stopped walking, didn’t realize she was crying, until Marcus wiped her tears. “Where’d you go?”

“Wilhelmina had packed her backpack with clothes for us. We took buses from our city. Said we needed a bigger city to hide in, we ended up here. Every few months, CAS would find us – sometimes the shelters would call them or people would see us panhandling and call. We’d go into a foster home for awhile, but most of them weren’t nice. Whenever they started talking about splitting us up, Wilhelmina would sneak me out and we’d move to a different area of the city.”

Marcus gaped at Calliope. “How old were you?”

“I was seven, Wilhelmina was fifteen when we left.” Calliope shrugged. “Wilhelmina saved my life, my sanity, though I didn’t understand it at the time. She taught me everything she could, and we went to the library a lot so we could both learn. Usually in the winter, to keep warm. In the summer, we snuck into pools and parks, places like that. I only went to school when in a foster home but I think I learned more than most kids. When Wilhelmina was about twenty, she decided to approach one of the shelters we sometimes went to, and they helped her get a place to live, a job. I tried, oh, how I tried to live with her, but I just couldn’t. When I was thirteen, I ran away. She found me, brought me home, said I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do, so I stopped going to school. A year after that, she got in trouble because I wasn’t going. By the time I was fifteen, I’d figured out that I wasn’t cut out to live a life like hers. She worked, hard, and hated her job. She wasn’t happy, but she kept going. I thought she was crazy. So what if she could afford to buy a few pieces of clothes brand new, never worn by anyone? The cost was too high. I took off again, this time somewhere she couldn’t find me. I missed her so much but I just didn’t want that life. That’s my story. Now, what’s yours?”

“You were at her wedding. I remember meeting you, hitting on you.” Marcus grinned as if trying to lighten the mood, but Calliope saw sadness in his eyes.

“I’d gotten into the habit of sending Wilhelmina post cards from wherever I was, if I was anywhere for any length of time. She’d drive to the address I said I’d been at, trying to find me. She always missed me by a day or two. I never knew how hard she searched until she got to Mr. Clark’s. I’d stayed with him because he’d been sick and was still weak. He relapsed while I was with him, and I stayed longer. When Wilhelmina showed up, I refused to leave. Mr. Clark needed me. Wilhelmina went and got me a phone, said she’d only leave me alone if I promised to keep it on at all times. Mr. Clark died shortly after; I went to a shelter, a teenage boy there taught me how to use it. She called me one day, asked me to come because she was getting married. I went, stayed a few months, left just after the wedding.”

“Why’d you wait over eight years to see her again?”

Calliope raised an eyebrow. So he had been listening that night. “Because it hurts too much to see her.”

Marcus stared at her in confusion. “I don’t understand.”

Calliope shivered as the wind picked up, swirling fallen leaves around their ankles. “Because she’d given up so much for me, done so much for me, and every time I needed her, she’d put me ahead of herself. You have no idea the sacrifices she made for me. What taking care of me cost her. Before we hit the streets, she used to talk about being a lawyer. Because of me, she had to settle for answering phones at a law office.”

Marcus pulled Calliope along, heading back to the car now. “But she met Stephen at the law office. And you know she became a teacher, don’t you?”

Calliope stopped walking. “What?”

“She wouldn’t marry Stephen until she finished her degree, got a job. Made him wait years.” Marcus frowned at Calliope. “You didn’t know?”

Calliope didn’t answer. They walked back to the car at a brisk pace, shivering. The temperature was dropping fast, and neither of them were wearing jackets. When Calliope slid in, Marcus closed the door, and she took the few seconds of silence to decide if she was angry. When Marcus got in, he glanced at her before putting the key in the ignition and cranked a knob next to Calliope’s knee. “Heat. Only takes a second.”

Calliope turned as much as she could on the seat. “Wilhelmina probably didn’t tell me because she felt guilty, which is dumb. I’m happy for her. What kind of teacher is she?”

Marcus reversed out of the spot and started driving. “Little kids. In a low-income area, that’s all I know.”

Resting her cheek on the seat, she smiled. “She’s probably the best teacher they’ve ever had. The kids, and the school. She taught me everything.”

Marcus pulled onto the street Calliope knew his house was on. “I never thought about it before, but after everything you’ve told me I’m going to say I bet you’re right.”

Calliope sighed her pleasure. “Finally. Finally, I can stop feeling bad, like I ruined Wil’s life, ruined her chances of becoming a lawyer someday.”

Marcus laughed as he pushed the button on the visor and pulled into the garage. “She never said she’d ever wanted to be a lawyer, and she calls Stephen’s colleagues stuffed shrits. Says Stephen’s the nicest, most honest, and coolest lawyer in the world, the exception.”

Marcus closed the garage after he shut the car off. Calliope unbuckled and slid out. “She told me that he’s a good guy, helps people write wills.”

Marcus held the door into the house for Calliope. “Yep, boring stuff.”

“Unlike you, who buys stuff high and sells low or something.”

“I dabbled in stocks, yes.” Marcus shook his head as they went into the kitchen.

Calliope plugged the kettle in, eyed the pie. “Worked up an appetite yet? I promised Vi I’d let her know what we thought of her raspberry pie, she tried a new recipe.”

Marcus stared in disbelief. “Seriously?”

Calliope winked at him. “Homeless, remember? I haven’t had many opportunities in life to eat as much as I just did, but being homeless, you learn you can always find room for more if it’s offered, especially treats.”

Marcus grabbed two plates while Calliope made the tea. She didn’t want to push him for answers, but now that he’d finally uncorked the bottle, she thought it best to keep the momentum rather than risk him sinking back into robot mode.

“You drink a lot of tea,” Marcus said, picking up his cup. “You don’t like coffee?”

Calliope shrugged. “I’m not used to having choices, but when given one, I’d choose coffee. You don’t have coffee, so I drink tea. Better than the lake water I was drinking before I came here.”

“I’ve got a Keurig. The little containers in the cupboard are single serve coffees. I’ll show you how to use them in the morning.”

Calliope scooped up a bite of pie, sniffed it, then popped it in her mouth. “This is amazing.”

Marcus grinned at her and copied her, sniffing first. “Not sure why you smell every bite, but I’m fascinated watching you eat every time.”

Calliope swallowed another bite. “Bad habit. I’m so accustomed to sniffing food before I eat to make sure it’s not bad. Which is dumb, because when you’re starving, you usually aren’t picky. Unless it’s definitely rotten. Slightly off doesn’t usually make me sick.”

They finished their pie in silence. When they were done, Calliope got up and took their plates, rinsing them in the sink.

“You can clean up after yourself,” Marcus joked, sarcasm tinging his tone.

Calliope shot him a look over her shoulder. “Always do, except I noticed you kept moving stuff back if I moved it. So I took it one step farther, hoping you’d yell at me, tell me to leave, something to show emotion.”

“I almost did a few times, especially when you overheated the tomato soup and left the mess.”

Calliope sat down again, leaning into the table. “Why didn’t you?”

Marcus shrugged, not making eye contact.

“What did you call it earlier? Quid pro quo or something? Your turn.” Calliope put her hand on his and squeezed.

“It’s getting late and –”

“Nice try. Neither of us gets up to an alarm, so start talking.”

“Wendy’s a spitfire, isn’t she? I hear you talking to her from your closet. Guess you don’t want her to –”

“Marcus, I’ve stripped my soul naked and offered it up in sacrifice. Please?” Calliope uttered the word that was always her own undoing.

Marcus kept his hand in Calliope’s as he stood. “Fine. But let’s go sit in front of the fireplace. Not cold enough to bother with the furnace, but the fire will take the chill out.”

They went into the formal living room, the one she’d only been in once. Marcus flicked a switch, and Calliope watched flames come to life. “Wow.”

“Gas fireplace. Cleaner and easier than a wood one.”

They sat on the two-seat sofa in front of the fake fire. “What do you want to know?”

Calliope thought for a minute, let the questions form clearly in her mind. “I’ve got a million of them, but maybe if you just start talking about what happened last year, you’ll answer them before I ask.”

Marcus stretched his long legs out in front of him and crossed his left foot over his right ankle. “Need to go back longer than that. Stephen was like my big brother, since neither of us had siblings. Our mothers are sisters and best friends, so we were always together. Our dads were hard working good guys – both passed away within a year of each other. Stephen and I both ended up in our father’s fields – Stephen as estate lawyer, me as an accountant. I played the stock market, that’s what you were referencing, only it’s buy low, sell high.”

Calliope nodded as she curled her legs under her and faced Marcus fully. “And you made a killing.”

“I did, yes. And I became obsessed with making more, and more, and more.”

“Did you lose it all?” Calliope knew the world was full of money hungry people, and she’d pegged Marcus as one. Being just a hungry person, Calliope tried to understand when Wilhelmina explained Marcus’s life to her, but in the end, she’d summed him up as one of the rich people who didn’t see the hungry, or if they did, looked down on them with disdain. The people who didn’t have a lot to give were the ones who dropped coins into their cups when Calliope and Wilhelmina sat on street corners, rare for the affluent to so much as bless a homeless person when they sneezed.

Marcus shook his head. “My mother used to say I was like Midas, everything I touched turned to gold. The past few years, she stopped saying that, started saying things like when was I going to get married like Stephen, have kids like Stephen. She loves being ‘auntie-grandma’ to Wendy and Bobby, but she wants her time to be Nana.”

Calliope drifted in life, but she’d given up the streets, only stayed in shelters when she was desperate. She’d befriended hundreds of people, learned early that there were times to ask questions and times to listen. She let Marcus gather his thoughts without saying a word.

“I’d answer her with stupid things like ‘when I’ve made enough’, or ‘kids suck the money out of you’. I’d never thought about a family, not really. Figured Stephen could provide that for my mother as well as his.”

Calliope watched Marcus watching the fire. His misery was so palpable she wondered if she were imagining the weight pushing her down with him. Suffocating her.

“Some people ruin their lives with drugs, with drink. But money…stocks can be as addictive, like gambling in reverse. I pushed everyone away, or at least stopped responding to them. Even my mother. I was constantly watching the market, or researching new companies entering the market. The only people I talked to were my small circle of like-minded friends, and most of them were online. I missed out on promotions at work but didn’t care because I already had more money than I’d make in a lifetime working. Then one day, Stephen showed up at my house – my big, fancy house where I had a maid, but lived alone and never socialized. He was furious. My mother might have breast cancer, why wasn’t I there for her?” Marcus glanced at Calliope when she gasped, clutched his hand in hers. “She didn’t, but no one knew yet, they were waiting for the biopsy results. I stood there, in the foyer ten times bigger than the one here, and felt something cold wash over me. Stephen asked me when was the last time I’d spoken to my mother. I couldn’t tell him, so he told me – Christmas. This was in July. Seven and a half months, and I hadn’t talked to my own mother. Did I know Wilhelmina had a little boy four months ago? I stood there, trembling, trying to remember if I’d even known she was pregnant. Did my money keep me warm at night, or did I at least date? And I realized it had been forever since I’d gone on a date, been interested in anyone. He said a whole lot of things that night, some of them mean, some of them ugly, all of them true.”

Calliope sniffed, squeezing his hand. Marcus reached over, touched her cheek, pulled his hand back and showed her the tear. “You’re crying for me? Or for what I did to others?”

“Both,” Calliope whispered, rubbing her face on her shoulder.

“That was the start of…whatever happened to me. At first, I played changed man, out to prove I could be both good son and money man. Mom didn’t have cancer, so I sent her and Stephen’s mom on a cruise to celebrate. That Christmas, I lavished the kids with gifts that my maid bought, swearing they were perfect for an almost one-year-old, and a three-year-old. Took Stephen to hockey games, gave him my tickets when I was tied up – code-speak for didn’t want to go. Then I made a huge gamble, put half of my money in one stock. My circle thought I was nuts, but like my mom used to say, I’m like Midas. I made a killing in less than six months when I sold the stocks weeks before they tanked. Ken, one of the few people from our circle I’d met offline, had become like family. He watched my stocks, my risks, and sometimes copied me. I didn’t know he’d invested shortly after me in the new software company. I made my killing, more than tripling my original investment, and got out. The stocks went up in value a bit more, but I was already researching the next big up=and-coming company. I’d mostly forgotten the software company when it tanked hard and fast. I gloated about getting out when I did, bragged about my instincts because everyone else had still been shouting from the rooftops to invest more. Then I got a call from Ken’s estranged wife. Ken had lost everything, the fool had tried to one-up me and invested all-in. When it tanked, hitting pennies, it killed him. Massive coronary, dead before he hit the floor.”

“You didn’t know, not your fault. I’m so sorry,” Calliope felt the tears burning her cheeks, felt Marcus’s grief and sadness as if they were her own.

“Whatever had washed over me when Stephen had shown up at my door? It washed over me again, suffocating me this time. I went to the doctor, he gave me pills. I couldn’t breathe. More doctors, more pills. You saw the medicine chest, you get the picture. I sold the house, the cars, all except the Jag. Impulsive decisions I didn’t understand. I couldn’t stop thinking about Ken. He’d lost it all, not just money, but family, friends, everyone except the sharks like us. His wife was the last to leave him and I was sure my family was fed up with me, too. One night – rather, one day — I started drinking. The movers were coming the next day to move me here. I went into the garage, sat in the Jag I was trading in the next day, wrote out my thoughts, trying to figure out what was going on in my head, trying to understand. Drank, wrote, drank. Started the car because it was cold, still trying to make sense of what I was feeling, what I was doing. Kept drinking. My thoughts were more jumbled, more confused. I wrote stupid stuff, didn’t write the one thought that answered it all – Ken. I didn’t deserve any of my things. I kept putting nonsense as if my thoughts were wrong. I finished the bottle of whisky but still I sat there. I’d taken my anti-anxiety pills, my anti-depressants, and I was so tired.”

Calliope heard the pain in his voice, the grief. “You didn’t try to kill yourself.”

Marcus shook his head, his face almost expressionless. Calliope was reminded of the robot she’d been living with for weeks. “No. But everyone, including police and ambulance, thought I’d tried. I didn’t bother to correct them, didn’t bother to tell anyone. The movers found me in the garage when they showed up to start packing, called 911, and I was in the hospital for weeks. The doctor that took over my care changed my prescriptions. I came home in a fog. The meds numbed me. I liked them. I didn’t feel, didn’t need to think. In my haze, I let Stephen set up standing orders with grocery deliveries, the bills came out of my accounts automatically, I didn’t need to do anything. The only thing I did was clean.”

Calliope stifled the sobs trying to break free. She held his hand tighter, wiped her eyes on her shoulders. “What changed? You were different tonight. Today – you tried to cook.”

Marcus turned his head to stare at Calliope. She thought he wouldn’t answer her, but he finally sighed. “You.”

Calliope blinked. “What?”

Marcus pulled her until she was sitting across his lap, his arms around her. “I was in this fog, going through motions but not thinking at all, comfortable. Then you show up, disgustingly filthy, and I saw you through the haze. Every time I turned around, you were there. Talking, making a mess, just breathing. Everything was still a fog, but you were like sunshine breaking through the clouds. I stopped taking my meds, slowly. Weaning myself off them. I wasn’t overcome with confused thoughts anymore, instead I was curious – about you, mostly. Annoyed – who was this butterfly flitting around my house making a mess, shoving sandwiches at me? I finally stopped taking my medicine altogether the day after I’d figured out you’d found the old bottles. I didn’t want to scare you off, so I kept quiet, observed. Saw you making friends with my neighbours, heard you talking to Wendy from the closet. As infuriating as it was cleaning up after you, I liked it. Liked having you here. Enjoyed listening to your incessant chatter.”

Calliope tensed when Marcus’s eyes locked on hers, bore into hers like he could see her soul. She thought about jumping up, running away, but his blue eyes kept her pinned. Her pulse sped up, her heart skipped a beat. She’d seen people kiss on the streets, knew the look in their eyes just before they did, and she thought she saw that look in Marcus’s eyes. She put her hand on his shoulder, forced a smile to her lips. “My work here is done.”

Marcus blinked, pulling his head back. “What?”

Calliope got to her feet, tamped the sadness inside down. “Wilhelmina asked me to come. She and Stephen were so worried about you, you know. She asked me to try to reach you.”

Marcus stared at her in disbelief. “I don’t understand.”

Calliope dug deep for strength, deeper still for courage. She started to back slowly from the room. “Marcus, you’re going to be okay. If I stay, you’ll start to need me, and that will defeat the purpose. Get back into the real world, start living again. Stay away from the stock market.”

Calliope reached the hall. “You’re off your meds, you’re talking, feeling, seeing again. You’re stronger than you were when I got here, you’ll get stronger still as you get out there and live your life.”

Marcus got to his feet. “You’re leaving?”

Calliope nodded, willing her heart to stay whole for a few more minutes. “You don’t need me here anymore.”

“I do need you, don’t say I don’t.” Marcus’s tone was bordering on pleading.

“Then I’ve already stayed too long.” Calliope spun on her heel and ran up the stairs. Her bag, always packed and ready, was on the chair. She unplugged her phone, her battery pack, and slipped them into a side pocket. The clothes Wilhelmina had brought for her were folded in the drawers, she’d text her sister when she got wherever she was going to let her know she’d left with what she’d come with. Except the shoes. She’d packed a sturdy pair of running shoes, and would wear the other pair when she left.

Marcus was waiting for her at the front door. She memorized every inch of him as he stood there, waiting. “Now I know why your bag was always packed on the chair.”

Calliope nodded, her hands jamming into her jean pockets. “Can you give George and Violet their plate back? Tell Vi the pie was awesome. Only don’t take it over during the news –lunch or dinner.”

Marcus nodded, cleared his throat. “I’m sorry.”

Calliope faltered as she approached the door. “Why?”

“You’d just scraped yourself raw for me, and I unburdened on you right after. Overwhelmed you. I misread things, thought –” Marcus shook his head. “Doesn’t matter.”

“Thought what?” Calliope knew she should just go, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave yet.

“That…” Marcus shrugged, his face becoming a mask. “Nothing.”

Calliope huffed out a breath in exasperation. “Don’t. Don’t do this to me, to yourself.”

“Do what?” A glimmer of something – annoyance? Impatience? – flashed in his eyes.

“Shut up, shut down. You’re off the meds, you’re back in your head. Don’t put the burden on me, make me responsible for keeping you there. I’m not strong enough. For the first time, since you told me about Wilhelmina becoming a teacher, I’m weightless. Let me be free, don’t replace that load with a new one. Tell me what you thought.”

“I thought you felt what I felt. Thought maybe I’d finally found someone who understood me, got me, and still liked me.” Marcus laughed to let her know he was, at least partly, joking about the last bit. Calliope smiled as her heart ached. “I’m sorry if almost kissing you is what scared you off.”

Calliope closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “One final piece I didn’t mention, but since you held up your end of the deal so well, I’ll toss it in as a bonus. I’ve never kissed anyone before. Believe it or not; being on the streets for most of my life, I’ve managed to get to the ripe old age of thirty-two without ever having a boyfriend. Lame, huh?”

Marcus’s face split into a wide grin that lit his eyes. “I’m thirty-seven and can’t remember the girlfriends I’ve had. There weren’t many, but they also weren’t memorable. At least not enough to keep me from the stock market.”

Calliope reached up to pat his face. “You’ll find her, the woman who can keep you from losing yourself in money.”

Calliope worried he’d say he already had. She backed away and stuffed her feet into her shoes, not looking at him, not letting him have a chance to speak. “Well, you take care.”

Marcus put his hand on her shoulder, stopping her. “Let me come with you?”

Calliope couldn’t help herself. She giggled. “You, on the streets? The Midas touch guy? You wouldn’t last a night.”

Marcus shrugged. “I could try.”

“No.” Calliope felt the smile slip off her face. “Just like I couldn’t live in structure forever, you couldn’t handle living anyplace forever.”

“Is that what you want? To be homeless forever?”

Calliope thought of the storage unit she’d considered living in. “Not necessarily homeless, but this is all I know. I need to be free, maybe come back someplace of my own now and then, but out there, helping.”

Marcus stared at Calliope until she felt flutters in her tummy. “What would you really want? The one thing that would keep you rooted to one spot?”

Calliope snorted. “What, like if I found a magic lamp and rubbed it, and a genie popped out?”

Marcus considered. “Yep. You’ve got three wishes, but you have to be honest, and you can’t wish for more wishes.”

“That’s easy.” Calliope waved her hands excitedly. “I’d find a place, like where I was before I came here, at the lake but no one was around. Then I’d give the shelters my number, and they could send me sad people, hurting people, needy people, and they could come and stay with me until they got their happy back and knew where they wanted to go, then they could go, find other sad people to send in their place.”

Marcus held up a fist. “One, you want property on a lake. Two, you want to help sad people. What’s the third?”

Calliope locked eyes with Marcus, bit her tongue as she started to say ‘you’. She shrugged, broke eye contact. “I’ll save the third for a rainy day.”

“I thought you’d have said a Chinese food restaurant on the lake.”

Calliope thought Marcus knew what she wanted to say, silently thanked him for letting the moment pass. She snapped her finger. “Maybe not on the lake, but near the lake, a Chinese buffet whenever I wanted. That’s the third wish.”

“Can I kiss you good-bye?” Marcus asked as he held out a jacket for her. “It’s cold out.”

Calliope shrugged out of her backpack, put the coat on, grateful she wouldn’t be cold. That’s the one thing she hated about her life, the winters. She resettled her backpack on her shoulders, still considering his request. Finally, she nodded. Marcus leaned in, dipped his head, and lightly touched his lips to hers. Calliope felt her heart shiver, her toes curl, and finally understood the looks on lovers faces after they’d kissed. She almost wished she’d run out the back door, not had this last minute talk, could head out free and clear never knowing what she was missing. How she longed to curl up in front of a fake fire, talk for hours, sleep, only to wake up and do it all again. She pulled her head back, patted his cheek, and skipped out the door.

*

Calliope crunched through the dead leaves and shallow snow, her arms laden with wood she’d gathered. She kicked the door of the small cabin. “Mr. Vincent? Mrs. Vincent?”

The door swung open and Calliope hurried in. “I’ve got your wood. You can have a nice fire tonight. I smell snow coming.”

“You can smell snow?”

The deep voice caused Calliope to drop the logs she was stacking near the woodstove. She whirled, stumbled. Marcus was closing the door behind her.

“Where are –? How’d you –? What the –?” Calliope scanned the empty cabin, but the elderly couple she was staying with were nowhere to be seen.

Marcus sat down on the sofa, picked up a half-drank cup of coffee. He’d obviously been there awhile. “The Vincents are outside, playing with the kids. Your sister brought me – she found you with the tracker on your phone. Oh, and I think I’ve just bought this cabin, the whole trailer park, and in case you didn’t know, there’s a Chinese food place out on the highway.”

Calliope flopped on the squashy chair she’d come to think of as hers. “Whoa. Wait, hold up, what?”

“Seems I found a genie in a lamp, and turns out our wishes were the same.” Marcus set his coffee down, got up to kneel in front of Calliope. “Well, I don’t know the first thing about finding sad people, but you found the Vincents and were making them happy. Just seems I was able to do it better than you, because now they can winter in Florida, and come back here every spring to soak up the rays by the lake or the pool without having to do any of the work. The only condition they had was no drugs – you don’t do drugs, do you?”

Calliope glared at Marcus. “No!”

“That’s what I thought. They said they’ve had a rough go lately, seems their campground is a fledgling business since they aren’t as young as they used to be and can’t keep up. I asked them how they felt about sad people, homeless people, and sad, homeless people. They said people can’t be sad in such a pretty place, but they didn’t care if they were sad when they got here. And since I’m letting them live in the trailer for free whenever they’re not in Florida, they figured that made them homeless, too.”

Calliope tried to stand, but Marcus was in her way. “I need to get up.”

“Hang on. I’m not done yet.” Marcus put his hand over Calliope’s.

Calliope stiffened in her seat. “Why are you doing this?”

Marcus squeezed her hand. “Because I can. I’ll still pay the Vincents some money, if this isn’t what you want, because that’s all they really want – the freedom to go south every winter. But I researched the area, the land, before I came here – you’re not the only one good with Google. There’s a few other spots, but I’ll be honest – this one felt right. I trust my instincts.”

Calliope felt her jaw drop. “What if I said I wanted a house downtown? A mansion?”

Marcus shrugged. “If that’s what you want. But I still want to keep this place, too.”

“You’re crazy, you know that?”

