All posts by Karen Stewart

Winning Short Story: ARTS AND LETTERS CLUB OF TORONTO FOUNDATION YOUTH AWARD

No Worse than Other Places by Ginny Monaco

They were an hour outside of town when Ruth finally stopped the truck and let the dog out to piss. The old retriever had been up howling into the early hours of the morning and he hadn’t stopped until Ruth pushed him into the cab of the Trekker, packed in beside a duffel bag of her husband’s flannel shirts and a 4-foot model of the Effie M. Morrissey.

On the shoulder of the Yellowhead Highway, she got out and opened the door for the dog.  Ruth picked him up off the seat and set him in the grassy ditch.  He wandered towards towards the river on slow, stiff hips.

The sun was barely peeking through the bottom of the pines and she still hadn’t seen a passing car. Ruth pulled a soft pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her shirt, lit one off a match and listened to the dog splashing around below her. 

She leaned on the dirty grill of the truck and considered her route. It was still half a day to Vancouver. She could drive straight through and maybe get to her sister’s house by midafternoon, but there was no guarantee that Jan or her husband would be there to let her in. She could stop at the diner outside of Prince George and call Jan from there, let her know she was on her way. She needed gas, and food for the dog, too. 

Ruth let her cigarette dangle from between her lips and pulled a worn leather wallet from her back pocket. There was a little less than six hundred dollars inside. She took the driver’s license, the health card, the hunting license and threw them in the direction of the water. She let out a short, sharp whistle and hoisted herself back into the truck, tossing the wallet into the glove compartment. 

She whistled again, and waited. 

Ruth’s truck was the only one in the parking lot and she was the only customer in the diner. She left the dog in the car with the window cracked, and reminded herself to get him something to eat, too.

The waitress and the cook were leaning over the counter reading a newspaper. The girl looked up when the door opened, looked at Ruth, at her truck.

 “Take a seat wherever,” she said. “Let me get you some coffee.”

The diner was wood paneled and painted white. There were tables of two in the middle and large booths with red leather seating on each side. Ruth took a seat in a booth near the door, facing away from the kitchen. 

The mug the waitress brought over was only half full, but it was steaming hot and Ruth took it gratefully. The waitress hovered. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail showing of the patches of acne at her temples and around her hairline. Her nametag said Dawn. She looked at Ruth expectantly.

“Well, you want something to eat, or…”

“What do you got?”

Dawn nodded her head to the chalkboard over the till. “Menu’s up there. You want breakfast?”

“Yeah,” Ruth said slowly. She poked her finger inside a tear in the leather seat, wiggled it around a bit. A piece of the cushion stuffing stuck to her nail. “Eggs. Five eggs. With peameal bacon and a side of baked beans.”

Dawn raised a thin brow. “How you want all five of them eggs done?”

“Scrambled. And some toast?”

“We have white, brown or rye.”

“Don’t matter. Do you have a phone?”

Dawn pointed towards a payphone and took Ruth’s order back to the cook, who was watching them through the order window. Ruth counted out a dollar in quarters and stacked them on the phone. She dialed her sister’s number as best she could remember it. Jan picked up on the second ring, breathing heavy into the receiver and sounding far away. 

“Jan, it’s Ruthie. How’s it going?”

“Ruth? Where are you? Where have you been?” It was surprise and the same tired tone Jan always used with her. She looked out at the truck. The dog must have been lying on the seat because she couldn’t see him in the cab. Ruth sighed. 

“It ain’t been that long, Janet. I been up north with Jim Number Two, working the mine with him. They got me in the trailer answering phones. I told you that. That’s what I been doing.”

The phone line beeped and Ruth dropped in another quarter. Jan sighed.

“You haven’t called in months. There’s a lot I wanted to talk you about. There’s a bunch that’s been going on and I wanted –“

“Hey, I’m going to run out of minutes. I’ll be at your door by dinner. You got a couch for me and the dog?”

“Yeah, that’s what I wanted to tell you. Wait, what about Jim?”

The phone beeped again.

“Jan. I ain’t got the money for this call. I’ll see you soon.”

Ruth hung up the receiver, pocketing the rest of her quarters. She sat back down in the booth and rested her elbows on the table, head in her hands.

It was Jim Number Two’s truck rattling into the driveway a few hours after midnight that woke her up. She listened to him yell at the dog who started howling back at him. She listened to him tell the dog the shut up. She listened to him slam the front door and his heavy footsteps on the stairs. She rolled to face away from his side of the bed. 

There was the sound of his belt hitting the tile in the bathroom. A minute later the bed was sagging under Jim Number Two’s weight, another minute and she was listening to him snoring. His bare ass pressed into Ruth’s back. 

For a while she watched the wall, listening to the dog lose his mind outside. She propped herself up against the headboard with her flat pillow. It wouldn’t be light for another few hours, but Ruth could still see everything in the room pretty well. None of it was really her stuff – the books, the furniture, the paintings of horses. Not even the dog outside, not really. 

The only thing she had brought into the house was a model ship on the dresser that had belonged to Jim Number One, who she still sometimes thought of as just ‘Jim’. She pushed back the blanket and padded barefoot over to the ship. She lifted it with both hands and set it on the first step. She filled a duffel bag with Jim Number Two’s clothes and set that on the step, too. 

Ruth tiptoed into the bathroom and pulled on the jeans Jim had left on the floor. She tightened the belt around her hips, struggling to poke a new hole in the leather. His wallet bugled in the back pocket. She pulled his flannel over her nightshirt. There was a pack of cigarettes in the pocket and she lit one with a match. The match fizzed out when she dropped it in the toilet. 

Jim Number Two was snoring in the bedroom and the dog was howling outside. Ruth’s cigarette was half smoked when she tossed it into the wastebasket by the sink. She watched it for a moment – the tissues that ignited, the little wisps and curls of smoke.     She closed the bathroom door behind her and gently eased back into bed. She kept watch on the door, the orange glare coming from underneath. She studied the room. There was nothing else she wanted to keep.

