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.
Angel’s head was bowed on his way to the gate, eyes to sandals which loosely strapped his burning feet. He got to the guardhouse, pitched them into his backpack and laced up a pair of black dress shoes. He rubbed his seared neck where the sun had fixed itself.
Alma had called him Angel since the first day they’d met. She loved his skin. It was darker than hers. She was raised southeast of the Gulf, southeast of In God We Trust, and the Seminole woman (who replaced the Western Plains woman) framed in the midst of the Great Red Saltire to eternally watch a distant boat, southeast of the Northern Mockingbird.
He stamped at the tiny geckos which flicked themselves through the fronds and hot shade. The new hire, just off his nightshift, passed Angel the radio, utility-belt, and keychain – security-guard accoutrements for the Buttercup Private Residences. Angel was surprised not to have been stuck on nights. Doug, the new guy, seemed more welcome at Buttercup, with his sandy hair, blue eyes, and good old boy drawl.
Angel was born in the U.K., and came to the U.S. as a small child. The birth certificate said, Anthony Kirkwood, birthplace: Alexandria, GBR. No clear memory of a childhood in that country.
He was orphaned young, and taken in by his ‘Aunt Jean’, a wealthy art dealer, a widow, an acquaintance of his late mother. She called him Anthony the Great and raised him with the rest of her children. He completely shed his accent by the age of thirteen in an attempt to blend in and disappear. He practiced the transition in numbers.
Therty, therty-woan, therty-too, became thirdy, thirdy-one, thirdy-two.
His hair was thick and black. The dark orange skin made him feel like year-round Halloween. They all assumed he was Mexican. When he was a teenager his upper lip developed a blemish that dried and cracked. He grew a moustache to cover the rash. It came in thick and black, like a cartoonish stereotype.
One night patrol-car headlights followed him home.
Where do you live?
Angel pointed down the street to the bungalow he shared with Alma.
What’s the house number?
There was no house number.
The cop got out of the car, slammed the door, ambled to Angel, clenching his belt. You getting wise with me? I asked you where you live Gonzales! You been drinking? The home was an older building, on an older street. A numberless row - the way the neighborhood was arranged back then. He was ordered to sit a spell in the back seat. After radioing, the officer let Angel out of the car and told him to get home. When you’re out this late stumbling down the street, folk get suspicious.
Aunt Jean settled the family near The Causeway on the mainland side across from Mirabel Island. The weather never agreed with her. Always too hot, with skin too fair, that burned so quickly. But it was a better alternative than the Scottish dampness and flailing economy that convinced her to leave the U.K. in the first place.
He had a vague memory of Fort Myers Airport in the early seventies, the dusky warm smell invading the climate-controlled terminal. Aunt Jean, struggling to keep her eyes on four kids, her youngest daughter, crawling on the arrivals floor behind them all – the frantic mother hauling large suitcases, screaming for a porter.
She died when he was fifteen. The small estate was granted to the boy and two girls she gave birth to. He never questioned the division of possessions and any hurt from the decision was long forgotten and buried. The small packet she saved for him seemed generous - enough to make ends meet for a time. He would quit school and spend months searching for work in the Sunshine State. He decided on Maribel.
The days in Buttercup’s shaded guardhouse were uneventful, aside from being asked gardening advice or called on to help someone move furniture. Management was strict. He was prohibited from leaving his seat, even when Miss Conway’s staircase-assist broke down and she needed to feed her parrot on the fourth floor. No matter how much he smiled or put effort into being pleasant, he sensed their resentment whenever he offered to dial maintenance. He was to monitor the gate - who came in, who left – and write down the plate numbers.
Alma was at the end of her ninth month. On her last work day, she prepared to leave Mirabel Chiro Clinic in the hands of a temp receptionist. There were two gift bags stuffed with baby clothes, cards, and infant toys. She was touched by the gesture but dreaded the thought of getting them home to their bungalow, where the air-conditioner was broken, where she would sit by the television, finally off her feet, sweat piercing her eyes. There were no buses on Mirabel, and taxis were mythical. She took the shaded paths, careful footed, carrying the extra living weight, bags swinging, banging about and chafing her thighs, berated every minute or so by tourist’s bicycle bells, or their shrill voices. This is a bike path! On your left!
Tourism on Mirabel was rampant all months now, not just winters, when travellers arrived from the north. With the spike in vacationers came the hike in traffic.
A few hours after the Buttercup shift finished, Angel would walk the twenty minutes to his next job - traffic conducting in front of Billy’s Shopping Pavilion. It was the most congested intersection on the island. Everyone flocked to Billy’s - small restaurants, souvenir shops, and an overpriced grocery store. Out front in massive black iron cages were ten tropical birds with names like Mr. Handsome, and Wild-Rose.
He’d hit the Spoonbill in the evening if Alma didn’t mind. A few beers and a small meal. He never chatted with the bar staff. But they always had a joke for the regulars. The later it was, the dirtier, and not very funny. You heard about the guy who couldn’t find his moral compass? He got lost following his dick around the world.
At least once a week, some tourist at the bar would ask about his ‘Mexican heritage’. Angel would smile politely, shake his head, then avert his gaze to end the discussion. Always a disappointment in their eyes, a tight smile to hide their embarrassment. Angel knew tourists, disoriented and out of their element. The last thing they wanted was to be corrected, especially if they were wrong, and drunk. Friday evening, two men from Atlanta came in, sunburned voices drawled out from drinking in the heat, the bodies of lapsed athletes.
Hey buddy. You like Corona, right? I heard it’s recycled toilet water, an’ the limes ain’t for flavour, they’re like the disinfectant, right?
Angel’s eyes were heavy from the fourth beer and late hour. But he couldn’t avoid it.
Something split inside him. Eyes wide, he leaned forward and smoothed over his moustache.
“Don’ know, senior. I theenk you meebee right about tha’ Corona, senior.”
“What the hell you doin’ in Florida, Pedro?” asked the other.
“Landscaping senior, gardening. Paying for my Madre. She ees seeck.”
“Shoot. Sorry to hear it pal.”
“Say, you like the tequila, Pedro? What’s the best kind, in Florida?”
Angel stared at them for a time, searching his memory. A few Spanish words he’d learned from Alma. He clenched his teeth.
“Mierda-Orina ees baist of all.”
“Is that there the one with the worm?”
Angel downed his beer and started for the door, “I don’t fucking know, okay guys, I’m not Mexican. Fuck off.” He headed into the night beneath the palms, shaded from the streetlamps, down the steps to the sidewalk, but not before they pounded his face in.
Alma pressed the frozen packet of corn onto his face. His left cheek black-purple, his right eye bloodshot, puffed up. What kind of a father gets into a fight – is this what the baby has to look forward to?