A flicker in his eyes reminded Calliope of the recent past and she regretted her choice of words instantly. “I was, but the doctors couldn’t fix the crazy. You fixed the crazy. Now the only crazy is that I’m crazy in love with you.”

“How do you know?” Calliope whispered, her hands enfolding around his larger ones.

“I know because I’d do anything for you, go anywhere for you. I want this place, but if it’s not what you want, I only ask that we come here sometimes, check on the Vincents, and we’ll go wherever you want to go. I know it’s love because someone from my circle sent me a stock tip and I thanked him, said my good-byes to the group, and left. I told my mother about you. She’s thrilled, by the way, but you should know I’ve never told my mother about any woman in my life before. I am assuming here, but I think you feel something for me too, because Wendy asked me why Auntie Cloppy keeps asking her about Uncle Marcus, and when she can’t tell you, you make her go ask her mother. Plus, my instincts tell me you love me almost as much as I love you.”

Calliope frowned. “Maybe your instincts are wrong.”

Marcus stared at her. “My instincts are always right. Right?”

Calliope shook her head. “I’m sorry, but they might be this time. You see, I think I might love you more.”

Marcus’s face lit into a huge grin. “Oh, and I lied. Your sister brought the kids, and Stephen, I drove myself. I wasn’t sure where you stood on cars, so if you don’t want a vehicle, Wilhelmina will drive the SUV back for me.”

Calliope glared at him. “Would you stop talking and kiss me?”

Marcus laughed for a full ten seconds before he obliged her wishes. Calliope’s heart sighed, filled to bursting, content, finally.

Chic Cuisine With a Side of Love

I’m the owner of a très successful fast-food chain. I’m still not sure how it happened other than I was tired of fried everything or carb laden so-called healthy options. Next thing I knew, I’d become an entrepreneur, president of a corporation that sold franchises of my fast food and blundered my way into a whirlwind of fame and fortune. I was also a fraud because seriously, how does a college drop out end up running the fastest growing fast-food chain in the country? I’m the empress, the queen, the supreme ruler of Chic Cuisine (Choose Healthy Instead of Crap). Our menu grows daily, but our most popular dishes are lemon chicken on jasmine rice or stir fry vegetables with your choice of meats, tofu, and rice (price varies depending on options). I have staff, a lof of staff. I don’t know what half of them do. I’ve got a team of lawyers doing lawyer-y things. Basically, I’ve collected a whole lot of smart people over the past couple of years, and they’re the ones who’ve made Chic Cuisine what it is now. I’m just the lazy chick who was tired of eating grease every day.

“When will you be back in the office?” My secretary (yes, I have my own secretary, and she’s a living, breathing person, not an AI thing in my pocket) demanded as I left my office (and yes, I’ve got a huge office with two windows and a ping pong table hidden by a fancy sheet in the corner).

I froze, my mind whirling. Marcy looked nothing like my mother (Marcy’s a stunning brunette, Mom’s a chunky dirty blonde), but she still had the knack for making me feel like I was a bad girl skipping out on my homework. “Uh, tomorrow? About ten?”

Marcy sniffed her displeasure. “Where shall I say you are if Mr. Quartermain calls again?”

I stared at Marcy helplessly. Who? “You’ll figure something out, you always do.”

Marcy tapped her keyboard with her perfectly manicured hands. “I’m not sure I can keep him calm much longer. You’ve been avoiding him for three weeks.”

I sighed, sitting on the edge of Marcy’s desk. “Right. Well, schedule him in for tomorrow at eleven. What does he want, anyhow?”

Marcy’s eyes opened so wide I could see the whites all the way around the brown. “Seriously?”

“Give me a hint.”

“Marshall Quartermain is the head of your legal team. The one who saves you from lawsuits, from liability claims, basically, he’s kept you from going broke for the past year.”

I grinned, snapping my fingers. “Old guy with the fluffy cloud hair!”

Marcy nodded stiffly. “Yes. He says it’s urgent that he talks to you about the franchise expansions.”

Relief flooded me. “Get Doug to meet with him today. Doug’s one of the brains behind the scenes, he’s good at making decisions. Or, if Doug’s tied up, Duncan or one of the others.”

“You’re sure?” Marcy shook her head. “You’re not even curious about what Mr. Quartermain has to say?”

“Not in the least.” I stood, stretching.

“Very well.” Marcy picked up the phone and dialled someone. I waved as I slid out of the president’s area and took the private elevator to the underground lot. Free at last. That had been the longest four hours of my life.

*

I parked my car in the back of the restaurant. Daphne’s jalopy was here already, but I wouldn’t know if Liz or Blanche were here until I went in because they took the bus. I grabbed my purse and slid out of the Prius. Not my first choice for a car, I wanted an SUV, but my PR guy insisted I get either a Tesla or a Prius to keep up the image. What image? I just wanted healthier choices on the go.

I blinked several times when I got inside, trying to adjust to the dim interior. The hostess smiled a welcome, but before she could speak someone started shouting.

“Vicky, over here.” I shrugged at the hostess as I went over to the table where Liz and the rest of my friends were seated. “Why are you late? Did you have to sign off on some stock deal or something?”

I glared at Liz. “I’m not late. You’re early. And no, I was playing solitaire and lost track of time.”

Daphne snorted as she grabbed an herbed biscuit out of the basket in the middle of the table. “Glad you’re working hard unlike the rest of us lazy bums.”

Blanche bristled. “I am not lazy. I had two doodles and a long haired chihuahua waiting when I got in. Then a long-haired cat came in needing to be shaved because her fur was so matted.”

“Yeah, speak for yourself, Daph. I had to send one of the senior’s off in an ambulance because she fell over and broke her hip doing a warm up stretch. Then I had to sit down to negotiate a new lease for the studio.” Liz grabbed a biscuit and bit in aggressively.

“Okay, fine, I’m the only lazy bum. All I’ve done is chat on the phone with entitled Canadians who want better internet service for their dollar. Do you know one guy actually told me that he wanted proof that we weren’t spying on him, recording his Google searches?” Daphne shook her head as she picked up her water. “I asked my supervisor if I should start an investigation because he was so convinced we were tracing his online footprints.”

“Probably high and been Googling food.” I took a roll and nibbled. How many carbs? Who cared, they were the best herb and garlic rolls in the world.

“I hope so, but I flagged him just in case.” Daphne sipped her water. “So, how’s Ms. Moneybags?”

I hated the digs about my success. I hadn’t foreseen this, hadn’t planned this. “You could’ve joined me, you know. Still can, anytime.”

“Riiight,” Liz rolled her eyes. “Chic Cuisine could start up an exercise while you wait trend. I can see it now – Liz’s line of exercises to do while you wait for your tofu salad.”

“And I could start up a whole new definition of doggy bags. Specially prepared food for your fido, and the take-out bags can double as poop and scoop bags.” Blanche giggled at the thought.

“I guess I could head up the telephone hotline. You know, for the panicked callers who need to know if they just had five or six hundred calories, and how many grams of fat.” Daphne smiled.

“Don’t forget net carbs,” I added, shaking my head. “Who knew so many people were just waiting for sauteed vegetables in a hurry?”

“Seems kind of a sham, to be dining at a steak and seafood place.” Blanche glanced around the room. “I bet none of these people have ever had anything juiced but clamato for the caesars.”

The waitress appeared with a wide smile and mile-high teased hair. “Can I get you anything?”

“How about a menu?” Blanche raised an eyebrow.

The waitress frowned. “Oh, my bad. Can I get you ladies a drink while I grab the menus?”

Blanche nodded as she ordered for each of us. “And hurry. Some of us have to get back to work.”

When the waitress left to get our drinks, Daphne sighed. “I’m done for the day.”

“Must be nice. I’ve got a class coming in at six. Five-to-ten-year olds, for yoga. The room will smell like farts within ten minutes, and I won’t be able to get them to stop giggling. Then I’ve got the beginner adults. They’re not much better than the kids.” Liz picked up another roll.

“I’ve got the girls doing the rest of the appointments while I run out to the accountant. Here’s hoping we show a profit this month.” Blanche crossed her fingers.

My phone vibrated and I glanced at the display. Marcy. I hit do not disturb. “Sorry.”

“Probably need you to taste test the newest health shake.” Liz grinned. “Or have they finally nailed the apple-cinnamon smoothie?”

I squared my shoulders as I took the menu the waitress offered. “That was one of our first releases. We’ve got most of the drinks worked out, for those that want a drive-thru juiced blend or protein shake. Even have the line-ups down. There’s like a dark chocolate something or other for around Easter, Cinnamon-something for October, Peppermint and ginger options for Christmas. Now we’re figuring out desserts.”

“What, how to make a kale cake?” Daphne snorted, sipping her pop.

“Flour-less and sugar-free fruit cake? I can save you the trouble – chop up some melon and strawberries, put it in a bowl, and cover.” Blanche sipped her coffee. “You could get really fancy and drizzle bitter chocolate over it.”

“Count me out then. I still have a bad taste in my mouth from trying the 90% cacao chocolate Vicky tricked me with last time we taste tested.” Liz picked up her tea and sipped.

I felt my temper rising. They acted like I was this health food guru girl who wouldn’t let milk chocolate touch my lips, but the truth was, I was still the same person who got movie popcorn and Twizzlers when we went to the movies. I’d just been sick of fries, subs, and pizza as my only fast lunch options. “You guys were on board when I first started Chic Cuisine.”

Daphne leaned across the table to pat my hand. “We still are. We’re just teasing you, keeping you real.”

I pulled my hand free as I sat back. “You guys act like I’ve changed, but I haven’t. I have no interest in the inner workings. I still don’t even know how this happened. I’m still the girl grilling chicken in the food court and struggling to make enough to pay the rent to the property people at the mall.”

Blanche rolled her eyes. “Except you could buy the mall now.”

I pushed my chair back. “I offered you. I asked you guys if you wanted to help me start my little business, but you said you’d rather die than work in the food court. Then, when they approached me about going bigger, I asked you if you wanted to form a company with me, and you all said no. Now you do nothing but make fun of it, of me?”

I walked as fast as I could to the washroom, hoping like hell I wasn’t crying yet. Anger and hurt roiled with a dollop of self pity swirling through the mix. I grabbed a wad of toilet paper as soon as I went into the washroom and leaned against the sink, staring at my reflection. I still got my hair done by Judy, the same blonde highlights in my dirty blonde hair that I’d been getting since high school. I still bought my make-up at the same store in the same mall I’d opened my first Chic Cuisine. I’d added a couple of new stores for the professional clothes I had to wear for certain things, but my fancy dresses were from the same stores I’d always shopped at. I still endured family dinners at my parent’s house every Sunday – I say endured because I was usually hung over from partying with the three women I’d just run off on.

The bathroom door opened and I slid into the stall before looking to see if it was friend or foe – though at this point, I wasn’t sure there was a difference between the distinctions.

“Come on out, Vic, it’s me.” Daphne thumped on the stall door.

“Go away.” I sniffed, dabbing my eyes.

“Don’t make me shimmy under the door the way I did two weeks ago when you locked yourself in the stall, drunk.”

“We both had to shimmy out because the lock was broken. I wasn’t that drunk.” I opened the door as I stepped out.

“True,” Daphne grinned. “But you broke the lock.”

I flipped her the bird as I leaned against the counter. “What do you want?”

“In. And don’t worry about Liz and Blanche, they’re just jealous. They don’t want to ride your fame and glory, they’re just jealous that you stumbled into a pit of gold while they’re struggling to make their dreams come true.”

“What does that mean?” I knew what Daphne meant but I was just cranky enough to play petulant child.

“Which part? The part where I’m asking for a job, or the part where I’m telling you that Liz and Blanche are struggling because they’re jealous of and happy for you and don’t know how to deal with the conflicting emotions?” Daphne leaned against the wall across from me and crossed her arms over her chest.

I felt my forehead crease as I considered. “You want a job? Do you want to head up PR, Marketing, HR? Name your department, it’s yours. Or at least half, because I’ve got some good people in there already.”

Daphne shook her head, laughing. “I’m not equipped to do any of that. I can do customer service calls, stuff like that.”

Frustration rose up again and I punched the counter behind me. “That’s what I’m saying – I’m not equipped for any of this either. But here I am, President, or CEO, or whatever my title is. With people running everything for me because I don’t have the first clue how to do it myself. Even my secretary understands more than I do – and wants to know more. She should be my boss.”

“So? Stop doing it. Sell it, step down, whatever. After you get me a job answering phones somewhere.”

I shrugged. “I still want a say in what Chic Cuisine is, what they do next, I just don’t understand the ins and outs, the bigger and more tedious stuff. When everyone started hounding me to sell, I was fielding offers from everywhere. If it weren’t for a few good people jumping in to help, I’d still be slogging away at the mall. The bottom line is that I didn’t want to sell to anyone because they were talking about adding stuff that’s already out there to the menu. Cutting back on the healthy in favour of bigger profits. That’s the only reason I go in every day – to make sure the roots stay the same.”

“Why don’t you go back to working the original location then?” Daphne shrugged.

“Honestly? I didn’t love it. I just hated the same food every day, or rather, the same lousy choices. And the only reason I’m still doing this is like I said – I want to control what’s on the menu board. I love the way it is now – vegan, vegetarian, low carb, keto friendly choices. Something for everyone and not a deep fryer in sight. I dragged my heels over the juicing thing but then realized I was being dumb and let that happen, but I put my foot down on the totally vegan suggestion.”

“Vicky, Vicky –” Blanche swung through the door, her hand on her chest. “There’s that very good-looking guy looking for you. Liz just waved him over while I came to get you.”

I groaned. “Mark or Luke? Got to be Luke, Mark’s not that good looking.”

Blanche and Daphne pushed me out of the washroom while I kept mumbling under my breath. “Can’t even go to lunch with my friends, what’s so important, anyhow?”

Liz was alone at the table. I scanned the restaurant, but didn’t see Mark, Luke, or anyone remotely handsome enough to fluster Blanche. I sat down and picked up my water.

“There you are!”

I heard the deep voice, saw Liz’s hands smoothing her hair. The glass slipped from my fingers and hit the ground – after spewing the contents all over the table and my lap. “Duncan.”

“Vic – er, Ms. Carter? We need to go.” I saw the twinkle in his gray eyes as he used my last name. I wished I could think of something witty to say, but I just stared at him. His dimple winked in his cheek, and I was sure he was laughing behind the cool, professional mask. “Now.”

Duncan was – what was he? Vice President, I guess. Between him and Doug, everything was handled and ran the way it should without any help from me. “I’m just having lunch.”

“Something more urgent has come up.” Duncan grabbed the cloth napkin and started to wipe my pants then seemed to think better of it when he almost touched my wet crotch. He passed the napkin to me to clean myself.

“Daphne, call me later. Sorry to run out, girls.” I winked at Daphne and shot a cool smile at the other two. We hadn’t even ordered yet – let them pay for their own drinks and food if they wanted to stay.

I followed Duncan out of the restaurant. “What’s up?”

Duncan headed for my Prius. “I’ll explain on the way.”

I paused outside the car. “Where’s your car?”

“Doug dropped me off on the condition that I brought you back to the office. I figured me coming to get you was better than a wailing Doug.”

I slid into the car and waited for Duncan to get in. “Why’s Doug wailing?”

“You haven’t signed a bunch of contracts and papers that have to be filed by today.” Duncan slid the seat back before doing up his seatbelt. “Don’t you ever go in your inbox?”

What inbox? “That’s what I have you and Doug for.”

“Some things you have to deal with yourself, you know.” Duncan grinned as I pulled out on the street.

“Why? I hired you and Doug, Mark, Luke, and Cassandra so I didn’t have to do the boring stuff.” I honked at the taxi that cut in front of me.

“You’re the one who opted to stay in control – rightfully so, so don’t bite my head off – so that means there are certain things that only you can do.” Duncan drummed his fingers on his leg. “Everything passes through one of us first, but the final say is still yours and you haven’t been keeping up your end.”

I signalled to turn into the underground lot and stopped to wait for the long line of cars to pass. “You guys must think I’m so dumb. I can only imagine what you say when I’m not around.”

Duncan stared at me and I felt heat on the back of my neck so I turned my attention back to the traffic. “Marshall gets the most annoyed, and Doug. Doug because he’s terrified he’s going to make a bad decision and you’ll put nerdy little man on the menu. Marshall’s used to corporate snakes and cut-throat business types, so he doesn’t get your whole ‘meh, whatever’ attitude.”

I started to turn. “Marshall is the old guy with the hair like a cloud, right?”

“Yes.” Duncan snorted out a laugh. “Better than the Einstein description, but not much.”

I parked the car and we walked over to the elevators. I called it my private elevator because there were three together at the main entrance, and a single one here. Chic Cuisine took up the whole seventh floor. Mark had been talking about getting us more space but I loved where we were.

Duncan pressed the button as I put my pass back in my pocket. “What’s going on, for real, Vicky?”

I watched the numbers above the doors marking our progress. “I hate this. I am not this person.”

Duncan’s eyes filled with compassion. “I know. I went to school for four years to be this guy, but I’m still over my head half the time.”

We strode past Marcy who was on the phone and I let us into my office. “Yeah, well, at least you graduated. I dropped out of college because I hated the medical secretary course. I’m a fraud – I still eat pizza, burgers, just not every day.”

I dropped into the cozy seating area next to the ping pong table and wiped my leaking eyes. “I’m only hanging on to the title because I know if I give up control, the money people will demand more profit and not care about the same things I do. All they care about is the bottom line.”

Duncan settled in the seat next to me. “What do you want, Vicky?”

“For someone else to do the stuff, and just consult me before they make major decisions. That’s it. Oh, and to listen to me, consider my ideas, and figure out whether we can make them work or not. But I don’t want the boring stuff that comes with the control.” I bit my lip and stared at Duncan for a second. My shoulders hunched as I finally admitted the truth to myself. “That’s not true. I want to understand this stuff. To understand what all these heads of whatever do, why Marshall always looks like the company is about to collapse at any minute when we’re making profits and selling franchises for as much as established chains.”

“Start showing an interest then. Show up for meetings, stop letting everyone just dismiss you when you aren’t sure what’s going on.” Duncan patted my damp leg. “At least let me teach you the basics, so you don’t get that glassy look in your eyes when the topic goes into foreign territory.”

I sat up straight. “Would you? Teach me?”

Duncan stood up and went to a bin on my desk, grabbed a huge stack of papers and a pen from the cat shaped cup Blanche had given me for Christmas five years ago. “Let’s start with signing these, then we’ll get to the crash course.”

“I can always tell the ones Marcy gave me because she puts little sticky notes with arrows where I need to sign.” I scribbled my name.

“Don’t you read what you’re signing?” Duncan asked, his jaw slack. “You might’ve just agreed to sell hormone injected beef patties.”

I stuck my tongue out. “This one was about switching to compostable cups and containers.”

I glanced, signed, skimmed, signed and initialled. Duncan got up to leave. “You’re going?”

“I’ll be back in an hour unless you’re done first, then you come find me. I’ve got a couple of things to deal with before I’m done for the day.”

I watched him leave (I’m a woman, he’s got nice buns), then returned to the tedius work. Anything I didn’t understand or agree with, I put aside like I usually did. I’d get Marcy to deal with them. My pen started to run out of ink, so I shook it vigorously. Still didn’t work. I got up to grab a new one, and grabbed another stack that were in the bin beneath the papers Duncan had given me. I might as well do all the work while I was motivated.

The door to my office was ajar and I heard Doug and Marcy talking. “She’s in there? Right now? Seriously? Working?”

“Yes, Doug. Been in there for at least an hour. Mr. Reynolds brought her in like you wanted.” Marcy’s cool tone was laced with amusement.

I watched the door, and sure enough, Doug’s face peeked in at me. “What’s up, Doug?”

“I, uh, need the contract for the –”

I rifled through the signed stack. “The agreement to work with Organically Yours?”

“Um, yeah. How’d you –?”

“Marcy puts red arrow stickies to let me know its urgent.” I held up one of the arrow sticky notes I’d stuck to the table after signing.

“Right. Well, thanks.” Doug took the papers from me and was backing out of the office when a thought popped into my head.

“Who’s in charge of promotions?” I sat back, thinking of lunch.

“Depends. What are you thinking?” Doug leaned his slender frame against the wall.

“My friend, she’s got a yoga studio. That’s where I was when Duncan came to get me – meeting with her about maybe doing a line of videos or something. Still a work in progress, but I wanted to talk to –” I frowned mid exaggeration. Who? “Whoever would be in charge of that.”

“Probably best to talk to Luke, marketing’s his gig. Are you thinking of backing her? Then Marshall, or Cassandra in finance.”

I recalled everything Liz had said, and leaped. “No, we were discussing ways to pass the time waiting. We could do a short demonstration video to play on TV’s set up at the entrance, in line, at the counter waiting for food. If there’s demand for more, we could sell a series of videos to do at home, or give out a code at checkout if they want to access a video online. Kind of a ‘dollar a pose’ promotion.”

Doug clapped his hands, crumpling the papers he held. “That might be brilliant, or lame. Talk to Luke, he’ll let you know.”

“Can you –” I thought of what I’d said to Duncan. “Never mind. Just remind me to talk to him tomorrow. I’ve also been meeting with my other friend about maybe branching out to pet food. Like raw food that people can take home for their pets. The compostable doggy bags could double as scoop bags.”

Doug frowned. “Talk to Luke, Mark, everyone. Are you coming to the meeting tomorrow?”

“Oh yes. What time is it?” I feigned knowledge of the meeting. It was probably in one of my unread emails.

“Nine.”

“I’ll be there.”

Doug staggered out of my office, his hand on his heart. “See you bright and early then, boss.”

“Stop calling me that!” I shouted, grinning when I heard Doug cheering.

Another half hour passed and I’d almost finished when I heard a knock on my doorframe. I glanced up and saw Marcy staring at me. “Done for the day?”

Marcy nodded, stepping in. “What happened to you when you peed your pants?”

I blinked in confusion. “Pardon?”

Marcy pointed at her own lap. “You were a little soggy when you came in. Figured you’d peed yourself.”

“No, I spilled my water,” I grinned, feeling my thighs. “Dry now.”

“That’s all it took? For Mr. Reynolds to dump water on your lap?”

“Guess so,” I nodded. “I know you think I’m a flake, but I’m going to try to be better from now on.”

Marcy sat on the seat beside me. “I’m glad. Mr. Reynolds certainly worked his charm, or his magic, or whatever on you. This keeps up, I might win the pool.”

I frowned. “What pool?”

“There’s two, actually. If you start to take the business seriously in the next ten years, I win.”

“And if it’s longer?”

“Then I lose to Vera in HR. She’s got you down for her retiring before that happens. Everyone else had more faith.” Marcy winked.

“What’s the other pool?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. “When I’ll sell?”

Marcy studied me for several seconds. “No. No matter how bored this whole thing makes you, I know you’re determined to keep Chic Cuisine on the straight and narrow. They tried to start a pool about you taking a pay-out, but I nixed it.”

Touched, I patted Marcy’s hand. “Thanks. So what’s the pool then?”

“How long it’ll take for you and Mr. Reynolds to get together. I may be married, but I’m not dead. He’s hot, almost as hot as my husband, and we’ve all seen the way you two look at each other.”

My face warmed. “I’m sure you’re imagining things. Well, see you tomorrow.”

Marcy made no move to leave. “You want in? Five bucks he asks you out end of the year. That’s the last option left. Everyone else has already picked their choice of timelines. Just so happens, I’ve got this week. Vera got last pick, which was the week before Christmas.”

“Yes, well, put me down for never.” I picked up the next paper to sign, put it back down again. “I’ve got a friend who has been doing telemarketing stuff for a few years. Her latest job is with an internet company. She refused my offer to run communications or whatever, but do you know somewhere that would suit her that also has an opening?”

“I’ll call Vera tomorrow. Tell her to fax her resume to me, I’ll pass it to whoever Vera suggests. I’m thinking Vera will scoop her up, or pass her to Luke. They’re both looking for someone who can communicate well. Vera needs a new secretary,and Luke needs someone to field calls.”

I fished my phone out of my purse. “Here, can you text Daphne the fax number? Tell her to send her resume attention Marcy.”

“You know I’m off the clock, right?” Marcy muttered as she took my phone. I saw the ghost of a smile on her lips.

I finished signing the papers I was holding as Marcy put my phone down. “She said ‘OMG, for real? Faxing now’.”

Marcy stood up and was at the door when another thought struck. “Hey, Marcy?”

“Yes?”

