We’re running surveillance. I don’t want to be the last one to arrive, so I race. I take the 401 to the 404, to the 407, head west to Hurontario, exit to the north. I exchange fluids at Timmy’s, gas up at Shell, and arrive at 4:47am.
I drive down the target’s street, past his house, looking for the others. It’s still dark, save for the streetlamps. So far, it’s just me. I confirm the target’s plate. Grab the eye. I get set up—close enough to see his car, far enough I won’t stand out—tucked in amongst the dew covered vehicles.
It’s been five years since our surveillance techniques course. The instructor’s words are as fresh in my mind as the first time he said them: Ain’t rocket science, he’d say. First car there grabs the eye. Want your vehicle to blend in? Think of a box of Smarties.
Two weeks divided between the classroom and on-the-road training. The class instructor drew simple diagrams, little box cars with pointed front ends. His black marker squeaked across the flip-board. He drew arrows up, down and across, and circled things for emphasis. He’d rap on the diagrams with the end of his marker to emphasize key points he was making.
I crank down on the emergency brake and restart my engine to get rid of my daytime running lights. I twist the end of my mini Maglite and point it at my Greater Toronto Area map-book. Red light casts a shimmering veil over the page. I make quick notes and sketches: the street, the house, the vehicle in the driveway. I wait.
The night before, I’d packed snacks: nothing sticky, drippy, or stinky. Nothing requiring tools to open or eat. I’d set the coffee maker and my alarm for 3:40 am, draped clothes over the edge of the tub, and hit the sack early.
When my earplugs dislodged, I’d startled. The snoring! I smacked the pillow beside my husband’s head, replaced the plugs, flipped to adjust the pillow between my legs. I did this twice before I settled.
I fell asleep.
The alarm went off.
I’d costumed quickly: a camouflage of earthy browns and blacks, grabbed an old ball-cap to conceal my light blond hair. Blend in.
Now I watch the target’s house and car. I watch for lights in windows, on cars. I check my mirrors, the time, my pulse. Nothing moves. I wait.
The radio squawks the other cars’ arrivals.
“I’ve got the eye,” I say. “Everything’s open.”
“I’ll set up north,” says the silver Impala. He’s team leader for surveillance today. Good guy.
“I can take him south,” adds another.
Nick doubles to the south in the burgundy van.
“Your lights are on, Smitty,” the silver car says to the grey van.
Right, Smith—the newbie. I jot down: Smitty/grey van. Keep forgetting that guy’s name.
The eastern sky is a soft, glowing ribbon of peach. A silky smile, wistful on the horizon, it stretches into a swath of powder blue. It steeps and lightens, bleaches through the heavy shroud of night. I tweeze the plastic flap on my coffee’s lid until it sticks open, test the temperature with a small sip, then a longer one. I take a slow, deep inhale-exhale. I slurp and swallow until at last I tilt it right up and empty it, still wanting more.
“Okay,” I say, once everything’s covered off, everyone’s set up, quieted down and ready to go. “The black Toyota Camry is in the driveway.” I confirm our target’s plate and we wait.
Half an hour passes. “No change,” I announce. Everyone clicks their radio button to acknowledge me; everyone except the newbie.
“10-4, copy that,” says Smitty.
I race against the pre-dawn light; tilt my seat back so the door frame blocks my silhouette; adjust the mirrors to get the best view. I’m motionless, except for my eyes that scan about until a light or a movement or a shape halts my attention. I study a dark form in the target’s kitchen window. Was it there a minute ago? It doesn’t move. I keep scanning: the doors, windows, driveways, streets, sidewalks. I keep coming back to that dark shape but it never changes. Eventually I’m satisfied it’s nothing.
The nag and pull of a full bladder tugs at me like a child. Not yet. Go away! I can hardly focus. Fuck, I hate when this happens! “Can someone take the eye? I gotta do a nature.”
Ridiculous phrase, ‘to do a nature’! Like I could just hop outta the car and piss on that tree. I’m reminded of the sign my Dad posted along the country road in front of his bush: NO TREEPISSING! TREEPISSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED!
Nope. No tree-pissing for me. No way I’m peeing in some bottle either! Sometimes I imagine a first-aid mask attached to a long hose, maybe a hole in the floor. And me: a Mona Lisa smile. Heard some outdoor stores carry those gadgets. Not standard issue yet. No, I just do the homework: google the gas stations and coffee shops and save them to my favorites. Smith covers off north, the silver Impala takes the eye, and I beat it to the Shell station down the street. “I’ll be down for five on cell,” I say.
Luxury: a private toilet and civilian clothes. That means no gun leaning from my holster below the stall divider. It sits on my waist in a fanny-pack instead, warms—and kept warm by—my abdomen. Better hurry. Nothing’s changed when I return, so I double up to the south.
Doors open and close, people flit about on foot, cars pass, traffic builds. A woman in dress suit runs, heels clacking, after her bus. I imagine her sitting in some frigid workspace, hunched over a portable heater hidden at her feet. She’ll take her lunch outside today. She’ll soak up that beautiful sun until she wilts—her clothes all clammy-stuck to her back. Then she’ll go back in and freeze solid.
“No change,” says the eye at nine forty-five.
At ten-fifteen a man appears in the adjacent driveway. Slumped in my seat with my cap pulled down, I slide my knapsack over the radio console. I remove the binoculars from the passenger seat and tuck them in my jacket. I kill the radio, crook my index finger towards my eye as if wiping a tear, crack the window down a bit and offer a weak hello.
“Why are you sitting here in front of my house?”
“Sorry,” I say. “I needed to get away for a bit—didn’t mean to—”
“Oh?” His eyebrows beef up.
“I’m just upset. My husband and—”
“Are you okay?”
“Just upset—needed a little time.” I bite at my bottom lip.
You just take your time. Sure you’re okay though?”
“I’m okay,” I insist.
“Okay,” he says, and nods.
I nod back and he nods to me again. He’s leaving but then he stops—looks back. I wave him on. Then he goes, lumbers up his driveway and disappears. In one swift, continuous motion I release the emergency brake, twist the radio volume up, start my engine and drive away from there. Well, who’d a thunk? The helpless young damsel was packing a 9mm semi-automatic Smith n’ Wesson in her little black pouch!
“1-Delta-25 from 1-Delta-27,” I radio for an update. Zip, crackle, zip. “1-Delta-25, any change? You guys moving?” More static; my cell rings. It’s the silver Impala.
“Where are you?”
“Took some heat—had to kill the radio.”
“You guys moving?”
“We’re southbound on Hurontario. Target’s alone in the black Camry. I’ll keep the line open till you’re back in range.”
Phone to my ear, I’m off. I can hear the lead car transmit through the Impala’s radio.
“…Ok he’s signalling for the 407 west. Who’s with me?” says the eye.
“Got your back,” says Sammy.
“Okay, he’s on the ramp, heading westbound 407. I’ll stay with him until you’re good to go, says the eye.
“I’m good,” says Sammy.
“He’s yours then,” says the eye.
“Okay, no change,” says Sammy, taking over. “Target’s moving to the centre lane, I’ve two vehicles for cover.”
I reach the on-ramp for the 407 westbound. I merge and take off, tires whir against the concrete. I weave and dart and brake and rev through the sludge of traffic like some adrenaline fueled crazy-woman. I’ve no choice though. If I don’t catch up, I won’t live it down back at the office.
“Can’t drive worth a shit,” they’ll say when I’m out of earshot. Yet, if I’m in an accident, it’s my ass that’s grass.
I know how tricky it can be to catch up. If we’re on a major highway and the target exits without signalling, I might have to continue straight, let the next car take over. The team could be half way to Barrie before I catch up again. You want to master surveillance in Toronto? It’s all about knowing the majors.
Take the new guy, Smitty. He’s probably done surveillance three or four times now but he’s new to the city. He might know Yonge Street, but other than that he’s lost. I bet he’s got a map book open on his steering wheel right now! Even when he knows the majors, the book will be open on the seat beside him. Every chance he gets, he’ll sneak a look at it, check for exits, parallels, one ways, dead-ends. Never want to take a target down a dead end street. Guaranteed to be spotted and just like that—you’re burned! Might as well pack up the team and go home. A dumb move like that could jeopardise the project, not to mention your reputation.
