Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Fiction #73

New fiction! Issue #73
Submissions now open for #74 -- coming in September!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #73: Carole Glasser Langille

Prepared

Not only had I escaped an unhappy marriage, but I’d found a great place to live. The living room and kitchen in the old farmhouse were sunny late into the afternoon. It was peaceful living in the country after years in the city. My ex was paying child support which covered rent. 

But walls in the old farmhouse weren’t insulated and I couldn’t afford to heat the place. To help with the cost of oil, I posted an ad to rent one of the rooms. Harrison was the first to respond.

After he looked through the house I showed him the large yard where the previous renters had grown a vegetable garden. My sons Seamus and Dan had just gotten back from elementary school and were playing by the plum tree which, I was told, had a good yield of green plums in season.

He was enthusiastic and for a young man of twenty-four, declared something surprising, he was neat. He was a cello student and practiced long hours. Would that be a problem? I didn’t think so. I liked the sound of cello, even when someone was practicing scales. The fluid, sliding, ancient-river sound was comforting.

After washing his breakfast dishes each morning, Harrison usually didn’t return until evening and cooked his meal after we ate ours.  He was gone Friday through Sunday. He’d mentioned his girlfriend was a flute player and I assumed he spent weekends with her.  

One weeknight I invited him to join us for supper. Afterward he washed the dishes and this became a pattern during the week. I’d cook, we’d eat together, he’d clean. He made me laugh. Once, when I asked him whose piece he was studying he said, “Saint-Saens. You know, one of the famous French composers everyone loves and no one listens to.”

Dan, who had just turned eleven, asked if he could watch Harrison practice cello and soon Harrison was giving him lessons. He set up the cello in the living room and I’d listen as I made lunch for the boys for the following day. “This is the body of the cello, these are the ribs, the scroll, the neck.”  Harrison’s voice was patient. He sounded a bit like my kid brother, gentle yet commanding. “The left knee disappears behind the lower edge of the instrument.”  He bowed each string telling Dan the names as he did:  ADGC. Then Dan bowed them.

Because he drove to class, he shovelled the driveway when it snowed. One Saturday I came downstairs and, looking out the window, saw Harrison and Dan and Seamus making a snowman on the front lawn. I was surprised to see Harrison on a Saturday. Seamus came in for a carrot to use as a nose. He was seven and this was the first snowman he’d made. I’d been remiss in the snowman department. 

From time to time Harrison read picture books we had around the house to the boys but soon he began reading The Hobbit to them, the three huddled on the couch. This became a routine the boys looked forward to. When he finished, they demanded another right away.

“We can begin a new book,” he said, “but only fifteen minutes each night. I need to finish what I’m reading.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“The Kelavala, a Finnish book.” He turned to the boys, “Which is probably why it is taking so long to finish.”  My children loved spending time with Harrison.

Sometimes, when the kids were in bed, and Harrison stopped practicing, he’d ask if I wanted a beer. I didn’t drink during the week. Getting the boys to school and me to work was all I could manage, without throwing beer into the mix. I was a secretary at the town council office but I was also taking a course to prepare for the MCAT’S and this took all my time. My ex was a doctor and I’d become convinced over the years that I could do a better job. It was a ridiculous plan; I found math and chemistry challenging, but my ex was no genius. I thought, if I fail I fail. I didn’t know, then, that it wasn’t failure I had to prepare for.

I told Harrison about the incident that made me want to become a doctor. My ex had a  patient in his teens who was on dialysis and had to be driven to the hospital three times a week. I knew who the guy’s mother was; she worked as a secretary in my sons’ school. When her son got older he insisted he drive himself. Also, he wanted to stay on his own when she went away from time to time. One weekend she was visiting her sister and agreed to leave him alone in the house. He was in his early twenties by then. As it turned out, he’d skipped his first appointment, and then became too groggy to drive when his next dialysis appointment was scheduled. He was dead by the time she returned.

It was the most upsetting thing I’d ever heard and even though I was only a distant acquaintance I went over to the mother’s house as soon as I heard. She said she would never forgive herself. We talked for hours. When I got home, my husband was back from work and I told him where I’d been.

He couldn’t believe I’d gone to be with her.

“How could I not go?” I asked.

“I’m glad you did,” he said. “It’s just that, I could never become so close to a patient.”

When I first married, I believed my husband’s detachment allowed him to work despite difficult odds. But the more I got to know him I realized detachment was his only suit. He wasn’t much else there.

“How did you meet him?” Harrison asked. He’d poured himself a glass of wine, and one for me. Since it was Friday, I allowed myself one glass.

