Category Archives: Short Story Competition

2015 Adult Winning Short Story – Without Her

 “all rights retained by the author”
by Leanne Dunic of Vancouver, B.C.    

 

I stare out my window, to the downhill layers of coniferous and deciduous trees, and beyond them, to the water undulating reflections of the light escaping the clouds. It’s a day not unlike any other on the island. It’s February, but the Camilla is in full bloom, the plum blossoms have started to bud. In the morning, the assortment of birds chirping grows each day. On the glass of my window, mosquitoes bond for the sake of the next generation.

Everything is looking forward to the arrival of spring – save for the fact that the island is burdened by the death of baby June. Her death was a shock. No one wants to be reminded of their own mortality, like a snowfall after the emergence of fruit blossoms. Whenever I think about it – and I try not to think about it – my chest feels as if it were filled with gravel. Of course, I can only imagine how it affected our friends Darcy and Pam.

Aimee and I have lived next door to them for three years, in a house just up from the bay. The four of us hit it off immediately. We’ve always considered ourselves to be blessed to have this couple, our most intimate friends, living right next door. Neither of us has been as close with another couple before. We each enjoy listening to Robert Wyatt, Roy Harper, and Brian Ferry, and discussing the impending doom of climate change. Neither of us trade tidbits about who is not talking to whom because of a property line conflict, or an unwelcomed use of one’s beach access. We all look past other islanders at the grocery store, or on the ferry.

I pass their house as I walk to the beach with the dog. I don’t see anyone there. The morning is sunny, but crisp. My breath collects behind my scarf, leaving a moist film around my mouth.

At the beach, the eagle is perched on top of the tree at the point. Same tree every morning. A seagull circles it, squawking. It makes a looping glide, then swoops towards the peak of the tree. The eagle does not seem disturbed. At one point, the seagull dives at the eagle. The eagle remains still, lets out its own mocking cry. The gull continues to protest.

The dog does not notice the racket going on above us. He’s content at sniffing at all the new sticks that the tide has brought with it. There is a fresh log on the beach this morning, and the one that has been on the beach for weeks has floated out to the bay. Along with a dozen loons, it bobs on the surface, taking on forms of imagined beasts.

The dog chews a branch, shredding one end to bits. I don’t want him to choke, or for the bits of wood to hurt his gums. I command him to stop but he doesn’t. I take the stick and throw it as far as I can out into the bay. He paces the shoreline, whimpering, sniffing for a sign, braving the cold waves coming in from the tugboat. “It’s gone,” I tell him. He thinks he can still get it. I offer other sticks, but he doesn’t look my way. I turn to head home.

I look for a sign of Darcy and Pam as I pass their house. Both of their cars are in the driveway, so they must be home. We used to regularly have dinner, listen to records, and drink wine. One night we were listening to an album featuring Brian Eno, Nico, Kevin Ayers, and John Cale performing at the Rainbow Hall in 1974. Darcy showed us the album cover – a photo of the four musicians standing on a stairwell just before the concert. “Check out the way John and Kevin are looking at each other. Kevin with that bemused grin. John had just caught him sleeping with his wife the night before, and here they are, about to play an iconic concert together.”

I don’t remember exactly how we ended up pairing off with each other that night, but none of us had reservations about it. We had grown so close, so quickly, it seemed like a natural progression of our relationship.

That first night we split off into separate rooms. I made love to Pam three times, my mouth covering hers to muffle her groans.

The next morning, Aimee wore one of Pam’s robes. The four of us ate cornflakes together. My head pounded and I was incredibly thirsty.

Darcy and Pam told us that they didn’t want kids, that they were consciously making the decision not to have them, going against expectations. I admired this about them. I used to think that Aimee and I would have kids, but they warmed me up to the possibility of not having them.

When they announced that they were expecting, I was shocked. I stood up. “I thought you guys were choosing not to have kids?”

Pam looked into my eyes with a straight face and said, “No, we’ve always wanted kids.” That was that. We never spoke about it again.

Since they didn’t plan to start a family, I assumed that Pam was on the pill. Of course, I wondered if June was Darcy’s child or mine. I’m sure that question ran through all of our minds, but it was easiest if we just accepted June as Darcy and Pam’s child.

The dog and I can smell bacon coming from our house. Our mouths salivate. Aimee has made us bacon and eggs with frozen hash browns for breakfast.