“Why do you call Duncan Mr. Reynolds, and Doug and I by our first names?”

“I call you Vicky because you threatened to fire me if I didn’t stop with that Ms. Carter BS, and –” Marcy’s face flushed. “I call Doug Doug because he’s my husband and I feel ridiculous calling him Mr. Benedict.”

Whatever I’d expected Marcy to say about Doug, it wasn’t that. “Huh.”

“What can I say? I’m a lucky woman.” Marcy turned on her heel and left me gaping after her.

I was halfway through my emails when Duncan came in. “Wow, you’re still here. I’m impressed.”

“What can I say? I’ve decided to learn.”

Duncan eyed the empty bins. “Did you put them through the shredder?”

“Ha, ha. No, they’re all in Marcy’s in-tray. She can deal with them while I’m in the meeting tomorrow morning.”

Duncan sat in one of the wing chairs across from my desk. “Wow. You’re really serious?”

“I think so. I’ve got a few things to discuss tomorrow, or should I schedule another meeting?”

“If it’s about the yoga stuff or doggy bags you mentioned to Doug, you can probably get away with dropping the news then set up meetings with everyone who needs to be involved.”

I nodded as I shut down the computer. “There’s another thing. I want to split the company, fifty-fifty.”

“With who?” Duncan frowned.

“Well, more like I’ll keep a bit higher, split the rest amongst you, Doug, Mark, Luke, Cassandra. Anyone I’m forgetting? That’s been here holding my hand and picking up my slack since we went huge?”

“Marshall will tell you to retain fifty-one percent to keep controlling interest.” Duncan shook his head. “But you’re being silly.”

“Why? Chic Cuisine would be nothing without you guys. I was the naïve and ignorant dreamer working a tiny fast food place until some corporate sharks tried to take me over. If you guys hadn’t reached out when I posted that letter to the editor with an all-call for help, I’d be lamenting that I had nothing to eat on the go but burgers, subs, pizza, or trendy processed crap.”

“This is your vision. We’re just helping you keep it real.” Duncan shrugged.

“That’s what I’m saying though. I couldn’t have fought them off without all of your help. When we met in my parent’s basement, because my tiny apartment was too small, you guys were the ones to tell me what needed to be done next. When I was overwhelmed, confused, lost, you guys picked up my slack. This company is what it is because of everyone else helping me keep it real. So, please? Let me – rather let Marshall – draw up papers for a partnership with whoever wants in. What do you say?”

Duncan stood. “If that’s what you want. But you’re not off the hook. We’re starting tonight, the crash course in learning your business.”

“You’re still willing?” I grinned as I stood and walked towards the table where my purse was.

“Of course. I must say I feel a whole lot better about asking you out now.”

I grabbed my purse from the table. “What?”

Duncan flushed. “I wasn’t actually going to ask the boss lady out yet. I’d figured out my game plan. We’d start with dinner, discussing the basics. Of course, we’d be off topic more than on, which would lead to coffee after. Then repeat tomorrow, say at lunch. Then dinner again, because we just can’t seem to keep on the subject. Oh, and just in case you were wondering? I planned my strategy with Luke months ago, just been waiting for you to get around to taking an interest. Didn’t want to weasel in with the boss, have people thinking or saying I’m only with you because you’re the owner. Didn’t want you to think I was only interested because you’re the boss. I’ve been interested since the night I met you at your parents.”

My purse slid out of my hands. “Is it insider trading if I say you have to ask me out before the week is up? Only Marcy has this week in the pool and I kinda feel I owe her.”

Duncan considered. “What week did you have?”

I big my lip. “Never.”

“Well, Doug’s been a huge help to me, only fair that I help his wife win.” Duncan’s gray eyes twinkled and his dimple winked. “Vicky, will you go out to dinner with me?”

My tummy fluttered. “Do you like steak and seafood?”

“That’s where I was when your friend ran off to get you – in the back, begging a roll off the cook.” Duncan pulled me into his arms for a hug.

“Perfect. We’ll start the crash course tomorrow night.” I winked as I studied his handsome face. Just like the first time I saw him, when he and the others answered my SOS, I felt breathless, hopeful, and just a little in love.

 

How Life Can Change in a Day

Daisy juggled Dylan on one hip and her wallet, phone, and keys in her free hand. The cashier scanned the items on the belt. Daisy frowned. “The crackers are on sale, aren’t they?”

The cashier shook her head, still scanning items. “Last week they were.”

Daisy felt her face flame as the line behind her shifted impatiently. “Can you remove them then?”

The cashier, a bored teenaged girl, paused her robotic motions. “What?”

“I don’t want the crackers.” Daisy heard the woman behind her mumbling.

“Why?” The girl frowned as she searched the bag for the box of crackers.

“I just don’t want them.” Not for full price, at least. Daisy hated this store but it was her only option without driving miles out of her way, wasting gas to save a few cents.

The cashier shrugged and removed the crackers, then put the box on the counter beside her. She eyed Daisy, and moved the box farther away. Daisy’s face burned with humiliation. Did she look that desperate that the girl thought she’d try to grab them?

Dylan fidgeted and Daisy struggled to keep him upright in her arms as she watched the totals of each item scanned with an eagle eye. “The bread is two for four dollars.”

The cashier sighed and picked up the phone beside her, keyed in a couple of numbers. “Bakery, call till three, bakery, till three.”

The cashier continued to scan items as the line behind Daisy got longer. No one called. Daisy needed bread, but didn’t have enough for the price scanned. Or maybe she did, because she wasn’t getting the crackers but if she’d known they weren’t two-for-four, she’d have bought just one loaf of the cheaper bread.

The cashier finished scanning and stared at Daisy.

“You might want to try them again? Or call someone?” Daisy pretended she couldn’t hear the grumblings of the people behind her, couldn’t hear the mutterings.

“Mama, go!” Dylan fidgeted even more and Daisy dropped her keys trying to hold him.

“In a minute, baby.” Daisy watched as the cashier picked up her phone again, turned her back to whisper into the receiver.

“Is this going to take long? I’ve got to get back to work.” The woman in line behind Daisy demanded. Daisy turned, wondering if she were talking to her or the cashier. “What’s the hold up?”

Daisy’s head pounded. Dylan grabbed a handful of hair and tugged, making it worse. “Stop it, please, baby.”

“Go! Go! Mama!” Dylan kept tugging her hair, bringing tears to Daisy’s eyes. She set her wallet and phone down on the counter, trying to extract her hair from her son’s clutches.

The cashier hung up and shrugged at Daisy. “One sec.”

“Can’t you ring me through while you wait?” The woman barked impatiently.

“No, ‘cuz the transaction isn’t done.” The cashier shrugged, studying her fingernails.

“There are four empty registers! Can’t you ring us through one of them while you wait?” The man behind the woman next in line argued.

Daisy was waging an internal battle – pay full price for the two loaves of bread, or have the cashier take them off and come back another time for the cheaper bread – when the manager came over. “The bread and the crackers were on sale last week. The sale ended two days ago, on Wednesday, but the signs should’ve been removed the night the sale ended. I apologize for the inconvenience. I’ll override the system, and put them through at the sale price.”

Daisy wiped her teary eyes, finally extracting Dylan’s pudgy hands from her hair. “Uh, thanks.”

Daisy opened her wallet and pulled out her cash as the manager finished up. “Sixty-one seventy-five.”

Daisy passed him the three twenties and the toonie from her change side. “Thanks.”

Daisy dropped her wallet and phone in the bag with the bread, looped her arm through the three plastic bag handles, and hurried out of the store, her face finally starting to cool. She got to the car and put the bags on the backseat, Dylan into his car seat. She was about to get in when she realized – her keys were still on the floor by the cashier.

Her car doors didn’t lock, so she’d have to unstrap Dylan and bring her groceries back inside to get them. The man who’d shouted gave her a nasty look as he got into his pick-up truck. Daisy wanted to sit down, right there, in the sweltering parking lot, and cry. Sob like she hadn’t in years.

“Mama, hot!” Dylan cried, arms and legs flailing.

Daisy bit her lip, scanning the lot. No one was around. Maybe she could hide her groceries so she only had to bring Dylan back in.

“Excuse me, miss?”

Daisy looked up and saw the manager heading her way. He held her keys up. “Oh, thank you! I was just debating hiding my groceries and getting my son out of his car seat.”

The manager reached her and put the keys in her hand. “I’m really sorry about –”

“It’s fine. The store was busy and a difficult customer certainly didn’t help things along.” Daisy felt her eyes fill with tears again and mentally cursed herself.

“That’s no excuse. Obviously my staff haven’t been doing their job. The signs are supposed to come down the night the sale ends, and the new ones go up. That’s when the staff even bother to show up.” The manager ran a hand through his dark hair.

Dylan started crying, temper tantrum mode engaged. Daisy huffed out a breath, feeling her humiliation and worry knot inside, then burst apart. She opened her mouth to say no problem, instead she spewed the shrapnel from the force of the explosion. “Maybe if you hired adults who cared instead of teenagers who only care about who’s party they’re going to tonight, or if they can redo their nails after work you wouldn’t have these problems. Maybe if you hired responsible people that showed up for work you wouldn’t have fifteen people trying to check-out at the only open register. If you didn’t price gouge, the single moms wouldn’t have to watch every item scanned and catch the errors.”

Daisy swiped angrily at the tears and hated herself for losing her cool, but the rage and humiliation kept spewing, just like Dylan’s. “I just spent the last of my money to buy those groceries, those bloody crackers were the only treat I could afford for my kids, and yet I’m supposed to feel gratitude that you honoured the posted prices? Do you have any idea how humiliating it is to have people complaining because you have to nickel and dime the store? Of course you don’t.”

“Mama, go! Hot!” Dylan screeched from the car. Daisy closed his door and opened hers.

“Okay, baby, okay. We’ll go now.” Daisy didn’t bother to look at the manager. She put her key in the ignition, turned it. The car started, shuddered, stalled. “No, no, no.”

The gas gauge showed a quarter of a tank, but Daisy had suspected it was broken. She mentally calculated when the last time she’d bought gas and groaned. That’s why she had an extra twenty bucks – she hadn’t bought gas.

The manager was still standing beside her car when she opened the door. Daisy didn’t look at him. How much more humiliation could she face today? “Come on, Dylan. Let’s go for a walk.”

Dylan slapped her hand when Daisy reached in to unstrap him. “No, go!”

Daisy’s phone rang, so she reached across her son and extracted it from the bottom of the bread bag. She stood up, glared at the manager before answering. “Hello?”

“The kids are driving me crazy. Where are you?” Daisy tensed when she heard her father’s cantankerous bellow.

“I’m coming, just uh –” Daisy locked eyes with the manager and turned her head to whisper. “Ran out of gas at the grocery store. We’ll be there soon.”

“The girl is crying, and the boys is bleeding. Fell off his bike.” Her father’s accusing tone made Daisy feel like she’d been the one to knock Jake off his bike.

“Why’s Taylor crying?”

“How should I know? She’s always crying, ain’t she?” Her father muttered his annoyance.

Daisy felt the cramping in her belly and the pounding in her head as she tried not to show her pain to the manager. “I’m sorry, Dad. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Daisy disconnected the call and turned around, forcing a smile to her face.

“Do you need a ride somewhere?” The manager asked, as Dylan began to scream again.

Desperate, Daisy nodded. “Please.”

“You unhook the car seat, I’ll go get my car. Give me five minutes.” The manager hurried towards the store and Daisy felt awful for shouting at him.

“We go now?” Dylan asked, sniffling.

“Soon. We’re going to go in a different car.” Daisy unhooked the car seat before unhooking Dylan. “We need to put your seat in the nice man’s car, then strap you back in, okay honey?”

Dylan wrapped his pudgy arms around Daisy’s neck and buried his face in her shoulder. She felt his tears dampen her shirt. The tantrum was short but had taken a toll. Dylan usually gave his all to a fit, burned himself out fast. He’d be asleep by the time they got home.

Daisy eyed the clean Honda as the manager parked beside her. “Do you know how to anchor the car seat?”

“Uh, no.” The manager scratched his head.

Daisy peered into Dylan’s face. “Can you go to the nice man so Mommy can move your seat?”

Dylan studied the manager before nodding sleepily.

Daisy couldn’t believe that Dylan went willingly, calmly, into the manager’s arms. He looked awkward jostling Dylan in his arms as she quickly transferred the car seat to the Honda. She grabbed her groceries and put them on the floor in front of Dylan’s car seat. She extricated Dylan from his arms and buckled him in the seat. “Thanks for doing this, uh –?”

“Robert. Robert Keller. What’s your name?” Robert opened the passenger door for Daisy.

“Daisy. Like the weed.” Daisy smiled wryly.

“Daisy’s aren’t weeds, they’re wildflowers.” Robert grinned as he closed the door.

Daisy felt a pang thinking of her mom. Her mother used to say that daisies were flowers that people didn’t know they wanted until they saw their happy little faces show up in their gardens. Her dad used to say they were wildflowers, just like Daisy was a wild child, and her mother would slap his arm, saying Daisy wasn’t wild, just free, like the flowers.

“Hot,” Dylan mumbled from the backseat.

Robert started the car and turned on the AC. “It’ll cool off quick, Champ.”

Dylan looked over at the heap parked next to them. “Bye bye, hunk o’ junk.”

“That’s what my dad calls the car,” Daisy explained with a grin. “Hope you don’t mind, but she’ll have to sit there until I can get some gas.”

“No rush.” Robert pulled out of his spot. “Where are we headed?”

“Concession 2. I’ll point out the house when we get there.” Daisy felt her face flame. “I can’t remember the number. Like 1, 305 or something.”

If Robert minded the long trip out of town he didn’t let on. “Were you really going to walk?”

Daisy nodded. “What other choice did I have? I’ve got an old umbrella stroller in the trunk, I would’ve strapped Dylan in there and put the groceries on the handles. Done it before, a couple of times.”

“H-hot,” Dylan hiccupped from the backseat.

“I agree, Champ.” Robert peered into the rearview mirror, nodding.

“Unfortunately Dylan’s getting too big for the stroller, his feet almost touch the ground, it’s so low.” Daisy put her hand on Robert’s arm. “You better go back, I’ll need it to come get my car.”

Robert didn’t slow. “Call the store when you’re ready, I’ll have someone come get you.”

Daisy thought of the various employees she’d intereacted with whenever she’d been in the store. “Uh, no thanks. No offense, but I can’t see any of them being thrilled with chauffeur duty.”

“We deliver, you know. I’ll just send the delivery guy.”

Daisy knew she’d never accept. “I’m sorry I lashed out at you, even if everything I said was true.”

Robert snorted. “Er, apology accepted, I guess.”

Daisy glanced back at Dylan, who was falling asleep. “You have to admit, your employees leave a lot to be desired.”

Robert nodded. “Believe it or not, it’s hard to find people to work in this town.”

Daisy let out a bitter laugh. “I’d never treat anyone the way I get treated.”

“Then why haven’t you applied?” Robert shot a look at Daisy as he drove outside town limits.

“I have. Several times. The old woman at the counter keeps saying you’re not hiring.” Daisy leaned her pounding head against the headrest. “Story of everywhere in town.”

“Are you new to the area?” Robert sped up as the speed limit increased.

“Kind of. My dad bought a house here about two years ago, when my mom died. He’s not real pleased with me and my kids moving in, but –” Daisy bit her lip. She hadn’t meant to divulge so much. “I’ve been staying with my dad a few months.”

“Your dad is Ray Wheeler?” Robert raised an eyebrow.

Crap. Daisy nodded. “Since you know my dad, you should know I’d greatly appreciate a lift to the concession before you dump me out of the car.”

“Ray’s not that –” Robert cleared his throat. “I see where you get your temper from. Not just normal red-headed temper.”

Daisy groaned. “You do know him.”

“That’s probably why you’ve never ordered groceries. Ray Wheeler is banned from the store.”

Daisy nodded. “I figured, when he complained about having to drive to the next town to get food. He never used to be like this, you know? He and my mom were normal people. He was a bit crankier than some, but not like he is now. He’s bitter because my mom died. Blames everyone, even me. Says if I’d been around more, I’d have seen the signs, but I was too wrapped up in –”

Robert darted a look at Daisy. “Wrapped up in the kids?”

Daisy bit her lip again. “My ex. The kid’s father.”

“You’re not married now?” Robert stopped at the traffic light at the highway.

Daisy blew out a heavy breath. “We were never married. I had Jake, then Taylor, when things were good early on. Then he got…nasty. Made my dad look and sound like a gentleman. I left him, got a place on my own with the kids. He came back, fooled me again by being there for me when my mom got sick, died. I wised up, but not before –”

Robert nodded his understanding as he started driving when the light turned green. “I get it.”

Daisy felt her emotions, usually so controlled, rise up again. This time, she let out a sob. “No, you don’t. You have no clue.”

Robert turned onto the second concession and pulled over at a dirt path. He turned in his seat, passing her a tissue from the glovebox.

“Thanks for the lift.” Daisy wiped her streaming eyes.

“We’re not there yet but I figure you need to get this out before you go home to your kids, and to Ray. That can’t be easy, dealing with –” Robert shook his head. “Sorry.”

“It’s not. He’s so miserable all the time. I hate leaving the kids with him but sometimes I have to. He’s actually good with them, just tells me how horrible they are.” Daisy wiped her cheeks again. “The kids love him.”

“Then that’s a bonus. Where’s your ex?”

Daisy shrugged. “Last I heard, jail. His mom sends me child support every couple of weeks. Not much, but it’s all she can afford. She lives in Newfoundland, feels responsible. Her other kids are all good, you know? Says to me that she doesn’t know where Steve gets it from, his bad side.”

Robert passed another tissue to Daisy. “I think everyone has the potential. Every day, we make choices, some of us choose wrong.”

Daisy nodded. “Like Steve. He didn’t want to work, said I was a fool slaving away at the coffee shop. Why would he want to work for minimum wage when he was worth more? But then he couldn’t find a job, or if he did, he didn’t keep it long because he was cocky. My cousin babysat for me while I worked at two jobs, he could never keep one. When I left him the first time, he was getting into shady stuff. When my mom got sick, it was too late to save her. I took a leave from one of the jobs so I could help my dad as much as I could with her. Steve came around, watched the kids so I didn’t have to pay my cousin to babysit anymore. That’s when I made the mistake of thinking that we could try again. Not because I loved him, but because it was easier to work one job, not have to pay a sitter.”

Robert frowned. “You had Champ even though you didn’t love Steve? I’m sorry – none of my business.”

“You opened this can of worms, you might as well get the full blast. Yeah, though I thought maybe my feelings were love. I was messed up, my mom had just died. I ignored the doubts, the worries, life was so hard, it was just easier to keep going with what I had. Then he got caught with stolen goods, drugs, a gun. The kids were with him.” Daisy bit her knuckle to stifle the sob. She glanced back at Dylan, made sure he was still asleep. “I had to work so hard to prove I wasn’t part of his lifestyle. His mother came out from Newfoundland, backed me up. I finally got the kids back about six months after Dylan was born. When my mat leave was up six months after that, my cousin said she couldn’t take all three kids, couldn’t handle a baby. I figured I’d come up here, stay with my dad until I could find a job. Only I can’t find a job. And I can’t afford my own place. My dad’s on a pension, he supports himself okay, but can’t afford to support all of us.”

Robert was quiet, and Daisy felt horrible for unloading on him. He was probably thinking of ways to get rid of her politely, all while banning her from the grocery store. “Where have you worked?”

Daisy, caught off guard, raised her eyebrows. “Pardon?”

“What kind of jobs have you had?”

“Oh, well, nothing exciting. Coffee shop, fast food, counter stuff. I waitressed when Jake was small, but had to stop because the bar was open so late, and I started at the coffee shop so early, with a couple of hours in between both jobs day and night. I was exhausted, and pregnant with Taylor.”

“Where was your favourite place to work?” Robert shook his head. “Let me rephrase that. If you could have any job in town, where would it be?”

Daisy shook her head. “Doesn’t matter, no one’s hiring.”

“I was born and raised in this town. I know everyone. Where would you work if you could work anywhere?”

Daisy shrugged. “Anywhere. A job is all I want.”

“And I know I can get you a job. I just want to know where you’d love to work.”

Daisy shrugged. “I liked waitressing for the tips, but not a lot of places that need day servers. Jake’s starting school in September, I’d like to see him at night. I used to think the bank would be good, but I don’t have the right clothes. Same thing for being a receptionist. So I guess we’re back to fast food stuff, which this town doesn’t have a lot of options for. Or the grocery store, but you’re never hiring.”

Robert was quiet for a couple of minutes, and Daisy felt the little balloon of hope that had swelled in her chest deflate. She was stuck in small town Ontario with no job, no prospects, a single mother living with her grief stricken father, and zero means of escape. She had a pittance coming in from her kids’ grandmother for support for them, which she spent on them only, except the twenty bucks she put in her tank to drive around looking for work once a week.

“I’ve got a couple of options. Will your dad watch the kids for an hour?” Robert sat up straight in the driver’s seat, glancing at Daisy as he shifted into drive.

“Uh, yeah, probably. Only thing that makes him happy, even if he complains about them after.” Daisy shrugged.

Daisy remembered her dad was banned from the grocery store, so she wasn’t surprised when Robert pulled into the long gravel driveway without directions from her. The Wheeler reputation preceded her.

Robert took Dylan while Daisy unbuckled the car seat and grabbed the groceries. Dylan never woke up as Robert adjusted him in his arms and took the grocery bags from Daisy.

“Mommy, mommy, we’re having chicken fingers for dinner.” Taylor raced to the door, her brother right behind her.

“Thought you said you’d be here soon –” Ray stopped in his tracks when he saw Daisy standing in the door next to Robert. “What’re you doin’ here?”

“I told you I ran out of gas. Can you take Dylan? He’ll sleep for awhile yet because he wouldn’t nap this afternoon.” Daisy took Dylan from Robert and passed him to her father, who took him down the hall to Daisy’s bedroom. “Taylor, Jake, you want to take the groceries to the kitchen? Put the milk in the fridge, I’ll deal with the rest when I get home.”

Daisy handed the bread bag to Taylor and the other two to Jake. “Wait, pass me my wallet and phone, first, Tay.”

Taylor dropped the bag and Daisy winced as she leaned on the bread to find Daisy’s things. “Where’re you going, Mommy?”

Daisy shrugged. “I don’t know. To get a job, I hope.”

Robert grinned. “When your mom gets home, she can tell you all about her new job.”

“No one’s hiring,” Ray came back without Dylan. “You check the ads in that crummy paper every week, nothing.”

“I know a couple of places might be,” Robert shrugged. “We’ll see.”

“Mommy, you should probably change. I can see your tear marks.” Taylor put the bread bag over her shoulder and raced off for the kitchen.

“Do I look that bad?” Daisy winced.

“Worse.” Ray shrugged. “Go wash your face, change your shirt. You got Dylan’s snot on your shoulder.”

Daisy set her keys, wallet, and phone on the small table before she tiptoed into her room and pulled out a clean t-shirt without waking Dylan. In the bathroom, she changed, washed her face, and brushed her hair. She found her black pants on the counter and changed, figuring they’d look better than faded jeans.

“Better?” Daisy asked as she returned to the men standing awkwardly in the doorway.

“Not hard to improve on cat-dragged-in slop.” Ray shook his head. “Go on, get out of here.”

Daisy rolled her eyes. “Kids? Be good for Grandpa.”

“They don’t know how to be good,” Ray grumbled.

“We will, Mommy. Grandpa said we could paint some rocks after dinner.” Jake returned, holding the bag of milk. “Grandpa, can you put this away? I’m scared of jiggling the jello you made.”

Ray and Jake headed back to the kitchen, Ray muttering under his breath. “Never said not to jiggle it, I said not to poke it or it won’t set right. You just don’t wanna put the milk away.”

Daisy grinned at their retreating forms as she picked up her phone and wallet. “Where are we going? My resumes are in the car, can we stop to grab them?”

“No need.” Robert held the screen door for Daisy and they made their way to the car. “Your dad seems to enjoy the kids. Told me Jake’s learning to ride without training wheels.”

“Not easy to do on a dirt road,” Daisy sighed. “But yeah, he’s teaching him, says Taylor can use the training wheels on the bike he picked up at a garage sale last week.”

They set out towards town, Daisy wondering where they were headed but too nervous to ask. “Won’t you get in trouble leaving the store for so long?”

“That’s the beauty of running the store your parents own. You can get away with taking time off.” Robert winked at Daisy.

