The Storm

Summer storms are one of the things I miss most from the prairies.

They’re rare on Prince Edward Island, but they happen occasionally. I woke up to thunder a few nights ago.  A huge crack of it, right outside our bedroom window. I had a hard time sleeping after that. Weird dreams.

And the next day, I had this weird-ass story.


—read best as it was written, while listening to Lana Del Rey


“It’s too hot to sleep.”


I swept Cruise’s hair away from his face. He lay on top of the blankets, naked with the exception of his beloved Spiderman underwear, staring up at me in the candlelight, his seven-year-old features gleaming under a sheen of sweat.

“You won’t notice the heat once you fall asleep, baby.” I leaned with a kiss for the top of his head and smiled. Standing, I returned his book to the shelf and took the candle from the top of his dresser. “They’ll probably have the power on by morning. I’ll make you toast with cinnamon and brown sugar for breakfast.”

“You’re trying to bribe me,” he said, pulling a stuffed dragon with oversized eyes close to his chest. “It won’t work.”

“You need to sleep. It’s time.”

“Good night, Momma.”

“Love you, kiddo.”

Ben tossed his cell phone on the coffee table as I entered the living room. Placing Cruise’s candle next to it, I sank onto the opposite side of the couch.

“Who were you talking to?” I asked, glancing at his phone, forcing an air of lightness into the question.

“No one.” He offered a quick smile. Something had been bothering him all week. He’d been playing it off, but after seventeen years together, the signs were easy to spot. The strained conversation. The way he rolled toward the opposite side of the room when we went to bed. “I was just playing Sudoku. Battery’s out now. I’ll have to wait for the power to come back.”

I lifted my feet onto the ottoman. “I wish we had a generator, at least for the air conditioner. I can feel your body heat from here.” Fanning myself with a magazine from the basket on the floor, I asked, “What do you think happened to the power, anyway?”

Living so deep in the country had its advantages. Cruise, Lily, and Grace were free to roam the meandering trails on their four-wheelers in summer and on the snowmobiles in winter, paid for with the money left over after trading the cramped, million-dollar condo in Vancouver for our sprawling acreage in Saskatchewan. Nestled so far in the woods, we had no neighbors. Ben converted the old barn across the yard into a studio with large windows that invited the natural light he so coveted to brighten his herculean canvases. background-2439018_1920I had turned the spare bedroom into the office I’d always dreamt of and, after quitting my job as a content writer, the free time I needed to complete my second novel. The kids all had their own rooms. The move granted us everything we could ever want out here, and while I never once regretted leaving British Columbia the year before, I did miss how easily accessible information had been in the city. The power had been out for three hours, and we still had no idea why.

“The heat,” Ben answered. “Probably a transformer. Are Lily and Grace asleep?”

The basement stairs appeared dark. “I think so. Finally. It’s nearly midnight, they’ll be tired at school tomorrow.”

Ben’s gaze wandered back to his phone on the coffee table. He masked a frown with his hand.

“You sure everything’s okay?” I prodded, knowing it was her. It was always her.

“Yeah.” He stood. “We should go to bed, too. Not much to do without the power.”

I let out an annoyed groan, rising to my feet. “Why’s it so hot, anyway? It’s supposed to be freezing this time of year. It’s almost November, for Christ sake.” The heatwave had arrived the week before, our summer clothes having already been packed away.

Ben made his way to the living room window, wearing only a tattered pair of shorts that somehow eluded my last trip to the donation box. I enjoyed the sight of him staring into the night: the way his naked back tapered so neatly into the elastic band of his shorts.

“Ah. Who knows,” he said, his shoulders uncharacteristically tense. “Seems to be shifting though. There’s a breeze now, at least.”

I joined him at the window. He was right. A cool stream of air filtered through the screen. Closing my eyes, I enjoyed the feel of it against my face. “Tell me the truth.” I turned to face him. “Has she been messaging you again?”

The candles flickered behind us, caught in the breeze. Ben sighed. “I’m not encouraging her, Terra.”

“What’s she saying?”


“She’s been depressed. She’s . . . in a dark place.”


I crossed my arms, suddenly thankful his phone had died. There had been many reasons for the move from civilization as we knew it: the traffic, the hectic lifestyle, the endless cycle of day after day of gray skies; but leaving Helena behind to keep our family intact had been the biggest.

“How depressed?” I asked.

He lowered his head. “Before the phone died, she said . . .”

I waited, saying nothing, refusing to prod him on. It was a mess he had gotten himself into. A mess he promised was over.

Ben cleared his throat. “She picked up some sleeping pills.”

“She can’t sleep?” I asked, with a feeling that wasn’t where the conversation was going. I’d been trying to forgive Helena for stealing him away. My husband. Not because I felt she deserved forgiveness, but because my hate had consumed me the past two years. Changed me. Ben was doing everything he could to save our family. It was only fair that I tried too.

“I don’t know.” He shrugged.

“You think she would . . .”

“I don’t know.”

The world would be better off without her. I bit my lip, holding the comment in. “Would you like to call her?”

“Is there any charge in your phone?”

“No.” I answered, silently thanking Cruise for draining the battery playing Minecraft. It seemed that the seventeen hundred miles we’d travelled wasn’t enough to keep Helena from my husband. background-1177463_1920Maybe if she killed herself it would be over and done. Let her beautiful face and her flawless body rot six feet under the ground if that was what it took to keep her from my family.

Ben rubbed the back of his neck, absentmindedly flexing the muscles along his arm and the left side of his body. He was handsome. One of the handsomest men I’d ever seen. A brilliant artist. I doubted I could have forgiven another man for the pain his affair had cause me. Of course Helena was depressed. I had been depressed too, when I found out about her. Would I have killed myself? No. But then, I had the kids. Helena had nothing.

“You’re right,” I said finally. “We should go to bed.”

By the time we completed our nightly rituals of face-washing and teeth-brushing, the wind had picked up substantially.

Ben closed the bedroom windows halfway while I peed in the en-suite. He peered across the yard. “It’s getting wild out there.”