“I was a secretary for a doctor in Yellowknife,” I said, “and he was a medical student, doing a practicum.”

“Yellowknife? Were men hitting on you all the time?”

“Actually, yes,” I said and laughed. He reminded me so much of my kid brother. Even Harrison’s voice was like my brother’s, so quiet. I often had to ask Harrison to repeat what he’d said. “There are a lot more men than women in that place. But the situation was not so simple.”

Harrison didn’t say anything so, after a while, I continued. Once this guy asked me out and I said no.  I saw him again later that week and he said, Look, I’m away at the rigs most of the time, and I don’t get a lot of time off. I just want to take you to dinner.

“That’s all you want?” I asked, sceptical.

“Yes,” he said, “I’ll pay you to take you out.”

“That’s okay,” I said, “You don’t have to pay me. We went to a restaurant and he was true to his word.”

“Some men mean what they say,” Harrison said.

The following Saturday Harrison suggested we go his friend Kevin’s concert in a theatre downtown. The kids would enjoy it, he said. They did. Kevin sang old hits, “Time after Time”, “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes”, “Sweet Dreams,” songs on my old CDs the kids and I had listened to at home, but Kevin used only his cello to accompany him.  He had a looping pedal, which he’d press with his foot to add layers of melody digitally. The starkness of cello for rhythm and melody, and the unique sound of this instrument to accompany familiar songs, was mesmerizing.

On the way home Dan asked if I would buy him a cello. I told him if he was serious he should talk to his father. Renting a cello would be a good start.

A chemistry exam was coming up and I wanted to study with one of the better students in class. I asked Harrison if he would mind watching the boys Saturday night. I suggested he invite his girlfriend over.

“I’ll watch the boys,” he said.

I thanked him again before I left. I had on cowboy boots, black tights, and a narrow sleeveless dress, which I’d gotten at a thrift shop. It was pale grey and I wore a long brown sweater over it, which I might take off if the apartment was overheated.  Chemistry was difficult for me, and I thought I could fool myself into thinking the evening was festive if I dressed like I was celebrating.

Harrison said, “You wear that to study? Or do you especially like the guy you’re studying with?”

“I’m studying with a woman,” I said. “I like to dress up sometimes.”

“Ah, you like wearing costumes, I’ve noticed. And you like changing roles.” He laughed.

He might be right, I thought.

When I returned later that night, Harrison and the boys were in the middle of a rousing game of monopoly. Seamus had a hotel on boardwalk. I wondered how Harrison had engineered that. Later I asked if his girlfriend had come by. He shook his head.

“I’d love to meet her,” I said. Then, embarrassed, I wondered if they’d broken up.

It had been a long time since I’d cooked an elaborate meal, and I invited two couples, close friends of mine, for dinner Saturday. One couple, Phillip and Karo, had gotten jobs in another town and were moving at the end of the month, though the move wasn’t far. This was a congratulatory dinner for them, of sorts. I had strawberries and rhubarb in my freezer and a recipe for strawberry rhubarb pie I wanted to try.  When Harrison came home that Saturday I invited him to join us. I’d already served the boys, who were upstairs watching a movie.

At first I thought Harrison probably wouldn’t want to spend the evening with a bunch of middle-aged people like us but he clearly enjoyed talking with my friends.  Bernadette, Gene’s wife, and Gene, who I’d known since college days, asked Harrison if he would play a piece for us.  Phillip and Karo urged him to play as well so Harrison got out his cello and played Bach prelude number 1. Though it is such a familiar piece, I was stirred by how beautiful it is. It was good of him to play.  He probably felt as if he were performing for his parents.  

*

That night, when I went to use the washroom, he was just coming out, wearing only his pyjama bottoms. I blushed. He was so tan and fit.

When Harrison moved out, to get a place closer to town, a female student, Natasha, moved in a week later. I hadn’t realized the room would be so easy to rent.  Natasha was also neat but she kept to herself. The house felt strangely quiet now that there was no  cello music coming from the second floor.

When I gave another dinner party and asked Natasha if she wanted to join us, she declined. Though later, when the guests had gone, she accepted the last piece of pecan pie.

*

Then Harrison called. I was surprised to hear from him. He was graduating in a few months, and was told he had a good chance of getting into the graduate program. I was happy for him. There was a brief silence. Then he asked if I’d like to go out to dinner.

At first I wasn’t sure I’d heard him and when he repeated the invitation I asked, “With you and your girlfriend? To celebrate?” I felt like the older sister and I wanted to make sure I understood him.

“Of course not,” he said. “You and me.”