When the room started to get hot, Ruth walked to the stairs. The dog, she though. He could come too. She took the duffel in one hand and tucked the ship under the other arm, careful not to break the sails.

Dawn balanced three plates over to Ruth –one for the eggs and bacon, one for the beans and one for the toast. 

“Rye,” she said. “Hope that’s fine.”

Ruth said yes, it was, thanked her and asked for more coffee. When she came back with the pot, Ruth asked for a paper plate or something she could use to take half her meal out to the dog.

“You can bring him in here if you want,” Dawn said. “There’s no one but us.”

Again, Ruth thanked her. She went out to the truck and picked the dog off the seat. The cook and Dawn the waitress watched her carry him up the steps, through the doors and set him down beside the booth. Dawn came over with a bowl, thinking he might like a bit of water.

Winning Short Story 2017: Youth 1st

Imaginary Heart by Isabella Sheptak

My name is Ingrid. In the past it has also been Sissy, Minnie, Nicole, Aria, Ally, and Layla. My best friend, Elvira, changes my name whenever she feels like my old one doesn’t fit anymore. She also chooses what I look like, what I wear, and how I act. However, I don’t mind, because whenever Elvira changes something about me, I feel as though I’m stepping into a new role. I’m an actress, a shape shifter. At the age of five I was a fairy with bubblegum pink hair and freckles that glittered in the sunlight. When I was seven I was an astronaut with a short brown bob in a lilac space suit. By the age of twelve my colours had changed more times than a chameleon’s. 

Elvira and I move in a synchronized fashion. We’ve never been apart. ‘Joined at the hip’ is an understatement. Each morning at 6:55 am we brush our teeth and then Elvira scrolls through Instagram, while I’m left to gaze at myself in the mirror. I’ve found that I don’t need to look at social media because my ever-changing appearance is often reflected in what Elvira sees. For the past two weeks my hair has been long and chestnut with streaks of honey. My skin is the colour of milk chocolate, and my eyes are an oak brown that turns gold when the light hits it from different angles. It’s funny how Elvira has never really changed though. She always has the same deep scarlet curls and emerald eyes. Humans are a funny bunch.

Bending my head to spit out the frothy paste, I glance at Elvira who’s texting Nicole, the perky blonde who always walks with a little skip in her step. Nicole is fluent in the language of inside jokes and tinkling laughs. I’ve seen her at school, but she doesn’t talk to Elvira or I often. Occasionally she tosses over a smile dripping in pity.

Wiping my mouth and turning to grab a glass of water I catch my reflection out of the corner of my eye. My hair is now a blonde lob, my skin olive, and my eyes sapphire. Out of all the looks I’ve had, this is not a favourite. Over the past few months Elvira has changed how I looked constantly, but I’ve found these three features getting rotated into my appearance more and more. Shrugging my shoulders and waiting for Elvira to finish, I follow her down the glass stairs, watching as she eats her breakfast, wishing I too could eat. When we were little she would try to feed me some of her food, but it would never make it into my mouth. It would slide off of her spoon and splatter onto the floor. From then on I only imagined what food would taste like. This particular morning her dad has made her warm porridge with fresh peaches on top. Closing my eyes, as I always do, I listen for the flavors. I hear the smooth notes of the porridge harmonize with the sweet soprano of the peaches. Delicious. 

Picking up her bag, Elvira snaps me out of my daze. Her dad sends us a sad smile as we head out the door to school. I know that smile far too well. It is the smile he has been wearing, like a drooping rainbow, since Elvira’s mom died when Elvira was four. It always seems to appear when Elvira talks to me or picks out my outfit for the day. For years I’ve tried to lift it, but I’m never strong enough to hold it up for long. Shaking away the tangled web of thoughts criss-crossing my mind, I focus on the moment. Arm in arm with Elvira, we walk to school. Our strides are always in rhythm, marching to the beat of a drummer only we can hear. Some days our drummer’s music is energetic, breathing life into our lungs. Other days his music is sombre, sucking it away.

Suddenly the music pauses — it’s never done this before. Elvira usually sings over it or talks through it, but she’s never before instructed it to stop. Worried, I turn to her.

“Ingrid,” she begins, “I am going to be walking to school with some new friends today.” 

I’m confused. I am the only friend she had ever had. I thought I was the only one she would ever need. Sensing my apprehension, she carries on. 

“I think we need to take a bit of a break.” She says, biting her bottom lip. “Well, not just me. My dad, my therapist, my psychologist…” 

I can’t bear listening anymore, so I tune her out. I know I won’t be able to stay with her forever. I know I’m not good for her; but there has always a small thread of optimism I plucked from her mother on her deathbed and held on to. Maybe when I stole her mother’s optimism, it’s what killed her in the end. But I don’t care. That is the thread that connected Elvira and I in the first place. I’ve been to her therapy sessions and heard her therapist whisper to her father that talking to me was ruining her social life. She said I was a poison that needed to be pumped out of her. They’re so cruel to me, although I give them all of my compassion and love.

Trying to convince her that I’m enough for her, I scream out that she’s wrong. I even try singing her name, then bellowing all the reasons why we belong together. I’ve never hated being mute more than in this moment. 

Turning away from me Elvira says, “Maybe you should stay here. I think I’ll be able to make it through the day without you.” Blinking away tears she continues, “I have to try.”

Anger begins to fill me. It starts by leaking into my feet, and soon seeps into my lungs. I drown myself in it. I stand my ground on that cracked sidewalk, baked by the June sun, and send her my best defiant look…fine. 

With only a half a second hesitation, she nods and begins to walk down the path. For the first time since she was four years old, she is walking completely alone. However, it doesn’t last long. After only a few seconds I hear her squeal, “NICOLE!”, and link arms with her. Squinting at the duo in the distance, something about Nicole strikes me as familiar. Then I realize it, Elvira has given me Nicole’s blonde lob. I reach up to touch my hair, but my fingers stroke only empty space. Panic begins to set in, and both of my hands fly up to meet cold, smooth, scalp. For the first time in my life I am completely bald. Tears spring to my eyes as I stand mortified. This is the first time in my life that I am thankful people can’t see me. 