The shrubs surrounding the outer wall of the bathroom scraped the siding in the wind. I rose, pulling up my pants and flushing the toilet. Out the small window, I caught sight of the trampoline in the yard. “We should run out and take the safety net down. If it gets windy enough that thing will end up in our roof.”

Ben’s shoulder slumped. “Oh, hell. I’ll do it.”

“I can come—”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll be right back.” He grabbed a flashlight from the closet and pulled a shirt on before making his way down the hall. In a minute backdoor slammed shut behind him. I sat on the bed. The sound of crisp autumn leaves rustled noisily though the window. I strained to see Ben climbing onto the trampoline to wrestle with the safety net in the darkness. Above, the slivered crescent of the moon was white and bright, and then it was covered by a thick patch of quickly moving cloud. The earthy, delicious smell of fast approaching rain filled the air.

Footsteps shuffled on the floor behind me. It was Cruise. The hair rose along the back of my arms. His face had paled since I’d tucked him in. His eyes were empty. Hollow.

Crossing the room, I knelt before him. “Cruise?” I refrained from touching him, remembering what the pediatrician in Vancouver had said. “Are you all right?”

He nodded. Despite his recent growth spurt, he still had a little baby fat. His little belly protruded slightly over his underwear. The innocent expression that usually brightened his baby-blue eyes was gone.

“Are you asleep, baby?” I asked. How long had it been since I’d left his room? A half-hour at most. Obviously, that was all it took. It was the second time I’d caught him sleepwalking that week.

He mumbled indiscernibly. Garbled, halting vowels and sharp constants. My pulse raced. Ben handled Cruise’s sleepwalking better than I did.

“Do you need to use the bathroom?” I asked.


He seemed to look right through me. “It’s going to storm.”


My breath caught in my throat. He talked in his sleep a hundred times before. But, his words were always mangled, as if he was speaking in tongues. I’d never been able to understand him.

His head tilted slightly to the side, blonde hair ruffled in the back from sweating against his pillow. He reached out blindly to touch my arm. “Be careful, Momma.”

I let out a quiet gasp. The words were jarringly clear, his breath a ripple of heat against my face. I swallowed, buying time, gathering myself. “It’s time for bed, baby,”

“Momma.” Cruise leaned with a whisper, sleeping blue eyes clear and wide. “She’s coming.”

A chill rose up my spine. I hesitated, staring at my only son. My sweet boy. “Who’s coming, honey?”

The backdoor slammed. Ben lumbered up the stairs. He came in breathing hard, the flashlight brightening our room. “It’s going to pour out there.” He caught sight of Cruise.

“What’s he doing up?”

screen“He’s not up.” My attention returned to Cruise. The older he grew the more he looked like his father: the same wide shoulders, square jaw, and puckered lips. He was my baby. A perfectly unspoiled replica of the man I’d fallen in love with so long before. “He’s asleep, I think.”

“I’ll take him to his bed.” Ben laid his hand on Cruise’s back to usher him slowly down the hall. “Let’s go, buddy.”

I waited for Ben to return, listening to the wind wail against the outer walls of the house. Something was banging in the distance. A door, maybe. An open gate. I retrieved the discarded flashlight and slipped past Ben speaking softly, calmly to Cruise while tucking him safe beneath his blankets, and descended the stairs to the entryway. Pushing firmly against the closed door, I turned the deadbolt sideways at the top. Ben installed it when we first moved to the acreage. The last thing we had wanted was Cruise sleepwalking out of the house in the dead of winter. I glanced into the front yard through the window. The trees swayed violently in the wind. Rain droplets spotted the glass.

Moving systematically from one room to the next, I closed the windows. Grace and Lily lay still in their rooms in the basement, breathing heavily, blissfully unaware of the coming storm.

Ben stripped to his underwear and laid down on the bed. “This rain is exactly what we need. It’ll take some of the humidity out of the air. Cruise will be fine tomorrow.”

He was right, of course. Cruise’s sleepwalking somehow always grew worse in extended periods of humidity. Laying next to Ben I let out a long breath. “I hate when Cruise talks in his sleep.”

Ben let out a sigh. “He’s fine, Terra. It’s natural. Weird, but natural.”

We blew out our candles. Ben was restless. I was certain he was thinking of Helena. There was nothing he could do from here. All the same, I could practically feel her in the bed between us. I turned to face the window. Rain came in waves against the pane. We listened to the storm separately until almost two hours had passed, and Ben’s breathing became heavy. Sleep came slower for me. Now and then my body became weightless, my thoughts setting adrift as the edges of my consciousness began to soften.

I’d only seen Helena once, across a busy street. She’d been with Ben, coming out of a hotel paid for with our credit card. She was prettier than me. A couple years older. He told me she was an artist, like him. An artist like Ben, who felt deeper than other people. Loved harder.

Could she have loved him more than I did? Did it matter? He was mine. Maybe she was lying to him about the pills; using whatever means necessary to pull him back into her web. Maybe she wouldn’t take the them.


And maybe she would.


Oh God, I hoped she would.

I imagined her sitting in her condo, her shining black hair pulled into a perfect bun on the very top of her head, rolling the bottle of pills back and forth across the coffee table with the tips of her thin fingers. I willed her to open them. I willed her to pick up the glass of Malbec I pictured beside her.

It’ll be easier if you do it, Helena.

Rain pounded against the roof. Wind whipped at the walls. Weightless, weightless, weightless. My awareness drifted, euphoria closing in as sleep worked to erase Ben’s lover from my mind.

My eyes fluttered open. A slow roll of thunder moved in like an animal approaching in the night.

I had lifted from the bed.

Ben lay below me, still. I tried to scream his name but no sound came out. My arms and legs and head hung back, unresponsive. My chest was tight. Cramped. Expelling my soul. Forcing my consciousness outward, outward, outward. Into what? Where would my soul go if not inside my body? Uncontained, it would spill free, separate, disappear. I would be gone, just like that. And then? My body would be empty, an old house, waiting for a renter.

