Chapter Three

November 5th

Ashley clenched her teeth as she scanned the miles of parked cars, searching for an empty spot.

“Almost two months until Christmas. What the hell is the matter with people?” Ashley muttered under hear breath as she followed a family pushing two shopping carts full of junk they’d just bought. “You’re probably the same idiots who say my dad failed Gallagher’s. I bet you never parked at this end of the mall when Gallagher’s was here.”

Ashley scowled as they loaded their packages into the van. Once upon a time, Gallagher’s had stood tall and proud as the mall’s main anchor store, a sparkling jewel in her family’s now tarnished crown. The lampposts were garish with neon yellow signs boasting ‘even more price slashes’, so tacky compared to the elegant wreaths Gallagher’s always hung December 1st.

“Are you freaking kidding me?” Ashley slammed the heel of her hand on the horn when the couple laughed and went back to the store. Gluttony was the only word she could think of that came close to describing the hoarders going in and out of the American discount department store. She finally found a spot at the back where Gallagher’s employees once parked.

She zipped her coat and grabbed her leather purse before climbing out of the car and shivering as a gust of wind whipped her hair into a frenzy. The sound of the alarm setting carried on the wind as Ashley hurried across the parking lot, her eyes already tearing from the icy gusts. She jammed her hands into her pockets as the wind whistled, her hair tangling as tendrils were forced free of the clip she’d tried to tame them with. Sharp pain hit her shin and she stumbled, her eyes stinging as ends of her hair lashed at her eyeballs. She righted herself and turned to see what had caused the throbbing pain. A huge trailer hitch jutted out from the rear of a shiny new Dodge pickup truck.

“Inconsiderate fools.” Ashley yanked her right hand out of her warm pocket and held back the hair blinding her. “Why on earth would someone in Toronto need a freaking pickup truck?”

She felt like Suze as she grumbled to herself about vehicles that guzzled gas like Suze’s mother guzzled gin. “Probably some small dude with a complex.”

She stepped around a huddled group of teenagers, the faint whiff of cigarette smoke burning her nostrils as she entered the store. When Gallagher’s ruled this location, this would’ve been the baby section (infant and toddler clothes on the right, cribs, strollers, and toddler bedroom sets on the left), not the acres of parking spots for shopping carts the masses filled with bargains they didn’t need but couldn’t pass up the fifty percent off savings.

She went through the second set of doors, wincing at the bleeps and whistles of dozens of cash registers, blinked against the sudden brightness of fluorescent lighting, so different than the gloomy skies outside. She didn’t spare a second glance for the cheap metal racks stacked with candles, bins of discounted Hallowe’en candy, or rows of pre-lit Christmas trees as she hurried through the store. She knew she made no sense; determined to park in the lot of the enemy yet anxious to get away from the ghosts of her family’s failed empire rattling their chains overhead in fury the instant she stepped inside.

Ashley knew this chain of stores had started the crumbling of her family’s Canada-wide empire and she tried not to let her anger show to the shoppers she felt were more to blame. As if her dark thoughts had conjured her, Ashley could hear Suze’s recent rant at a Society meeting. Suze, eyes flashing with fury, bemoaning excessive consumerism while stomping her feet. “We live in a throwaway world. No one buys quality anymore, they just throw it out and buy more. All this shit? Landfill fodder by months end.”

Ashley nodded her agreement even though Suze wasn’t there as her head gave a feeble throb. Passing through the metal anti-theft gates at the mall entrance (which always seemed to scream), she was glad to put the noise behind her. The drone of the crowded mall was far more tolerable.

She manoeuvred around the window shoppers and strode purposely towards the food court until she caught sight of herself reflected in a store window. Ashley didn’t care how she looked but if Sophie saw her windswept appearance, she’d drag Ashley to a salon and demand a total makeover. She peeked at her watch to make sure she had enough time to hit the washroom for a fix-up and almost careened into a huge group of teenagers watching a videogame presentation. She staggered and almost tripped on a discarded backpack near the crowd. She’d finally managed to right herself when she felt something hard hit the backs of her knees and she fell.

“Oof.” Ashley’s heart jackhammered in her chest and cold sweat prickled her brow as her knees and hands slapped the cold tile floor. She scrambled to her feet, resisting the primal urge to flee, as she registered the attention she was receiving. Humiliation warmed her cheeks. Torn whether to scold the careless person who’d tackled her or simply forget the incident and carry on, her swirling thoughts stilled when she saw her assailant. A young woman, only her eyes visible because her hands covered the rest of her face, stared wild-eyed from behind the stroller she pushed.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry.” The woman’s big brown eyes filled with tears. “Are you okay?”

Ashley’s terror eked away as her concern for the other woman rose. “I’m okay. Are you hurt?”

The woman bit her lip as she dropped her hands to the handle of the stroller. Shaking her head, her chin trembled. “I’m fine. I’m just stupid, and I should’ve been going slower.”

Ashley stepped closer, her gaze darting to the carrier anchored to the stroller. A baby fussed, the chin trembling as the young woman’s did. “I’m fine. Honest. Where’s the fire?”

The woman’s face changed from horror to confusion to amusement. “No fire. Temper tantrum building in three…two…”

As if on cue, the baby began to howl. “Diaper change?”

Ashley fell into step beside the anxious mother, assuming they were both heading to the washroom.

“Feeding time.” The mother made cooing noises as she steered the stroller down the long corridor that led to the washrooms. They passed the men’s room and the row of payphones no one used (though many people were on cell phones near them). They had to wend their way around the people waiting to use the ATM.

“These benches are more comfortable than the ones in the mall and the food court will be rammed.”

Ashley spied the padded seats outside the women’s washroom and they veered around the women waiting. “Quieter down here, too.”

The mother nodded as she parked the stroller. With deft moves, she unstrapped and lifted the baby, grabbed the bottle sitting on the seat of the stroller, and settled on the bench. “I already had the bottle heated.”

The mother shook a drop on her wrist, adjusted the pink blanket around the baby in her arms, and popped the nipple in her mouth before she could holler any more.

“She’s beautiful.” Ashley fibbed (the baby was all scrunchy, red faced, and angry) as she settled beside her, watching with a sense of awe and wonder. As the only child of only children, she hadn’t grown up with siblings or cousins. No one in her circle had kids yet, either. Babies and children intrigued (and scared) her.

“Thanks.” The mother offered a nervous smile. Ashley noticed dark shadows under her eyes, and a weariness she knew well from a couple of the women’s shelters she’d been involved with.

“My name is Ashley.” Ashley was about to hold out her hand but realized the other woman’s hands were full of baby.

“I’m Jennifer, and this is Penelope. Penny for short.”

“That’s not very common, is it?” Ashley asked, smiling down at the suckling baby. She was sort of cute now that her face wasn’t such an angry red.

Ashley glanced up when she heard Jennifer sniffling. “Did I say something wrong?”

“I know, it’s stupid. I was like the fourth Jennifer in my class, and two of my friends are Jennifer. I wanted something pretty, but not something that every third girl was called. My mother says it’s a stupid name. Pennies are worthless, tarnish easily, and are cheap.”

“That’s just stu–” Ashley bristled, her defenses rising, before she stopped herself. Ashley rarely butted in with her opinions, especially with strangers. That was Char’s forte.

“That’s the way my mother is. She wasn’t the greatest for me, and she isn’t happy about being a grandma. That’s why Penny and I are here. We’re always here.” Jennifer’s brown eyes blinked furiously as she gazed down at her daughter.

Ashley frowned. “Always here?”

Jennifer darted a glance at Ashley, nodding. She bit her lip again. “The best thing I’ve ever done in this world was have Penny, but as my mother always points out, it was also the dumbest. I didn’t have a great job to begin with and I doubt they’ll hire me back when my mat leave is up. Not that I can afford to take the full year. Then again, as my mother constantly reminds me, I can’t afford daycare anyhow so it won’t matter. She tolerates us sleeping there but wants her peace during the day, so here we are.”

“What about Penny’s father?” Ashley peered closer at the baby drinking. Faded pink outfit, oft-washed blanket. She glanced at the stroller, saw the worn wheels, the tear in the carrier seat.

Jennifer laughed but there was no mirth in the sound. “As I said, getting pregnant was the dumbest thing I could’ve done according to my mother – unless you throw in the man who fathered her. He knows he’s won. I can’t afford a lawyer to force him to pay support because he’s denying paternity. He’s married – something I didn’t know until after I found out I was pregnant.”

Jennifer’s tears flowed and Ashley dug through her purse hoping to find a tissue. She found a wrinkled one and shook it out.

“Here, it’s clean, just not sure how long it’s been in the depths of this purse. I didn’t clean it out last spring, and just shoved my wallet in it this morning.” Ashley gave a sheepish grin as she gestured to the black leather purse she preferred to use in the winter.

Jennifer dabbed at her streaming eyes. “Imagine, having more than one purse. I don’t even own one, but I do have that bottle bag under the stroller and matching diaper bag that my friend gave me. She doesn’t use them anymore.”

Ashley felt an overwhelming urge to help this young woman. “You know the government will force him to pay or they’ll take away his license, don’t you?”

Jennifer snorted as she put the bottle down on the bench and held Penny to her shoulder, patting her back. “He’s fighting everything. My friend says they’ll make him pay for the paternity test but that it’ll take forever for them to get everything sorted. Penny will probably be in school before that happens. He wouldn’t even buy me diapers when I begged him. My mat leave unemployment hadn’t kicked in yet, my mother said the only help she’s willing to provide is a roof over our heads so long as we’re not there but to sleep, and I had to go to my friends and ask them to help me. I was nursing Penny in the beginning, until she refused my milk, so I had the food part covered, but I couldn’t even buy her diapers. My mother was right, I should’ve put her up for adoption.” Jennifer kept patting her daughter’s back as the tears began to fall in earnest.

“One sec.” Ashley jumped to her feet and rushed past the line of women waiting to use the toilets. She glanced by the sinks but saw nothing but hand dryers.

“Hey!” Ashley grabbed the arm of a woman leaving the first stall. “Can you pass me a handful of toilet paper?”

The other women in line grumbled but Ashley didn’t pay attention. The woman jerked a large wad of tissue free and thrust the paper into the hand Ashley wasn’t clutching her arm with.

“Thanks.” Ashley smiled and darted back out of the washroom, not bothering to apologize to the woman who was next in line.

“Here.” Ashley sat down breathlessly beside Jennifer, who had adjusted Penny to continue feeding her.

“Thanks.” Jennifer sniffed as she wiped her face before putting the bottle back to her daughter’s lips. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know where all this is coming from. I’ve never dumped on anyone like this, let alone a total stranger.”

Ashley watched Jennifer, saw the love shining in her eyes as she watched Penny drinking. She put her hand on Jennifer’s, the one holding the bottle, and squeezed. “Sometimes we bottle stuff up so much that the seal breaks and everything spills out. I’ve been there.”

Jennifer nodded, her eyes closed. “You ever felt like you were going to lose your mind because you can’t figure out a single thing you can do to change anything?”

Her eyes popped open as she turned her head. Ashley saw the depths of her despair drowning out the love. Ashley’s senses went on overload and she looked away as she nodded. There were lines of people everywhere and all of them were oblivious to the two women and the baby on the bench.

“I’m sorry.”

Ashley blinked, her attention shifting from a vaguely familiar man standing with his back to her as he waited for the ATM and glanced at Jennifer. “Pardon?”

Jennifer shifted Penny and put the nearly empty bottle on the bench beside her before she looked at Ashley again. “I thought, when I bumped into you, that you looked like who I wanted to be – you know, together. Rich.”

Ashley snorted. “Only half right.”

Jennifer’s cheeks flushed but she smiled. “I heard something in your voice, saw something flicker on your face just now, and I was reminded that money doesn’t fix everything.”

Ashley nodded, but her thoughts warred. Jennifer had no money and that was the root of her trouble. Ashley had tons, trust funds and inheritances and investments galore, but all the money in the world wouldn’t fix her issues. Yet the Golden’s, with all their money, were living the life of Riley, using that money to keep their foes down. The people they walked on – stomped on, crushed – just lifted them higher, like some decaying mountain for their pedestal to climb higher into the clouds.

“I’m just a fast-food worker that got herself knocked up by the first man to pretend at love, so don’t listen to me.” Jennifer’s cheeks turned pink and she shifted Penny in her arms.

“Sorry, I was lost in thought there. My grandmother would say woolgathering.” Ashley smiled at Jennifer.

“Diaper change time.” Jennifer sniffed and made a face before sighing when she saw the women lined up like cattle. “Ugh, the line just gets longer and longer.”

“Do you have to wait in line to use the change table?” Ashley’s mind whirled trying to remember if she’d ever noticed lines of mothers waiting to change their baby’s diaper.

“No, but they grumble and moan when I try to squeeze past with the stroller.” Jennifer shrugged, getting to her feet. “Thanks so much for not hating me for hitting you.”

Ashley grinned back. “Thanks for letting me sit with you. Do you need the stroller? I can sit here with it while you go change Penny.”

Jennifer eyed the women as she bit her lip. “You don’t mind?”

Ashley glanced at her watch and shook her head. “I’m early to meet my friends.”

Jennifer sighed, the sound wistful. “Friends at the mall? I don’t know that I’ve ever had that luxury, not even in high school. I come here because it’s warm and not my mother’s house, but the few friends I have don’t have time for the mall life. If you’re sure you don’t mind watching the stroller?”

Ashley shook her head as she freed the diaper bag from the stroller handle. “I assume you need this?”

Jennifer slung the strap over her shoulder. “I’ll be quick.”

“No rush.” Ashley watched Jennifer head into the washroom. She wore pants that were too big, a sweater that had been washed so many times the original colour was a mystery, and shoes that Agatha Gallagher would shudder at the thought of ever wearing. Ashley glanced at the bottom of the stroller and saw no coat, just a baby’s snowsuit. Ashley opened her purse, pulled out her wallet, and rifled through the contents. She pulled out a wad of twenties, $380 in total, and curled her fingers around the money. She scanned the crowd, making sure no one was watching. She grabbed the bottle bag from the basket, picked up the bottle Jennifer had left on the bench, and dropped both the bottle and the cash inside.

The hair on the back of her neck stood up and Ashley froze, the bottle bag almost returned to the bottom of the stroller. Someone was watching her – rather, she felt an attack of the old familiar paranoia kicking in. She shook her head as she settled the bottle bag on the bottom of the stroller, her eyes darting through the throngs of people. The man at the bank of payphones had his back to her but Ashley felt the same familiarity flash through her as she had when she’d spied him in the line for the ATM — and an instant of pure female admiration when she noticed his jeans hugged his ass perfectly.

“Whew, thanks.” Jennifer settled Penny into her carrier, taking care to buckle her in before putting the faded blanket over her.

Ashley’s wallet was still on top of the purse nestled in her lap. Jennifer raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment and Ashley was struck with inspiration. She opened the side where she kept all the spare cards for the various charities she worked with and found the one she was looking for.

“I hope –” Ashley faltered, feeling her cheeks warm. She jammed her wallet back in her purse and inhaled. “I hope you don’t feel offended by this but this is the number of a good friend of mine. Aretha helps women in tough situations, knows all the legal ins and outs to help you with Penny’s father. She’s got connections to everyone and everything.”

Jennifer raised an eyebrow as she took the card. “A Woman’s Place. Why would I be offended?”

Ashley cleared her throat as she pulled out her brush. She wouldn’t normally groom herself in the open but she was feeling socially awkward and uncomfortable, the panic at the man’s familiarity drawing her eyes to the payphone as often as to Jennifer.

“I…we just met and you don’t know me. Aretha can help you, but some women would look at that card and see charity, not a tool to assist you. I didn’t want you to think I looked down on you –” Ashley felt her face sizzle, she was botching this horribly and the more she pedaled, the deeper she dug in. She finally gave up, shrugged her shoulders as she reclipped her hair. “Aretha was there for me many times, still is when I need a friend. She’s got answers, connections. Knows people, loves people. Talk to Aretha and I can guarantee you she’ll know what your next step should be. She’ll walk with you if you need her, she’ll push you if you get scared, but she won’t let you sit in the mall seven days a week because you’re not wanted anywhere else.”

Ashley put her brush back in her purse, her eyes darting to the phones but the familiar man was gone. She breathed a sigh of relief.

“She’s helped you?” Jennifer’s left eyebrow was still arched in disbelief.

Ashley stood, nodding. “I didn’t know I needed her help when I went to her. I thought I could help her, help other women, but Aretha saw my need and understood it, helped me, when I had no clue I was dying.”

A bit extreme, a little mellow dramatic maybe. Ashley hadn’t been physically dying, but Aretha, a sixty-four-year-old woman with a heart even bigger than her massive body, had seen the slow decay of Ashley’s mental health and had taken her under her wing. She was sure Aretha would do the same for Jennifer, as she did for hundreds of women in the city.

“I’ll call her.” Jennifer put the card in the diaper bag before frowning at the bench. “The bottle, I was sure –”

“Oh, sorry. I put the bottle in the bottle bag. I hope that was the right place?” Ashley was backing away, preparing to flee if Jennifer opened the bottle bag in front of her.

“Thanks.” Jennifer smiled, and Ashley was struck at the young mother’s appearance. She almost shone, her eyes sparkled. “I feel odd. I think it’s hope, and I can’t remember the last time I felt it. Thank you, Ashley.”

Ashley smiled as she felt her phone vibrate in her coat pocket. “Call Aretha.” She grabbed her phone and hurried away, glancing at the display. Char was attempting to park her car if the picture of the full parking lot she’d just texted was any indication. She grinned as she made her way to the main part of the mall. She glanced back at Jennifer and felt the faint stirrings of a headache when she spotted Jennifer talking to a man – the same familiar form she’d seen at the ATM and the payphone. Jennifer wore a puzzled expression as she bent to get the bottle bag. Whoever the man was, he must’ve seen Ashley putting the money in the bag. Before Jennifer could get the bag free, Ashley joined the crowd, hoping she didn’t bump into Jennifer again – and wondering who the man was and why he had been watching her.

Chapter Two

November 2nd

Ashley dropped onto the cream-coloured sofa (the one her mother sniffed at every time she saw it because it was inferior to anything Gallagher’s once sold), and leaned her head back, positioning the re-warmed beanbag on her head. She knew the cover of the Toronto Reporter had triggered this never-ending headache (and the nightmares that plagued her sleep), but knowing the root didn’t alter the outcome. The silence, the heat of the beanbag, and exhaustion ruled her life at the moment.

Knock, thump, bang.

Ashley’s heartbeat picked up at the loud sound, picked up even more when her eyes popped open and she couldn’t see. The beanbag slid off her head and the gloomy grey light filled her apartment. Not night yet.

Rap-rap-rap.

No one from the security desk downstairs had called to request permission for whoever was at the door to enter, so that meant whoever was making all the noise was someone on her approved list. Unless someone managed to get past the vigilant team? Ashley willed the intruder to leave, but the knocking continued. Getting to her feet, she tossed the beanbag onto her coffee table and padded silently in sock feet to the door.  

 Every knock made the blood pounding through her brain audible, painful. She pressed herself against the cool metal door and peeked out the peephole. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to cry tears of relief or frustration when she saw the top half of Char’s head, her brow creased in impatience. Ashley unlocked the deadbolt and slid the chain free before pulling the door open as Char lifted her hand to knock again.

“You look like shit.” Char’s gaze swept from head to toe before she slipped around Ashley to enter.

Ashley quickly relocked the door, uttering a silent prayer for strength before forcing a smile and turning around. “Hey, Char, I wasn’t expecting you,”

Char glided to the sofa and sank onto one of the cushions without a sound. Char’s exotically beautiful pale skin had a red tinge to it, and her scowl reminded Ashley that Char was perfectly capable of biting.

“Nice to see you too, hope you’re well.” Ashley muttered under her breath.

“I’m going to kill her. With my bare hands if I can reach that swan neck of hers without a ladder.” Char grumbled as much to herself as to Ashley, her eyes flashing.

Instinctively and immediately, Ashley knew Char was talking about Sophie. She didn’t need the ladder reference because it was always Sophie that someone wanted to kill, slap, or otherwise do harm to. “What’s she done now?”

“Protesting the Christmas thing.” Char rolled her brown-black eyes.

“Of course she is.” Ashley nodded, resisting rolling her own. “Let me guess — why can’t we just give a bunch of money instead? Hire someone to do it?”

Char laughed. “Nailed it in one. Or two. Or both, whatever. She wants us to donate fifty turkeys and hire people to dish it out so she doesn’t have to leave the comfort of home to be a good person.”

Ashley struggled not to laugh as her head thumped meekly. Of the five women, best friends since childhood, it was mostly Sophie that took exception to their Society’s goal of giving back. ‘Not that I mind,’ Sophie’s speech always began. ‘But I don’t see how my getting up early, getting dirty, disrupting my schedule makes me a better person. I have no objections to paying someone to do what needs to be done and be done with it.’

“What do you think of my plan? Did you read the papers I gave you last night?” Char’s scowl morphed into hope as she studied Ashley.

“I did.” Every time she’d woken from another nightmare, she’d read a few pages. “I love the plan. I also know why Sophie won’t do it. The parts where you spelled out dress-code. No dressing flashy, rich, fancy. No heavy make-up, no jewelry? No way will she be seen in public looking like anything less than royalty.”

“Oh, she’s doing it,” Char huffed, gathering her long black curls and wrapping an elastic she always wore on her wrist around them. “I don’t care if she cries, stomps her feet, or offers tens of thousands of dollars, she will be there.”

Ashley raised an eyebrow. “How do you plan to make that little Christmas miracle happen?”

“Publicity, baby.” Char batted her long, mascara-free eyelashes. “Sophie can’t say no to publicity, especially since she’s the president of her own publicity company and can claim a write-off for company taxes.”

“I can,” Ashley muttered as her head squeezed tighter than a small child held mommy’s hand on the first day of school. “And I say, hell, no.”

“I knew you’d give me a hard time,” Char groaned. “Why is it that the five of us grew up together, practically raised together, and yet you and Sophie are so completely different and the constant bane of my existence?”

Ashley bristled, stung. “I’m a hell of a lot more co-operative, but I insist on no publicity.”

“I knew you’d say that, but you haven’t even heard what I’m going to do.” Char held up a jeweled hand to stop Ashley from speaking. Unlike Sophie’s jewelry, Char’s was mostly silver, handmade, and as exotic as the woman who wore it.

Ashley narrowed her eyes at her friend and crossed her arms over her chest. “I am not going to be there Christmas day if there’s publicity. I don’t care what you say.”

Char heaved a sigh. “Would you hear me out before you shoot me down? I’ve got it all figured out. I’m sending out an announcement to the three major papers, the two free dailies, and five of the major networks announcing what we’re doing. I’ll give them a copy of the Society’s mission statement, how our group feels that everyone should have a feast on Christmas Day, how we’re going to accommodate anyone who doesn’t believe in Christmas. That part you suggested last week? About how religion doesn’t change hunger, blah blah blah? Brilliant. Working that for the media to encourage donations so we can feed everyone, not just Christians. I’m inviting them to look at the time we’re putting in – the prep work we’ll be doing in the weeks leading up to the big day, the work that will go into preparing the meals, serving the food. How we plan to set up, staggering serving times so that there’s constantly people moving in and out, no one stuck outside waiting. What we’re going to do to make sure that not a single person goes away hungry. It’s win-win. Add another win because Sophie can handle all that and she’ll love being in the spotlight the whole time. The public will see what a great thing we’re doing and start sending out cheques to the shelter.”

Ashley narrowed her eyes even more, feeling her brow crease. “Where will I be during all this?”

“Well, most of the publicity will be done before Christmas to get the ball rolling for donations. On the big day, you’ll be in the kitchen – you’re the best cook out of all of us. You might happen to be in a shot or two, but I’ll try to prevent them from coming into the kitchen while you’re cooking. Is there a health code violation or something I can claim? Hell, I can do a great job on your make-up again, make you look like your grandmother if you want, on the off chance someone sneaks back there.”

“Oh, yeah, that would go over well. You know how Nan is about this stuff. She thinks we’re a bunch of fools as it is.” Ashley pursed her lips and cleared her throat to mimic her grandmother, a formidable woman who scared everyone from politicians to church leaders. “Why do you insist on wasting your time on a bunch of freeloaders? Don’t you know what welfare is for? Those homeless bums could be off the streets and living off our tax dollars, abusing welfare like the rest of them if they were willing to conform to the rules of society, but they won’t, so why are you wasting your money, time, and beautiful manicure to help out the ungrateful dregs of society?”

“God, you do sound just like Agatha.” Char shivered. “I get you a blonde or brunette wig to hide that red hair of yours, do your make-up and you could serve the old battle axe and even she wouldn’t recognize you.”

Ashley thought about Char’s offer. The media could be their biggest boon. All the fundraising luncheons with their peers they’d considered hosting over the next few weeks could be avoided if the public took an interest and donated enough. “I’ll think about it.”

“I know you will, and I know you’ll do the right thing. You and Suze always do.” Char winked. “Now that’s settled, get me a drink.”

Char usually helped herself to Ashley’s food and drink but Ashley leapt at the chance for a moment alone to think. Char was right. Ashley would do whatever it took to help the Society succeed in their goals. In the kitchen, she found a bottle of wine on the fridge door and hoped it wasn’t too old.

Pouring the wine into the glass, she felt her headache pick up as her pulse did. Media. Any time one of their deeds involved the media, Ashley was guaranteed a headache until the event was over. Almost two months until Christmas, was she really prepared to deal with a headache lasting that long?

Ashley left the bottle on the counter and went to peer out the window. The gloomy greyness did little to ease her worries. She watched someone on the sidewalk below as they weaved around a bicycle rider and a newspaper box before jogging up the two steps into the little store. Would she ever be normal? Would the media ever let her live her life without watching her, waiting for her to slip and fall so they could make her headline news again?  A BMW pulled up to the curb in front of the store and Ashley whirled around. The car reminded her of Michael, reminded Ashley that the media was on his side, and always would be.  

“I guess Suze is over the moon about this project?” Ashley forced a note of cheer into her voice as she returned to the living room with Char’s wine.

“She is now. I had to make a lot of compromises with her, too.” Char took the glass Ashley offered and sipped, nodding her approval. “I promised we’d use only compost friendly plates, that we would make the compost and recycling program part of the publicity, and that we wouldn’t use disposable foil roasters. I’d already figured we’d have to buy a bunch of roasting pans anyhow, so that wasn’t much of a sacrifice. We’ll make the pans we buy and donate part of the publicity. Let Soph figure out how to spin the whole ‘now they’ve got top of the line roasting pans forever and won’t need to invest in disposable foil products that harm the environment and cost a fortune’. Oh, and she’s allowed to make up pamphlets to hand out on biodegradable paper about the importance of taking care of the planet. I nixed the blurb about cigarettes since she doesn’t so much care about the dangers of second-hand smoke and more about the litter the butts create. And – you tell her I said this, I’ll call you a filthy liar – those pamphlets will save us on napkins because I’m sure the flimsy paper will be mistaken for napkins and people will wipe their mouths with them.”

Ashley chuckled, sitting on the sofa at the opposite end from Char. She didn’t want the publicity, didn’t want the public scrutiny, but it was for a good cause. Sighing heavily, she stared at Char. “If you promise no one knows it’s me, I’ll go along with it.”

Char jumped up, sloshing wine onto the carpet. “Shit, sorry, but thank you!”

Setting her glass down on the glass topped table next to the cooling bean bag, Char glided into the kitchen. Ashley let her eyes close and her body tense in her friend’s absence. She didn’t care about white wine on the dark area rug. Her mind was racing with worries that something would go wrong at Christmas, and she’d have to face the media again.

Chapter One

November 1st, almost five years later.

Ashley opened her car door and shivered as a sudden blast of crisp fall air hit her like a sucker punch. She’d parked beneath one of the many strategically placed lampposts illuminating the parking lot, disappointed she hadn’t been able to park near the entrance. She hunched into her coat as she climbed out and closed the door, scanning the lot for familiar vehicles. She locked the doors and  took a deep breath, planning the fastest route to warmth. Her high heels clicked on the pavement as she darted around parked cars, aiming for the sidewalk surrounding the trendy coffee shop. Her purse bounced on her hip as she clutched the lapels of her coat closed, trying to block the cold wind.  

Turning the corner, a frigid gust almost took her breath away, but Ashley paused at the row of three newspaper boxes still displaying the daily papers lining the brick wall at the entrance. Nothing caught her eye until she got to the last one, the black box containing the Toronto Reporter. The urge to kick the glass hit her so fast her foot left the pavement before common sense prevailed. Behind the glass was a full page colour photo of Toronto’s illustrious mayor, Michael Golden Sr., with his hand lifted in a wave to an invisible crowd, his handsome face beaming.