Salt tears begin to blur my vision, but I can see two girls walking towards Elvira and Nicole. One with olive skin. One with bright, burning, sapphire eyes. Looking down I see nothing. My hands leap to my eyes and meet only hollow sockets. I can no longer feel my toes. My body is slowly disappearing. I feel as though God is slowly erasing me from the bottom, up. 

As the numbing grows, infecting my calves, and then my knees, I have an epiphany. Every time Elvira changed my appearance, she was creating her idea of the perfect friend. I have never been enough. Our entire friendship was an ancient piece of paper. At first glance it appeared full and detailed, but when someone else touched it, it crumbled and turned to dust. She has what she wants now. Friends. Human friends with flesh, voices, and souls.

Suddenly the entire weight of my situation comes crashing down on my shoulders. No! This isn’t how I want to die. My throat tightens, but I can’t move. Old memories come chasing each other into my mind. Memories of Elvira and I building Lego palaces on the floor of her pink fairy themed bedroom when we were five. Elvira pouring me and her cat a cup of tea at my first tea party. I try grabbing onto any memory I can. I attempt to pull myself away from the death that is coming. But I can’t. The memories begin to slip away, and no matter how tightly I hold on, they escape my grasp. I try as hard as I can to recall them, but they only dart in and out, offering me glimpses of what once was. However something is different. I am no longer in any of my memories. Now it is Elvira pouring tea to open air. My mouth is numb, this destructive sickness is travelling fast. Somewhere in the distance I hear someone whisper “Goodbye Sissy.” And then nothing. 

My beating heart laid on the sidewalk for many years. Every day Elvira stepped over it, while the rest of the world crushed it underfoot. Still, it beat on. Until one day, small hands picked it up and cradled it. Slowly my body began to grow back, and when I became fully formed I was four years old again. This time, a small boy was looking at me with his head cocked to the side. I smiled, and he laughed.

“Mommy, look I found a friend!” he shouted over to a tall lady with deep scarlet curls and emerald eyes. 

“That’s wonderful, darling,” she told him. My mind was fuzzy from being non-existent for so many years. Memories had started to return, only to dart away fractions of seconds later.  However, something about her voice sounded familiar. 

The boy took me home and we grew up together. At the age of five I was an elf with long ears and blue hair. At seven I was an astronaut in a sky-blue space suit. Life was good, but I still wondered how my heart survived and did not disappear like the rest of me. Then I had my second epiphany. When Elvira created me, she gave me all of the characteristics she wished for in a friend. She made me kind, and loving, and beautiful. She can no longer see me, but as long as my heart's still beating, I know that she is still looking for someone with the heart of her imaginary friend.

Winning Short Story 2017: Adult 3rd

by Patti-Kay Hamilton

   There is a swish and shadow of a brown and black robe moving down the staircase.

Sati stares. She’s not sure if this ghost-face is a man or woman. A grey hood is bound tightly around the head hiding ears and hair. The face reminds Sati of a weasel; pointed nose, beady eyes, thin lips and white whiskers on the chin. A claw like hand stretches out and grips Sati pinching her arm with sharp nails. The mouth moves and loud words come out. Sati continues to stare. The weasel face yells and a girl runs up the stairs. Sati reaches out to hug her cousin but Effie pulls back and shakes her head. “No touching,” she says. Effie tells Sati she will help her understand Sister Cecile’s strange words. “You are number 55,” she says. Sati knows her numbers. Her mother set up a small table in the corner of their cabin and made her daughter sit and copy numbers and letters from a book. Her dad called it a waste of time.

   “She doesn’t need no book learning,” he said. “The bush is our classroom.” But her mom insisted. Sati thinks 55 is easy to remember. There were five brothers including her father, Joseph. They shot five buffalo and now her dad is in prison. Sati doesn’t understand why it was a bad thing to kill buffalo when everyone was hungry. After her father was taken away two men with silver beards wearing long, black dresses, black crosses dangling from their necks came to their shack cackling like ravens and said, “Without a hunter there is no meat. Without a hunter there is no fur to trade for flour.” The stocky one with a sour stink threw her over his shoulder like a sack of muskrats and carried her to the Big Building. Her cousin had warned her about the Big Building and scared her with stories about what happened to children there.

   Sister Cecile comes toward her with scissors. Sati ducks and the sharp blade nicks her chin. There is a snip, snip and Sati watches her braids fall onto brown tiles. Blood drips on the white hide her mom had used to lash the ropes of hair. Sati hands over the sweater and socks her mom has knit but she holds on tightly to her moccasins and with her finger traces the red rose and green leaves. It’s the first pair she has beaded by herself.  It took her a long time because if she made a mistake or there was a tiny bulge in the line of beads her mom would make her start again. The nun slaps the hide slippers from her hand onto the pile of clothes.

   Sati’s not used to the stiff, slippery leather shoes and falls several times as she is led up the stairs to the sleeping place where she is shown cupboard 55. Heavy drapes are pulled over the windows so even though it’s bright outside the long room is gloomy. Sati counts thirty brown, metal beds pushed close together and covered with a thin, blue blanket. 

 The nun points her to the eating-place. Sati follows Effie to the lineup where two big boys carry a steaming pot of whole boiled potatoes with skins on. Fish are stacked on a tray. Sati likes fish but these look like fish her father feeds dogs. Every fall during the whitefish run he would net hundreds and she would help him pierce the tails with a sharp, dry pole. Each stick held ten fish and was hung on a rack to dry in the wind and sun. Guts still inside. 

   She bends to sniff the fish and gags at the stink. She pokes Effie in the ribs and raises her eyebrows nodding down at the plate. Effie passes her a rag under the table and says in a whisper, “Pretend to chew while you cut the fish into bits. When no one’s looking, wrap it in this cloth and toss it down the outhouse.” 

   Just then there is a ruckus at the end of the table. A small boy vomits on his food. Sister Cecile strides up behind him and pushes his face into the puke, potato and fish. The nun holds the boy’s head down and Sati worries he will smother. Finally Sister Cecile yanks his head back and orders him to eat. “Charlie,” says Effie. “Orphan. Been here since he was three.”