Another slow roll of thunder carried with it a resonance I imagined to be a woman’s voice, a woman’s scream, a battle cry in the night. I tried to yell again. Air poured freely from my lungs. No sound. Ben let out a stammered snore beneath me. Adrenaline pumped furiously from my heart. I swayed slightly, left and right, rocking in an invisible cradle, led by a force rising somewhere from my chest. texture-1697391_1280

“Ben!” I managed finally.

His eyes flew open. Could he see me in the darkness? He patted the mattress and glanced up, stiffening. Launching from the bed he stood against the wall, immediately awake. “Terra, what the fuck?”

“Help!” I reached toward him. The rocking motion intensified. I was sick, swaying back and forth above the bed, limbs flailing. “Get me down.”

The electricity surged a moment, flashing through the lights. Ben’s face appeared white beneath his stubble. He was frozen, glancing wildly around the room.

The light died out. The room seemed blacker than before.

Cruise’s shockingly blank face. She’s coming.

It wasn’t possible. I was dreaming, wasn’t I? This was my body. My husband. Mine.

Helena was lying. She wouldn’t kill herself.

“Terra!” Ben’s voice was closer. “Grab my hand.”

It was too dark to see. I swung in, arm flailing. I brushed the edge of his hand before swinging back. He grabbed me when I came in again. The energy shuttling me by my chest was too strong.

Ben let go before my arm could snap. Back I went. The motion grew manic. I was swung like a pendulum, back and forth and back again. My stomach rolled. “Ben!”

“Tell me what to do, Terra!”

What could he do?

I imagined myself to be a sponge trying to reabsorb my soul; focusing on breathing in and out and in again: using my lungs to pull the spilled me back. My body. I was released. Flung onto the floor. There was a crunch. Something hard protruded beneath my back. Pain screamed from my ribs. I’d landed on something. The flashlight?

Ben rushed to me. “What happened?” He held me by my shoulders. “What the fuck was that?”


I couldn’t bring myself to say it.


Her name.

I said the only thing I could. “I don’t know.”

There was a bang from downstairs. A door slamming. Grace screamed. I pushed Ben backward, trying to stand. A warm stream drained from my ribs down the back of my nightgown. A surge of pins and needles accosted my limbs.

Ben moved to the dresser. A match flared across the room. The candle was immediately snuffed out. It remained lit on the third attempt. Ben and I made our way down the stairs quickly, Ben guarding the wildly flickering flame with his hand. A clap of thunder shook the house, loud, and long, and close.

Helena was in it.

She was all around us now.

I held onto Ben’s arm as he opened Grace’s door. “Honey?”

Wind blasted the curtains out from her open window. Our eldest daughter shuffled back in her bed, long hair wildly disheveled. Both girls took after me more than their father; with the same mousy hair, and extra flesh around the waist and hips.

“Sorry,” she  panted. “The thunder scared me. The wind blew my door shut.”

light-1985200_1920At fourteen, Grace rarely looked like a child anymore. Now it was all I saw. I raced past Ben to embrace her, eager for an excuse to hold another person, heart hammering heavily beneath my breast. Ben closed the window with a thud.

“Why’d you open the window?” I asked Grace, holding her soft frame tight.

“It was open when I went to bed.”

“I know.” I glanced at Ben. “I closed it.”

Lily padded in, rubbing her eyes. “What’s going on?” She was two years younger than Grace, but unlike her older sister she appeared unfazed by the storm. Thunder roared around us. The basement windows flashed bright.

Slam, slam, slam. The bedroom doors blew shut upstairs.

Wind ripped through the house. Had every window opened?

Ben blinked. “Cruise!”

I pulled Grace’s hand. She shimmied from the blankets. Ben raced up the stairs past the front door to check Cruise’s room. The girls and I stayed on the steps. I looked up at the lock. The knob was vertical. Open, and intact. It had to have been turned from the inside. But, by who? Cruise wasn’t tall enough. He was only seven.

Only seven. Pure, and good, and mine.

“Ben,” I yelled. “Is he up there?”

Lily took my hand. “What’s going on?”

“Daddy’s just checking Cruise,” I answered, as calmly as I could. “Ben!”

He rounded the corner, panicked. “He isn’t there.”

Thunder clapped, retreating. Seconds passed. Lighting illuminated the front door. Something was written on the surface, scrawled deep into the wood.

Mine.


Where I Came From

Once when I was young we drove to the farm to show my grandpa our new camper. He jumped from the combine, waving when we turned onto the long driveway. As we came closer my sister, brother, and I noticed something was wrong. He wasn’t waving anymore. He was stooped over, groaning.

Dad’s truck skidded to a stop on the gravel, sending up a swirl of dust. He told us to wait in the camper and ran across the field. Pain sounded in Grandpa’s voice through the screened windows. The men staggered to the truck and Grandpa sat across the table, rocking, clutching a paper towel to soak up the blood. He’d cut a chunk from his hand when climbing down from the tractor.

It was the only time I recall seeing him hurt. And for some reason, it was all I could think of the moment I hung up the phone with my dad, taking the time to allow the word “tumor” solidify in my mind.

My flight out of Charlottetown was quiet. The snow had melted from the hills below to reveal red patches of field checker-boarding across Prince Edward Island. I toyed with my seatbelt, hoping my husband would enjoy a week alone with the kids.  I landed in Toronto only to take off an hour later. Winnipeg greeted me in darkness.

“You’re at your mom’s?” His voice was deep as ever, the Frisian accent thick and endearing. “Well, shoot. That’s great. I didn’t know you were coming home.”

“I just . . . thought I should.” For months I’d ignored the urge to plan a trip back home. But, two of my cousins had scheduled their weddings within a week of each other. One of my best friends was about to have her second baby. My grandpa has a tumor. I wrapped the phone cord around my finger. “Can I come over?”

In twenty minutes I was out of the city and on the highway. I loathed the desolate landscape when I left Manitoba fifteen years before. But now, the drive to the farm was beautiful.  The prairies were my home. The place where I came from. I stared out at the open sky and turned up Wheat Kings the moment it hit the radio. My hands tightened on the steering wheel as I passed the penitentiary on the hill. Grandpa had retired from thirty-two years as a correctional officer long before– without taking a single sick day. At the end of his last shift, each and every inmate inside had lined up to shake his hand.