“Did you and Jack have a good walk?” Aimee asks.

“It was fine. The eagle was down there again this morning.”

“Oh, that’s good.” She slides the fried eggs onto our plates.

“Have you seen Darcy or Pam in the last few days?”

“I think they’re in hibernation mode. I’ll give them a call this afternoon and tell them I’ll bring dinner over tonight.” Aimee spoons a tablespoon of bacon fat from the pan onto the dog’s kibble.

Dogs aren’t much different from babies in the first few years. You dote on them, make sure they’re fed and hydrated, pick up their shit. Aimee and I became godparents to June. Since June couldn’t talk or crawl, she wasn’t too invasive. Darcy would wind up the mobile after laying her in the crib and she quickly fell asleep. Yet, after she was born, the four of us rarely got together. Her parents were transfixed by her.

June was named after the song, Moon in June. She was cute, as I suppose babies are. Her face seemed to always be red and more squished than I thought should be normal, but I am no baby expert. I looked for glimpses of myself, but couldn’t even see a resemblance to Pam.

I can still recall the way June whimpered. I must not think of her. I can hardly imagine what Pam and Darcy are feeling. It’s only been two weeks; the celebration of life was almost a week ago. Such a short life to celebrate.

June was cremated. We are going to scatter the ashes in the bay but it hasn’t been decided when.

The night that June died, I was at Pam’s house, and Darcy was at our place with Aimee. The living room smelled of breast milk, as did Pam. Her breasts were swollen. She said she shouldn’t drink since she was breastfeeding but it didn’t take much to convince her. She hadn’t had a drink for eight months. By midnight, Pam and I had drunk three bottles of wine between us. As I rubbed my hands and face in her breasts, Pam passed out. That’s when the baby started to cry.

When I returned to our house, Aimee and Darcy were naked, sitting on the floor across from each other. Darcy snipped weed onto a Life magazine cover, Aimee stretched her arms over her head. I told them that Pam had fallen asleep.

Darcy stood and collected his clothes. “Maybe I should head back then, I’m pretty exhausted, too.”

“That’s what happens when you have a baby,” I said with a sideways smile.

Darcy laughed half-heartedly. Aimee shot me a glare.

I should probably knock and invite Darcy and Pam to join the dog and I at the beach, but then I would have to say something, and what can I say? Aimee is better at these things.

At the beach, the eagle is gone. A flock of gulls rest on the small isle off of the beach, and there are about sixty loons floating nearby. The herring are here. There is a good chance of seeing porpoises or sea lions that have come to these waters to feed. The dog seems to have forgotten about the stick I tossed into the ocean in the morning.

Suddenly, the flock of loons rises from the surface in a fury. One of the birds smacks against the isle, its body held in the jaws of a mink. The mink pulls it underwater, its sleek body undulating at the surface like a serpent. A shiver creeps up my neck.

We walk up the forest path back up to the road. The dog treads on recently sprouted crocuses. This time, it’s the crows that are cawing. I lift the hood of my jacket. They fly frantically from tree to tree, their calls like barks. The dog chases one then loses interest. In the creek between our house and Pam and Darcy’s, there is a raven playing. It scoops water with its beak and tosses it to its back. It doesn’t look like it’s having fun as much as it is trying to clean itself.

There, at the window. My breath shortens. Pam. All I can see of her is her profile. She tucks her hair behind her ear then faces the window. I lift my hand to wave but she disappears.

“Aimee, could you hear the crows from here?”

“Yeah, they sound upset.”

“I think the raven pegged off with an egg or two.”

“So that’s what they’re fussing about.”

“Well, that’s what happens. The crows take the young from the poor little robins. Circle of life.”

Out the window, a few crows dart in the distance. There are more pairs of mosquitoes copulating on the other side of the glass. It seems early for mosquito procreation, but I guess that’s what comes with good weather.

“Honey, I’m done with the paper. Do you want to read it?”

“Maybe later.”

“There was an article about bald eagles. It talked about their population comeback, but there’s some bacteria that’s killing them and other waterfowl. Global warming, I tell you.”

I wonder what they call a flock of eagles. The eagle at the beach is always alone. The ravens are solitary, too. I suppose raptors are not social birds. “Babe, do you know what they call a flock of eagles or ravens?”

“Well, I know a group of crows is a murder.”

