by Erin Vandenberg
by Erin Vandenberg
by Laura Hou
Emil hated dusk.
He hated that the sun had to set each night. He hated the last sliver of light that lasted for no more than a few moments. He hated the long night that followed the sunset.
Emil glanced in his sack of collected berries. There was an even smaller amount than yesterday. The berries on these mountains were almost gone. The only ones that were left were the small, unripe ones. Emil looked up, sweeping his gaze over the barren mountain. The land was drained. Only a few shrubs remained, bearing the tiniest fruit. It looked like this would be another hungry day. Emil looked towards the small path leading up to the far side of the mountain and bit his lip. Judging by the sun, there was likely to be another half hour of light.
It was worth the trip.
Emil made his way back to the cave that he called home. The sun had almost gone, casting the bleak land into darkness and with it, the bloodshed that was sure to follow.
Emil lived with his grandpa Castor, a gentle and frail man who had seen death one too many times. He would be glad to leave this wretched world behind if it were not for his grandson. Whenever Emil was around, Castor’s eyes would light up with an ember that twinkled even in the darkest night.
“Grandpa, I’m back.” Emil announced as he climbed the loose rocks that led up into the mouth of the cave. He came in and put the sack onto the stone slab that they used as a makeshift table.
“I was beginning to worry.” Castor loosened the breath that he had been holding ever since Emil left in the morning to gather food. “What took you so long?”
“The berries on this side of the mountain are gone. I had to go to the far side” Emil said absentmindedly. He took out a wooden bowl and emptied the bag of berries into it.
“Emil!” Castor hissed. “You know you can’t go that far.”
“I made it back, didn’t I?” Emil said. A hint of guilt crept into his voice.
“You know it’s too dangerous. What if you got hurt? What will I do then?” Castor sighed, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. “You’re all that I have left. I’d sooner starve than lose you.”
Emil fell silent. He knew ever since his parents died, his grandpa had been extremely protective of him. Emil couldn’t blame him though. In the world that they lived in, no one was safe, and each other was all that they had.
“I’m sorry” Emil said. “I’ll try to find food on this side of the mountain tomorrow. Who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky and catch a rabbit.” With no way of growing food for fear of being seen by the Hunters and Castor too weak to leave the cave, Emil had to find food for them every day.
Castor’s eyes softened. He knew Emil was trying to comfort him. With most of the vegetation gone, barely any animals remained. “I just want you to be careful.” He said.
Emil nodded and moved a slab of stone set against a crack in the wall, he reached in to the crevice and pulled out a small strip of dried meat. It was too dangerous to light fires, even during day time. So, Castor had dried what little extra food they had and stored it in the cool space behind the stone slab.
The sun had completely set. The only light they had was the moon that peeked through patches of the cloud.
Emil sat with his grandpa around their makeshift table. “Tell me a story.” Emil said around a mouthful of berries. “Tell me The Story.” In the distance sounded the first screams of the night. The killing had begun. Emil tuned the sounds out, just like he had done all the nights before.
“Alright.” Castor smiled. He shifted into a more comfortable position on the ground. “Once upon a time, the land was green, lush with forests, grains, and vegetables. There lived billions of people, more than you can ever imagine. They worked the fields together, built houses together. Their houses were so tall, they were even taller than the tallest trees. And all humans lived in harmony.”
Emil’s eyes widened. He stared unblinkingly at his grandpa, as if afraid the story would end if he looked away. “They were all together, Grandpa? They saw each other, and they didn’t kill? Not at all?”
Castor shook his head. “No. You see, the Hunters didn’t exist back then. People had plenty to eat. The earth provided enough for humans to prosper.”
Emil closed his eyes. “It is so beautiful, to think that we can all live in harmony. If only the Hunters didn’t exist, and we had enough to share.” His eyes slowly lit up as he spoke, as if he could almost see the imaginary world.
Then the light dimmed. “Too bad it’s just a story.” Emil whispered into the night.
Castor sighed. “Even the most ridiculous stories can come true sometime.”
“It’s not ridiculous, it’s magical.” Emil said.
Moonlight slanted into the cave and cast a small patch of light on the ground.
“But people were greedy, they wanted more.” Castor gazed at the moonlight on the ground and continued. “They over-worked the lands by putting chemicals into the soil. They spread poison onto the crop to kill insects. They dug holes everywhere for water and fuel. Eventually, the earth turned into a mess. The lands became so poisoned the crops could no longer grow. Food grew scarce. Water and fuel were hard to find. People began to kill. A bottle of water was worth the life of another human. A blanket was worth killing a child. The world was never the same again.”
“I wish we could go back to the world before the killing started. Why couldn’t people be happy with what they were given?” Emil said.