Ashley saw the monster behind the mask, the cracks in the chiseled good looks. Thinning hair, beady eyes behind wire-framed glasses, blood thirsty sneer not quite covered by his honed-for-the-camera smile, leering at her from inside the box. Ashley’s head pounded as another icy burst  lifted locks of hair from her face. The headline screamed Mayor Golden Promises More Funds to Fight Crime.

Ashley snorted and tore her gaze from the photo as images of the mayor’s son crept, unbidden and unwelcome, into her head. Not the Michael she’d thought she’d known, but the savage beast he truly was. Uglier, crueler, even more evil than his father.

Ashley shivered as she marched to the door, not from the chill this time but from her thoughts. She yanked the handle of one of the heavy glass doors and stepped inside. The inner doors were propped open but she was forced to stop at the end of the long line. She released her grip on her coat, shook out her left hand, and peered at her gold watch. Thirteen minutes until she could accuse her friends of being late.

The line inched forward and she moved fully into the coffee shop, flinching at the loud drone of voices coming from every direction. There were potted trees blocking her view of the seating area. The heavy-set woman in front of her was barking at someone Ashley couldn’t see. She shifted from one foot to the other and realized the woman was talking on her phone. A tall man, reeking of cheap cologne, got into line behind her, humming.

The line moved again and now Ashley could see inside properly. She raked the sea of people but no familiar faces stood out. Someone shouted from behind, triggering an invisible vice to squeeze her skull violently. At this rate, the Society meeting would go on without her. She shuffled along as the line shortened, relieved when the woman ahead of her stepped to the far end of the long counter to place her order. Ashley pressed her fingers to her temples. 

“May I take your order?”

Ashley dropped her hands and forced a smile for the pimple-faced young man standing behind the counter in front of her. “Large decaf, double cream please.”

He punched buttons on the keyboard. “That’ll be two-twenty-five.”

The young man scanned his coworkers, all busy filling previous orders. He looked tired but hurried to make the coffee while Ashley searched her leather wallet for a bill smaller than a fifty.

She pulled out a ten as he set the cup in front of her and she passed the money over. “Keep the change.”

He perked up, smiling from ear to ear. “For real? Thanks.”

Ashley wrapped both hands around the cup to warm them as she searched for somewhere to sit.  She spotted an empty table at the back and headed for it even though there weren’t enough seats.

“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you,” Ashley murmured under her breath when the couple at the table beside the empty one got up and took their garbage. She offered a small smile as they passed, set her purse on one table, and sat with her coffee at the other. The banter and chatter around her felt like stones pitched at her head. Ashley took a deep breath, trying to relax. A large group of teenagers got up, their laughter and jeering cat-calls fading the closer to the exit they got.

“There you are, darling. Saw your ugly car in the lot.” Sophie, a tall woman with ice blue eyes and hair frosted so expertly only her long-time friends knew she wasn’t a natural blonde, leaned over to air kiss Ashley’s cheek.

Caught by surprise, Ashley forced a smile as she moved her purse for Sophie. “You’re early.”

“Meeting ended early. Thought I’d see if anyone was here. If I hadn’t spotted your clunker I was going to head over to that cute little boutique in the next plaza. I know they’re not on par with what I usually buy but I like to help the little people when I can.” Sophie smiled proudly, as if she’d just announced she was ending world poverty by shopping at a high-end of mid-class store.

“I go in often. The owner is heavily involved in one of the charities I work with.” A chair scraped the tile floor nearby and Ashley winced. To cover her reaction, she lifted her cup to her lips, but didn’t sip. “Aren’t you going to have a coffee?”

“I will when that kid emptying the garbage brings it.” Sophie sniffed, looking around for whoever she’d ordered her drink from.

“You’re supposed to get it yourself.” Ashley gestured to the long line of tired looking people waiting their turn. Trust Sophie to expect table service.

“Are you kidding? That old guy second from the end sneezed when I came in, and I’m sure he farted at the same time. I am not standing behind that.” Sophie wrinkled her (expensive and expertly crafted) nose, waving off Ashley’s concern. “I offered the kid some cash, told him what I wanted, and said he could keep the change.”

A different boy than the one who’d served Ashley appeared. This boy’s face was unblemished, but he had the look of an awkward puppy who hadn’t yet grown into his huge paws.

“Here you go, medium coffee with two espresso shots.” His face turned red as he set a take-out cup in front of Sophie. His puppy-dog eyes were fixed on Sophie, but Sophie simply nodded curtly and looked the other way. He finally sidled off like a scolded puppy denied a bone.

She sipped her fancy coffee, making a face. “I don’t know why we bother meeting here. I’d much rather have gone to that bistro around the corner, had a good cappuccino or a real espresso.”

“Well, this is where Char said to meet. I guess you’ll have to ask her why she picked here.” Ashley rubbed her temples and imagined being alone on a little island with nothing but sand, sun, and surf to keep her company. Where the only news that mattered was the tide. She was still chilled and rubbed her arms through her coat.

“You getting sick?” Sophie turned her attention back to Ashley.

“No, just a headache brewing.”

“Go home.” Sophie shrugged as she looked up. “Oh wait, here they come now.”

Relief flooded Ashley as she watched the three women winding their way around crowded tables, each carrying a different sized cup and laughing. Char, with long, curly black hair, was the most exotic. Heads turned as she passed, her long skirt and peasant blouse fluttering as she drifted to the table. Whether the kids still lingering near the front went to Liz’s school or not, they all hushed when they spied her following Char. Liz was no-nonsense, sleek, and professional. Even her short brown hair and power suit screamed principal (or dragon lady, as Liz swore the students called her behind her back). Even Ashley sometimes felt intimated by Liz. Suzanne, sweet Suze with the mousy brown hair and muddy eyes, pulled up the rear. Suze was the timid wallflower (unless someone littered; they’d learned as kids never to rile Suze by disrespecting Mother Earth around her). Suze never wore make-up, never dressed up, and always looked as though she expected someone to tell her to move along, that she didn’t belong with the pretty people.

“What the hell are you wearing, Suze? A potato sack?” Sophie laughed as the women found seats. Char sat across from Ashley as Liz and Suze settled at Sophie’s table.

“It’s hemp, one of the world’s –” Suze trailed off when the other women began to chatter over her.

“Smart getting our drinks in the drive-thru first.” Char gestured to the line now snaking around the outside of the building. “Would’ve taken at least a half an hour otherwise.”

“You came together?” Sophie pouted. “Why didn’t you pick me up too?”

“Because you refuse to sit in the back seat and I called shotgun.” Char’s brown-black eyes glittered menacingly. “Anything else you want to bitch about?”

“Yeah, why here? The coffee is crap.” Sophie folded her arms over her ample bosom and glared.

Ashley tried to follow the conversation but found the effort exhausting. She settled in her seat and let them get on with their gossiping and griping. If Char hadn’t insisted tonight’s meeting was urgent, Ashley wouldn’t have bothered leaving her condo. Ashley sputtered, coughed to cover her reaction, when she glanced over at the man next to them. He’d just opened the Reporter, leaving Golden Sr. at eye level, waving at her. Her head gave a thump and Ashley almost bolted until Char touched her hand.

“You okay?” Char whispered so only Ashley could hear.

“Mm. Headache.” Ashley sipped her coffee and let her eyes stay closed for an extra few beats of a blink.

“I’ll be quick.” Char shot the newspaper a dirty look as she opened her briefcase. “Time to get down to business.”

Sophie drummed her long nails on the tabletop. “Couldn’t we have done this somewhere better? I just know some idiot is going to dent my Porsche.”

“I get it, you don’t approve of our location. Crap coffee, careless drivers, your concerns have been noted and will be considered the next time we meet. We can be out of here a hell of a lot sooner if you’d just shut up long enough for me to talk.”

Char rifled through her briefcase and pulled out a thick folder. She removed the papers and passed out thick stacks bound by paper clips to each of them. She put the empty folder away and held her own sheath of papers, flipping the pages. Ashley glanced at hers but her vision blurred, so she put them under her purse and waited for someone to tell her what they said.

“Here, page three — as per our last meeting, I went ahead and arranged for us to work at a homeless shelter on Christmas Day. Not just any homeless shelter, either. The big one.” Char took time to look at each of them, a big smile lighting her face. Ashley followed Char’s gaze and would’ve laughed at the expressions on their faces if her head wasn’t threatening to split in two. Suze bit her lip, her trembling hand setting the reusable mug of whatever she was drinking down. Liz looked bored as she pressed the screen on her tablet, and Sophie’s mouth opened wide as she scowled.

“What time?” Liz asked, still tapping the screen.

“Noon until four. Don’t worry, you’ll still have time to do your family crap after.” Ashley noticed Char directed her words at Sophie. “It’s all on the sheets I handed you, along with schedules. Ash and I will work the longest Christmas Day but the rest of you have more to do to prepare in the weeks leading up to Christmas.”

“The world wastes billions of trees by printing scores of paper no one needs –” Suze faltered when Liz gave her a sharp look.

“I’m in.” Ashley picked up the papers and her purse as she stood. “If there’s nothing else, I need to go. Migraine brewing.”

“Squeeze the spot between your thumb and index finger–” Suze trailed off when Char hushed her but showed Ashley the spot she meant when Char’s attention switched to her briefcase, pulling out her notebook.

“Just one more thing, I need your pledge.” Char flipped through the pages, frowning.

“I gave it to you last week, for the month.” Ashley squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block out the glaring fluorescent lights. She forced a smile when she opened them.

Char studied her for several seconds. “Oh, right — it’s Soph that owes us for last month and this month. Your hours might be seven to three but there’re still details to hammer out down the road. I’ll call you tomorrow if anything you need to know pops up tonight.”

Char dismissed her with a casual wave belied by the furrow of concern between her eyes. Ashley left her barely touched coffee on the table knowing Suze would throw – recycle — it for her and bolted from the group, pulling her suede coat tight around her as she went. 

Her car beckoned as Ashley came around the corner. There were fewer cars now and she took long strides, desperate to get inside. As she crossed the front bumper, she pulled her fob out of her pocked.

Bang!  

Ashley stumbled, her keys flying out of her hand. She dove to the pavement, covering her head, her heart pounding as her brain screamed ‘run’. Her ears rang with the echoing bang, tears blurred her vision. Crouching between her car and the one parked beside her, she lifted her head to find the source of the gunshot, not wanting to run the wrong way and right into the line of fire.  

“What’d you drop the lid for, you idiot? Scared the hell out of me!”

Ashley watched the girl who’d yelled flick her cigarette as she shouted at the young guy who’d brought Sophie her coffee. The tall kid looked sheepishly at his coworker as he shrugged. “Sorry. Slipped and dropped the lid when I was throwing the bags in.”

Ashley picked up her keys and straightened, her nerves still screaming. The instant of sheer panic left her a wreck. She opened her door to engage the interior light and searched the backseat from outside, then inside the car.  She tossed her purse and the papers on the passenger seat as she slid into her seat. Her imagination went into overdrive, and she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up all over again, convinced someone was watching her, stalking her.

“Stop. Just stop. You’re fine. No one’s watch—” Ashley froze as she reached for her seatbelt. There was someone watching her from the next car. Instantly convinced it was Jr., she prepared to flee. The sane part of her mind registered the good-looking man, a man who looked nothing like Michael. She tried to smile but quit when her head thumped. She jammed the key in the ignition, made sure the radio was off and the heat on high, before she turned the key. Without waiting for the engine to warm, she shifted into first, released the emergency brake, and pulled out of her parking spot.

Traffic was unusually light as she pulled onto Bloor Street which meant not as many headlights shining into her eyes. Home. That’s all Ashley wanted. It took everything in her power not to stomp on the gas. When rain splashed her window, she turned on the wipers. The squelching, squealing, and thumping as the blades slid over glass radiated through her skull. The heater kicked in as she entered her Rosedale neighborhood. Her condo was on the outskirts of the exclusive community (her parents and grandparents both lived in the ‘old money’ section, as did the Golden’s).  

Her head pounded a tattoo any marching band would struggle to keep up with. The rain began to fall in sheets, forcing her to turn her wipers on high, but at least they no longer screamed dragging across the window. As she pulled into the driveway of her underground, she pressed the button to automatically open the door. The instant the nose of her car was inside the garage, she turned the wipers off. She drove past rows of expensive cars until she turned into her row and stopped. Her spot was the second one on the right, so she quickly reversed into her spot. She turned the key to cut the engine but left them in the ignition. The underground was a haven; all sounds muffled, the lighting low. Feeling nauseous, she rested her head against her headrest and closed her eyes.

An angry honk shattered the blessed peace she’d found. Ashley whipped her head to the left, her heart pounding in her chest. A black car sat inches from her door. Confusion raced with her pulse as she tried to figure out why the car was parked that way, why they continued to honk. The cobwebs cleared and Ashley realized her car had rolled to the middle of the aisle. She’d put her standard transmission in neutral but forgotten to set the parking brake. She jammed her foot down on the clutch, shifted into reverse, and hit the gas. The car didn’t move. She tried again, panicking. What was wrong with her car? She realized she’d forgotten to turn the key, but before she could fix her error, she heard a door slam. The sound echoed through the underground as the driver of the other car approached so fast she never got to see his face. She registered the fit outline beneath a form fitting black t-shirt, and fear filled her all over again. Every man in her building was overweight or soft (except Danny Ellis on the tenth floor, who had been positively skeletal the last time Ashley had seen him because of chemo and a long battle with cancer).  

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Ashley muttered even though he couldn’t possibly hear her with her window up. Turning the key, she released the clutch too quickly and stalled.

“Geez, come on, I’m not a new driver!” Ashley pounded the steering wheel with her left hand as she turned the key with her right. She revved her engine once before expertly reversing into her spot. She took a bracing breath as she set the parking brake and turned the car off. The momentary fear left her as she gathered her things. “You live in a high security building, dummy. You’re dealing with a rich a-hole, not a Golden one.”

 Her head still pounded but the sight of the irate man fueled her. She got out of her car and pressed the lock button, resisting the urge to flinch at the echoing honk. She waited for his raging diatribe to slow, shuffling the papers she held as she slung her purse over her shoulder.

“Could’ve hit you. Killed you. What were you –”

Ashley raised an eyebrow, hoping to look bored rather than about to keel over. “I’m really sorry, please stop shouting.”

The man opened his mouth and closed it again. Ashley felt the vise-like pressure on her head throb once more but bit her lip to stop a grin when she realized he reminded her of a fish out of water. She almost smiled until his green eyes narrowed. “Are you drunk?”

Ashley’s heart thumped wildly as her temper flared. She suddenly recognized the man, and his words pissed her off. The handsome guy she’d noticed in the parking lot at the coffee shop, the one she’d tried and failed to smile at, was the same guy who’d just screamed his fool head off at her. She thought she knew everyone in her building but she’d never seen this guy in her life until today.

Her head pounded, reminding her why she’d been so careless. “I’ve got a colossal headache and I rested my head a second. Forgot to set the brake. I am not drunk.”

Something flashed in his eyes. If the headache hadn’t resumed its attack, she might’ve puzzled over the ominous feeling, but all she really cared about at that moment was crawling into bed. She left him standing in the middle of the aisle and stormed over to the elevators without another word.

Prologue

April 17

The pain was unlike anything Ashley had ever experienced. Her vision blurred, doubled, faded, her ears rang, all sense of where she was, who she was erased by blows to her head, her neck, her spine. She tried to listen for signs, but all she could hear were the echoes of gunshots. Bile rose to the back of her throat, threatening to choke her. She tried to get up but her head pounded and her body felt like something weighed her down and she didn’t have the strength to fight.

“Jesus, Ashley, you’re so beautiful, so perfect.”

Ashley blinked, searching for the source of the voice. A dark shape hovered over her and she tried to reach up to touch but her hands were pinned to her sides. Where was she? Who was talking? She knew horror when a finger traced over her cheek, brushed hair back from her face.

“Why do you look so disgusted by my touch? You love me, you’ve said it twenty-three times. I kept count.” The voice coming from the dark shape hovering over her was familiar, so familiar. Alex?

“Alex?” Ashley whispered the name even as she knew it couldn’t be him. Alex would help her, would hold her. Not Alex’s voice. It wouldn’t hurt her face to say his name.

The shape growled and she felt the weight on her shift. Her left hand rose into the air as if attached to a string a marionette controlled. She tried to see, but the nausea overwhelmed her and she heaved as something tugged on her finger. She heard a sob as she swallowed the acid down again, trying not to choke.

“I can’t believe you took his ring, agreed to be his wife. You’re mine, Ashley. Say it, say you love me.”

Ashley struggled to speak, to ask where she was, but her jaw wouldn’t move. She tried to open her mouth to scream but pain radiated from her jaw to her brain.

The weight on her chest shifted again, and she thought she could smell sweat and despair. If crazy had a scent, Ashley was sure what she smelled now would be it.

“I guess you can’t talk, huh?” The giggle. The male, high pitched giggle triggered a memory. What? Who?

“Look at me, Ashley, look at me. See me, love me.”

Ashley blinked, tried to focus, blinked again. She saw two Michaels inches from her face, staring down at her with an insanity in his eyes she’d never seen before. “God, your eyes, they see inside me. You said you loved me. I thought you saw inside me and loved who you saw, but then you took his ring. How could you? First you gave him your body, then you gave him your soul. I thought you loved me. I’m the Golden Boy, you should’ve loved me, promised me forever.”

Ashley wanted to shake her head, scream that she’d only ever said she loved him the way she did with all her friends. Never the way she said it to Alex, showed Alex. Her mouth wouldn’t open, and her head hurt too much to move.

“I’ve got one bullet left, Ashley. Say you love me or I put the bullet in your brain. I’ll do it from the side so I can still see your eyes. Watch as the life and the light die in them. The blood on your forehead isn’t anywhere near as pretty as your hair. I want to wash the blood off so I can see your pretty face properly when you say the words. Say you love me when I come back, tell me, show me. I’ll get you a better ring than this.”

Ashley tried to focus on what Michael was showing her but her vision swam. It had to be her engagement ring, the ring Alex had given her – when? An hour ago? Two? Ten?

She heard something small hit the wall, the same wall she knew was now riddled with bullets, and heard it bounce across the floor. She’d find her ring, put her ring back on her finger, if Michael would just get off her.

“I’m going to make you pretty so you can say you love me. Don’t go anywhere.” Michael brushed a kiss over her lips and Ashley almost threw up. She felt the weight on her body ease, felt a breeze on her flesh – dear God, was she naked? What had she done? What had he done to her? She hadn’t been so drunk she’d have betrayed Alex, would she? A tear escaped as she felt around for her ring. Her hand found something cold, something metal. She gripped it with her left hand and tried to lift the object so she could see. She realized it was Michael’s gun, Terror quickened her pulse and her hands shook. She almost dropped the gun but then she remembered – one more bullet. The next shot would kill her. Ashley forced herself to sit up, holding the gun out in front of her like she’d seen in the movies, tried to aim at the wall. Her vision grayed and she saw double again. She saw two dark shapes moving – towards her? Away? She pointed the gun at the wall between the shapes and fired. Her eardrums throbbed from the sound, her arms jerked, and the gun dropped to the floor. So did the dark shape.

“Michael?” Ashley whispered his name when she heard a faint groan. “Michael?”

Ashley forced herself to roll over, got to her knees, her arms felt weak as they shook supporting her upper body weight. Every inch of her screamed in agony, she almost blacked out again. She blinked but her vision wouldn’t clear. She tried to stand but couldn’t. “Michael?”

She began to crawl on her hands and knees. Her hands were wet, her knees slid. Blood, she could smell the metallic scent, could feel herself slipping in it.

“Michael!” She tried to scream as her jaw felt like it ripped apart.

She was beside him now, feeling for his pulse but she couldn’t find one because her hand shook. She ran her hands over his body, down his bare chest to the jeans opened at the fly. His phone was clipped to his waistband. She freed it, tried to see to dial. She kept messing up. She willed herself to ignore the pain, pressed the home button to activate Siri.

“Call 9-1-1!” Ashley thanked God when the phone began to ring.

“9-1-1 what’s your emergency?”

“Ambulance. Gun. Help.” Ashley struggled to speak into the phone as Michael’s hand reached for her. She managed to tell the operator her address before she collapsed on top of Michael, sobbing.

“Don’t die, please don’t die.” Ashley’s tears burned her skin, the vomit she’d avoided spewing now came up, narrowly missing Michael’s body. The smell of the vomit mixing with the blood released more vomit, until all she could smell was her own fluids. “I don’t want to be the reason you die.”

“You do love me –” Michael whispered, his hands wrapping around Ashley as she heaved again.

Finally!

“I’m hangin’ out with Dave after school. We’re meeting up with some of the girls and we’re all gonna grab pizza.” Jacob, my middle child, slurped his orange juice and wiped his mouth with a napkin. Pride filled me (wasn’t so long ago he’d have used his sleeve) as I put a pod in the coffee maker.

“You? And Dave? Hanging out with girls?” Josh, my oldest, spooned up some instant oatmeal but didn’t put the spoon in his mouth. “I thought you said girls were gross?”

Jacob shrugged. “I’m fifteen, not ten.”

“Who’s going to let Chubs out?” I pushed my travel mug under the Keurig and pressed brew as I wiped the water I’d spilled refilling the machine.

“Josh, because I’m going to Tiff’s after school to work on a project.” Jordyn, the baby and only girl, muttered as she nibbled toast.

“Can’t. I’ve got work then I’m going out with the guys. I’ll be home by midnight.” Josh pre-empted my automatic reminder of his curfew.

“Jacob, you’ll have to whip home and let him out.” I added a splash of cream and screwed the lid onto the travel cup.

“No! That’s not fair!” Jacob pushed his cereal to the centre of the table. “Get Jordyn to.”

“It’s your turn. I came home the last two days to let him out. And Josh did it Monday.”

“Yeah, because I had detention!” Jacob muttered.

I heaved a gruntled sigh. “Jacob, Jordyn’s right. You haven’t let Chubs out at all this week. And before you start your crap, I’ll remind you what you just said. You hadn’t let him out because you were in detention. You’re lucky I don’t ground you.”

Jacob pushed away from the table with a loud squeal of chair legs on vinyl floor. He swung his backpack over his shoulder, smacking Jordyn as he did. Without another word, he stormed across the kitchen and slammed the door behind him.

“He’s just mad because Darien is one of the girls, and he’s afraid Dave’ll get her before he can,” Jordyn informed us as she glared at the door. “She’s got a reputation.”

“What sort of reputation?” I demanded, Jacob’s half eaten bowl of cereal shaking in my hand.

Josh grabbed the bowl and kissed my cheek. “You know exactly what Jordyn means. But don’t worry. She gets one whiff of Jacob and even Darien wouldn’t go behind the dumpsters with him. The garbage smells better than my shower-phobic brother.”

“I’ll get Chubs inside and go through the back.” Jordyn grabbed her bag and hugged me. “Are you working late?”

“Not sure. I’ll text the family chat if I am.” I kissed her cheek and watched her long blonde hair swing behind her as she dashed through the house. “Should I be worried? About Jacob?”

“He’s got about as much hope of getting to first base with any girl as he does passing math. In other words, don’t worry about him hangin’ with girls, just worry about him flunking math.” Josh kissed my cheek again before he loped out of the kitchen.

I didn’t have time to waste pondering the problems three teenaged kids presented. I pulled a sweater out of the closet and grabbed my purse. Chubs skidded along the hardwood floors, sliding to land at my feet. “Be a good boy. No snacks. Your bowl is full, your water is fresh, and the toilet is only there for a back-up if you drink the water bowl dry. Just remember, you’re at Jacob’s mercy to go out later, so don’t over hydrate.”

The boxer looked at me with hopeful eyes. I grabbed a treat from the bin by the backdoor and tossed it to him as I went through the house making sure doors and windows were locked. “See you tonight, Chubs. Looks like just you and me. Again.”

I got into the car, waving at Chubs who was watching from the living room window. As I pulled onto the road, I worried again about Jacob and Darien. I honked at each of my children as I passed. Josh and Jordyn waved, but Jacob pretended not to hear me as he trudged along the sidewalk in front of the school. I watched him in my rear-view mirror as he scowled at my bumper. “The joys of children.”

*

“I can’t take the kids this weekend.” Ted, my almost ex-husband, launched into business the instant I answered the phone.

I rolled my eyes. “And why not?”

“I’ve got a hot date.” Ted cleared his throat, but I heard the smugness, the total pleasure he took in rubbing his social life in my face.

“Right or left?” I clenched my fists.

“What?”

“Which hand’s the lucky one this weekend? For your hot date?” I forced my hands to unclench and pounded the keyboard, answering a message from my boss as Ted sputtered in my ear.

“If you must know, it’s Lise. The personal trainer.”

I hit send a little harder than necessary. “Did she lose a bet or something?”

“No. Seems all my hard work working out has paid off. She thinks I’m hot. She asked me out.” Ted couldn’t keep the gloating from his voice, not that I believed he’d tried to.

“Right, sure she did. She lost a bet with someone.”

“Yeah, probably the trainer you used to see. Bet Lise bet him you’d lose ten pounds but then saw you recently and realized she was wrong.”

Usually Ted’s nonsense talk didn’t phase me (much), but the dig about my weight hit home. “Well, thanks for reminding me that you’ve still got enough money for a personal trainer. I’ll mention it to Len, er, Mr. Dunne, my lawyer. Which reminds me, the temporary child support agreement? You forgot to pay last month. And this month’s is late.”

“Seriously? You’re that jealous you’re going to use my gym membership against me in the divorce settlement? We should’ve signed off last year but then you went all postal and demanded more money.”

I smiled at one of the other receptionists as she passed my desk. When she was out of earshot, I blew out an exasperated breath. “Ted, get over yourself. I only went for more money because you were hiding investments from me. I don’t want you back, don’t care who you pay, er, date. I do want what’s half mine, and I want our kids to get more than scraps from their father. Oh, and if you keep bailing on your weekends? I’ll bill you for sitter fees so I still get my me time. You’re not the only one with a social life, you know.”

I was lying through my teeth. Not about caring whether Ted dated or not, but about my own personal life. I only demanded he take the kids for his every-other weekends because it hurt them when he didn’t. My only plans were getting drunk with Sara Saturday night, and the kids had witnessed that enough. Ted pounced on my fib. “You’re dating?”

I spotted Kirk from HR. My tummy did a little swoop, a jig, then cramped when he walked past me, deep in conversation with the big boss, Alicia. Kirk used to ask me out, I always said no. But lately, I’d been thinking I’d say yes if he ever asked again. “Of course I am. Almost the minute you left me.”

“The kids never said.” Ted sounded surprised, irritated.

“Of course they didn’t. I don’t take them out on dates with me. They’re old enough to stay home alone. I tell them I’m going out with Sara or Dot. And I tell them I stayed home, in bed, all weekend while they were with you. They don’t need to know if I was alone or not.”

“I guess I’ve got to talk to my own lawyer.” Ted’s anger sizzled down the line.

I snorted. “Yeah? And what are you going to say? The woman I dumped isn’t pining away for me?”

“I won’t support another man. That’s my house you’re living in.”

I flexed my cramped fingers. I’d bunched them into such a tight fist that I had a small spot of blood blooming on my palm where I’d pierced the skin. “Give it a rest, would you? I got the house, you got the cottage, the boat, and the truck. Or do we need to start all over again? We’re so close to the final signing it would be a shame to add hundreds more billable hours on lawyer fees.”

“Like you’re paying Len.” Ted’s temper was rising, and I took pleasure in it.

“Well of course I pay Len. Just not as much as you pay Judy. I had to endure a whole weekend at a wine tasting thing in Niagara Falls. You know how I feel about wine. Len and I managed to have fun anyhow. Pays to have an ex-boyfriend who also happens to be a lawyer. One who holds a grudge against the guy who stole his girlfriend.” Not necessarily totally true. Len was my ex-boyfriend but we’d broken up just before I started seeing Ted. Mostly because Len had figured out that he and I were attracted to the same men.

“Is that how you pay him? In bed?”

I cursed, slamming the receiver so hard the phone jangled. I wished Ted were there so I could slam the receiver into his balding head.

*

“Dot, hold up.”

Dot held the elevator for me as I rushed down the hall. “Done early?”

I glanced at my watch as Dot pressed M for main floor. “For a change.”

Dot was secretary to Alicia, the head of our company. “Henry wasn’t in today, was he?”

The elevator went down a floor then shuddered to a stop and the doors slid open as I shook my head. Henry, my immediate boss, was vice president of construction. “He was at the new build site. He’s there for the rest of the week, smoothing out some glitches.”

The elevator doors closed after two more people got on. “Business is certainly booming.”

“Definitely. Everything okay?” Dot raised an eyebrow so I elaborated. “I saw Kirk chasing Alicia this afternoon. Just wondered if there was an HR crisis or something.”

Dot’s eyes narrowed as she scanned who was in the elevator. No one paid any attention to us. “I know you think he’s sniffing after her, but he’s not.”