“I think a group of ravens is called a conspiracy. Maybe it’s the same for eagles.”

The dog barks, shoves his face under my hand. Pet me, he says with his wet nose. I stroke his snout.

It’s hard to understand how a life like June’s can just vanish. Darcy and Pam are making plans to move – they can’t stand to live in a place where they are reminded of their baby girl, and who knows how far away they’ll move. I’m sure even the island is too much of a reminder. There’s nowhere to escape on an island. Same people, same deer, same birds eating other birds.

I wonder if I will miss them, if I will miss Pam. I call to mind our hands, writhing together, pressing and crushing. I think of her breasts, how they were barely a handful when I first held them. How they became engorged with milk, how they continue to grow for June

2015 Youth Winning Short Story – Caretaker of Time

 “all rights retained by the author”

by Michelle Krasovitski of Goderich, ON

A loud ticking sound was present in the room. That’s the first bizarre thing that struck Ophelia – that the room’s underlying silence was shattered by a steady tick. She recognized it; possessing clocks in her room, but this one puzzled her because of its volume. She decided to investigate. So, whilst Ms. Andelman was making her tea, Ophelia broke her mother’s most important rule of “no meddling” and opened a white wooden door to a room she could only describe as absurd.

Ophelia found masses of watches. Watches and clocks; stuck to the wall and hanging from hooks – there were some laying on the floor replacing the carpet, and ones lining the windows so that the only light source was from the shattered, drab light bulb hanging from a dingy wire. Normally, a person’s clock collection would consist of one or two wrist watches, and a couple of plastic clocks hanging in sparse rooms. Evidently, Ms. Andelman was no such person.

Ophelia invited herself into the room and took a closer look at her surroundings. There was one watch which she swore she had as a child: its centre image was Mickey Mouse whose limbs were the hands, consistently showing the proper time despite how worn out it was. There was a clock which tried, and succeeded, to emulate the style of Salvador Dali; it was drooping and asymmetrical, something which would be adorned by a princess from a science fiction film. There were clocks referencing Star Wars and Harry Potter, clocks holding newspaper headers, and clocks with optical illusions. The focal point however was an elephantine Grandfather clock, which had immense designs carved into its skin, and whose ticks were bass and dominant – it was the lead baritone singer amongst a group of rookie vocalists.

“I see you’ve found my collection,” Ms. Andelman beamed, greeting a surprised Ophelia whilst shakily holding a tray with two cups of tea.

“I apologize,” Ophelia began, feeling ashamed at going into her nice neighbor’s room without permission.

“Don’t worry dear,” Ms. Andelman smiled, beckoning for Ophelia to follow her. “Let’s go into the living room and I’ll clear everything up for you.”

Ophelia nodded, cheeks still pink from having been caught intruding. She had been graciously invited into her usually-reclusive neighbor’s home earlier that day, when the two women had exchanged formalities in the hallway. As per routine, Ophelia remarked about the dollar whilst Ms. Andelman joked back that it doesn’t matter as long as everyone had their health. Then, they would converse about the weather, and go about their day, pleased at their socialization, despite its expendability. That morning, however, Ms. Andelman had a sudden burst of spontaneity which forced her to invite Ophelia in. The old woman was rather fond of her young, vivacious neighbor, who always helped her with her groceries and large parcels. And so, she decided to take their basic relationship one step further over the best thing that she knew: tea.

Ophelia matched Ms. Andelman’s slow pace, entering a living room surprisingly lacking any clocks. It was average in size, Ophelia noted, and decorated nicely. The couches were pink, and the windows had salmon lace curtains. There were many tables scattered around the room where dusty picture frames lay on frilly doilies. A large wooden piano stood by the curtains, dust caked on it thickly – evidence of serial abandonment. Ophelia took the tray from Ms. Andelman, allowing her to fall back onto the couch.

She began stirring her tea and then asked: “Well, what do you make of it?”

“Pardon?”

“The clocks – do you find them weird?” Ms. Andelman asked, taking three large sips from her cup and then putting it onto the table in front of her.

Ophelia took a pause from drinking her perfectly sweetened chamomile tea to think. Her brother Jack had collected stamps when he was younger, and her best friend Lindsey still collects coins. A reclusive woman would need to direct her attention towards something, she rationed. “Oh, absolutely not,” Ophelia reassured, giving her neighbor a hearty smile. “My only question is why clocks? Why not collect stamps or CDs? Don’t their ticks keep you up at night?”