“Oh, God, you own the store. My little outburst is even more embarrassing somehow.” Daisy cringed as she stared at Robert’s profile. He was handsome, in a casual kind of way. Not like Steve, who’d been handsome with his swagger and self confidence, but unattractive once Daisy really saw him for who and what he was. Robert had dark hair, blue eyes, and a smile that soothed.

“My parents own the store. I’m not allowed to buy into it until I have a family. And don’t be embarrassed, you nailed everything I’ve been saying for years. Once I do own the store, I’ll be free to make a lot of changes. Until then, I try but no one takes me seriously unless my parents are in. But we do not price gouge, you were wrong about that. We’re a small town grocery store with no corporate parent. We can’t buy container ships of goods at cheap prices, we buy small orders as needed from the suppliers so our prices are high, therefore the store prices are high. Usually when we have a sale, we’re selling for our cost and making nothing.” Robert stopped at the traffic light on the highway.

“I know how it works, trust me. I’m sorry for lashing out at you. Consider it a mini breakdown or something. I’m usually very nice.”

“I know. I’ve seen you around a few times, in the store and in town.” Robert shot her a sheepish grin as he stepped on the gas when the light changed. “You usually buy one loaf of bread. I wondered why you’d grabbed two.”

“The sign –” Daisy laughed when she remembered her scene earlier. “I’d love to not watch every item scan through, to not have to worry about everything to the penny, but I had sixty-two dollars in my purse, and I took an hour to buy what I bought, because I had to keep putting things back, picking up others. Turns out, I had that much because I’d forgotten to put twenty in my gas tank.”

Robert slowed as they entered town limits. “Your dad can’t help you?”

Daisy sighed. “He is helping me, as much as he can. He sold the house he and my mom owned and bought the place where he is now. Went from small city convenience with no yard to big yard in small village. The place he’s in now cost more than he got for the other house, so he used his investments to avoid a mortgage. His pension covers property taxes, bills, and groceries for him. He’s been buying a lot of extra food since we’ve been here – chicken fingers aren’t in my budget.”

Robert pulled down a small driveway between the bank and the salon, headed for the rear parking. “Is he happy here?”

Daisy shrugged. “You’ve met him, does he seem happy to you?”

Robert snorted. “Not really.”

“He wanted away from the memories, but the problem is, they’re in his head and he can’t get away from them. He likes a bit of land, but it’s lonely. He’s not a social guy, so he’s not really met anyone in town. Mom was the churchgoer, so he doesn’t even have that outlet. I think he likes the area, but he wanted quiet, so he went outside town. If he had it to do over, I think he’d either have stayed put, or bought in town here.” Daisy opened the car door when Robert pulled the key out of the ignition. “Where are we going? I already told you the bank’s not hiring.”

They walked along the sidewalk to the street. “You’ll see.”

Daisy hesitated as Robert opened the door to the real estate office. “Are they hiring? Do they need a cleaner or something?”

Robert shook his head, stepping aside for Daisy. She froze when she saw the miserable woman from the grocery store. “Elaine, this is Daisy, Daisy, Elaine.”

Elaine’s smile turned froxy when she recognized Daisy. “Robert?”

“You know everything and everyone. Who’s hiring?” Robert sat down in one of the chairs in the waiting area across from Elaine’s desk. Daisy stayed near the door.

Elaine’s cool expression warmed as she looked Daisy up and down. “That depends. I know a few places might be looking.”

“Really?” Daisy gaped at the woman. “Anything, anywhere. In town preferably, but I can commute to one of the other towns if I have to.”

“Well, Sheila’s quitting the medical centre, so they’re looking for a new secretary there. Georgia’s going on mat leave, so they’re looking for a secretary for a year, but then Mildred’s retiring end of the year, so might be that you can take over for her permanently. That’s at the vet’s. The new restaurant will be looking for a waitress once they figure out how to let Linda go. Can you drive a school bus?”

“Uh, no, I don’t think so.”

“You’d know if you had a bus license. Shame, they’re always looking for drivers. There’s a high turn over at the coffee place on the highway but there’s a reason no one sticks. Have you asked your aunt if she needs someone?”

Robert shook his head. “I will if you let me down but so far you’re winning. Who do you know at the medical centre that has a say in hiring? Or the vet’s?”

Elaine looked Daisy over again, her eyes narrowed. “Better the vet, I think. The medical centre is a bit harsh sometimes. Judge-y, you know.”

Considering the way Elaine had huffed and puffed behind Daisy, she thought the statement was a bit laughable. “I can get some better clothes and a haircut.”

“No, no, honey. I know who your dad is, he bought the Henderson’s old stead. Let’s just say your dad isn’t Dr. Greg’s favourite patient. I’m sure he’d forgive you, not hold your dad against you, but all the same. Let me make a quick call.” Elaine put a headset on and pressed a few buttons on the phone.

Daisy sat down beside Robert. “Is this for real?”

Robert’s blue eyes twinkled. “Elaine knows everything, and if she doesn’t, she makes it up until she knows it. Safe to say she didn’t cut you slack today because she’s heard the stories about your dad, but she’s the first to stand corrected when she’s wrong about someone. She’s on the phone, that’s her way of letting you know she’s been corrected. If she didn’t like you, she’d have simiply sent you to the coffee place on the highway. Which, like she hinted, is a nightmare.”

Daisy crossed her fingers as Elaine chatted away. “What if I suck? At being a secretary?”

“Can you read and write?” Robert paused while Daisy nodded. “You’re friendly, do you like animals?”

“Love animals. Dad and I were just saying it’s a shame we don’t have pets, but we’re barely feeding the kids right now.”

Elaine pulled her headset off. “Okay, I tried to wangle more, but starting salary is only thirty-seven. Benefits in three months, once your probation is up. Three weeks paid vacation a year, five paid sick days. Now, what else? Oh yeah, you have to be willing to work at least one Saturday morning a month. Rest of the time is either eight til four thirty, or nine to five thirty, half hour unpaid lunch.”

Daisy blinked. “Pardon?”

Elaine frowned. “I know thirty-seven K a year isn’t much to live on, especially since you’ve got a kid –”

“She’s got three,” Robert interrupted.

Elaine’s eyes filled with compassion. “That’s really not enough, but the bright side is that if you get through probation, you get a raise. Georgia said it’s close to forty, but didn’t know exactly. She gets more because she’s been there since high school but that’s what she was told to advertise. Plus, with Mildred retiring, might be a bigger jump faster.”

“Forty thousand?” Daisy swallowed hard. “I worked two jobs at one time and was lucky if I made thirty.”

“Between you, me, and stock boy, Georgia thinks you can get more if you play your cards right. Got me for a reference, got the grocery guy, need one more good reference.”

Daisy racked her brain. “I got on well with my boss at –”

“No, they won’t care about that. Let me call someone.” Elaine pulled her headset back on.

“Is she for real? That kind of money in this small town?”

Robert chuckled. “That is small town money.”

Daisy sat back in her seat, her jaw hanging slack.

“Okay, that’s settled. Got your aunt on board, she’s going to be the third reference.” Elaine winked at Robert. “You got a resume?”

“In my car at the grocery store.” Daisy shot Robert an I-told-you-so look. “Who’s your aunt?”

“She owns the flower shop.” Robert sat up in his chair.

“She’s also the mayor.” Elaine rolled her eyes at Daisy. “No matter. I’ll whip you up a new one, send it to Georgia in twenty minutes. You should hear tonight, at least by tomorrow.”

Daisy looked at her phone, saw it was already six. “They won’t get it today.”

“Georgia and Mildred work those hours. The evening students work until eight.” Elaine was already typing on her computer. “Now, where’ve you worked?”

Daisy answered all of Elaine’s questions while Robert sat there patiently. When they were done, Elaine printed off a copy of Daisy’s new resume.

“I’d hire me,” Daisy grinned, reading Elaine’s work. “Mine is dull compared to this.”

Elaine brushed imaginary lint off her shoulder. “Like I said, you should hear back tonight, or tomorrow. If you don’t, come see me. I don’t usually work Saturdays but I said I would tomorrow as a favour.”

Daisy walked out of the real estate office with Robert. “That really happened, right?”

Robert laughed. “She’s a steamroller. Even my aunt takes orders from Elaine, and she’s the mayor.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Robert shrugged. “Didn’t want to sound like I was bragging. She’s my mom’s sister. We’re only a small town, it’s not like she’s mayor of Toronto or anything.”

“Still, pretty impressive. I don’t know how I can thank you. I actually feel –” Daisy paused, considered her words. Hopeful? Optimistic? “There’s a lot of things. Like for once life is going my way, you know? I was turned down for each of the three post-secondary education choices I’d applied for, and since then just felt like I was getting by, getting through life.”

“You’ve done more than get by, look at your kids.”

“They’re great, but they’d be great no matter what. I can’t take credit for them, look at their father.”

“Sure you can – you’ve been their anchor.”

“They were in CAS.” Daisy felt the familiar shame rise up to choke her.

“Because of what their father did, but they’re back with you because of what you did.” Robert opened the car door for Daisy.

“Do you have kids?” Daisy asked, peering up at him. He shook his head. “Then how can you say that? They’re great despite anything I’ve done.”

Robert closed Daisy’s door and went around to the driver’s side. “You’re right. I don’t have kids, and I don’t really know you. But I’ve seen you with your kids at the store, walking on the street, and hearing your story today? Your kids show no signs of your struggles. That’s what parenting is all about.”

Daisy smiled to herself. “If things keep looking up, maybe one day I’ll be able to do the family thing properly. I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to have a normal picket-fence life.”

Robert shifted the car into reverse and backed out of the parking spot. “You want more kids?”

Daisy nodded. “I’m only twenty-eight. I love being a mom, love my kids, but would love to try again with a true two-parent setting. I mean, I know a lot of guys would run when they hear three kids, but once Dylan’s older, might be easier to find someone who won’t be so scared off.”

Robert was quiet as he pulled out on the road. He pulled into the gas station and Daisy wondered if she’d said something wrong. She waited while he went inside without a word, replayed what she’d said. She couldn’t recall anything that would’ve upset him, unless her asking him if he had kids had been the cause.

Her phone rang. “Hello?”

“Could I speak to Daisy Wheeler?” A man’s voice, one Daisy didn’t recognize, set her pulse skittering.

“Speaking.” Daisy closed her eyes, crossed her fingers.

“Hi, Daisy. I’m Lee Davidson, the veterinarian in town. I’ve just seen your resume Elaine sent over. I’m sure Elaine filled you in. Georgia’s going on mat leave soon, and we’ll need someone to fill in for her.”

Daisy waited for the ‘unfortunately, you’re not what we’re looking for’ remark, but it didn’t come. “Yes, Elaine mentioned that.”

“Excellent. Then when can you start? I’d prefer Monday, but if you need more time –”

“I can start Monday.” Daisy bounced her feet on the floorboard, grinning to herself.

“Excellent. We’ll see you at nine on Monday.”

Daisy let the phone slide out of her sweaty palm. “Holy cow. Holy smokes. Holy Toledo. Oh boy. Oh wow. Oh, my God.”

Robert opened the car door and slid in. A little smile played on his lips. “Good news?”

Daisy burst into tears, sniffling. “What have I done?”

Robert’s eyes widened as he patted her arm. “What’s wrong?”

“I said I’d take the job. What have I done?” Daisy swiped at her eyes. “I haven’t cried so much since my mother died, you must think I’m such a flake.”

Robert turned the key in the ignition. “I don’t. Think you’re a flake, I mean. But what happened? You looked happy when I came out.”

“Lee Davidson just hired me. I start Monday morning. I’ve never been a secretary before. What have I done?”

Robert pulled out of the gas station. “You’ve got yourself a job, that’s what you’ve done. Don’t worry. Georgia’s worked there since high school, she’ll train you up. Mildred’s good, too, she’ll help however she can. You’re in a small town, people are different here. There’s room for error you know.”

Daisy pulled herself together. “You think so?”

“I took you to see Elaine, didn’t I? I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t think you could do anything the town might need.”

Daisy was silent for a few minutes. She looked up, saw they were pulling into the grocery store. “Did you need to go finish up your work? I can walk home.”

Robert shook his head and pulled her car key out of his pocket. “I grabbed this on our way out.”

Daisy rolled her eyes. “I have no gas, remember?”

“Why do you think I stopped at the gas station?”

Daisy followed Robert out of the car. “I didn’t see you buy gas.”

“You were on the phone. This should do you a couple of days, then you can go back and get more. I told Roger that you were good for the money, to let you fill up, that you’d pay up on your first pay day.”

Daisy looked at the huge red jerry can in Robert’s trunk. She threw her arms around him. “You’re like this knight or something. You keep saving my butt.”

Robert hugged her back, and Daisy was suddenly aware of him, his strength, his heartbeat beneath her cheek. She felt her face flame and pulled out of his embrace. “How can I thank you?”

Robert carried the can to her car and fitted the yellow nozzle into it. He poured the gas into her tank without speaking. Finally, when he’d drained all the gas from the can, he stepped back and looked at her. “There’s uh, one thing you could do.”

Daisy nodded eagerly. “Anything.”

“Ask me why I didn’t offer you a job.” Robert put the gas can in his trunk and turned back to face Daisy.

She blinked in confusion. “Okay. Why didn’t you offer me a job?”

“Because as understaffed as we are, I’d rather go out to dinner with you one night. I figured if you worked for us, it would be awkward to date the boss.”

Daisy couldn’t help herself. She threw her head back and laughed. “That would be awkward.”

“There’s one other thing you can do for me.” Robert’s twinkling blue eyes made Daisy’s heart skip a beat.

“What’s that?”

“Go out to dinner with me? My cousin owns this really cute family restaurant, and she’s always saying it’s a shame I can’t come in to eat because I’m a bachelor. I figure you’ve got the kids, so I can finally check it out properly.”

“It’s a date. When?”

“Tomorrow? I work until two, so I’ll pick you all up at about five? I guess your dad can even come, as long as he promises to behave.”

Daisy wrapped her arms around him again, kissed his cheek. “It’s a date.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Pesky Late Night Thoughts

Like those annoying “we interrupt this program” pre-emptive news flashes, there are nights that sleep is sidelined by bizarre thoughts. We’ll save the whole ‘the world is doomed, my life is a mess and falling apart” thoughts for a deeper day when I’m up to facing them. Tonight’s kaleidoscope of troubling thoughts borders on the side of absurd.

Crazy thoughts, like the hardest things to say (You’re right, I’m sorry, and we’re out of chocolate – oh, and crayon, which I didn’t realize was hard to say at all until my kids informed me that I actually say ‘crown’, not crayon). Then there’s the whole water isn’t wet thing – how can it make things wet, but not be wet? This is usually when the first trip to the bathroom occurs.

I often use the whole ‘can’t hear me shouting from the same room, but I swear, they can hear a flea fart three doors down’ complaint about hubby, or the kids, but at night, that leads to a whole ‘do fleas fart?’ debate. With myself, of course, because everyone else is sleeping. This can morph into ‘do bugs pee?’ (which often leads to the second bathroom visit).If the bugs continue to plague my thoughts, I inevitably get itchy. Which eventually rolls around to – you guessed it – do bugs get itchy? Is that why flies always look like they’re rubbing their hands greedily? Are they really just scratching their little fly appendages? They might want to buy lottery tickets.

Why does my dog sniff his butt after he farts? Is he thinking ‘dang, I smell goooood’? Or is he thinking ‘hey, I don’t remember eating a dead, rotting cow carcass’? Then he’ll wake up, scratch himself, and we’re back on the whole flea thing again.

It blows my mind that my husband can sleep while my thoughts are so troubled. I’ll listen to the sound of his deep breathing, and wonder if I can accidentally on purpose drop a piano in the room or something, just so he wakes up and stops taunting me with his peaceful sleep sounds. If I pushed him out of bed, could I fake the whole ‘wwwhhatt wuz that?’ fake wake up thing? Then he can tell me if fleas fart. Or why we don’t have chocolate.

The cat will start his whole ‘song of my people’ routine, which leads me to think I might not feed him anymore when his bowl is still full. Like seriously, does he sit there and count the kitty bits in his full bowl and say, ‘you know what, there should be 783 kibbles here, but I’m only counting 782…Mmmmmmooooommmm!!! I’m gonna starve!’ No wonder he never wants to go outside (not that he’d be allowed) – there’s no food dish out there.

Speaking of running out of things – I do not understand people who run out of toilet paper. How can they not get all worried, need therapy, when they’re down to their last few rolls? We came close during the whole hording Covid thing, and I’m still haunted by it. Seriously. We were down to our last package. We considered a home equity loan to buy a jumbo package on the black market. Fortunately, Costco brought out a skid as we were walking away, dejected at first, then elated when we saw the security team guarding the rolls. We raced to the checkout and drove the 45 kilometres home to stash them in our safe before driving back to finish our shopping.

Bathroom trip number 3…all good on the TP front here. Toss, flip the pillow, turn. Why is qumquat such a weird word? Why does awkward look so…awkward? Why do some people cringe when you say ‘moist’? Squeegee. I love that word. Some people play air guitar, I play air spelling, complete with rubbing my hand to erase mistakes.

Awww, I just heard an ice cube being born in my fridge. Man, I’m thirsty. Better not drink anything though, don’t want to have to pee again. I don’t get horsepower. Have you seen those Clydesdales? Five of them can pull down a barn. One horse can run faster than most cars, I don’t get how cars need 450 horsepower to do anything. A barn surely weighs more than a car. Or does it? How much do barns weigh?

Shoot, I forgot to plug in my phone. Can’t use the charger that came with it, because I don’t have one of those stupid USB-C blocks. Why did my phone come with a useless cable and no block? And why do I have to buy an adapter to use wired headphones? How much more difficult does Apple have to make my life before I switch to android? How much money does Apple make? Do they do this stuff just to see how far they can push us?

What time is it? I can’t tell if my eyes are open or closed, so that’s a good sign. Open, closed, open – ha, tricked me, one eye was open, the other was closed.

Hey, I remember in English class, my teacher said that every five characters was a word. For the rest of my school career, I wrote everything using the longest words possible (why use dull, which isn’t even a full word when I could use unsharpened, which was more than two words?) Now I’m paranoid that my drabbles (stories with exactly 100 words) are lies. Was the five characters really a thing, or was he just giving me a rule of thumb? What does rule of thumb mean, anyhow? Oh, man, this could get ugly. Mental note, check Google tomorrow, see if drabbles are literal words, so things like I and a, count as one word versus the five character thing. Darn you, Mr…what was his name again?

Shoot, I have to pee. I should’ve drank some water. But I’m comfy. But if you don’t get up and go, you’ll fall asleep only to wake up to go. Then what if you can’t fall back asleep? But what if I can’t get comfy when I get back? Are you comfy now? Exactly.

We need milk, bread, paper towels, and maybe pick up some more toilet paper. What else? Not eggs, not butter. There’s something, what was it? No, we don’t need napkins. Toothpaste?

I wonder if I won anything on the lottery tonight. Wouldn’t that be nice? I could be lying here, sleepless, and rich. Or at least won a free ticket.

It’s getting lighter out. I haven’t slept yet. I’ve been to the bathroom how many times? Five? Six? Seventy? Oh, wait, my eyes must be open if I can see it’s getting light out. Close them! Close them right now! I can’t. They won’t stay closed. Why? So not fair.

Hubby’s got to get up in a couple of hours. Finally, I’m getting sleepy. Thanks for taking this wild journey with me, listening to my crazy thoughts. If you can answer any one of the million questions, leave a comment. Now I’m drifting off…

Chocolate! That’s what it was! Now what were the other things we needed?

 

A Dozen Drabbles

For those who aren’t familiar with Drabbles. They are precisely 100 word stories. The titles don’t count for the overall word count, but they cannot exceed seven words. Here are twelve I’ve written for fun.

~~ Despairing Desperation ~~

“Gimme another.” The bloodshot eyes pierced Jill’s heart.

“You’ve had enough, Joe.” Jill hated this.

“You don’t control me.” Joe picked up his glass and slammed it down on the bar. “C’mon.”

Jill locked eyes with Stan, tilted her head towards Joe. He nodded as he approached.

“Joe, how’s it hangin’?” Stan put an arm around the old man’s bony shoulders.

“Lil’s gone y’know. Gone.” The old man’s eyes filled with tears. “Got nothin’ left.”

“You got us.”

Joe glared at Stan. “Got nothin’ else.”

Stan shrugged. “Your glass’ll stay empty ’til tomorrow. Lil’s home then.”

“One more? To celebrate?”

~~ Dealing in the Dark ~~

Darting a glance towards the mouth of the alley, Fred grabbed Carl’s sleeve. “How much?”

Carl assessed Fred’s desperation, calculating. “Hundred.”

Fred jumped as a raccoon dove into the dumpster. “Too much. Please, how much for $50?”

Carl snorted. “Didn’t risk everything to get a shipment to give it away, dungbrains.”

Fred’s eyes filled with terror and he put a hand out to stop Carl leaving. “I’m good for it, you know I am. How much you got? I can get you more clients.”

Carl reassessed greedily. “You know that many junkies? Got coke, meth…”

Fred whistled. “Get him, boys.”

~~ Saints Abound ~~

The sandcastle was suddenly covered by shadows. Timmy shielded his eyes and groaned. The bullies assessed his work.

“Hey, loser,” Johnny sneered. Timmy knew his hard work would be destroyed.

“Don’t make me call the Saints,” Timmy warned.

Johnny made a ‘get a load of him’ gesture and lifted his foot. “What? You think saints are gonna swoop down and save your baby butt?”

“Saints protect me!” Timmy shouted. Booming barks and thundering feet a second before massive Saint Bernards cleared the trees, running to Timmy.

“Call off the hounds!” Johnny pleaded.

Timmy petted Goober. “Say sorry.”

“Sorry!” Johnny cried.

~~ Baby Makes Three ~~

“911, ambulance, police, fire?”

“My wife, baby!” Derek shouted.

“What’s your location?”

Derek bellowed the address, clutching Mel’s hand.

“Hurry!” Mel panted.

“Hurry!” Derek repeated. “I can see the head!”

“Gotta push! Need. To. Push.”

“No!” Derek screamed. The operator tried to calm him.

Mel lifted her legs and pushed, beyond caring what Derek said. She tried to remember their training, but instinct took over. Sweating and grunting, Mel pushed. Blessed relief as the baby shot out.

“I did it! A girl!” Derek stared in wonder as paramedics burst in.

Mel, exhausted, rolled her eyes. “Yeah, you did it alright.”

~~ Nobody Has a Name ~~

“Who’re you?” Charlie asked the old woman.

“Sit down and eat.” The woman pointed at the tuna sandwich.

Charlie’s rheumy eyes watered as he sat down. Charlie wasn’t hungry. He pushed the plate.

“C’mon, Charlie. Eat for Martha.” The old woman patted his shoulder.

Martha? Something clicked in his foggy mind, and he reached for the sandwich. The tuna stuck to the roof of his mouth. “Where’re my teeth?”

“Out for repair.”

Charlie considered for a minute before nodding. “Who’re you?”

Charlie saw tears in her doe eyes. “Martha?”

She kissed his cheek.

“Who’re you?”

Martha smiled sadly. “Nobody. Eat.”

~~ Mommy’s Little Devil ~~

“Mommy? Is that a baby in her belly?”

Beth’s face warmed. She looked across the bus at the pregnant woman. “Yes.”

“How’d the baby get there?”

“Later,” Beth hissed.

“Mommy, was I in your belly?”

Beth nodded, her jaw clenched.

“How’d you get me out?”

“Not now.”

“Did you poop me out?”

Beth coughed to muffle Brittany’s voice. “No.”

“How’d I get in? Did you eat me?”

Beth slid lower in her seat. “Please, I’m begging.”

“Now can I get a kitten?” Brittany’s shrewd eyes assessed.

“Anything, just stop!”.

Brittany sat back in her seat, winking at the pregnant woman.

~~ Lost ~~

“We’re lost.” Katrina grabbed Gwen’s arm.

“Not lost.” Gwen tried to walk but Katrina held tight.

“We are. We’re too good to be lost. You’re so pretty.” Katrina went from watery eyes to adoring gaze.

“You’re drunk. We’re not lost.” Gwen linked her arm through Katrina’s and guided her.

“Doesn’t matter if Doug dumps me, I just need my bestie.” Katrina stumbled and Gwen caught her. “See? I’d have broken bones but you saved me.”