This was awkward. Harrison was 24. I was eleven years older and had two kids. Did he think I wanted to date as if I were a co-ed? I thanked him but said I wasn’t able to go.

A few weeks later he came by, when the kids were still up and the boys persuaded him to read a chapter of Lord of the Rings, which I’d started with them a few weeks earlier. I felt awkward with Harrison. Was he here to ask me out again? It simply wasn’t appropriate. I could not look him in the eye.

He stayed until after the boys were in bed and then suggested we go to dinner next Friday or Saturday. Could I get a sitter, he asked. I took a deep breath.

“Harrison, thank you. I am flattered by your invitation. But you are too young for me.” I did not like having to say this, but I needed to make things clear. Even if there hadn’t been an age disparity, I didn’t trust myself. I’d already made one mistake, and it took me long enough to free myself from that one. I just wanted to stay focused on my kids and move ahead with my studies.   

He did not come around after that and stopped phoning. I thought I would not see him again. But I was wrong.

Karo called to ask if I could help her pack Saturday. She and Phillip were moving the following week and friends were coming by to pitch in. The boys were spending the weekend with their father and I told her I’d be glad to help.  My car was being repaired so she picked me up Saturday morning.

When we got there I was surprised to see Harrison helping along with the others.  Had he become a friend of theirs as well? Apparently so.

I had on red jeans and an orange sleeveless top, both from a thrift shop. Harrison greeted me. Later he said, “I can see those colours give you energy. They energize me just looking at them.” I laughed. He was right; that was why I chose them.

We’d finished packing and loading boxes into the U Haul and were drinking the last of the beer when Harrison said he’d give me a lift home. We were quiet on the drive and as he pulled into the driveway I was debating whether to ask him in for coffee. Then of course I did. This was Harrison, after all.

As I was putting biscuits on a plate, he said, “You know, you are a very rigid woman.”

I do not consider myself rigid. I asked him what he meant.

“Just because you have this idea that I am too young for you, you will not even give me a chance.
And that is pretty inflexible, wouldn’t you say?”

Who did he think he was, analyzing me?  I left the room. But he didn’t.

When I returned I asked him why he was still there.

“What are you afraid of?” he asked. “You know, if you keep going the way you’re going, you’ll...” He paused. Then he said, “No.”  He turned and mumbled, “Goodbye” as he  walked out the door.

What was I afraid of?  Look, one umbrella is too unsteady for two people to hold in a wind storm. Harrison might think he was interested in me now, but interest fades. I had enough to worry about without adding complications. After working my butt off for two years, would I get into medical school, much less be able to cope if I did? What I didn’t want to ask, not even in the hidden chamber of the heart I assumed I still had, would I live the rest of my life on this obstacle course I set up for myself and which I found increasingly difficult to navigate.  I supposed  obstacle course was another way of describing being rigid, wasn’t it? 

When I applied to medical school a year later, I got in. I was thirty-seven. My confidence came, in part, because Harrison had faith in me.

He still does.  Perhaps I should end this story before I disclose that we married the spring I got my acceptance letter.  Because happiness, I‘d always assumed, was a rare thing and  harder to believe in than disappointment. But we did marry, and for the past twenty-three years I’ve been practicing medicine in the neighbouring town and he’s been playing in the symphony.

When we married, I designed a wedding ring of three bands of gold – white, rose and yellow. The bands are very thin – a symbolic gesture. Thin bands break easily. I thought I’d better be prepared in case the marriage failed.  But I was wrong. Failure was not what I had to prepare myself for.

*


Carole Glasser Langille is the author of four books of poetry, two collections of short stories and two picture books. Her last book, I Am What I Am Because You Are What You Are,  a collection of linked stories, was nominated for the Alistair MacLeod Award for Short Fiction.

Read Carole on why she loves short stories.

Photo credit: Min Chen.

Fiction #73: Alyson Fortowsky

Status of Application

Caitlyn Arquette was alone in the office on Labour Day when she received an email from Laurel Kosecki. Subject: Status of Application.

Fucking Asha, Caitlyn thought. Laurel Kosecki should’ve gotten a no three weeks ago. Caitlyn didn’t envy the recruiters their job – it was a surprise none of them was in here with her today, scrolling LinkedIn like it was a slot machine – but they all handled it better than Asha did. She let her leads build up till the surface below gave way and the pile cascaded down in a series of mini-mental health avalanches. She’d double-book herself on first interviews, beg one of the other recruiters to conduct one of them, then send the interviewee she hadn’t met a follow-up email that said “It was so great getting to know you today!”