Monday afternoon Angel limped home from the Buttercup shift, his body still sore from the beating.
His cell vibrated.
It was Management.
Tony, I’m sorry to tell you this. But your services will no longer be required. Severance will be in the mail. Look, Buttercup has a standard. When security staff arrive with their face beaten to a pulp, the residents become uncomfortable. Can’t really blame them. Buttercup’s private for a reason and those folks have the right to feel safe and comfortable. Again, sorry Tony.
It was two hours before his traffic shift in front of Billy’s. The sun blazed in the cloudless sky. His hat was lost in the scrap with those white-trash bastards. He wouldn’t last the shift without it. Conductors could barely manage wearing the hot gloves, coarse vest, and standard issue vinyl Tilly hat. Why did it have to be black? Most suffered heat stroke in their first week.
Alma was close. She reminded him again and again. The third reminder that day sounded like radio, or a train in the night. When was the last time he ever heard a train? Maybe it was best not to mention the Buttercup thing until after his traffic shift. He asked if there was a hat around.
All he could find was the oversized carnival straw thing that decorated the living room wall. Hanging beside it were a bunch of tchotchkes. Castoffs from the siblings - Aunt Jean’s faux antiques; an ibis relief, a painting of a Coptic saint, a crook - like a question mark – and flail, brass or gold-plated with embedded bands of imitation lapis-lazuli – at least he thought it was imitation. He wasn’t sure of their worth except that Alma loved them.
They had a small dinner. He watched her, how pretty she looked, and so tiny despite it all. She bobbed along the kitchen, like a child about to drop a big fishbowl. There was a little fish in there too, swimming about, maybe not so little. He wondered if it would have dark orange skin, or the caramel softness of Alma. The baby would only know one set of grandparents, if they had the means to visit. But this child would have an identity, and a heritage, of palms and sunshine, heat, and the comfort of so many blue skies.
You’re going to be late, Angel!
His eyes shot to the clock. He’d have to run. He’d planned to pick up a hat at Billy’s but now there was no time. He threw on the vest, snatched the gloves, and grabbed the carnival hat. You’re really going to wear that?
He scrambled out the door and ran the whole way. Twice he stopped to pick up the flopping hat from the sidewalk and sucked the searing air into his lungs.
The conductor rolled his eyes when Angel approached.
Traffic. Jammed in four directions.
You’re ten minutes late! If it happens again I’m going to report this, Tony. Nice hat.
Angel was handed the burning hot radio and hooked it to his vest. He found his position and instantly choreographed the automobiles, blinding orange gloves in front of his face. Stop. Alright come, keep coming. You there, hold up. Okay on you go. The words muttered under his breath as though his hand signals were inadequate. Sweat stung as it trickled into his bruised eye.
Never seen the like, Tony. No idea what’s up. Have a good shift. Nice shiner. Nice hat.
The conductor disappeared.
A few minutes later the radio squawked. We got a 10-25 on The Mirabel Causeway. Someone’s RV up in flames…..10-25! 10-25! Keep East-West running, North-South can hold up for a spell! Keep East-West flowing as priority. We’ll update as it goes.
Then a different tone.
He always knew without looking. No one else called him. Why did she have to program the personal ringtone into his cell? He could hear it now, vibrating music in his pocket. She knew better when he was conducting! What the hell? He could see the traffic handbook in his mind. Under no circumstance should an employee accept a personal call while on duty. All work-based communication must be done through radio. Channels should be kept as clear as possible.
A horn interrupted Angel’s thoughts. His left gloved hand thrust flat in front of the honking car.
Of course, you idiot. He pulled off a glove, dropped it to the pavement and grabbed the cell. Alma, I’m calling an ambulance, I’m going to radio it in.
The road by the small medical station was bottlenecked. Nothing was going to get through from the mainland either. The RV fire stopped all automotive life. Angel shut down. He breathed in. Out. Held his finger up in the air. WAIT! North, South, East, West. WAIT! Drivers fired back with expletives and misdirected slurs. But none of it phased him.
The horns and shouts had become warm, musical, dream-like. Something was about to happen, some sensation moved him to lose all concentration. Maybe it was the massive front of smoke in the air, moving towards him. Then the dime-sized droplet hit his glove. A wind nudged at the wide brim of his hat.
They were storm clouds. He hadn’t seen them in months. The wetness fell to the burning asphalt and the scent filled his nostrils. He was pulled far back. A downpour while he shopped with Aunt Jean, under a train bridge, in the dark grey city. He was getting soaked but they were laughing. She hailed a black car, a taxi, with backseats facing one another. An adventure. She had a brown bag of sweets. They each had a handful and smiled, as though someone would disapprove once they were found out, it was their secret. Cool, constant damp. Rain. Gentle and predictable, like the days of the week, but welcome. She hugged him, kissed his cheek, tears in her eyes, you’re from a lineage of kings, Anthony, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Then home to his brother and sisters in the garden as the rain let up. A cup of tea to warm him, a towel for his wet hair, under a grey sky that he could watch without sun, where blue just peaked through, to leave him wanting, and waiting for the next break in the clouds.
He couldn’t remember the house, only the children in the backyard. They said they saw the gypsy caravans go by earlier. Sometimes they came looking for old cutlery, rags, clothes. Aunt Jean would tell stories of them travelling in their wagons. Good people. I always dreamt of running away with them, Anthony! He turned to watch his siblings, playing some feet away, their smiling teeth laughing. And he thought of the numberless row, the neighbours, from a different time than the rest of the island, and disappearing with age. They would bring a basin of water. Blankets, hand-towels, face-towels. You’ll be fine, dear. Dampening the caramel softness of her brow. Ushering away the men and their incompetence. Then ritual, a small congregation of care. Wildness under palms, the miracle happens, and then everything moves again.
James Maxwell is a writer, singer-songwriter, and a post-production artist for film and television. He resides in Toronto with his wife and two children.
The morning announced itself urgently. Brooke rolled over in bed, swatted at the alarm clock then stretched her limbs under the covers. She blinked, acclimatizing herself to the foggy transition between dream and reality. Pushing the covers down she swung her legs over the side of the bed and walked towards the dresser. Pulling on her gym clothes she walked to the fridge, the light spilled out into her dark condo along with a puff of cool air. She grabbed a bottle of chilled water and headed down to her building’s second floor gym.
The rhythm of her shoes making contact with the treadmill matched the tempo of the music leaking into her ears from headphones. After forty five minutes she was back in her apartment, standing under the warm stream of her shower. Brooke dried her body, dried her hair, applied moisturizer and makeup, then slipped into heels and a teal shift dress.