I sighed as I shook my head. “Well, he used to ask me out every day. He hasn’t asked me out in a long time. It’s either he’s found someone, or I’ve finally gained enough weight to tip the scales out of my favour.”

Dot looked me up and down. “Stop putting yourself down, would you?”

The elevator stopped again to let more people cram in. I eyed Dot the way she’d examined me and rolled my eyes. “Says the ninety-eight pounds soaking-wet girl.”

“You’re, er…voluptuous.” Dot nodded her head when she finally found the word.

I snorted so violently the other passengers glanced over curiously. “I think the word you were looking for was voluminous.”

Dot slapped my arm. “Would you stop? Bruce and Frank in accounting are voluminous. You’re just…”

“Fat?” I offered with a wry grin. I knew I wasn’t fat, not like Frank or Bruce, but I’d have to pick out a whole new wardrobe in a bigger size soon if I wasn’t careful. “I’m joking. Not there yet. Just that Ted’s dating a personal trainer, and I’m eating way too much. The kids are never home, even when they’re supposed to be. I end up eating bigger portions, then grazing the snacks they asked me to buy but are never home to eat.”

The elevator doors opened on the ground floor and we followed everyone off. We stopped next to the exit to continue our chat because the wind was howling. “Let’s form a walking group. Either before or after work. Lunch is too hard because everyone has different lunch breaks.”

I shook my head. “I have to get three surly teenagers out the door for school and get home to a poor neglected dog.”

“Hey ladies.”

I froze, saw Dot stifling a laugh at my stricken look. “Kirk, what’s up?”

“Not much, not much. Well, see you around.”

I found my voice. “Uh, bye, Kirk.”

When Kirk was out of the building, I grabbed Dot’s arm. “See? Used to be that he’d stop to chat, then he’d ask me out. When was the last time he asked me out? When I started to gain weight. Fifteen pounds ago, that’s when.”

Dot shook her head. “Kirk’s not like that.”

“Obviously he is.” I felt like I should be hanging with Jordyn, discussing boy woes with a gang of teenagers, not a woman ten years older than me and proud of her never-married status.

“He’s not. But say he was? Why are you so worried about why he’s not asking you out all of a sudden?”

I shrugged. “I’m not.”

Dot eyed me with her usual patient mother stare.

“Fine. Because now that Ted and I are near the end-game of our divorce, I’d started thinking maybe I’d say yes.”

Dot’s kind eyes filled with pity. “That’s what I was afraid of.”

*

Jacob was lying on his bed when I got home, wireless ear buds in his ears, Chubs chewing his bone beside him.

“Hey, I thought you were…” I trailed off at the miserable look Jacob sent me.

I went to the kitchen and started throwing ingredients together to make Jacob’s favourite cheesy ground beef. When everything was going, I texted Ted.

You want to hurt the kids, you tell them. I’m not your messenger so unless you discuss with them be here by five tomorrow for the weekend.

I dropped my phone on the counter. I stirred the ground beef and chopped up some vegetables, grated three different types of cheese. Jacob could eat the cheesy mix, I’d have a nice salad. I was slicing cucumber when my phone vibrated.

It’s fine, Lise is excited to take the kids on a hike. Can they bring the dog, too?

Chubs, the dog Ted had complained bitterly about me getting? No freaking way. Let Lise and Ted get their own pet.

Chubs is my dog. You never wanted him.

I had a huge salad prepared and was adding the rest of the ingredients to the browned beef when Jacob ran down the stairs. “Dave just texted me, we’re going to get pizza. His mom grounded him but then she gave in because he was driving her nuts throwing a ball against the wall all afternoon.”

“I just made your favourite…” I stopped talking because Jacob was already gone.

Jordyn came in just as I turned the burner off. “Oh good, I made…”

“Just here for a sweater. Tiff and I got the project done so now we’re going to the mall. Tiff wants to get her nose pierced, I said I’d go for moral support.”

“I made cheesy beef and a huge salad. Why don’t you and Tiff eat first?” Too much food. Way too much.

Jordyn made a face at the beef. “I don’t eat that. It’s so fattening and greasy.”

“You better not come home with any piercings. You got your ears double pierced, that’s enough holes for a fourteen year old.” I sampled the ground beef mix, agreed with Jordyn, worried I’d just wasted the food.

“As soon as I don’t need parental consent, I’m getting my belly button done.” Jordyn grabbed some sliced cucumbers from my salad, kissed my cheek, and ran upstairs. A minute later, I heard her barreling down the stairs and heading out the back door. Chubs, who’d been barking his fool head off, skidded into the kitchen with his nose twitching.

My phone vibrated again. I welcomed a reason to fight with Ted. I saw Sara’s name and swiped to read her text.

Gotta cancel the weekend. Can I come over now?

Why? And yes.

I ate way too much of the cheesy burger mixture with my salad while I waited. Sara might be dropping in for a minute or staying for hours and bringing drinks. My best friend since high school was unpredictable, usually fun, and always a burst of frenetic energy. I put the leftovers (lots of salad, a little cheesy ground beef) in the fridge, loaded the dishwasher, and let Chubs back outside after slipping him some leftover plain ground beef. I busied myself with chores, trying not to think about how quiet the house was.

“Yoo-hoo, where you at Molly golly?” Sara’s voice carried down the hall as I let Chubs in the back door. The traitorous mutt left me holding a treat as he skidded and slid to the kitchen faster than when I put down a fresh bowl of kibble.

I followed at a more refined pace. “Hey. What’s up?”

“The sky, inflation, you know.” Sara, scratching Chubs all over his body, sniffed the air. “What smells so good?”

“I made a salad and cheesy ground beef.” I held up an empty mug and waited for Sara to nod or shake her head. She nodded, so I started brewing two cups of coffee. “There’s some left, if you want it.”

Sara shook her head. “Nope. Heading to yoga when I leave here, ground beef makes me gassy.”

I rolled my eyes. “Still doing yoga?”

Sara, tall, willowy, perfect Sara, frowned at me. “What’s wrong with that? Takes the stress off, and builds my core, or so I’m told. I just go for the free parking and inner peace.”

We sat at the table, Sara drinking her coffee black and mine with an extra splash of cream. “Why are you canceling our plans for the weekend?”

Sara winced as she gulped her coffee. “Don’t do that when I’m sipping hot liquids.”

I squinted at her, trying to figure out what had her so twitchy. “Ask you a question?”

Sara set her cup down and squared her shoulders. “I’m, uh, going hiking.”

I spilled my coffee when I slammed my cup down. “What?”

Sara’s eyebrows shot up beneath her dark bangs. “Why so angry about country fresh air and a walk in the woods?”

“Are you going with a woman named Lise?” I stared at Sara, afraid to miss any of her tells. If she was avoiding truths, or outright lying, she wrinkled her nose, fiddled with her hair, or her eyes watered as she tried to avoid doing either of those things.

“Um, no? I don’t swing for women named Lise. Nah, I’m going with a man. For the weekend. Camping and hiking. Leaving tomorrow from work actually, and I might even take Monday off.”

Feeling slightly reassured, I wiped the mess I’d made with a napkin. “Sorry. Ted’s going hiking with Lise and the kids this weekend, I thought…”

“I was going to commune in nature with your ex, maybe bury his body somewhere? It’s a thought, but no. Where’s he going, please tell me he’s not going to Algonquin. Because if he is, I might have to rent a grizzly bear suit so I can maul Ted and leave him for dead.”

“Doubtful. There’re bugs in Algonquin, he wouldn’t want to scream like a little girl in front of Lise, have to beg Jordyn to kill a spider for him. Who are you going camping with? Must be serious if you’re taking a day off work and sleeping in the wild.”

“There’re bugs everywhere. You don’t know the half of it. I just dropped a grand on a whole new wardrobe. Hiking boots, all the must-haves for wilderness survival, at least according to the online article I Googled. Get this, I even bought cargo pants. Pockets for bug spray, hunting knife, and one of those collapsible hairbrush/comb/mirror things.”

“Wow. So who has you so smitten you bought stuff you swore you’d never own? Are your hiking shoes at least high heels?” I sipped my coffee and grinned.

“Ha-ha. Nope. Two-hundred-dollar top of the line hiking boots that breathe so my feet won’t sweat. Not sure where the lungs are, but whatever. He’s a guy. I met him a few months ago, he’s called a few times. He asked me if I wanted to go camping, I said only if he had a big enough vehicle. What can I say? He’s hot, and he made camping sound fun.”

I narrowed my eyes. Sara, who told me everything about her life, even the boring details like how many carbs and calories she’d had that day, hadn’t mentioned a hot guy before. “Who is he, and where’d you meet him?”

“I can’t tell you that. Not yet, anyhow. Let’s see how the weekend goes, then I’ll give you the deets. If it’s good, be prepared to kick the kids out for an X-rated telling. If it’s not good? You can help me bury the body, or the camping gear I wasted my money on. I’m really hoping it’s the X-rated version. It’s supposed to get chilly this weekend.” Sara winked, wriggling her eyebrows.

I picked up my cup but didn’t sip as I studied Sara. Something was off. “Why can’t you tell me who he is?”

Sara twisted a lock of hair around her finger. “I just don’t want to jinx it. Don’t get all weird on me. It’s been a long time since I’ve been interested in anything other than work. In anyone but you. That sounded weird. You know what I mean though, right? I mean it’s been a long time since I cared about anyone but you and the kids. But not that way, not the way…”

I’d have laughed but Sara was busy twisting her hair into knots and wrinkling her nose. “Sara?”

“Fine. You know him, that’s why I’m not telling you his name.” Sara straightened in her seat and finished her coffee. “Right, now I better get to yoga. I need to limber up, master downward facing dog for the weekend.”

“How do I know him?” My instincts screamed as my brain said no way. A few months ago I’d gone out for drinks with a group from work, an impromptu after work party for a newly outed couple we worked with. I’d invited Sara, and we’d gotten hammered.

“Gotta fly, toodles.” Sara leapt to her feet and headed for the door.

“Do I work with this guy?” My heart sank as I realized that it wasn’t long after the party Kirk had stopped asking me out.

“Later, gator.” Sara slammed the door as she left.

*

“You look like sh-crap.” Jacob stared as I came into the kitchen after letting Chubs out.

I nodded, not bothering to comment. I made my coffee as the kids exchanged shrugs behind my back (I could see their reflections in the window). I knew I looked dreadful, even with extra make-up to cover the circles and bags under my eyes. I hadn’t had a sleepless night like last night since Ted first left us. At least I didn’t have a red, blotchy face because I hadn’t shed any tears. Just worried and wondered what I’d do if Sara came back crooning about being in love. With Kirk.

It had to be Kirk. She’d met him that night, they’d chatted while Dot and I had run interference to keep Alicia from finding out. Workplace romances were frowned upon, and Debbie was especially at risk because she worked in HR and knew Alicia’s feelings. Gossip was that Alicia hated workplace romances because she’d been involved with someone at work; her dad (then head of the company) hit the roof and made them break up. Dot was the only one I knew who’d worked there during that time but she was loyal to her old boss, and Alicia, so she neither confirmed nor denied. But Dot did confirm Alicia’s stance on workplace romances in general, and Debbie ended up finding a job somewhere else a month after we’d found out. Kyle announced their engagement within days of Debbie leaving. Alicia was furious but couldn’t do anything because Debbie didn’t work with us anymore.

It’s not like I was in love with Kirk, I reminded myself as I put the lid on my travel mug. Attracted, yes. I’d met Kirk when I’d first started, the day I signed forms for HR, and had a crush on him ever since. Ted and I were separated. Kirk and I developed a casual friendship, chatting about books, movies, kids. Ted tried to come back; Kirk listened, was a good friend, as I talked about how I wasn’t sure I’d ever look at Ted the same (or even look at him without wanting to scratch his eyes out). The day Ted and I filed for divorce, Dot mentioned it to Kirk, and that afternoon Kirk asked me out for the first time. Thinking he was joking, I said no. He’d ask once a month or so, then weekly. I’d smile, say no, until it was normal for him to ask every time we bumped into one another. Dinner? Dancing? Drinks? Elope to Guadalajara? I’d been flattered, who wouldn’t be? He was gorgeous; chocolate brown eyes with specks of gold, brown hair that turned lighter in the summer. Taller than Ted, fit, and he had great buns.

What had kept me up all night was Sara. She’d been my maid of honour even though she despised Ted. Held her tongue during our rocky marriage. Most amazing of all, she never once said I-told-you-so when Ted abruptly left me for a fling with some woman he met. She listened to me cry, let me decide if we got drunk and Ted bashed or held my own pity parties. And when Ted came back, wanting a second chance, Sara bit her tongue, promised to support whatever choice I made. When I realized my feelings were long dead, we made a game out of our litany of Ted put-downs.

Kirk was perfect for Sara. She was the female version of him, only her hair was darker. He headed up HR, Sara was a career woman, principal of a high school with her sights set on becoming superintendent. Sara never wanted kids of her own, Kirk’s youngest was a year older than Josh. Kirk’s wife had passed away years before I met Kirk. Sara wouldn’t have a flaky ex to deal with.

“Mom!” Jordyn waved her hand vigorously in front of my face.

I blinked several times as I came back to the kitchen from the murky territory I’d been stuck in since Sara had left the night before. “Huh?”

Josh and Jacob exchanged worried glances as Jordyn frowned. “Mom, what’s going on?”

I forced a smile. “I couldn’t sleep last night.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t go hiking with Dad this weekend. I’ll call him, tell him we’re not coming.” Josh pulled his phone out of his pocket.

“Don’t be silly. I’m looking forward to a weekend alone.” I forced a smile as I lied. “I want to hear all the gruesome details about the hike. Just don’t make your dad look too bad, okay?”

Josh snorted as he put the phone back in his pocket. “He doesn’t need us to make himself look bad.”

“Be nice. He asked if you guys could bring Chubs, I’d said no. But if you want to bring him, go ahead. Be good for Chubs to get some fresh air and exercise.” I was apprehensive about letting Chubs go but the kids wouldn’t let anything bad happen.

“Really? That’d be awesome!” Jacob high-fived Jordyn as Josh grinned. “I gotta go, don’t want detention for the third time this week, especially because Dad gets so ticked if he has to wait.”

“I’ll let Chubs in and go through the back.” Jordyn grabbed her bag and skipped out of the kitchen.

“You might want to remake your coffee. You forgot to put the pod in before you hit brew.” Josh kissed my cheek. “Just tell me one thing. Is whatever kept you up all night got anything to do with Dad and this Lisa?”

I dumped my creamy water, looking at Josh’s reflection in the window. “Lise. And no, nothing to do with either of them. Keep a good eye on Chubs, won’t you?”

“It was Chubs that kept you awake?” Josh’s blue eyes widened in surprise. I jumped at the excuse.

“Yeah. You know your dad doesn’t care for animals but Chubs pines for you guys when you’re gone. I figured this is perfect, he’ll get a good long walk and won’t be so lonely.” I’d take Chubs on hikes if I had someone to hike with, but the past few months the only exercise I got was wandering the empty house. “I haven’t got time to pack his kibble or bowls. Take a bag of treats, too. Oh, and don’t forget the poop bags.”

Josh hugged me. “Text the family chat, you know I”ll forget half of it but Jordyn will make sure we get everything.”

*

I survived the day, even caught my second (or was it fifth?) wind. Aided by a lunch-time nap in my car and a steady stream of mud-like coffee from the break room, I was sure my eyes wouldn’t close until Monday, maybe Tuesday. I met up with Dot waiting for the elevator. “You got plans?”

Dot scrutinized my face. “Not really. Don’t you have kids and a dog to get home to?”

I shook my head as we stepped into the elevator. “Nope. Kids and dog are with Ted this weekend.”

“Hold the elevator.”

I frowned as I put my hand out automatically to stop the doors from closing. Kirk ran in and grinned. “Thanks. I’m running late.”

Poor Sara. “Never good to start the weekend late.”

Kirk nodded his agreement before turning to Dot. “I put that letter on your desk, can you give it to Alicia on Monday?”

Dot nodded briskly. “Of course.”

One of the other employees started talking to Kirk so I resumed my conversation with Dot. “Want to grab a drink or something?”

“Last time we grabbed a drink, we shared a cab and had to take the bus to work.” Dot shook her head with a snort of laughter.

“Dinner? I was going to grab bar food because I skipped lunch to sleep, but we could go to a restaurant.” I didn’t want to, but I wanted to go home to an empty house even less.

Dot considered as the elevator stopped to let more people on. “I need a drink. Let’s just go to Sunny’s. We can share a cab home, then again in the morning to get our cars.”

The elevator doors opened and Kirk pushed past everyone. “Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m late, gotta go.”

I didn’t watch to see him get in his vehicle, didn’t want to see the tent and whatever other camping gear he’d filled his car with. The SUV could hold lots, perfect for Sara’s new wardrobe. “Come on. I’m starving.”

*

“Are you sure you don’t want a second drink?” Dot leaned across the table waving her beer bottle at me. “I’m well on my way to plastered.”

I shook my head as I picked up my glass of pop. “I’m still awake, but if I have any more, I’ll be out cold and you’ll have to roll me out.”

“You never told me why you’re so tired. Did Josh stay out all night or something?” Dot snagged a wing from the platter and tore a chunk off.

“Nah, he was home at 11:57. I told you, I just couldn’t sleep.” I crunched into a celery stick I’d dipped in blue cheese.

“I call bull on that. You’ve got that haunted, sad look. You had it when you came to work for us. You’d almost lost the sad but then you took Ted back briefly and the look didn’t go away completely until you demanded a divorce.” Dot sucked the last of the chicken off the bone and dropped it into the bucket. “Is it because Ted’s dating?”

Dot was drunk, but I knew from experience that even drunk, Dot kept confidences if you asked her to. I glanced around the bar, saw several people from work engaged in chatter, not paying attention to us. I leaned in, looking into Dot’s eyes. “Between us?”

Dot did the same perusal of the bar and tables nearest to us as she nodded her head. “You know I’m no snitch.”

“Sara’s seeing someone. She’s gone away with them this weekend.” I selected the sauciest wing I could find tore a chunk off. My coffee buzz was wearing off, and I felt exhaustion creeping in.

Dot frowned as she licked her fingers. “And you realized you’re in love with her?”

I dropped the chicken bone and it rolled off the table. “What?”

Dot shook her head. “Of course not. Never mind. Carry on.”

I inhaled, catching the scent of the wings, the booze around us, the perfume and cologne in the air. “Sara tells me everything, at least I thought she did. But she’s been talking to this guy for months and never mentioned him. She drops by last night to tell me that she can’t come over tomorrow because, get this, she’s going away hiking.”

“With Ted?” Dot’s jaw dropped and I saw her fillings in her bottom teeth.

“Camping and hiking. Ted wouldn’t go camping unless there was a winterized cottage involved.” I rolled my eyes at the ludicrous statement, then remembered my reaction the night before. “I had the same thought at first. But no, she spent a fortune on new clothes to go to Algonquin for the weekend. In September. She hates to be cold. She might take Monday off. That’s serious.”

Dot put her elbow on the table and rested her head against her palm. “Wow. Sara’s a principal, isn’t she? School’s back. Sounds serious.”

“I know, right? That’s what I’m thinking. And the way she made it sound? They’ve been talking for months but I got the impression this was their first date. I think she’s going to sleep with him!”

Dot’s brows furrowed and she leaned even closer across the table. “And you’re worried she’s with a crazy guy who, what? Is going to kill her and leave her for the cougars?”

I shook my head as I tucked my long hair behind my ears. “No! But great, thanks. Now I’ll have that thought to keep me up tonight.”

Dot sat up, dropping her arm to her side. “Then what?”

“What if she gets married? I mean, she kept this from me for months then just decides to take off? This is so unlike her.” I pictured Kirk and Sara, trudging in the Algonquin wild.

“You married Ted and had three kids with him. I’m sure your friendship would survive if Sara got married.” Dot waved a hand as she sipped her beer.

“You think so? I think it’d be weird. Like hey guys, I know I’m in love with you but you don’t mind if I squeeze between the two of you to watch TV, do you?” I picked up another wing and pulled the meat away from the bone.

Dot’s almost empty bottle slid from her hand. It hit the table, splashing me with beer before falling to the floor. “You are into her.”

I daubed my clothes, puzzling over Dot’s words, as Dot dove to grab the bottle. “What are you on about?”

Dot set the unbroken bottle on the table and stared at me. “I’m tipsy, but unless you’re pining for Sara, you’ve left an important detail out.”

I frowned, stifling a yawn. “No I haven’t.”

“You’re not into Sara, so who would you be in love with?”

I coughed and a bit of chicken shot out of my mouth and landed on the tablecloth. “What?”

“You said…” Dot stared at me, her eyes darting from one of mine to the other.

I realized my error. “Crap. Okay, she’s camping with Kirk. That’s who she’s been talking to for months. She met him when Kyle and Debbie got busted at work and we had that party. Funny, that’s around when Kirk stopped asking me out.”

Dot waved her empty frantically at a passing waitress. When the waitress nodded, Dot leaned towards me again. “Sara told you she’s in love with Kirk?”

I nodded. “And I can’t even be mad at her, it’s not like I ever told Sara about Kirk. She knew I was friends with some guy at work, that he’d flirt and ask me out, but I never said who. She told me I should say yes, but that was the end of it. Then Kirk stopped asking, and she stopped telling me to say yes. But then she didn’t know it was Kirk who was asking. Unless…maybe Kirk told her?”

Dot was stuck trying to work out everything I’d said. “Sara told you? She said ‘I’m going camping with Kirk and I think I love him’?”

I thought about what Dot was asking, worked out the particulars. My sleep deprived mind made me feel drunk. “Well, no, she never said his name. She just dropped hints about who he was. She didn’t deny he worked with us. She left so fast when I figured that much out.”

Dot’s face relaxed and I saw a twinkle in her eyes. “You put two and two together? Figured it all out, did you?”

“Yeah. Makes sense. And they’d be perfect together. He’s hot, she’s gorgeous.”

“And your reason for assuming is?” Dot took the beer the waitress set down and sipped.

“Man, you’re dumb when you’re drunk. I told you. Sara met Kirk. Right here, in this bar. You and I were running around trying to make sure Alicia didn’t catch Kyle and Debbie. Sara kept talking to the guy she met – had to be Kirk – and didn’t tell me. Probably because she knew Alicia didn’t like coworkers dating and was worried that being my best friend might get me in trouble?” I frowned, that part didn’t make sense, but whatever. “Anyhow, she had feelings. He had feelings. Kirk stopped asking me out. Heck, he pretty much stopped talking to me altogether. When was the last time he lingered at my desk, or sat with us at lunch? Hasn’t lent me a book in ages. He barely looks at me.”

Dot drummed her fingers on the tabletop, staring at me. “That doesn’t mean he’s fallen for Sara.”

Exasperated, I tore off a bite of carrot and crunched. “It’s either Sara or because I’m fat. The past few months I’ve been gaining weight. I actually had to buy bigger underwear. Been medium ever since I had Jordyn, but now I’m large. And I had to undo the button on my pants after my beer and second wing.”

“Let’s go with weight. If Kirk’s not talking to you because you put on a couple of pounds –”

“A couple? Try almost fifteen.”

“Fine. A bit of weight, then. If a guy loses interest because you’re not skinny? Not worth worrying about.”

“That’s what all the skinny women say.” I licked sauce off my thumb. “In a perfect world the guy loves the girl no matter what she looks like. But look at Ted. He kept making comments like ‘are you really going to eat that’ or ‘are you sure a second helping is wise’? Then he left me.”

Dot’s eyes flashed. “Good riddance.”

I bit savagely into another wing. “I agree. But one thing to leave a spouse over weight gain. Kirk just lost interest because of it. If we’d gone out, if I’d just said yes, then he’d be a jerk for dumping me. No longer asking me out because of it? Understandable, don’t you think?”

“Dot, hey Dot.” I glanced up to see one of the other secretaries rushing towards our table. “What’s going on?”

Dot waved her bottle of beer. “Just having wings and beer. What’s going on with you, Melanie?”

Melanie studied me for a second then seemed to decide whatever she had to say could be said in front of me. “I just got a text from Murray. He says there’s a big fight going on in the president’s office. What’s up with Alicia?”

Dot’s surprise seemed to please Melanie. “Ooh, I know something you don’t for once.”

Dot pulled her phone out and frantically tapped the screen. Melanie shrugged, grabbed a wing. “She’ll find out and fill us in.”

Dot was an untapped vein of information. I’d been friends with her since the day I’d started and I’d yet to figure out how to get her to spill. “She’ll find out, but she won’t tell.”

Melanie licked her fingers. “Yeah, you’re probably right. I’ll go back to texting Murray. He’ll keep me caught up.”

“I gotta go,” Dot muttered, stuffing more chicken into her mouth and dropping the bone into the can. “Can you pay, I’ll pay you back tomorrow.”

“You going into the office?” I eyed the few wings left and decided I’d had enough. “I’ll come with you.”

Dot shook her head. “Better not. Alicia’s upset, one word answers with punctuation.”

“I’ll wait downstairs. You’ll need a lift home. I can run you back tomorrow for your car.”

Dot’s phone went off again. She grabbed another wing, chugged some beer, and slung her purse over her shoulder. “Okay, but if I’ll be awhile, I’ll text you.”

I ate a couple more wings as I waited for the tab, finishing Dot’s beer as well. Melanie had a group around her and figured they were getting reports from Murray, the gossipy security guy. I was so tired I didn’t bother to go over, just paid and left.

The sun was setting as I walked back to work. The lobby chairs were in front of the security desk and I didn’t feel like talking to anyone so I texted Dot that I’d wait in my car. I put the key in the ignition but decided it wasn’t so cold that I needed to start the engine. I turned the key so my phone would charge while the radio played and reclined my seat as I got into the good tunes.

I woke with a start; someone’s hand was jerking my shoulder and roughly shaking me. “Wha?”

“She’s conscious. Bring over the breathalyzer.”

I blinked against the bright light in my eyes. “What’s going on?”

“Here.” Someone – a woman — muttered.

Before I was fully alert, whoever was shining the light in my face was growling at me. “Blow into this.”

My heart pounded and I felt cold sweat bead my forehead. Something was at my mouth, but I couldn’t see what because of the blinding light. I turned my head away; the hand that had shaken me reached in and pulled me back. “I said, blow into this. I can smell the booze from here, but I need you to blow.”

Automatically, still struggling to make sense of anything, I did as I was told. The beam of light lowered, and I realized a very large police officer was standing beside my car, holding the machine I was blowing into. “Says point-zero-one.”

“Do it again.” A woman’s voice barked. “She’s obviously loaded. You can smell the beer from here.”

“Take a deep breath, and blow.” The officer didn’t sound quite as angry as he had, but I wasn’t about to risk annoying the beast by asking any questions. I blew as hard as I could, for as long as I could.

“Same.” The officer pulled the breathalyzer away. “Mind stepping out of the vehicle?”

“I only smell like beer because my friend spilled hers on me.” My confusion escalated as I did as the officer asked. When I was upright after a clumsy first attempt, the female officer patted me down, shoved her hands into my pockets. “I, er, don’t even know your name. I don’t usually go this far on a first date.”

The officer shook her head, no trace of a smile at my lame attempt at a joke. “Stay here.”

I watched the two officers search my car. I tried to figure out what was wrong, what had happened to illicit a rough encounter with police. I’d paid the tab, the receipt was in my purse to prove it. Nothing exciting happened when I’d walked back to my car. Obviously I’d fallen asleep, I had no clue what time it was. Could be nine or three in the morning. But surely if it was that late I’d have seen Dot, or she would have texted…the fight? Who was involved, what had happened? Was Dot okay? Alicia? The security team? Was that why the cops were here?

“Dot okay? Alicia? Murray?” The words flew out of my mouth before I could properly form the questions. I took a deep- breath as the officers slammed my doors. “Did something happen upstairs? Is that why you’re here?”

“Molly? What’s going on?” Dot raced across the parking lot. Relief flooded me.

“I don’t know. I thought you, Alicia…” I blinked back tears, relieved yet even more confused.

“We got a call about a drunk passed out in her car. Didn’t you leave Sunny’s a little while ago?” The large officer passed me the wallet I hadn’t given him. Was he allowed to go through my purse? My face flushed as I realized the condoms Sara had given me as a joke, the ones her school handed out for free, were still in the bottom of my purse from last year.

“What, did you start pounding them back after I left?” Dot asked, her surprise evident.

“No, of course not. I had the one beer when we got there, then I finished yours while I waited for the waitress to bring my change.” I fumbled in the coin slot, pulled out the receipt. “See?”

The officer eyed the receipt, his expression changing from sheepish to smug. Before he could say anything, Dot spoke up. “In case you were wondering, I drank four and a half of the beers on there. Wanna give me a breathalyzer?”