Caitlyn had only been a training manager for a month. Laurel Kosecki’s had been one of the first second interviews she’d ever conducted. Pratik, the training director, had been in the room, of course. Though Laurel, judging from the year she graduated high school, was six years older than Caitlyn, she looked younger and she was thinner. Both things made Caitlyn irrationally irritated when she shook hands with Laurel, but she had talked warmly, and Caitlyn let the feeling pass. Laurel had worked in sales at a newspaper and for a website design company, business-to-business, in Saskatoon. Now she taught Business English at a community college. Several of her former colleagues worked in the Sales Department and had recommended her. But while Caitlyn had been going through the interview script, noting down Laurel’s answers, Pratik had been conducting a personality test. Laurel had failed it.

“She won’t fit into the culture here,” he’d said.

He’d been hiring fresh-out-of-college kids, ready to mold, less likely to complain about the workload. Because she’d come recommended, they routed Laurel through the full four-hour process anyway: the first interview and written situational assessment with Asha, the second interview with Caitlyn and Pratik, and the third interview, a meet-and-greet with Nathan, the VP of Client Relations. Caitlyn privately thought she would’ve hired Laurel. Introverts worked well to deadlines, however well they summoned up fake kiss-ass for an interview. Besides, she’d be good at talking to the professors for textbook orders.

But it had been an unequivocal no from Pratik, and so she should have gotten an email.

Fucking Asha. Caitlyn opened the email from Laurel. One line:

Mistakes you have made

Caitlyn had somehow failed to notice that the fluorescents were emitting a hum so oppressive in the empty office that they were drowning out the Wilco album she was playing. She noticed now.

Below the line of text, an embedded .gif. The first time it cycled, she saw a paint balloon explode. The second, whiplash hair; white knuckles on the butt of a handgun. She couldn’t get the message closed before she recognized that she was seeing a clip of Laurel Kosecki blowing her brains out.

*

Only once before had Caitlyn felt so certain that a moment would alter the way she lived the rest of her life. Mid-April, the year she was twenty-five. At the time she’d sworn she’d remember the date forever, but it didn’t matter so much now as it had then, and she’d let it slip. Her boyfriend of ten years had rolled over in bed on a weekday morning and said,

“I have to tell you something. I slept with someone else.”

The sheets had been soaked. She’d had to buy a new set every six months when they were together. He’d stained his side of the mattress a sickening, jaundiced shade. She’d had a lot of thoughts following that proclamation but the very first, the first thing she thought after he’d told her he’d cheated on her, was how gross she found it that he sweat so much in his sleep. The second was that it had been years since she’d liked the sour vinegar smell of his body.

The last time she was single, when she was fifteen, she hadn’t thought of herself as shallow enough to be a girl with a type. But now, three years after her big twenties breakup, she’d vowed to never date a big man again. Tall, wide, neither. Men were bovine who weren’t close to woman-sized. Large, smelly mammals, snoring and farting. Hard to believe they were the same species as someone like Laurel Kosecki, a worry line between her pale eyebrows and her long, delicate fingers. She’d been wearing a barely-there perfume or soap in the interview. Underneath it, there was no trace of her heat at all. Might as well as sprayed the scent on a cardboard sampler.

*

Caitlyn had the email closed nearly instantly. She thought about calling the police. The idea seemed unbearable in an empty office, so she didn’t pick up the phone. Instead, she marked the message unread. She decided to go home for the day. Pretend she’d left without checking her emails one last time. She could “find” it in the morning and exclaim in earshot of her colleagues when she saw it. Just like that, it would be a shared responsibility instead of only hers. She turned off her music and her computer. She went to the kitchen and washed out the Tupperware that had contained her pesto salad.

*

She had forgotten her umbrella, and she got soaked crossing the street to the subway station. The turnstiles were down, so she had to wait in a line thirty people long for the agent’s booth, just to flash him her pass. Every second in the station felt like a threat to her composure. Annoying, that’s what Laurel Kosecki was. Annoying and selfish. Caitlyn realized she was in constant, low-level physical danger. That was life in a city. She had to be exposed, surrounded by strangers with varying claim to their territory, in order to get home to her couch where she could lie down with her cat, a pot of cranberry tea, and the mickey of gin she’d been saving in her freezer since her birthday.

*

A crowd of people on a train smelled like wet dogs when it rained, no matter how much product they’d individually applied to try and avoid it. There were three high school boys in the seats across the aisle from her. She put her earbuds in but didn’t turn on her music. The stop announcements weren’t working. Combined with the dim-submarine lights in the old subway cars, it gave her the feeling that she was going the wrong way or that she was dreaming.