Shrugging herself into a jacket she shot a glance at the time; 8:15am. Grabbing her purse she locked the door behind her and walked out into the street. All around her people were trickling out from buildings, being pulled by the clock towards their destinations. Brooke walked a block then waited in line at her neighbourhood coffee shop, an old brick house that had been gutted and transformed.
“What can I get you this morning?” asked the woman behind the cash register.
“Medium almond milk latte, please,” Brooke replied without hesitation. She handed over cash, their interaction complete she then stood off to the side to wait. Her drink was eventually placed on the counter, delicate swirls of foam topping a rich brown coffee. Brooke snapped on a cap then took a sip, letting the warm bitter liquid roll over her tongue. She pushed out through the door back onto the street as a man in a suit edged past her into the café.
Brooke crossed at the intersection; there was a screech of tires as a car stopped short inches from where she was standing. Gasping she dropped her coffee, the liquid splashed up hot against her leg and pooled at her feet. “Watch where you’re going!” Brooke shouted, her heart in her throat, and she darted to the safety of the other side. She wiped at her leg, her light shoes were stained. She has a spare pair at the office she could change into. Looking back across the street she contemplated another coffee, but there was no time.
Turning the block she saw the building, tall and metallic, gleaming in the early sunlight. Walking through the revolving door she just made it as the doors of a waiting elevator started to close. “Hold the elevator please!” she cried out, rushing forwards and getting inside. She pressed the eleventh floor and when it illuminated she stood back. An older man headed to the eighteenth floor was the only other occupant. They stood in silence as the box begins its ascension.
With a shudder the elevator stopped at the seventh floor, the doors firmly shut. Brooke glanced at the man nervously, then began to press one button then another. Nothing happened.
“Come on, come on not today,” Brooke pleaded under her breath pressing the emergency intercom. “Hello? Hello is anyone there? I’m stuck in the elevator.”
“I don’t think that’s working,” the man said to her.
“Excuse me?” asked Brooke, her finger on the door open button.
“The door controls. I don’t think they’re working,” he added patiently. Brooke looked at her finger then dropped her hand to her side.
Static crackled from the intercom. “Just hang on Miss, help is on the way.”
Visibly relaxing, Brooke breathed a sigh of relief. She stood in the corner, drumming her fingers on the wood paneling until the older man broke the silence.
“My name is Jonathan,” he told her.
“Brooke,” she said, offering her name with a small smile. “Do you work in the building?”
“No, I’m here for an important meeting,” he said, his voice steady betraying no indication of alarm.
“I have an important meeting this morning too. I hope they get us out of here soon.”
After ten minutes, Brooke and Jonathan found themselves seated on opposite sides of the elevator floor. Brooke was staring at the door like a trapped animal unacquainted with the concept of captivity.
“We’re both going to be late,” she said sullenly.
“These things happen from time to time,” Jonathan assured her. A short laugh pushed past Brooke’s lips.
“You get trapped in a lot of elevators Jonathan?”
“Being held up, being unable to get to where you’re going. It happens to all of us from time to time. There’s nothing you can do but wait,” Jonathan clarified.
Brooke sighed, his meditative patience grated on her. She was ambitious and proactive, years of hard work had led her to this day and this meeting; her promotion. Now she was going to be late. It wasn’t something she could easily shrug off.
“What do you do?” asked Brooke making small talk. The silence pressed in around her like the walls and she felt an urgent need to break it.
“When I’m not trapped in elevators I’m a Consultant. I help evaluate plans, develop strategies and plan next steps on a variety of projects. How about you Brooke?”
“I work for a Marketing firm; I manage campaigns for large consumer brands.”
“That sounds very impressive,” Jonathan replied, there wasn’t an ounce of condescension in his voice. “Do you enjoy it?”
“I’m very good at what I do,” said Brooke proudly.
“That isn’t what I asked,” Jonathan said. Brooke was taken aback, shocked by his unspoken insinuation.
“Of course I like what I do.” She leaned forward and began pressing the intercom again. “Hello? Hello we’re still trapped in here. Are you getting us out?”
Static crackled and someone on the other end mumbled. “What a mess”.
“Hello? Can you hear me? Are you getting us out? I want to get out.” Panic was rising in Brooke’s voice. The realization that she was trapped in an eight by four foot metal box, suspended seven stories above the ground by thin metal cables rippled under her skin. What was a mess, the wiring? The controls? Was she in danger? Her heart began to pound in her chest as she pushed the buttons frantically. She was trapped, helpless.
Glancing above she saw it, a panel. Maybe if she got out she could climb to a safe ledge where someone would rescue her. Brooke kicked off her shoes and placed a foot on the railing, reaching for the panel and attempting to knock it open.
“What are you doing?” Jonathan asked her.
“I’m getting out of here, it’s not safe.” The words escaped her in a rush.
“You’re not James Bond, and that isn’t safe. Take a deep breath and sit back down.”
Brooke rattled the panel frantically, clawing at it, breaking a nail in the process. Breathing quickly she began to pound on it then she began to sob, sliding back down to the floor. She was shaking, suddenly she felt cold. Jonathan gently placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Breathe, just breathe. It’s okay. Think about something that calms you down, a safe space.”
Brooke closed her eyes and tried to slow her breathing. Her mind darted through memories until she found it, the place beside the lake. Camping with her parents and sister when she was a young girl. Dangling off the wooden dock to dip her hands into the cool water. Lying with her sister on the smooth rocks warmed by the sun.
“Where did you go?” Jonathan inquired.
“To my family’s camp. That worked, I think I feel okay now. Thank you.”
Another fifteen minutes crawled by, Brooke checked her watch and sighed. Whatever the issue was they were still working on it. She pressed the intercom button again firmly, hoping she could resume her day. They can’t have forgotten about them.
Static and she heard the voice on the other end. “It’s a bit more complicated than we originally thought.”
Resigned, Brooke slumped against the wall. Her stomach growled. She always ate breakfast at the office where she kept pouches of instant oatmeal in her desk and she hadn’t been able to enjoy her coffee.
“Here,” said Jonathan, pulling a brown paper bag from his briefcase and removing a sandwich. Brooke eyed it, then peeled back the plastic wrap and removed half.
“Thank you,” she said gently before sinking her teeth into the spongy white bread, through a slice of processed cheese and rubbery ham. It was bland sustenance that reminded her of hospital cafeteria food.
“When you needed to calm down, go to your safe space, you thought about your family. Are you very close?” Jonathan asked.
“We used to be,” Brooke replied.
“Not anymore?” he pressed.
“I grew up, I moved away. I’m really focused on my career. I mean, I go back for the holidays every year but it’s hard to stay in touch now that I have so many responsibilities. I’m supposed to be getting a promotion today.”
“Congratulations,” said Jonathan.