“Why were you passed out? You didn’t even stir when we banged on the window.” The female officer put her cuffs back on her belt.

Bolstered by the thought I wasn’t about to be arrested, I smiled at her first, then at the taller officer. “I didn’t sleep last night. My friend and I were going to have a couple of drinks, some wings, but then I realized I’d be passed out cold if I drank so I switched to pop. She had to go back to work for something, and I waited in my car. Apparently my sleepless night caught up to me and I passed out anyhow.”

“Is there something wrong, officers? You okay, Molly? Dot?”

My breath caught in my lungs, froze, when I heard Kirk’s voice. Dot was gesturing frantically at her face, and I blinked in confusion. She leaned in and whispered, “Wipe your mouth, you’ve got spit and sauce all over.”

I swiped frantically at my face until Dot nodded her approval. “We’re fine, Kirk. Just a misunderstanding. What are you doing here, I thought you were –”

I broke off when Dot kicked my ankle. “Officers, you don’t seem to have any reason to hang around. You can give me a breathalyzer, I’m not sure I’d blow over at this point but I wasn’t planning on driving anyhow, so…”

The officers got into their cruiser without another word and I wondered who’d called them. Dot raised her eyebrows, tilted her head ever so slightly in Kirk’s direction, winked. She seemed to be trying to tell me something but I was clueless. I blinked stupidly at Dot, wondering what she was trying to tell me. “We, er, Kirk and I, were upstairs in Alicia’s office when Murray told us you were passed out in your car.”

“Murray, the security guy? He was talking to –”

“Yes, Murray in security. So, er, you’re okay? We thought you were sick, injured. I knew you weren’t drunk because, well, you weren’t drinking.”

I nodded my head, glancing at Kirk who was staring at me. “Is everything okay? I was waiting for you, guess I fell asleep.”

“Yeah, but I think I’m going to be here for another hour or so. You go on, get out of here. I’ll let you know if I need a ride in the morning.” Dot pulled my head down roughly, I resisted for a second thinking ‘oh no, she’s going to kiss me’. Then I realized she was pretending to hug me and I bent my head so she could whisper. “Say yes this time.”

I straightened, glancing at Kirk. “Right. Well, maybe see you tomorrow.”

Dot jogged back to the entrance and buzzed for security. I was suddenly aware that Kirk and I were alone, and that I was a mess. “Definitely not my best look.”

Kirk grinned. “The sauce in your hair adds a certain something.”

I grinned as my cheeks warmed. We stood there for a few more seconds, until I figured I’d better get moving. “Well, have a good night.”

“Yep. You too.” Kirk’s smile slipped as he started backing away from me.

Ask me out. Ask me out. I fumbled with my door, waiting hopefully for him to say something more, but he didn’t. I slid into the drivers seat and turned the key. I paused as the car clicked. What? I tried again. “No, you idiot.”

I’d fallen asleep with my phone plugged in, the radio on, and the key turned in the ignition to power the charger. I heard Kirk’s SUV crunching along the gravel and he honked. I opened my door, waved, but he didn’t notice.

I kicked my tire and regretted it when my toes hurt. I dropped back into the seat, texted Dot.

Can you come boost me?

Before I could even put the phone down, Dot answered.

God, yr pathetic. Fine, u r gorgeous. Do him. L8R.

Frustration had my fingers flying over the screen.

I mean boost car, battery dead, nothing to do with Kirk

I didn’t bother to look away, knowing Dot would respond fast.

What? Where Kirk?

I hated texting at the best of times, but after the night I’d had, I wanted to fling my phone.

Idk. Home.

Driving to Algonquin? How should I know.

B there asap.

I tossed my phone and popped the hood. Dot better know how to boost a car because I couldn’t remember how. I wasn’t even sure I had booster cables. Too bad I didn’t catch the officer’s name; I could’ve called and asked if he’d noticed any in his thorough search of my car. I searched my trunk myself, thinking I might get lucky. I heard Dot’s car as I struggled to feel beneath Jacob’s skateboard and Jordyn’s sleepover bag we’d forgotten to bring in the house on Sunday.

“Hey, need a boost?”

I hit my head on the trunk lid as I backed up at the sound of Kirk’s voice. Rubbing the sore spot, I gaped at him. “What? How?”

Kirk, to his credit, contained his smile behind his hand, but his eyes twinkled. “Dot texted me.”

Ticked, still seeing stars from the head bump, I slammed the trunk lid. “You shouldn’t text and drive.”

Kirk nodded. “True, but I have a Bluetooth stereo and voiceover. Read the message out loud, though took me a second to figure out what she meant because she texts like an illiterate monkey.”

“That’s good, and accurate. Have you got cables? I couldn’t find any.”

Kirk shook his head. “Normally, yes, but I emptied the truck earlier, and there’s not even a box of Kleenex.”

Then why had he come back? He could’ve told Dot he couldn’t help and kept on going. “Okay, thanks anyhow.”

“Want a lift?” Kirk offered.

I was about to say no but at this point I just wanted to get home. The day had been a write-off, I was still totally confused about whether Sara was in Algonquin with some guy I worked with not Kirk, or if Sara and Kirk’s trip to Algonquin had been postponed. “Sure.”

Kirk’s eyes widened in surprise, but he recovered and I heard the lock click. “Hop in.”

I locked my car and went around the front of the SUV. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” Kirk turned the SUV around and drove to the exit.

Feeling awkward, I kept darting glances at his profile as he waited for a break in traffic. “I, er, live over –”

“I know where eyou live.” Kirk pulled onto the street.

I raised my eyebrows, staring at him. “You do?”

Kirk nodded. “I brought some papers to you when you were sick, remember?”

“Oh yeah. I forgot.” I’d told him I was contagious and to leave the papers between the screen door and the big door because my nose was red and raw from blowing and I was too embarrassed to see him.

After a minute of awkward silence, we ended up talking the way we used to. Books, movies, politics (we were on the same page). Life in general. Too soon, he was pulling into my driveway. I sat there a second too long and realized he was waiting for me to get out. Feeling even worse, I grabbed my purse. “Well, thanks.”

“No problem.”

I still didn’t move. I wanted to know if he was in love with Sara. If he thought I was fat. I couldn’t ask, could I? I shook my head as I put my hand on the handle. “Why don’t you ever ask me out anymore?”

I cringed as I said the words, felt my face flame. “Never mind. See you Monday.”

“I’m not sure you will.” Kirk didn’t sound happy, I felt more confused. Was he with Sara and didn’t want to say? But he didn’t sound like a man in love, he sounded miserable.

I raised an eyebrow, but no proper response came to mind. “Oh?”

“Long story.” Kirk shrugged.

I looked up at my empty house. “Want to come in for coffee? You can tell me what’s going on.”

Kirk leaned over without warning, and I felt his lips on mine. I moaned as I leaned into him, forgetting everything but what I was feeling. I put a hand to my chest as if to keep my heart inside my body as Kirk pulled back. He pulled his key out of the ignition.

“Guess you’re coming in?”

Kirk grinned. “I headed HR and yet I harassed you daily to go out with me. On top of that, Alicia made everyone in HR sign contracts that we wouldn’t date anyone who worked in the company. As of five o’clock today, I no longer work there, but I swore I wouldn’t ask you again because you obviously weren’t interested. Figured if you were, you’d ask me. An invitation into the house for coffee is close enough.”


Eternal Light

The long grass danced in the breeze. She watched and waited, waited and watched. Hoped that sometime soon she’d be found. The birds rose up from the trees in the distance, turned the sky black with their flight. She rose up, wondering what had disturbed them. She heard rumbling, a groaning and grinding roar. Behind the new houses, the rumbling got louder. Leaves in nearby trees shook, floated to the ground even though they were still green. Could it be? Could the dawn of this glorious new day be the day she was found? The longest game of hide and seek ever, she thought with a wry grin.

The machines rolled into sight, the same ones she’d been watching for months building all the new houses near her hiding place. Trucks and men gathered, shouting to one another. She didn’t care what they said, none of it concerned her. She watched, patiently, as they moved into position. The vehicle with the big bucket, the one that dug up the earth and deposited the dirt into huge trucks finally appeared. She wished she could control it, guide it to wear it needed to be.

The sun blazed high in the sky, she watched the men remove their hardhats and swipe sweaty brows. Now she listened, now she cared what they said.

“We’ll start excavation tomorrow, maybe day after.”

She shrugged, figuring tomorrow or the day after were better than the years she’d been waiting.

*

A week later, she watched as the big machine finally started to dig. Not where she needed them to dig, but close. She watched, listened to the birds, tentative in their perches as though they knew their safe place was in danger. She hadn’t left the area for months, waiting forever for them to work their way to where she rested. She got tired of watching them work, yearned to drift away, just for an hour, or a day. She didn’t have any concept of time, only knew the changing of day to night, summer to fall.

“Bones! Stop! We got bones!”

*

Several days to nights later, she was riding with her bones in a vehicle. She refused to leave, afraid she’d miss something. Finally, she’d been found. Now, she needed to know why. She knew who, when, all the boring details the police would eventually figure out themselves. She wished she could save them the weeks of work, the forensic stuff, but she couldn’t. She could take them straight to the who, she’d be with them when they figured it out. Would ride with them when they confronted him, maybe learn the whys. That’s all she wanted to know. What came after she learned them? She had no idea.

*

“I think I’ve got her!”

She clapped as Detective Thomas Erickson shouted from his chair behind the computer. Tom kept slapping his hand on the surface of his desk, his smile wide and made him even more handsome.

“You got her? Who is she?” Tom’s partner, Eleanor, dashed into the office they shared.

Tom swivelled the screen for Eleanor. “Margaret Aikens.”

Eleanor clapped Tom on the back. Margaret beamed at the two of them, they’d been working cold cases for a long time together, and had managed to figure out who she was a lot faster than Margaret had thought possible. Finally, she could leave her bones, stop visiting that dark lab where forensic people did disgusting things to her remains. She no longer cared what happened to them. Only what happened next.

*

“Quick recap then. Margaret left her parents house at about five o’clock on September twenty-seventh, fifty-eight years ago. It was a Saturday, and she’d been invited to her friend Louise’s house for dinner. She never arrived. Louise was surprised when Mr. and Mrs. Aikens woke her family at midnight, wondering where their daughter was. They called the police more than seven hours after the last time anyone saw Margaret alive. That’s where Detective George Lawson comes in. We have his reports, his notes, and you can tell he took young Margaret’s disappearance very seriously because of the incredible details.”

Margaret nodded her head vigorously. She’d spent hours and hours with George, whispering the name he was looking for over and over. Of course, George hadn’t listened, preferring to do things the hard way.

“I’ve got a name that comes up several times. Arch Benton. George wrote his name with an almost angry force.” Tom held up a piece of paper from the old file, showing Eleanor. “See? The pen ripped the paper on this one.”

“Who was Arch Benton?” Eleanor took the paper. Margaret watched the woman’s eyes fly across the page, back and forth like a pendulum.

“That’s the thing. There’s no clear indication. Just his name mentioned, over and over by family and friends. No clear accusation, no sort of feeling for who he was. The fact that his name came up so often? Leads me to believe George had to tread very carefully around the name, the man. We need to figure out who this Arch Benton was, and why George seems to have interviewed everyone from the most distant relative to those closest to Margaret, but never interviewed Arch.”

Margaret closed her eyes, a serene smile spreading over her face. George had been listening.

*

“Your not going to believe this, Tom. I’ve found him.”

Margaret heard Eleanor’s voice shriek over the phone as Tom answered. She’d been drifting between Tom’s house and Eleanor’s, now she wished she’d stayed a little longer at Eleanor’s. She clapped her hands. Eleanor had succeeded where even Margaret had failed. Try as she might, she’d never been able to locate him. She’d spent time with her parents, had even been at her brother’s bedside when he’d died. That had been hard, meeting her brother as he entered her world, calling her name from the world he was leaving, calling her name as he drifted through the world she was in now. He’d passed into a bright, beautiful light, his hand outstretched for hers, and she’d managed, barely, to resist reaching for him before he was gone, and with him the light.

“Where? Don’t leave me hanging, El.” Tom put his coffee down and sat back. Margaret had to stay close to hear what Eleanor said next.

“An LTC about forty minutes outside the city. A ritzy Long Term Care place.”

“So our guy has money. How old is he? Figure Margaret would’ve been seventy-five if she’d lived.”

“From the little I’ve been able to dig up, looks like he’s eighty. And he no longer goes by Arch Benton.”

Tom got to his feet and paced, making it hard for Margaret to keep an ear on the phone. “How’d you find out? What’s his name?”

“You got time now, or should we wait until we’re on the clock tomorrow to discuss it?”

Tom blew out a breath. “Give me a bit of it tonight. Maybe I’ll be able to sleep.”

“Tidy little package then. His father was that big shot lawyer, the one George mentioned when writing out info about Arch. Seems Arch’s daddy paid big bucks to quietly change his son’s name, had all records of it sealed. Arch Benton disappeared without a trace five years after Margaret disappeared, yet we had no idea how or why. Seems he never left the city. He just became Richard Robertson. His mother’s maiden name and his own middle name. Now why would a perfectly innocent acquaintance of the Aikens’ family change his name and go underground? He lived off trust funds left to Richard Robertson by his father, but as far as I can tell, the Benton’s never mentioned their son again publicly. The five years after Margaret’s disappearance until Richard’s appearance in the world, like he dropped out of the sky, there was little mention of him other than George’s notes. We can safely assume that Benton Sr. was the reason George never interviewed Arch. George’s notes are so careful to elude but never outright say anything about suspicion regarding Arch.”

Tom’s free hand clenched into a fist. “We need to find out if any other women disappeared before Robertson showed up. And if there were any after where Robertson’s name was mentioned in passing. That’s going to take a year to sift through.”

“I’ll run a search using the key names in the cold case archives. It’s not much, but it’s a start.”

Margaret wished she could use a computer, she’d help them search. Anything to get them going to see Arch before the guy died first.

*

Eleanor slammed the door behind her as she entered the office. Margaret came through the door right behind her, just as angry.

“What?” Tom looked up from his computer, apprehension etched on his face.

“We got nothin’. According to the chief, anyhow. He agrees that Arch slash Richard is suspicious. There was no DNA found on the remains that weren’t Margaret’s. At least not enough to matter. The missing homeless women were random and sporadic. Their bodies were never found so we can’t prove they didn’t just simply move somewhere else, died as Jane Does the way they’d lived. Nothing even remotely close to linking Arch to them. No reports from anyone mentioning Arch slash Richard had frequented their area. No DNA to trace because we haven’t got anything to get a DNA sample from. Random bodies found had matching DNA after the eighties, but without a suspect, they’re cold cases too. Even if we worked all of them, we’d never be able to find a link to Arch slash Richard.”

“Just call him Arch. This slash business grates on my nerves.” Tom blew out a frustrated breath. “What else did the chief say? You seem a little too upset considering we expected him to say that.”

Eleanor punched a stack of folders on the filing cabinet. Papers rained down to the ground. “I called the LTC, seems dear Mr. Robertson’s not in good health.”

Tom threw his pen. “How long?”

“Anytime. Though the woman I spoke to let slip that they’re surprised he hasn’t gone downhill faster. Sort of hinted he’s dying in slow motion.”

Margaret wished she could punch like Eleanor, throw things like Tom. She’d waited all these years, searched for whispers of Arch to find him, find out why, only to be denied the chance? “Please, go see him anyways. Let me get my answers before it’s too late.”

Margaret knew it was futile, no one had heard her since her brother in his own passing.

“Here’s what we’re going to do.” Tom gestured for Eleanor to come closer.

*

Margaret floated on air all the way up the interlock path, following Eleanor and Tom. This place was like nothing she’d ever seen alive, and unlike anything she’d paid attention to in death.

“You’re sure this is a Long Term Care place? Looks more like a movie stars mansion.” Tom pressed the buzzer at the door. “Ready, Betty?”

“As I’ll ever be, Fred.” Eleanor smoothed her blouse and patted her hair.

The door swung open and a fresh faced young woman smiled at them. “Mr. and Mrs. Stone?”

“That’s us.” Tom smiled at the woman as he gestured for Eleanor to go ahead of him. They stepped into the large foyer and followed the woman to a desk.

“Normally, I’d have to ask for your IDs and confirm you should be allowed in, but due to the circumstances…” The young woman smiled sadly.

“Thank you so much,” Eleanor whispered. Margaret almost believed the tears were real except she’d seen Tom pinch her.

“Mr. Robertson’s been here for so long and never had any visitors. Never spoke of any family. We wondered…” The young woman trailed off again as they made their way to a sweeping circular staircase.

Eleanor launched into the story she’d given that morning. “My mother always told me my grandfather was dead. Until right before she died, I had no reason to doubt her. Then my mother, on her deathbed, confessed that her father was still alive, that she’d run away to marry my father and never came back. My grandfather tried to find her but she refused to see him. I just want to meet him, you know? My mother wasn’t very kind, but you said my grandfather is?”

“Oh yes, he’s very likeable. Quiet, but always polite. Until you called, I always wondered why I sensed a sadness in him. Now I know.”

“You didn’t tell him I was coming, did you? I’m not sure I’ll tell him who I am. Might be too painful to dredge all that up when he’s so weak already. This is selfish of me, I know.” Eleanor gripped Tom’s hand and Margaret rolled her eyes behind them.

“No, we’ll let you decide if you want to share or not.” The woman led them along a long hallway. The carpet beneath their feet looked lush and rich to Margaret, and she wished she could feel if it were soft. The woman knocked lightly and opened the door. Margaret soared in, froze. The sounds in the room were so loud after the muffled hall. Beeps and whirs and rattling sounds, loud and intimidating.

Margaret drifted to the figure in the bed, hooked up to machines, with tubes running from his arms to bags hanging beside the bed. “Arch.”

Margaret couldn’t reconcile this miserable creature with the memory she’d carried in her mind. “Arch, this isn’t fair, this isn’t how it was supposed to be. You were supposed to be young, alive. Going down in a hail of bullets or something.”

“Mary, you can monitor everything from outside the room for five minutes, okay? Give Mr. and Mrs. Stone some privacy.”

Margaret had almost forgotten Eleanor and Tom were there. She watched as a nurse nodded, followed the young woman out of the room. When the door closed softly behind them, Tom approached the bed with Eleanor beside him.

“Mr. Robertson?”

Margaret worried he was already dead, that the machines keeping him alive had somehow missed that he was gone. But then Arch opened his eyes, the brown almost blue with age like Margaret’s grandmother’s had been.

“I understand you can’t talk to us, but we’ve been assured you can see and hear us.” Tom pulled a paper from the inside of his jacket. “Arch, do you recognize her?”

The man’s eyes widened in surprise at the use of the name. Margaret heard the beeps increase their pace, worried the nurse would come back and shoo Tom and Eleanor out. When the beeps slowed again, Tom held the picture close to Arch’s face. Margaret saw his eyes widen, saw the recognition. She wanted to curse, to scream, to cry. This wreck of a man wouldn’t be able to answer the question she’d waited fifty-eight years for. The question that burned brighter than the white light she’d turned from.

“Arch, you know what happened to Margaret, don’t you? Just nod your head.” Tom kept the picture in the man’s line of vision, and Arch never looked away.

“I hear death bed confessions are good for the soul, old man. If ever a soul needed to score points, it’s yours, here and now.” Eleanor spoke softly, almost gently, but the glint in her eyes made Margaret smile.

Arch glanced at the table behind them, back at them, then at the table again. When Tom and Eleanor continued to watch him, he raised a skinny arm and pulled the mask from his face. “Book.”

Tom didn’t seem to understand the whispered word, but Eleanor and Margaret did. Both spun to look at the table. An old, worn book lay on the table along with a cross and some rosary beads. Margaret read the faded cover, but didn’t understand because the words weren’t in English. Eleanor grabbed the book and lifted it so Arch could see. “This book?”

Arch blinked, his head moving slightly in assent. Eleanor and Tom opened the book together. Margaret stood behind them, reading over their shoulders.

“The writing is so faded.” Eleanor complained, flipping pages. “We’ll never be able to read it.”

“Let me see.” Tom took the book and squinted. “I can make out some of the words.”

“Read it out loud.” Eleanor and Margaret watched Arch as Tom began to read aloud.

“Dad always said there wasn’t a murder that didn’t leave traces. Bragged it was his job to find the traces before the prosecutors, suppress them. I wanted to know the lengths he’d go to. She was easy, Margaret Aiken. Stupid girl got into my car when I offered her a drive. At first, she didn’t seem to mind that I’d driven past her friend’s house. I was going to let her out at the next street when she didn’t react, but then she started to cry. That’s when I got excited. She begged me to stop, to let her go. I kept driving to the hunting cabin. We got there and she stopped crying. Stopped begging. Seemed to accept her fate. I got bored. Killed her, watched her die. When she was dead, I was so angry. She’d died so fast. She should have begged, fought me. But she didn’t. She just muttered her prayers the whole time. And then, she went blank. Such a disappointment. I should’ve let her out of the car, found someone else. I buried her in a field, left. Was home before anyone even knew she was missing. I waited forever for someone to question me. To mention seeing me with her, lots had seen me. I finally told Dad. Cost him a fortune to get people to change their stories, to lie. The cop suspected me, but he couldn’t get enough to charge me. Dad wouldn’t let him question me, said there was no way he’d let his son be bothered by police, that as the best lawyer in the city he’d be a laughingstock if he let him question me. Dad told me how stupid I’d been, picking a sweet girl like Margaret. Said if I had half a brain, I’d have gone for a girl no one would miss. So I did. Dad was right, no one ever suspected me when a prostitute disappeared, or a homeless woman. I didn’t have to work so hard to hide their bodies, but I put in a bit of effort. Weighed them down in the lake, buried them in dumpsters headed for landfills. Just left their carcasses in forests. After Margaret, Dad didn’t trust me. Kept watch. But when he found me with the body of a homeless woman, he made me change my name and I was moved out of the spotlight Dad’s fame cast. Every chance I got, and there weren’t many, I went out to find another. But none of them brought the same sort of feeling Margaret had. Because as disappointing as she’d been, it was a challenge to make her beg again. But she didn’t beg. Didn’t cry. The others were weak, begged until there was no more breath.”

Margaret looked from the book to Arch. She’d waited fifty-eight years to find out she’d only died because she’d cried? He hadn’t picked her, loved her, stalked her. She’d been walking down the street and was a convenient target. So random. Not special, not for any great reason she might be able to reconcile her cruel fate with.

“You killed her just to see if you could get away with it?” Tom stared at Arch, his disbelief mirrored on Eleanor’s face.

“She was only seventeen. She had her whole life ahead of her.” Eleanor whispered, and Margaret thought she might actually be sad, not acting.

Tom flipped the page. “When Dad died, I lost my inspiration. I never killed again after that. I guess because I knew there’d be no one as good as him to save me from jail. But man, what a run. If I had it to do over again? I would’ve done more. Been more. Done it better. But my one regret, the one that’ll haunt me until the day I die? That I didn’t take longer to kill Margaret. I think, if I had tortured her more, had more time, I could have made her beg.”

“You sick SOB.” Eleanor spat the words. “This is your dying day, and after hearing that? I hope you have an eternity to rot, dwelling on all your regrets. No, I hope you relive everything, only the girls don’t die, that they turn on you. I hope when you take your last breath, you see them happy, knowing they’re in a better place, a place you’ll never go.”

Tom lifted the cross and rosary beads. “Are these for show?”

Arch smiled. Margaret saw the faint upturn of his lips, the laughter in his rheumy eyes. He gave them the thumbs up.

Eleanor shuddered. “Evil. Sick. I wouldn’t have begged you for my life either.”

The humour faded from Arch’s features as Tom grabbed Eleanor’s hand. “I’d love to arrest him, but we’re not supposed to be here. We’ll get his DNA postmortem. But we won’t tell the world what a monster he was, why give him that fame? We’ll close the case quietly, match him to as many other cold cases as we can, and let him rot in his destiny without any fame.”

Margaret watched them leave. She had no need to follow them. She’d wait until Arch died. Then she’d figure out what to do. How to find the light she’d turned from.

The nurse and the young woman entered the room. “He’s still hanging in there?”

“Had a little spike when that couple were here, but otherwise the same as he’s been for hours. Stubborn. You’d think at this point he’d be glad to leave the pain behind. Such a sweet guy. Do you believe in Heaven, Mary?”

“I do.” Mary adjusted something on one of the drips. “Surely Mr. Robertson would be thrilled to meet his maker.”

“Mr. Robertson, it’s okay. You can let go.” The young woman patted his hand and left the room.

Margaret had been watching Arch during the exchange. She knew why he was clinging to life. Fear.

Margaret wanted quiet. She didn’t dare leave the room, not for a minute, in case she missed it. She wanted to be there, see him off. Would he go to the light? She wasn’t sure what happened to someone if they weren’t going on, into the light. She shivered involuntarily as a thought flickered. What if he were stuck here, where Margaret was, forever? And because she’d turned away from the light, she could never go on? Had her need for answers cost her eternity in Heaven? One thing she knew; if she were stuck in the same place as Arch, she wouldn’t beg for anything. She couldn’t imagine torturing him the way he’d tortured her, but she wouldn’t let him hurt her.

The machines made different sounds. Margaret waited as the nurse got up to check the bags dripping into the needles in Arch’s arms. He stiffened in the bed, and Margaret kept watch. Finally, finally something happened.

She watched Arch leave the old man. She rose up with him, waiting to see. Arch turned to her, his eyes widening. “Margaret!”

The room filled with light. Margaret felt something she hadn’t felt before. Heat. The light had a flickering quality to it; instinctively she moved away. Arch tried to follow, but the light reached out, caught him. Screaming, Arch held out his arms to her. Margaret couldn’t have touched him if she wanted to. The heat stifled, choked. Margaret watched as flames engulfed him, and with the fading scent of acrid smoke, Arch and the flames were gone.

“Who was Margaret?” Mary whispered, closing Arch’s eyes on the bed below. “God rest you both.”

Margaret looked up, to Heaven. “I’m ready. I hope I can find my way to the light.”

And as fast as the flickering light had come for Arch, the brilliant, blinding pure white light came for her. And this time Margaret went into it.

Out of the Ash Soars Hope

The house was so empty, so funeral-parlour quiet. My steps echoed as I wandered through, looking for – what? Forgotten shards of a life together crumbled into bits? Signs that this was a dream? There was no fog, no distorting images, only the fog in my head and the blurred vision from my tears. The squeaky floorboards grated my scraped raw soul.

“Are you coming?” Jody, my sister (and sometimes friend, mostly foe), called from the front door.

“Just go, I’ll be there in a sec.” I opened the cellar door with half a mind to go down and check no boxes or broken bits of my heart were left behind.

“You’ve been through the house twenty times already. Let’s go. I’ve got stuff to do.”

I slammed the cellar door, grief quickly becoming anger. “Fine.”

Jody waited until I’d crossed the deck before closing the door on my life. I could break windows, force my way in if I wanted, but for what? The house was a barren wasteland of what once was. “Hurry up; I swear, if you went any slower you’d be going backwards.”

Jody brushed past me and slid into the driver’s seat of her pick-up truck, loaded down with the last of my possessions. The small garden lining the front of the deck, mostly weeds for the past few years, was full of dead leaves. Not a single bloom in sight, no sign of cheer or hope.

I climbed into the truck. Before I’d even reached for my seatbelt, Jody was reversing. “Where are you going to keep your crap? I haven’t got room.”

“Dad said I could keep some in the garage.” I didn’t bother with the seatbelt. Jody was racing out of town like there was a fire to get to; if I was lucky we’d crash, and I’d burn.

“Yeah, because he doesn’t have enough junk.” Jody rolled her eyes as she swerved around a car in her path.

Our father was a hoarder. Not an exaggeration, either. A legit, defined the word, bona-fide hoarder. “Not my first choice, but –”

Jody shrugged as she slammed on her brakes for a red light. “How long do plan on staying with me?”

Translation – how long will your sorry butt be a burden. “Not long.”

“You know I’ll ride your behind ’til you actually get out, don’t you?” We’d just left town and I knew Jody hated this light because it stopped her from standing on the gas and putting miles between her and my town. Not my town anymore, I corrected myself.

I nodded, leaning my forehead against the glass and staring out the window at the countryside. My sister and my mother had fought, actually screamed and almost come to blows, over who had to take me in. Jody lost.

Jody put her hand on the centre of the steering wheel, the horn shrieking louder than a cat whose tail was pinned beneath an attacking coyote. The driver of the car she was honking at flipped her the bird but finally moved. “Most people have friends to take them in.”

My eyes burned but there were no tears left to spill. Friends? I’d thought I’d had some, but turns out doing favours for people doesn’t make you a friend. I tuned Jody out as I tried to figure out what to do next. Get out of Jody’s hair as soon as I could was top of the list, and I hadn’t even officially moved in yet. The truck bounced over a pothole and my forehead smacked the glass.