Ms. Andelman laughed and shook her head. “No, no dear. I find it quite peaceful, actually. You see I was a piano teacher back in my day. I grew accustomed to the ticks of the metronome. Three steady quarter note beats if I was playing Moszkowsi’s ‘Liebeswalzer’, two if I was playing Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsody’. It’s quite nice” – she began demonstrating by moving her fingers back and forth – “they’re just ticking away; reassuring too.”

“Reassuring?” Ophelia questioned. “In what way?”

Despite the old woman’s face being littered with wrinkles and creases, her features sunk with a youthful sadness. “I have not been the luckiest person,” she explained, cracked lips pursed. “My parents died when I was young, and my husband and two children were killed in a car crash. I felt abandoned – though it wasn’t their fault, I felt like there was no one out there for me.”

Ophelia couldn’t bear to make eye contact with her neighbor. She had been very fortunate in her life – she had her health, her family, and her friends. “I’m very sorry to hear that.”

“Don’t be,” Ms. Andelman smiled, patting Ophelia’s skinny knee. “I found solace in two things: music and clocks. You see –” but the old lady wasn’t able to finish her thought, as she was interrupted by a cacophony of absurd sounds.

Checking her cell phone, Ophelia realized that it was one in the afternoon, and with the turn of another hour, the majority of the clocks in Ms. Andelman’s white room came alive. The two women sat through a minute of generic sounding “cuckoos” and satirical voices shouting “it’s finally the new hour!” and the like. As the commotion settled down, the old woman continued her speech, as if there was no disturbance at all.

“You see, I always got lost in my music. Liszt, Bach, and Mozart, took me away from my gloomy reality. I played for hours on end and found reassurance in the immortality of music. I found it comforting that a mortal man could make immortal art, and I saw it my destiny to keep the notes alive and breathing.” She looked sadly to her piano. “As you can tell, it’s been a while since I last sat behind it.”

Ophelia nodded, words filled with sincere curiosity: “why did you stop playing?”

Ms. Andelman laughed wistfully. “Remember how I said I wasn’t the luckiest person? That was an understatement. I developed severe arthritis and it was virtually impossible for me to continue playing. For about a year, I felt dead. I felt guilty – I thought that I had destroyed something previously indestructible. I tried to go against the doctor’s orders but it was as if a cruel presence tried to teach me a lesson: my shaking hands weren’t able to play even the first note. But then, I found solace in clocks. More so, dare I say, than I had in music.”

“Why is that?” Ophelia inquired, finishing the last of her tea.

“There is a certainty with clocks that is soothing; that no matter how upset of depressed I become, the clock will still tick, and the hands will still move. Even though my entire being may feel as if it were on fire, or if a crippling sorrow takes hold of every arthritis-struck limb, the watches will still tell time.”

“Don’t you have to change their batteries though?” Ophelia asked.

Ms. Andelman gave a sly smile, nodding in the process. “Have you ever been afraid of death Ophelia?”

Ophelia paused to think once more. She found it amusing that that very morning, she had absolutely no idea what the rest of her day would be like. For instance: currently, she was sitting in her neighbor’s home, with the steady tick of hundreds of clocks producing the background noise, whilst pondering life. She reawakened the existential thoughts she had as a teenager. “Very much so,” she admitted, averting her eyes because of inexplicable shame.

“Everyone is,” Ms. Andelman reassured, wise eyes glazed over with unwelcome memories. “Some people are just better at hiding their fear than others. Distractions – that the key. Distract yourself and you never have to think about life or death, you can focus on your nine-to-five job, and what organic meal you’ll be feeding yourself for dinner. Which is why silence is so deadly: it allows you time to think. With the absence of my beautiful music, I grew more and more fearful of death as I became gradually more acquainted with the concept. I needed something to fill the space – and what’s better than clocks?”

“You have some very cool ones in there,” Ophelia stated, her mind reverting to the Mickey Mouse watch. “I liked the Disney one; it reminded me of one I had when I was younger. I remember swinging off the monkey bars and checking it compulsively to make sure that I wasn’t late for dinner.”