“I’m a gofer,” one of the boys said. Clean cut, with the same Ray-Ban prescription glasses that half the world wore. They all wore the same pants, a private school uniform. “I get them coffee, or vacuum their seats, or do their oil changes. Whatever is easy enough.”

One of his friends asked something.

“Nah. I walked in and they just asked a few questions. I was hired on the spot.”

Caitlyn thought of how much he was like her twin brother at that age, his inflection. Cory had been an outgoing kid like that, Mr. Popular. He called her every couple of months, but in his early twenties things had started to fall apart. He couldn’t finish college. He could go a few months like everything was fine and then he’d hit a day where he’d wake up to his alarm, like always, and he couldn’t get out of bed for a week. Caitlyn had been a bookish kid – well-liked, in retrospect, but solitary. Now she didn’t read anymore. She opened novels and her eyes flicked bored over the pages like she’d forgotten how to do it. Now she was the outgoing one, preferring the company of others.

“Three things they’re looking for,” the gofer said. He ticked off on his fingers. “Will you not show up to work high all the time? Yes. Will you not hide out in the back room avoiding work all day? Yes. Will you show up relatively on time? Yes. That’s all it takes to be fine at a job. It’s surprising how many people can’t get their shit together to do those three things.”

*

Caitlyn’s train had two stops to go till hers when she realized what should have been immediately clear, but that her shock had obscured: barring some feat of programming of which Laurel Kosecki’s interview hadn’t indicated she was capable, it could not possibly have been her who’d sent an email containing a record of her own death.

Thank god, Caitlyn thought, before she could stop herself. I’m not the only person on Earth who knows about this.

Someone had watched the video before Caitlyn had seen it. They had to, or it wouldn’t have been sent out. Strange, how meeting someone in an interview always inspired an illusion of her as a world alone. It wasn’t statistically likely that Laurel had been single, even that she lived alone. That had to be it. A partner, distraught by her death, had gone through her computer in search of any kind of reason – people who might have slighted her, or disappointed her. If she was actively looking for a job, then she’d been through more than one interview – maybe every company that had declined to hire her had gotten the same email. Maybe everyone who’d written her a snarky Facebook comment.

Maybe it wasn’t Laurel who’d held Caitlyn responsible, then. Maybe she hadn’t been named. Just someone grieving, someone lashing out. Perfectly understandable.

She only felt relief for a moment. Laurel could have named Caitlyn, either way. She could have left a note. Instructions for her left-behind lover. Who, in their darkest moments after the death of someone close to him, wouldn’t take the temptation of complying with her orders? Of laying blame?

It could have a hoax, sent by Laurel herself – a possibility Caitlyn only dared entertain for a second before she got dangerously hopeful, then too angry at what kind of morose bitch would do something so cruel to a person who was just doing her fucking job.

*

“What stop did we just pass?” the gofer said, as if he was reading her mind.

He hadn’t missed his, his friends assured him. She assumed the friends were speaking out loud here and there, watching their mouths move. Over the sound of friction on the tracks, she could only hear the gofer’s voice, the loudest.

“I’m actually brain-damaged,” the gofer said frankly. “I miss my stop all the time. And it sucks walking back. It’s only a few blocks but everything looks so much bigger when you’re walking than when you’re on the train.”

*

Caitlyn wondered if he actually was. He didn’t talk like anything was wrong with him. A hurtful joke, if it was a joke. She guessed he wasn’t old enough yet to know.

*

Alyson Fortowsky grew up in Calgary, and now writes and teaches in Toronto. She has published short stories in Qwerty, NoD and carte blanche.

Photo credit: Efehan Elbi.

Fiction #73: Christopher Shilts

Fire Built

I poured some gas onto the burning twigs. Mike made a quick sweep of the nearby trees pulling off branches and picking up those that had already fallen. He stayed close to camp, but he was hard to see through the falling snow. We already had a secured clear tarp over a rope strung between two trees where we kept Mike’s pack. The sky was gray, almost black, but the whiteness of the snow brightened our little scene. I knew it was middle to late afternoon.  Mike sat down next to me and asked, “How’s the ankle.” Snow fell steadily.

I looked at him, smiled, and said, “It hurts.  I can’t take off my boot.”

“Can you wiggle it around?”

I lifted up my foot and tried to shake it around.  I looked again at Mike.  I had little mobility.  And it hurt. 

“I can wiggle my toes.”

“You positioned okay against your pack?”

I nodded.

“Look, I can try to make a travois.  Haul you out of here.”