“I deserve it. I’m always the first one in the office, the last one out. I’ve made the company a lot of money. And now I can’t enjoy what I’ve worked so hard for because I’m trapped here.” Brooke lamented.
“Who are you going to celebrate with?”
“I’m not sure, I haven’t really thought about it. I’ll grab drinks with a few friends maybe? My parents are stopping in town next week on their way to Florida. I’ll take them out to dinner and tell them, they’ll be happy for me.” Brooke was suddenly flooded with a warm feeling.
“I’m sure they’ll be very proud of you,” Jonathan assured her.
“They are always proud of me, now that I think of it. You know what? I’m going to book a day off once I get to the office. When they visit I’m going to take them sightseeing, then out to dinner. Spend some quality time together.” The thought made her happy; her parents would enjoy that and so would she.
“That sounds nice” said Jonathan.
An epiphany broke through and registered in Brooke’s frequently cluttered mind. She had worked hard for her promotion, but now it was time to put some care and attention towards her personal life. She would love to go to Vegas for the weekend with her younger sister, maybe go to a spa for the day with her girlfriends. She had been so busy she’d neglected many of the people in her life. She had been on a few dates with a cute journalist and blown him off, but now she found herself thinking about him again. His light blue eyes, the way his laugh bounced off the walls. She should give him another chance, text him once she got out of the predicament she found herself in.
“You know what Jonathan, this was probably a good thing.”
“Getting trapped here. I’m always so busy I never really give myself time to think.”
“We all get trapped in a certain way of life.”
Brooke smiled. Jonathan was a strange man, but his presence was calming. She could see why he was good at what he did.
Brooke pressed the intercom button again. “Let’s see what our friends are up to,” she said with a sigh.
Static crackled, then nothing. Brooke pressed the button again and the voice filled the space. “I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do.”
Brooke looked at Jonathan puzzled. “What do they mean, nothing they can do? They can’t just leave us in here.”
She began to push the button repeatedly, feeling panic rising in her again. On the floor she noticed three small droplets of blood fall and she lifted a hand to her face; her nose was bleeding. Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth.
Jonathan looked at her with compassion and suddenly she remembered everything. The car accident. The emergency response team working on her broken body, the ambulance ride to the hospital.
“Am I…” Brooke couldn’t finish the question, it hung in the air between them.
“I’m afraid so,” Jonathan replied gently. The doors finally opened, beyond was pitch black.
“I don’t know what’s out there,” Brooke said, her voice fearful.
Jonathan placed a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, no one does.”
Brooke steadied herself on wobbling legs, took a tentative step forward, then pushed herself to continue out into the dark unknown.
Jennifer Ouellette lives in Toronto and works in the non-profit sector. She has a degree in English and Communications from York University. Jennifer enjoys writing short stories that focus on society and humanity.
The mushrooms had almost no weight; three stalks and as many caps lay in my palm, but I could not feel them. Coloured like dead skin, they appeared to be waiting, and so I threw them in my mouth. Cloying, and nearly rotten, the taste perfectly matched their looks. I swallowed, and made an attempt to dislodge the bits that remained with my tongue.
Adam was laughing at me. I must have been making a face.
“Don’t throw up on the floor alright?”
I nodded, reaching for my water.
“But it’s not just the taste is it?”
“Not entirely,” I replied.
“It’s fear right?” Mark added.
“There is fear.”
“So what is that?”
“Fear of losing control.”
Mark shot a finger at me. He was seated on the couch, one arm behind his head. He looked very comfortable there, as if the room had grown around him.
“Exactly,” he said. “Exactly that. Giving up control. But who’s taking it? It’s not the mushrooms. Or at least, not them alone.”
“You lose control,” I said. “That’s it. Nothing takes it.”
Mark seemed to consider that. I drank my water. It felt very pleasant going down my throat. Already I could feel something, a blossoming at the base of my spine. The edges of my thoughts were no longer definite. Like running ink, one slipped into another. Mark’s living room, that odd collection of mismatched furniture and framed artwork he’d either bought at garage sales or rescued from the street, grew brighter, more highly defined. Observing this change, my chair threatened to consume me, and I stood up and went to the kitchen.
Over the moldering stack of dishes I noticed a single drop of water hanging from the mouth of the faucet. The bead caught the light, and warped it, trembling. Gently it elongated, until at last it hung by an almost invisible thread. My heart reacted badly to this, and I turned away rather than watch it fall. A stone landed on my shoulder, squeezed me; Mark’s hand, and his broad face, wide open.
“What is it?”
“I kind of got lost for a minute.”
“It’s just the kitchen.”
“It is, but that’s enough sometimes you know?”
He laughed. The sound warmed me. (His laugh was often generous, and entirely free of affectation. It’s the thing about him I miss most.)
“I managed to get it,” I told him. A raised eyebrow. I nodded, and reached behind me for the bag I’d been keeping in reserve in my back pocket. Recognizing this for what it was, he steered us both back in the direction of the living room. I threw the bag on the table. The light of the overhead lamp was very hard. My feet carried me to the couch and it reached up to take me. Adam was already examining the bag’s orange contents.
“Who had this?”
“Miner friend of Ashleigh’s.”
“Straight from underground,” muttered Adam.
“How’s it done?”
I took the bag from Adam and dumped the powder into his glass. It did not dissolve in the water, but sort of hung there, suspended.
“Little orange galaxy huh?” Adam said. He took the glass and drank half the contents. Confusion swept over his features.
He never finished the sentence. Mark polished off what remained of the water and nodded to himself, twice. There was still a lot of the stuff left at the bottom of the glass, like a layer of rust-coloured silt. I dipped my index finger into this, and dragged the wet sludge onto my waiting tongue. It was rotten metal, a razor’s edge lined with overripe fruit, exactly as Ashleigh had said.
It felt good to do it from the same glass. It felt right, synching our intentions; we put on our boots and jackets without preamble, as if we’d rehearsed the motions. Night embraced us, and the pavement was a vast expanse, orange-lit, dappled with the shadows of trees. The street was ours, and Mark walked ahead, in the middle of the road, his head upturned, sky-gazing. Adam was a reassuring shadow to my right.
“How’s it supposed to hit?” he asked. I’d asked Ashleigh the same.
“She said it won’t. Unless it’s a feeling of being watched.”
“Puts eyes on you huh?”
“She couldn’t say whose.”
“That’s some responsibility.”
“To be worth watching.”
I could care less, I thought; it wasn’t up to me or any of us to justify our existence, unless it was in our own eyes. I should take the stuff and sit in a room in the dark and see how that would go over, whether anyone would bother watching then.
“Man tripping in a room,” I said. Adam was puzzled.
“The title of a painting.”
“Never heard of it,” he mumbled.