I’m skipping along past the Mavis Road exit when the radio static becomes broken chatter. Getting warmer. “Thanks buddy, I’m almost there,” I say, and hang up. When the voice of the guy in the lead car becomes clear, I slow down and scan the lanes.
There in the middle lane is Smitty’s van.
I tuck in. “Got your back Smitty,” I say.
Beyond the Credit River, the target exits to Mississauga Road. The gold Ford takes the eye. “Okay, we’re turning left, going southbound Mississauga Road,” he says. “Got GlaxoSmithKline on our left and a fresh red in the distance. He’s checkin’ his mirrors boys.” The gold Ford takes him onto Meadowvale.
“You look like a train going around that bend,” I say.
“Can’t help that,” says the newbie, “got no cover.”
In my mind, I’m thinking idiot! “Smitty, pull into Mary Kay.”
Smitty veers left in to the Mary Kay parking lot, braises the soft shoulder, spits up the gravel. I follow him—minus the drama—and circle back to face the road. A vehicle passes and I motion for Smitty to go. He sails outta there spinning more rocks. What a dick!
Ron takes the target past Rapistan Court. Nick takes him past Meadowpines. “He’s signalling left for the Purolator building and I can’t go in,” says Nick.
“I got ’em,” says Smitty. “He’s parking now: 2600 Meadowvale. He’s out of the vehicle; he’s heading for the building.”
I tuck into a laneway across the street. I can barely see the target’s vehicle, just the tip of its nose. Once we’ve set ourselves up, I check the time, jot down some notes. I’m missing a description of what our guy’s wearing, so I know I’m about to be razzed. “What’s he wearing today boys?” I ask.
“Yeah, Nicky, it’s that exciting voice of yours, gets me every time.”
“Right on!” he says. His snort-laugh cut short.
“Cut the chatter,” says Smitty.
“Ooooooooooh,” someone says.
Nick calls my cell with the target’s description. I scribble. He asks for the time we got here.
“Yeah, Smitty’s gonna get us burned. Had people looking outta windows back there. I bet they call Peel.”
“Think he’s spooked,” says Nick. “Sure acts like it.”
We’re interrupted by Smitty. “Think I’ll go in, buy something,” he whispers.
The team leader says no.
“Okay, he’s coming out,” says Smittty, his words sounding like spit against his mike. “He’s out now—heading to the car…door’s open…now he’s in. Hold on, he’s getting out again. He’s got a package and he’s heading back to the store. I’ll go in.”
“I’m going in,” he says.
“No—!” says the team leader again.
“He went in,” I say. “I’ve got the eye from across the street.”
“Better not get us burned,” says Ron.
Five minutes drag by and still nothing. Then the door opens and the target’s out. “Heads up people,” I say. “He’s out and heading to his vehicle. He’s in. Okay, we got reverse lights—now he’s backing around. He’s heading for the street.”
We take him south to Meadowpines, west to Winston Churchill, then north.
“Smitty with us?” asks the team leader.
“Still picking out his envelope,” snorts Nick.
“401’s coming up, boys,” I say.
“Seriously,” says Nick. “His car was sitting empty when I went by, and I’m at the end.”
“He’s got his right flicker on,” I say.
“Right behind you,” says Ron.
We go eastbound 401, and we’re off! The target’s skipping along now. I check to see who’s with us. A series of radio clicks.
“I’ll call Smitty,” says Nick.
“No change,” I say. I pass the Apple Factory Farm Market, the Mississauga Road exit. “He’s in lane three.” Nick tells us Smitty’s line’s busy. “Okay, he’s moving back to lane two,” I add. “Mavis exit’s coming up. Ron, can you take him?”
“10-4,” he says.
“Heads-up,” calls the team leader. “Info from the wire room: he’s gonna do some shopping. Likely take Hurontario to Square One mall; we’ll set up on him there.”
The target heads south as predicted. But instead of signalling right, he signals left. Ron can’t go with him. “I’m scrogged,” says Ron.
“I’m scrogged too,” says the silver Impala.
So I take him again. But as I’m hitting the intersection the light goes yellow. I say, “go-go-go” to the delivery van turning ahead of me, horns blaring from the oncoming vehicles as I tuck in behind and turn on the red.
“Sorry!” I say out loud.
The black Camry vanishes around the curve, and when I come around, he’s gone. Must have turned here. Now I’m in a parking lot. Gone!No wait: I see the rear of his car descending a ramp.
There’s something eerie about the underground, the dim light and low ceilings. Cars packed tight in coffin rows, surrounded by cement pillars. Part of me wants to tuck into one of the empty spots—make myself disappear like a Smartie—but I keep moving along the row, around the corner, down another ramp, to another massive catacomb with very few vehicles. His car is here. It’s empty.
It takes a few minutes for Nick to find me. We need to switch vehicles because he’s got the van. I get the camera ready. Then I sit and watch, and snack and fiddle. An hour passes, then another. It’s warm. My phone rings.
“You still alive in there?” asks the team leader.
“Barely. Sure it’s happening today?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he says. “Might have to hang tight though. A bit of overtime.”
“Sure thing,” I say.
As time passes it’s hard to stay focused. My stomach starts rumbling and I’m outta food. Then the heavy door I’ve been watching for hours swings open and there’s our guy with some woman. The door booms shut and they’re coming my way. I hear them, but can’t make it out.
“He’s out with an unknown female,” I say, hoping they can’t hear me. My heart’s beating fast and hard as they move in front of my van. Then they’re by me. “The girl’s Asian. Slim, ‘bout five feet, long hair: past her shoulders. Brown dress pants, a beige top. I’m guessing mid-thirties.”
They approach another vehicle, pop the trunk, my view is blocked. Then the trunk closes and they’re coming back toward me. I kill the volume on my portable radio. Want to melt into the upholstery. Keep walking, keep walking. They pass by and head toward our target’s car.
“They’re at the target’s vehicle now,” I say. My camera tucked in by the headrest. The target opens the trunk, lifts out a box and opens it. The girl says something, nods. Then she takes—what appears to be—a wad of money from an envelope, hands it to him.
I zoom in and focus. Yup, it’s money! Got ya!
Zip-zip-zip-zip goes the camera. When they turn their heads and point my way, I keep taking pictures. My heart sprints. They can’t see me. I stop and hold my breath as she approaches, passes by me again. Then she hops in her car and pulls up beside him. While they transfer boxes to her trunk, I sing in my head:
I Got You Babe! Zip-zip-zip-zip. I keep shooting as they close the trunks, shake hands. Then she’s back to her car and away.
I call out her vehicle’s description and Nick grabs the plate.
On the drive back to the office, I play it over and over in my head. I’m the forgotten Smartie, wedged between the cushions of the rec-room couch. Invisible even to the dog that sniffs, so close, I smell his humid breath.
Back at the barn there’s a debriefing. The surveillance guys all drop what they’re doing. Drag their chairs to the middle of the bullpen. The team leader sits on the corner of an empty desk.
“First of all, good work guys and gals,” he says. “We made some real progress today.” He floats a satisfied look at each one of us, then comes right back to me and grins.
I’m thinking Su-per-woman! I manage to contain my excitement.
“Those pics—the exchange and the unknown female—the nail in the coffin,” he says. “But even more important is teamwork. That’s what makes or breaks us.” Then he looks at Smitty.
Idiot’s got it coming now! I look at Nick. He smiles back, his eyebrows raised.
“Sometimes it takes going that little extra distance, to get the job done,” the team leader says. “Good work today, Smitty!” What the fuck?
“If it weren’t for you going in the Purolator Store…” he says to Smitty before turning to the rest of us. “Young Smitty here witnessed the target on his cell phone, that’s how we learned about the meet, and why we stayed on him so long.”
“No fucking way!”
“That’s it, that’s all folks!” he adds. “Please get your notes to me before you leave. Tomorrow we’ll confirm the girl’s identity and address, and do up a general warrant for her phone records. We’ll have some pretty compelling material to include in our next wiretap rewrite.”