   After the meal Sati is ordered up to the top floor to clean the pails where the children poop and pee at night. She holds her breath and gets the job done then pulls the drapes open and stares out the high window. In the yard beside the church there is a pile of logs as high as a house. She spots her dad bent over sawing wood. Hard labour the boss at the trial had told him. An older, angry looking man with a cap on his head and smoking a pipe watches. When her dad pauses to wipe his brow the man shoves him in the back and he falls against the sawhorse. Near the fence she sees a cranberry coloured shawl on the bent shoulders of a woman who is also staring at her father. Sati bolts down the stairs and out the big doors. She sprints to the fence and reaches over the top railing to knot her fingers with her mom’s. Over her mother’s shoulder Sati stares across the lake toward their home. Her mom squeezes tight and Sati hears hard breathing behind her. The weasel face grabs her around the waist and drags her inside.

   Sister Cecile holds Sati tightly by the ear jerking her back so the girl loses her balance. The nun continues to pull her up the stairs one hand on the railing and the other gripping the ear as Sati’s hard shoes bump, bump on each step. There is piercing pain and a sound like canvas ripping. Sati screams as blood spurts from the ear lobe that has been torn away from the side of her head and there’s a thud when the weasel face lets go and Sati’s head hits the landing. Another nun runs up the stairs, veil flapping. She pushes a hand against the ear; blood seeps between her fingers and Sati passes out.

   Sleet pings on the window as students bend over scribblers practicing writing; line after line of big A and little a. Then B, C and D. Sati is humming inside and feels grown up today because a mystery person has given her a gift for her thirteenth birthday and the nuns didn’t take it away. She fingers the round collar of the soft blouse with the lace edging.

   Sister Cecile is patrolling the aisles. The only sound the scratching of pencils and the nun’s heels tapping a staccato beat; steady as the pinging on the window. Sati proudly finishes a line of carefully crafted capital C’s when she hears the silence. Sister has stopped. Sati glances over to the row of desks near the window where the nun towers behind Charlie. “What is that scribble?”

  He grunts. “My letters.”

   A slate coloured strap, shaped like the long tongue of a giant lizard dangles from the nun’s hand. She yells at him to write. Charlie’s hand shakes as he presses down too hard on his pencil and the lead snaps. Sister swings back and slams the strap on his page, ripping the paper. “Write!” Charlie’s fists knot together as he stares at his broken pencil and the strap whistles through the air and comes down on the back of his shoulders. Over and over she lashes him with the strap and her words until the boy sinks down with his head on the desk. Everyone holds their breath and tries not to look. No one is writing. Sati stares down at her page of perfect C’s. Sister Cecile turns to continue her patrol leaving Charlie to his torn scribbler and broken pencil.

   Sati can’t move her fingers. She grips the stubby pencil tight but her brain can’t convince her hand to move. It’s frozen in place on the tail of a capital C. She hears Sister coming up the aisle behind her, tapping the strap on her thigh until she stops beside Sati.

“Why aren’t you writing?” Sati quivers and wills her hand to move. Sister orders her to stand. Sati reaches over to place her pencil in the slot at the top of the desk but her muscles are so tense the pencil flies across the room. Sister Cecile hollers at her to get up. Sati rises and looks into the beady eyes of the weasel face. She stares until the nun begins to fidget and orders Sati to hold out her hand. Sati’s fingers are clenched and she begins to lift her hand but something explodes inside of her like the wolverine that lunged and snarled at her father once when it was caught in a steel trap. Her fist rears back and she drives it into the weasel face’s glasses.

   The old woman stumbles and bangs her head on a desk then sinks to the floor. Her legs are splayed out, grey skirt hiked up over bony knees, black stockings rolled around ankles. Words erupt from Sati. “I hate you. We all hate you.”

   Sister Cecile shakes her head, pulls her robe down and uses the desk to haul herself up. The glasses dangle from each ear as she squints at Sati as if the teenager is a stranger then turns to face the class. “Who hates me? Put up your hands.”  Sati twists to look and everyone has heads down. No hands rise.

   “Cowards,” Sati yells as she runs from the class. She sobs as she races across the frozen field to the fence and tries to climb over to the other side. The sleeve of her new blouse catches on a spike and Sati yanks at it until it rips. She wants to be in the warmth of their tent with the smell of spruce boughs under her head and feel the pounding of buffalo hooves on the earth. Strong arms yank Sati off the railing and drag her to the barn. The sound of her wails is drowned out by the wind and pounding waves.

   There’s no moon and it’s so windy the creaking and whistling will drown out her footsteps. She lies in the narrow cot with her eyes closed and tries to breathe slowly. Her hands are crossed in prayer position above the blanket. As a child she’d always slept curled on her side until she was taken into the Big Building and got slapped and had to kiss the floor many times before she got used to sleeping on her back. She hears the clack, clack of Sister Cecile’s heels as she does a bed check making sure all hands are above the blankets. The nun pauses and Sati holds her breath until the clacking resumes. Sati waits until she hears the groan of Sister’s bedsprings and the rattle of the old woman’s snores.

   Instead of folding her clothes into closet 55 Sati has stuffed them into her pillow. She changes quickly and holds her shoes as she tiptoes to the door leading to the side stairs on the outside of the Big Building. Last month she stole yellow grease from the garage and used it to polish the door hinges to get rid of the squeak. She stops and listens. She hears wind rattling the shutter, soft breathing and words whispered in sleep. She smells incense and kerosene. She sucks in air and slowly opens the heavy door just wide enough to slide through. She wants to race down the stairs but forces herself to slow down and take one-step at a time, pausing often. Her father had taught her that animals are invisible if they don’t move. As soon as her feet touch the ground she dives into the high grass and lies still keeping her eyes on windows for signs of someone watching then she crawls in a zigzag hoping if someone glances out her movement will appear like a fox hunting for mice. The rustle startles the animals and horses kick at the stalls. Around the corner Sati runs to the long dock where waves roll over the pebbles making them rattle. She finds the rowboat Charlie had promised her. The old boards creak as she steps into the center and poles the boat into deep water.