Jody snorted. “Pathetic. Look, I’ll get the boys to take the boxes and stuff to the garage, better there than Dad’s. Rick’ll bring your clothes into your room.”

I glanced at Jody, searching for the angle. “Why?”

Jody blew out a breath, her dark hair rising off her forehead. “Because anything else right now would be like kicking a kitten.”

*

I lay on the sofa, staring at the water-stained ceiling tiles. The thump-thump-thump of rap, mixed with the twang of country music was a constant, never-ending din in my sister’s basement. The only thing missing was the wailing of heavy metal. Each male in Jody’s house had a different music taste, and each played to win the contest of who listens to crap the loudest. I’d been staying in her tiny make-shift room for a week, and about all I’d figured out in life was that I could tell who was home by the noise.

“Ash, get up!” Jody banged something on the pipes outside my room.

I groaned, rolling myself to sitting position. “What?”

When Jody didn’t answer, I got to my feet. My body protested, aches on pains on stiff muscles screamed with each step. I flung back the shower curtain Rick had hung so I’d have privacy. I heard Jody in the laundry area and followed the sound of running water.

“What?” I repeated my question as Jody shoved dark clothes into the washer and reached for more.

I was about to repeat myself when Jody paused in the act of pulling men’s boxers from a pair of black jeans. “Doug called. He’s dropping by.”

I hated the flash of hope that winked through the darkness in my heart, like someone taking a picture with the flash on in a tunnel. “When?”

Jody’s blue eyes, so like my own, so like our father’s, filled with anger. “An hour or so. You’re pathetic. You’re happy, aren’t you?”

Happy? What was that? Nothing I knew, at least not for a long time. “Hardly.”

Jody put a pair of pants into the machine and slammed the lid. Grabbing the basket of clean clothes from the top of the dryer, she shoved past me. “Do yourself a favour and get mad. This pathetic wounded little mouse routine is getting old, and fast.”

Ignoring Jody, I scrounged up some respectable clothes and went into the tiny washroom beside the laundry room. With the washing machine running the water barely got warm, or else someone had used all the hot water already. I got out and wrapped a towel around me as I tried to comb my hair. The tangles from neglect were as tangled as my emotions. Doug, coming here, to see me? Why was I nervous, excited? I should be furious, like Jody said. Even Rick and the boys said I should get spiteful, soak Doug for more.

My clothes were loose. Not like I couldn’t afford to lose a few pounds, at least according to Doug. I didn’t bother with make-up because the mirror down here was cracked and hard to see in. Besides, I knew Jody would throw a fit if she saw blush on my cheeks, lipstick on my lips, scream that I was gussying myself up for trash.

I slid my socked feet into a pair of Jody’s running shoes (all my footwear were either ripped or slippers) and climbed the steep stairs to the main floor. The music was down to country and barely audible. Either the boys were out and Rick didn’t need to compete, or Jody was home alone and tired of loud. I knew better than to ask Jody if I could make a pot of coffee for when Doug came, so I searched for tea bags in case he wanted something to drink.

“Don’t bother. He’s not coming in.” Jody slammed the cupboard door where I was looking, almost catching my fingers.

“I could make it and bring it outside,” I said, reaching to open the door again.

Jody shook her head. “Said he just needed to ask you something, or whatever. I wasn’t listening, really.”

“Ask me what?” I stared at Jody, biting my lip.

Jody shrugged as she grabbed an apple from the bowl. “How would I know? Why would I care?”

I opened my mouth but closed it when I heard the roar of Doug’s pride and joy coming up the drive. “He’s here.”

Jody rolled her eyes. “Obviously.”

I smoothed my long hair and wiped my hands on my pants. “How do I –”

Jody glared at me. “I’d only answer that if I thought you were aiming to make him regret life choices, but since I know better, I’ll leave it as pathetic.”

I heard the blast of classic rock music as he opened the car door. I swallowed the bile rising as I opened the screen door to step outside. “Hey.”

My husband of twenty-three years stood by his shiny car, staring up at me. He was forty-seven years old (five years older than me), handsome as sin, and got better with age, like whisky. Or so Doug said, at least. I could see the paunch hanging over his jeans, the grey at his temples, but they didn’t bother me. I’d fallen in love at first sight, never imagined such a virile and sexy guy could ever look twice at mousy me.

I went down the uneven porch steps, wanting to run into his arms and kiss him. Instead, I stood awkwardly a few feet away. He still hadn’t spoken a word, so I repeated my greeting. “Hey.”

“You need a haircut.” Doug frowned and seemed to reconsider his words. “Sorry.”

Bolstered by the foreign apology, I took a deep breath. “I know. I shouldn’t have skipped my appointment last month with Rhoda.”

“None of my business,” Doug shrugged, and I saw him look into the front seat of his car. I followed his gaze, spotted Crystal. Any hope I’d had caught fire inside me and I felt rage ignite from the flames.

“You brought her? To my sister’s house?” I squared my shoulders, fury fanning the flames. “You’re pathetic. Nearly fifty and you’re running around with a little girl.”

Doug raised his eyebrows at my tone, my words. “What?”

“You’re a sad and pathetic old man trying to feel young by running around with kids.” I pushed my sleeves up and kicked the gravel so that little stones hit his shins.

“Calm down, Ashley. Geez, you’re acting like a lunatic.”

“What do you want, Doug?” I spat his name.

Doug looked unsure what to say because of my temper. I guess he’d expected another puddle of oozing devastation. “I reconsidered – not about us, but about the settlement. I’m not bein’ fair, really. If you wanna sign right now, we can be divorced in thirty days, I won’t contest the last offer.”

I stared at him, open mouthed. He’d fought anything my lawyer asked of him, the smallest pittance I hadn’t even asked for. My lawyer, frustrated at my lack of demands, had made his own. “You want me to sign? You’re willing to give me half of everything?”

Doug’s eyes widened in surprise. “No, of course not. I just thought we could sign off on what your lawyer proposed last time. You know, half my pension and what you put into buying the house.”

The words my lawyer had uttered, over and over, during my apathy, came to me now. “No, Doug. I’m thinking we need to forget mediation and go full throttle on the divorce. I want half of everything. Half of your pension, half of your bank accounts, and half of what you sold my house for. Half your fancy car. You can have the trunk, I just want the motor. Oh, and I want alimony until I find a job that pays a decent wage. You know, because minimum wage is nothing. I gave up everything for you. Now I want you to give up everything for me.”

I started backing away when what I really wanted to do was charge him, punch, hit, maim him. Doug had never seen me mad, and he underestimated my rage. “Well now, that might be a problem, Ashley. Crystal’s pregnant.”

Hysterical laughter bubbled from my gut. “Guess you’re really in it now, aren’t you? Your lawyer fees just doubled since I don’t have a job – because of you – I’ll be demanding you pay for my lawyer, too.”

Doug rearranged his features into the mask he’d worn whenever he wanted to get me to agree to something I didn’t like. How had I never noticed how weak chinned he was? How utterly unattractive? “Babe, come on, be reasonable. You don’t want a child to be born into misery, do you?”

I glanced at the nasty young woman in the front seat, the one who’d known full well she was messing with a married man, my married man. Then I locked gazes with Doug. “I’m thinking you underestimate me, Doug.”

I spun on my heel, darted up the steps. Jody met me at the door. Her high five stung my palm, but I grinned. “Welcome back, Ash.”

“Thanks. Now get the boys to set me up a proper bed downstairs, because that lumpy sofa is gonna kill me.”

*

“I’m riding shotgun with Auntie Ash,” Clint, my oldest nephew, shouted as he ran out of the house.

“I was gonna let you drive!” Jody shouted after him.

Clint skidded on the gravel, his gaze swinging from my brand-new Jeep to his mother’s dusty pick-up truck. His indecision cost him; Brent tore past his older brother and hopped into the Jeep. Clint snatched the keys from Jody’s hand and climbed in.

I led the way down Jody and Rick’s rutted driveway, waving at Rick who was cutting the grass as I passed. “You get to pick alternative rock or eighties and nineties pop music. Or silence.”

Brent, the heavy metal lover, shrugged and started pressing preset buttons for the radio. I slapped his hand when he reached for the volume button. “No louder.”

“You’re really going to move out?” Brent asked, strumming his thigh to the music.

“Yeah. Maybe next month, if your mom agrees with me that this is the one.” I glanced in the rearview and grinned. Jody’s face was pale in the passenger seat, and Clint, new to driving, was being left in my dust. I adjusted my speed so that I wasn’t too far ahead of them.

“I can’t believe you’ve never owned a car before.” Brent stared at me as if hoping to catch me admitting I’d lied.

“Never. Only time I was allowed to drive was when Uncle Doug was drinking, drunk enough to admit he shouldn’t drive.” And then I’d been scared to death, because Doug shouted warnings every minute, scared I’d scratch his baby.

“Do I still have to call him that?” Brent asked with a scowl. “I never liked him much.”

I wondered if the aches would ever stop. I’d resigned myself to life without him, but there were still the lingering feelings that reached out to slap me now and then. “No, you don’t have to call him uncle.”

“I was thinking more along the lines of Doug. Can I call him Uncle Dung?”

I grinned at my nephew, the spitting image of Jody. I supposed of me, too, since Jody and I looked so much alike. “How about just call him Dung?”

“Can I call his new wife Dung-for-brains?” Brent considered as I snorted a laugh. “And the kid Baby Dung?”

“Maybe leave the kid out of it.” I was jealous yet still protective of the unborn baby that symbolized everything I’d lost. Doug kept promising next year, next year we’d start our family. But then he’d say stuff like we needed a bigger house, or work was too busy to think about a family — work he couldn’t have done if I hadn’t worked my tail off to support us both while he went to trade school (which he’d failed twice – once in plumbing, and then his first attempt when he switched to electrician). He’d finally ended up passing, become a master electrician, and we’d been in debt up the wazoo from student loans. Yet Doug had convinced me to quit my job because he was humiliated when his boss told the other guys I was one of the maids working for the service his wife hired. Doug wanted me home, anyhow. I’d taken over all household chores, even cut the grass and shoveled the driveway. We lived in town, within walking distance to everything, so Doug hadn’t seen the need to get me a car.

I’d been divorced for a few weeks and still trying to wrap my head around Doug’s deceptions. The only household chore Doug handled was the banking. He gave me a cash allowance every month and I kept receipts to show what I’d spent money on. He’d complain about the mortgage payments, the household bills, said we barely made ends meet. I’d offer to go back to work, but he’d say no, I wasn’t qualified to do anything outside the minimum wage bracket so what was the point? I should be grateful he supported me. Even his stupid car — I’d had no idea how much he’d spent on it, what it was worth. He’d even lied to me about how much he’d sold our little house for, offered me the money I’d put in on the downpayment and twenty thousand extra. My lawyer had laughed bitterly, even Doug’s lawyer had tried to hide his face in shame for what I was offered for settlement. When the secrets Doug had kept were fully exposed, I’d felt like I’d won the lottery. Best of all was that I’d finally felt absolved of guilt for keeping my own secrets for years.

“Auntie Ash?” Brent cleared his throat.

I glanced at Brent, jerked from my thoughts by his voice. “Sorry?”

“Uh, just that I think we’re almost there.” Brent smiled sheepishly at me and I realized he was right.

I parked in front of the building. Clint parked behind me and I flashed him the thumb’s up when he’d finished a perfect parallel park. Grabbing my purse, I slid out of the Jeep. “Good job.”

Jody, looking green, glared at me. “Don’t encourage him.”

“This is why I prefer driving with Dad. You’re like this hysterical girl or something. Too fast, too slow, too close to the ditch, you almost hit that car passing.”

I hadn’t seen anything wrong with Clint’s driving, at least not when I’d been paying attention. “Tell you what, when we leave, you can drive the Jeep home.”

“Good thing it’s got an off-road feature, you’ll need it with him,” Jody muttered in my ear as we approached the store front.

I pulled the door open, my eyes adjusting to the dim interior. The scent of stale grease and grime wrinkled my nose. “Laurie? You here?”

My realtor, a woman I’d gone to school with, came out of the back. “Ash, hey. Jody? I haven’t seen you in ages!”

Jody was swept up in a flowery scented hug and I realized my mistake. Jody hadn’t gotten along with many of the girls in our high school, and the girlier the girl, the less she’d tolerated them. Laurie had been the girliest of them all. Freeing herself from Laurie’s clutches, Jody took two steps back, her forced smile making her look constipated. “Hey, Laurie.”

“Did you use John when you bought the farm?” Laurie’s shrewd gaze pierced Jody. “Happy there? If you’re thinking of selling, I know –”

“Didn’t buy, just transferred ownership from Rick’s parents. Not selling. I’m here to scrutinize for my sister.” Jody shot me a look that spurred me into action.

“Okay, so. Laurie? Mind if I take the tour alone? I mean, alone with my sister and the boys. I want their honest opinion, but don’t want them being, er…”

“She doesn’t want you to influence us.” Brent thrust his chest out proudly. “She values our opinion and there’s nothin’ in it for us.”

Laurie covered her irritation with polished poise. “Right, well, go on then.”

Jody gave the agent a wide berth as we made our way to the back of the store. “You could’ve warned me.”

“I wasn’t thinking. It’s so weird, being back here. Whenever we came to visit, Doug never went through town. Not a lot of Brock peeps where we lived. Now, come on.”

“Show us the living area, first.” Jody averted her gaze from the filthy mess in the back. “Because if you start here, we’re gonna have to say no.”

“I can only show you the one empty apartment. It’ll be mine, but the other one is rented. A single mother with a teenage girl.” I opened the door at the back and revealed a hidden set of stairs. “There’s an outside entrance too, I can seal this one off if I ever decide to move and rent it out.”

“Who’s the girl?” Clint asked as we trudged up the narrow steps.

“I don’t know her name. The mom’s name is Beth Martin, if that helps.” I reached the small landing and put my hand on the knob. I took a deep breath and opened the door, letting the boys and Jody go in first.

“Bright, good space,” Jody mumbled as she went to the double windows where the living room would be. “Good view of the river below. You got a balcony?”

I snorted. “You’re looking at it.”

Brent peered out. “I just see the fire escape.”

Clint opened the window and climbed out. “Oh, er. Hi, Mandy.”

I stood behind Brent and peeked, wondering who Mandy was. I realized Clint had caught Beth’s daughter on their fire escape. Brent snorted. “Clint’s gonna be here a lot.”

“That’s the Mandy? The one Clint’s been raving about for months?” I took a better look at the girl. “She’s cute.”

Jody pulled us over to the kitchen. “Don’t embarrass him.”

“Yeah, Aunt Ash. He’s good at embarrassing himself, he doesn’t need our help.” Brent snickered. “Look, he keeps fixing his hair.”

Jody opened the oven, ran the water in the sink. “Cleaner than downstairs at least.”

“It’s small, I know, but –” I bit my lip as Jody searched the cupboards and small pantry.

“Mom! There’s two bedrooms, come see,” Brent called from the other end of the apartment. “We can spy on Clint.”

“Get out of there,” Jody yelled. “Where’s the bathroom?”

I pointed to the door between the two bedrooms. The bigger bedroom faced the riverside of the building and the other faced the street. The bathroom had no window. “It’s small.”

Jody ran the tap in the sink, the tub, flushed the toilet. She turned the shower on. “At least the plumbing seems decent. Good water pressure.”

“There’s an inline water heater downstairs. Each tenant pays a portion of the water and gas bills. Each unit has their own hook up and metre for hydro.” I bit my lip as Jody continued her inspection, checking closets, bedrooms, ceilings in all the rooms. “The roof is fairly new. Previous owner before the one selling did a lot of upgrades and fixing up in the past ten years or so.”

“Yeah, and current owner is some city slicker guy. Only owned it a few months. Why’s he selling?”

“He owes back taxes or something.” I averted my gaze, heard Jody’s snort. I huffed out a breath as I stared at her smug face. “Fine, obviously you know the whole story.”

Jody grinned. “Yep. The greasy spoon downstairs was a front for a drug ring. You forget the power of Brock’s gossip and news flow.”

I hunched my shoulders. “You don’t think I should buy it?”

Jody shook her head and my heart sank. “I didn’t say that.”

I blinked. “What?”

“I think, for once, you’re being really smart, little sister. I’ve heard Beth Martin’s had a rough go, she’s working hard to get ahead after a bad marriage. She’s determined to make it, and she’s got a decent job at the coffee shop so you’re guaranteed her rent. The little odds and ends store downstairs is fairly new and no one knew if it’d last but it’s holding it’s own, so you got that rent, too.”

Feeling more confident, I nodded. “Glad you think it’s a good idea. I already bought it.”

Jody gaped at me. “What?”

“I’m just here for the keys, to sign some final papers. This is mine, all mine.” I threw my hands out as I spun in circles. “I’ve run the numbers. The place is cheap because of the whole drug guy desperate to sell. The renters will cover bills and property taxes.”

“How will you eat, Auntie Ash?” Brent came out of the big bedroom, obviously bored of spying on Clint and Mandy. “That’s what Dad said, when he and Mom were talking this morning, that you’re smart except that you’ll have to go to the food bank unless you rent the downstairs quick.”

“That’s the other part. I want to open a business.”

*

Excitement and nervous energy kept me moving. Opening day, ribbon cutting with the mayor, photographer from the small Brock news outlet. Half the town would show up because everyone wanted to have first-hand gossip to spread, didn’t want to hear from anyone else what they’d missed. Jury was out on how I’d be received.

“Man, it smells great in here.” Rick stopped by the apartment door and sniffed. “Jody, why doesn’t our kitchen ever smell so good?”

Jody stuck her head out from behind the cabinet she was inspecting. “Careful, or you’ll never smell food cooking in our kitchen again.”

“Ms. Anders?”

I wiped the spotless work surface for something to do. I had slow cookers running, ovens going, stove tops with bubbling pots.

“Ms. Anders?”

“Yo, Auntie Ash. I think Mandy’s talking to you.” Brent snorted as he nudged me.

I glanced up, caught off guard. “What? Oh, sorry, Mandy. It’s been a lifetime since I’ve been Ashley Anders, I guess. What’s up?”

“The health department just finished their final check.”

I swallowed around the lump forming in my throat. I felt like I was walking to the firing squad with each step I took. “Did you, er, get a feeling?”

Mandy shook her head. “I’m sorry. That guy is cranky, hard to tell.”

“It’s fine, Ash. Go on.” Rick patted my shoulder as Jody gave me the thumbs up. Even Clint managed to keep his eyes off Mandy as he nudged me through the door.

The old guy with the clipboard was writing away when I entered the main part. I didn’t want to interrupt so I went to the desk and fiddled with pamphlets.

“Okay, Ms. Anders.” He tore off some papers from his clipboard. “Well done.”

I blinked. “Pardon?”

He smirked as he held the papers, waving them. “Go on, take them.”

I wiped my sweaty hands on my apron before grabbing the papers. My hands shook and I almost dropped them in my haste to read. The papers fluttered and I finally gave up trying to steady them. “I passed?”

“With flying colours. You know your stuff, and I like the extra temperature gauges for cooked foods, freezers, everything. I’d say you’ve gone way overboard, above and beyond, but in my line of work I don’t believe there’s any such thing as too many safety precautions. I know the fire chief gave you an outstanding evaluation, too, for all the CO2 detectors, the smoke detectors.”

Jody joined us, clapping. “I’ll let you have that I told you so.”

I grinned at my sister who’d scoffed at all the extra precautions I’d invested in. “I passed. I can open.”

“I want to be happy for you but I was kind of hoping you’d fail so we’d have to eat everything.” Rick put his arm around Jody and winced when she elbowed his ribs. “Kidding. I was kidding.”

“I’ll get out of here after I hang your certicate.” The old guy shuffled over to the wall I’d shown him. I had all my food handler certificates, my business license, everything hanging in place of pride behind the computer – the computer that I’d enter sales into, the computer I’d crash-coursed how to run a business.

“There’s a bit of a crowd out there. I think I’ll let myself out through the back.” The old guy shook my hand and shuffled into the off-limits cooking area.

“Okay, you still want to speak to the reporter for the local paper? She’d asked for an interview before the official opening, and you’re running out of time. I can tell her you’ll call her later, if you want?” Jody stood on tiptoe to see into the crowd. “She’s there, near the corner.”

“I’d rather get it over with.” I swallowed as Rick knocked on the glass near where Liz stood. She nodded her understanding as he gestured to the back.

“What am I supposed to say?” I gripped Jody’s arm as Brent raced around to let her in. “I don’t even remember her from school.”

“You wouldn’t. She went to school with Doug. Next county over.”

I groaned, feeling my shoulders sag. “Seriously? Why didn’t you tell me? Why’s she working for Brock news?”

“She lives here now, dummy.” Jody rolled her eyes. “Mom set the whole thing up and Liz agreed to leave Doug out of the article.”

“Mrs. Hague?” Liz came into the store area, her face all business.

“Ms. Anders. But you can call me Ash.” I shook her hand as I gestured to a small table. “We can sit down if you’d like.”

“It’s fine. My photographer is taking pictures in the back, guarded by your nephew. He’ll come out here, take a couple of you and the store, then we’ll be on our way.”

I relaxed. “Oh, good. I thought you wanted an interview.”

Liz grinned, pulling out a recorder. “I’m going to record our conversation and pick any relevant bits out for the article. So, Mama’s Little Helper, huh?”

I eyed the device, swallowed. “Yep.”

“Relax, okay? Tell me about your business.”

When I didn’t speak, Jody jumped in. “I’m sure our mother told you everything.”

“Yes, she told me that Ash knew how hard it was for working parents to put decent meals on the table, get chores done.”

“That’s right. Ash is brilliant, honestly.” I gaped at Jody, shocked to my core at the praise.

Liz kept glancing at me but I didn’t have anything to add. “So then, in a nutshell, you sell homecooked meals for families?”

Jody nodded, but I frowned. “It’s more than that.”

“How?”

“Being a housewife for years, I got bored of meat and potatoes. I started watching cooking shows on TV. Started preparing a variety of healthy meals for my husband, figuring one day I’d be cooking for a family of my own. My husband didn’t like leftovers, so I started giving my neighbour our left overs. She worked two jobs, and rarely had time to cook for herself.”

Liz nodded. “I can understand that.”

“When she moved away, I was stuck. I’d have a fridge full of leftovers, no matter how hard I tried to buy only enough for the two of us.” I remembered running plates of food next door when a young family moved in, how appreciative they were. “I’d help out neighbours, sometimes they’d offer to pay me to cook for them, provided the food even.”

“You started a business?” Liz asked.

“No, not really. Just helping out others.” I shrugged. “But I’d listen to them, heard the woes. How hard to find time to cook decent meals, how hard it was to get all the chores done.”

“And you figured you could help?” Liz smiled. “Mama’s little helper. I get it now.”

“But it’s more than just food. I’ve made a deal with the laundromat down the street. Parents can bring their laundry here, and pick it up the next day, folded and ironed. Joint effort, the laundromat will wash and dry when they’re not busy, I’ll iron and fold. My nephews and some of their friends, are willing to cut grass, shovel snow, as needed. I’ve got a whole list of babysitters with references I can give them, help take the leg work out of finding someone.”

“Wow.” Liz’s face lit up. “Where were you when my kids were little?”

Dreaming of a family of my own. I shook my head, pushing the negative thoughts away. “Practicing for the future.”

The photographer came in, snapping a couple of photos. “What’s in here?”

I glanced at the fridge. “Oh, those are sides, like pasta salads and things. You can buy tubs of them, or small serving sizes for lunches. The containers everything is in are microwaveable, dishwasher safe. You pay a deposit on them, and if you want to keep them, they’re yours, but if you bring them back, rinsed out, you get your deposit back. We’ve got industrial dishwashers to wash and sterilize so they can be reused. The precooked meals that can go in the oven to warm have higher deposits because they’re sturdier dishes for the oven. Basically the deposit covers my cost for them, and is refundable when returned.”

“All homecooked meals, all healthy?” Liz shook her head, amazed.

“Yes. And if you want something but we don’t have it, we’ll make sure we get it. Oh, and we also have prepackaged slow cooker meals. All the ingredients needed, with cooking instructions, so you can come home to a freshly cooked meal. We also have order forms, to order a week at a time, ready for pick up. Every day we cook fresh food, various meals, that we’ll freeze if not sold. The theory being that sometimes people end up working late and don’t want to have to grab fast food or preservative laden freezer meals from the grocery store. Call and find out what’s being cooked and fresh that day, or order a frozen choice. If really time crunched, we’ll deliver.”

“Ash? It’s opening time.” Jody went to the door, flipped the sign to open.

I swiped my hands down my sides, smoothing my clothes and wiping the sudden moisture on my palms.

“Lose the apron, Ms. Anders.” Mandy tugged the tie at my back.

“Thanks. I knew I’d hired you for a reason.” I grinned as Mandy tucked the apron under the counter.

I went to the door, unlocked it. The mayor was there, and most of the town by the looks of it. Liz and her photographer slid out beside me.

“Ready?”

I nodded, reaching for Jody’s hand. The mayor beamed at me and the Chamber of Commerce president nodded. They said a few words, none of which I could hear over the pounding of my heart and the murmurs from the crowd. Then it was done, and my little store was packed.

“Do you smell that?”

“I’m suddenly starving.”

“There’s laundry service? I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

I gaped at Jody, listening to the remarks. “Jody, is it just me, or do they sound positive?”

“More than positive. I just heard someone shouting about how you even do holiday meals, they’ll never have to cook another turkey.”

I shook hands, nodded, watched containers fly out of fridges and freezers. Mandy and Clint were running the cash, Brent helping keep the traffic flowing. Rick brought out stock from the freezers in the back when supplies ran low. Jody kept checking on the food cooking, selling almost everything I’d planned to freeze.

By closing time, I was wiped. When the last of the people left, I staggered to the small table and dropped. “What just happened?”

“Mom! Come see!” Clint hollered from the computer.

I watched Jody rush over, prepared myself for a nightmare. Jody swore. “If you’re going to tell me that the system didn’t work, can you just lie to me instead? I don’t want anything to ruin my mood.”

Jody shook her head. “Remember you’re projected totals? You had the minimum you needed to make every day, then you had your fantasy total?”

I stifled a yawn. “Yeah. What about them?”

“What if I told you you’d hit your fantasy?” Jody grinned.

I blinked, stretched. “Not bad at all.”

Jody frowned. “Your fantasy for the month, dummy. You sold your dream goal for the month in a half day.”

I stared at Jody, then scanned the room. “What are you all standing around for? Do you know how much we’ve got to cook to replace what was sold?”

“I’m out of here. I’ve got cows to milk,” Rick snorted as he bent over to kiss my head.

“You need to go through the resumes.” Jody shook her head. “I’ve got enough to do at home, I can’t keep helping you cook.”

“What resumes?” My heart was pounding. A solid week, I’d been cooking for a solid week to make enough food, round the clock, and now? I had to start over.

“These.” Mandy brought me a few pages. “I put them in order, who looked like good candidates. The top one? She’s my old family studies teacher. She retired but she’s bored. That’s what she said, anyhow. Said she never had you in her class, though.”

“I never took it. Never had any interest in cooking.” I laughed as I thumbed through the pages. “I’ll start calling once I get the ovens going.”

“Already cleaned the slow cookers and pans, so you’re set. My mom’s coming down when she’s out of the shower, said she’d give you hand prepping.”

“She’s hired. Tell her to quit the coffee shop. I’ll hire the teacher, your mom, and what’s-his-name, the retired chef guy.” I yawned, pushing myself to my feet.

“I guess now wouldn’t be a good time to discuss expansion plans?” Clint glanced at his mom, then back at me.

I squinted. “What expansion plans?”

“I kept a list of suggestions on the computer. Like housecleaning, errand runners, stuff like that.”

My bones ached. “I’ll stick to meals for now.”

“Right, I’m sure you will,’ Jody scoffed.

“Go home, or start peeling potatoes. And I need someone to get me thirty kilos of ground beef since I won’t be able to get another delivery from my supplier until Monday.” I grabbed the apron Mandy had stashed earlier, paused. “Print out the list. I’ll take a peek when I’ve got the ovens roaring.”

I heard someone rapping the glass, heard Jody curse. I spun around, spotted Doug standing on the other side of the door. I sighed, marched over to the door. The silence behind me grew as I put my hand out. Doug smoothed his hair, his grin lighting his face. I returned his smile, felt it from the depths of my soul. I reached out, flipped the sign to closed, and turned the slats on the blinds, blocking the interior from view.

“Almost forgot. Good thing Doug reminded me.”

Communication Errors and Crossed Wires

Panic filled me as I weaved through the throng of people. I’d slept in, was dangerously close to missing my flight. I dodged weary travelers, tripped over luggage (and the owners) sitting on the floor under corridor windows. Luckily, my best friend had offered to bring my luggage; all I had was my overstuffed carry-on and my purse, both of which were slamming painfully against my hips as I scrambled through the terminal.