Everyone’s looking at the big hero-boy. He sits there like it’s nothing and grins.
Sidonie P. Hynes is a retired, twenty-two year veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. She spent eight of these years policing in Newfoundland and Labrador, followed by fourteen more working throughout the Greater Toronto Area. In 2011, she retired at the rank of corporal. She currently lives in Wolfville, Nova Scotia with her husband, daughters and two golden retrievers. Her story “Nice Cop” was published in the Summer 2016 Women and Justice Edition of Understorey Magazine.
It was manufactured in an industrial plant in Shenzhen, China. It travelled by truck to the coast, where it was loaded onto a ship destined for Canada. Once it had crossed the Pacific and docked in Vancouver it was transported by CN Rail to Toronto, at which point it was gathered up alongside its cylindrical brothers and sisters and put on a truck to Ottawa. It arrived at a warehouse where it sat for several weeks until it was placed on a smaller truck and brought to a toy store. The red ball sat amongst the others, waiting for someone to purchase it.
* * *
Q was soaring at a hundred and ten clicks across the bridge at Lac Des Deux Montagnes in Julie, his rusting, baby-blue Mercedes, who was emitting a James-Bond cloud of blue smoke. He whipped out his package of Drum tobacco and Zig Zag papers, and with the dexterity of a rhesus monkey one-handed a beautiful chalk stick. He popped it into his mouth and looked over at the Squid, who was tapping out a Marlboro for himself.
“Smell that gas? Roll down your window man,” yelled Q over the popping, hissing static, as he spun the radio dial looking for some Stones, or Zeppelin, or something that he thought was kick-ass. The Squid rolled down his window and lit up with a snap of his Zippo. Q leaned towards the Squid, keeping his eyes on the road, waiting to receive a light as if he were waiting to receive communion.
“Thanks,” said Q out of the corner of his mouth, as he finally tuned in Robert Plant singing Nobody’s Fault But Mine. Q looked over at the Squid, and the Squid looked out the window, over the water.
“What’s wrong, something bugging you?,” asked Q as his cigarette bobbed up and down as if it were conducting Jimmy Page’s solo.
“Nah, I’m fine,” said the Squid before taking a long, greedy drag on his Marlboro.
Q kept looking over at the Squid, looking at his stiff posture, his wild eyes, which had fallen to the grey, omnipresent duct tape of Julie’s dashboard.
“Come on Squid, what’s up?”
“I just want to get there and get rid of it.”
The Squid leaned forward and tapped his ashes onto the pile of butts in the overflowing ashtray, which was also held together by more grey duct tape. He slumped back. The Squid took another drag and exasperatedly blew out smoke, like he had been interrogated for hours and had finally been broken.
Q turned to the Squid and gave him a big grin and then started to laugh.
“You worry far too much,” said Q.
The Squid looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks. The wind messed up his greasy Elvis hair. He whipped out his comb and sculpted it back into form, like he was spreading icing on a cake. That’s when Q saw the lights in his rear-view just after they crossed into Ontario. Then he saw the lights in front of them too.
“Shit,” said Q.
The Squid sat up straight looking at the two OPP cruisers, lights flashing, ahead of them parked on the shoulder. The officers were already standing outside their vehicles, waiting.
“Somebody’s a rat,” said Squid.
The tires grumbled as Q slowed and pulled the car onto the gravel. The trailing car tucked in behind them.
“It’s fucking Merv,” said Q.
“It’s his fucking blow,” exclaimed the Squid.
“Driver and passenger, slowly stick both hands out the window,” chirped an officer with a megaphone.
When they were both lying face down on the ground, hands cuffed behind their back, Q looked across Julie’s rusty undercarriage at the Squid. The Squid met his gaze.
“I shouldn’t have come,” said the Squid.
“I know. But now we have do the time,” said Q.
“I’m no Mickey Mouse.”
“Then why bring it up.”
Q was already thinking ahead, thinking about how he was going to fix this, but to do that he needed Merv out on the streets. And that meant the Squid had to keep his mouth shut.
“You tell them it’s all me,” said Q.
They lay there on the ground looking at each other underneath the car as they heard the trunk pop open.
An officer whistled, “Well, well, look at this. Somebody got some explaining to do”
“Got it?” asked Q.
The Squid nodded.
After all was said and done, the Squid wiggled out of his precarious situation and ended up only serving two months. Q did a two year stretch in the slammer. And not a day went by he didn’t think about Merv the Perv.
* * *
“I want that one,” said Lilly tugging on her father’s pant leg. She was pointing at the red ball inside the giant gumball like dispenser located near the entrance of the toy store. Meyrick looked at the stack of balls.
“Of course you want the one in the middle,” said Meyrick as he began pulling out the bottom balls and tossing them back into the top of the towering vending machine. Slowly the red ball descended down and finally popped out the opening. It rolled into the waiting arms of the little girl.
“Got it,” she said picking it up. Meyrick smiled large because his daughter was smiling large.
“Okay kiddo, let’s go find your brother. I think he’s in the video game section.”
“Yippee!” exclaimed Lilly.
* * *
The windows were fogged from the steam coming off the cheeseburgers and fries. Two Seconds made a circle with the forearm of his sleeve to look across the rainy street at the bank.
“Maybe he’s late because of the rain?” said Two Seconds.
Q just threw him a look. He took a bite of his burger, chewed it and swallowed.
“It shouldn’t make any difference.”
“Merv’s late,” repeated The Squid. He was sitting behind them on a plastic milk crate in the back of the van sucking on a strawberry milkshake.
“He’ll be coming,” reassured Q.
The three men sat listening to the rain tip-tapping on the roof. A woman walked by the van on the sidewalk wearing a white coat with knee high black boots. She carried a see-through bubble umbrella. Two Seconds looked at her well groomed blonde hair brushed back over her ear, falling down past her shoulders. Her pedigree was money. The whole of the Glebe was money. He watched her expensive ass wiggle as she dashed across the street and disappeared into a health food store. He turned his focus back to the open tinfoil wrapper where his half-eaten burger sat on the dashboard. He looked over at Q who stuffed the remains of his greasy double cheese into his mouth. Two Seconds felt coffee and bile come up into his mouth. He swallowed hard forcing it back down. His palms were sweating under his black racing gloves. He owed Q a solid for helping him out in the joint. And he needed the money. Jazz musicians always needed money.
“There,” announced Q giving a nod of his head toward the pudgy man carrying a brief case. “He’s got about a hundred grand in that thing. Every two weeks he makes his deposit like clockwork. 11:30 a.m. sharp.”
“It’s 11:35,” said the Squid flatly.
“Maybe he was taking a shit,” postulated Q, “Whatever.”
“And who’s that?” asked Two Seconds pointing to the tall man
“That’s the 11:35 train pulling into the station. He is also bringing in his week’s cash. It’s twenty to thirty thousand,” said the Squid.
“How do you know this?” asked Two Seconds.
“I was his head chef for two years,” answered the Squid, “Both these assholes run like clockwork. They come in at the same time every week, well Merv the Perv comes in every two, but yeah, same shit every Thursday at 11:30 a.m. Then those two dirt bags go out for lunch,” said Squid as he sucked his milkshake until it sputtered out, running dry.
“And look at this shit, here comes the sun,” said Q pulling down his rubber Halloween mask over his face.
* * *
“Jack, look, the sun is finally coming out. Why don’t you take Lilly out and kick the ball around?”
Jack was fixated on playing Minecraft and didn’t respond to his mother’s suggestion. Jack knew it wasn’t a suggestion; he was being told. Subtly.
“Jack, did you hear me?”
“Yeah, okay, just a sec.”
“You’ve been on that all morning and the sun is finally coming out. You know Lilly, she loves it when you play with her.”
“I said okay. Okay?”
“Don’t be rude or you’ll be off of that thing for a week, got it?” snapped Evelyn.
“Sorry,” said Jack, “I’m almost done.”
Lilly appeared in the living room holding her new red ball.
“Jack-O, will you play with me?” asked Lilly.
“Yeah, just let me finish this,” said Jack twisting his Xbox controller in the air, rapidly hitting buttons with his thumb.
“When?” asked Lilly.