   As her eyes adjust to the dark she makes out the silhouette of Potato Island. She had hoped to get that far tonight but the wind is blowing up white caps as it sweeps in from Lake Athabasca and pushes the boat in the opposite direction. She pulls on the oars to keep the bow facing the storm so waves don’t swamp the small skiff. As the boat drifts into the current the tall trees on the shore provide shelter from the wind and Sati stops rowing to catch her breath and dip water to drink. She looks back and sees the looming shadow of the cross at the top of the Big Building disappearing in the distance. Her back and shoulders ache but she keeps rowing and glides past the log cabin where a buffalo ranger lives with his family. It is the same ranger who tracked down her dad and his brothers and gathered the evidence for his trial six years ago. Sati floats toward a cove and pulls the boat up where it won’t be visible. 

   Sati has no idea where she is but if she can find buffalo tracks and a trail it will lead her to a wallow and that is where she’ll find the roots she needs to help her mom who has been coughing up blood and is getting skinny. “No cure,” said the old man who handed out medicine in town but Sati knows there is medicine in the bush that doesn’t come from a bottle. She had seen it save others. As she bends to tie the strings of her moccasins there is a rustle and high-pitched whistle. She braces to run but looks up to see bats swooping through the treetops gobbling mosquitoes. She pulls her hat down over her hair, bows her head and steps into the forest; cool earth beneath the hide of her slippers.

 

Winning Short Story 2017: Adult 2nd

Finders by Carolyn Huizinga Mills

   Mama told me to watch Joey so she could have a nap. I hated playing with Joey, but Daddy said since Mama was gonna have another baby soon I was supposed to help out. He said that when he was in the fields, I was the Man of the House, even though I was only seven and still had to do everything Mama said. Joey was just four so he didn’t know how to do nothin’ and he cried easy, which is why I didn’t like playing with him. He cried once when I said he smelled bad. But it was true. He did stink. After I said that, he went runnin’ to Mama and blubbered on about how mean I was and then Mama gave me a look and stroked his hair like he was a bunny or something. 

    If you rub a baby bunny on the head, right between its ears, it will close its eyes and fall right asleep. It can’t help it. Daddy showed me how to do that, but when I tried to tell Joey about it, he didn’t have no interest in tryin’ it. He couldn’t sit still long enough to hold a baby bunny and make it go to sleep the way I was showing him how. When Mama sat there rubbing Joey’s head after I told him the truth about how he stank, I thought maybe she was tryin’ to get him to go to sleep, like one of those bunnies. Then none of us would have to listen to him complaining, which was a thing we could all do without.

    “Come on, Joey,” I said now, tryin’ for Mama’s sake to look happy about havin’ to watch him. 

    Mama smiled at me and fixed a pillow behind her head on the couch. I dragged Joey outside and he complained right away about how hot it was.

    “We’ll play in the shade,” I said. I wanted to play armies with my little plastic soldiers in the grass so I could pretend they were in a jungle, but of course, Joey didn’t like that, either. 

    He made a face. “That’s boring,” he said, only it sounded like borween the way he said it. “Let’s play Finders in the corn.”

    This was why Joey always needed someone to watch him. “We’re not allowed in the corn, Joey. You know that.” 

Daddy had told me you could get lost in the corn and wander around for days until you finally died of dehidenation, which was when you had no water. I promised him I would never ever go in the cornfield, not even just at the edges. He nodded and patted me on the head. He knew he could trust me, which was why he made me the Man of the House when he was out workin’ in the fields.

    Joey sat down with me under the shade of the big maple at the side of the house. He picked up two of my soldiers and started crashing them together. I turned my back to him and began settin’ up my armies real careful. 

    Chewed-up Man was my best fighter. Mama almost threw him out after our old dog Scamp tried to eat him, but I begged her to let me keep him. I didn’t care about the bite marks. They made him look tougher. 

Right now Chewed-up Man was hidin’ behind a stick, getting ready to attack three enemy soldiers. They couldn’t see him or hear him yet, but he was gonna need help because there was three of them. I moved another soldier closer. He was creeping through the jungle grass to fight with Chewed-up Man, when I realized Joey wasn’t making his smashing noises behind me no more.

    I turned around. Joey was gone. I thought for sure he’d gone into the house and was waking up Mama which made me worried real fast. But then I saw him standin’ at the edge of the driveway like he was fixin’ to cross the road.

    “Joey!” I yelled. “What’re you doing?”

    He looked back at me with his big, wide eyes. “I wanna frow rocks in the pond.”

    I shook my head and walked over to him. “And you were gonna cross the road all by yourself?”

    “There’s none cars,” he said.

    We crossed the road together and went on down past the turkey barn to where the pond was. The grass along the steep edges was so long that it tickled my knees. Joey looked like one of my toy soldiers hidin’ in the jungle.

    “You have rocks?” I asked him.

    He held up a hand filled with stones from our driveway. One by one, he threw the tiny pieces of gravel into the water. They looked like raindrops hittin’ the surface of the pond. After we were done with throwing rocks in the water, we walked back across the road and I decided to check on Mama to see if she was done her nap. It was too hot to stay outside much longer and I wanted to sit by the fan for a bit. Maybe Mama would even make us lemonade.

    “You wait out here,” I said to Joey. “I’m gonna see if Mama’s awake.”

    Joey scuffed his toe in the driveway and then squatted down to draw a shape in the gravel with his finger. I slipped through the kitchen door, being careful not to let the screen bang shut. Mama was lying on the couch all peaceful with her eyes closed tight. I wondered if Joey and I could sneak inside and play something quiet without disturbing her. We sure could use a drink. Maybe I could get Joey to colour at the kitchen table. He liked colouring okay. I tiptoed past Mama to the cupboard where we kept our crayons and scraps of paper. She didn’t even twitch or nothin’.

    As quiet as I could, I pulled out some paper and a box of crayons. Then, for good measure, I took a page of stickers, too. We could make something for Mama. That would be a nice surprise when she woke up.