Mark was waiting for us under the waving arms of a maple. He had his back to the massive trunk, his gaze still skyward. We all craned our necks. The branches moved, crumbling from one point to another, an earth-toned shimmering of dying leaves. One or two dropped from their branches, falling without grace. Adam drifted off, and in due course we followed him. When we reached the campus I left Mark and crossed the deserted road. It was very bright in the glare of the street lamp. My shadow went ahead of me, its shape almost carved from the pavement. To my right was the brick facade of the Earth Sciences building. There was a doorway in the near wall, which led into a kind of circular courtyard. In the middle of this place a small forest had been planted. Bronze plaques engraved with the names of genus and species were situated in front of certain trees. Other plaques were lost in the undergrowth; I doubted anyone had tended to the place in years.
A path of loam bisected the canopy. On all sides the building’s walls could be glimpsed between the trees. At the end of the path was a bench, and on this was a cardboard box.
I approached it. The soft earth absorbed the sound of my feet. Nothing moved. I lifted the box’s lid.
Inside, cushioned in packing foam, was an ovoid block of wood with two gaping pits for eyes. Stunned by what I was seeing, it took me several seconds to assign it a name: an iteration mask, I realized, obviously old, and by the look of it, authentic. I had seen pictures of these in high school. They were used across the Greater Sea, worn by those who’d been touched by the unrevealed god: ascetics, sages, prophets. It was an otherwordly object, unlike anything I had ever encountered before.
A presence edged the space at my left. I looked at Mark. His face mirrored my confusion. I watched his brow working.
“A mask,” he said.
His shoulder twitched, and a worm of panic moved in my gut; I reached for the mask before he could. Little white puffs of packing material came with it, dropping noiselessly to the ground. In my hands the mask was like a hole ripped out of the world.
“There’s two more.”
I looked at Mark. Adam was with him, and their arms were in the box. In an instant they were both masked; Mark’s face, now a black square with tubes to signify his eyes, and Adam’s molded visage, off-white, fat-lipped. Laughter rang in the courtyard. It came from the masks.
It occurred to me that the air had become thicker, and the sound of my breath was very loud in my ears. Later I understood I was wearing the mask.
No matter how many times I look back on that night, I’ve never been able to recall the moment I put it on. Nor can I remember removing it; by the time we entered a restaurant near 4th Bridge, starving, all frantic motion and disjointed voices, I was carrying it. Adam and Mark still wore theirs, their new faces hard-edged in the fluorescent light.
“I know one thing,” came Adam’s voice. “You never find masks!”
Though many other details have been lost over the years, those words have remained, far more powerful than they have any right to be. Even now I can still hear them.
That night I failed to sleep; the share house I lived in was rarely quiet, and as I lay in bed I followed with relentless precision as someone busied themselves in the kitchen - opening and closing cupboards, running the tap, their feet falling in hard syncopation. I was nervous without being fully conscious of the fact. Dry air filled my nostrils and I rolled on the confines of the mattress, too wired for sleep and too exhausted for anything else.
I had put the mask on a chair by the window, and I glanced at its backlit shadow throughout the night; finally, its eye-holes encircling the blue light of dawn, I decided it was better to suffer upright than continue to do so in bed. I removed myself to the shower. The reflection in the bathroom mirror was that of a stranger, blank-eyed and nameless. We regarded each other for a moment, and parted in silence.
The mask was still on the chair. I had half expected it to be gone, though I couldn’t have said why. The light that entered through its eyes was no longer blue, but a muted gray. The sky beyond the window threatened snow.
Sick of my own thoughts, I went down the hall to Adam’s room. It was unlikely he was awake, but I knocked anyway.
“Yeah?” he called. His voice had a muffled quality, as if coming from behind a sheet of glass. I shouldered the door. He sat in a chair facing me, still wearing the mask. The full lips underscored its benign expression. I sat down on the floor with my back to his bedframe.
“Can’t sleep either?” I asked.
There was something off about his voice, a sonorous, lilting quality I had never heard in it before. I thought it must have been a result of the mouth hole, but looking closer I saw that unlike my mask, his had no holes of any kind; instead, the surface ballooned in convex bulbs, offering the suggestion of eyes. He’d been walking blind all night, and sitting in his room the same way.
“You been up all night?”
The mask tilted. Adam’s fingers moved over the fabric of his pants at his knees.
He was obviously still high. I closed my eyes. The house was very quiet, and I drifted into an uneven sleep. When I jerked awake some time later, I was alone. The light from the window was much fuller, and there was an awful pain in my neck, as if a metal rod or pin had been surgically inserted there. Massaging it, I stood up. Through the window opposite me I caught sight of Adam, still masked, out on the lawn in front of the share house. He sort of turned, or lifted his head in my direction. I waved at him, forgetting that he couldn’t see anything.
I had another shower, the water near-scalding, and again worked the muscles in my neck. Afterwards I went to see if Adam was inside, but both his room and the common area were abandoned. I texted Mark, and was surprised to get a response. He wrote for me to come over, and I threw on my boots and jacket, thinking to collect Adam from the yard, but he was nowhere to be found.
The streets were empty. Wind stirred in clusters of leaves that hung like shredded flesh from the trees. Walking, I had the sensation I was being followed, but when I turned to check there was no one.
The way to Mark’s apartment felt long. Maybe I was moving more slowly than usual; certainly I was not myself. I felt timid, like a microbe under a lens. No one was watching me, I knew that, because no one would care, but the feeling persisted.
Reaching his building at last, Mark greeted me at the door; he looked like I felt. His eyes were bloodshot, his skin drawn and pale. Stubble covered the lower part of his face. He swallowed and nodded rather than speaking, and held the door open by way of welcome. We climbed the decaying stairwell in silence. His room was the last door at the end of a hallway painted the colour of an open palm.
I took my boots off and followed him into the apartment. He crossed the space to his bedroom, where he slouched on the edge of his mattress, reaching absently for a cigarette. He’d supposedly quit, but I refrained from commenting. Once he got the thing lit, the smoke made a single, uninterrupted line to the ceiling. By now, the silence had grown into something monolithic. I thought Mark looked very bad.
“You’re not hungry are you?” I asked.
He shook his head. The gesture seemed to indicate he would not eat again.
“Well come with me anyway. Coffee will help.”
He made no move to get up.
“I had it by the door,” he said. “But it demanded to be moved.”
He looked at me then.
“I mean it didn’t speak. But the result was the same. I knew what it meant.”
“What are we talking about? Your mask?”
“Yes, the mask. The mask, the mask. What else? I thought I was dreaming at first, because I was dreaming. That was obvious. Everything was loose and slippery, the way it is when you dream, you know.”
“Sure. Dreams aren’t real. I hear you.”