They broke through the trees and tumbled onto the grass. “She belong to you? She’s all yours. Wandered into our campsite claiming to be lost.”

~~ Our Time Together is Done ~~

“I want a divorce.” As Art spoke, a newsreel of their life together played in his mind. Liz, radiant, on their wedding day, babies born, pets buried, fights ending in tears, or laughter. Lost jobs, promotions won, dream vacations, nightmares, late night parties, all night worries. Health scares, broken hearts, broken bones, healing wounds, scars that faded, scars still pink and fresh. Holding one another up, or kneeling together. Tears of laughter, of sorrow, of anger, of frustration. He wiped his eyes, and looked at Liz for her reaction.

“You say that every time. Now get rid of this junk.”

~~ Not Daddy’s Girl Anymore ~~

Some days seem longer than others. Today felt like an eternity already.

“How do I look, Daddy?”

I swallowed hard. “Radiant.”

Anna’s grandmother’s dress, her mother’s tiara, her new family’s veil covering her beautiful face. “You ready to give me away?”

I shook my head. “Never. I’m ready to share you, though.”

Anna linked her arm through mine. “You were the first man I ever loved, Rob’ll be the last.”

“Unless you have sons.” I cleared my throat.

“Like you, I’ll always see them as my babies.”

Rob waited to receive her, eyes full of love. Anna was his now.

~~ In the Dark ~~

Lightning lit the room seconds before thunder crashed. The lights went out.

“Great.” Jared muttered, tossing the remote.

“I was about to make popcorn.” Delia got up and went to the window. “Raining hard.”

“How can you tell?”

“Lightning keeps flashing, dummy.”

They used the flashlights on their phones to gather candles, matches, and snacks. Settling on the sofa, Jared put his arm around Delia.

“Do you remember the last time we did this, just sat and talked?” Delia snuggled in close.

“Been y–” The lights came back on and Jared reached behind him to flick the switch. “Years.”

~~ Fancy’s Free ~~

“Who’s the best girl in the world?” Lydia asked the dog while she waited for the light to change. Fancy barely lifted her head, but thumped her tail feebly.

Lydia reached over, stroked the soft fur, tears filling her eyes. The car behind her honked.

“You’ll be all better soon,” Lydia promised as she pulled into the vet’s lot.

They were early, so Lydia helped Fancy out of the car and walked her slowly around the yard. The door opened, and Lydia stifled a sob as they entered.

The needle was in. “Run free my girl, until we’re together again.”

~~ Welcome Wagon, Regina Style ~~

Regina used to bake cookies and cakes for new neighbours. Forty years later, she was the new neighbour. No one knocked to welcome her, no one waved in passing. Her kids said she’d be happy with no worries maintaining a house. Regina was lonely.

Regina baked up a storm with no one to feed. She packed up her goods in empty moving boxes and made her way up the street. Cookies for the kids, cakes and pies for the parents. Within the hour, everyone was outside, talking to Regina, to each other.

“That’s better. Now I feel like I’m home.”


Where She’s Safe

She looks in the mirror but it might as well be a photograph of a stranger. The blue eyes hide pain, secrets, and horror. The hair as tangled as her life, as dry and brittle as her heart. The lines on her face, the wrinkles that tell lies of her age, are like a map to nowhere anyone wants to go. The arms that once held loves – babies and lovers – are like sticks that might snap if she tried to hold anyone now. Her empty womb once held dreams and hopes. Her legs barely hold her, but that’s okay. She won’t be up for long. She brushes her fingertips over the mirror, touching the reflected eyes that are dry and red, wondering who, exactly, they belonged to. Surely not herself? If they were her eyes, they’d be twinkling, smiling. Then she remembers, and the picture in the mirror shakes her head as she does. No more smiling, no more twinkling, just emptiness and pain, forever more. She blinks, shuttering her view, and the descent into madness begins anew. There’s no place in the real world now, no reason for being. In madness, there are no memories, no pain. There is no her.

Fair Affairs

The scent of old grease and marijuana lingered in the humid air long after the lights went out. I popped two more acetaminophen and locked my cash box before putting the lanyard with my keys around my neck. My eyes itched and watered, my bones ached, my blisters had blisters, but I was pleased. My family was happy, ecstatic, but I hadn’t mustered happy in a long, long time.

“Benny, hey.”

I almost dropped the cash box as I whirled around. “For once would you wear a bloody bell or something, Winny? A stalking cat makes more noise than you.”

Winny snorted. “If you’d been faster, I wouldn’t have to come over here and bug you. What’s the hold up?”

“Some barbie wanted her ken to win her the four-foot dog.” I shoved the box into Winny’s ample bosom and jumped over the counter, grabbing the rope to pull the door down at the same time. Together, we got the locks secured and I handed Winny the keys.

“Still there, I see. I take it the cash box is full?” Winny linked her fat arm through mine, and we headed to the trailers. I couldn’t wait to fall face first into bed.

“He came close, but no cigar. Says he’ll be back tomorrow. Six more larges and he can upgrade for the dog. Lots of kens today, I stopped counting the haul when I hit a grand.” I stifled a yawn as I shook my head when Winny held out her cup. I never knew if there was rye with her pop, and I wasn’t in the mood for booze. “Did you check on Benji at all tonight?”

Winny, her round face flushed from the brisk walk in the heat, nodded. “Your ma let him ride a couple of extra times then your dad got him settled for the night. When trailer security got called to assist at the midway, Hilda went and sat outside. Lazy as she is, she made sure Benji was asleep inside before she started knittin’.”

“Everything okay? You need me still, or can I go to bed? We’ve already run two hours over, it’s hot as hades tonight, and I’m getting cranky.” I stifled another yawn as I waited for Winny to lock the cash box in the safe.

Winny’s brown eyes flitted around the trailers, looking everywhere but at me. “Yeah, ’bout that.”

I tensed. “Can you wait until tomorrow to tell me what’s gonna piss me off?”

Winny put her hands on her wide hips and glared at me. “Everythin’ ticks you off. Who knew sweet lil Benny would grow up to be such a miserable and ornery witch? You act like you the only one workin’ ’round here.”

If Winny was busting out the blame me for what’s wrong with the world card so early into the discussion, I knew I wasn’t going to like what she had to say. Two could play. I let my itchy eyes fill with tears, stared at the star strewn sky. “I’m sorry I don’t wear pink and have pigtails anymore, Winny. I’m sorry I’m such a screw up, gettin’ knocked up at fifteen, then again at twenty-one, with no man, no ring, no nothin’. Needin’ my carnie family to help me raise ’em because I can’t. Been a burden to everyone for half my life, haven’t i?”

I closed my eyes but peeked beneath my lashes to see if it’d worked. Winny’s eyes narrowed, and I ducked when I saw her pudgy hand coming for my face (it was 50-50 she was going to stroke my cheek or slap it). “Ah, Benny. I know you say all that to play me, and it don’t work most times, but don’t think for one minute I don’t know that deep down you think it’s true. It ain’t, mind, but I know you think it. Not sure I’ll ever knock that haunted look off your face, kick happy up your butt, but I ain’t never gonna stop tryin’. ‘Cept tonight.”

Tension and stress were part of a carnie’s life and being the daughter of the owners doubled the strain. Being the daughter with two kids (with two different daddies) tripled it. Winny was making the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “What?”

Winny squared her shoulders and drew herself up to her full height (five feet, half an inch). “You’re bein’ shipped out. Need you over in Brock. Joe’s drivin’, you’re sleepin’ on the road, and then you in Brock Thursday ’til Sunday. Brock shuts down early Sunday, so you can pack up and Joe’ll have you back here for when we hit the road at cock’s crow Monday mornin’.”

The temperature for days had hovered in the high thirties with the humidex, but I went cold. Frozen. “No. Screw you, Winny. I’m not going to Brock, and you know it.”

“We’re down four with heatstroke because of stupidity and irresponsibility. Brock’s openin’s tomorrow, it’s a smaller deal than here, but down four? Ain’t no way we won’t get sued for breakin’ deals.”

My hands made fists at my sides. I wanted to punch, kick, scream. “Why me? Send Daddy, or Ma. We can spare them.”

“Need you to run the games, all eight o’ them. Your father on games? He’d give the prizes away without takin’ a penny to play for ’em. Your ma ain’t much better.”

“So stick Ma or Dad anywhere, and put whoever they replace on games.” Winny’s eyes were filled with understanding and sorrow, but her head was full of stubborn determination.

“The boss there wants you, only you can do the job of four. Your boss here—” Winny thumped her chest emphatically. “Says you’re goin’. We can spare you. And before you go runnin’ to my bosses, I’ll tell you what they said. ‘Get her gone by midnight, Brock starts early’. It’s already nearly one, so you best get movin’.”

My heart pounded and sweat – cold, terror filled, panicked sweat — beaded on my brow and under my arms.

“I’ll quit. So help me, Winny, I’ll quit. Take the boys –” I thought of my oldest, Alex, fifteen and full of himself just like his father, and amended what I was going to say. “Take Benji and go where Ben Dale can’t find us. Live in a tiny town far away from anything Ben Dale, somewhere they’ve never even heard of fairs or rides.”

Winny shook her head and snorted. “You’d die within a week of sheer boredom.”

“Will not. I’ll buy a farm, raise donkeys – God knows after dealing with carnies my whole life a bunch of stubborn mules would be nothing.” Winny’s eyes twinkled, which made me angrier. “Better yet. I’ll go tell Ma and Daddy right now that I changed my mind. They said I could, any time. Changed my mind about being boss. Then I’ll be your boss, and I’ll fire you.”

Winny doubled over, her wheezing laugh grating on the last nerve not already frazzled. “Stop. Stop. I’m gonna pee myself.”

“Shut up out there!” I recognized Gary’s voice from the trailer beside where Winny continued to bray.

“Sorry, Gary. Blame Winny, it’s her. Gone and lost her mind.” I started to storm away, intending to jump in my trailer and curl up for a long sleep.

“I know who it is, ain’t none of us don’t know that wheezy giggle and that honkin’ guffaw. Now shut up. I gotta get up at seven to check the coaster. Ain’t been runnin’ right.”

I left Winny still trying to get herself together, and stomped over to my trailer. Because of Benji, I didn’t have to share with anyone else. Smallest of them all, but I figured it was a fair trade because most of my carnie family snored or farted their way to morning.

I got my hand on the door handle, was about to reef the door open, when Winny caught up to me. “He ain’t been there in five years.”

I let go of the door handle and tugged on Winny’s arm until we were out of earshot of my trailer. “How do you know? You haven’t been back to Brock in ten years, either.”

“Nine, dummy. You was twenty-one when you left Brock for the last time, and your last time was my last time.” Winny put her hands on mine and squeezed.

“How do you know he hasn’t been there?” I kicked a can sitting next to Hilda’s trailer. Pop and soggy cigarette butts spilled over the pavement and pooled under Winny’s ugly shoes.

“You don’t think your Gran keeps lookout? That Bob don’t search every face? They ain’t never said nothin’ to Ryan, but they always cared.”

I sniffed, which infuriated me. I blinked and swallowed hard several times, felt the tears burning the backs of my eyes but I refused to let them fall. “They never mentioned him to me.”

Winny nodded, still holding my hands. “They promised they wouldn’t tell anyone, wouldn’t tell Ryan ‘specially, and whenever Brock was mentioned, they saw how you got so they agreed never to mention Ryan to you. They couldn’t see the point in hurtin’ you.”

I extricated myself from Winny’s clutches and pressed the heels of my hands to my eyes. “He’s what, thirty-three now, I guess. Probably married, happy. That’s good. If he’s not been to the fair in five years, then he must be living somewhere else. That’s good, too. Brock was never kind to him.”

“I know the place is full o’ ghosts and all that, an’ I know it’s real hard for you go back, but Ben Dale needs you, and in some ways, I think you need to go. Benji don’t know nothin’ ’bout Brock, ’bout his dad, and no one doin’ the fair there knows anythin’ except your Gran and Bob. Most o’ the ones there weren’t ’round back then, anyhow.”

I blinked at Winny, nodded my head, and without a word, went to my trailer to pack a bag. No way was I waking Benji, no way was I going to run the risk he woke and begged to come. We’d take one of the trucks that towed the rides. We weren’t pulling out of here until Monday morning so we could be back to join our crew and not leave us a truck short. Ma and Daddy would watch the boys while Joe and I were gone.

I sat on my bed, feeling more tired than I had even when the boys had been small. Five years? Every year, this time of year, I pictured Ryan as I’d known him, riding the rides, eating poutine. At least until we were older, then we’d talked while I worked, become friends. I lay down on my bed, hugging my pillow and bit my knuckle to stop myself from crying out. That last summer, the summer Benji was conceived, ran through my head on fast forward. The last days I’d spent with Ryan, the last time I’d seen his smile, at least until Benji was old enough to smile himself. I closed my eyes, wishing I could close my heart as easily.

*

I woke confused, wrong footed. I felt turned around, upside down, disoriented. My internal compass was off. I lifted my head slightly, saw the sink where it should be, Benji’s unmade and empty bed across the trailer, yet I still felt weird.

I rubbed sleep from my eyes, debated a quick shower (there was a tiny shower in the bathroom), and decided I’d go see if Winny had made some of her excellent coffee instead. If she hadn’t, I’d head over to one of the vendors and beg a cup.

I opened the door and expected to see Gary’s trailer, but instead found a brick wall. I racked my brain, trying to remember what building at the site had grey brick. Must be the back of the main building, and that’s why I felt off – the trailer had been moved while I’d slept and the rear now opened to the north instead of the west.

I heard people talking and wondered who was up so early. The sky was barely blue, the only hint that it was early morning rather than late dusk was the chatter of the birds. Funny, I didn’t remember hearing so many birds yesterday.

“And to whatever higher power you believe in, be it God, be it mother earth, be it yourself, let us all ask for Ben Dale, here and everywhere, to be safe. For all that come to enjoy, let them leave happy, satisfied. Amen.”

My steps had slowed as I’d listened until I was hardly moving. “Gran?”

“Benny! You’re up early! We didn’t expect to see you moving for at least an hour.”

Like a wave of cold water washing over me, I remembered Winny telling me I’d be going to Brock. I must’ve fallen asleep while packing. “Joe could’ve gotten a huge ticket driving with me sleeping.”

“Don’t fuss. He got Benji belted in beside him but figured you needed your beauty sleep so he left you alone.”

“Benji?” My mouth went dry.

Little arms wrapped around my waist. “Here, Mom. Got you some coffee. Dell says it’s even better than Winny’s.”

I took the paper cup Benji offered, staring at him in disbelief. “What are you doing here?”

“Me and Alex are working. Cool, eh? Grampy said you’d need help if its busy. Grammy says there’s a lake we can see from the top of the ferris wheel that we can go to if it’s slow.”

I closed my eyes and willed my heart to stop stampeding in my chest. Nerves fluttered and flittered, panic crept up my spine and reached around my neck to squeeze my throat.

“Hey, Mom, GG’s got a Playstation in her trailer.” Alex, towering over me, wrapped his long arm around me from behind in a strangle-hug.

“PS5,” Gran nodded. “Told Alex he could play when – if – it’s slow and on breaks. But if he deletes my progress on GTA, he’s banned.”

I sipped coffee hoping the world would right itself and make sense again. My Gran, a spritely, lady-like old woman, playing Grand Theft Auto? Alex was about the only thing I didn’t mind  of the current events. “Benji, go make your bed.”

Benji scowled. “Did you make yours?”

I hadn’t. “Make mine too.”

Benji opened his mouth, and I knew a battle royale was about to be waged.

“Hey, Benj, let’s go make the beds then we’ll have time to play Fortnight. We can take turns using the PS5.” Alex put his arm around his much smaller brother’s shoulder as they hurried off.

“Okay, what the hell?” I gaped after my sons and gulped hot coffee.

The rest of the crew (those who were up, at least) wandered off to start their early morning jobs. Final safety checks, fuel runs, checking the power cords were still secured and protected by rubber mats. When we were alone, Gran put her hand on mine. “I told Alex I needed him to keep an eye on Benji because I needed to talk to you.”

I raised an eyebrow. “And what, he said ‘sure, GG, nothing I’d like to do more’?”

“Of course.” Gran’s blue eyes twinkled as she smoothed her gray hair. “That, and the fifty I slipped him.”

“Wish I could say money well spent, but in ten minutes there’ll be blood and your PS5’ll be toast.” I settled on a bench in front of the curling club while Gran stretched, preparing for her morning yoga. “Why are my kids here?”

“About time Alex started working the business for real, and Benji’s eight and still hasn’t done a lick of work. You were running the duck pond by the time you were seven.”

“With Grandpa.” I felt a pang, remembering my excitement when Grandpa would let me help. I felt so grown up. Grandpa was the Ben and Gran was the Dale in Ben Dale Fun Factory.

“Now Benji will be working with you, and Alex, too. Grandpa would’ve wanted it that way.” Gran lifted her head to peer at me from her downward facing dog position. “I’m guessing you thought you’d be doing the work of four alone?”

“Well, yeah. I mean, Brock’s small town, it’s not that busy. I could’ve done it.”

“I’m sure you could have. But the boys should learn if they want. Or they should be doctors if that’s what they want.” Gran settled on the bench beside me. “You never wanted anything but this life until you were twenty. Then you started thinking maybe you should get a real job, be normal.”

I felt the tremors as Gran guided the conversation to a rocky ledge. “Let’s not, okay? Bad enough I’m here, let’s not go down that particular memory lane.”

Gran nodded after a few seconds. “Thanks for helping us out. Those dumb kids went out on a local’s boat after set- up was done yesterday and they all came back burnt to a crisp, drunker than ten skunks, and high as Mount Everest. When Billy upchucked all over Bob’s boots, he sent them packing. Dell drove them to the homestead, and they’re suspended until next week.”

“You’ve never suspended them for getting drunk or high before.” I tossed my empty cup into the garbage can and leaned forward, resting my arms on my knees.

“More because they got mouthy with a couple of locals. One woman was scared because they were shouting that it was her fault they stepped in dog doody. She didn’t even have a dog. More because they were staring at her in her bikini getting off her boat rather than watching where they walked. Don’t need the bad rep and bad feelings.”

“What’d you comp her?”

“She was easily mollified by a coupon for free ice creams.” Gran laughed. “If you ask me, she was flattered the young men were looking. She was fifty-two. She only came up to me to tell me because she worried they’d be yahoos, cause problems for Brock.”

“The boys are harmless.” I sat back on the bench again as Gran nodded her agreement. “I don’t want Benji running around much. Can’t he work with Bob or Dell?”

“You really think anyone in this town will even remember Ryan? He stopped coming about five years ago. I figure he took off, finally got out. Brock’s a great little town unless your parents are the local dealers. Even their customers never had much nice to say about any of them.”

I sighed. Gran was probably right. Ryan hadn’t had many friends, and those he did have weren’t really allowed to talk to him. His family were rough, tough, and known to police in several regions. Ryan was the black sheep but people judged him, refused to believe the apple could roll far enough from the tree to be worth anything. In the few years I’d done the Brock fair, I’d only heard of one Drummond attending besides Ryan, and that was for the smash-up derby. Ryan’s older brother had a lifetime ban for starting a huge brawl and never been back.

I blew out a breath. “Okay, so you, my parents, Winny, and Bob are the only ones who know, right?”

“And Joe, of course.” Gran nodded. “Dell guessed, but none of us confirmed or denied.”

“Did Joe stay, or did he drive someone’s truck back?” I stood up, stretching my aching muscles.

“He’s here. Bunking with Dell, I think. Unless he’s hooking up with Beth again.” Gran rolled her eyes.

“He better not be. Winny’ll skin him alive because he’s messing around with Brandy.”

“Geez Louise, don’t go saying that to this crew. Buck’s still moping about Brandy dumping him.” Gran brushed her pants off as she stood. “We might get away with our carnie’s coming to fisticuffs at a bigger fair, but I doubt the good people of Brock would be pleased.”

“True. That little town where Daddy knocked Joe around for knocking me up still talk about it when we go there.”

Gran shook her head. “Man, you were a wild one. Poor Joe. He darn near peed his pants when your Daddy told him you were only fourteen.”

“I was almost fifteen. I told Joe I was seventeen.” I grinned, remembering. “I thought for sure he’d quit, but he stuck out the carnie life. I wonder how much of that was for Alex.”

“I’d say most of it. The side pieces and all that can be had anywhere. He’s not getting rich working for us, either.” Gran smacked my butt. “Now go. You look like you slept in those clothes. There’s a tonne of work to be done.”

*

“Mom, I gave a little girl two fish instead of one. Hope that’s okay.” Benji was helping me blow up more balloons for the dart game. I kicked the compressor to get it to stop rattling.

“Sure. Why’d you give her two?” I unplugged the compressor and made a note to have Dell take a look at it.

“She’s not allowed to have any pets unless it’s a fish. She looked so sad. Her best friend has three dogs and four cats. Her parents think it’s dirty.” Benji shrugged.

I ruffled his brown hair. “Hey look, you got another customer.”

“Oh good, they want to throw baseballs. I’ve made fifty bucks and only one prize so far.” Benji scrambled over the counter and tore off for his area.

Fifty bucks already? I shook my head. I’d made twenty – and I was running four games. Benji kept his cute kid routine up, we’d make a killing.

“He yours?” A woman’s amused voice startled me out of my thoughts.

“They both are.” I pointed at Alex manning the fishing game and the water gun targets.

“Handsome.” The woman glanced at Alex but her attention was fixed on Benji. Alarms sounded in my head, and not because Benji’s customer had knocked down the bottles.

“Thanks. Want to play balloon pop? One dart for two bucks, three for five.” I pinned the last balloon to the board. “Or next door I’ve got the ping pong ball toss.”

“Pardon?” She took her focus off Benji and stared at me blankly. “Oh, no, thanks.”

I watched her walk away, my stomach threatening to toss the cookie I’d just eaten. I didn’t think I’d ever seen her before, but when you’ve been away from a fair for a long time, the once familiar faces fade from memory.

“The boy’s a natural.” Bob climbed over the ledge and hefted a big bag full of stuffed animals behind him.

“Which one?”

“Well, both, I guess. Alex is more like his dad, wants to do the rides. I told him I’d let him do the train and he was all over it. That’s how you know where the heart wants to be. Anyone thrilled with the train is destined for rides.”

“I hated the train, and the baby coaster.” I started pulling stuffed bears out of the bag and clipping them to the chains dangling from the ceiling.

“You preferred the games. The excitement of seeing people win, happy kids with treasures.” Bob pointed at Benji who was busy scooping out a fish for another pond winner. “See his face? He might look like Ryan most often, but that look right now? That’s pure you.”

My gaze scanned the people walking nearby. “Don’t say his name, don’t mention him at all.”

Bob shrugged. “You’re Dale’s granddaughter, so I’ll abide your wishes, but I’m Dale’s beau, so you’ll listen to me like you would your daddy. I’m gonna tell you what your grandpa would tell you if he was here. The man had a right to know. Benji’s going to have questions. Are you ready for them? Once he figures out his sire wasn’t a carnie, wasn’t one of us, he’s going to be curious.”

“Bob, not now, please? Not here, not in Brock. We’re working together next week, we’ll talk about it then.” When Bob simply stared at me, I held out my baby finger. “I pinky swear we’ll talk about it next week.”

Bob stared at my finger for a second before nodding and wrapping his fat pinkie around mine. “Deal.”

“Send Dell over to check the compressor, would you?” I called after Bob’s retreating back.

“Hey, anyone working this?”

I looked over and saw a tattooed and muscly guy yelling at Alex from the basketball game across from the ping pong ball toss. “Yeah. Me.”

I leapt over the counter after making sure the cash box was hidden out of sight. I entered the trailer through the skeet ball side and went to the basketballs. “How many balls?”

The guy assessed me, and I recognized the leer. I wanted to cross my hands over my chest to block his view but these pervs just took that as a challenge so I stood tall. His eyes traveled lower to my crotch.

“Before you finish thinking up your joke, I’ll have you know I’ve heard ’em all. Now, you want to play basketball or not?”

The guy glared at me, and I could tell I’d been right. “How much?”

“One for five, three for ten.”

The guy eyed the nets, then the prizes. “How many to win the horse?”

I glanced over my shoulder. “Three.”

The guy handed me a ten-dollar bill. “Save us the trouble, just give it to me.”

I rolled my eyes and put up three balls. “Doesn’t work that way. You gotta get three baskets sunk to get the prize.”