“When I’m done,” said Jack still twisting the controller in the air and then put it down on the coffee table, “Which is now.”
“Yes!” cried Lilly.
Evelyn smiled at Jack. Jack gave her a wink back.
“Let’s go out front, the backyard is muddy,” said Jack.
“Your dad’s working in the garage,” said Evelyn, “I’ll call you in when lunch is ready.”
* * *
Two Seconds, sweating under his rubber Dracula mask, waited for a pause in the traffic and then pulled a U-ey with the van. He pulled up in front of the bank and threw it into park. He checked his side mirrors while flicking on his hazards. The Squid, dressed as Michael Myers, passed a gun and an empty backpack to Q.
“Ready?” asked Q checking over his gun.
The Squid and Two Seconds both nodded.
“Let’s go,” said Q opening his door.
Two Second listened to the roll of the van’s panel door as the Squid flung it open. Q and the Squid went out their respective doors with backpacks slung on their shoulders, guns in their hands, and rubber masks on their heads. Q slammed his door behind him. The Squid left the panel door open. Two Seconds watched as the Squid held the bank door for Q and then followed him in. Two Seconds’ couldn’t see them after that; the reflection of the glass doors was too much. He could only see the reflection of the van, see his Bela Lugosi reflection staring back. His heart was a monster pounding on the inside of his ribcage. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. He checked his mirrors again. Traffic was moving slowly in both directions. No sirens. No flashing lights. Everything nice and normal.
Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Check the mirrors. Check the bank door.
“Come on, come on, let’s go,” muttered Two Seconds. A couple walked by. They were talking and laughing, drinking take-out coffees. “Keep moving,” said Two Seconds to himself. He noticed a woman was pushing a stroller across the street. A tall man with a closed umbrella walked by. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Like cockroaches at night, everyone comes out after the rain, thought Two Seconds.
The smell of the rubber mask was overwhelming. It was wet with sweat. It ran down his neck, down his back. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Check the mirrors. There! Flashing lights. Then he heard it, the sirens. He didn’t have a lot of options. Wait to get caught or run. Take off on foot and leave them the van was the most logical choice. They would still have a chance if he left them the van. No time now. Cars were moving out of the way. The sirens were blazing. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Two Seconds was about to bail when he realized it was a fucking ambulance. “What are the odds?” Everyone on the sidewalk had slowed or stopped as the ambulance roared by.
Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump.
BANG! A gunshot from inside the bank. Sidewalk people swivelled. The woman across the street crouched over her stroller. Some people froze, others began to run. The door of the bank flew open and the Squid came barrelling out, gun in one hand, backpack clutched in the other. Money was flying out of the bag like confetti spewing from a busted piñata. BANG! BANG! The bank door burst open again and Q came flying out. He was covered in blood. A woman on the street screamed. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Two Seconds checked the mirrors. It was time to go.
He flicked off the hazards, flicked on his indicator, and put it into drive as the Squid jumped into the van. Q, running, lobbed his bag ahead of himself into the van. His body followed coming to a walloping stop as he shoulder checked the interior wall like a linebacker. The Squid rolled the panel door closed as Two Seconds hit the gas as pulled out into traffic. They heard another siren. This one wasn’t an ambulance.
* * *
Lilly threw the ball over her head. She was aiming for Jack-O but the sun was in her eyes and she ended up tossing the ball towards the large cedar hedge in an ungraceful twirl.
“The sun’s too fat, Jack-O,” said Lilly holding her hand over her eyes. Jack liked that she called him ‘Jack-O.’ She learned the term ‘jack o’lantern’ last Halloween when they were carving pumpkins. She had been calling him Jack-O ever since.
“Let’s switch spots,” suggested Jack retrieving the ball, “That way the sun won’t be in your eyes.”
“Okay Jack-O,” said Lilly who walked towards the end of the driveway.
“Carful by the road,” yelled Meyrick over his music from the garage.
“No worries dad,” said Jack as he gently kicked the ball towards Lilly. The ball rolled past her and into the road.
“Wait Lilly,” said Jack, “Look out and make sure there aren’t any cars coming first.”
Meyrick and Jack both watched as Lilly came to the edge of the cedar hedge and stopped. She looked left and right and then cautiously stepped out onto the street to retrieve her red ball. She came back smiling. She placed it on the ground and kicked it towards Jack-O.
Meyrick liked the song that was playing and turned up the volume on his docking station before he went back to fixing his bicycle.
* * *
Two Seconds could still see the ambulance ahead of him. It left a wake of cars pulled to the side which had gotten out of its way. Two Seconds stomped on the gas. A small car in front of him was pulling back into traffic. Two Seconds laid on the horn and swerved around him keeping his foot firmly pressed on the gas.
“Keep going,” said Q who was looking behind him out the back windows at the flashing lights of a police cruiser three blocks away.
“Oh yeah,” said Two Second who knew if he got closer to the ambulance he could surf through traffic right behind it. But then again, so could the cop.
“Is that your blood?” asked the Squid.
“I’m good,” answered Q, “Merv might not be feeling so well though.”
Two Seconds was flying, his horn blaring as he went through a red light and was now less than a block from the ambulance.
“We switching at Lansdowne?” asked the Squid.
“Don’t think that’s going to work now. Plan B, ditch at Grasshopper, cut through the park to the other car,” said Q keeping his eyes on the police car which was closing fast.
They flew over the Bank Street bridge and were now less than fifty metres behind the ambulance. At the next intersection the ambulance went right and Plan B was straight.
“Ambulance or straight?” Two Seconds barked.
Q looked at the Squid and the Squid said, “Stick with B.”
“Straight!” said Q at the last moment.
Two Seconds laid on the horn and blew through another red light. Traffic was light in Ottawa South and they hit all greens moving into Alta Vista. As they crested over the hill past Billings Bridge, Two Seconds knew it was coming two seconds before he caught sight of another cruiser coming towards them.
“Fuck,” said the Squid.
“Take Kilborn,” said Q.
“Exactly where I’m going,” said Two Seconds as he slowed down to take the corner and then accelerated into the turn, the tires squealing. The van roared up Kilborn and was only a minute from Grasshopper Park where they could ditch and make a run to the other car, and then be gone with the money. But Two Seconds could feel it again. A third cruiser was coming towards them along Kilborn. The two cruisers behind them were close..
“Let’s hope we can cut through somebody’s back yard,” said the Squid as Two Seconds turned two blocks before the park.
* * *
Evelyn dipped a spoon into the tomato soup and brought it to her lips as she blew on it. She cautiously sipped it. Perfect. She turned off the stove and went about ladling out bowls for lunch. She flipped the grilled cheese sandwiches one last time to check they were the perfect shade of brown, then flicked off that burner too.
She went to the front window and watched Lilly and Jack. She was proud of him the way he took care of her. And now he would be walking her home from school. Ten might be a little young for a phone, but she wanted him to be able to get a hold of her in case of an emergency. She went back to the kitchen and grabbed the portable and dialed Jack’s new number.
Jack felt his thigh vibrate. At first he didn’t understand what it was, but quickly remembered it was his new phone.
“Hello,” said Jack answering as he gave the ball a hard kick in Lilly’s direction.
“Time to come in for lunch,” said his mom.
“Okay,” said Jack.
“Is that a siren?”
* * *
At the next corner Two Seconds spun the wheel hard to the right and the van’s back end swung out like a ballroom dancer, the back tires skipping across the pavement like a stone in little hops. He took his foot of the gas and counter steered back. He was fishtailing, something they didn’t have time for. He hit the gas again. That’s when he saw it appear from behind the tall cedar hedge two houses up on the right. It bounced once. He hit the brakes. It bounced again. He turned the wheel hard to the left. Q braced gripping the door and the armrest, the Squid held onto the handle on the side of the van. The ball bounced and began to roll. Two Seconds spun the wheel and hit the brakes hard. The van flipped. The little girl chasing after the ball didn’t see it coming.
* * *
It was that moment when the red ball bounced into view which came to define Q’s life. That red ball would haunt his dreams, appearing in fields of tall grass, or disappearing under a wave. It remained of the periphery of his mind, occasionally coming into view. That red ball. That fucking red ball. Always that.