My sister’s van was parked in front of his barn, the Alberta license plate still dirty from the drive. Grandpa stood waiting for me in front of the shed. His shoulders were hunched, his shock of white hair thinner than I remembered. But, he was as handsome as ever. I rose to my tiptoes, hugging him tighter than I should.

“Well, look at you!” He laughed, stepping back to examine me, lines crinkling around sharp blue eyes. “You look good.” He winked. “Even if you are a little thin.”

We sat in the sunroom while my sister’s kids examined the toys we’d played with almost three decades before. I was next to Grandpa, resting my head on his shoulder as the sun danced between looming branches outside.

“I’m thinking of having the operation,” Grandpa said. His arm was around my neck, his hand engulfing my shoulder. He’d immigrated to Canada sixty-five years before. A Dutch giant, scooping up a piece of prairie farmland after the war. He was just eighteen then, a year younger than I was, when I left home.

“It sounds like you should,” said my sister.

I agreed without thinking of the implications–without entertaining the possibility he might never recover.

“It’s funny,” Grandpa said. “I never thought about dying before.”

My chest tightened. “No?”

“Oh you know, not really. I feel the same as I did before. It seems soon.”

The days were a blur of family visits, driving back and forth along the impossibly flat landscape. My friend’s house rose like a fortress in the woods on the outskirts of bear country. She was beautiful, pregnant and perfect. The first wedding began without me: the tendency to be late a family trait. Grandpa arrived a half-hour later.

The second wedding rounded off the very end of my trip, held at my old church: the sanctuary untouched by time. When the guests stood for a hymn Grandpa’s voice boomed over all of the others, fervent and on key: just like every Sunday of my childhood. I fell silent, listening, unable to sing anymore.

Grandpa chatted with each and every guest at the reception. I stole quick glances from across the room, fighting a lump in my throat. It was late by the time he arrived at our table. We talked for a long time, joking and exchanging stories while my sister and I dabbed Kleenex at our red-rimmed eyes.

Midnight descended on the reception too soon, a member of staff announcing it was time to leave. I had to fight the overwhelming urge to beg her to let us stay, noting the tired lines under Grandpa’s eyes. We’d kept him far too long already. I stood on my tiptoes,  hugging him tighter than I should, staining the lapel of his new suit with a few rogue tears.

And then I let him go one last time, the man where I came from.
On the third anniversary of the day he moved on, May 4, 2015.

This Parenting Moment of Chaos and Bliss


This morning my clock radio went off at 7am with the morning news.

It was not good news, given the current state of planet Earth: the political climate of North America, the atrocities children face overseas, and the overbookings of certain (idiotic) American Airlines. But, I had things to accomplish. So, I tuned everything outside our home out—got up, brushed my teeth, and ran down a mental list of everything I had to do to get the hellions out the door for school.

Blare some music: for some reason they’re obsessed with waking up to Centuries, by Fall Out Boy.

Get breakfast ready, make them actually eat it, watch the middle one brush his teeth (otherwise he won’t), make lunches, ensure the little one is wearing underwear, and pack a lunch the older one will eat, because he is, *insert eyeroll* just so tired of eating sandwiches.

But a funny thing happened while making said lunches. The little one looked at me and asked, “Mommy, did you hear the birds tweeting this morning?”

And in that moment I realized I had. I just hadn’t taken the time to notice them.

Living in the Maritimes, we face long cool winters, often with obscene amounts of snow. The songbirds migrate to hang out with this as$#@le I know my friend who (constantly) brags about year-round AWESOME weather in Florida, and we’re left with crows big enough to steal your baby. 1n22x6The skies are ALWAYS grey. Now, I’m not a fan of winter in any way, shape, or form. It’s something I try to live through to get to the glorious seven weeks of summer we here on Prince Edward Island are blessed with, amid forty-four weeks I could do without.

At the littlest hellion’s behest, I opened the window.

Sure enough, it was warm outside. The sun was shining. There were fu%$@ng BIRDS in the tree overlooking my deck.

The moment the hellions were out the door and on their way to school, I dug my sports bra out of the very back of my dresser. I shook the dust out. I didn’t have to shake the dust out of my sweatpants, because let’s face it, I’m a mom. I wear those every day. yufgvI found my runners, and I went for a run.

It’s been TWO YEARS since I went for a run. My body did not like it. But, my soul did. I went without music. I listened to the birds in the trees and felt the sun on my face. I had to slow to a walk at the halfway point because of a sore ankle and aching hip, but even then I enjoyed every minute.

Would I have finally noticed the “tweeting” birds if the littlest hellion hadn’t pointed them out this morning? I don’t know. Probably. But there’s something about the way he said it–the pure joy in his face at the discovery that the birds had returned–that infused itself into my very soul. I was able to enjoy their presence the way I should, to just relax and be grateful they’d come back.

And maybe that’s why tired-eyed, spit-up wearing, sport-chauffeuring parents often nag unrestricted, sparkly-souled, bushy-tailed, non-parents to have kids.

20170410_162819.jpgHaving children is the hardest thing anyone will ever have to do. There are sleepless nights YEARS that can suck the soul right out of your body. There’s vomit. There’s crying, dirty diapers, sibling rivalry, pen on the furniture, paint on the walls, fights about parenting methods with your partner, phone calls from teachers, and elderly women in parks berating you for not dressing your child properly for the weather.

But there are also moments like these, where your child encourages you to stop, to take a moment to experience the world as they do—through their little eyes and ears—and see beyond the chaos . . . into these little slices of bliss.

 

Fighting Winter Blues


It would be fair to say that occasionally, I suffer from depression. It seems to be a common thread among some writers. I don’t talk about it often, simply because it isn’t the looming monster a few of my friends and family members face. But around this time of year—every year—it sneaks up on me: a weight on my chest that’s hard to shake. img_20161130_101550I find it difficult to blog, to write, and even to return emails. And while sometimes I think it comes because my family lives too far to visit as often as I’d like, or my book is taking so long to write, or because I will never be the Stepford wife with the time and ambition to make a Pinterest perfect home,  in truth: my depression is seasonal, caused by the lack of summer warmth; the eternal shades of grey outside my window.