He ignored the sarcasm, nodding and dragging from his cigarette, which he then examined, on both sides, as if he expected to find something written there. At length he set it down in an ashtray.
“This dream was different. You understand? I was dreaming, but something else was in there with me.”
“The mask didn’t want to be here, that’s all I can say.”
“Alright man, fair enough. So where is it?”
“I threw it out.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“Yes. Or no. It was light out already. I don’t know.”
“You need to sleep.”
Some life returned to his face; there was the suggestion of a smile. Talking seemed to be helping him.
“I sound insane right?”
“You don’t sound good.”
“Why did we have to add powder on top of everything else?”
I didn’t respond. He knew the answer as well as I did. We wanted to know what would happen. We were young, and hungry for experience. Any kind would do, as long as it brought us out of ourselves.
“Let’s get some coffee anyway,” I offered. He gestured an assent.
We left the building and braved the journey to Manu’s, a place I’d discovered in Northside the previous summer. Over a plate of eggs and two steaming mugs of coffee I mentioned that Adam had kept his mask on all night, but Mark didn’t laugh like I thought he would. He gnawed on a slice of blackened toast, mechanically taking his coffee. When we left I brought up the subject of his mask.
“You were high throwing it out,” I told him. “It’s probably worth something.”
“You want it you can have it.”
We said our goodbyes outside his building. Left to myself, I rounded the corner and rooted through the trash bins in the alley. The black mask was still there, undamaged. I slung it under my arm and went home.
That night a voice dragged me from a dreamless sleep. There were no words that I could hear; it was a muttered incantation, and it stopped as I hauled myself upright. A dark mass occupied the space at the foot of my bed. Before it were the two masks, illuminated in the orange haze from the street lamp outside my window. The masks had been set at the far wall, about a meter apart.
As I watched, the silhouette moved; there was a turning, and a pale crescent was revealed, lamp-washed, lifeless. It was Adam, still wearing his mask.
“What are you doing in here man?”
He made no response, only uncoiled himself from the floor. His lidless eyes appeared to stare at me. Then, without speaking, he gathered the masks and left the room.
I thought about calling him back, but I was too tired. I told myself whatever he was doing could wait until morning. That was a mistake. When I woke up he was nowhere to be found and all three of the masks were gone.
Adam didn’t return that day. I tried calling him, and so did Mark, but he never picked up. In the end, the brief encounter at the end of my bed was the last I ever saw of him; within a month his phone line was disconnected. I got in touch with his parents, but they told me not to worry, that Adam was fine. I had no idea what that was supposed to mean. We wondered if he’d had a mental breakdown. It seemed the best explanation.
I felt hollow whenever I thought of him or the masks we’d found. To fill this void, I began doing some research, but the pantheon of the unrevealed god is vast. There are thousands of iterations, many of which have no name, and there is no definitive catalogue. New cults and interpretations of the god-head frequently blossom on the low continent, and just as frequently wither away. It took time, but in making use of the resources on campus I was able to track down the masks Mark and I had claimed. Apparently they were within the top 500 or so most common iterations, embodied in many towns and villages during regular festival plays. My mask was Adec, ‘inwardly turned’, while Mark’s was Manor, ‘questioning gaze.’ More details were not forthcoming. The author of one book noted that translation was notoriously difficult, as the denotation of each iteration may change depending on the location.
Locating Adam’s mask was more challenging. At last I contacted a professor who specialized in the religion. She told me to visit her in her office, a ratty little closet on the 10th floor of the university library.
She was younger than I expected, in her early thirties, with blue stains on the index fingers of both hands. After our brief introductions, she spent a few seconds examining my face.
“Why are you interested?” she asked.
“A friend traveled to the low continent,” I lied. “He showed me some pictures of a festival. Just wanted to know the name of the iteration.”
“The masks are fascinating,” she agreed. Bending down, she began to rummage through a plastic storage box next to her desk. She set a poorly bound book on the table in front of me. It looked self-published, with only the title, ‘Iteration Masks of the Low Continent’, typed on the front.
“This isn’t a complete list, but it’s the best I can do.”
Each page included a number of masks with their names and and a brief description of their significance. The quality of the printing was bad. All the images were in grayscale, with the grainy resolution of repeated photocopies. After flipping through the book awhile, I hit on a mask that might have been Adam’s.
“I think it’s this one,” I said, pointing. The professor raised an eyebrow.
“Pardet, an ‘uncoupling of time’,” she read aloud. “Your friend was very lucky to see this. I never have. There was a Pardet mask in the capital museum’s collection, but that was way before my time.”
“What happened to it?”
“Reported stolen years ago. That type of thing does happen I’m afraid.”
There didn’t seem to be anything further to say, so I thanked the professor and left. With nothing else to do, I went home. Over time, the hollow feeling in my stomach began to fade. I focused on my classes. Sometimes I saw Mark. We talked, but without much enthusiasm. We were like actors playing the roles of ourselves, and I think we were both relieved when the other one made an excuse to go. Eventually we stopped getting together. Around a year later I heard Adam had been arrested on some vaguely drug-related offense. Mark is the manager of a bike store now. I haven’t spoken to either of them in years.
Chad Inglis is a Toronto based writer of speculative and pre-apocalyptic fiction. He has spent the better part of the past decade wandering the globe collecting XPs. 'Masks' is his first published work.
Audrey’s boots leave a trail of dark holes in the snow-covered sidewalk as she stumbles through the biting polar air parked over Montreal. “God damn it, late again,” she curses, and turns onto a well shoveled path that leads to a modest beige brick building. Flat roof, no spire or crucifix, the inconspicuous Unitarian Church sign is the only hint that something larger might live there. Audrey uses both hands to pull open the heavy oak door and breathes in the familiar scent of ageing hymnbooks and bibles.
“May not look like a church from the outside, but sure smells like one on the inside.” Benoit once said to Audrey. He insisted the new beige brick building inherited its ancient aroma from the grand Tudor gothic predecessor destroyed by fire in 1987. “Montreal church burnt to the ground. City mourns two firefighters.” The tragedy made headline news. A cornerstone recovered from the charred rubble was displayed in the new beige brick church as a memorial for the two firemen. On her wedding day, Audrey had silently touched the engraved names on the stone before walking down the aisle.
Shivering with cold, she stamps the snow off her boots and walks towards a registration table where a seated woman offers a stringed nametag that Audrey hangs around her neck knowing it will end up in the garbage with all the other stringed nametags. She enters the room where the meeting is in progress and sits in the back row, ignoring the stare of the woman on the left. Audrey unwinds her scarf, but does not unbutton her coat. The face of an elegantly dressed speaker behind the podium is bathed in a shimmering halo of sunlight streaming in from the stained glass window. Her melodic voice pours soothingly over the audience like water running over stones. Audrey closes her eyes to find herself entwined with Benoit on a picnic blanket by a babbling brook. Beyond the yellow birds in the cedar tops, a million dancing particles bounce off each other against the brilliant blue. Audrey knows, as she explained to her students, this is an optical illusion from retinal neurotransmitters working overtime. A sudden disturbance and the birds fly away. The sound of their fluttering wings turns to applause and Audrey opens her eyes. The elegant speaker bows to the audience and floats gracefully down the aisle.