* * *
The red ball sat tucked in a dark corner of the garage for three months until Evelyn noticed it one night when she was taking out the garbage. She stabbed it with the garden shears, cut it into little pieces and threw them into the trash along with the empty mickeys of vodka.
The trash was collected as it was every Monday morning in Evelyn’s neighbourhood. The garbage containing the pieces of the red ball were brought to a landfill where it was all buried deep in the ground.
Christian McPherson is the author of seven books, Saving Her, Cube Squared, My Life in Pictures, The Sun Has Forgotten Where I Live, The Cube People (shortlisted for the 2011 ReLit Awards), Poems that swim from my brain like rats leaving a sinking ship, and Six Ways to Sunday (shortlisted for the 2008 ReLit Awards). He is married to the beautiful Marty Carr. They have two kids, Molly and Henry. They all live together in Ottawa.
I don’t know what the other women thought about it all. There is a lot of big talk, the plans in high pitch with the postures of courage, but eventually the troop’s ability to follow orders cracked, then broke at the early tinges of dawn. Vacillating, the troops are first persuaded, then suddenly they break stride and turn back with words of doubt and lies about prudent action, they are a miserable lot. My sister and I find it unthinkable, intolerable but the sun creeps further into the sky and no battalion leaves the trench to fight the Germans.
‘We’re ready to go, why don’t they ask us?’ her whisper reaches me, but I don’t answer. There is a chain of command. There is so many doubters that women should be here at all that I fear to disturb the order. Soon the men will rally and at that time they will have to accept that we are part of the offensive.
The Colonel, the Company Commanders and a few braver soldiers try to persuade the regiment to go over the top. Their strong words fall into the mud, while the slackers, for that’s all they are, phrased their arguments as if they are only contributing to the decision, as though their fear isn’t rampant.
The morning mist has almost vanished. The artillery fire slackens, the debate continues. The time is now! I want to weep in frustration. Don’t you see it, the time is now, we cannot wait. We will fail if we wait.
Pusillanimous conduct on both flanks and my Battalion is not even included in the discussion, I could barely stand it. I pace back and forth, my features more grim, my readiness and that of my women never more evident, but my blood could boil for all they care. The decision is not mine to make, ours the ‘tender’ battalion is to be kept safe, gentlemen’s honor. And yet it is they that seek their mother’s aprons.
Minutes roll into hours, the order is given for more artillery fire to bombard the enemy, but there is no sign of decision from my fellow officers. These very men that gave their words of honor to attack; now have faint souls that draw back for fear of death.
The day more than half gone and the men have made no decision. Finally about seventy-five officers, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Ivanov, come to me to enter the ranks of my Battalion for a joint advance. The move is made by a true leader, he knows how we feel, he knows we are ready. And from the ranks of the other squads another three hundred intelligent and gallant soldiers follow. We are now a thousand. Each officer is provided with a rifle, our line is formed. It is arranged so that men and women alternate. My sister has fallen into the line, I’ve lost sight of her but I have all my soldiers to command and my sister must take her place as one of them. We are ready to advance. In my heart I believe that shame alone would carry the rest of the soldiers over in our defense. They would not let us perish in No Man’s Land.
Around me the faces are pure and noble and shone with purpose, my women, I am so proud. And I am proud of my sister, so young but so brave. The offensive has to be launched soon, before the front deteriorates to a state of impasse.
Colonel Ivanov telephones his decision. His gamble, some might think and I find doubt in his face so I stand straighter as if that could tell him that he is right to trust us, that we will fight.
As it became apparent that we are ready, those soldiers who have not joined us break into jeers.
“Woman and officers! They are faking. They’ll never go over the top. They don’t even know how to use a rifle.”
“They’ll break and run. Just watch.”
How I want to reply, but I would not, could not make the situation worse. I grit my teeth in fury. They have to follow us, they have to. I believe, and yet they have not proved themselves this day.
The signal is given, and more than a few of us made the sign of the cross as we leapt out of the trenches. For the country and for freedom, we move against the machine gun fire, marching steadily against the hail of bullets.
Every step carries death with it. Every mind has the same thought.
Will they follow?
Every breath, though a fleeting instant, seems an eternity. Already there are fallen soldiers, women and men alike, equal in the hail of bullets, and yet no troops come after us. We look back, every now and then, as their heads stuck out from the trenches, only to pop back down. Are they still wondering if we are in earnest? Do they think it is a ruse? Perhaps they are right, how could a mere thousand men and women attack after a two days’ bombardment on a front of several versts? It is impossible. And yet the ground under my boots says we are doing it.
Our boots, the same as the boots of our male soldiers bog with mud, slip as we step from the greasy soil wet from rains and blood. Our boots carry us, keep us steady, encase our feet and our forward motion. I dare suggest, our boots were as important as our rifles. Without either we are not soldiers at all but mere fodder for the machine of war. But as more of my battalion fell, thoughts of boots and rifles and training are lost to the realization that we are still alone out here, that the troops in the trench have not joined us, that we had not shamed them into the battle. I cannot describe to you how it feels at that moment. The sensation of being lost, the betrayal that made my veins run icy, that being right made no difference, that we could die this very day froze our minds but it doesn’t stop our boots. They keep moving unless a bullet takes one of us down. The fallen seem less dead than we who are upright and moving. Our hearts break but our boots go on.
Dauntless is called for, and dauntless of heart and firm of step, we keep the line unbroken, each of us heartened by the presence of the others. We move into the shadows, further into No Man’s Land, and only the fire of explosions reveal our profiles to those of our boys in the trenches. Finally their hearts must have moved. We hear a great commotion in the rear. At last. They are awake at last, and they bound forwards with shouts, numberless bodies climb over the top and in a few moments the front stretches to our left and right to become a swaying mass of soldiers, our regiment, then more of the Corps until almost everyone is on the move.
We swarm forward and overwhelm the first German line, then the second. Our regiment alone captures two thousand prisoners. But there is poison waiting in the second line of trenches. There lie cases of vodka and beer, and the troops throw themselves at it, not seeing it for the enemy’s trick that it is. My regiment of women fight to destroy it, but the common man is bent on pouring it down their gullet.
“Are you insane?” I plead. “We must take the third line yet, and then the Ninth Corps will come to relieve us and keep up the drive.” Few listen. The precious opportunity pours away, our blow is only a tap and not the beginning of a general offensive.
But the men succumb to the bottle. And there are wounded to care for. Many of my women were killed outright, many were wounded. But they are stoic. I can see now, my sister, lying in a pool of blood. I run to her and seek to aid her, but it is too late. Blood pours from her wounds from bullets and shrapnel while she smiles faintly her last smile.
Just before she dies, she tells me,
“My dear, it’s nothing.”
And perhaps she is right. No one will know of the Woman’s Battalion of Death, the most defining moment of my life will be ignored and forgotten, another page of history too raw to be written fully. Already it feels as though it never happened. But I will remember.
Liz Betz enjoys her retirement pastime of writing short stories. She has been widely published in journals both online and in print. The 'Woman's Battalion of Death' is a fictionalized version of a battle report published in an anthology of women writers of WW1.
The snow spun down in sporadic sprays, and if the wind was howling, making it blow zigzags across the sky then I didn’t know it. I was bundled in my coat with some slow piano nonsense blasting me home, incongruous with the charging train in my head and the way I was seeing the snow. I wanted to turn off all the noise but it was too damn cold. I got distracted by it all and too late noticed it was slippery and I had walked past my place. Less and less cars were passing and more and more trains were chugging between my ears. There was the sound of someone dropping a large pumpkin onto a grand piano and I kept walking, too distracted by the way the snow and the train and the piano in my ears were grating against each other to be jarred by the now crushed-by-a-pumpkin piano. But the sound hit me a couple of blocks later when my slow piano came to a halt, and when I turned around to look for what house it may have come from I slipped and landed in a snow bank. I looked into the white light that poured down on me and thought about how stupid people were who thought they were seeing heaven when clearly any dream state or conk on the head could conjure up such a thing pretty damn quick. I laughed to myself. It wasn’t funny enough for me to laugh out loud because I never did laugh out loud unless other people were around because I didn’t want to seem rude like I didn’t think the things they were saying were funny because I usually did but my laughter hid inside that’s all.