This January I allowed myself to slink a little deeper into my winter blues after being turned down for a grant for Old Souls. I had used a large block of precious writing time to map out my application, consisting of a budget, resume, project plan, and expected finishing date. The five-thousand-dollar grant would have permitted me to ease back a few hours at work to focus on my book. It could have contributed to financing a round of professional editing and a little advertising, if one day, I choose to self-publish. It could have acted like a pat on a back saying, “You’re good enough.” And when I didn’t get it, I allowed the rejection to become a kick in the ass that said, “You aren’t.”

I love writing. I make a little money with articles and short stories from time to time, but writing certainly isn’t how I support my family. For now, I am a hobby writer. For now, I live in a distinctly in-between world where I don’t really talk about my “real job” to my writerly friends, or my writerly ambitions to my work friends.

1hlmwvI earn my living in hospitality. I’ve worked in a collection of restaurants, sport bars, pubs, and clubs across Canada, and even a handful of places in Australia. Now, I work in a high-end restaurant in downtown Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Since I started a year and a half ago, I’ve been promoted twice. For a few months over the summer, (peak-season on our tourist driven little island) I ran the bloody place myself. But, when the work began to sabotage my writing time I was forced to prioritize, and ultimately took a step back. Now I punch the clock, tend the bar, and enjoy three quiet writing days a week while the hellions attend school.

Working in hospitality is perfect for someone like me. People who know me know I love to talk. I talk to anyone who’ll put up it with it, really. I talk to cab drivers, grocery store clerks, and the unfortunate souls who stand beside me in line. I like to talk so much that when I’m home alone and there’s no one else to talk to, I make people up and have them talk.images1KTY36UF

Some of the most interesting people in the world have saddled up to my bar over the years. It’s true, many come in looking for a man to talk to about sports. Being that I am not a man and have no interest (at all) in sports, the conversations are forced into other directions. And once my guests have finished a few drinks, some of them get . . . kind of deep.

The restaurant where I work is located just off the lobby of a boutique hotel. A number of travelers drift in our doors throughout the winter: generally, singles on work trips. They come for dinner, and to drink wine, scotch, or dry Tanqueray martinis (oh, with two olives, please), and to socialize a little before retiring to their rooms.

On Monday, a man fitting exactly that description came in on his own. “Mathew” is a couple years older than me, with what sounds like a great job and the perfect family: 2.5 kids and a stay-at-home wife. As the night progressed and my other guests filtered out through the doors, Mathew sipped his Malbec thoughtfully and began to talk about life. stocksnap_jxnkzrbv86These are the conversations I live for. The ones where I don’t contribute much. The ones when people tell me the things they wouldn’t say to anyone else, because I don’t know the same crowd they do. Because they are from “away” and will likely never see me again.

He told me about his kids. How he had his first at twenty-one. Now, his oldest was applying for college while many of his friends were delving into the joys of parenting for the first time: changing diapers and staying up all night with colicky babies. He was almost home free. All the same, the subject of his conversation kept wandering back to whether or not he would have done things differently if he was given the chance. Would he have waited to have kids when he was older? Picked a different career, or a different partner?

Looking back on our lives and wondering “what if” is one of the ties that seems to bind humanity together. One might argue it’s an evolutionary safeguard, inspiring us to learn and grow from past decisions and experiences, almost like rats in a maze.recite-lslqv0.png

But, in talking to this stranger—whose children are only a couple years older than mine—I realized something.

Wallowing in my little bout of depression and wondering “what if” about the loss of my grant is . . . stupid.

My winter blues are taking me away from the moment I’m in.

Mathew is teetering near the brink of a change in life. That can be scary. But, it can be fun, too. He already chose his wife and had his kids. He raised them. And now, while many of his friends venture into the territory of having a family—a territory he already navigated—he’ll soon be released into the childless wild, at the tender age of forty. The rest of his life is up to him. Just like the rest of my mine is up to me.

1441996275528.jpgEvery day we’re faced with decisions. It’s how we deal with the wrenches in our journey and the decisions we made in our past that will often define our future.

While it was easy for me to see that Mathew is facing an opportunity in his future, he seemed determined to look back.

Sometimes talking to other people can force you to see everything you’re sleeping through.

Every day holds the possibility to grant us a change in life. It isn’t limited to graduations, our children venturing away from home, or our retirements. Every day we can change our future.

While I’ve been allowing myself to wallow in my “wrench,”–my recurring winter blues, and the loss of a silly little grant–I don’t have to. I can make a conscious effort to fight it. I can wake up. I can take a walk when the sun shines, enjoy my children, and will myself to write; to finish the book that has haunted me ever since my very own “old soul,” Hellion #1, was born.

Thanks to Mathew, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.


 

Cassie


With a little prodding from a friend, I entered my first writing competition a few weeks ago. PEI Writers’ Guild hosted the “Battle Tales,” and announced the winner at a social in a micro-brewery near downtown Charlottetown on Saturday. I didn’t win the contest, but the social was still a great way to get out and network with local writers.


beer-2618210_960_720.jpgIF I could have forced myself to speak to anyone . . . which I couldn’t.


Although I threw back a few pints of liquid courage, my mouth managed to seal itself shut. The room filled with flourishing, successful authors remained entirely un-networked. By me, anyway.

So, now that I’m safely back behind my computer screen, I am going to do what every other writerly introvert does and follow those guild writers’ tweets, blogs, and stalk them on Goodreads. Boom. So there, sealed mouth.

The contest rules stipulated that the short story could be no longer than 2500 words. It had to feature a dog barking in the distance, a door that wouldn’t close, and a pair of shoes dangling on a power line. While my story didn’t win, it still took me a while to write. I don’t want to waste it. So here, with no further ado: my contest entry for the PEI Writers’ Guild Battle Tales.


Cassie


It was hard to spot at first.