A darkly dressed woman shuffles towards the podium; layers of clothing make it impossible to know where flesh begins and ends. She speaks in a low murmur, an endless string of indecipherable words. Audrey finds the experience excruciatingly painful, looks away from the podium and settles her gaze on the hypnotic pattern of the stained glass window. She is surprised when a dark outline appears in the crimsons and blues, blurry at first, but then unmistakably the silhouette of a man with a raised arm as if waving to someone in the audience. Audrey looks around the room, but all eyes remain fixed on the podium. “A crazy person on the fire escape,” Audrey thinks, as the silhouette slowly melts into the crimsons and blues as if it was never there.
Audrey begins to sweat under the weight of her winter coat and prays for a coffee break. The front edge of the chair digs into her thigh and she re-crosses her legs, playing with the wedding ring on her finger, wondering when it became so loose. The darkly dressed speaker steps down from the podium and shuffles out of the room with Audrey following in her shadow. “I’ll be right back,” she lies to the woman at the registration table before pushing against the heavy oak door and stepping into the polar air.
The city’s exhaust fumes are neutralized by the extreme cold. Audrey is not deceived; she knows that molecules move slower at low temperatures. A thin line of smoke curls out of a nearby chimney, stirring a memory of Benoit sitting by the wood stove at the cottage, rum splashing from his glass, repeating a silly joke that sends Audrey running cross-legged to the bathroom. Hardly appropriate behavior for two 40-year-old university professors. “Who needs children when we have students?” they would say half jokingly. The wood smoke suddenly irritates Audrey’s throat, a reminder of toxic tar droplets being released from hydrocarbon molecules. The warmth of burning maple is an illusion of comfort, like the idea that marriage lasts forever.
Audrey follows a path leading to a bench behind the church, lights a cigarette and releases a long exhale into the frozen air. The sensation provides no satisfaction; it leaves her depleted. She tried to explain the emptiness to her colleagues, but they wouldn’t listen, insisting she should stay at the university. “There’s nothing left,” she kept repeating. Audrey looks up at the winter afternoon sun, which is already approaching the horizon, and catches her breath at the familiar silhouette of a man, now dangerously close to the edge of the church roof.
Ignoring better judgment, Audrey rushes to the fire escape. The metal stairs tremble under her feet and she pauses, breathless, in front of the stained glass window, invisible to the audience inside. The rooftop snow muffles her boots as she cautiously approaches the silhouette from behind. The sun’s shallow angle is blinding and all Audrey can see is a dark tall figure surrounded by an aura of dancing particles.
“Bonjour Audrey.” His voice is soft, barely above a whisper.
Audrey raises a hand over her eyes to shield the glare. To her relief he appears calm, not crazy or suicidal, but she’s confused. How does he know her name? Surely she would remember this large man with sparkling china blue eyes and coal black hair. He moves closer and gently touches the stringed nametag.
“Audrey,” he repeats.
“Who are you?” she asks with a raspy voice, wondering when she last spoke out loud.
“My name is Jean-Pierre.” He speaks with a light Québécois accent. “Do you always wear your name around your neck?”
She’s not sure he is joking or serious.
“I’ve been at a meeting,” Audrey replies, remembering the half-smoked cigarette she threw in the snow before climbing the fire escape.
“Bon, a dull meeting I guess?” Jean-Pierre asks, a grin spreading on his face.
Audrey wonders how he knew.
“It gets me out,” she says and kicks herself for sounding like such a looser. She looks back at the fire escape.
“You shouldn’t spend so much time alone.” Jean-Pierre’s grin changes to a frown.
Audrey tries to pinpoint his age; he looks at least ten years younger than her. She wants to know why he is taking such an interest. “What you are doing on this roof?” she asks.
“Don’t you mean, what are WE doing on this roof?” he replies, the grin returning to his face.
Audrey changes the subject. “So what do you do when you’re not on this roof?” she asks.
Jean-Pierre looks up at the sky. “Je suis… pompier … firefighter.”
This makes sense to Audrey. He looks the part.
“You’re off duty?” She knows it’s an obvious question, but can’t think of anything else to say.
“Pas vraiement…not really.”
Audrey wonders if he misunderstood her English. “Il fait très froid. Aren’t you freezing?” she asks, pointing at his unzipped jacket.
“I don’t feel the cold,” he replies.
His face is pale, almost translucent. Audrey shivers and shifts side to side, her fingers tremble as she takes out the pack of cigarettes. “Want one?” she offers.
“You really shouldn’t. Smoking is bad for you Audrey.”
“I know, I know, I’m an idiot.” Audrey waves the smoke and his words away with an unsteady hand.
“Never call yourself an idiot,” he says quietly. His tone makes Audrey uncomfortable.
“Are you married?” she asks, not knowing what else to say.
“I’m not sure anymore,” he answers. Audrey is surprised by the heaviness in his voice; his words land like dead weights in the snow between them. She wants to ask more, but says nothing and scans his face for clues. A passing cloud covers the winter sun and Jean-Pierre’s sparkling blue eyes turn to dark hollows carved in white stone. Audrey recognizes this emptiness - barely human, hardly alive. A matter of time before the last remaining molecule drifts away, leaving an empty shell with no purpose. “There’s nothing left.” She buries her chin deeper into the top of her coat and feels herself slipping, but doesn’t know how to get back.
"He misses you," Jean-Pierre’s voice breaks the silence. The winter sun emerges from the passing cloud and his eyes, once again, are sparkling blue, but a fire now burns inside Audrey. “How can he possibly miss me?” she hisses. The familiar inferno that began nine months ago rises in her gut and blazes with a spitting anger that threatens to incinerate every particle of her existence, leaving behind a heap of smoldering anguish. Audrey opens her mouth to scream in the face of this tall handsome firefighter who asks so many questions and makes her uncomfortable in a way she doesn’t understand, but there is nothing left.
She looks down at the moving figures on the sidewalk. Her hands fall to the side. A gust of wind picks up the loose end of her scarf and carries it over the edge of the roof, where it flutters like a flag over the pedestrians below. She feels nothing but wind pushing against an empty shell.
“How could he miss me when he’s no longer alive?” she whispers to the city below.
The wind changes direction and whips the loose end of the scarf over Audrey’s face. Something pulls on her shoulder; she lowers the scarf and turns around.