A white van drove up beside me then, the reflection of its white lights on the white snow making my eyes feel hammered inward, and they left the damn lights on while they got out of the car and tried to help me. Your lights I kept saying, your lights, as they grabbed under my arms and got me to my feet but then one of them fell on top of me in the process and by this time I was shouting and he was pretending not to hear me. He got me up again with the help of his sidekick, who he had in fact given a swift kick in the side to on his way down to landing on me, flailing his legs like an upside down can-can dancer. They seemed to know me but I didn’t know them and they turned off their lights for me finally and let me sit inside the car to get warm. They gave me a sandwich and a drink and asked questions that seemed irrelevant like how was my day, how was I doing, was I cold, where did I live, and that sort of nonsense. I laughed to myself at their bumbling madness, their scripted singsong call and answer, making assumptions when I didn’t, couldn’t, answer right away because my head wasn’t where they wanted it to be. Ketchup mustard and mayonnaise, that’s what I was thinking. About drinking a bottle of ketchup, mixing it with mustard and then chasing both with mayonnaise and maybe that should be considered a well-balanced liquid diet. Maybe that should be my best effort at creating the abstract masterpiece of pumpkin falling on white grand piano in my mouth and then more ketchup for the blood on the hands of the little twerp that did it, that ruined another priceless piece of shit, that got whipped like a murderer behind the old barn and fell face first onto shards of glass that had been smashed by her mother when found by her father, cursing and crying as he made her do it, watching over her and making her throw every bottle against the barn and the rain came down loud and sparkly while granny pounded Beethoven on the white grand piano that wasn’t dead yet and I looked out the window and cried.
I looked out the window of the white van and cried but I didn’t even feel like I was in a van until it started moving and I hadn’t asked to go anywhere. I wanted to ask where we were going but the radio was on and I could still feel wet on my cheeks but I didn’t know if I was still crying or if it was snow from outside or wet from my hair from the snow or, and I didn’t really care except that I tried to imagine the wet I felt drowning the train in my head. Like maybe it was just a little mechanical train doing all that damage, ripping up the roads in my brain that were not meant for trains, and that the wet could put a stop to if there was enough and it hit the right wires to short circuit, but how did I know it wouldn’t blow up anything else in the process? The car seat felt like a big black towel so I fought off my clothes and rolled myself around in it to get off all the wet so I wouldn’t blow my head off. The two guys were screaming in the front and I thought they knew so I started screaming too until I knew I wasn’t wet anymore and I put back on my clothes and everyone stopped screaming. I asked to be dropped off and they asked why, and I said because I wanted to leave now because I was dry, but they said it was too cold and I didn’t think they got to decide how cold it was for me. They locked the doors then and got too quiet and I told them to go phone the police on themselves, to call in a 4024 on their own stupid heads. They drove faster and I thought the next thing I was going to see was water under me while we crashed into an ocean or a lake or a pond or a swamp or a bog or a river or a puddle. I wanted no water below me, no last look of black death swallowing me whole like the way that priest said my parents went downdowndown to a watery grave. I wanted soil in my grave, dry, hard, compact, even a little bit sandy kind of soil like from a desert please but not one where there has been oil discovered because you never know when that could spout up out of nowhere and then people will want to set it on fire so no one will die from wanting it so bad.
The van stopped. I called out 911 a bunch of times hoping my voice would find its way to a phone that knew what I wanted. The van started and stopped again and I think it was dead but I hadn’t heard any pumpkins falling on its white roof, but I wasn’t really listening, I was too busy yelling 911 so maybe I missed it, but maybe I did it while I was yelling and I didn’t even know. These snot-fucker guys got out of the car and opened my door and three other snot-fucker guys came down and helped them bring me inside through a white door to some white walls and I thought this place was a new dimension waiting for someone to throw up all over it and make it real. I threw up all over it and made it real and I felt better and they swooped in and fluttered around me like seagulls and I hate seagulls even though I like birds, but seagulls were more like hawks than birds and hawks were not really birds because they were hawks. They gave me some small white circles to eat and I threw them down and told them Any Other Colour! Any Other Colour! so they gave me blue. I put the blue in my ears to stop their seagulling and then there was a stabbing with one of their seagull beaks and I don’t remember anything else except I woke up with all you swine staring at me and asking me dumb shit questions like how did I get here and why did I wake you up, when you’re the ones who woke me up and I remember now what comes next. I remember what happens after the little girl gets whipped like a murderer behind the old barn and falls face first onto shards of glass that had been smashed by her mother when found by her father. She wakes up here. She wakes up here.
The cot creaks like the old rusty door of an abandoned house when I try to get off it, even though it’s shlumpy sunked in the middle and trying to eat me for breakfast. I gotta piss but I don’t know where the can is so I start jumping on the cot asking where is the can but no one is listening, like they don’t even know who the hell I am. I’m like Your Messiah kids! Here to heave you out of this sorry white oblivion – but that last part doesn’t come out. Just as the “I” in Mess”I”ah, the loudest bugle of my proclamation hurtles out, the springs snap, all weak like chicken bones under my feet, and I fall through and my toes touch the ground but all caught in the sheet and I slip and slide back and the cot snaps shut on me like a mouse trap. I feel my warm piss stream down my leg and I don’t even try to hold it in and I don’t mind the weight of the cot on top of me for a while. But then my head starts to hurt like someone’s trying to saw it open and I have to push the cot I’m caught in away, but it’s heavy so I try to wriggle out instead and I wonder if this is what being born feels like but I don’t remember my birth except maybe I do and that is why I wonder because inside somewhere I know. I free one arm and reach up and feel no more hair just metal lines on my head like a row of ants colonizing my skull. When I look at my hand it’s all red like they bit me but it doesn’t look like blood so I lick my fingers and it is blood. Then I hear sawing sounds and I start pushing you swine around trying to find the saw, find out who’s trying to saw my head open, and I see two giants that are dressed like the snot-fuckers and they’re strong and grab my arms and tie them behind my back while the blood from my head drips into my eyes and down my face and it feels like I’m crying again but I’m not. They cover my face with a white cloth like I’m dead but I can still say Any Other Colour! Any Other Colour! but this time they don’t give me blue. They wipe my face with the white cloth to make it red then they put it on my head like to replace my hair. I start to wonder what they did with my hair and if it’s going to come back to me once these ants get the fuck out of my skull. I hope my hair is all together like in a big happy clump all fluffy like and not scattered about willy-nilly. It would be cruel to separate them after the trauma of being expelled from their home.
I start to feel very sleepy so I let the snot-fucker-giants do whatever they want with me, which is putting me on a rolling bed and hurling me down a hallway. If I was allowed to do whatever I wanted with someone I would put them on a rolling bed and hurl them down a hallway too so I don’t blame them but I’m too sleepy for human bowling ball to be fun, it just makes me feel like throwing up again against more whirring white walls and I brace myself for when I’m going to knock down all the bowling pins, and then the sawing sound comes back again but I think I’m dreaming now because things aren’t white anymore.
I know when I’m awake again because there’s white. My head feels like a balloon and I wonder if the ants are having a birthday party in it. My eyes are open but I don’t feel like I have a body anymore except I can see some of it so I know it’s there. I try to feel around and see if my head is a balloon, if the ants have expanded their empire and there are kingdoms in my chest, but my arms are stuck and I get tired trying to lift them. The white goes away for a while. But the sawing. I need to tell someone to get it to stop but my mouth won’t open and they’re all snot-fuckers anyway and I don’t want to give them any clues as to where I am in case they have the saw.
So I board the train in my brain that the ants have invaded and the saw is chasing down, chugga grate, chugga grate, chugga chugga grate grate. I don’t want a train, I want a teleport so I don’t have to see anything I don’t recognize along the way. No trains that snatch little girls off farms when everything is dead and they only hear echoes of words from before that make them think there are still people but the train says no. The train takes them away where other people pretend to be their parents but give them pats on the back that rattle their lungs and split their spine in two so now they’re cracked, all cracked up. There were train tracks around the whole world and I just kept circling it up and down and seeing everything different and the same and being quiet and loud and the rumble made my heart hurt and my head pound and the heaving wail of the whistle was the same sound I made when granny turned grey and stopped making the noise herself. All the time I made that noise, her noise, until the slap that swept me out the door after my mothers nails gripped the back of my neck because we were all sad and not just me and I wasn’t being fair. The train went too fast and I knew we would crash into the barn even though I didn’t know where I was.