    I went back outside to get Joey and to tell him he had to be quiet or else.  I could see some circles he’d drawn in the stones on the driveway, but he wasn’t standing there no more. I looked around the yard, under the maple tree where my soldiers were still waitin’ to attack each other, and then over by the barns. But I knew Joey wouldn’t go in the barns by himself. He was too scared of how dark they got inside. 

    “Joey,” I called. “Joey, come on. We’re going back inside now.”

    Nothing.

    “Are you hidin’ on me, Joey? Playing Finders?” I walked over to the cornfield on the other side of driveway and poked my head in to look up and down the first row. The corn may as well have reached all the way up to the sky. I stepped into that first row and called Joey’s name again. Then, making sure I could still see the edge behind me, I went in a bit further. I stayed in a straight line and counted how many rows deep I was. But when I couldn’t see the yard or the house no more, I stopped. “Joey!” I called over and over. “Joey, this ain’t funny! You need to come out right now. Daddy will be spittin’ mad if he finds out we were playing in the corn.”

    I didn’t like being in the middle of all that tall, tall corn. I kept thinking about how easy Daddy said it was to get all turned around and confused so that you ended up walking further away from where you wanted to be instead of closer to it. I was only eight rows in, but I wanted to get out real bad.  

When I stepped onto the grass again, my breath was comin’ all funny and I was so happy to see the house my eyes started cryin’. But Joey was still missing. Mama had told me to watch him and now he was lost in all that corn. How long until he died of dehidenation wandering around in there? Why couldn’t he just listen? I was scared of going back in to look for him but I was also scared of what Mama would say when I told her what happened, so I just stood there lookin’ stupid, not knowin’ what to do. 

    Then Mama was standin’ on the porch, hollerin’ my name. “Michael,” she said, “what are you doing over there? Come on back to the house now.”

    I dragged my sorry feet to where she was standing and before she could ask, I said, “I can’t find Joey. I left him outside for just a second and when I came back he was gone.”

    Mama was silent. She must’ve been thinkin’. Finally, she said, “And you reckon he went in the corn?”

    I nodded. “He wanted to play Finders in there, but I told him ‘no’! I told him we weren’t allowed in the corn.” I looked up at Mama to see how mad she was.

    She didn’t look mad. She looked scared. She came into the yard without even puttin’ her shoes on and started calling Joey’s name real loud just like I had earlier. I figured even if he wouldn’t listen to me, he would come when he heard Mama’s voice. 

Only he didn’t.

    Mama went back inside to call Mrs. Wallace, our neighbour who lived just down the road, to tell her Joey was missing. Then she told me to check all around the barns, inside and out. “Look everywhere he likes to hide,” she said. And she kept calling his name, over and over. 

    Mrs. Wallace showed up with her two daughters and they ran around the yard like chickens calling Joey’s name like he might be hidin’ in the grass or something. I finally looked inside the barns, even though I knew he wouldn’t be in any of ‘em. When I got to where the bunny cages were hangin’ on the wall, I sat right down on the dirty cement floor and started to cry. Just because stupid Joey couldn’t listen to nobody, I was going to get in big, big trouble. I told him we couldn’t go in the corn. I told him!

    By the time I came out of the barn, Mrs. Wallace had called the minister and he was gonna go and get Daddy from the far fields. I was in for it now.

    “I can go back in and look for him,” I said real quiet to Mama. “He’s not that great at hidin’.”

    “I’m not going to have two kids lost in the corn,” she said. “You stay right here.”

    The minister had brought some other people with him and Mama didn’t stop any of them when they formed a line and walked into the cornfield together. I worried about how many people might die in our cornfield and what Daddy would say when he heard Mama just let them all walk in like that.

 

    It was Daddy who found him. Down at the pond. He must’ve gone back to toss more rocks and then decided to go swimming or something. I guess he crossed the road all by himself, like he tried to before. Later, I found out his shoes and socks were sittin’ in the tall grass at the edge of the water and that’s how Daddy knew he’d gone in the pond.

    When I first caught sight of Daddy carrying Joey in his arms as he walked toward us, I was hoppin’ mad at my little brother for crossing that road again and scaring me into thinking I’d lost him in the corn. I waited to hear what Mama would say, especially about his wet clothes and hair, but I wasn’t expecting the sounds she started making. Before I could figure out what was wrong with Mama, Mrs. Wallace whisked me and her two girls away from the yard and straight into the kitchen. She told us to sit at the table and then she just started pacing across the floor making her own soft noises. 

    I stood up to look out the window but Mrs. Wallace shooed me away.

    “Sit down, Michael,” she said. “Everyone just stay at the table!”

    So I sat there starin’ at the paper and stickers and crayons I’d set out for Joey so he wouldn’t wake Mama when we came inside. When the minister came in to make a phone call, Mrs. Wallace made us all move to the living room and then she kept talking so I couldn’t hear anything the minister was sayin’. Mama and Daddy were still outside with Joey and all the people who’d come to help look for him. 

    I knew by then that things were bad. Something cold and heavy was sliding around in my body and I had to pee, but I was too scared to move. So I just sat on the couch waiting and waiting and waiting until the minister came into the living room and sat beside me. Mrs. Wallace stood up then and disappeared with her two girls real fast. The minister touched my arm. I didn’t want to hear him say it, but he did anyway.

 

    Mama had to go to the hospital because of the baby. Daddy said the shock might make the baby come too soon and it wasn’t ready to be born yet. No one said out loud that everything was my fault, but they didn’t need to. I knew it in my bones. 

After, I took all my plastic soldiers to the pond and I threw them in one after another. Even Chewed-up Man, my best fighter. I watched them sink to the bottom of the pond and I wished I could follow them. I wanted so badly to disappear. But Daddy said that when Mama came home, she would need my help more than ever and he was still countin’ on me to be the Man of the House. 

“Can you do that? Can you help your Mama and try to make things easy for her?” Daddy asked.

I nodded, but I wondered why Mama would ever count on me to help her again. I figured no one had told Daddy yet that I was the one watchin’ Joey when he went to the pond. When she came home, Mama would tell him, and then he’d know the awful truth about his ‘Man of the House’. 