“Believe me Audrey. He misses you.” A tear falls from the firefighter’s eye and crystalizes to a snowflake. His face blends into the whites and blues of the sky. Audrey looks down at Jean-Pierre’s feet that make no imprint against the snow. He stands perfectly still in the subzero temperature, jacket unzipped, no sign of breathe in the frozen air. Hardly rationale, not at all logical, but in the grand scheme of chaos and confusion it makes perfect sense to Audrey. She believes him.
He takes her hand. The coolness of his fingers is soothing like the touch of the stone on her wedding day.
“Does it help … knowing he misses you?” he asks.
“Yes,” she replies. “It helps.” She is grateful, the cool touch of the stone.
“Why are you here?” Audrey asks.
His grip on her hand tightens. “My wife … my sons… I can’t leave them.” His voice trails off. Audrey is silent. She feels what is coming next.
“Can you help me?” he asks.
Audrey looks up at the infinite sky above the beige brick church; the dancing particles form a podium of sparkling light. She clears her throat and begins to speak with a crystalline voice that slices through the polar air and resonates across the rooftop.
“When two molecules collide, there is an exchange of energy. The particles are changed, not destroyed. They are merely altered and move on until the next collision, the next change.” Her voice softens to a whisper. “It’s false to assume there’s nothing left.”
Jean-Pierre’s hand loosens and an icy gust of wind brushes against Audrey’s face. A siren fades in the distance. Audrey knows he has released himself from the gravity of the earth; the same pull that she must now embrace. Their meeting has sent them spinning in opposite directions. Audrey removes the stringed nametag, shoves it in her pocket and wraps the scarf around her face. The winter sun is about to fall below the frozen horizon and render the dancing particles and rooftop podium of sparkling light invisible. Audrey turns to retrace her footprints towards the fire escape and the city below.
Susan Grundy recently veered from a long running communications career to pursue a childhood passion for telling tales. “The Meeting” is her first published short story. She is presently writing a novel that pulls on her pioneer roots dating back to the family farmstead at Black Creek Village in North Toronto. Susan lives in Montreal and in Samara, Costa Rica.
Two nuns, four single ladies. No kindergarten. Skipped grade 3 (2-to-4, right into Nancy’s split class).
Those names. The first ones. Who knew? As kids, we heard rumours. Their private lives were a mystery. Except for Philomena. We had the dope on her. She lived in an apartment on Eglinton. A customer on my newspaper route. When I made the rounds, collecting my sixty cents every Saturday morning, she’d come to the door wearing a bathrobe, hair in curlers. I was speechless. Out of Context. Like landing on Pluto.
Those nun-names. Sister Rosemary. We were babies in grade 1. She had a kindness that accepted that. Michael, Harriet, Leo, Linda, Frankie were in the class. Michael, with the Irish last name, was my friend. Lived around the corner on Anderson Avenue. He had a TV. I watched Superman (brought to you by Kellogg’s), starring George Reeves, at his house on Wednesday nights. Harriet had a British-sounding last name. She asked me over after school one day to play at her house. I remember hiding behind her sofa. I phoned home and told my mother that I was at a girl named Harriet’s house. When I got home, everyone teased me. Leo and Linda were twins with a French last name. I phoned Leo once on a Saturday and asked him to go with me to the double feature (Charge at Feather River with Guy Madison was one of them) at the Mount Pleasant theatre. I heard him ask his mother. She told him he couldn’t go. Frankie had an Italian name. His father owned a fruit and vegetable store on Yonge Street. He used to pick Frankie up from school in his blue truck. One day I got a ride in the truck too.
Mother Mary Louise wrestled with the grade 8 hormones. Strict, even nervous on occasion. She cried and left the room once when we were acting up. I remember a nice kid, Vito (a new name to me), volunteering to go get her. She came back and we apologized. Sam, beside me, slicked his black hair back in a duck-tail, smiled. Like Fabian. Sam’s an OK name. Fabian, though. You gotta admit. That’s a name.
The others: Clara, Nancy, Wilma, Philomena. No one has those names today. Well, maybe Nancy. Yeah, OK. Nancy. The others, though. Jeez. Beacons in the mist. Unreal. Like the Bat Signal.
Nancy was the youngest of them. By a hair. Her name tells you that. She taught us about Martin Frobisher, Stanley and Livingstone, volcanos (Mt. Popocatépetl), adobe houses and the times-tables (hickory-stick pointer, chalk dial on the board).
Wilma? 40-50ish. A veteran. Grayish. Very nice lady. Gave us no homework on weekends, endearing her to us. Can’t remember a single lesson. Remember Mike, her nephew, was in the class.
Philomena? Another veteran. 40-50. (My newspaper lady.) Drove a two-tone ’55 Chevy, wore hats that looked like overturned soup bowls. Tall, gangly. Had a temper. Scary to a ten-year-old. Most
memorable moment: reading Robert W. Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee and affecting all the French-Canadian accents. Loved it.
Clara? Senior member. Guess: 50-60. White hair (or was it merely gray?). Taught in an old portable (with a pot-bellied stove) at the back of the school. Gave me the strap once. No idea why. (Hold your hand out. I was 7 years old.) I learned my numbers well, though. Unpredictable moods. I liked her. Go figure.
Single ladies. Childless mothers, all theory, sailing an uncharted sea, career options, like their names, circumscribed by the times.
Hindsight: I give Philomena (incredible name) her due. She was pretty astute. On one report card, she wrote: Terry is a dreamer. She was right. I close my eyes. I’m dreaming her life as I write this. Like she said I could.
End of an era, near Yonge and Eglinton. Gone, like the corner Woolworth’s and Dominion Stores there (more names), Fran’s and Theodore’s Restaurants, Axford’s and Tamblyn’s Drug Stores, Laura Secord (2-cent lollipops), the Lobraico Funeral Home (Gothic), Hunt’s Bakery (air-conditioned), The Doggie in the Window Pet Store. There are tumbleweeds blowin’ about the closed-off subway bus terminals there (open for business: 1954).
Now the Internet. Google. Now there’s a name.
Terry is a dreamer.
I move the cursor. Left-click, right-click. They’re all in there. What happened. Stories. Names.
His novel Shadow of Ashland was selected as a “Top 3 Fiction Pick of the Year” by The Edmonton Journal, “The Book You Have to Read” by Entertainment Weekly, and was broadcast as a dramatic reading on CBC Radio to over 400 stations nation-wide.
A teacher of English and Creative Writing for over 40 years, a former writer-in-residence at Hamilton, Ontario’s Mohawk College, he has conducted writing workshops from Florida to the Yukon. He is currently in his twelfth year of teaching creative writing at Western University, London, Ontario.