He picked up a ball and held it between both of his hands. He eyed the basket, aiming. I knew he’d never get the ball in that way – he had to throw a bit high to avoid bouncing off the board or the rim, but not so high he hit the roof. “Piece of cake.”

We watched the ball bounce off the rim and I caught it before it could bounce back to him. He was the kind of idiot that would say it hadn’t counted. The guy gave me a bad vibe. Not the perv stuff, I was used to that. The tattoos were simply a description – most of the carnies had more, had better. It was the eyes. Something cold, almost dead. Crazy. “Try the pink ball.”

The guy grabbed the second ball and did the exact same thing. Then he grabbed the orange ball and hit the backboard so hard the ball shot out of the booth, bounced across the pavement,and rolled under the ping pong and balloon trailer.

“I got it.” Benji dove under and came back with the ball, his face split in a wide grin. “Here, Mom.”

I caught the ball, and I caught the look on tattoo guy’s face. Benji must’ve seen it too, because he took a step back. “You want to go see if Bob’s ready to relieve you?”

Benji swallowed hard and nodded. “That’s where I was headed when the ball bounced out.”

I waved him on his way, my eyes darting back to the guy watching him. “Go on then.”

“Kid’s a bit young to be workin’, ain’t he?”

I shrugged. “He’s playin’ at helpin’.”

The guy stared at me, hard, before he loped off in the opposite direction Benji had gone. My breath whooshed out of me. My gut was screaming, my hands were shaking, and my heartbeat kicked up several notches. I grabbed the walkie-talkie from my waistband. “Dell. Games. Now.”

“What’s wrong, Ma?” Alex called over the heads of the family fishing in front of him.

“Nothing’s wrong,” I lied with my fingers crossed behind my back.

“Then why do you look like you seen a ghost?”

I forced a laugh as I left the trailer and went back to the more popular balloon game. I didn’t recognize the guy, but he sure as hell seemed to recognize me. And I hadn’t liked the look on his face when he’d looked at Benji.

“This better be good, missy. I was about to go on break. And since when don’t you know how to speak properly on the talkie?”

“Get Joe to run the games. Benji and I are heading back.”

“Joe’s out at the gas station. Rides’ve been runnin’ non-stop since we opened, and we still got four more hours to close.”

“Gas station’s fifteen minutes out. How long ago did he leave?”

“‘Bout twenty. He’ll be awhile yet.” Dell put his hand on my shoulder. “Breathe.”

“I gotta go. You need to fix the compressor. Send Joe and Alex with whoever’s meeting us at the north fair Monday.”

“Benny, girl,” Dell sighed and took his ball cap off to wipe his sweaty brow. “Ryan’s not here. Not at the fair, not in Brock.”

I stilled. “How do you know?”

Dell sighed. “Cuz he went to jail.”

The smile froze on my face when I realized Dell wasn’t laughing. “What?”

“I don’t know details, alright? Never told no one what little I knew because, well, it’s gossip.” Dell sat on the counter in front of me. “Guess he got into his parent’s business or somethin’. Dunno. Happened just before we was here, ’bout five years ago so people was talkin’, you know. I got ears, picked up some stuff. Everyone was guessing the details. There was a deal gone bad or somethin’. Big fight, someone was stabbed, and Ryan got hauled off to jail. That’s all I know, so don’t ask me nothin’. I never wanted to tell you, but you looked so spooked and talkin’ crazy ’bout leavin’ us stuck.”

“The little sent me over to cover, but if you’re here Dell, I’ll go back to fixin’ the two busted bumper cars.” Bob looked from Dell to me.

“I’m on break.” Dell slid off the counter before I could stop him.

“Been quiet. You and Alex can hold down the fort a bit? I’m not feeling so good.” I knew I must look like hell because Bob didn’t hesitate to wave me off.

I raced to the ticket booth where Gran could usually be found selling ride passes and tickets. Without knocking, I opened the back door. The heat of the day wasn’t as noticeable in the booth. Gran had fans blowing to circulate the air, and a tray of cold water in front of the fan blowing on her. I could see the bits of ice melting.

“It’s thirty for an all day pass, a hundred for today through Sunday. Twenty for twenty-five tickets if you’re not planning on staying long or coming back.”

Gran attached wristbands to the customers until there was a lull in the line.I counted seven hundred come in while I waited. “What’s wrong?”

I took the bottle of water Gran passed me from the cooler beside her. “Dell just told me Ryan’s in jail. But there was this tattooed guy, he recognized me, and I know he recognized Benji. Rather, the Ryan in Benji’s features.”

Gran groaned. “Darn. I had such high hopes for that boy. Thought him not coming around meant he’d escaped. Well, that should ease your mind some, that he won’t suddenly appear.”

“Ease my mind? That my son’s father is in jail?” I chugged the contents of the bottle and tossed the empty into the tiny blue bin.

“Joe’s been to jail, too.” Gran shrugged. “More than half our employees been to jail. Look at Winny. Came to us after ten years hard time.”

“For stabbing the guy who hurt her daughter! Not for drugs.”

“You don’t know the why’s or how’s of it, so until you’re talking facts, don’t judge. I’ll tell the security guys to keep a close watch on Benji because I agree with you, there’s something off about the tattoo guy if he did see Ryan’s features in Benji’s face.” Gran patted my shoulder. “Now go on, get back to work. I’ll send Joe over to work the games with you when he gets back, Alex’ll love running the airplanes.”

“I’ll run the airplanes, Joe and Alex can run the games. Been slow anyhow.”

“The fair closes at nine tonight, you still got a few hours yet. People who were working are just getting here.” Gran opened her window for a rush of people to her booth.

I knew there was no point arguing, and likely wouldn’t get a chance to for awhile anyhow. The line that formed was getting longer and I saw a long line of cars inching along the road outside the fairgrounds, looking for parking.

“Mom! Dell said he’d bring me another fifty fish, that’s how many I’ve given away today.” Benji fell into step beside me and we made our way back to game alley. “I was going to tell you before I went on break but I know you said never to mention how much money we had. I’ve made two hundred bucks so far today. Alex said he made more, but I know he’s lying because no one’s been playing the water gun game and the fishing game is lame.”

“You made more than me, that’s for sure.” Not by much, because I was running four popular games, but I was so proud of Benji, his pride tickled my heart. “Now be ready to make at least twice that much. No shows or concerts tonight so the games will be busy.”

“And it’s hot out. Grampy said the games double their money when its hot because people don’t want to sit at home and don’t wanna ride rides the whole time.” Benji threw his arms around my waist. “Thanks for letting me work, Mom.”

I watched my son beeline for the family waiting patiently by the duck pond. Bob was scooping out ping pong balls for another family to throw. I had a line of people waiting for the balloon pop and Alex had sprinted over to deal with a broken skeet ball game.

I barely noticed when Bob left and Joe took his place. We fell into a groove like a well-oiled machine. Benji was getting tired, I could tell by the way he kept sitting on the edge of his booth, but his enthusiasm never waned.

“Pack it up for the night, boys,” I called when I saw it was almost nine-thirty.

Benji had already done most of his clean up and was helping Alex with his. I took my cash box, locked up my trailer, and went to help Joe. “Good night?”

Joe thrust his apron at me and the cash box. “You know I suck at counting money.”

“Nobody walked away with a gleam in their eyes, so you counted out their change pretty good.” I winked at Joe as I quickly put the bigger bills into the cash box. The apron kept the small bills and the coins, but when we got busy, we didn’t take the time to empty the apron into the cash box.

“Yeah. One guy tried to tell me he’d paid with a hundred but since I’d just stashed the big bills, I could prove he was lying.” Joe picked up all the broken balloon bits while I opened the door to the ping pong side. “Yeah, bit of a mess in there, watch your step. I crushed about eight of ’em but had no time to pick up any.”

“We’re heading to the midway. I’m hoping we can get a couple of turns on the ferris wheel before they shut down.” Alex passed over his money box and apron. “Five hundred eighty, before you ask.”

Joe whistled. “Not bad. How ’bout you, little man?”

Benji squared his shoulders and cast a nasty look at Alex. “Five hundred and seventy-two. But that’s not fair, because half of what Alex made was from when he was helping me because I got swamped.”

“You wanna come with me, or you want me to hand you over to Dell and he can take you to the trailer?” Alex muttered.

“With you. I wanna spin on the music ride. I’ve missed it. Haven’t seen it since we were in – Mom, where were we last time we saw Bruce and his music ride?”

“Don’t remember the places, but it was one of the first of the year so been a couple of months.” I waved the boys off. When they were out of ear shot, I turned to Joe. “I’ll finish here. Go with them, would you?”

Joe put his arms around me and hugged me close. He smelled of sweat and Beth’s perfume. “The boys are watching him. No one’s seen a muscle monkey with tattoos since you saw him earlier.”

“Just the same. Please?” I pulled out of Joe’s embrace.

Joe kissed my nose. “I’ve missed the music ride myself.”

I decided not to open Joe’s or my cash boxes until I was in the trailer. I needed to sit down. One of the security guys sauntered over. “Need help closing up?”

“Nah. Can you take the money to the safe? If someone else wants to count, I won’t argue.” I grinned as he took the boxes and aprons. I’d just finished cleaning up the ping pong area when I sensed rather than heard someone behind me.

I jumped over the side of the counter and landed on the pavement, preparing to shout when I caught sight of who it was. Not the tattoo guy with the crazy eyes I’d expected. Worse.

“Well, you ruined the whole ‘guess who’ thing I’d been going for.” Ryan’s wry smile kicked my pulse into racing more than it had been when I’d thought I was about to be robbed.

“Ryan. I though –” What, that he was in jail? I’d hoped he was married, happy, but he looked sick, pale.

“I was.” He’d read my mind I guess. Ryan jumped off the ledge and approached me, his green eyes, Benji’s eyes, searched my face. “I see you and Joe are together.”

I pushed around him to pull the door down and locked the trailer. Tears burned my eyes, but I wasn’t going to let him see them. His assumptions had led to our break-up then, and they were going to end things before they even started now.

“Yeah, that’s right. I was doing him the whole time. Never stopped.” I put the lanyard back around my neck after I’d finished locking the trailer.

“I don’t believe that.” Ryan took a step towards me, so I backed up.

I snorted. “You had no problem believing it then, why not now? Especially since you seem to have it in your head we’re together now.”

“You’re not? Together now?” Ryan stopped moving when he realized I intended to keep backing away.

“We were never together, I told you that.”

“But you had a kid together.”

I heard the silence first. The rides were down. Any minute, my boys were going to come here, heading to our trailer. Ryan would know about Benji. Hell, Benji was bright, he’d see an older version of himself and know about his father. I wasn’t ready. Next lifetime I might be, but I definitely wasn’t ready in this one.

“Let’s go sit down.” I pushed past him, heading for the bleachers we used to sit on when we’d been young. I didn’t look to see if he followed, just hurried as fast as I could.

The bleachers were litter strewn from shows early in the day, but I climbed to the top of the first bank of metal bleachers I’d come to. I heard Ryan climbing behind me. I expelled a relieved breath.

“Look. I never told you about Alex because –” I blew out a breath and looked to the heavens, asking for forgiveness. “I was embarrassed. Ashamed.”

Ryan frowned. “Why?”

“Come on, Ryan. Think. I wasn’t even fifteen when I got pregnant. I was rebelling, acting out, whatever you want to call it. Joe got hired by my grandparents, and I had a crush on him. He was working with my parents crew, I saw him every damned day, saw the women flirting, him flirting back. I told him I was seventeen. He had no clue I was the daughter of Ben and Lil. None of the others thought to tell him. When Joe realized I’d been a virgin, found out I’d lied about my age, he felt sick. He was going to quit. Then he found out I was pregnant and we made it work as parents, not as a couple. Co-parenting carnie style.”

“Every year since you started working Brock’s fair, you and I spent every minute of those four days you were in town talking. You never once told me about your son, about Joe.”

The hurt and shame, different shame than from when I’d been a kid, rose up to stab my heart. “Not every minute. And the kid I minded? You have to have figured out by now that was Alex. When I realized that I looked forward to Brock’s fair more than any other every year, I started thinking about getting out. I was twenty, you were twenty-two. I thought we could get jobs somewhere; I could see my family whenever they had gigs close to wherever we moved. I spent a whole year thinking about whether I wanted to work at a coffee shop or a restaurant. Figured I’d tell you about Alex, the three of us would find normal. Go out into the real world.”

I swiped angrily at my tears. Ryan put a hand on my arm but I pulled it away. “You never told me about Alex.”

“I wanted to. That last summer? When we, you know. I was going to tell you, but that first time, that first night, was amazing and I didn’t want to risk spoiling it. Then the Friday night was even better. Remember, it rained so hard and we closed down early. We ended up falling asleep under the bleachers.”

Ryan’s eyes unfocused, as if he were seeing my memories as I was. “Saturday morning, I told you I loved you.”

I pressed my fingers to my mouth as I nodded. My tears dried up as I pulled out the old carnie grit. Life wasn’t easy, no matter how much fun we had, and duty and responsibility came before happiness. “I loved you so much it hurt. And I was going to tell you. Tell you what I’d figured out for us.”

“And then your kid came up and called you mommy.” Ryan sat up straight on the metal bench, rubbing his jaw. “And Joe beat the crap out of me.”

“I’d freaked everybody out by not coming back to the trailer. Joe was the most worked up because Alex was crying for me and Joe stayed up half the night with him while I was with you. The look on your face? The disgust when you realized Alex was talking to me? Joe lost his cool. He knew – everyone knew – how I felt about you, and seeing you looking at me like that?” Even as my heart had broken, I’d been in awe of Joe’s rage, his protectiveness, his hell bent fury to defend my honour, our son’s.

“I’m sorry, for what it’s worth. But I wasn’t disgusted, I was shocked. But I never got a chance to talk to you before Joe was pounding on me. I got a few shots in, but he won the fight.”

“That’s Joe. He doesn’t fight much, but when he does, it’s for a good cause. He can’t work the fair just north of here because he beat a guy for hitting his wife.” I shrugged and looked up at the sky. Ryan and I used to wish on shooting stars. I hadn’t star gazed in years.

“So you’re saying that if I’d just believed you when you tried to explain, the last nine years could’ve been better?” Ryan kicked the seat in front of him.

I thought of Benji and wondered if Ryan would’ve been happy to be a father. He’d been stricken when Alex had called me mommy, I’d assumed he didn’t like kids. “Maybe. Probably not. I’d have pined for this life while slinging burgers or whatever.”

“That’s the kicker. You say you’d planned to leave, run away from the circus, or carnival, or whatever you call your troupe, but I’d planned to ask if I could join.”

My spine stiffened, my eyes widening. “What?”

“You know how bad I wanted out. I dropped out of school to take care of my sister because she was sick. My parents, my brothers, were useless. She’d have been dead if I’d left her to their care. When she went into remission, I’d thought about leaving a million times but I was scared to leave her. She was getting into trouble. No one gave her a chance, just like no one gave me one.”

Ryan had told me bits and pieces of what his life at home was like, told me about his sister, but four days once a year wasn’t enough to cover all the details. “I remember you saying ‘over my dead body will Nikki become a statistic, a teenage, unwed mom’. I remember, because I wanted to wave at you and say ‘like me? Statistic on your right’.”

Ryan laughed, and I realized why I loved when Benji threw his head back and laughed – he laughed exactly like Ryan did. “Nikki never got pregnant, but dabbled in the drugs my family was dealing. She went to a party with a bunch of the ‘good’ kids in town, you know, the ones that do the drugs they buy from my parents? The kids whose parents wouldn’t let them hang with me because I might be a bad influence? One of the little punks tried to rape Nikki. So I guess I went a little crazy. Beat the maggot to a pulp. Because he was from a good family, parents were teachers and mine were low on the pharmaceutical totem pole, I was charged and he wasn’t. I went to jail for assault, and when I got out, I never came back to Brock.”

“Why are you here now?”

“Funny story. Nikki cleaned herself up and she’s working at the medical centre. Got her addiction counselor degree or whatever you call it. One of her patients called her today, said she might want to tell her brother to go to the fair. Said I might have fun shooting hoops, but I’d probably rock at breaking balloons.”

Crazy tattoo guy. I got the joke – broken condom, broken balloon – but Ryan obviously hadn’t. My mind raced. The rational part of my brain wanted to say ‘you went to the fair, now go home’. My heart wanted me to take him to Benji, right now. Indecision kept my lips closed.

“There you are!”

I felt white hot tingles up my spine when I heard Benji’s voice. I watched Ryan out of the corner of my eye as Benji climbed the benches instead of the stairs.

“Another one?” Ryan mumbled beside me and I stiffened.

“Benji, come on little man. Get over here and leave your mom alone.” Joe and Alex were standing at the foot of the bleachers. Alex was curious, Joe was assessing.

“Hang on, Joe. I just wanna give Mom the cookies I got her.” Benji stopped two benches below us, his eyes wide and staring at Ryan. “Who’re you?”

Ryan slid to the edge of the bench, gaping from me to Benji. “What the –?”

“Careful there.” Joe put his foot on the bottom step but didn’t come any closer. I knew he’d be here in an instant, but I figured he was secretly pleased. He’d been telling me for years to come clean.

Lies popped into my head, each one more absurd than the one before it. I locked eyes with Joe, who nodded, then with Alex, who had put two and two together and was assessing Ryan with a cool expression.

“Mom? Is that –? Is he my –?” Benji’s small voice was full of wonder. He walked along the bench so he was close to where Ryan had moved to. “He is. You are, right?”

“Who?” Ryan gulped.

“My dad! See? I told you my dad wasn’t an alien.” Benji spun on the bench to glare at Alex, before turning back to Ryan. “You’re not, are you?”

Ryan cleared his throat. “Uh, no.”

Joe whispered something to Alex. Alex shook his head. Joe grinned before turning his attention to us again. “C’mon, little man. You gotta feed the fish, count your mom’s and my cash boxes, and GG wants to hear all about that guy who knocked down the bottles.”

Benji practically vibrated with excitement. He couldn’t take his eyes off Ryan but I knew my boy. Benji would need some time to absorb this latest development, maybe talk to Joe and Gran a bit before he figured out how he felt.

“Ryan, you’ll come see us before you go, won’t you?” Joe’s tone left no question. If Ryan knew what was good for him, he’d stop by to see Benji.

“Uh. Yeah. I guess?” Ryan shot a dark look at me before shifting his attention back to Benji. “Nice to, uh, meet you?”

Benji laughed as he started down the benches. He stumbled as he seemed to change his mind. He ran back up the benches. “Almost forgot. I got you cookies. There’s two, so you can share.”

I took the white paper bag and wondered if I should laugh or cry. “Thanks , honey.”

Benji leaned over and hugged Ryan. Ryan’s hands hesitated then patted his back awkwardly before finally enclosing around Benji’s small frame. Benji whispered quietly into Ryan’s ear, released him, and took off down the stairs this time.

“What did Benji say?”

Ryan shrugged. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

I shook my head. “Really? You have to ask? By the time I figured out I was pregnant, I’d convinced myself that whatever we’d had was an illusion. Four days a year for how many years? I was just as dumb and stupid as I’d been when I was fifteen. So I focused on growing up instead. What did Benji say?”

“Looks like you’ve done well by the kids. Doing well. Wish I could say the same.”

“What?” I still wanted to know what Benji had said, but his words surprised me.

“Not easy to find a job when you’re an ex-convict.” Ryan laughed and jammed his hands through his hair.

“Huh. Well, I know where you can get a job.” I felt my eyes widen as I said the words and instantly wanted to take them back. My brain disengaged and my mouth kept going. “Gran and my grandfather started Ben Dale Fun Factory because my grandfather’s brother needed a job after getting out of jail. I’m 3rd generation heir to all this, and it’s almost a job requisite to have some issue or other that makes life hard. Lots of felons, but as long as their crimes weren’t against kids or women, we’re interested. Now what did Benji say?”

Ryan reached over and grabbed the paper bag out of my hand. “He said to make sure I got the bigger cookie because you’d already had five today, and that’s only fair.”

 

Detour North

I tapped my thumbs on the steering wheel, keeping beat with the radio as I drove out of the city. With each kilometre outside city limits, my agitation rose until I was practically humming with nervous energy. I felt like I’d been chugging espresso since yesterday. Everyone I knew seemed to think camping was a beautiful thing, an exquisite vacation, but I only heard spiders, snakes, and rabid moose when they prattled on about reconnecting with nature. As I glanced at my phone to make sure I was still on the right road, I wondered if moose could get rabies. I mean, raccoons and cats could get rabies, so that meant moose could, too, right?

My heart dropped when I saw a hastily erected sign announcing the road was closed ahead. I wasn’t even sure where I was going under normal circumstances, now they wanted me to detour down a dusty road? I glared at the retreating construction guy. There was no one behind me, so I slowed and rolled my window down.

“Yo, hey! Dude! Come here!” I shouted, my hand automatically pressing buttons on the steering wheel to silence Ed Sheeran. I shifted into park as the guy with the orange vest and hardhat turned, glaring at me. I swallowed hard. “Um, hi.”

He hesitated for a few seconds, looked behind him, and I guess he figured he had no excuse to ignore me because he sauntered over, his construction boots scraping pavement with each step. “What’s up?”

I arranged my features into the same mask I wore when dealing with rude salespeople. “I could ask you the same thing. What’s with the detour?”

“Road’s closed.” He shrugged, starting to walk backwards.

“Obviously. Why?”

He stopped moving, his eyes roaming over my hybrid car. I guess he saw the camping gear I’d unwillingly agreed to bring, because he nodded and approached me again, bending low so we were eye to eye. He had the most amazing eyes, brown, but flecked with gold and yellow, like whisky or a cat’s, I couldn’t decide. “Going camping?”

My mouth went dry, my brain chugged and stalled. “Mm-nn-ye-huh.”

Amusement flickered in his gorgeous eyes, and I noticed little lines fanned out when he smiled. “There was a herd of wild boars go through, road’s covered in piss and feces. Gotta detour down that road, about a klick. Go right another klick, left about four klicks, then left again seven klicks, left again about four klicks, that’ll bring you to the highway again.”

“Klick? And really?” I felt my tummy clench and decided I’d just pull a U-turn and head back to the city, to civilization. Kristen and Beth could make a tent out of trees and vines and whatever else they found. Get the real camping experience.

He took his hardhat off and scratched his head. His brown hair glinted gold and red in the sun. “Klick – kilometre. And no, no wild boars around here.”

I nodded, feeling my cheeks flush at my stupidity. I knew the slang for kilometre, and I also knew that boars weren’t an issue in Ontario, though I read a blog once that said they were making their way across Canada which wasa scary thought. “Can’t I just stay on the highway? My car is light.”

He stood, shaking his head, and muttered something that sounded like citiot, whatever that meant. “If there was a road, maybe. Bridge over the river collapsed about a half hour ago. That’s why the hasty detour. If you go back the way you came for about forty klicks you can take a better route. Take you about an hour longer that way, but no dirt roads to dirty up your fancy car.”

I considered, calculated, and finally shook my head. “If I go down this road, turn left, then right?”

“Turn around and go back, the signs should be posted by now. Guess that’s why there’s no one behind you – or did you miss the signs?”

I might’ve been looking at the GPS app on my phone every other kilometre, but no way I’d admit that to this jerk. “I’m a good driver, and I pay attention to road signs.”

“About as well as you listen to directions, then. Go down this road a ways, turn right. Then it’s all left turns, but a long stretch between turns. You wanna write it down?”

I mentally reviewed, lifting first my right hand, then gesturing with my left several times, committing the directions to memory. “Nope, got it. How much extra time is this going to cost me? My friends are waiting for the tent and stuff.”

He put the hardhat back on and shrugged. “Depends. You drive like it’s a paved road, you might not lose much time, but your car’ll need lookin’ at before your next maintenance check. Drive for the conditions? About half an hour extra – that’s including the time you’ve wasted bugging me.”

I flipped him the bird then smiled sweetly. “Thanks, I guess.”

He shook his head as he walked backwards. “You sure you’re up for camping, Princess? Might break a nail, wreck your make-up.”

I bristled as I glanced at my fresh manicure. “I’m from Toronto, there’s nothing the country can throw at me I can’t handle.”

He snorted, shrugged, and turned his back on me. I put the car in gear and headed down the road. I realized he’d been right about one thing; my little Prius couldn’t fly over the ruts and bumps. I turned the radio up and glanced at my phone. The app reconfigured as I watched. Like an ominous omen, a little voice said, “Turn around, go four hundred feet, and turn right.”