“Ma’am, you need to get in line for security.” A guard stopped me as I was about to pass through the final hurdle.

“But – but –” I studied his stern face, panting. “I’ve passed through –”

“Line up starts there.” He pointed at the end of an incredibly long line. My heart sank. I’d never get through in time.

“Please? I’m late. I’m getting married, I can’t miss my flight.” The tears I forced for sympathy blurred my vision as I grabbed hold of his blue shirt front. I saw no trace of compassion in his eyes.

“Guess if it was that important to ya, ya’d have been on time. Now get in line.”

Head down, I approached the line. “Anyone willing to let a desperate woman cut in front?”

Each face I passed looked away when we made eye contact. Desperation and need to get through before my plane took off called for desperate measures. “I’ll pay twenty bucks, twenty bucks for a spot in line. I’m getting married, I need to get on my plane.”

One woman looked thoughtful but her man shook his head, seizing her arm and moving so close to the people ahead of them I hoped they got slapped with a restraining order. “Fifty! I’ll pay fifty, just please, help a desperate bride-to-be out.”

“Over here.”

I spun in a half circle, spotted a tall man waving. Giddy relief filled me as I made a beeline to him, sticking my tongue out at the couple as I went.

Grumblings and mutterings flowed like a wave down the long line. Any other time, I’d be ashamed. Not today. “Thanks. Can I e-transfer you? I don’t know how much cash I’ve got.”

“And how many more bribes you’ll have to pay?” The man, in his mid-thirties, grinned. “I’m Finn.”

I took his large hand and shook. “I’m Tal. Actually, my name is Tallulah, but for obvious reasons I prefer Tal.”

Something flickered in his incredible eyes (were they blue? Green? Captivating, anyhow), and I noticed he tried to hide a smirk. I had no idea why I’d blurted my name like that. Tallulah was reserved for official government forms and banking details. “Yeah, I know. My dad got to name me. My mom was drugged up because of complications and so high when he got her to sign I should be glad he didn’t add lollipop as my middle name. That’s what my mom was craving while she was high. She agreed to sign anything as long as Dad gave her lollipops.”

I wanted to kick myself for babbling, but something about him unnerved me. We moved ahead, getting closer to the final security check. I hoped it was the last one at least. I had minutes…

“What is your middle name?” Finn shifted so I was ahead of him.

“Oh. We don’t know each other well enough.” My cheeks warmed as I blushed.

“I’ll waive the fifty bucks if you tell me.”

Since my bank account was perilously close to double digits, I caved. “Marigold.”

Finn snorted, covered his mouth. “I’m sorry.”

“Was it worth fifty bucks?” I grinned, putting my bag and my purse on the counter as we shuffled closer. I freed my passport and ticket.

“Tallulah Marigold. I feel like I owe you money now.” Finn shook his head again.

“That’s why I’m anxious to get married. My last name is Ingalls, my married name will stop me from being TMI.”

“TMI? Ah, Too Much Information. Gotcha.” Finn recovered while I went to the miserable looking security people. My bags went through as I went to the metal detectors.

“One sec.” The large woman behind the desk hit buttons on her keyboard, frowning. “Errol, open the bag.”

“There’s nothing –” I broke off as Errol opened my carry-on. The cranky woman gestured at the wedding gift still wrapped in the bag.

“Open it. Might be a gun.”

“But…no! No gun! It’s a wedding gift from my coworkers.” I had no idea what the girls at work got me, but I had a feeling I didn’t want it opened in the middle of the airport with a thousand people craning their necks to see what the hold up was. I’d almost left it at home but drunk me packed it for something to do on the plane.

Errol ripped the flowery wrapping paper off the rectangular box. The miserable witch chuckled as Errol showed her the contents of the plain brown box. “What? What is it?”

The hag shook her head, rolling her eyes. “I’m sure you don’t know.”

I stared at the phallic device Errol had taken out of the box to show me, confusion warring with dawning horror. “Oh. My. God. No! Seriously? Is that –?”

I heard the laughter first, then the whispers. Like the complaints when I’d cut in line, only now there were titters, giggles, and cat calls. “Throw it out. I don’t want it.”

“You sure? Says it’s state of the art, heavy duty, top of the line pleasure.” Errol read from the large cardboard tag dangling from the base before stuffing it back in the box. I moaned, shaking my head frantically as Errol tried to put the cursed thing back in my bag.

“No, please. Sell it, donate it, take it home to your wife. Give it to –” I stared at the crusty woman across from me, saw the warning in her eyes. If anyone needed a dose of pleasure…I thought better of my suggestion. “Your, uh, next single woman passing through. I’m getting married, can we hurry this up?”

My face was so hot it burned and I was shaking. I could still hear Finn’s chuckles beside me but I refused to look at him. The witch had a heart after all; with barely a smile, she waved me through. The metal detectors didn’t go off (yay!). I grabbed my toyless bag and my purse, glanced at the overhead signs and jogged toward my boarding area.

I made a wrong turn, back tracked. My heart raced and sweat beaded my brow. Every time I spied a plane taxiing down the runway, I was sure it was mine. Resigned, I decided to find my gate and confirm what I knew in my heart already. Then I’d see if I could get a refund, find another airline with another flight later. I staggered into the waiting area I should’ve been in long before. The area was packed but I scanned the crowd as I tried to think what to do next. My jaw dropped when I recognized Joy’s shaggy brown mop of hair, her wire framed glasses, as she stared at her phone. I darted around people, not looking above shoulder height in case I saw anyone from the security check.

“Is there a delay? Shouldn’t you have at least boarded by now? Or were you being a good friend, not going because I wasn’t there?” Joy moved her bag from the chair beside her without looking up. I flopped gratefully (but not gracefully) beside her.

Joy, my best friend of twenty-seven years, raised an eyebrow as she finally looked at me. “What are you talking about? Delay? I got here early, haven’t heard anything about a delay.”

“Were you listening to your audio book and missed the boarding call?” I didn’t see her blasted headphones but why else was she still sitting here? I pulled my phone out and showed Joy the time. “I slept in. We missed the plane.”

Joy frowned as she glanced at her own phone. “You idiot.”

I bristled at her tone. “What?”

“Did you change your time settings last night? I knew I shouldn’t have left you, you were already buzzing.”

“No I wasn’t.” I squared my shoulders defiantly even as the memory crept in. Plastered by the end of the night, I’d decided to be proactive and change my time so I wouldn’t have to when I got to Alberta.

“You set your time two hours ahead.” Joy grabbed my phone and started tapping the screen. “First of all, he’s two hours behind. And second, your phone will update as we cross time zones.”

I groaned. “Karen and I tried to figure it out, like if it was eleven for Hank and not me, it’d be one for him, or whatever the logic was. Okay, fine. I was drunk.”

Joy tossed me my phone. “I reset your settings.”

I leaned against my seat, the hangover I’d woken up with kicking in (the adrenaline rush seeing the time had postponed the worst of it as I’d leapt into action). I dozed until Joy elbowed me.

“Get off me, you’re drooling on my shoulder.”

I wiped my mouth and stretched, feeling slightly better. The waiting area was even more crowded, and the drone of voices from excited travelers were like little hammers hitting my skull. I winced when I spied the couple I’d tried to bribe to let me through. “At least I didn’t pay.”

Joy looked up from her phone. “Hmm?”

I explained, as plainly as I could, the adventure of the morning (omitting the part about the gift).

“How much were you supposed to pay?”

“I offered fifty, but I got off easy. Just told him my name.” I snickered.

“You scarred some hillbilly hick from the prairies?” Joy shook her head, grinning.

“Hank doesn’t live in the prairies, dummy.” I grinned at Joy, waggling my eyebrows as I pictured Finn. “The guy definitely wasn’t a hick, and for all I know he was going to Texas.”

“Alberta is part of the prairies, and it’s Canada’s Texas.” Joy rolled her eyes at me. “That’s why I agreed to come with you. I love Alberta. And fine, not a hillbilly. Oil worker maybe.”

“Hank’s not a farmer. He’s a cattle guy. Rancher? And the guy in line was too put together to be a hick farmer or oil worker.” I shrugged, thinking of Finn’s button down shirt and expensive running shoes. “Hank might be a bit hick, for now anyhow. I figure we’ll try the cow thing, then come back here to civilization and he can get a real job. Plus, there’s cows here. He can have a hobby farm.”

Joy put her phone in her pocket, staring at me with that look she used to give me when I argued with the teacher. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am. You know why Hank wanted to marry me. I agreed, because, well…John.” I was about to launch into a tirade about why Ontario was so much better than Alberta, about my reasons for this crazy wedding, when our flight was announced. “Saved by the bell – rather, boarding call.”

Joy picked up her carry-on bag and purse, still staring at me. I slung my purse over my right shoulder, my carry-on over my left, and we followed the rest of the sheep to the boarding gate. The couple smirked when they saw me but didn’t say anything. I wasn’t in the mood to explain more to Joy. She was already ticking me off.

“Thanks again for bringing my luggage. Did you have any trouble getting through?” I asked after a few minutes of uncomfortable silence.

“No.” Joy kept her gaze on her phone.

I replayed our conversation in my head, wondering what had set her off. Hank was a rancher, I hadn’t realized Alberta was part of the prairies but I’d conceded when she obviously knew more than me. Someone kept clearing their throat and giving little coughs behind me but I refused to turn around because I had a sinking feeling they’d witnessed the whole fiasco earlier.

When we didn’t appear to be moving anytime soon, I huffed out an impatient breath. “Why’d they announce it if we’re just supposed to stand here?”

Joy harrumphed but didn’t say anything else. Deciding to make a last ditch effort to fix things before enduring a four hour flight in angry silence, I sighed. “What’s wrong?”

Joy cricked her neck when she whipped her head around to stare at me. Massaging her neck, she glowered. “You know how I feel about all this. The only thing I support you on is going there to meet Hank. I can’t believe you committed to marrying him simply because he needs a wife, but you did — and now you’re saying you plan to manipulate him into giving everything up to move here?”

I ran my fingers through my hair, smoothing out the tangles. “We’ve been through this a million times. Hank needs a wife, yes, and he’s okay looking. John’s dead, and you said it yourself – I’m still here. I’m ready, finally, to move on.”

“You were ready to move on long before John –” Joy’s face was set in the usual annoyance John’s name evoked, but to her credit, she struggled to compose herself. “Anyhow, that’s neither here nor there. Hank’s what concerns me. You seem to think you’ll supply the wife end of the deal but then you want to change him completely. You saw what he said, raising cattle is in his blood. What are you going to do if there’s no attraction? You swore you cared about him, but honestly? I don’t believe you. I think you’re just lazy –”

“Lazy?” My mouth opened and closed in disbelief.

“Yes, lazy. You want the husband but lack the ambition to actually go out and look for one.”

I pulled my ticket from the side pocket of my purse as we finally started to move ahead. “I’ve been talking to Hank for months.”

“Online. Not even video chats, just emails.” Joy rolled her eyes as she extracted her ticket. “You don’t know if you’ve got any, what’s your word? Chemistry?”

Fury flashed, hot and bright. “You make no sense. None. When I first met John, I told you we were meant to be, the chemistry was intense. You’re the one who said chemistry isn’t all there is to a relationship. Asked me if I could talk to him, be friends with him, because that’s what was most important.”

“Exactly!” Joy’s voice rose several octaves and the couple from the security line turned around nervously. “You had chemistry, but nothing else, and look where that got you. And I never said chemistry wasn’t important, but you needed more than just –”

“Is there a problem here?” A flight attendant wrung his hands nervously as his beady eyes darted from Joy’s miserable face to mine.

“No, no problem. I’m sorry,” Joy apologized, pink spots shining high on her cheeks. I noticed she was apologizing to him, not me.

“Can you get her suitcase? She won’t be flying with us today.” I brushed past Joy to hand my ticket to another attendant.

“I’m afraid that’s not possible.” Beady-eye guy continued wringing his hands.

I snatched my ticket from the woman who was eyeing me nervously. “Fine. Never mind.”

I stormed across the weird tunnel leading out of the airport and into the plane, my stomping causing vibrations. I glared at the ticket in my hand, looking for my seat number.

“Halfway down the row, in the middle.” Yet another flight attendant, this one model pretty and annoyingly happy, gestured when she glanced down at my ticket.

I’d never been on a plane before. Movies and TV shows made them seem bigger somehow, or else this was a smaller plane. I regretted switching airlines to make sure Joy and I got seats together. I struggled to put my bag in the overhead bin and took great pleasure when I realized how much more difficult it would be for Joy, who was two inches shorter. I’d selected the window seat for Joy in a fit of generosity since she was coming with me and would be returning alone. In a snit, I took the window.

I tucked my purse under my seat, and stared mutinously out the window while waiting for Joy, sneaking peeks every minute or two to see if she boarded. Maybe she’d decided to go home? My initial reaction was spitefully glad, but as I watched more strangers enter, I started to regret our fight. Was Joy right? Was I being stupid? Lazy? She had no idea how hard it was to trust a man, to look at him and wonder if he spoke truths or lies. How could she throw John in my face? I supposed Hank could’ve been writing lies, but somehow, I didn’t think so. He’d been honest about the women he spoke to, about his intentions and reasons for them. More honest than he probably should’ve been, and definitely more honest than I’d been. Joy just didn’t get it. I quickly averted my gaze from the entrance when I heard Joy’s voice, stared out the window with a determined nonchalance.

“Thanks again.” Joy, probably simpering to the flight attendant to ingratiate herself to get better service. I hated that about Joy. Her whole honey catching mosquitoes or whatever her saying was. Who wanted to catch bugs anyhow?

Up and down the aisle people were putting their bags into overhead bins. I kept staring out the window, waiting for Joy to sit so I could ignore her better.

“Excuse me, but I think you’re in my seat.”

I jerked my head up. Finn was staring at me, his greenish-bluish eyes twinkling. “Hardly.”

Joy’s head popped up over the seat ahead of me. “I’m supposed to have the window seat.”

My face burned for what felt like the hundredth time. “You’re supposed to be sitting here, yes.”

“I switched.” Joy disappeared behind the seat again and I was tempted to kick it.

Finn sat next to me. “I’m good with the aisle.”

I folded my arms over my chest, taking deep breaths and holding them, exhaling like I’d been taught for inner peace. The top of Joy’s head in front of me was blocking the calm. “Why’d you switch with her?”

Joy popped up again. “Because he’s a gentleman, and because he was scared I’d slap you silly.”

Joy ducked down again before she could see the finger gesture I flipped her. “Defending me? Or protecting her? Because at this point it’s a coin-flip who’d give the better beating.”

Finn leaned close. “After the morning you’ve had, my money’s on you, Tallulah.”

I clenched my jaw as I stared out the window. My mind worked overtime second guessing everything I’d ever done, but especially the last few months. I was about to get married. To a man I’d only seen pictures of. When Finn nudged me, I scowled at him until I realized he was only trying to tell me to put my seatbelt on.

My fingers tightened on the arm rest as the plane started to roll. “I changed my mind. I want off. Can you move so I can get up?”

Finn put his hand over mine, squeezing. “Sorry, it’s a little late for that.”

A voice came over the intercom, I couldn’t understand anything said. “Words, words, words. More words. Words in French.”

“What? What’d they say?” My panic mounted as the intercom clicked off. “Are we going to crash?”

Finn, to his credit, didn’t laugh aloud even though I saw laughter in his eyes. “No, we’re just lining up for take-off.”

The plane stopped rolling. “I can get off now?”

“Uh, no. You’ve never flown before, have you?”

My tummy lurched when the plane moved. “No, but I have been up the CN Tower.”

“This is, er, a little different.” Finn’s sparkling eyes were glued to my face. “Just watch me, not out there. You’ll be fine.”

I did as he said until I felt the plane picking up speed. I tore my gaze from his, watching out the window as the pavement fell away. I guess we left it but I didn’t feel like we’d gone up. “It’s like the ground dropped.”

“Once we’re at full altitude you won’t really notice we’re moving.” Finn patted my hand before releasing it. I wished he’d put it back.

The buildings were below us, becoming tiny pin pricks that faded away as we soared higher, into fluffy clouds. “So, what, we just sit here for four hours?”

Finn sighed, closing the book he’d just opened (I recognized the mystery, had even recommended it to Hank). “I think they put on a movie.”

“What movie? A comedy?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never flown this airline before.” Finn looked resigned to his fate. I knew I was the annoying nervous flyer, but just now I didn’t care. He could blame Joy, it was his fault for swapping seats anyhow.

“What’s your middle name? And is your full name something weird, like Phineas?” I latched on to the thought; it was only fair, he knew mine.

Finn grinned. “Nothing as fancy as yours, I assure you. I’m Finn Alexander Ryan. I’m thirty-four years old, I work in education, never been married but came close once. I had a dog but he died a year ago and I haven’t had the time or energy to get another. I have an aversion to cows, but I like to eat beef.”

I narrowed my eyes. “What did Joy tell you about me?”

Finn snickered. “Nothing about your life. I was sitting behind you in the waiting area, then in line behind you for boarding.”

“That was you coughing?”

“Yeah, I was trying to get your attention. So, why don’t you talk it through? If you don’t mind me saying so, you kinda sounded like you needed to talk to someone unbiased.”

“You don’t want to hear the boring details of my life.” Out of nowhere, I felt tears burn my eyes. “Read the book, it’s much better than my story.”

Finn glanced at the paperback on his thigh. “Nah. I can read anytime. We’ve got four hours to kill.”

I should’ve been nicer to Joy, then I wouldn’t be tempted to talk. “Fine, but just remember, you asked for it.”

Finn nodded, patting my hand. The plane lurched and I gripped his fingers. “It’s just turbulence, it’s okay.”

“All the same,” I smiled apologetically as I kept his hand hostage. “Okay, where to start? John? When I met Joy in kindergarten?”

“Junior or Senior?” Finn grinned.

“Just kindergarten. Where we lived, they didn’t do the whole junior and senior. You started when you were five. We were on the same bus, sat together the first day, and were best friends by the time we came home. Been best friends ever since.”

“Okay, that’s Joy covered. Who’s John?”

I cringed. “My biggest mistake. My first and only love.”

Finn looked like he wanted to say something, but when he kept quiet, I opened the floodgates. “We met when I was twenty-six. Made all my exes seem irrelevant somehow. He was good-looking, charismatic. Kind of like you.”

“I get the feeling I shouldn’t take that as a compliment.” Finn laughed, but his hand twitched in mine.

“No, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by that. Just that you’ve been good to me, you’ve got personality, I kinda feel like I connect to you –” I stopped talking and bit my lip, feeling flustered. “Just scratch that part. Where was I? Oh yeah, so he was this great guy, I fell hard and fast.He told me all these things, how he was a freelance photographer, showed me pictures he’d taken from exotic places.”

“Sounds like a great guy so far,” Finn commented when I paused to gather my thoughts.

I gave a derisive snort. “Doesn’t he? By the time I was head over heels, the gold-plating around him started to tarnish. He’d asked me to marry him, but a year later was still refusing to discuss dates. He’d disappear for weeks, tell me he had to work.”

I glanced at Finn, saw his attention still focused on me. What was it about this guy that had me rambling? “He’d stay at my place when he was in town. Joy started to ask questions that I couldn’t answer.”

“Like what?” Finn reclined his seat slightly but kept his hand in mine.

“Why didn’t I ever go to his place? How could he afford to fly all over the place yet never showed me his published work.” I laughed bitterly. “All thoughts I’d been having but hadn’t asked because John didn’t like to be questioned.”

“And you put up with that?” Finn’s eyebrows rose, disappeared beneath the fringe of dark hair.

I glanced out the window into the bright blue sky. When I reclined my seat to match Finn’s, I shrugged. “I guess, in hindsight, I was starting to suspect something was very wrong. He never liked to be asked anything, but instead of changing the subject, he started to get angry, which only made me push harder. The first time he lost it, he put his fist through the wall in my apartment.”

Finn’s hand gripped mine tighter. “That the only thing he punched?”

I peeked at the back of Joy’s seat, saw the headband from headphones over the her head. “At first, yes.”

“What does that mean?” Finn gripped the armrest on the aisle side so hard his knuckles turned white. He shook his head before the stewardess pushing a drink trolly even opened her mouth.

“Let’s just say once he started to unravel, he came apart fast. All at once, I became a stastic, a victim of domestic violence. And with the violence came the truth of who and what he was. He’d been dealing drugs for years. He couldn’t keep up the act anymore, he’d started using what he’d sold to countless other addicts.” I felt such shame, such humiliation. “I didn’t see it, didn’t know. How stupid and foolish, huh?”

“No. When you love someone, you forgive things. Sounds like he was very good at lying, cheating, manipulating.” Finn, tension radiating from him, loosened his grip on my hand immediately when he saw me wince at his tight hold.

“He was the best.” I laughed at the lack of humour in the words.

“Obviously you broke up with him.” Finn’s jaw clenched and unclenched, I felt his anger, but unlike with John, I didn’t recoil because instinctively I knew the rage wasn’t at me, but for me.

“You’d think, wouldn’t you? I stayed. Tried to help him, tried to get him clean.” I tried to pull my hand away, but now it was Finn holding on tight. “He’d fly into rages, hit me sometimes, apologize always.”

“Your friends didn’t try to intervene? Your family?”

“Everyone was busy with life. I was happy for them, didn’t want to be a burden. Made excuses why I couldn’t meet. My parents winter in Florida, live in a trailer every summer. Busy snowbirds, home and away. We’d talk on the phone, but that was normal. Joy was the only one who noticed.”

“What did she do?”

“She tried everything she could. Didn’t I know better, wasn’t I worth more? What kind of friend was I, letting her down all the time because of John? All angles.”

“And?”

“We eventually drifted apart. What could she do, really? One day, I reached out. I was done. I packed up whatever I had left of value. Joy picked me up and I went to stay with her.”

“Why do I feel like there’s more?” Finn stroked the back of my hand with his thumb.

“I wish that was it. But one day, John met me at work, asked if we could talk. Asked me for help.” I tried to smile but couldn’t. “I fell for his lies. Always had. Saw glimpses of the John I’d fallen for. I went with him, got in some decrepit van. We sat in the back, talking. I saw him take something so I tried to leave but the doors wouldn’t open. He popped more pills, snorted something, screaming at me to shut up, stop crying. He hit me, grabbed my purse, took my money. That’s when I found out how completely he’d played me. He was laughing at my gullibility. The pictures he took? Stock photos from some free site. When he’d go away on shoots? Nah, he was hooking up with one of his many other girlfriends. Never brought me home because he had a wife and kid. I was breaking, and he just laughed in my face. Then, when I thought he was going to really hurt me, he stopped. This weird look came into his eyes, and he lay down on the bench seat like he’d passed out.”

“He hadn’t?” Finn spoke softly, his free hand reaching out to wipe my tears.

“I just left him there. Grabbed my purse, my money, crawled over him and fled. I called 911 when I was far enough away, thinking police would arrest him, that maybe if he went to jail he’d get help. I hadn’t loved him in a long time, but I did care about him. That night, at Joy’s, I saw the news. A man had been found dead of an overdose. What if I’d called sooner?”

Finn put his hands on my cheeks, leaning across the seat to stare into my eyes. “It’s not your fault.”

I nodded, closing my eyes. “I know. Logically…the science and facts are that he was dead before he hit the bench seat. But the heart? It doesn’t listen to facts, to police or coroner reports.”

“I’m sorry.” Finn’s simple words went deep.

“Me too.”

Finn and I sat in silence for a long time. I had no concept of time, of anything except trying to get my head out of the past. The ache, the guilt, still lived inside no matter how much time passed. Finn bent down, putting his book away and digging around inside the laptop bag he’d brought. I went back to staring out the window, figuring he had work to do.

“I, uh, brought you this.”

I glanced down at the brown box Finn held out. I stared, stunned. After the emotional barfing I’d done, I erupted into a fit of giggles that hurt my side and had the passengers around us staring. “That’s not mine.”

Finn stuffed the box back into his bag. “I beg to differ. Errol sends his regards, wishes you luck with it.”

I slapped his arm, still giggling. “How’d you do that? I just ripped my soul to pieces, and in one fell swoop you put me back together.”

Finn blew on his knuckles, dusted them off on his shoulder. “It’s a talent. Besides, I told you I work in education. I’m a high school teacher, and when you’ve had to deal with hysterical teenagers caught up in love triangles, well, your story seems a bit boring.”

I pulled my phone free, read the time. “We’ve only been here two hours? Feels like longer.”

“Twilight zone.” Finn hummed the notes from the TV show. “We’re in Alberta, silly. Four hours become two with the time change.”

Instead of feeling relief, dread filled my belly. “We’re landing soon?”

Finn nodded, checking his watch. “About fifteen minutes. Why don’t you sound happy?”

I peeked over the seat, saw Joy was asleep with her head resting on a pillow propped by the window. “Truth? Until about a half hour after we met, I was headed here without really thinking.”

Finn frowned, staring at me with those beautiful eyes. “You’re coming here to get married, aren’t you?”

All my convictions, to myself and everyone else, about how I was doing the right thing seemed to have been left on the ground at Pearson airport. “Oh, God. I’m marrying a man I’ve never met.”

“But you love him, right? I overheard you telling Joy about the emails. You must’ve fallen in love with the guy who wrote them.”

I put my head between my knees, trying to breathe. I felt Finn rubbing my back at the same time he reached over me to grab a paper bag from the mesh pocket on the back of Joy’s seat. “Here, breathe into this.”

I sat up, pinned Finn’s arm behind me. I breathed into the bag until I felt better. “Thanks.”

“Looks like my work here isn’t done after all.” Finn winked, extricating his arm from behind me and holding my hand again.

“I’m in trouble. Big trouble.” I put the bag to my face again and breathed a few more times.

“How?”

“I promised him – Hank. He’s been looking for a wife for a year now. His parents are retiring, giving their kids this huge ranch they run, but only the kids that are married and want the ranch. Hank’s older brother is the only one of the seven of them with a spouse. Hank and his brother are the only ones who want the ranch, his other brothers and sisters only want money, don’t have any interest in working the land. Hank’s got until the end of the year to be married or his married brother’s name is the only one on the title, and his parents give the six others a cash payout.”

Finn shrugged. “I get his angle, what do you get out of it?”

“Promise you won’t judge?” I studied him for a second then laughed. “Never mind. After what you’ve seen today, you’ll be glad to never see me again. Nothing else I say can make me seem worse.”

Finn studied me the way I’d studied him. “I might’ve thought you a bit, er, scattered this morning at the airport, but I figured frantic bride-to-be and forgave that. After what you shared with me? There’s nothing but awe and respect here.”

“Uh huh. You’re well versed in nice things to say to hysterical females. Guess that’s why you’re a high school teacher.”

“Don’t put yourself down. You survived, and you got out. Not many do. But you still had enough heart to try to help. That’s commendable.”

“Certifiable. That’s the correct word. Look at me, a college drop out correcting a high school teacher. That used to drive Joy nuts, when I’d argue with the teacher, or correct them.”

“That’s what makes you an excellent school secretary, being good at standing up to teachers.” Finn grinned. “Now tell me what’s in it for you, getting married.”

I paused. “How’d you –”

“What?” Finn frowned.

Deciding I must’ve said what I did when I was trying to explain the gift at the security desk, I let it go. “In a nutshell?It’s about having a husband without risk.”

“What does that mean?” Finn’s perplexed tone and the funny way he squinted made me smile.

“I started trolling dating sites with my friends, as a joke. Not to make fun of desperate people but to make fun of the narcissists. So many self-absorbed people who had profiles that screamed idiot. Like one guy, he actually wrote that any woman he selected should feel honoured that he found her worthy of him.”

The intercom interrupted. “We’ll be landing in a few moments, folks, The temperature is a comfortable fifteen degrees, and the wind is low. Fasten your seatbelts, thank you for flying with us, and enjoy the wonderful city of Calgary.”

I didn’t do well with French so I tuned the rest out.

“We’re pressed for time.” Finn finished buckling his seatbelt and automatically reached for my hand. “Jump to Hank.”

“One of our friends decided to join. She’d had no luck finding a guy, and was getting desperate. Joy and I encouraged her, but then she’d talk about the losers she met, how they all seemed to want to hook up casually. She mentioned this one, that seemed promising except he was in Alberta.”

“Hank?” Finn guessed.

“Yep. She gave me his email address when she decided to pass because she wasn’t interested in moving. I started out talking to him about why he was looking for a fast marriage. By then, I’d pretty much decided that if I wanted to get married, I’d have to be like those guys who mail-order brides, only I’d be mail-ordering a man.” I felt my cheeks warm but took a deep breath. “Then this guy, this rancher, started going on about his passion for the ranch, confiding that he just didn’t have time to date, all that stuff. And I started thinking, ‘hey, Alberta is a million miles from the bad memories’. We had some stuff in common, too, which was another selling point. At least I’d like him enough. Always seemed to know what to write to cheer me up when I was blue. He’s not much of a talker, doesn’t like the phone, so we mostly communicated via emails. It’s weird though, sometimes he was chatty, funny, other times business-like.”