Castor didn’t know what to say to that. So, he didn’t answer. He looked out through the mouth of the cave, all the way through the clouds. He could almost see the stars. Whatever happened here on earth, the stars would never change.
Emil woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of clanking rocks under footsteps. The stars and the moon had gone, leaving the night in a shroud of darkness.
Emil got up from his bed. He felt Castor do the same. Emil could vaguely make out the entrance of the cave. The sound of footsteps got louder.
Emil reached for Castor’s hand and squeezed it in the dark. Castor squeezed back and placed Emil’s hand against his heart. A silent promise and a wordless vow. It was his duty to keep his grandson safe. And he would do anything to ensure that no harm would come to Emil.
Castor moved to push Emil back, tugging him behind the stone slab they used to store their food. The footsteps had reached the mouth of the cave.
Emil peaked out. A single figure blocked the entrance of the cave, from the barest of light, Emil could vaguely make out his silhouette.
The Hunter pulled out his dagger. Emil tensed.
At the moment the Hunter’s finger tightened around the blade, Castor threw himself onto the intruder. The Hunter only staggered but dropped his blade in surprise. Shaking himself free, he kicked Castor in the stomach and threw him to the stone wall.
“Grandpa!” Emil cried, there was no reply. The Hunter turned around, his eyes narrowed on Emil. Then he shifted his eyes downward, looking for the dagger. With no time to pick it up, Emil kicked it away. But when he tried to get closer to Castor, the Hunter pounced at him, knocking him down. Emil’s head smashed onto the ground hard. He nearly blacked out from the blinding pain. Then he felt a pair of hands at his throat, closing in tight. Emil wrapped his hands around the Hunter’s wrists and pushed but to no avail.
Stars danced around his vision and his arms and legs turned into cotton. Just when he thought he was going to black out, the grip on his throat loosened. Emil gasped for air and coughed violently.
When he finally sat up, he saw the Hunter lay by his side, lifeless, the dagger through his back. Castor was sitting to the side, weak and limp, his eyes on the body.
“Grandpa, we killed someone.” Emil’s voice quivered. “Does that mean we are Hunters now?”
Castor was about to answer when footsteps sounded from behind them. They turned around sharply, a second Hunter appeared at the entrance of the cave. She took one look at the dead Hunter on the ground and snarled.
Her eyes wild and dilated, she pulled out a gun and aimed at Castor.
“Run!” Castor pushed Emil away and took two steps towards the Hunter. Shoot me first. He beckoned.
A single gunshot rang through the cave. It bounced off the stone walls and vibrated through the air.
When Emil finally went back to the cave, Castor’s body had cooled. He lay in a pool of blood, a bullet through his heart. The cave had been turned inside out. The makeshift table was tipped over, the beds ripped up, and all the food was gone.
The moon had peaked out from the clouds again, casting the land in a bluish glow.
Emil felt a sob break out of him, then another, until all he could do was latch on to his grandpa’s shirt and cry.
His grandpa didn’t deserve this. Nor did he. None of the people who died each night did. Yet it still happened, like a recurring nightmare.
Come dawn, the land would be silent again, mourning for the ones who died over night. And come dusk, the killing would begin anew, bathing the land in blood. And each day after that. A circle that had no beginning and no end.
Emil stood up. He dried his tears on his sleeves and made a vow to never shed them again. He was ready to kill. There was no going back to the magical story world. If he didn’t become a Hunter himself, he would get killed.
At dusk, Emil walked out of his cave.
He was ready, and he was not afraid.
Autumn morphed into winter, then spring, then summer, until the days blended into one another and only ashes floated around the skies. It turned the earth to a greyish color, the color of death. It even smelt like it, a sharp tang of carrion and bones.
It was dusk again. The same sun, same shade of orange, same sliver of light that disappeared too quickly.
Only this time, no Hunters came out.
No one hid from the Hunters.
A soft wind whispered across the land. It caressed the ashen ground and coaxed the dirt to dance. As the ash slowly floated away, a speck of green peaked out from under the sea of grey.
A sprout of grass.
A ray of sunshine broke through the clouds. It punched a hole through the veil of darkness and stretched across the land.
And in the distance, sounded the first thunder of spring.
by Megan Conway
The Alice Munro Festival of the Short Story is taking inspiration from its festival namesake, Huron County author Alice Munro – renowned for writing about the Lives of Girls and Women, to focus exclusively on women authors in 2018. The current women-led movements addressing gender equity and advocating for social change has affected every industry, including literature and publishing, making this year a perfect time to spotlight some of the incredibly talented and diverse voices of Canadian female authors.
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.
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.