“We’re good,” I said.  “We’ve got fire, food, and endless snow to melt and drink.”

Mike moved back to the other side of the fire.  He picked up some bigger sticks, logs almost, and put them on.  He squatted and looked at the fire.  The orange flames got narrow at the top and disappeared into the falling snow.  The smoke rose up and leaned with the wind.

Mike finally said,  “Maybe I’ll just go.  Take what I need to get to the ranger station.”

“Rule number one, Mike.  We stay put.  The ranger station knows our itinerary.  Panic leads to bad decisions.  It won’t snow forever.”

He dropped his head.  Then he twitched.

“Did you hear that?”

“Just wind.”

“I heard a sound.  A whistle.”

“It’s just the wind. “

“It’s a whistle, man.”

Then I heard it.  It was indeed a whistle.  We stared at each other.  “We have to check it out, don’t we?”  Mike asked.

“I’m in no position to help.  Besides, people die when they’re trying to save lives.”

Mike was determined to go into the thicket.  I didn’t think it was smart, but there was little I could do to stop him.  He assured me that he’d be careful and that he’d come back. 

“I’ve got the food and the fire, dude.”

Twice while he was gone I leaned toward the pile of sticks and logs to load the fire.  When he returned, he held a man around his shoulders, fireman style.   There were spots of snow on Mike’s knees and elbows left behind from when he must’ve fallen.

Mike bent at the hips and maneuvered the man over his head and onto the snow near the fire.  “Can you sit up?” Mike asked the man.  He did so.  Mike said,  ‘Put your hands on my back.  No, my bare back. It’s okay.  Pull my shirt up.”

The man’s hands were gloveless.  His fingers were black and swollen. He fumbled with Mike’s shirt.  Mike took him by the wrists and brought the man’s hands to his stomach.  The frost bit man looked at me then to Mike and said, “You need to get me to the ranger station.”

“We don’t go to ranger stations.  Rangers come to us.  You’ll die before you get there.  Worse, I’ll die, too.  Wiseass over there”--he pointed at me--“wiseass with the broken ankle will be the only one who survives because he’ll have the fire and the food.”

I threw my hands up and nodded my head in agreement.  Mike looked back at the man.  He shivered.

“Mike, he’s shivering pretty bad.”

“Hypothermia?”

I reached back to the top of my pack and was able to unfasten my sleeping bag.  I pulled it off and threw it toward the tarp.

“We can take turns,” I said.

“All right.”  Mike agreed.

I leaned over and crawled under the tarp with the sleeping bag.  I unstuffed it and got in it and began to undress.  My pants were below my knees before I remembered that I couldn’t budge my boot.  I let it be.  I left the rest of my clothes at the bottom of the bag.  I yelled out to the man, “Listen, we’re going to take your clothes off, and you’re going to get in this bag with me.”

Through the tarp, I could see him shake his head.

“You don’t do it,” Mike said, “you die.  You’re on my conscience now.  Mike bent low and picked him up and carried him to the tarp and helped him into the sleeping bag.  Once in the bag, Mike helped me with the undressing of the man.  When we pulled his boots and socks off, his toes, as I had suspected, resembled his fingers.  He’d lose his hands and feet.  Mike zipped us both into the bag and returned to the fire.  I heard him throw on another log.

I heard the man snort, then, a beginning of a cry.

“My name’s Aaron,” he whispered.

Mike puttered around the fire, and the fire was swollen and fantastic.  He boiled water.

“I found some ground coffee in my inside coat pocket,” he announced.  “Coffee is the family business.”

I don’t remember falling asleep, but when Mike roused me, it was dark.  The man still shivered, but less violently.

I dressed and crawled out of the bag, and Mike crawled in and stripped.  Back by the fire, I forced myself to stay awake.  The snow continued to fall, but it had slowed just a bit.  I was within reach of the logs and the fire.  We had two sixty-pound bags of food and supplies, we had a bright and brilliant fire, and Aaron was going to live.

My ankle would heel. 

*

Christopher Shilts writes: "I am an English Teacher at the Pingry School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.  I have  taught for twenty-seven years, seventeen at Pingry.  I also serve as the head football coach and as an assistant track coach.  I am the father of three daughters, Maddy (17), Carson (13), and Sydney (11), and one son, Joe (15).  I have been married to my wife Cathy Hamm for nineteen years.  I am a baseball fan first, Tigers’s fan second.  I wrote “Fire Built” at Kenyon College, summer of 2016."

Photo credit: Maddy Shilts.