I closed my mouth against the sand whipping at my face and squinted at the horizon. There was a boat at the end of the world, its mast leaning heavily to the side in the wind. A ghost ship, probably. Nestled deep in the Gulf of St. Laurence, it’d been years since our island had seen one. Years since we made any contact at all with the world outside our shores.

I shimmied off my kitbag to retrieve the radio. Stealing another glance at the vessel through my binoculars, I pushed the button. “Checking in from the Second Station, North Shore.”

The reply from Central was quick. “Go ahead, Jackson.”

“There’s a boat up here.” I transferred my weight from one foot to the other. My replacement had been called to a riot, lengthening my shift to twice as long as usual. “Looks like it’s gonna hit the shore.”

“Anyone on board?” The question was standard procedure. No one ever was.

The battered deck was easily visible through the binoculars now: empty beneath a torn sail whipping ruthlessly in the wind. “Doesn’t look like it.”

A surge of static followed. “We’ll send a demolition crew out. Make sure no one goes near it till they arrive.”

“Ten-four, Central.”

Wiping the sand from my eyes with the heel of my hand, I sat next to my kitbag and examined the remnants of my lunch. I’d eaten most of my rations already, except a hunk of dried ham I’d saved for the walk home. Holding the meat in my hand, I debated whether or not to finish it. There was never enough to eat anymore. My stomach let out an argumentative growl as shoved the ham in my pocket. I could handle the hunger better than others. It made some people angry. Bitter. The riots grew worse every month. Rumors were rampant. Many believed Central was hoarding food. They couldn’t have much, even if they were. The farmers had a hard year, without much rain. We had some meat, but less potatoes than usual. Hardly any corn.

Twenty years had passed since they blew up the bridge. My older brothers used to talk about the sound of it. Said the whole house shook with the explosion. I don’t remember that. What I remember is the way the color drained from my mother’s face at the table. The hard line of my dad’s mouth as he scooped another helping of salmon onto his plate. The neighbor’s dog, barking in the distance.

The bridge had been the only trucking route from the mainland. Even before authorities destroyed it, automobiles, planes, and boats had already stopped coming in. Quarantine boundaries were enforced by the military, putting an abrupt halt to the deliveries of food that had been imported from locations all over the world. The taste of foods like pistachios, rice, and tropical fruit now seemed like a memory from a life on another planet.

For about a month after isolation began, communication with the mainland was easy. Then the internet went down, then the phones. The outside world eventually fell silent. Waste systems along the coast failed, polluting the Atlantic and poisoning the fish. We had been limited to whatever sustenance we could harvest from the island ever since.

I pulled my attention back to the drifting boat. The surging tide came in fast, drawing the vessel closer to the beach with each wave. Whose boat had it been? What adventures had its sailors navigated before succumbing to the Red Death? I myself had never been on a boat. The only islanders who had since the plague began were volunteers. Every spring a few of them left the island, hoping to find that life on the mainland was safe. Their orders were to keep away if anyone of the crew showed the signs: bloodshot eyes, bleeding ears. The boats never returned.

When conspiracy theorists weren’t accusing Central of stealing food they were accusing Central dignitaries of sabotaging those expeditions. It was said the dignitaries were doing everything they could to maintain a healthy degree of fear in rest of us; making us easier to control. I never bought into that. I enjoyed the sense of order Central infused in our day-to-day lives. I trusted them. But then, my brothers often said that as the baby of the family, my trusting nature would one day get the best of me.

Instead of wasting time on patrol pondering everyone else’s half-cocked theories, I usually dwelled on the expeditions themselves. I planned to volunteer next spring, and wondered how long the others had survived out there. What sights they’d encountered beyond our shores. I imagined most of the corpses had rotted away by now, leaving a wasteland of bones behind. The buildings would likely be overrun with vegetation. Ghost cities to match the ghost ship drifting ever closer to our shore.

And then I saw it.

Movement on the deck.

Grabbing my binoculars, I rose. A woman stared back at me from just behind the rail. Her hair was long, tied in a braid hanging over her shoulder. Holding onto the guardrail, she struggled to keep her balance as waves bombarded the hull.

Raising my arm tentatively, I waved. The white fabric of her clothing whipping with the wind, the woman disappeared from view behind the cabin.

My thoughts raced. Somehow, this person had managed to live outside our shores. Could the rumors be true? Was Central sabotaging the expeditions? If they were, maybe the Red Death hadn’t been the catastrophe we’d all been led to believe. I froze. What lengths would the dignitaries go to in the hope of covering their tracks? They certainly wouldn’t want to deal with one more mouth to feed, whether they’d been sabotaging the expeditions or not. This woman would be sent away before she was even allowed to tell her story. Or worse.

I rolled up my pant legs and waded into the water, fighting the wind. The decline into the sea was gradual. The nearer to the boat I came, the more the rolling water tried to knock me down and pull me under.

When I was within earshot I stopped, yelling over the roar of the white capped waves.

“Hello?”

No answer.

“You should come down. People might see—”

“Go away!”

I glanced at the beach. No one had come. Yet. Peering back up at the boat I inspected the sail. It was badly ripped, possibly a result of the storm three nights before. If the boat had been drifting that long and the occupant had been infected, she would be dead by now. No one was immune to the Red Death. It killed everyone it touched.

The ladder bucked back with the boat when I grabbed for the rungs. They rocked forward again I caught hold of the sides. Seawater rushed up my nose and into my lungs as the boat rolled me under the water. I held on, managing to climb a few steps before my feet slipped off the metal. Clinging to the ladder, I hoisted myself to the deck. Breathless and panting, I doubled over with my hands on my knees, trying to steady myself.

The woman moved back warily, pressing herself against the guardrail on the other side of the deck.

“Why didn’t you answer me?” I asked. “I was calling you.”

“I told you to go away!” She said, her accent distinctively British.

“I can’t just leave you here.”

Arms crossed, she refused to answer, examining the shore wordlessly.

“Where did you come from?”

She paused. “Newfoundland.”

We had been moving steadily. The boat lurched as the hull met the ocean floor, and the woman fell hard on the deck. I rushed to pick her up.