“Did you tell him about John?”

“Kinda. I just told him that I was with a guy for a couple of years, but he passed away and I wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. Figured I’d either tell him or I wouldn’t, I’d decide once we were married.”

“What about love?” Finn stared at me so intently I had to blink and look away.

“Love never entered into the conversation. We were both in this for our own reasons. Him to get half of the ranch he loves, me to avoid falling in love with another frog masquerading as a prince.” I realized how cold that sounded. “Sometimes, in some of his longer letters, I’d think ‘I could really fall for him’. He’s a busy guy, maybe in person, in time, I’d see the guy who wrote the chattier messages, fall for him.”

“And you quit your job? To live here?”

I swallowed hard, feeling even hotter under the collar. “Um, well. Not exactly.”

“Tallulah Marigold Ingalls, did you lie to your fiancé?” Finn, eyes wide, stared at me incredulously.

“I’ll tell you the truth if you promise never to call me that again. Hank doesn’t even know about the Marigold.” I laughed, squeezing his hand. “I’m on a week’s vacation. I’m going to tell Hank that I couldn’t just quit, that I have to go back until at least the Christmas holidays. I’m hoping that I can get a leave of absence for a year, come back. Convince Hank that Ontario is the place he wants to be. Even if he wants a farm, we can figure that out, I can commute.”

“This guy is counting on you to be his wife so he can keep his ranch. You really think he’ll say sure, let’s give Ontario a shot?”

“Now you sound like Joy. I swear, she should marry Hank. She’s the one who calls Alberta Canada’s Texas. She reads all these romance novels about Texas ranchers, but I know she’s thinking Alberta when she reads them.”

“I do so.” Joy’s voice drifted back to us and I laughed. “How much did you hear?”

“The Canada’s Texas stuff. All true, by the way.” Joy tried to peek over her seat but with the seatbelt on she couldn’t manage it. “We’re landing. I’m so excited. I was just listening to an audio book and now you have to know I’ll be staying with you next year for the Calgary Stampede. Maybe I’ll find me my own rancher.”

I winked at Finn and felt a swoop in my belly. At first, I thought it was because he winked back, but then I realized we were preparing to land. I clutched his hand tight as I watched the ground getting closer.

“What if the wheels don’t come out?” I squealed, leaning over to see better.

“We’re fine, you’re fine.” Finn chuckled beside me. “You’ll be fine, probably. Maybe.”

I shot him a dirty look but then the plane bounced and I bit my lip. I realized we were on the ground, and slowing down. “How long does it take to drive here? I’m thinking if I’m going to be a commuter wife, I’m going to have to get a better car.”

Finn laughed but made no comment. When the plane stopped, I unbuckled my seatbelt before the light went off. “I’m so cramped from sitting, I need to stand up.”

“Won’t be long.” Finn pulled his laptop bag free.

“How do you know?” I grabbed my purse.

“I do this flight fairly often.” Finn shrugged.

Before I could ask what kinid of business a high school teacher could possibly have in Calgary, we got clearance to leave the plane. As much as I wanted to stretch my legs, I wasn’t excited to face what lay ahead. “I’m not ready.”

“Come on,” Joy called, getting her carry on down.

“No.”

Finn grabbed his bag and mine, tossed mine onto the seat he’d just vacated. “Let’s go. We’re holding up the line.”

Joy nodded. “We have to go get our luggage, you’ve still got a few minutes to be the stereotypical bride with cold feet.”

Finn slung my bag over his shoulder with his and I followed them off the plane. Each step felt incredible physically, but made my nerves skitter.

We went to the baggage claim just as the suitcases shot down the chute. Joy was closest, so she grabbed mine and waited patiently for hers. I watched Finn as he reached between Joy and I to grab his.

“Murphy?” I felt something akin to dread wash over me as I blinked up at Finn.

Finn pulled me out of the way of the passengers still waiting for their bags. “What’s that?”

“Your tag, it says Murphy. But you said your last name was Ryan.”

“No I didn’t. My middle names are Alexander Ryan.” Finn seemed resigned, but before I could ask more questions, Joy bounced over to us with her suitcase.

Deciding Murphy was a common name, I followed Joy. As we neared the main doors, I tugged on my bag he still had. “You probably have somewhere to be.”

Finn kept my bag on his shoulder as he wheeled his suitcase beside me. When I stopped walking, Joy kept going but Finn stopped, too. “Come on, we’re going to be in the way.”

“Tal, let’s go!” Joy shouted from the doors. “I think that’s Hank. Come on!”

Finn wheeled his suitcase to join Joy. He had my bag, and my best friend, but I suddenly wanted to turn around and get back on the plane. “What the –?”

Joy abandoned her suitcase and came over to grab mine. “God, he’s a real rancher. He’s got cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat. Come see! You are so lucky.”

Lucky wasn’t exactly the word I’d use. Livid, maybe. “Did you know Finn’s last name was Murphy?”

Joy blinked, still tugging me along. “What? Come on.”

Hoping I was wrong, I finally stopped dragging my heels. I kept darting glances at Finn, but he wasn’t looking at me. We went through the door, and sure enough, I spotted Hank. The pictures hadn’t done him justice, he was rugged, handsome, and pure rancher. And I felt nothing. He had a luggage cart and was leaning on the handle with one boot on the lower shelf.

Awkward didn’t describe the feeling. I smiled at the man, but he might as well have been a stranger. Wait, he was a stranger. A stranger destined to be my husband. I opened my mouth, but no words came out.

“I see you met already?” Hank clapped a hand on Finn’s shoulder, and all my suspicions were confirmed in a red haze of rage.

“Excuse us, would you? I need a moment with your lovely brother.” I grit my teeth and tried to smile at Hank but feared I must’ve looked rabid or violent, or both. The words didn’t come close to describing how I felt as I gripped Finn’s arm and yanked. When we were in a quiet corner, I glared at Finn. “Murphy. You’re the city-slicker brother.”

Finn perched on the edge of a window ledge. “Busted.”

“You knew the whole time who I was?” Fury warred with humiliation, humiliation was winning, but coming up from the rear was devastation.

Finn hung his head. “I saw you, frantically trying to get through security and I recognized you from the pictures you sent Hank. Then you confirmed it with Tallulah.”

Betrayal reared its ugly head. “So you planned this whole thing? To sit with me and get the whole sordid story of my life out of me? Did Hank tell you to?”

Finn ran his hands through his hair, shaking his head. “I wanted to tell you. Then I overheard you talking to your friend, figured I’d bide my time. Then you and Joy fought, and I saw my chance to sit with you. I had every intention of telling you.”

“Right. Hard to find a minute on a four hour flight to say ‘by the way, I’m going to be your brother-in-law’.” I snorted, feeling dangerously close to losing my head completely.

“By the time you’d finished telling me about what a jerk John was, what you’d been through, I –” Finn blew out a breath. “When you said I reminded you of him –”

“Little did I know you were as manipulative as him.” I finished the sentence for him.

Finn grabbed my hand as I started to back away. “You might as well hear the whole thing.”

I pulled my hand free. “Whole thing?”

“Hank, he’s not much of a talker. On the phone, or on the computer. He prefers face-to-face.”

I clutched my belly as I bent over, dangerously close to throwing up the bit of water I’d drank that morning. Finn had waved the pretty stewardess off whenever she’d brought the cart around; now I wished I’d had multiple drinks so I could spew them on his fancy running shoes. “No.”

“Some of the emails were Hank. But as you got chattier, he asked me to step in. Not because he didn’t care, but because he didn’t know what to say.”

I stood up straight, staring into his eyes. “I should’ve known. How come I didn’t figure it out?”

Finn came to stand in front of me, putting his hands on my shoulders. Shock kept me from slugging him. “I’m sorry.”

I couldn’t help it, I burst into laughter. “Right.”

Finn’s concerned gaze never left my face. “I wasn’t going to come. I was going to make excuses, that I couldn’t take time off during the school year. Not really an excuse, you know that, working for the board yourself. I’m flying back on Monday, like Joy. I can’t wait to leave, Joy wants to stay but thinks she’ll be in the way. That’s what we were talking about.”

“I bet you can take the same plane back today.”

“I will, if that’s what you want. But hear me out, please? I know I don’t deserve it, but just listen.”

I stared at him as my thoughts raced. Part of me wanted to walk away just to defy him, the other part wanted, demanded, to understand. I glanced over at Joy and Hank. They were laughing at something and seemed happy enough. “Fine. Talk.”

“At first, I agreed to handle the chattier messages because I was curious. Who marries a stranger? I even wondered if you were some sort of gold digger since Hank’s going to be part owner of one of Alberta’s best ranches.”

“I never knew until he, or was it you, mentioned money after the marriage arrangements had already been made.”

“Believe me, I didn’t take long to see that you weren’t interested in money. I knew something had happened, something had you jumping at the opportunity to marry Hank. You made it sound like your boyfriend died, that you lost him tragically and were struggling with the loss.”

“Maybe I did, maybe I wanted it to be true. Much better to have loved and lost them in an accident than the ugly truth.”

“Yeah, well, by the time you’d made your plans with Hank – and yes, those were from him – I’d realized I probably shouldn’t come for the wedding.”

“Why, because you’d slip up and I’d find out?” I snorted, rolling my eyes. “You were right.”

“No. I didn’t want to come because a part of me was falling in love with you. You laugh at yourself, you make me laugh at myself. Or laugh at Hank, I guess. But it was getting so hard to keep emailing you because I wanted to say ‘forget the flight, meet me for coffee instead’.”

Not believing him, I shrugged. “Yet here you are.”

“Yet here I am. I’m not proud of it, but I had to see you. Had to know if the feelings you stirred up were just because it’s easier to feel when someone’s faceless. But then you were frantic, begging for help, and I realized – nope, it’s you.”

“I’d read your emails, then look at Hank’s picture, so confused. I didn’t feel anything when I looked at the picture, so figured the feelings were just reactions to words typed out and put no faith in feeling.”

“But you were still going to marry him.”

“Partly because I’d hoped that the email feelings would merge with the man when we met.” I bit my lip. “But from the moment you flagged me down, I felt more for you than I did for the man in the pictures.”

Finn’s troubled eyes brightened. “You felt it too?”

I heard Joy’s laughter, heard Hank’s responding bark. “So what if I do…did? I’m marrying your brother, that’s what I came here to do. I’m not marrying him then being a cliché, the woman who cheats on her husband with his brother.” I snorted out a laugh. “That’s not who I am.”

“It’s not who I am either.”

“Good, so we agree? We’ll forget this nonsense and you’ll be there for your brother when he marries me? He told me you were always his favourite.”

Finn looked sheepish. “I wrote that. Hank’s got no favourites unless they’re cows.”

I turned my attention to Hank. “He seems to be enjoying himself with Joy.”

“I’ve never seen him so animated. Kinda weird.” Finn shrugged. “But I don’t think I’ll be at the church. Maybe I’ll slip in for the reception, slap him on the shoulder and slip out again.”

Joy glanced over at us and I saw her stricken expression when she caught us watching them. I pondered her reaction, confusion and delight colliding. “She’s smitten.”

“What?” Finn blinked down at me.

“She’s attracted to Hank.”

Finn gaped at me. “I was just thinking the same about Hank.”

“I’ve got a confession of my own. Joy was one of the women Hank was talking to. I guess you know how he’d keep me updated on who he was talking to? I figured out Joy was one of them, talking to Hank behind my back. I kinda told Hank that she was a lush. He knew her as CowboyFan123. Joy just wanted the romantic side, never mentioned anything about Hank to me, and I was ticked she’d tried to weasel her way in and steal him. That’s part of why I begged her to come – partly to get her to finally confess she’d tried to poach him, and partly because I thought maybe she’d meet a better cowboy at the wedding so I could stop feeling guilty for saying she was a drunk. Wanted her to meet someone who’d make her smile the way she is right now.”

Finn’s eyes lit up. “Joy’s CowboyFan? Hank used to talk about her. Never asked me to do his emailing with her. I wondered why she’d disappeared from the list of contacts before they even exchanged pictures. Hank hates drunks since one of his ranch hands was killed by a drunk driver. Is Joy a drinker?”

“She had one glass of wine last night and left in a cab, the most I’ve seen her drink since we were teens. I’m a lush compared to her, and last night was my first night out drinking since before John.”

“So what are you going to do?”

I considered for a second, then smiled at Finn. “Watch.”

I sidled up to Joy and leaned in close. “Hey, CowboyFan.”

Joy’s smile slid slightly, but she didn’t bat an eyelash. “Don’t worry, I’m not poaching.”

“I wish you would.” I spoke through my smile, quiet enough only she could hear. Hank and Finn were slapping each other’s backs, and I wondered if Finn was whispering to Hank.

Joy grabbed my hand and whirled us around. “What are you mumbling?”

“I know about you and Hank. And I give you my blessing.”

Joy shook her head. “It was a stupid fight, tensions were high. We said stupid stuff, no biggie.”

I leaned in close. “I’m mad as heck at Finn, but he’s the brother I’m interested in. Turns out we’ve been emailing for months, only I thought I was talking to Hank.”

“You never said how you felt about Hank, that’s what ticked me off the most. You should be marrying him because you’re in love, not because you don’t want to fall in love with anyone. He deserves that.”

“Did you just hear the words I said? I think I am in love. Just not with Hank.”

Joy’s eyes widened. “No, you can’t do this to him.”

I took a deep breath and dove into the pile of manure I’d made. “I told Hank I knew CowboyFan123, and that she was a lush. I knew he’d cut you from the running because he hates drunks.”

Joy’s temper flared and I took a step back in case she decided to swing. “I am not a lush.”

The few people loitering around us turned to look. So did Hank and Finn. “Part of me was mad that you were trying to poach, knowing what I was up to but keeping your communications secret. I’m sorry that I didn’t realize how you felt about him, if I had, I’d have told him the truth. But you never said a word, and kept encouraging me.”

“He doesn’t know I’m CowboyFan123, does he?” Joy bit her lip, her cheeks pink. “You’re supposed to marry him tomorrow, you told me he desperately needs a wife by December. You can’t ruin his life now.”

“Don’t you worry about him, okay?” I shot her a sly grin as I took a deep breath and prepared to raise my voice. “CowboyFan123, your secret’s safe with me. I’ll never tell Hank I lied to him about you.”

I’d been watching Hank with Finn, watched how Hank’s eyes kept returning to Joy, not me. His brow creased as I made my little announcement. “What? Finn, did you hear what she said?”

The electric jolt I felt as I approached Hank had nothing to do with him and everything to do with Finn putting his arm around me. I glanced at Joy, took a deep breath as I dove deeper into the stink.

“Hank, I’m sorry. I lied. Joy here? I found out she’d been talking to you and I was mad that she wasn’t telling me about you while I was telling her everything. So, er, I lied to you.” I took a deep breath, clutching Finn’s hand for courage. “Joy’s not a lush. And I think she didn’t tell me about talking to you because she felt guilty, but at the same time was falling for you. She’s rode my butt for weeks about how you deserve someone who wants what you want, someone who puts your needs at least equal to theirs. She didn’t talk to me the whole trip here because I’d said I’d convince you to give up the ranch and move to Ontario.”

Hank finally looked at me fully. “I’d never move to Ontario.”

“Joy wouldn’t want you to.” I turned my attention to Joy. “You said it yourself, you want to live here. Want a rancher of your own.”

Joy’s face was redder than I’d ever seen it. She wouldn’t look at Hank. “Shut up.”

I reached for Hank’s hand with one hand as I grabbed Joy’s with my other. “How long do you think it’ll take to decide if you want to get married to each other? Hank, I think, is an easy guess, but Joy? You might need some time. Only it’s September, so you kinda gotta figure that out in four months.”

I released their hands, smiling to myself when I saw their fingers clasp. “Joy can work from anywhere, so I guess I’ll take her ticket and fly back instead. Leave you two to talk.”

I snatched the papers hanging out of Joy’s bag, found her return flight ticket. “You guys go on, get out of here. I’ll take Joy’s hotel room.”

I wheeled my suitcase away from the three of them, feeling sad and happy. Angry, as Finn caught up to me. “You don’t want your bag?”

I snatched my carry-on. “See you around.”

“Want a ride? I’m staying at the same motel as you, and I rented a car.”

I faltered. The plan had been for me to get Hank to drop Joy off on our way to the ranch. I had no idea where the motel was. “How’d you know…never mind, I told you when you were pretending to be Hank. Why’d you rent a motel room? Your parents have their own house on the property.”

“I didn’t want to be around you and Hank anymore than I had to. Plus, I was hoping to get a chance to talk to Joy, find out if I should just forget you or try to steal you from my big brother.”

I stopped walking and the people approaching had to manoeuvre around us. “You what?”

Finn sighed. “Now I don’t have to steal you, just woo you.”

Butterflies tried to take flight in my belly, but my stomach growled. I stared into Finn’s eyes, thinking. “Fine. But start wooing with lunch. I’m starving.”

“Let’s get the car so we can ditch the baggage. Then I’ll take you for the best hamburgers in the world.”

I squinted before nodding. “Fine. Where’re these burgers?”

“About half an hour or so from here. At my mom’s. I’ll call, let her know we’re on our way, tell her I’m bringing her future daughter-in-law.”

I stopped in my tracks outside the rental place. “Not marrying Hank, remember?”

Finn held the door, winking at me. “Ah, but I’m still her son. She just wants us all married, she really won’t care which one of her kids you hook up with.”

“Not even if I go for Mary or Lydia?”

Finn shrugged. “Probably not. But you’re not their type. They like more boring partners, like accountants. They’re both engaged, but refuse to get married until at least January because of the stupid ‘have to get married by December 31st‘ thing. Always were rebels.”

“But you’re taking me home to meet your mom, want me to marry you? Does that mean you want the ranch too?”

“Did you hear me say that? I couldn’t even type that when I was pretending to be Hank. I hated the ranch. Hated the smell most of all. I’m happy in Ontario.”

I watched as Finn filled out forms and showed his license, paid for the rental car. I had no idea what my future held, but for the first time in years, I felt genuine hope.

When Finn came back to me, I put my hand out to stop him from grabbing his suitcase. “If you ever lie to me again, hide things from me, I’ll feed you to the cows.”

Finn nodded, gave me a soft, sweet kiss. All my senses went into overdrive. My heart sighed. When he pulled away, his twinkling eyes met mine. “Deal. But you should know something. If you want to feed me to any farm animals if I hurt you – and I won’t, which is why I’m telling you this – you need a pig farm. Cows don’t eat people.”

I let him take my suitcase as I followed him out to the parking lot. “Pigs, huh? Well, so long as you don’t lie to me, I won’t have to make friends with any pig farmers.”

Finn put our bags in the trunk of the rental car. When he closed the lid, he pulled me into his arms. “I think I love you.”

“I think I love you, too. And the best part? I’d accepted being Tallulah Marigold Murphy. Now I won’t have to worry about a different name.”

Finn laughed until his lips met mine, then all thought fled, and only feelings remained. Good, sweet, genuine feelings, of hope, of tomorrow, of love and life.

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.”

 

 


 

Mirror, Mirror

Blue eyes, bluest of all blue eyes, caught her attention as she stared at the woman ahead of her. The windows to the soul were shuttered by long, dark lashes and little lines fanned out from the corners. Wasn’t hard to imagine them twinkling with laughter or tearing up in rage and sadness. Kind eyes, usually, but they had superpowers too – the power to see through lies and walls erected in self defense.

At first glance, her hair was brown. Second and third glances showed streaks of honey, copper, and grey. Thinner than the full-bodied bob suggested, not as glossy as many other fancy ‘do’s. The bangs over her eyes were a shade too long, but they did a decent job of hiding the lines and creases on the forehead.

She continued to study the woman ahead of her, her gaze travelling over the slightly upturned nose, the thin lips, the hint of the start of sagging skin. The woman imagined what a surgeon could do to erase those tell-tale signs of age, would she be happier?

She frowned at the other woman’s black dress. Black was supposed to slim, hide flaws, but this black dress wasn’t hiding a multitude of sins well. As she stared, her attention went to the breasts, envisioned the industrial bra that tried to make her breasts look perky instead of gravity plagued. At the risk of being rude, she narrowed her eyes and confirmed what she’d suspected. The tummy the woman had attempted to hide beneath expensive tummy-taming underwear and control top pantyhose was still visible, still highlighted by the loose dress.

The skirt ended at the knees, hiding what the woman knew would be flabby thighs. The low-heeled pumps she wore did little to hide the slightly thick ankles. As her gaze traveled back to the other woman’s face, a sound startled her.

“I wish you could see yourself as I do.”

She turned her gaze from the other woman and peered at the man behind her. “I did. For a long time, I did. But now, I have to see with my eyes.”

They stared at one another for long seconds, her heart squeezing, her eyes filling with tears. With the saddest of smiles, the tiniest of nods, he closed his eyes when she did. When she opened her eyes again, he was gone. She turned back to the other woman staring back at her. The other woman’s eyes were wet, too.

There was a rustle behind her, and she whirled from the mirror, her hand shaking over her pounding heart. Disappointment flickered when she saw her mother and father standing in the door.

“It’s almost time, honey.” Her father cleared his throat, his blue eyes full of emotion.

She nodded. “I’ll be right there.”

She heard her parents shuffling down the hall to the stairs. She waited until she heard them reach the bottom before turning back to the mirror she’d used every day of her life until she’d married, left home. Peering at her reflection, she saw herself again, this time with the handsome man she’d loved with all she was. She was young, vibrant, alive. Happy. She watched him squeeze her shoulder and she put her hand on her own, wishing, hoping, dreaming. She willed her mind to take a photograph.

She turned her back on the couple behind her. How she wished he were here, or she was there. How she wished she was dressed up for a party, not to say the final good-bye. Every step she took weighed her down until she felt a hundred years older and as many pounds heavier.

“Love never dies,” his voice whispered into the silence as she felt her way from the room, unable to see because of the tears. A sudden light breeze, the faintest whiff of cologne, and when she turned back, the mirror reflected an empty room.

Dreaming of Living the Dream

Plotting and planning, planning the plot – I’m at my least favourite spot in the writing journey. The book is written, the editing means a lot of changes, and this is where I look for shiny things. I’m sure (hopefully) I’m not alone in dreaming of winning the lottery. So, I wrote a book about it – but not the dreamers dream of buying a castle in Scotland, or even of hiring a maid (seriously, I’ve got kids for that). I guess because if I won the lottery, I could buy my dream car – then park it because I can’t see to drive – I wrote about all the pitfalls of winning.

Pitfalls, you say? What pitfalls?

Let me introduce Zoey. Zoey recently won like $21 (.7) million dollars. Unlike the dreaming me, Zoey is freaking out. Like big-time. Her Gran has pretty much raised her and passed on her depression-era upbringing. Don’t buy if you don’t have the cash, don’t rent if you can own (that’s the only borrowing allowed, mortgage) Now Zoey has more money than she knows what to do with – or even fantasize about doing anything with. Her best friend, Jordan (he might become a knight by a different name, but I digress) is a financial planner. He’s like the money guy, the money bags, the brains behind Gran’s “Save, save, save”. Zoey’s scared to even think of buying a new outfit, so ingrained is the ‘fool and their money shall soon part’ mentality.

I know, I know – why worry?

Zoey has a secret – that crush she had on Jordan? Yeah, she never really outgrew it. Only problem is? Jordan’s with Karen. The night she decides to ask Jordan for help with her finances? He lets her know that he ‘might’ be engaged. Long story short, somehow his girlfriend thinks their getting married and Jordan’s a typical nice-guy and doesn’t know quite how to correct her of this notion. Zoey can’t get past the whole ‘you’re getting married’ thing, and Jordan doesn’t want to talk about that – he’s much more interested in helping Zoey set up trusts and interest free savings accounts – you know, boring stuff.

Couldn’t Zoey just hire someone to tell Karen to scrap the save the date cards?

That’s touchy – Zoey hasn’t admitted even to herself how she feels about Jordan. Sure, she admires his butt now and then, but don’t we all admire our friend’s bums? And like Jordan said, Karen’s nice and all, he just doesn’t know yet if he wants (or ever will) to marry her. Before Zoey fully grasps this new development, she’s visited by the past – in the form of Scott, her ex-boyfriend. To be fair, they’d never quite specified that whole sticky exclusive/not exclusive thing. Zoey loved Scott, Scott wasn’t ready for marriage, Zoey ate a lot of ice cream and cried many tears. When his great behind shows up on her doorstep, she can’t help but wonder if he’s ready now.

Money and men? What’s Zoey’s problem?

Zoey’s ho-hum life is suddenly buzzing. People she’d forgotten she’d ever known are knocking on her door. She flees her house in a panic the day the papers released the Ontario Lottery and Gaming (OLG) press release. A car follows her as she runs to Jordan, then she gets a frantic call from Gran – they’re at her house, too. Gran won’t leave her cats, so Jordan must save them all. Scott won’t give up; Karen won’t be left behind. So begins a long and fast journey. Hiding out at a flighty mother’s is only in the works because the flighty mom is bankrupt and needs Zoey’s help. Then there’s her failing RV business, Jerry, and a 1996 Winnebago that needs a run. Introduce the eccentric father – who also happens to be a shrewd and talented estate lawyer (when he’s not up in Huntsville with his hippy friends smoking pot).

Sound like fun? So far, the highlight of the trip is when her mother accidentally sets herself on fire.

While myself, I’d have spent at least a couple of million by now, Zoey’s only spent what other people have forced her to spend. Jordan’s almost apoplectic with worry and anger. While Zoey admires the rear ends, Jordan can’t help but think Scott’s an ass. Jordan, being a financial guru genius, has also figured out that more than their current gang are helping themselves to Zoey’s money. Poor Zoey.

I could tell you more, and someday I will, but I need a favour first. What do you think?

Comment thoughts – good, bad, ugly – please. Advice welcome. Did you want to know more? Did you think Zoey should just quit her worrying and not give a damn about her problems? I’d like to hear your thoughts, pretty please. If I had Zoey’s money, I’d pay you, but I’m broke so all I can offer is eternal gratitude. Thank you, times 21 (.7) million times!

 

 

Do You See Me?

Hey, how are you? I hope I look okay – I pulled my hair back in a ponytail and washed my face just for you. I have no idea if I got the toothpaste off, but I didn’t taste anything when I licked my lips so I have to hope I did. I’m hoping I’m not wearing too many varying shades of dark clothes, but if I am, know I tried. I hope I didn’t dribble coffee or anything down my front, but I’m sure you’d let me know if I had.

I can feel my wrinkles – you don’t get to be, er, 40-something without them. Do I look in my 40s? Or did you think I was 50+? I still see the 30-something I was the last time I could clearly see myself. I cover the grey hair when the kids tell me to, but I have to trust that I got it all covered, that it’s not a horrible colour they picked out for me, that they read the instructions to me properly and I didn’t leave it on too long, not long enough, didn’t burn it.

Are you still there? Sorry about the black electrical tape on my stairs. It’s the only way I can see to go down them. Did you know it’s harder to go down the stairs than up? Let me just lock the door – my keys are in order so I know which one is for the front door. Now that we’re out of the house, walk with me. I’ve just been getting new lessons in mobility, complete with new cane and larger roller ball on the end. I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter what the politicians and people who find me annoying say – I should be able to walk to town for a loaf of bread all alone. I struggle with that, you know. I’d fight for anyone else, but have trouble asking for me. Now I’m asking for you to walk a mile in my shoes – rather, beside me in your own shoes – and understand how difficult doing the things most take for granted is for me. My mobility instructor, Laurie, and I went past five houses and stopped at the train tracks. She’ll come back in a couple of weeks and we’ll decide the best route to town. The train tracks and beyond make me so anxious, I stopped trying. Since you’re with me, I’ll do my best to be brave and wander into the murky territory of ‘beyond’. There is a sidewalk from my house to the safe spot for cars to stop when a train is coming. From that point, there is nothing until you reach the safe point to stop for trains on the other side of the tracks. On my left is a huge ditch where animals hit by trains are pitched — I’m not sure if it’s a two-foot ditch or a twenty foot ditch — either way, I really don’t want to find out by falling down into it. Our train tracks have wood instead of pavement between the tracks. Not sure why – even though our road is a dead end at the lake there’s heavy traffic going past my house at all hours. I guess drivers need to do the harbour circle to make sure the lake is still there. If a car crosses the tracks as I’m walking, the wood bounces up to trip me, catch my cane, or just freak me out because I’m vibrating with the thump-thump of tires passing beside me. I hope I’ve stayed to the left enough that cars won’t hit me, but not so far to the left that I’m into the gravel rut that you find between train tracks. Once I cross, I have a huge choice to make. The sidewalk resumes at the same spot cars stop for trains on the opposite side, but it’s across the street. Let’s stand here a second and figure out what to do. Now that I’ve crossed one obstacle, do I brave crossing the street to get to the sidewalk or stick to the side of the road? From experience, I know the sidewalk on that side is treacherous. Let me hold your arm a minute while I let the cars zoom by. I think I feel safer walking on the road than trying to cross the street. You don’t mind, do you? Just reel me in I veer too far into oncoming traffic as we go around the bend, won’t you? If I could hear the quiet cars, I’d try to cross in front of my friend’s house. Laurie says we’ll have to practice – if it takes me seven seconds to cross the road but a car is three seconds away before I hear it, I need to learn to do the math and figure out if I can fly. I’ll stick to the non-sidewalk side of the road, thank you very much. To town, at least. I’ll explain when we come back why I change my path.