I open my eyes to white again and all the snot-fuckers have turned into pretty ladies, trying to trick me into letting them saw me open so they can steal everything. But their eyes are the same so I can tell what’s what. They have nicer voices and gentler hands but they ask me about my head right away, like I’ve given them permission to dig right into it, but then two of them stand over me and talk about staples instead of stitches and they are doing their best and I am going to be fine but of course they would say that if they’re the ones getting away with sawing me open. I want to get up so bad but they won’t let me. I need to stop falling asleep so I can get the straps off my hands and run away from the sawing but I can’t feel the train in my brain anymore and I wonder if they’ve already stolen it.
There is an Indian woman in the bed next to me whose face I can’t see. She spouts You Can Do It, You Can Do It like a broken record, except with her accent it sounds like You, Conduit, and then, Yukon-twit. And the white of the Yukon is back, all around me in this place, and I wait for the polar bears here, the glaciers, icebergs, criminal cold. Where the train that snatched little girls off farms ended up, where pretend parents waited with heavy coats for heavy hurts, where the train stopped and everything else began. I saw polar bears everywhere but shot into nothing, the cold white nothing of nothing. The Yukon keeps me up at night.
They must’ve conked me on the head again because I wake up to a different white with different ladies and I don’t care that I can’t move my arms or legs. I can feel my head isn’t a balloon anymore and the train is back but going slower now, away from the polar bear fear. A sad looking lady comes over and says some things about medication and calming me down and she looks so sad about it all that I smile and try to say it’s all going to be okay so she’ll feel better. I even try to laugh out loud but I only make the quacks of a drowning duck. I feel slobber dribble down my chin and I try to wipe it in my shoulder like I’m some handicapped imbecile not that handicapped people are imbeciles but I am both handicapped and an imbecile in this moment of drooly blubbering. I don’t want the lady to get more sad because of how I’m not able to wipe my own mouth, so I try to slurp it up with my tongue instead but then the residual wetness feels cold and ticklish on my skin and makes me itchy so I’m back to rubbing my face against my shoulder in no time, which makes the lady’s brow crease like an accordion. I think she might cry but instead she undoes my arms and legs and I am free. I want to scratch my face and jump up and down and throw my arms around her and shake her like a can of paint except I’ve gotten heavy. They must have filled me with polar bear heads so I couldn’t go anywhere. I try to go anywhere anyway and don’t do so good. I forget how to walk for a while and think they’ve ripped my legs off and put rubber hoses there instead. And all of a sudden I remember the sawing and it takes me three and a half days to get my hand to my head and feel that the ants are gone, but there are grooves where they dug in and burrowed through to my skull. I have some tiny hairs back but nothing like before.
I lie down on the cold floor and try to scratch through the tile to get to the ants. I don’t know if I should thank them for leaving or give them a stern talking to for coming in the first place. But I want to see them. I want to see them and tell them I know what they did.
The lady says, “Son, is the manager here? Someone I can talk to?”
Robbie sighs, goes to the back, makes a show of it, yells “Dammit, Carl!” and returns resigned, poised.
“There are absolutely no peonies for you. Not one. The manager said so.”
“Well can you order some?”
She was in once before, ‘just browsing.’
“They are out of season. They’ll be very expensive.”
“Fine,” she says, “I’ll take two.”
“Flowers,” she snaps, her voice nasal and gritty.
“Two flowers?” He has a wedding to prep.
“A pink and a red one.”
“You want me to order two single flowers for you?”
“The customer is always right.” She has a displeased mouth, a beakish nose. She has a birdlike quality he can’t quite name.
“You’re right.” He smiles perhaps too widely.
“I don’t like to be sassed, son. I’d like to speak to whoever’s in charge here.”
“I’m the owner,” he says. She squints at him, head tilted. A cockatoo, he thinks, that’s it.
“You’re a child.”
“I am not.”
“You can’t be more than seventeen.”
“Well, I am. I’m twenty-six. I own this store. It’s called Robbie’s Flowers. I am Robbie.” He pauses, then, “I am not going to order two single peonies, of two different colors, no less, because it is the middle of December, I don’t like you, and I don’t want to.”
She is stunned. Her eyebrows stand haughtily, like sharp painted feathers.
“Well! You can expect a very unhappy review from me on the Yelp, young man!” She is positively molting. She flutters off, a trail of rage behind her. Robbie smiles, then returns to the back to unpack the rest of the peonies.
He has a rule, you see, a purpose. He sells for the deserving. For a reason: to spread beauty. There is such a thirst for beauty in the world. He will not sell flowers to prissy cockatoo bitches. He will not sell to men who want to pay in cash and leave their work numbers, or worse, ask to have the flowers delivered to a hotel room. Flowers must be a pure gesture. A comfort. An offering. A declaration. Flowers are a privilege. They are very powerful, each with their own meaning. He likes to send messages with them, almost enjoying the fact that the recipients are ignorant of them.
Most importantly, Robbie doesn’t sell flowers to that guy, the one with the plastic glasses, and plaid shirts and the Blundstones. He does not sell flowers to this man and this man does not buy flowers from Robbie. He buys them at the fruit market across the street, where hornets buzz over melting raspberries and sweaty mangoes. These are the vermin who deign to pollenate the daisies, dyed hot pink, or on rare occasion some half decent cut tulips. He buys this garbage, lingers, sniffs the mangoes, decides that yes, this crappy bouquet of mixed chrysanthemums is the perfect way to express his lust, pays, then turns, faces Robbie’s window, smiles, waves, raises his flowers in triumph, and walks around the corner to the little white house. He doesn’t know chrysanthemums mean friendship.
This is who Moira is fucking.
Moira hates chrysanthemums, anything dyed. Anything that smells like grass, not flowers. She is very specific about her flower smells. She used to be, anyways. Perhaps her palate has become less discerning overall. Robbie knows what she likes. He used to make her gorgeous, delicate floral confections – white crepe roses (innocence), sprigs of honeysuckle (happiness), blue hyacinth (constancy), a single languid calla lily (beauty). A bunch of purple lilacs (first love). Each tied with a twine bow, a tiny scroll attached, tiny poems scribbled onto floral wrapping paper –
Your mouth watches me and under its gaze I am melting…
These tapered off. It happens.
“We’ve grown apart,” Moira said on the phone to her sister, three months ago. He was coming up the stairs, lightly, as he did, and paused. She hadn’t locked the door, and it had crept open.
“We want different things,” she said but Robbie knew it was really because she wanted an idiot in Blundstones to play out all of her lumberjack fantasies.
“He’s so sweet, Jenny, you know that. But – and I know I’m such a bitch for saying this – Robbie…he’s just… weak.” He’d flinched as he heard his name.
“Like, not just emotionally. Like, physically. I need a man to throw me down.” Oh she’d been thrown down. “Like, physically, I just feel… big. I feel like I will break him. Our hands are the same size.” His breath, oddly, had slowed to almost nothing. “I swear I love him. If I ever loved him.” Jesus. “I just – it was never a forever thing. And I just really need to work on me, you know. Work on being alone.” A pause, then, giggling, a hushed “Yes, I totally did.” Pause. “So hot. SO HOT. I’m so bad, right? It was like doing Wolverine, like, before he got scary.” He let himself slump onto the landing floor and sat there for a while, thinking hard. He waited for “Jenny, I’ve got to go!” then stood up, and pushed the door open.
“Hey babe.” She smiled, all innocence, all sweetness.
He said nothing, just crossed the room until he stood in front of her on the sofa. He took off her glasses as she looked up at him, smiling, surprised as he dropped to his knees, slid his hands roughly up her skirt and pulled off her underwear.
