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.