“Stop!” she hissed, batting my hands away. “Don’t.”

“I’m not sick.” I took her by her thin wrists. “We broke contact with the mainland when the Red Death moved in. It never made it here. You’re safe with me, just as long as we can get you out Central’s sight.”

She peered at my hands on her wrists, a strange look crossing her face. Worried eyes, and a soft, sad smile. “I—I’m sorry.” A tear trailed down her cheek. “I just—” She swallowed. “I was so lonely.”

Releasing her wrist, I wiped the tear with my thumb. She cupped my hand to her gaunt face. Her skin felt warm, despite the wind. She dropped my hand suddenly, as if surprised by her own bold gesture.

“Are there more survivors? In Newfoundland?”

“I don’t think so.” Her mouth became a thin line. “Before Newfoundland I was in Europe.” She softened. “You’re the first person I’ve seen—alive—in a very long time.”

Europe had been among the first to fall victim to the Red Death. She’d been alone even longer than I’d thought. Had she lived all that time on her own, only to be killed by us? I rubbed the hair standing tall on my arms.

“You crossed the Atlantic . . . by yourself?”

“There were others. They died on the journey.”

“The plague?”

“No.” She blinked quickly. “We ran out of food. We were on another ship. We would have been faster if we could have used the motor, but something was wrong—”
“With the gas.” I waved back at the shore. “It all went bad here, too.”

She nodded back at the torn sail flapping uselessly in the wind. “The sail was fine till the last storm. I’ve been drifting for the last three days.” Loose strands of hair blew across her face, and she tucked them behind her ear.

“I’m Jackson.” I held out the waterlogged ham from my pocket. “You hungry?”

“Thanks.” Accepting the meat like an uncertain stray, she tore off a piece with her teeth.

“I’m Cassie.”

“There’s more food on the island. Not a lot, but some. The others—”

“How many of you are there?” Her gaze became sharp. Glancing over my shoulder, she pointed toward the beach. Someone was coming over the dune. “Who’s that?”

“Two hundred thousand islanders, at last census. And not all of us friendly.” My heart skipped a beat as I thought of Central. “We need to get out of here. Now.”

The relief patrolman walked across the sand, eyes on us. He’d spotted Cassie. The radio remained fastened to his belt. He hadn’t notified dignitaries, yet. That was something.

“Please, come down,” I asked Cassie. “I’ll tell you everything once we get back to the shore.”

She glanced over her shoulder at the deck warily. “Two hundred thousand?”

“My parents built a house nearby. It’s where I stay when I patrol up here. It’s secluded. But we have to go before that patrolman decides to call this in.”

She acquiesced, finally, following me down the ladder as the ship rocked with the waves. We gave up halfway and jumped into the surf.

The patrolman backed off as we approached, hand raised. It was Oliver. His eyes were wide. “You can’t bring her on shore, Jackson! Central protocol—”

I made my voice as stern as I could. “She was with other survivors, Oliver. They died of starvation, but it means there has to be others out there! Maybe the Red Death has run its course.”

Oliver’s hand tightened around his radio. “We need to call this in.”

“You know what Central will do. It’s why you haven’t called it in already.” Angry, I shook the cold water from my hair. “Look at her! She made it out there. She’s living proof that we could survive out there, too. I’m taking her to my parent’s place to recover, and then I’m going to find a boat to see what’s happening on the mainland for myself.”

“You’ll die if you do, Jackson. Everyone does.”

“All we know for sure is that no one comes back. They could be alive.”

Oliver’s eyes trailed over Cassie, softening. “How did you survive?”

She shrugged nervously, her eyes flitting between us. “I just did.”

Oliver bit his lip, looking past us to her boat in the water. “I must be crazy,” he said. Accepting my outstretched hand, he shook firmly.

Cassie stiffened.

“You two get to that house as fast as you can. I’ll go to town for some food.” His eyes lingered on Cassie’s thin frame as he spoke to me. “I think I remember where your parents used to live. Best not to contact me on your radio. Central might get suspicious. Leave a pair of shoes hanging from the power line in front, and I’ll come find you.”

“I can’t ask you to give up your rations,” I said. “It’s too much.”

“I’m not giving up my rations.” He smiled. “But I’ll bring you yours.”


The house was just like my parents had left it. The old wooden door wouldn’t close against the wind. I propped a chair up against the handle, jimmying it shut as best I could. Cassie watched wordlessly.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

She turned away, gazing out the window at the darkening horizon. “I never imagined finding as many people as this.” Her shoulders slumped. “Two hundred thousand.”

I wanted to reach out and touch her again. Comfort her. Having been away from others so long, I wondered whether the meeting had simply been too much, too soon. Maybe she just needed space.

I moved the chair from the door and left in search of firewood. A long-forgotten pile sat behind the shed. Old rainwater clung to the logs along the top: remnants of the same storm that ripped through Cassie’s sail. Pulling my father’s rusty axe from a nearby stump, I used it as a lever to dislodge the dry pieces tucked beneath. There was an echo of a stray dog barking somewhere further in the woods. I breathed in deeply, inhaling the green smell of spruces and rain soaked dirt. For the first time since the volunteers had set sail last spring, I felt hopeful. Carrying a small load of wood, I made my way back to the door. Cassie was watching me through a window, her silhouette just barely visible as the sunset reflected from the pane in bright pinks and dull purples. She didn’t return my smile, but even so she looked beautiful. In a few weeks, with a little more flesh on her bones, she’d be dazzling.

And then I felt it.

Dripping out my ear.

I dropped the wood. My hand flew up to touch the side of my face. Examining my fingers I found them to be tipped with blood.

Cassie ran out, slamming the door against the frame. She tried to grab my shoulders, but

I pushed her back.

“Cassie! You . . . are you carrying it?”

She stared at me saying nothing, horror widening her already large eyes.

“How are you alive?” I demanded.

“I’m immune. I wish to God I wasn’t.” She came to grab my shirt, pulling me close. “I couldn’t be alone anymore. I thought it might be safe after all these years. It was so long since the others died.”