Still with me? Please clear your throat or something so I can hear you. I feel so lonely navigating this in silence. Now, keep watching. Chances are I’ll do something to make you laugh. I might trip when my cane catches on uneven ground. I might walk into something – a sign, a parked car – and fall. You can watch for the people who think it’s hilarious to scare me – honking their horn as they pass, revving their engines when they approach, driving close to the shoulder so I get a face full of puddle or sand at best, heart failure when I realize I could reach out and touch them as they pass at worst.

If you’re still with me when we pass the museum and jail, I thank you for not hurrying past me and leaving me in the dust. I promise you won’t be disappointed watching me navigate between moving vehicles and parked cars by the skateboard park. The obstacle course on a busy day is a true test of coordination and endurance for the visually impaired. Just a bit further and we’ll be at the stop sign. Laurie asked me what I wanted most, what my goals are. I had to think for a minute about my answer. What did I want? Just this – to get to town alone. Go to the doctor’s outside of the main drag if I need to. Independence. Do I think I’d go to the local grocery store alone every day? Nope, but knowing I could if I want to changes everything. So where to? I suppose the bank first, right? The beauty of the three-way stop for me is this – any cars stopped before I get to the dip in the sidewalk goes first. Any cars approaching the stop sign when I’m ready to cross can wait for me. I’d be here all day if I tried to ascertain who is kind enough to stop and who is ignorant enough to try to go before me. Most of the people are considerate and let me go. It’s township vehicles, utility trucks and vans, and the odd yahoo who like to see me stumble that I have to worry about. I won’t mention the name of the company, but I know there’s one utility vehicle out there that hopefully has a scratch from my cane when they decided their timetable trumped mine and I heard them coming, stopped before I was hit, then “accidentally” hit their truck as they passed.

Most of the people in my town are awesome. The ones that aren’t I’ll call “citiots” (city idiots). Oh look, here comes a citiot now. See how they won’t move over even though I’m already walking precariously close to the edge of the sidewalk? I’m not sure what’s to my left, so I stick to the right even though any of the passengers in the parked cars next to me could open their door and catch me if they don’t see me coming. I’ll just stop here, wait for the citiot to pass. Wait, they’re not moving. I can see their shape, hear their footsteps, but they’re not going around me. Don’t they see me? My heart pounds in terror because I’m not sure where I can go to save myself. Slam – full shoulder check. Stagger, stumble, bounce off the light post. Did he just tell me to watch where I’m going? I smile, wave my white cane, and say “I wish I could.”

I think we’ve passed the driveway that serves as the exit to the bank’s rear parking which means that building should be my bank. I’ll just whip in and go to the teller to get the money I need to buy a loaf of bread. I could use the ATM but I don’t have one of my kids there to read the screen for me. The tellers at my bank are awesome, and I’m sure someone would help me work the ATM if I asked them to, but I’ll just stand in line because we’re not in a hurry, right?

I know I irritated the people behind me while I put my money in one side of my wallet, zipped it, then opened the other side to put my card back, taking care to tuck the card in the right spot before zipping that side up and putting my wallet in my purse. I could’ve shuffled over so the next person in line could go, but I’ve lost money rushing that I’ve only gotten back the few times honest people told me I’d dropped it. Not like that girl at the grocery store on the highway who put her foot down in a hurry as I tried to find my twenty dollar bill. I’m pretty sure she’d covered that bill with her foot because the money wasn’t in my wallet and I had to pay by Interac, but my companion had decided to leave me at the check out alone and I didn’t want to cause a scene by accusing her of stealing. I heard her foot sliding as I walked away, as if dragging the bill as she approached the register, but it’s not like I could see her bend over to pick anything up. I hope she needed the money more than I did. Makes me feel better about losing it if my twenty meant she wouldn’t go hungry for a few days.

Okay, so now the grocery store. What do you think of my town so far? I’m one hundred percent sure that I could get any one of the people you see (besides the citiot that shoulder checked me) to help me cross to the grocery store that is literally across the street, but I already feel like such a burden on society for complaining about the sidewalks, my inability to walk alone, the burden I place on taxpayers by wanting a safe environment to exist in so asking someone to help me cross the street feels like too much. Back down to the stop sign, past the same several stores we just passed. Now we get to cross the street again, won’t this be fun? Step out when the cars that were there ahead of me are gone and the ones who pulled up will just have to wait. Now this curb is a bit trickier because there’s no road here, if you miss the wheelchair ramps you’ll skin your knees tripping on the curb. I speak from experience.

This side of the road has a few obstacles but isn’t so bad. We can get to the grocery store relatively unscathed. Laurie told me that I can call ahead, make arrangements with any store to have my own shopper when I go in, but since you’re with me, we’ll just head over to the bread. Can you check the expiry date? Now we try to find the cash register. Hopefully no one in line behind us minds while I repeat the ritual from the bank, making sure everything is secured in my purse before I grab the bag with the bread.

We got out of the store in record time, don’t you think? I have no idea what the stores are between here and the drug store at the end, so let me know if there’s anywhere you would like to stop. Would be nice if you told me what we’re passing even if you don’t want to go in. It’s been awhile since I’ve done this and things change.

This is the other bank, which means we have to decide if we’re going to walk back on the sidewalk or brave the traffic at our backs and walk the way we came. I prefer to take the sidewalk route for the return journey because I don’t want to end up as roadkill if I veer off course. This side of the street is houses now that we’ve crossed the side road and passed the two restaurants – can you smell them? That’s how I know if the pizza place has their door open or not. The people who live along here that I know are super friendly. Wave if you see anyone, but usually they’ll call out a greeting as I pass because they know I can’t see them.

Now we’re at a conundrum. The street here is difficult to cross. I could cross over to my friend’s house and brave the cars at my back the rest of the way, but I still have to cross the busy road. People here don’t watch for on-cming cars, let alone blind women carrying a loaf of bread. They pull up past the stop sign before stopping, blocking the path for me to cross – sometimes. Some drivers forget that while the stretch to their left leads to a dead end, it’s a very busy area anyhow. I get so nervous here, the number of near misses I’ve had always replay in my mind while I try to cross. Traffic turning left onto this road don’t have to stop unless a car is coming from the other direction, so I have to hope they see me if I didn’t hear them. I remember one time that I strained to hear a car and there was nothing. I stepped onto the street at the same instance I heard an engine revving, approaching me. He had to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting me, and I stood there, shaking, with his bumper touching my thigh. Not sure which of us was more freaked out.

Now — to navigate the muddy sidewalk. I haven’t fallen here – yet. Laurie suggested I invest in a baseball cap or something with a brim so when I’m walking past the next house, the overhanging trees won’t take out an eyeball. Take a peek – is there a scar where I got cut the last time I walked through here?

We made it! Here’s the pickle we’re in now – like when we headed out, we’ve reached the spot where the train tracks are. Do I cross the tracks, then the road? I think I’ll cross the road first as the sidewalk kind of turns and ends at the road. Listen – do you hear that car? Is it on our street, or at the next street? Let’s just stand here until we don’t hear any, or until a train comes. If a train comes, it’s a safe bet the cars will have to stop and we can get around them. Now, remember – the ditch on the right. It’s deeper and scarier on the other side of the tracks, so stay close.

Whew, we’re back on the sidewalk. We’re nearly home. Now we have to navigate the hugely overgrown hedges where even a small child has trouble passing without brushing up against the branches. Cover your eyes, there are stray branches sticking out of the hedge. If I call the township to complain, I’m a lousy neighbour. Besides, it’s not like the township isn’t aware – every winter the sidewalk dude plows a path on the grass because the hedges overhang so much.

Warms my heart that people who walked down to the lake call out a greeting as they step around me to pass. I smile, no clue if I know them or not, but it doesn’t matter because they saw me, saw my cane, and stepped aside, so they must be local. See over there? In the field somewhere? Can you see a paved path? They call that the Lion’s Loop. My next goal is to go over there with Laurie, find the path, and walk it. Two laps is a mile – imagine that, being able to walk a mile alone! No cars to worry about, no trains, no ditches.

Did you feel my anxiety? My despair? My thrill at doing for myself, by myself? Do you see me smiling, taking back a bit of independence? Walking to the store is something so small, so trivial for most, but is a huge victory for me. If you weren’t walking with me, if I were going to the doctor on the outskirts of all the subdivisions and I got lost, scared, I could ask Siri on my phone to tell me where I am. Did you know that? I have goals. To go out on my own and do things for myself. I might have to wear bright colours so the people around me see me, I might look silly and feel self conscious, but I hope I can get past all that and do stuff on my own again.

Thanks for the company. Sharing the trip with someone else takes the worry and fear down a notch. I’ll never be able to leave my house without some trepidation, but if the sighted world walks with me, it’s not as lonely. Say hello when you see a blind person – tells them you’re there, for one thing, and reminds them that the world sees them even if they can’t see themselves. Safe travels.

Another LLL (Lessons Learned in Life)

Life is short, too short to waste time on negatives. I’ve learned to feel no ways about people rather than expend the energy and effort to hold grudges, hate, feel bitter. I find it takes up more energy to carry a grudge around. I tell my girls all the time to take the crap out of their backpacks when they don’t bother to empty the junk they accumulate, and yet people walk around with thousands of pounds of hate and hostility on their backs. Good for chiropractors and pain relief drug companies, but that weight will break you eventually, no matter how many aspirins you pop. I know so many people that dwell on the negatives in life, real and imagined slights, rather than focusing on the good. They seem to be cooking up a pot of toxicity – one-pint tears, two cups anger, dashes of spite and hate. Season to taste with hostility and rage. All around them, people are laughing, loving, living, but they’re sitting there watching the pot simmering, wondering if they should add a dollop of bitterness.

I admit, there are some hurts that I can’t let go. But rather than cook them up and stir, I file them away, and try to pile a whole lot of good stuff on top of them so I can’t be bothered to pull the bad out of storage. The rejections, the hurt feelings, the betrayals – all are in little cardboard boxes in the corners of my mind. I pile the good stuff on top. Every now and again, they get opened by accident, but if they’re taking up too much headspace, I sift through why I’m letting them live there. I can’t control who likes me. I can’t hold a grudge because grudges multiply and take over. If someone hurt me so bad that it took me a long time to smile again, I assess why I’m giving them power, giving them free rent in my head. Why would I make room for someone who doesn’t care about me? I admit, I am the type that doesn’t even like the word hate, let alone feel the emotion. I guess, ironically, I hate the word hate. I reserve the emotion for evil. I find it empowering to assess the individuals who have created the negatives I’m feeling. As I told a friend a while ago, who was thinking of making a “voodoo whore doll” (she’d caught her husband cheating with another woman) – Why hate her only? Look at them both, long and hard, and send her a thank you note for sacrificing her own happiness by taking him off your hands. The negative stuff that will come to them eventually will be handled by Karma, and you can just move on with your life. Deal with your feelings on the whole thing, how the situation affected you, get any help you might need, but don’t waste the energy on hating them. Wash your hands, free your mind, and focus on yourself. He’ll cheat on her, too. Or he won’t. Maybe she’ll cheat on him. Or she won’t. Walk away, let Karma do her job, and focus on whatever it takes to get you and your kids through the transition. She settled for revamping herself, body and mind, and is now dating a man that treats her and her children better than her ex ever did.

There are not enough years in the average lifespan to dwell on who no longer cares about you. I’ve got a long list of family members and friends that I’ve categorized as People I Used to Know. Friends get lost in the shuffle all the time, but often, you can pick right back up with them if you wanted to. I’ve got some family like that too. You still care about them, but it’s not part of the daily life, and that’s normal. The ones that hate me? Filed away in tiny boxes beneath the stacks of bigger boxes full of people who care about me. They’ve been snuffed out of my mind, really. If they didn’t cross the street to avoid me, I could smile and say hello the way I would if I bumped into an old acquaintance. My heart won’t squeeze, my mind will stay happy, and my life will go on. They’re just somebody I used to know.

The people that matter most know they matter. I try to tell them often. I don’t hire airplanes to carry banners, but I do make sure I’ve told them how I feel. Love shouldn’t be hard to say. I try to wrap my head around people that have trouble saying they love a person but will knock people out of their way to get to something they love. Like at Costco, when there’s a free sample of chocolate. They shout about how much they love chocolate, yet can’t tell their partner they love them? Treat the people you love with the same enthusiasm as you feel for your brand new <insert name of your favourite electronic, ie iPhone, car, or whatever prized possession here> and you’re golden.

Life’s too short to deny yourself treats. Someday might never come, so try the thing you keep saying you’ll try. Prioritize the things in your life, if you’re a procrastinator. Don’t put off seeing someone you love, doing something you love, making something you love. Procrastinate the other stuff – if it’s on your list to commit a crime, I strongly urge you to keep putting that one off. Weigh the happiness – if making a huge dinner will make you happy to eat later but depresses you because you’ll have to use every pot and pan in the house, spend hours cleaning up after, and know in your heart of hearts that you’ll end up green binning the leftovers, I’d suggest asking someone else to make the dinner and invite you over to eat it. Or have children, because I think it’s line 37, page 300, section A in the parenting handbook that states “Children must be taught to do the dishes, it’s the only way they’ll ever be able to survive on their own once they leave the nest.” Might’ve been section B. Then make the kids eat the leftovers for a week straight, because the law simply states you must feed your children, there’s no clarifications stating that a variety of meals must be provided.

Unless you can’t sleep at night if the house is in disarray, go to bed. Chances are, the mess will still be there in the morning, and the afternoon. Whenever you feel like dealing with it, really. Unless the mess is food on the table, and you have a dog. The laundry might not fold itself, but in the morning we all need to get dressed, so encouraging your family to dress out of the unfolded baskets actually helps the housework. Unless your kids are like mine and leave their nightclothes on the floor while putting on clean daywear. The older they get, the more I’ve learned not to sniff to see if it’s clean or dirty, everything on the floor is considered dirty now. Especially in the summer.

If we knew our expiration date, this would be a lot easier. We don’t know. We might have years, or we might have a helicopter fall on our house tonight. So live each day the best way you know how, file away the hurts and bask in the highlights. When it seems like you’ve got box after box of crap piling up on top of your head, find a reason to smile anyhow. You’ll still have to sift through the boxes, but if you keep the smile on your face, you can manage the bigger, harder tasks. I remember a friend going through some horrific stuff, all at once. Her parents died within a few months of each other, her husband left her and sued her for half of her inheritance in the divorce, and yet she smiled, a lot. Once I was sure she wasn’t in need of a hug-me coat and a drool cup, I asked her how she kept smiling. Her answer was so incredible to me a the time, but the older I get, the bigger the struggles, the more I understand. I’m paraphrasing here — “Every day, when the alarm goes off, I hit snooze. And I think to myself – is today the day I turn brittle? Is today the day I become breakable? Is today the day I become bitter? And I make a choice. Today is the day I’m going to find a dozen reasons to smile, a dozen reasons to feel good. How easy it would be to lie here and wallow, but there are more reasons for me to get up and face the day, offering smiles to others who might be asking themselves the same questions every morning.”

I’m not saying we should all be like Suzy Sunshine and forget our troubles forever. Some horrors in life can’t be filed away. But you’re still alive, so don’t forget to live. I know another woman who lost her child to cancer a few years ago. The darkest days of her life, so dark her marriage broke up, and her friends all faded away. I had no idea she’d endured all that, never knew she’d been married before, lost a little boy at age 8. She’s just like any other mother I know, lamenting that her young daughter refuses to tidy up her room, that her husband will drive her to drink, but before she can pour a glass of wine, he surprises her with something wonderful. She’s always smiling, even when she says these things, and you know she’s not truly bothered by any of it. And one day, she wrote a long message to a mutual friend who was going through some tough times. She told her story, and she admitted that she’d tried to kill herself during those dark days. Now she lives her life for the rainbows that come from the storms, and she counts her blessings every day. As long as her blessings outnumber the bad, she says she has no reason not to smile.

The blinder I get, the less I enjoy social functions in the real world. People still get hurt if I didn’t recognize them but recognized someone else. How can I explain that I recognize this one because she sounds like a bullfrog, or that one because he’s ten feet tall, six feet wide, and blocks the sun when he approaches? I get lonely, too, even in a room or yard full of fifty people. I can’t wander around and mingle, so I sit and wait for someone to approach me. Mingling is awkward when there are pets and small children around — I nod, smiling at what people are saying but have no clue what they’re talking about because I’m trying to make sure I’m not about to step on something smaller than three feet high. My anxiety escalates the darker it gets. So I avoid these things as best as I can unless I am attending with people I know will watch out for me. My husband will guide me, or whisper to me who I’m talking to. (“You do realize you’ve been talking to a tree for twenty minutes, right?”) My kids will tackle me to save the dog eating fallen hors d’oeuvres in the grass. I have a couple of anti-social friends, so they’ll sit with me and offer commentary. “There goes Libby, drinking another glass of water we all know is vodka. Her skirt is tucked in her underwear now. Her underwear is blue, or maybe it’s more grey. Hard to tell in the sun.” If none of these people will be there, I stay home and do the things that don’t fill me with anxiety. I’m happy, and so are the dogs whose tails I’m not stomping on. Anyone I didn’t see that might have missed me, or that I might’ve missed, will understand and get in touch with me another time.

Live, love, laugh. Put the negative things in the smallest boxes, and put those boxes in the darkest recesses of your mind. Take the trip. Dance. Eat the chocolate. Buy the shoes. Wear the shoes. Use the good China on Sunday, just because. Let your family use the good towels, because if your company judges you by your towels and not your character, then who cares if they come back? Smile at everyone, especially the people who look like they deserve it the least. Sing, the louder the better, unless your singing somehow summons snakes. Read the book. Tell someone you love them, even if you’ve told them before. Be the person who pops up in someone’s social media message box with a quick little note to tell them how much you admire them for the way they’re handling something. Don’t think you have tomorrow to tell someone they matter because you don’t know how many tomorrows either of you have.

A Day in the Life of Blind Me

You know how kids shut their eyes and think you can’t see them? Being blind is kinda like that sometimes. I can’t see you, so I don’t realize you’re there, maybe even watching me. That’s kind of creepy, but I hope I do something that makes you smile instead of something that makes you laugh at me. When I walk down the street, I have no idea anyone is there until I’m like a foot away – up until that point, I’ve traveled alone in my mind, so forgive me if I jump when you touch me or say my name. I can carry on entire conversations on the sidewalk with people and walk away with a smile on my face and a head full of questions (who was that? Should I have asked how a loved one is doing? Have they recently posted on Facebook that they were in a barroom brawl and I should have politely mentioned that their black eye really makes their blue eyes pop?) I have one friend, I’ll call her “Friend” for anonymity, who will put a hand on my arm and say, “Hi Nomi, it’s Friend.” And I relax, and ask the appropriate questions, and tell her she looks good. Everyone looks good in my head because I haven’t seen them (literally) in fourteen years. Gone grey? I didn’t notice. Packed on thirty pounds? I couldn’t tell.

I don’t push shopping carts anymore because it’s really not fair to your ankles. Or to small children. Or store employees that just finished a huge display of cereal, making an entire Egyptian pyramid display out of Cheerios. I can’t shop alone anyhow. I can spend an hour trying to pick out a bottle of dish soap before someone comes along and tells me I’m actually looking at hot sauce. Frustrated, I’ll throw six bottles of Frank’s into the basket and wander off for dish soap until someone tells me I’m looking at corn syrup. I don’t use that, so I don’t impulsively buy any. I have been known to knock down little display stands with the basket on my arm, walked into customers who are bent over looking for something on the bottom shelf, or spent ten minutes asking an ’employee’ where the dish soap is, only to realize I’ve strayed from grocery to clothing and am getting annoyed with an unresponsive mannequin. There’s victory in getting to the check out and putting my things on the conveyor belt. Pride. Then comes defeat when my total is $133.64, and I ask the cashier ‘How is that possible?’ Then we run through my purchases. Six bottles of Frank’s, ten bottles of olive oil, and four bottles of KY warming massage oil and lube. None of these were on my list (a short list, considering dish soap was the only item needed). “Could you take off the olive oil and get someone to bring me a bottle of Dawn?” I mean seriously, who needs ten bottles of olive oil? I am blessed to have a husband that will occasionally take me shopping with him (after we clarify that Home Depot is not one of the stores that I will be expected to tag along at). He even pushes the buggy, and will, when prompted, tell me exactly what we’re buying today. He says I come home with stupid things? We’ve bickered over why he feels we need to buy an entire display of Creamsicles. I’ve yet to buy the proper feminine product when I’m out with him, though. Men just don’t get the whole with wings or without debate. One of my best friends is a pro shopper like I used to be. I try to leave those purchases for when I get out with her once a month. I come home with a lot of stuff I don’t need, but I also got everything I wanted, too. If I say I want a blue shirt that is long enough to hide my bum and feels good against my skin, we’ll hit seventeen stores until we find one she says she can’t see my bum in and I feel like I’m draped in the finest fabric. She even knows exactly the shade of blue I want – which is lucky, because my eyes see the strangest colours. Me, holding up shirt–“This is blue, right?” BFF, in calm tone– “Uh, nope. That’s black.” Me, grabbing another shirt –“This?” BFF, forcing laughter from voice– “Black again. Here, this is blue.” Me, eyebrow raised in disbelief –“Are you sure? Looks like grey to me.” She hasn’t hit me yet, and she hasn’t said that she can’t come visit today because Toronto has been hit by a bizarre plague that hasn’t affected anywhere else in the world and is being kept mum by politicians and newspapers. Fourteen years of this routine, and she still visits regularly. I guess the four years we were friends when I could see keep her around.

I have been known to play the blind card to get out of stuff. “Oh, you wanted me to clean the house today? I looked around, but you know, with my eyes, I thought the house looked clean”. My mother-in-law (MiL) is a wonderful woman whom I love dearly but is not high on my list of people to shop with. She also will say things like “Did you know there’s a black spot under the dog’s water dish?” Black lab that drools out exactly ½ of the water taken in means her hair sticks to the floor there. I smile, pick up a cloth, and hand it to her. “My house, my rules – you see it, you clean it”. She hasn’t mentioned seeing that black spot since. My dad, too. “Did you know you have cobwebs in the corners of your foyer?” My foyer area is probably sixteen feet high. “Well, mine papa, considering when I stand on the landing and look up, I’m not aware there is a ceiling, Imma let you do the honours.” And I hand him the telescopic feather duster that reaches the corners. He mentions this twice a year, so I worry about his memory as he always seems surprised at the whole “my house, my rules” speech. My mom used to say “People either come to visit me, or they come to judge my housekeeping. If they come to see me, they don’t notice the housekeeping, and if they come to judge the housekeeping, I’ve given them something to talk about.” I’d like to say I have that attitude, but honestly, I just don’t see it. If the dog can’t leave the kitchen, I know there’s either yummy meat cooling on the counter and she’s working her brain around how to sample it, or the kids have spilt something and she’s stuck there until I get the mop. I birthed three kids for a reason. The dog can wait til they get home.

I don’t wear make-up often anymore. Not since I got more mascara on my nose and eyeballs than I did on my lashes. Doesn’t matter though, because I look good. Usually. I still look like I did when I was twenty-one (even if, when I was 21, I thought I wasn’t, but I really was in hindsight compared to now) Unless I’m having a sad day, then I look eighty. Like old eighty, not “I can’t believe you’re eighty, you look sixty” eighty. I look in the mirror, and I look however my mood wants me to look. I might feel eighty from all the health issues I have, but if I feel good mentally, I look twenty-one. Not bad, for someone who’s given birth to over twenty-two pounds worth of baby (divided between three separate children over a decade span of time). It’s a beautiful spring day, I’m writing right now, and the house is quiet (the dog is ignoring the leaf that just skittered around outside somewhere), so I look twenty-five-ish.

Since my Eeyore coffee cup is empty and there is no one here to fix that problem but me (cat has no thumbs, he’s useless), I’m going to sign off for today. But I’ll leave you with one last thought. Since I’m blind and can see only what I want to see? Imma pretend that I’ve got a rapt audience waiting for my next post. If I’m the only one reading? That’s sad, but no one else will ever know how sad because I choose to believe there are other eyes reading too. If you’re here, thank you. If you come back again? I’m overwhelmed with gratitude.

I’d say see you later, but honestly? I’m not likely to see you, so don’t be offended if I don’t say “Hi – love what you’ve done with your hair!” I’m sure I would love your hair though.


 

Live, Love, Laugh – Lessons Learned in Life

My first blog post (now that I deleted the old ones).

I’m a writer. Unpublished, except that time I was a finalist in a Jeffrey Archer/Kobo contest. I’m going to publish. One day. Eventually. When the house is spotless, the kids are quiet for an hour while I pour over the Amazon TOS for authors, and there’s nothing shiny around me. Even though I’m well past the qualifications for legally blind status, you’d be shocked at how many shiny things I find to distract me.

I’m going to use this blog to post about life stuff. You know, the ups and downs that happen every day. Some days the goal will be to make you cry, other days? Make you laugh so hard you cry. Most days? I’ll be glad if I kept you reading past the first sentence. I’ll make stuff up, tell the truth, and fudge the rest. Maybe I’ll tell you what’s true and what’s not, maybe I won’t. Depends on how much coffee I’ve had and if we’re running low and I’m scared we’ll run out.

I’m talking to you like you’re my best friend. I might know you, I might not, but hopefully, as time goes on and you know me better, you at least like me enough to come back for the next post. Here’s one of those truths I’ll admit to – I’m talking to you right now because my family thinks it is annoying when I talk to myself. If you stare blankly at your monitor while “reading” this, not really absorbing anything, then I’ll feel like we’re family, or at least that you’re like one of my kids. Nod your head a bit and smile and I’ll call you my favourite. You can’t top the dog though. She tilts her head to one side and thumps her tail every time I speak, so good luck competing there.

I’ve got a heart full of love, a belly full of laughter (we’ll forget the Reese Peanut Butter cup I just sampled). I am overwhelmed with love and laughter, so I’ll purge some of it here. I’m hormonal at times, so I might cry sometimes too. If I’m crying, I’m going to do my best to make you cry too, because no one likes to cry alone. Tissues are to your left. Unless you keep them to the right of your computer. Or you’re reading this on your tablet at the coffee shop, in which case you’ll have to ask them where they are. Or go to the washroom and grab a bunch of toilet paper.

I’m Canadian. Some of us are really that nice. Some aren’t. My biggest struggle in writing books is conflict, because I need to resist having every character say “I’m sorry” every time they do something mean. Or getting them to do something mean in the first place. When I was a child, I tried to write a bullying story. Like Judy Blume’s book Blubber. Only calling another kid horrible names, even one who existed solely in my head, was too hard. I ripped the story up after the first time the word chubby was put to paper. I could see then, so I handwrote my stories. I still have most of them. Between my messy handwriting and my eyes, I’d need a runes translator and a vat of vodka to ever decide if I had potential. Now I just make the characters in my stories people I don’t like and would love to stir up conflict with. I ignore the ouch when I write conflict for the characters, even secretly enjoying the mouthy person giving dung to someone I don’t like.

I’m very spontaneous, so I can’t say come back every Tuesday for a new post. I might have a new post every hour for a week, then nothing for days. Maybe, if I have more than one reader (in other words, more than just me rereading my own stuff) I’ll set up a schedule. Of sorts. A loose ‘sometime between the 1st and 31st of the month. Or even a every week schedule if I’ve got more than two readers. All my kids can read so we might get lucky and one of them decides to drop by to stare at the screen with glazed eyes and a gut full of disappointment because they’d thought I might hint at what I was making for dinner.

So, that’s me. Nice to meet you. If you stick around, you might just be my new best friend. I’d share my snacks with you, but there’s just no way to pass the peanuts online. Which, if you’re allergic, will endear me to you even more because I’m glad I can’t share them with you because it might make you sick. Look at me, earning nut-free brownie points already.

Thanks for reading. Or at least pretending to. I’ll offer more as we get to know one another better.