I considered shutting my phone off and heading home instead. My sister and her best friend shouldn’t have let me bring the food and tent. If they’d been reasonable, agreeing to only one or two nights, we could’ve all fit in Kristen’s SUV. They wanted two weeks of camping at some park named after wild animals and I wasn’t about to give up a chunk of my summer for that. A new, disturbing thought intruded. I had to pee. Where were we supposed to pee at wild animal world or wherever we were going? I eyed the narrow dirt path on the right and groaned. Was this the road cat eyes meant? I slowed, saw tall grass growing on either side, and decided it must be someone’s driveway because the path was too narrow to pass any cars coming in the opposite direction. I kept driving, but the road got narrower, and I finally decided that I should turn back, go home and grab a chai crème Frappuccino (after using the bathroom) for my efforts when I spotted a dirt road. I signalled, slowing to a crawl to make the turn, and congratulated myself when I missed a huge rut in the road.

I glanced at my phone and gulped. The app had given up trying to direct me. I stopped in the middle of the road and tried to find another app but my signal was dead. I tossed the phone onto the passenger seat and kept driving. How hard was it to make a bunch of left-hand turns?

The road was so messed I had to drive slower than in a school zone. My heart raced when I saw a deer ahead and slowed even more. If I hit a deer, my car would be toast. I hadn’t seen any houses anywhere. I let out a nervous giggle when I realized the deer was just a couple of dead trees poking out of the tall grass and weeds.

I turned left at a road much like the one I was on – in other words, cleared dirt wilderness. I picked up my phone, not bothering to stop because small children could walk faster than I was moving. Still no signal, but I noticed my battery was low. I reached over to get my charger from the glovebox. I couldn’t lay my hand on the charger, but I spied another road going left and turned. If I were a taxpayer in this municipality, I’d be at every town meeting complaining about the state of the roads. The tax dollars earned could at least pay to put up signs to let unsuspecting and lost tourists know where they were.

The area was heavily wooded on either side of the joke of a road. No houses, no cars, no sign of life at all. I took my eyes off the road to search the glovebox again. No charger. Where the heck had I put it? There was a clearing ahead on the other side of the road. I veered over and parked the car. I unlocked the doors, got out, and stretched. I saw a rabbit speed across the road and into the woods opposite. I squatted, feeling under my seat. I found a toonie, but no charger. 

I had to pee in the worst way. I shielded my eyes from the sun and scanned my surroundings as far as I could see. No sign of civilization anywhere. I could hear birds in the woods, but that was all I heard. .

“Hello? Hello, anyone hear me?” Birds took flight at the sound of my raised voice but no response from anyone else. I grabbed my purse, made sure my keychain with the fob to run the car was in it, and locked my doors. I hadn’t peed outside in…ever. Okay, there was one time in university, but I was drunk and all the businesses nearby were closed. That barely counted.

I kept my ears tuned for sound, my eyes darting left and right for signs of human life, as I wandered into the woods. A fallen tree blocked me from going deeper. I huffed out a breath, looked back at my car to get my bearings. If I navigated around the fallen tree, I could squat and pee, hidden from view.

“Of what?” I muttered to myself. “It’s not like there’s a line of cars passing.”

I found the spot where the tree had split and climbed over the splintered end. I couldn’t see my car anymore but the bright sunlight was a beacon. I was about to pull my pants down when I remembered the videos I’d seen on YouTube of people’s trail cams picking up wildlife. I scanned the surrounding trees to make sure there weren’t any before I bared my butt for a bunch of crazy nature nuts.

When I’d relieved myself, I groaned. What to wipe with? I rooted in my purse until I found a ripped Kleenex. Better than nothing. I was pulling my pants up when I heard a snap and a crack, like a branch, or a twig, or a tree – panic spiked my heart rate, and I envisioned a wild boar busting down trees to get to me. Did the scent of female urine attract male animals the way I’d read male urine scared raccoons away?

I took off running, not knowing which way I should flee other than away from the sound. I ran with my pants at my hips, my purse bouncing off my side, branches scratching at my face. The smell got earthier, the light waned because of the thickness of the trees, and my ears picked up the sound of movement, the rustle of leaves, the crunch of wood, and scuffing of feet on dirt. I leapt over a rock, stumbled, and hugged a tree as I fell face first.

I lay there, panting, praying, preparing for certain death. Any second a bear, or a boar, or a rabid moose was going to bust out of the shadows and attack. I’d been so close to the campsite. If that bridge had only lasted a few more minutes, I’d have been with Kristen and Beth by now, sipping wine while they put up the tent.

As my heartrate slowed to a pace slightly higher than a cardio workout, I sat up. My head swung in every direction as I searched for what had chased me. Nothing moved, nothing breathed. I realized I was holding my breath and willed myself to calm down, inhale.

“You idiot. You were scared of the noise you were making running.” I shook my head in disbelief. Saying the words aloud, I realized they were true. I’d spooked myself.

I was filthy, bleeding, and my pants were falling down. I got to my feet and fixed them, then brushed the dirt and grime off as best as I could. The contents of my purse had scattered when I’d fallen, and I frantically searched for my keys.

I tried to figure out which way I’d come from, but the forest had swallowed any signs of my trek. Something glinted on the ground ahead of me, where I knew I hadn’t been because the tree had stopped me from getting there. I made my way carefully, wincing as my ankle panged as I moved over the uneven ground. A small spot of sunlight reflected on my mirror. I picked up the cracked glass and checked my appearance. I had streaks of dirt and scratches on my cheeks. My hair was no longer in a neat bun, and I pulled a few bits of bark tangled in the loosened strands. I slipped the mirror into my purse. A foot away from the mirror, I found my wallet. Great, I could use my money or one of my credit cards to buy my way out of this mess. I laughed wildly as I spun around in circles. No one there to take my money, not unless that squirrel staring at me took plastic.

“Booga booga,” I muttered. The squirrel continued to stare at me. I blew a raspberry. I must’ve looked deranged because the squirrel tore off up the tree beside me. I hurried away, scared the squirrel was preparing for an overhead attack. I felt something hard just as I heard the crunch of plastic. I moved my foot and found my lipstick, now a waxy mess. “I just bought that tube!”

I wrapped the remnants in a leaf and carefully stowed the garbage in the side pocket of my purse. I wasn’t a litterbug at home, why start now? I found my mascara, another tube of lipstick, and my foundation as I searched for my key fob. Every time I heard a noise, I froze. I’d swear the squirrel was purposely lumbering around just to freak me out. I’d seen him three times already, just watching. Laughing, if the sound he’d made the last time was any indication.

“You know, squirrels in Toronto are a lot nicer.” I’d collected everything I could remember being in my purse (and some I hadn’t, like the paper wrapped paper straw), but no key fob. Which, I supposed, was fine saying as I didn’t know where the car was anyhow.

I settled down on the ground (after checking for snakes and spiders) and let the tears come. I was lost. Even if I found my way back to the car, I was still stuck. I’d locked my doors, and the key was the only way in. My phone was surely dead by now; even if I managed to break a window, I had no way of calling for help. At least I had a cooler with food in the trunk. I wouldn’t starve to death while waiting for someone to drive by. I was so hot and thirsty now I’d even eat the ice keeping everything cool.

I dug out the broken lipstick. I marked the tree closest to me with a huge red X. I got to my feet, studying the mark, and decided it wasn’t good enough and put an arrow pointing to where I’d found the lipstick on the ground. Moving felt like doing something, so I kept going. I got turned around a couple of times marking my progress, but overall I’d done okay; I’d only re-found trees twice. The rustling of leaves, cracks of twigs, and crunching of decaying nature beneath my feet were no longer scary. Even the tittering of the squirrel was pleasant, took away the loneliness.

The light was fading. I should’ve been well and truly drunk with Kristen and Beth, laughing and having a good time while we ate hotdogs cooked over fire. Beth and Kristen had the marshmallows, they were probably roasting them by now. I had the chocolate in the cooler, so no smores for them. My tummy rumbled, reminding me I hadn’t eaten since breakfast (a protein shake with frozen fruit), unless you counted the free samples at Costco while we’d shopped for our trip. I could handle some of those perogies now.

I climbed over a fallen tree; it had to be the same one where I’d peed earlier because I found my brush.

“Must’ve fallen out when I ran.” I spoke to a squirrel (not my buddy, he was black, this one was grey). I spent a few extra minutes searching for the fob, hoping it had fallen out here, too. No luck. I climbed over the tree stump, sure I’d see my car, but found…more trees.

I slapped at my arm when I felt something tickle it, convinced I’d just walked into a spider’s den. Blood bloomed on my palm. Great. Mosquito. I marked the fallen tree and kept walking. I heard a musical, magical sound – water. The river the collapsed bridge crossed? Obviously, I was going in the wrong direction from my car, but at least I could quench the building thirst. I blocked out the little ‘ew’ echoing in the back of my head. Not all water was polluted I reminded myself as the trickling got louder. I marked another tree when I realized I was moving away from the sound and resumed my search.

In the fading sun, I finally found the source. This couldn’t be the river they’d built a bridge over – this barely constituted a creek. I stepped out of the woods and froze. Three deer were drinking less than ten feet from me. Males, with antlers that could gore me to death. Several squirrels twittered from behind as I stood, rooted to the spot by fear and wonder.

Either they scented me, or the squirrels were warning them, because all three heads turned in my direction. Stupidly, I waved. Like what, they’d nod their heads like the guy at work who cleaned up after the kids went home? Two of them went back to drinking, but the third kept watching me. Were deer like other animals, where eye contact meant a challenge? I blinked several times and turned my head enough that we were no longer having a staring contest, but not so much that I couldn’t see if he charged me. After a minute, he drank again, then the three of them ran off across the creek into the woods on the other side.

I went into the clearing, staring down into the shallow water. The source of the tinkling was about fifty feet upstream, where the water divided and trickled over some rocks.

I was trying to figure out if I could bring myself to drink from the creek the way the deer had (what if they’d peed in the water?) when a loud cracking in the woods made me gasp. The last time I’d heard a loud sound, I’d run and look where that had got me. I stood my ground, turning to study the shadowy woods. Bear? Boar? More deer?

I didn’t see anything moving. I strained to hear more, but even the squirrels were silent. I positioned myself at the water’s edge, preparing to dunk my hands in.

“Hey, don’t drink that.”

I screamed. Leaping to my feet, I spun and fell over with a loud splash. Cold water shocked me into motion. I jumped to my feet as I registered that words had startled me. Unless Smokey the Bear was out here, the words had come from a human.

He stepped out of the woods. I barely resisted the urge to run to him, hug him, promise to have his babies. “I’m thirsty.”

I was horrified at myself. He shook his head derisively and I was reminded of someone. “Go ahead then. I was going to offer you this, but you wanna drink with the water snakes, have at ‘er.”

I leapt into the air as if a snake had slithered up my soaking pant leg and ran towards the man. I skidded to a halt a few feet in front of him when I realized who he reminded me of – only it was him. “You.”

“Heya, Princess.”

I eyed the water bottle he’d unclipped from his belt as my eyes narrowed. “Did you plan this?”

He tossed the bottle to me, shaking his head when I missed and bent to pick it up. “Plan what? For you to get epically lost and end up here? Oh yeah, that was my dastardly plan all along. I even dropped the bridge to snare you.”

Thirst won the mental battle I waged of should I, shouldn’t I. I drank my fill and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. “What are you doing here?”

He caught the bottle I tossed back. “You wanna ask questions, or do you want your key and get out of here?”

My eyebrows rose when he held out my keychain. I took the remaining steps to where he stood and grabbed my fob. “How’d you get that?”

“Found it, right next to a wad of Kleenex.”

My face flamed as I remembered using the Kleenex to clean myself. “Huh. Well, thanks. I, er–“

His catlike eyes twinkled as he watched me. The more amused he got, the hotter my face. “Want to find your way back to your car?”

I wanted to tell him no, that I’d find it myself, but my mouth had a mind of its own thankfully. “More than anything.”

We started walking – not into the woods, but beside them. “How’d you find me?”

He scratched his head and shrugged. “Pretty smart to mark your path with, what? Lipstick?”

I nodded, showing him what was left of the mashed tube. “I was just thinking I’d have to pull out my good tube to keep going.”

He held up a hand and slapped my arm. I glared at him;  he had no right to hit me. He held out his blood smeared hand. “Mosquito.”

“They never bothered me until about half an hour ago. I bet I’m covered in bites.” I slapped my neck.

I stopped walking when he did. He pulled a can out of the holder on his belt and uncapped it. He sprayed a steady stream as he walked a circle around me, putting his hand over my face when he ended his assault at my head. “That’ll help.”

Instinct told me to say thanks. “That stuff stinks.”

He gaped at me. “You’re welcome.”

My face reignited. “I’m not usually so –”

“Rude?” His eyes twinkled again.

My mouth opened to argue but I snapped it closed again. I was rude, something about this guy brought out the worst in me. Wrong footed me. I shrugged as we walked. “Off work?”

“Long time ago.” He pulled a flashlight from his waistband.

“So, what, you come hiking here after work?”

He shrugged. “Not usually. When the crew didn’t see your car come out on Seven Mile Road, I wondered if you’d headed back to the city. I kinda felt bad for lying to you – the bridge wasn’t out we were just doing a fast pothole repair. I could’ve let you through, but you pissed me off.”

I glared at him. “You mean I didn’t need to drive through the jungle to avoid your work?”

He laughed. “Nope. The detour was about five minutes back, would’ve taken you ten extra minutes to get around us. And we were letting local traffic through.”

I debated pushing him, kicking him, hurting him, but he knew where we were and I didn’t, so I kept my hands to myself. “Let me guess. You thought it’d be fun to mess with the city chick?”

He studied me for a second before shaking his head. “Hardly. I’m from the city myself. I work for the company that has the contract for maintaining the roads. I alternate between the city and here; the big boss knows I’ve got a cottage up here, so he puts me on the country crew as needed. I messed with you because you were a princess.”

I wanted to argue, but he was right. “I’m honestly not that rude normally. My sister, Kristen, picked camping for her birthday. I offered to rent a cottage but –“

“She wanted glamping?”

I frowned. “What’s glamping?”

“Glamorous camping. Let me guess, you were headed to Buck and Doe campground?”

“How’d you know?” I gaped at him.

“Party glamping. Even got a pump for people to blow up their air mattresses.”

“I’m terrified of snakes. The last time I went camping, I found a snake in my sleeping bag – about three hours after I’d gone to bed.”

Our pace was a lot slower now that it was dark. The flashlight illuminated a short distance ahead of us but not enough to let us trundle through at a fast clip. “I hate camping, myself.”

I swung my head to look at him. I couldn’t see much of his face because of the dark. “Really?”

“I like indoor plumbing and electricity.” His shoulder brushed mine when he shrugged. “My ex-wife loved glamping. Said I was boring because I was working to turn the cottage into a home, defying the definition of cottage. Blah, blah.”

“I do too, and beds.” I had no idea how much farther we had to go, but I wasn’t as scared as I’d have been if I were alone. “And I know people who think rustic is what a cottage should be but I figure we’ve come a long way since pioneer days, why waste the hard work of our forefathers?”

“You got kids?”

The question surprised me. “About twenty-three, give or take.”

“Ah, I should’ve guessed. You’re a teacher. What’s your name, anyhow, Princess?”

“Amelia. And I don’t usually have fake nails. My sister insisted we do the beauty thing before camping, which I thought was stupid but my baby sister always gets what she wants. What’s your name?”

“Tyler. And we’ve walked entirely around the woods now, so I guess I should let you go.”

I blinked in confusion as I followed the beam of his light. My car was sitting, facing the wrong way on the side of the road. “What do you mean, we’ve walked around the woods?”

“Ah, well. If we’d gone the other way? We’d have come out there in less than three minutes.” I looked where the beam shone.

“More fun and games for you? Make the city girl walk for an hour?”

Tyler shook his head. “Nah. I liked talking to you.”

I heard my doors unlock as I approached the car. “You want a lift?”

Tyler shook his head no, then peered up the street. “You’ll pass my cottage on your way to the highway, so sure, why not?”

“Mind if I use your cottage to clean myself up first? Don’t want to scare my sister and her friend.”

Tyler and I got into my car and I waited for him to answer. “Yeah, I should probably feed you, too, to make up for sending you off into the wild.”

I closed my door and pressed the button to start my car. “You got a spare room? Maybe I shouldn’t drive in the dark.”

“You know, that’s probably smart. Never know what you’ll run into in the north country.”

Desperate Illusions

I smiled at myself in the mirror hung over the table in the entrance hall to make sure no lipstick appeared on my teeth before I ran my hands over my pants, took a deep breath, fixed a smile to my face, and opened the door.

“Julie, you’re early.” I stood aside so Julie could breeze past me, the floral perfume she’d obviously just spritzed on herself didn’t disguise the scent of cigarette smoke. I wrinkled my nose as I closed the door behind her.

Julie’s wild red curls were usually the first thing I noticed, but when Julie turned around to face me, I saw her red eyes, and smudged mascara. “I know, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

I put my arm around her shoulders and led her to the kitchen. “It’s okay, no problem. Come on in, we’ll have a glass of wine while we wait for the others. You can tell me what’s got you so upset.”

“Oh God, is it that obvious?” Julie’s green eyes widened in horror and filled with tears.

I guided her along the hall, my heels clicking on the hardwood, Julie’s Nikes barely making a sound. “No, of course not. It’s just because we’ve been friends for so long, I can tell something’s up.”

Julie hopped onto one of the stools at the island, her feet wrapping around the legs. “Just the usual crap, you know.”

I took a wineglass from the glass display case and filled it with white wine. When I’d set the glass in front of her, I picked up the glass I’d already poured for myself earlier and sipped, waiting for Julie to gather her thoughts.

Julie shook her head as if in silent argument, heaved out a deep breath, and picked up her glass. “You know what? Screw it. Tonight’s supposed to be girls night, fun time. No BS allowed.”

The feeling of relief led to feelings of guilt. “Are you sure? Deb and Laurie won’t be here for awhile yet.”

Julie shook her head, her red curls bouncing. “Tomorrow or Sunday, okay? We’ve been planning this for weeks, the first time the four of us have had a free night at the same time in months. I’m not ruining it.”

I set my glass down and moved to the stove just as the timer buzzed. I’d just opened the oven door when the doorbell chimed again.

“I’ll get that. Smells delicious, whatever you’re busy with.” Julie left the kitchen as I took the tray out of the oven. Setting the cookies on the stovetop, I quickly hung the oven mitts up and turned the oven off.

“Well shit, there goes my diet.” Deb hip checked me as she peered at the fresh cookies. “What kind?”

“If they’re not triple chocolate macadamia you better start over.” Laurie went into the cupboard and grabbed two glasses, while Deb grabbed the bottle of wine and got ready to pour.

“These are for Julie, the cinnamon oatmeal apple ones she prefers. Yours are already out in the dining room.” I grabbed the cooling rack from under the counter. “And before you get all offended and butt-hurt, your honey cashew chews are out there, too.”

Deb flipped me the bird as she sipped her wine. “I wouldn’t have cared. I love all cookies.”

Julie snorted. “Right. This from the woman who threw a tantrum because Pam forgot to put out the pumpkin pie last time we got together.”

“It was pecan, dummy.”

I arranged the cookies on a small tray, smiling as I listened to the banter of my best friends. When the cookies were arranged properly, I hefted them and led the way into the dining room. I set the cookies on the sideboard, moving the bowl of fruit to the table.

“Pam, you’re disgusting.” Deb dropped into her usual spot, drumming her fingers on the tabletop.

I slapped Julie’s hand when she reached for a cookie; I didn’t want her to burn herself. “What’s wrong?”

“You’ve outdone yourself again, I think that’s what Deb was going for.” Laurie popped a cantaloupe chunk into her mouth and chewed, her brown eyes closing as she savoured the fruit.

My gaze swept over the table as I sat down next to the pad of paper and pen. “You know me, bored housewife. Andy’s forever springing surprise guests on me, I’ve got the pull a miracle off thing mastered.”

Deb picked up the velvet bag and shook it. “Come on, A.”

Deb showed us her N and passed the bag over to Laurie. Laurie pulled out an M and stuck her tongue out at Deb. Julie drew a D. I took the bag, pulled out my tile, an X. I passed the bag back to Julie.

“So, what’s new?” Deb picked up her wine and sipped, looking around the table while Julie selected the rest of her tiles.

“Sweet FA, unless you count the new contract Billy got last week. Big money there in Oak Heights. Snow and landscaping. Whoop-de-doo.” Laurie waved her finger in a sarcastic circle. “Like I care. I already don’t see him except to sleep.”

I took the bag from Julie and counted out six more tiles. We all ignored Laurie’s show – we knew she was proud of her husband, and she worked as hard as he did keeping the books for him. “Deb, what about you?”

Deb grabbed the bag and shook it vigorously again. “Same old same old. Unlike Laurie, who never gets to see her man, I see entirely too much of mine.”

“Dave still not working?” I asked, arranging my tiles so I could play excite if Julie put down a word with a T.

“Nope. Keeps asking the doctor to extend his leave. Says he’s too stressed out to go back yet. I’m gonna have to start walking around naked and dropping shit so he’ll get grossed out enough to go back to the office.”

We all laughed even though we knew Dave adored Deb and would walk over hot coals for her – and to get to her if she wore anything remotely provocative, like any clothes at all. “Perks of being the boss, he can play hooky.”

Deb leaned forward, all competitive since I’d scored high with a strategically placed X beneath Julie’s Daze.

“How are you, Pam?” Laurie asked as she popped a grape in her mouth.

My tummy clenched and my hand shook as I wrote Deb’s score. “Oh, you know.”

“That’s Pam-speak for everything is freaking perfect, incredible, magical. If I didn’t love you so much, I’d scratch you with my nails so that you wouldn’t be so damned perfect.” Deb tossed the bag to Laurie as she got up to get the cheese and cracker tray. “Although I do see one flaw. There’s no cherries in the fruit bowl.”

I tucked my hair behind my ears as I sat back in my chair. “That would be your fault. Don’t you remember what happened last time?”

“Choke on one pit, just once in your life, and it’s held against you forever.” Deb pouted as she popped a cube of cheddar in her mouth.

The game, and the evening, progressed with affectionate banter, and I felt warm inside. Some of that was the wine (I’d had two glasses), but mostly because I was with the people I liked best in the world.

“The twins are at their friend’s double digit slumber party. Can you believe they’re going to be ten next month? Billy says he’ll take the day off so we can take them to Wonderland with a couple of their friends.” Laurie shook her head in disbelief, her brown hair coming loose from her ponytail.

“Julie, why are you so quiet?” Deb, blue eyes narrowed, leaned into the table as if to crowd Julie across from her.

Julie sniffed, picked up her wine, and drained the glass. “I love you guys.”

“Oh shit. Is that a drunken I love you, or a prelude to a shitshow I love you?”

“Ben and I are separating.” Julie sniffed as I got up to grab the bottle of wine from the kitchen. An announcement like that called for easy access to booze. I caught Deb and Laurie exchanging uncomfortable looks when I came back into the room.

“Aw, hon, I’m sorry.” Deb cast a glance at Laurie that clearly said she wasn’t sorry.

“You know the deal. We wanted to stay together ’til the kids were grown, but…” Julie refilled her glass and drank half of it. “The kids are furious. Daphne’s threatening to drop out of school, and Zach took off for three days.”

My heart hurt for Julie. Ben was a jerk, none of us liked him, but Julie had fallen in love with him, so we’d accepted him. “I’m so sorry.”

Julie squeezed my hand after I patted her arm. “He’s talking about dividing assets, support payments for the kids, and I’m sitting there thinking ‘I’m not ready to be a 47-year-old divorcee’. I want to scream, hit him.”

Deb huffed out a breath. “Jules, I wanted to talk to you about this, later. Like sober, and maybe tomorrow. But.”

We all waited, Laurie gesturing for Deb to carry on. When Deb didn’t, Julie squeezed my hand harder. “What do you know?”

“Nothing really, not much, anyhow.” Deb’s face was pink, and I suspected it wasn’t from the wine. “Dave was golfing with Ed the other day. Ed, uh, let slip – more like intentionally dropped the bomb – that Ben’s hiding a whack of assets somewhere. Ed knows Dave tells me everything, and that I tell you everything, and he thinks Ben’s a royal ass, so he kinda suggested that you take a long hard look at where the money is. Actually, to quote him? ‘I hope Julie hires a vampire instead of a lawyer to suck Ben dry’.”