Fiction #73: David Gerow

Taking Possession

We bought a place on Columbus Street in East York, me and my wife. Everyone said what a steal it was. The previous owner was pretty eager to sell so we just swooped in there and bam: starter home.
It was a one-storey brick house among other one-storey brick houses. Early 20th century, good walls. That’s what the real estate woman said when we were on the porch – “good walls.” I was trying to look all worldly so I kicked one. It didn’t fall over or anything. I said, “Yep, good walls.” My wife and I have laughed about that many times. What the hell do I know about walls?

The house was in a safe community, nice restaurants, good schools in case we have kids one day. Everyone drove Volkswagons and Toyotas. It was a mid-range kind of neighbourhood. We liked it.

But there was this guy across the street.

He lived alone in a little brown house, like our place but shrunken. There was a big window in his living room and two little ones upstairs, same as our place. He watched us from all of those windows.

I first noticed it in the daytime, about a week after we moved in. He was just sitting in the living room, this thin, bald, middle-aged creep on an easy chair, legs crossed, staring at us. I could see the top of a TV at the base of his window frame, but he wasn’t watching it. He wanted us to think he was, but he wasn’t. Whenever I looked at him he’d shift or scratch or react to something on his TV, which I doubt was even on, and when I looked away he was still. Columbus is a really narrow street, one-way with tiny lawns. The creep was near enough that I could see he had blue eyes.

I didn’t mention it to Claire that day, that we were being watched. She’d have overreacted, I have no doubt. But I did suggest we hurry up and hang the curtains.

“I like the boxes and the no curtains,” she said. “It feels like we’re still just moving in.”

She’s very sweet, my wife. She thinks life is a game.

That night we got an Indian takeaway and ate it in the living room while making fun of a John Wayne movie on AMC. It was mostly Claire who was laughing. I actually don’t mind John Wayne, and I was preoccupied by the house across the street.

He was there. He’d closed his living room curtains, left the downstairs light on and was sitting upstairs, in his bedroom I guess, in the dark. He sat at the back of the room, far from the window, but enough light crept upstairs from his living room that I could make him out in there, and there was always the glint on his glasses.

We went to bed around midnight. Our bedroom window also faces onto the street and also had no curtains. I made sure Claire was fully clothed when the light was on. I made sure I was, too.

#

Claire goes away sometimes for work. Not a lot, but sometimes. She’s a trainee curator in a museum and they send her on various assignments. She left for Ottawa about two weeks after we’d moved in.

She’d be gone four nights.

We had curtains in every room by that time. I’d talked Claire into hanging them the day after I’d noticed the watcher. We hung them in the late afternoon; he was in his living room, pretending to watch TV. He’d been there all day. He was wearing the same thing as the day before: white shirt, red tie. That’s the only thing I ever saw him wearing. I’d be surprised if he owned a second tie.

The morning Claire went away he was watching. I still hadn’t told her about him. After all, he hadn’t done anything except look. I was keeping a close eye on him, and I made sure Claire was home alone as little as possible, which was easy because I was on my first summer holiday as a teacher. I also added the police to the top of my phone contacts: “Aaa Police”.

Right when Claire left for Ottawa, I made a phone call.

“Hello?”

“Hi,” I said, “Is this Martin Feldman?”

“Yeah, this is Martin.”

“This is Jeff Mason. I’m the guy who bought your old place on Columbus Street.”

There was a silence. I said, “Hello?”

He asked, “Are you calling about Richard?”

“Ah, now I might be. Who’s Richard?”

“The guy across the street?”

“Right, good, so you know what I’m talking about.”

“Yeah, I know Richard.” He paused. “Sorry.”

I wasn’t sure what I wanted out of Martin Feldman, but the apology was nice.

“What’s his deal then?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I really don’t know. He just likes to watch people, I guess.”

“Well, has he ever done anything else?”

“Uh, not as far as I know. I mean, I can’t be sure, but he never did anything to me or my partner.”

“Did he ever talk to you?” I said.

“No, never a word. He wouldn’t even look at me if we saw each other outside. That was the only time he wouldn’t look, really.” Martin Feldman laughed.

“Is he the reason you moved?” I asked.

“Yeah. Sorry. We should have said something but, you know. It’s not exactly a selling point.”

“No, it’s not,” I said. I could have been angry but there wasn’t much point. He sounded like a nice enough guy. Anyway, he’d apologized twice now.

#

That afternoon I decided to visit Richard. I’d rolled it over in my head many times and I decided it was the only thing to do. He was home, had been all day. When I came out my front door, I saw him get up and leave the living room, disappear into the back of the house, where the kitchen was in our place and probably in his, too.