“Everyone will find something in there for themselves,” Ms. Andelman said. “As for batteries, it’s sort of like playing God … at least it is in my mind. You see, the theory of time is eternal – but clocks need to be powered by batteries, which do run out. Sometimes it takes me hours to change one clock, just because my shaking hands can’t unscrew the bolt. But at the end of the day, I’m powering eternity – I’m its caretaker, and I take my job very seriously.”

Ophelia found her neighbor inspirational; not only had she overcome unimaginable obstacles, but through it all, she found a will and a purpose to live. To think that this complex and intelligent woman was living right across from her was compelling to Ophelia. She decided to never underestimate her neighbors – or little old ladies – ever again.

A generic-sounding ringtone echoed through the room, and Ophelia realized that she had to leave. Excusing herself politely, and helping the old woman carry the tray back to the kitchen, she couldn’t help but take in the consistent ticks one last time.“Before I go,” she said, already at the door with Ms. Andelman smiling behind her. “Is there anything else you need help with?”

“No, no dear, I’m just fine.”

And with that, their afternoon came to an end.

Ophelia and Ms. Andelman would never sit together in the same room again. They returned to exchanging formalities in the hallway; discussing the dollar and the weather. Ophelia forgot the majority of her experience with her neighbor thanks to her hectic job at her law firm. Her days were never filled with silences – she never had time to think.

Yet, two years later, upon returning to her apartment with two gravel-brown envelopes, she saw a large group of people gathered in her neighbor’s apartment.

She entered it, fearing the worst. “What’s going on?” she asked Rob, a tall nurse from the fifth floor, who was always kind to everyone. “Is Ms. Andelman okay?”

Rob’s hazel eyes filled with concern. “Oh Ophelia, I’m so sorry, I guess you haven’t heard? She passed away two days ago; she didn’t show up for her appointment and her nurse found her in the clock room.”

Ophelia was filled with strong emotions – none of which, she could describe as sad. She knew that Ms. Andelman had lived her last years without fear, and she was grateful for the serenity that filled the dead woman’s apartment – there was peace, instead of anguish. The following news, however, did surprise her.

“She left you something,” Rob said, reading a white document carefully.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, it’s written right here: ‘to Ophelia Fider, I leave my Mickey Mouse watch’. Does that ring a bell?”

Ophelia smiled, nodding. She made her way into the white room, now filled with a lot less clocks. The ticking noise was subdued, nevertheless, still present – reminding those within ear range of the woman who had lived there before. Ophelia saw her watch and took it, unlatching it from a hook.

Coming back into the living room, she turned to Rob. “What did she leave you?”

“The Harry Potter one,” he replied sheepishly. “She knew how much I love the series.” “I didn’t realize the two of you were friends.”

“Oh, well,” he said, shuffling his feet. “I’ve only been in here once. She invited me in for tea, and, sort of, explained the whole reasoning for the clocks. She did it to everyone in the building, really. That’s why there are so many people here. See Sheila” – he pointed to a young art student with vibrant green hair – “she’s getting the Salvador Dali watch. Arnold over there” – now he beckoned to a thin man with spectacles and an almost-embarrassing amount of freckles – “dabbles in journalism; he’s getting the newspaper clock. You wouldn’t think it, but Ms. Andelman knew everyone in the building better than they know themselves.”

The statement didn’t surprise Ophelia. “It’s no wonder, she was one intelligent person.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Rob agreed absentmindedly, returning to the white sheet of paper. “The thing is, the old Grandfather clock was supposed to go to Diana Green, but she doesn’t want it. I’m supposed to make sure all these clocks find homes, but I suppose that one is too large for anyone’s taste nowadays, so I’ll just call a junkyard and have them pick it up. I’ve inspected it; it’s too weathered for an antiques shop. Shame, poor thing has to go.”

Ophelia agreed sadly. She watched it from the hallway, noting that each swing of its pendulum was one swing closer to its end, since his caretaker had unfortunately met hers. Ophelia remained with Rob for the rest of the day; ordering pizza around lunch time, and getting to know her neighbors even better. When evening came, everyone started filing out of the apartment with their new convenient-sized pieces of eternity in hand; Ophelia was the last person in the empty room.

Though she didn’t know Ms. Andelman for more than an hour on an intimate basis, she still felt as though she had lost someone close. Looking to her worn-out yet, nevertheless, special Mickey Mouse watch, she realized that she had to leave.

As Ophelia closed the white wooden door, the old Grandfather clock gave its last lively tick, before silencing for eternity.