Julie set her glass down, shaking her head. “Nobody likes Ben, so of course they’re going to –”

“Julie, honey?” Laurie put her hand on Julie’s. “You’re right, about no one liking Ben. But you have to ask yourself why. I mean, you knew how we felt about him when you married him, right? Didn’t you wonder? Have doubts? You said so yourself – the marriage has been on the rocks for a long time, and you were biding your time until the kids were older.”

“Yeah, but –”

“No buts. The man’s a piece of shit, through and through. He makes the mob look like a gentleman’s club.” Deb popped another cube of cheese in her mouth.

I cleared my throat. “Julie, honey, Ben’s not a nice guy. You know that. You’ve said so yourself. You’re just scared.”

Julie nodded, taking the wad of napkins Deb handed her and wiping her eyes. “I’m terrified.”

“Ed’s single.” Deb put the empty tray and bowl on the sideboard and started putting the cookies on the table. “Dave seems to think that Ed told him all that because Ed’s been getting tired of watching Ben walk all over you.”

I smiled to myself – one hunch confirmed. I also knew for fact that Julie had been noticing Ed for years. Julie shifted in her seat before sighing. “He’s nice looking and all that, but not rebound material. Not after Maureen.”

We all took a second to think sad thoughts. Except for Deb. “Pfft. Maureen’s been dead eight years, Jules. Ed’s been dating for five. Dave says he’s never seen Ed so excited since Ben announced he was getting a divorce. And the only one who hasn’t noticed you watching Ed is Ben, and that’s because he’s a narcissistic bastard, and would never believe that you would look at another man.”

Julie’s red-headed temper turned red-hot. “You think it’s so easy, don’t you? To be in a loveless marriage, to just part with him and move on? What do you know about it? You’ve got Dave. Laurie’s got her hardworking man who’s built his business from the ground up. The only one who’s got it better than the two of you is Pam.”

I stilled, staring over Laurie’s head at the painting hanging on the wall behind her. “I’m far from perfect, Julie, neither is my life.”

Julie snorted. Even Deb made a sound. “Look at the flowers, in the middle of the sideboard. Has a week ever passed that Andy has forgotten to send you flowers?”

I glanced behind Deb, at the arrangement in a crystal vase. Only I knew they were flowers sent automatically because Andy had cheated again. Only I knew that my daughter had found out that her amazing daddy was a cheater and now blamed me for not being enough for him. Only I knew that my son hated me even more than my daughter because I’d called him a disgrace for getting a girl pregnant – and then called him a bastard because he forced her to get an abortion when she didn’t want to. Only I knew that my father hit my mother – never in the face, where someone might see. Only I knew that my father now had Alzheimer’s and I battled every day with feelings of hate warring with guilt because he can’t remember being the evil SOB only I knew he was. Only I knew that the illusions I created were created to save my sanity, because they were the only things in life I could control.

“Nobody’s perfect, Julie. None of us. Our lives aren’t perfect, our husbands aren’t perfect, we aren’t perfect. But we’re content, happy with the imperfections. We want you to be happy, for once. You’ve been married for twenty-two years to a man who never made you happy after you said I do. The four of us have been best friends for thirty-five years, so I feel confident speaking for the rest. Stop comparing our lives and feeling sad that yours doesn’t compete and start living your life to get in the game. None of us knows what tomorrow will bring, or if there will be a tomorrow, so do something now. Get a vampire, suck Ben dry, then go off with Ed and be happy.” I got to my feet and left the room, intending to get another bottle of wine. I put the two empty bottles in the recycling bin under the sink and leaned against the counter, counting to ten over and over again. Tonight was supposed to be fun, laughs and happy memories. That was the plan, and Julie’s news had hijacked them, waylaid my plans. I went to the fridge, carried it to the counter and fumbled with the corkscrew. If there was one thing I was good at, it was rolling with whatever came my way. Plans changed, but the end goal was still the same.

“Sorry I took so long, the cork wasn’t cooperating.” I set the bottle down in front of Julie. Someone had packed up the game, and I was glad. I couldn’t focus on making words now that I was tipsy.

“I’m sorry, Pam. I didn’t mean to ruin everyone’s night.” Julie, eyes red, leaned over to brush her shoulder to mine. “And I still think you’re perfect, even when you’re telling me off for saying it.”

I crossed my right leg over my left, hooked my left arm over the back of my chair, and nodded coolly. “Just to be clear, I’m almost perfect. But my left boob is still smaller than the right one. You get divorced, hook up with Ed and live happily ever after? You and your symmetrical tits will be perfect.”

By the end of the night, the food was gone, the wine bottles empty, and my three best friends left in a taxi, drunk and happy. I put my house to rights, no sign that there’d been anyone but me there at all. I thought of the three letters I’d put in the mail an hour before Julie had arrived. I hoped they’d understand some day.

I poured vodka into the only wineglass I hadn’t washed and put away. I took down the bottle of pills I’d stashed above the sink two hours before my friends had arrived. A cocktail of pills – some I’d stolen from my parent’s house, some I’d stolen from my daughter’s room, the rest the pills my doctor had been prescribing me for years. Nothing worked, nothing helped. Tranquilizers, antidepressants, pain meds for residual pain from childhood accidents my dad could no longer remember inflicting. I swallowed two and three pills with every sip of vodka until the glass was almost empty, then I dropped the last of the handful of pills and swallowed them dry. I quickly washed and dried the glass, put it back in the cupboard where it belonged, and ran the cloth over the spotless counters just to be sure.

I crawled up the stairs, my vision doubling and greying as I went. I’d already pulled back the blankets on my side of the marital bed. With enormous effort, I climbed up into the king-sized bed, tucked myself in, and lay back on the plumped pillows. I thought of Billy and Laurie, who worked together to create a beautiful exterior for others while finding a balance to make them work as a couple. I thought of Julie, who would finally know what happy was if she stayed the course we’d set her on tonight. Deb and Dave, they were the closest to perfect, I decided, my insides cramping. I willed myself not to throw up, not to be forced to find another, messier way. My lips lifted in a smile as I remembered the final glimpse I’d had of my three friends, my true family, the only people who truly loved me despite my perfection. Their laughter carrying on the night breeze as the taxi backed out of the drive, the three of them waving madly and blowing kisses. I lifted my hand, touched my lips, and blew them a final kiss.

 

 


 

Whittling Away Time

“My name’s Adam, what’s yours?” The little boy with golden curls came up the weedy path.

“Nunya biz-ness.” The old man, cigarette dangling between his lips, answered after a few seconds contemplating the child.

The little boy watched the old man with the knife, scraping away at a bar of soap. He didn’t seem to notice that he wasn’t welcome. “Whatcha doin’?”

The old man paused, taking a final puff of his smoke before dropping the butt into a can of sand. “Magic.”

Adam’s blue eyes opened wide in surprise, and he stepped closer to the rickety porch steps the old man was sitting on. “Can I watch, Nunya?”

A flicker of amusement flashed over the lined face as the old man studied the young boy. After a minute or so, he shrugged. Didn’t matter if he’d said yes, the little boy had already settled on the step below him.

Adam watched as the soap shavings piled up on the step beside him. “Whatcha gonna do with the bits of soap?”

The old man shrugged. “Sweep em up.”

Adam looked around the peeling porch for a broom but didn’t find one. He found another can, rusted but empty, and used his hand to sweep the soap shavings, careful to get them all into the can. When Adam put the can where the shavings had been, he sat back and stuck out his chest proudly. “I’m five. How old are you, Nunya?”

“Sixty-eight.” The old man felt his pockets for the pack of smokes, then peered at Adam and seemed to think better of it. Shrugging, he went back to whittling the soap.

“I go to school, and I can do gym and math and all sorts of shit.” Adam boasted as he picked up a curly soap scrap and dropped it in the can.

The old man hissed and growled, his dark face menacing and mean looking. “Watchya mouth, Son.”

Adam studied his angry face, the blue in his dark brown eyes, the stiff shoulders. After a tense moment, he shrugged. “Sorry.”

The old man nodded, returning his attention to his craft. “Your ma know where you at?”

Adam’s eyes widened as he shook his head, studying his new friend. “She don’t know much of nothing, you know?”

“Aye.” The old man reached over unexpectedly and ruffled the soft golden curls that needed trimming.

Adam chattered about nothing and everything as the old man continued to whittle away the soap. The boy was observant, and bright, full of questions and usually answered them before the old man could.

“Albert? Time to come in now.”

Albert stiffened at the voice, his eyes darting to Adam before nodding. He blew on the bar of soap (now a bird) and narrowed his eyes before seeming to deem the small figure done. He stood, brushing soap scraps from his pant legs.

“Hey, Nunya, why’d that lady call you Albert?” Adam asked, getting to his own feet.

The old man lifted one thin shoulder as he reached out his hand to give Adam the bird. “Take flight, Son.”

Adam watched the older man as he shuffled up the stairs and across the peeling-paint porch. Then he spotted the two cans on the step. “Hey, Nunya, can I have these?”

Albert turned around, his hand on the handle of the screen door. “Not the sand?”

Adam shook his head and tilted the rusty can with the soap shavings. Albert shrugged again and Adam watched as he went inside the old house.

*

Summer passed in a haze of heat and smog. Most days, Albert ‘Nunya’ Giles, and Adam ‘Son’ Riley passed the afternoons and evenings on the old, peeling porch. On the rainy days, they sat on the rickety bench until the young woman came out to collect the old man, and Adam made his way down the street towards home.

“You late,” Albert muttered as Adam ran up the path.

“Sorry. Goddamn school.”

“Watchya mouth, Son.” Albert dropped his mostly finished cigarette into the can beside him and went back to whittling.

“Sorry, Nunya. Whatchya makin’ today?” Adam asked, trying to see what Albert was turning the soap into that day.

Albert shrugged. “You give your ma that deer yesterday?”

Adam’s face turned red and he busied himself scooping up the soap scraps. He set the can between Albert’s feet and picked up the book sitting on the step next to Albert. “What’s this?”

Albert’s eyes narrowed at the boy. “Read it.”

Adam glared at the old man for a second. When Albert didn’t break eye contact, Adam let his gaze drop to the cover. He put one grimy finger on the title and followed each letter to the next as he spoke. “B-A-N-G B-A-N-G B-O-B-B-Y. What’s that mean?”

Albert nodded. “Read it to me.”

“I can’t read.” Adam studied the book cover, curious about the little boy holding a bow and arrow.

“Your teacher never tell ya what sound letters make?”

Adam nodded, his attention back on the book. “B-b-baahnnng?”

Albert nodded, blowing on the soap in his hand. “Don’t bring that book back here ’til ya can read to me proper.”

“Ain’t never gonna see this book again.” Adam tried to smile, but Albert saw the boy wince.

“I want that book back, and I want ya to read it to me.” Albert leveled a rheumy eyed stare at Adam until the boy finally nodded.

While Albert whittled, Adam flipped through the pages of the book, admiring the pictures and staring for a long time at a page with a sketch of an owl. The owl had an arrow under its wing, and feathers floating down around him. “Does the owl die?”

Albert paused, brushing soap from his hand. “Read it and tell me.”

“Albert, it’s time.” The young woman, standing at the screen door, sounded irritable today.

When she’d walked away, Adam helped Albert tidy up the bits that had missed the can. “She looks mad. What’d you do?”

“More like it’s just me bein’ here makin’ her mad.” Albert decided after a moments careful consideration.

“I hear ya, bruh.”

Albert paused at the top step. “I ain’t your bruh. Use proper names.”

Adam looked properly chastised and nodded. “Sorry, Nunya.”

His dark face split into a wide smile that showed yellowing teeth and gaps where there should’ve been teeth, Albert ruffled the shiny curls and handed the latest creation to Adam. Another deer, the same as the day before. Adam wondered if Albert knew, if he’d talked to his ma, found out that Adam had melted the deer with the soap bits when his ma had yelled at him for making a mess, then gone to bed without making any dinner for Adam. Adam had felt bad after, but it was too late.

*

“Nunya, Nunya!” Adam crunched up the path, over dead leaves, to where Albert sat on the rickety bench, a ratty old blanket over his legs.

“Where’s the fire?” Albert looked up, eyes peering through the haze of smoke curling around his face. He took the cigarette he’d just lit and tossed it into the bucket of sand beside him.

“No fire, it’s okay,” Adam wheezed, clutching his small chest through the jacket he wore. “I made a friend.”

Albert nodded, whittling his bar of soap. “What’s his name?”

“Her name is Janice. Girls can be friends with boys, ya know.” Adam narrowed his eyes as he spoke, as if expecting Albert to taunt him.

Albert didn’t laugh. He nodded his head and kept whittling. “Is that the one that gave you a muffin the day you had no lunch?”

“Yeah. And today she shared her cookies with me, even though Ma had packed me a lunch.” Adam flushed with excitement. “Janice didn’t want any of the tuna sandwich, but she shared her Oreos. Then she said we was friends because she don’t share Oreos with nobody.”

“Whatchya gonna make for lunch tomorrow, so as you has somethin’ to share with her?” Albert nodded his agreement over Janice’s sentiments about sharing cookies.

“Not sure what Ma’s makin’.” Adam shrugged after a second or two.

“Why’s your ma gotta make it? You told me you make your own supper sometimes, why can’t ya make yer own lunches?”

Adam opened his mouth but said nothing. After a second, he shrugged and got the can to gather the soap shavings. “Guess I could make a sandwich. Ma made cookies, only some of ’em are burnt. I’ll pick out two of the best ones.”

“You read that book yet?” Albert asked after awhile.

“Slow goin’, but almost.” Adam noticed the darkness was creeping up earlier and earlier these days and he sighed. “She’s gonna come get you, tell you it’s time?”

Albert blew on that day’s work as he nodded. “Reckon so.”

A thought crept in, one that Adam had been trying to block out for days. Without realizing he was going to say anything, he blurted out the troubling question. “What’re you gonna do when the snow flies? When it’s too cold to sit out here?”

Albert brushed soap from the ratty blanket and shrugged. “I’ll be here. Some days too cold for whittlin’, but I be here.”

Adam took the bar of soap, now a howling wolf. He’d never admit to Albert that he had all his sculptures lined up in rows on a battered old table in his room where he was supposed to do homework. He stared at them for hours at a time, awed that his friend had made them. They were the best art he’d ever seen – and he’d been on a school trip to the museum. He’d seen the weird pictures that kinda looked like flowers, or vibrant coloured slashes on canvas that didn’t look like anything at all. What his friend gave him was a hundred million times better than anything he’d seen that day.

“Albert.” The older woman at the screen door sounded impatient. She had dark hair and skin like Albert, but none of his sparkle in her eyes.

Adam waited until she’d gone, after Albert got to his feet. “She don’t look too friendly.”

Albert ran his hands over Adam’s shiny hair and shrugged. “Ain’t yer biz-ness. Go on home.”

*

Winter had been cold and cruel. Most days were too cold for snow. Albert hadn’t sat outside for long since the beginning of the last cold snap. Adam hadn’t been by since the new year had been rung in with a nasty snowstorm that ended in record low temperatures. Albert shook a fresh cigarette from his pack, put the filter end in his mouth, then froze with the matchstick hovering over the striker.

“Nunya, Nunya, guess what?” Adam, bundled head to toe in winter clothing, crunched up the snow packed path.

Albert dropped the unlit cigarette and matchbook back into his pocket and pulled his gloves back on. “What?”

“Ma’s done her chemo and her doctor said he thinks she’ll be fine. She’s not going to be all better real soon, but I think maybe in a month or two.” Adam’s face was pink from the cold, or his excitement, as he pulled his scarf from around his neck and sat down on the bench beside Albert.

Albert’s face split into a smile so wide some kids might have been scared, but Adam just smiled back at him. “Janice gave me both her oreos today to celebrate.”

“Wait right here.” Albert shuffled into the house and came back a minute later with a small bag. “Don’t open this now, the snow and cold will ruin ’em, but I been savin’ em for you.”

Adam took the bag, his face lit with pleasure. “I got somethin’ for you, too, Nunya.”

Albert watched as Adam unzipped his coat and reached under the bib of his snowpants. He pulled a picture glued to cardboard free and passed the artwork to Albert. “It’s you and me and we’re whittling, see?”

Albert studied the picture, blurred by tears and cataracts. “S’good, Son.”

“My teacher said you must be a saint to teach me anything.” Adam frowned at the picture Albert held in his gloved hands.

Albert glanced over at Adam, his smile almost sad. “You tell your teacher I ain’t taught you nothin’ you didn’t already know.”

Adam nodded, not really understanding, and not thinking what Albert said was true. “No point arguin’ with Mrs. D. She’s a know-it-all and thinks she’s always right.”

“That’s because they usually are. Right, I mean.” Albert sighed and tucked the picture inside his own coat. “How’s the book?”

Adam’s face lit up. “Real good! I’m almost done for the fourth time. Ma’s teachin’ me to read in my head, so I’m not drivin’ her nuts readin’ out loud.”

“Just move your lips if you have to, no voice.” Albert pulled his glove off and reached out to tug on the escaping curls.

“Albert.” The grumpy older woman shivered from behind the glass of the screen door.

Adam waited until the woman had closed the bigger door. “Already?”

Albert coughed a dreadful cough, The sound was deep and scary and gross. He coughed and coughed, his gloved hands over his mouth. After a minute, he nodded. “This winter’s been a rough one.”

Adam stood, gathering the blanket Albert dropped. “Yeah, sucks havin’ to stay inside so much.”

“Don’t I know it.”

*

The dead grass was coming back to life, little shoots of green mixed with the brown. Albert settled on his step, the empty can for soap sitting beside him.

“Nunya, you’re so skinny.” Adam, taller and somehow more grown up looking, settled on the step beside Albert.

“Nah, you just ain’t seen me without that big ol’ coat for so long.” Albert pulled out a fresh bar of soap and wiped his knife on his pants.

“You ready?” Adam pulled the book out of the bag he’d brought.

“You sure you ready?” Albert nodded, starting to whittle.

To answer, Adam opened the book and began to read. “Bang Bang Bobby.”

Albert listened to the boy, pausing to cough now and then. Adam read well, better than Albert had hoped. He only stumbled a time or two on the harder words.

“And the owl flew in a slow circle over Bobby’s head, once, twice, three times. When Bobby was sure he’d fixed what he’d broken, the owl soared higher and disappeared into the night.”

Albert never stopped whittling. “Impressive.”

“Who is Albert Giles?” Adam asked, surprising Albert. The knife slipped and a spot of blood bloomed on Albert’s thumb. “Sh-crap, sorry.”

“Slipped. You done good, Son.” Albert took a quick second to suck the blood from his thumb then went back to whittling. “How’s your ma?”

Adam frowned at Albert for a moment before shrugging and getting the can to sweep up the soap shavings. “She’s going back to work soon.”

Albert nodded. “And you’ll be in daycare.”

Adam’s brow creased and he looked like he wanted to kick something. Then his face cleared, and his happy smile spread over his face. “Ma says I can do baseball and soccer this summer. Darren says I can be on his team, but Janice says Darren’s stupid and I should ask to be on Isaac’s team instead. Janice sucks at baseball, but she might join soccer with me.”

“Five minutes, Albert.” The woman at the door was older than the woman who’d been there the last few times. She smiled at Adam before her brown eyes filled with worry as she looked at Albert. Her white face creased with concern, but she turned and went back into the house.

“She seems nice.” Adam decided as he helped Albert clean up.

“Aye.” Albert brushed the soap from his pants. “Don’t you want the shavings?”

“Nah. I been tryin’ and tryin’, but I just can’t make nothin’ when I melt the soap and make my own bars. Just look like soap someone left in the tub forever.” Adam’s sheepish smile made him look like a cherub.

“Keep tryin’.” Albert took the book Adam handed him. He reached out but instead of ruffling his curls, he squeezed his shoulder. “See you around, Son.”

Adam took the latest offering, an owl in full flight.

*

Adam felt worry cramp his belly as he made his way up the steps. He’d figured out so long ago that Nunya was really Albert, but he still called him Nunya, in person and when he talked or thought about him. He knocked on the screen door, then got brave and opened the door and knocked on the wooden one behind it when no one answered his first knock.

No answer. Adam stepped back and peered around the porch. How long had it been since he’d been by? With a sinking feeling, he realized he hadn’t seen his friend since before summer vacation started, and now his ma was talking about back-to-school shopping. “Nunya? Albert?”

A sound from the side of the house caught his attention, and Adam hurried to the gravel driveway. There was a small car parked beside the door, and the trunk was open.

The nice woman who’d been there the last time Adam had stepped out of the house. “Oh, Adam, you startled me.”

“Where’s Nun-Albert?” Adam tried to see around the woman blocking his view.

The old woman’s kind eyes filled with tears. “Wait here.”

Adam did as he was told, but his instincts screamed for him to run. Somehow, he knew she wasn’t going to get Albert.

She came out carrying a box. “I was going to drop this off for you.”

Adam took the box, almost dropping it when she let go. The box was sealed, his name in neat writing on the flap. “Albert’s not coming, is he?”

The older woman shook her head sadly, and she ruffled his golden curls. “No, honey, he’s not.”

Adam carried the box, each step he took felt heavier then the last. He carried the box to the porch, and settled on the step, feeling the need to open the box here rather than at home.

He didn’t know what he thought he’d find inside, but the dozens of whole bars of soap weren’t anything he’d have guessed.

“Those are the bars he didn’t whittle. The days you weren’t here, or the days he wasn’t feeling so good.” The nurse backing out of the driveway called over to Adam. “I think he wanted to teach you one day.”

Adam swallowed hard and turned his head until she’d driven away, then went back to looking in the box.

The book, the one that he’d spent months agonizing over learning to read was in there, and Adam pulled it out. He flipped the pages without really looking at them. Back to front, front to back, he fanned the pages, his eyes blurring with unshed tears.

Written and illustrated by Albert Giles. Adam’s fingers ran over the words his mother had helped him learn all those months ago. Albert Giles had written the story, and drawn the pictures. Until now, Adam hadn’t really believed his friend was Albert Giles. Or maybe he had but hadn’t put any thought into it.

Adam paid closer attention to the pages. At the end, on the blank page after the final drawing, words had been written that Adam hadn’t noticed at first.

Son;

You might have to ask your ma to help you understand, or you might not and not really understand until you’re older. Or maybe, like me, you’ll see there are things in life we’ll never understand. It’s okay to not know some things, and never understand them even after they’re explained to you.

Like you – I don’t understand how a kid could come around, day after day, worming his way into a heart that hadn’t felt for so long. All I know is that it’s been over forty years since a kid mattered to me, a kid that never got to grow up. My little boy, Bobby, was smart like you, funny like you, handsome like you. His ma and him were in an accident, a real bad one, and that’s when I stopped feeling. Until you.

So, I will pass on the things I would’ve wanted to tell my own son, things you should know. First of all, never forget who your friends are. Never treat someone who shares things like their oreos with a lonely, scared boy who cries at school worrying about their mother badly. Forgive the kids who laughed at you, because they didn’t understand, but never forget the ones who didn’t laugh. Always share your oreos with others. Never give up, never quit. You might become amazing, or you might stay so-so, but eventually you’ll be happy you kept trying.

Take care of yourself, help your ma when you can. You’ll drive her crazy, you’ll get mad at her, but always remember that you love her, and she loves you. Your ma always knew where you were, even when she was too sick to come looking.

Always be honest, and if you can’t, don’t say anything at all. Watch your mouth – you kiss your ma with that mouth, so leave the dirty words out of your vocabulary. If you’re gonna use slang and silly things like bruh, use em with your friends, not your elders or your ma. I was your elder, and I was your friend, so that silliness didn’t fly. You’ll have good and bad teachers, but if you buckle down, you’ll learn from them. Some lessons will get you passin’ grades, some lessons will help you pass through life.

Never stop being you – observant and inquisitive and full of questions. Never let grumpy people hold you back, hold you down. Never let yourself get so beat down you can’t feel, and never tell a good kid ‘nunya biz-ness’ because he’ll make it his business if he’s like you.

Albert Giles

Adam wiped his eyes and put the book back in the box. He saw the familiar handle of Nunya’s knife. Like learning to read, Adam knew he’d learn to whittle. Maybe only be so-so, maybe he’d be amazing, but he wouldn’t give up.

Adam hefted the box and started the short trek to his house. He passed a group of kids going the other way, the same rotten kids who’d taunted him for crying over his ma.

“What’s in the box?”

“Nunya biz-ness.”