My skin felt numb. “When you sailed across the Atlantic, the people on the boat with you didn’t starve, did they?”

She shook her head, gaze faltering. “I gave it to them.” The words were soft. Barely audible. “Please . . . I didn’t know there were so many of you when I came.”

I raked a hand through my hair, thinking of the first time I’d touched her on board the boat. The tear I’d wiped from her cheek.

My handshake with Oliver.

Cassie wiped her face with the back of her arm. “I just needed to be around people again.” She grabbed my hand. “We aren’t meant to live alone.”

I sat down on the ground and looked up at the shoes dangling from the power line at the end of the driveway. “You killed us, Cassie.”

“I’m . . . sorry.”

“You killed us all.”

The end. It was hard to spot at first.


Kiss of the Servant


This morning my power went out, so I didn’t get a chance to post my submission to Dan Alatorre’s Flash Fiction Challenge in time for the deadline. BUT, I’m throwing caution to the wind and submitting it anyway, because I’ve always enjoyed life on the edge. 😉

The Rules: Use this name generating website to create a title and write a story in a thousand words or less. Feel free to check out the “official rules” on his website and find other authors’ submissions there.


quotescover-JPG-44

“You have to stop this.” Belut’s small voice cracked behind me as she wiped the blood from my back with a cool, damp cloth. “The soldiers will kill you the next time you try to escape.”

Tears blurred my vision as I stared at the clothes laying on the stone floor, stained red, and ripped by the lash. I swallowed. “I can’t stay here. I know there are others like me out there somewhere. They’re looking for me.”

She dropped the cloth into the cracked bowl and knelt by my feet. In the candlelight, she appeared even younger than her sixteen years let on. A tangle of long black hair fell over her shoulders as she peered up into my face. “No one is looking for you, Iris. You were born a servant, and you’ll die a servant. There’s no use pretending any different.”

I’d only been gone a day before the soldiers found me, but my sudden disappearance had scared her. I forced a smile, and softly tucked my friend’s hair behind her ear. “I was born a servant in this life, sweet Belut, but you must believe me when I say I have known more lives than this.”

“Stop.” She waved my hand aside. “The others are beginning to talk.”

“What do you mean?”

Eyes narrowed, she stood and paced across the room, the soiled fabric of her one-shouldered dress fluttering between her sandled feet. “All this nonsense is catching up to you.” Her fists tightened. “We only get one life. This one. You’re going to waste it trying to run to a people who are nothing more than a, a figment of your imagination.”

I stood too, wincing as I wrapped myself in a tattered shawl and the fabric landed across the open wounds on my back. “The others are real. My husba–” The word died on my tongue as Belut rolled her eyes. “He’s real. He’s looking for me.” I pointed in the direction of the mountains to the North, invisible through the wall. “We promised to find each other when we passed into the next life. He’s waiting for me on the other side of the mountains.”

She sighed. “You know no one has ever been to the other side of the mountains.” Her eyes trailed up my form, taking in the full scope of my height. “You’ve always been different, Iris. And, not just because you’re tall. You need to accept the fact that this is all there is. Find . . . some kind of happiness.”

Footsteps sounded in the hall. Belut straightened, suddenly pale in spite of the orange candlelight.

Our door swung in, revealing a bare-chested man on the other side, a copper knife strapped around the kilt at his waist. His warm, dark eyes landed on mine. “King Arua demands you come.”

“Why?” I stepped back.

The guard rubbed his neck. “He heard about your escape.”

“But, the soldiers already punished her.” Belut stepped toward me, accidentally grazing the bowl with her toe. Water, red with my blood, spilled across the floor. Her eyes trailed up from the mess to the guard. “What does he want with her?”

He hesitated. “The King believes her attempts to escape are making him look weak. Since the boy broke free two moons past. . . he’s afraid more servants will follow.” His eyes locked with mine. “There’s nothing I can do.”

Outside the confines of our room, I limped down the narrow, shadowed hall hanging on to the guard’s extended arm. Some of the other servants reached from their doorways to touch the fringe of my blood-soaked shawl, whispering prayers as I passed.

Just as we neared the heavy doors at the end of the corridor, a child called my name. Standing uncertainly in his doorway, he bore a keen resemblance to the boy who escaped. “My brother, he told me you’d understand . . . ,” he scuttled forward, covering his mouth from the guard’s view, “the message you wanted delivered to the other side of the mountains. He did it.”

My heart tightened. “And?”

His voice so low I barely heard it, the boy answered. “They’re coming.”

The glare of the midday sun burned my eyes as I was escorted from the building. A pair of soldiers opened the entrance of the surrounding gate, allowing the guard and me to pass into the city. While we walked the narrow, dust ridden roads between connecting one and two story clay-bricked homes, my eyes remained fixed to the mountains.

By the time we trudged to the bridge leading to Arua’s palace, my lips had cracked under the relentless heat of the sun. Sweat stung the torn flesh of my back. A host of men and women, adorned in richly colored fabrics and gleaming copper jewelry waited for us in the bordering gardens. I climbed the steps of Arua’s grand stage and faced him, ignoring the required ceremonial bow completely when a reflection of light in the mountains caught my eye.

The King sat on a stone carved chair upon a raised platform. A blue and carnelian headdress shielded the glare of the sun from his shaved scalp. “Will you not bow to your King, servant?”

Behind his back, a cloud of dust moved down along the mountain. I straightened, drawing myself to my full height. “You are not my King.”

He laughed. But, staring into the audience, his face remained tight. “Just as I suspected. The girl has learned nothing from the lash. By defying our rules, she defies our gods, and the gods won’t suffer her life any longer.” He descended the steps of his platform, pulling a long dagger from the strap at his hip.

A horde of soldiers became visible below the furious cloud in the distance. A woman in the crowd noticed. She pointed, whispering to the man beside her. Standing in front of me, Arua glanced over his shoulder. His mouth fell open, eyes wide. Horns sounded from the palace, raising an alarm.

I leaned down to whisper in the King’s ear, my cracked lips just grazing his skin. “My people come for you, Arua. My people will make you pay.”