It was worst at night. I would fall asleep with the missing weight of my little brother pressin’ on me like a heavy stone. And then I would dream about all my drowned soldiers and a baby that didn’t want to be born.

But mostly, I dreamed about findin’ Joey in that cornfield. 

    

1st Place: PLATES  DON’T  FALL 

by Marlan Siren, Grand Bend
There’s not nearly the amount of stuff you’d expect in a one bedroom apartment. (She was minimal and I was mellow.) I could have called a second-hand shop to remove everything, but something in me wants a process, not an event.  I will keep my laptop, my Kindle, the red chair, my lamp, and the little black table.  Everything else can go.

     A woman in a yellow sweater asks, “Your couch.  Was it expensive?”

     “Dunno,” I say.  “I forget.”

She explains that she has a decent couch but her dog died on it last week and now she can’t bear to sit on it.  He died of a broken heart.  She and her husband split up and after the cheating bastard moved out the poor dog just lay there.  It took him two weeks to stop living. Friends will help her move the couch tomorrow. 

     “Will you take $200?”

      Fine with me.  I would have taken less.

An old gentleman, turbaned, suited and tied, strokes the stack of books with elegant piano-player hands.

     “No bookcase?” he asks.

     “Nope.”

They were her books. Abandoned, like everything else in the place.  She left with only her Blackberry, her flute, a shoulder bag and our smallest suitcase.                                                                                                 

Piano man wants all the books. His grand-daughter has just started reading again, after a drunk driver left her with three sightless years and another drunk driver produced a donor for a cornea transplant.

Two women, twins, come out of the bedroom, carrying garments. “You’re selling these?”  (I hadn’t considered her closet.)

     “Sure,” I say.

Most of the clothing is orchestra black.  Some white shirts.  She called them shirts, not blouses.

The twins volunteer for an organization that helps underprivileged women “dress for success.”

      “Check the shelf in the closet.  Should be two pair of shoes and one purse.  Take them all.  No charge.”

      “Any jewelry?”

      “No.”

I learned that lesson the night I proposed.  Down on one knee, offering up a velvet box, the whole cliché. 

      “But I don’t wear jewelry.”

      “An engagement ring is not jewelry.”

      “Of course it is.  It’s the most jeweled of all jewelry, the most examined, quantified in both dollars and carats.  I do believe there is something very wrong with the thing and the concept.  What I could really use is a new tooth.”  She pointed to an incisor.  “This one’s dead.  Remember my root canal?” 

The tooth was cheaper than the ring, but something lingered besides the money in my bank account.

For the same reason, we didn’t need a bookcase.  Or a bed frame. “The floor is the best support for a mattress.”  Or a dishwasher.  “Four of everything is enough. Four plates, four bowls, four forks, et cetera.”  (She said ‘et cetera’ a lot because she didn’t like to waste words.) “Just wash after each use. A dishwasher is simply a storage unit for dirty things.”    We each had a reading lamp. “If it’s beside the couch and you want to read in bed, you just unplug it and carry it to the bedroom.”  

At first I thought all this was quirky-cute, but after her first Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ place, her quirkiness became my comfort station. 

There was the usual feast of people, girded by sideboards groaning with trays and platters and casseroles and chafing dishes and tureens, offering a surfeit of every food group in various guises and disguises.  The buffet was aglut with animal collateral and condiments in boats and bottles and bowls, and biscuits, buns, and breads in a big basket.  A corner hutch was clotted with “salad” fare: cabbage salad, macaroni salad, potato salad, apple-marshmallow salad, and a disturbing jellied structure, lime green and shaped like a fish, which interred the shredded remains of former vegetables. 

Around the corner I had seen a wheelie cart laying in wait with a two-tiered  invasion of confectionery aggression: pies and cakes, custards and puddings, meringues, tarts, brownies and some beige 3D constructs shaped like pilgrim hats.  The only food-free zone was the other corner hutch, infested with the knick-knackery of familial mementos and products of the Franklin Mint.  The walls were littered with framed photographs and brass tchotchkes, the spreading of which was remedied by the plate rail where an illogical collection of plates with faces looked down.  Above the uncle seated across from me were Shirley Temple and Winston Churchill. As I heard the wheelie-cart gathering muster in the hall, I could feel Charles and Diana and a horse named Trigger counting the hairs on the back of my neck.  All this stuff lurking around the jam of human traffic.  Closing in.  I couldn’t breathe.  How had I grown up this way?

When we returned home we sat, not on the couch but on the parquet floor, and peeled an orange and shared the sections.  Then we made some lovely love and, afterward, smiled smugly to each other like we knew a secret – like we were a secret.     

      “This poster.  How much?”  A man with Albert Einstein hair wearing a Blue Jays T-shirt, who I recognize as the tenant two doors down, is pointing to the wall.

It was our only gesture towards “art.”  A framed poster of two chairs by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

      “It speaks to me,” she had said.

      “What does it say?”

       “I don’t know yet.”

I often found her standing oh-so-still in front of that poster.  Divining.  When she finally told me what it said I should not have been surprised.  All the clues had been there.

      “Not for sale,” I say to Albert. (I don’t know why. I have not planned the details of this process. I’m making it up as I go.) 

But now this infliction of stories that don’t need to be told.  Dead dogs and unbearable couches, cheating bastards and drunk drivers.  Previously-used  corneas and clothing-deprived women.  The guy that bought the stainless steel garbage can has a neurotic one-eyed cat who chews plastic.  The toaster and kettle man hasn’t seen his daughter in nine years but hears she’s off to college now.  Figures she’ll appreciate small appliances for her dorm room.  “Like a graduation present, you know?”  Thing is, no one will tell him which college.  The scatter mat in front of the kitchen sink reminds a woman, dead ringer for Oprah Winfrey with dreadlocks, of the lap shawl her mother used during chemotherapy. Her voice is the soothing velvet of Rastafarian promises.  “One dollar,” I say.  The rabbi’s son is in rehab, his story bearing no discernible relevance to his purchase of my vintage Polaroid camera.