“Well hello there.” Her voice was low, coy. He flipped her around, This is for saying I’m just a florist and this is for all the rent you owe me and this and this and this is for that awful ‘If’. This, because you loved me and you know it. He imagined her gasps, ‘Yes’, as apology. After, when his rage had melted some, when she was spent and smiling in his arms he removed himself.
“That… you…” She reached for him, pulled him towards her. He stepped back, picked up her skirt from the floor and wiped himself. She opened her mouth in protest and he cut her off -
“I really need to work on being alone now. You need to move out.” He walked away to shower.
He remembers Moira sleeping, curled fetal, her back to the outside of the bed, trusting the safety of the room. Towards the end she opened, bloomed across the whole bed, limbs like vines easing him out of her way. She used to love his softness. He used to hold her face in his hands and this was her favorite thing, she felt so safe like this. His fingers used to creep around the curve of her naked hip, inquisitive and spidery. He used to sit on the edge of the tub, playing Bright Eyes on his guitar while she bathed. Now she needed a goddamned lumberjack.
The cockatoo is standing in the doorway. Yellow silk scarf fluttering around her throat, comically, feathers flared as if she knows how much he has dreaded her. She marches in tight quick steps.
“I’ve been to every flower store on the Danforth.”
“All of them. Eight of them.”
“There are ten.”
“I stopped at Woodbine.”
“Well there you go.”
“I have been to eight flower shops and they have all had peonies in stock. In a variety of colors.”
“How lucky for you.”
“I know you have them.”
“Well indeed, Mister!”
“Have is a subjective term.”
“Are there peonies for sale in this establishment?”
“Not for you.”
“Do you care about your business at all?” “I’m covered, thanks.” “Covered?”
“I have an exclusive contract with some pretty big wedding studios, so I’m pretty set. Walk-in demands are just not a priority.”
“I made a review for you on the –”
“Oh, I saw. You comma-splice a lot.”
“I just. Want. Flowers.” She takes a deep breath. “Please.”
“There’s nine other places.”
“I want them here. I want you to sell them to me. I want what I want.” For a moment she falters, exhausted. Her feathers fall. “I just need two. A pink and a red.”
It is in this moment that Moira’s conquest walks in, all eight feet of him. He smiles pleasantly when Robbie catches his eye, and stands behind the lady patiently.
Robbie pauses. He glances back at the lady and again at the dude, who is now picking up the miniature potted ferns that Robbie split just yesterday, scrap metal pots of different sizes, hammered by hand into intricate Aztec designs. He is checking their prices, each one, and setting them back down haphazardly. He is screwing with Robbie’s specific arrangement.
“Those aren’t for sale,” Robbie calls out, and the dude looks up, examines the one in his hand very closely, then matches Robbie’s gaze and sets it down, out of order.
“Says $14.99,” he says.
“It’s a mistake.” Robbie holds up a hand to the woman. “Hold on.” He crosses the room and grabs the pots, his arms full and his face full of ferns. One slips from his grip, and the dude reaches for it before it is lost. He settles it back on the crook of Robbie’s arm, and steps back.
“Don’t help me.” Robbie drops the pots on the back counter and begins peeling the price tags off.
“Hello! My flowers!” chirps the cockatoo. Robbie looks back to the woman, who blinks, says nothing, but stands still, watching him.
Robbie turns and makes for the back room, where he quickly pulls out a pink peony and a red one, lays them on an elaborate bed of greenery and baby’s breath. He adds a glittery twig, six layers of gauzy white tissue and a layer of paper thin burlap, tied it up in the polka dot cellophane with a flourish of pink velvet ribbon. He quickly hands it to the lady who looks at him, wide eyes now full of tears. “Oh,” she says softly. “These are very fine.” She reaches for her purse. He remembers now - compassion.
“No,” he says “They are a gift. Now go away.”
She nods blankly, turns to leave and then back to him, saying gently, “My sister loved your shop.” Robbie nods awkwardly, ashamed, gestures for the door, and rather suddenly, it feels, he is alone with this intruder.
“Hello,” says the dude.
“Why are you here?” Something about that last flourish has strengthened him.
“I know who you are.”
“Ok,” The dude smiles so easily it’s unnerving. “So you know what I want.”
“I do not.”
“I need one of those… things. The things you make.”
“The thing with the lavender and the poppy and whatever.” Robbie stares at him. “For Moira.”
“Wow.” Robbie’s laugh comes hard and fast, like a sneeze. “You’ve got some balls.” He stares at him.
“What’s your name, man?”
“That’s a dumb name.”
“Yeah, well… I know.” He looks at Robbie. “She doesn’t like the ones I get.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I mean, most chicks are happy to get flowers, right?”
“Not ugly ones.”
“Well, whatever. She says my flowers smell like grass. So, I mean, you sell that stuff she likes, right?”
“You don’t sell flowers?”
“What I made… those were… specific…”
“But you can make one.”
“Not for you.”
“You’ll need to get used to me, Robbie.”
“I’m gonna be around.”
“There are nine other flower shops on the Danforth.”
“She likes the ones here.”
“That’s her problem.” (Moira’s lemongrass bath oil, slippery, sweet footprints leading to the bed.)
“Go away.” It is getting dark out. Robbie turns back to the pots on the counter, lines them up neatly.
“It’s a fucking flower shop, man, sell me some flowers.”
(Moira tenderly removing the twine, silently breathing it all in deeply, Moira taking each vase down from the shelf, every time, to find the perfect one.)
(Moira curled fetal again on her side of the bed, weeping, trembling, and finally, sitting up slowly and emptying her drawers into garbage bags.) He feels heavy and done.
“Why.” He asks quietly. “Why should I do this?”
“I want to make her happy.” On closer inspection, Robbie sees the razor burn on Ridge’s neck, badly hidden with a band-aid.
(Moira squealing in the bathtub, clapping as he strums from the doorway, laughing when she knocks over her wine, licking it as it runs down her arms.)
He turns and moves to the back. He lays out a sheet of thin blue paper, handmade with flecks of silver. He looks around, thinking, pulls out some hydrangea (heartlessness). He adds in geranium (folly), the sharp scent stinging up at him, marigold (grief), an obnoxious yellow lily (hatred). Why not. He weaves her a message; all of his hurt, his blame, all the love he has left. (Moira blinking sleepily at him from her pillow, her gold eyes lit up with sunlight.) He pulls some strands of cyclamen from a pot and winds them around the other stems, wrapping them as firmly as he means it. Farewell. He seals it well, plugs the long stems in water tubes. It looks garish, disjointed. He wants to get it all out. He will only do this once. He wants this to hurt her. He wants it to last.
He returns to the front. Ridge looks up, anxiously, it seems. Robbie hands over the flowers, and a small card.
“This is a one time thing. There’s a woman down the street who does really nice arrangements. Here’s her number.”
“Thanks, man.” Ridge looks surprised. He slips the card into his back pocket.
“Please don’t come here again.” Robbie reaches out to move a wayward bit of grass in the bouquet, then changes his mind. “It’s not cool.”
“Ok.” Ridge reaches for his wallet. “What do I owe you?”
“No way,” he says, “I’m not taking anything from you.”
“Just deliver the message.” Robbie looks hard at him.
“Uh. Well,” Ridge pauses, confused. “Look, man. I’m sorry. It just happened.”
“I’m over it.” Robbie swallows hard. “I’m closing now.”
“Ok. Thank you.” Ridge turns to leave, stops, and says quietly “I’m not a bad guy, you know.” He looks at Robbie, shrugs, and leaves, the bell ringing softly behind him.
Robbie follows quickly behind, locks the door and flips the door sign to Closed. He returns to the counter and picks up his price gun, quickly stamps the metal pots and carries them back to their table and arranges them carefully before turning off the lights.
Lara Stokes is the nerd behind ‘Across the Bar’, a blog of love letters to dead writers (acrossthebarletters.com). Her plays have appeared in the Toronto Fringe Festival and Paprika Festival, with a new play presently in development with The Steady State Theatre Project. She has been published in The Ottawa Arts Review, BlueTyger Magazine, and Burnt Toast: Newsletter of the Writer's Union of Canada. Lara writes and teaches in Toronto, but she is a small town Northern Ontario gal at heart.