This anthology of humanity is exhausting.  I sit on the couch.

A skinny twenty-something dude sits beside me. 

     “What’s your story?” he asks.

     “My story?”

     “Ya – like are you moving?  You broke?”

     “No,” I say, though I’m pretty sure I am broken.

On his arm I see the oddest tattoo, but I’m too close to get a good look.  He sees me trying, stands up to display the artwork.  Some circlish things descend from his shoulder to his wrist where there’s an image I can’t decipher.  

    “What is it?”

His girlfriend tells us she’s going to an ATM.  She puts two big bags of kitchen stuff – pots, pans, mugs – at his feet. Thirty dollars, we figure.  She leaves.

     “A plate,” skinny guy says.  “A plate falling.” He points to his wrist.  “Plate breaks. Those are the shards.”

Now this is a story I want to hear.  I hate to say it, but the image speaks to me.

     “Why a plate?” I ask.  “Why a falling plate?”

     “You tell me your story, I’ll tell you mine. I’m a writer. I like to hear people’s stories.”

So I tell him. 

When I’m finished, he stands to scrutinize the poster. 

     “Wow,” he says. “She deconstructed the shit out of that one, I’d say.”

      “Eight years it took her.”

      “So how do you become a nun if you don’t have religion?  That is a conundrum…  So is she still at this retreat place?”

     “Dunno.”

     “You want her back?”

      “Dunno. I forget.”

     “Great story.  Can I use it?”

     “Use it?”

     “Ya.  Like I said, I’m a writer.”

     I think about this.  What good is a story, I ask myself, if someone can’t use it? 

     “Sure,” I tell him.  “Use the hell out of it… Now it’s your turn,” I say, pointing to the tattoo.                                                                  

Here’s the story: his mother was an angry, violent woman with too many children and not enough chores.  He was drying the supper dishes in the kitchen when one slipped from his hands.  Crash.  What the hell was that? mom yelled from somewhere.  A p-wate fe-wo, he yelled back. Her fists swooped into the kitchen (his words exactly) as she yelled: Plates don’t fall! People drop plates! Now you say it!  He was shaking and his freshly broken lip stung like hell so it was even harder to talk than it usually was and it came out: Pwates don’t fawo.  Peepo dwop pwates.

     “I was only 3 years old. I couldn’t do L’s or R’s.”

I am chilled.  I actually shiver. 

We have a moment of silence.

     “You know Beyond the Fringe?” he asks.  “Peter Cook and -“

     “- and Dudley Moore?  Sure I do.  I love those guys.”

Then he puts on an English accent. “I coulda been a judge but I never had the latin, never had the latin for the judging. I just thought of that.”

     “Because …?”

     “Because she coulda been a nun but she never had religion, never had the jesus for the nunning.”

We both give a slap-your-lap kind of laugh.

An over-pierced teenager comes from the kitchen carrying four plates and four bowls.

     “Can I get these for a loonie?”

I’m feeling engaged now, even a bit brazen.  “If you don’t tell me why you want the bowls, you can have them for free. But not the plates. Put the plates back, please.”

     “And don’t dwop them,” skinny dude adds.

     Which leads to more lap-slapping.

Then another silence.

Then the girlfriend returns and they leave with their bags of stuff.  

At the end of the day the apartment doesn’t really look much different. The couch hasn’t moved to its new home yet.  No one bought the mattress. Though her missing lamp gives pause, the big difference is on the inside: inside cupboards, inside drawers, inside closets.  Decluttering.  Reducing.  She would approve.

I wash my hands in the bathroom and look at myself in the only mirror we’ve ever had, a 10” circle attached to the wall with a steel retractable claw.  I stand back to try to see more of myself, but can see only pieces.  Something like those blind people brailling an elephant and trying to describe the whole creature. 

There’s my belt buckle.  My elbow.  My wrist. There’s something mattering here, but my brain is moving faster than my mind. I take the elevator to the lobby with its overstatement of mirrors.  I look at my whole self.  From many angles.  Inside out.  

Yup, I decide.  I’m clutter.  That’s what she saw when she saw me.  Clutter.  One chair too many.  An excess plate.  An et cetera.

Back upstairs, I look down from my balcony to the expanse of concrete surrounded by construction-site ribbon.  They are re-paving the parking lot. It is 7 p.m. so all the yellow-hats have gone home. Every morning they vacuum the debris before they pave.  Tomorrow would likely be their last day.  I realize that I have plugged into their company during my morning coffee and that now I will miss them.  I go to the kitchen and return to the balcony.                                                                                   

I drop the first plate.  Though I am four floors up I can see pretty clearly what broken looks like, how shards are made.   I wonder about the skinny dude.  Did he grow up with that mean mother?  Go to Children’s Aid?   Foster homes?  Wish I had asked.  And what about dreadlock Oprah’s mother?  In remission or dead now?  How could I not have asked that?  And that poor fucking dog allowed to die on a couch?  How does that happen?  

I drop the second plate.     

Couch lady says she has friends to help her move the couch so if the dog was too big for her to budge, why didn’t she solicit those friends to help her get the dog to a vet?  Or arrange for a home visit.  Did she even bother contacting the cheating bastard about the depressed dog?  

I drop the third plate.  

Broken heart, my ass, that dog was neglected to death. Maybe Munchhausen-by-proxy.  Or maybe some twisted desire to punish the cheating bastard.  Whatever. When the Bitch of Belsen arrives tomorrow I’ll give her back her money and tell her she’s not getting the fucking couch.

I do not drop the fourth plate.

I take it back to the kitchen and put it in the cupboard.  The only other things in there are salt and pepper shakers and a roll of paper towels.  I like that.

I look at my couch.  I stroke the back of it and sit down.  It is a very comfortable couch.  Always was.  A good and faithful couch.  I hunker into the familiar and pat the seat beside me.  I realize I am glad my mental drift has brought me to this couch-keeping moment.

I look at the wall.  I decide that tomorrow I will knock on Albert Einstein’s door. If he still wants the poster, he can have it.

THE END