I knocked on his front door and waited. He didn’t answer. I tried the doorbell, which seemed to be broken, then knocked again. I knocked six or seven times before I gave up.

Back in my living room, I watched for him out the window. I was going to gesture to him when he returned to his living room. But he didn’t come back. I didn’t spot him again until it got dark, when I caught the glint of his glasses in an upstairs window. There were no lights on in his house.

That night Claire and I Skyped around 9:30 and I went to bed at 10. That’s early for me, but I never know what to do with myself when Claire’s away. I left the downstairs lights on and the curtains closed so Richard would assume I was in the living room. It was after midnight when I woke to a steady tapping. It was coming from the back door. Someone was in the backyard tapping on the door.
I came downstairs into the kitchen, a bit of light coming down from the bedroom. When I turned the kitchen light on, there was Richard’s face in the backdoor window, looking in. He sort of smiled as I came toward the door. His lips were so thin.

So what was the situation? Well, I knew where the knives were. I knew that Richard was smaller and probably twenty years older than me. I had my phone in my hand and my thumb over Aaa Police. So yeah, I opened the door.

He was wearing the same white shirt, the same red tie, the same black pants as always.

“Mr. Mason,” he said, still sort of smiling, and he came right into the kitchen. I left the door open even though moths were already flying in.

“Yes, hello,” I said. “What do you want? It’s a bit late.”

“I wasn’t sure until now that Claire was still out,” he said.

I didn’t find it worrying that he knew our names. I’d assumed somehow that he knew our names.

What I found discomfiting was the volume of all the sounds around us: the clock on the kitchen wall, the boiler switching on, the crickets outside, the moths fluttering around, the continuous roar of the highway like one of those subliminal rumbling effects in a horror movie. All these sounds seemed to own the night, and Richard seemed to own it too, while I was a guest. It was my kitchen – I’d bought it – but I wasn’t in my natural habitat.

“What business is it of yours?” I asked. “What do you care if she’s out or not?”

“And you went to bed with the lights on,” he said. He was from the States, a Southerner, maybe from Tennessee or Mississippi or somewhere like that. “Tricky boy.”

“Listen,” I said, “I don’t know what your deal is, Richard, but you’re a creep. Okay?”

“But you,” he said, taking a quick step toward me, “are much worse. You are an imposter, an invader, a plague. What do you want here? Why have you come? This is not your house. And your wife, so innocent, so beautiful, Jeff. What would happen if –”

I clocked him on top of the head with my cell phone. He stumbled, I grabbed his neck, I squeezed. I was acting on instinct – why had he come? I went through with it, his throat caving under my thumbs, me trying to push right to the spine – just give ‘er! – his hands at my wrists, then dropping. I squeezed for a long time after he’d stopped struggling.

His eyes were still open. They were blue like the shallows of the sea, so vibrant that they looked like contact lenses.

#

So there was Richard on the kitchen floor. It had been bloodless, it had been silent. I think it had been necessary somehow, I don’t know. But it did leave me with a corpse to dispose of. I tried to recall how movie characters had disposed of their corpses. Car trunks and deep water for the most part, like in Psycho. What about movie characters who didn’t have spare cars? Off the back of a train in Double Indemnity. That wasn’t likely to fly on Via Rail. Dismemberment in Rear Window. Forensics would be all over that no matter how well I scrubbed the bathtub.

Then I remembered: my house has good walls.

I went down to the basement, a colourless, cold space, purely functional, with a concrete floor. My basement has two halves – a laundry room and a boiler/storage area – divided by a wall that I suspected was hollow. That wall is about 18 inches wide. A big section of it on the boiler room side was covered over with plywood, which was held in place by a lot of little boards, screwed and nailed in at different times. I got out the toolbox, a gift from my father-in-law that we’d never once needed in our old apartment. It took about half an hour to get all those little boards off.

I slid the plywood out of the way and looked inside the wall. It ran half the length of the house, like an extremely narrow hallway. There was a soft silver tube, an air duct for the dryer maybe, running along the top. That was probably why the wall was hollow, to accommodate that air duct (or whatever it was). The important thing was that the space was wide enough to accommodate a body.
I’d push Richard as far toward the back of the house as I could, then I’d cover him with concrete. Four bags of concrete powder had come with the basement and I knew how to use them. I’d spent one awful day mixing concrete with my father when I was a child, and four bags would make more than enough to pour a thick layer over a body. There were even buckets, everything I’d need.

I stepped inside the wall with my flashlight to scope the area out. As I squeezed toward the back of the house, the floor rose. There was a hill within this wall. And shining my light on it, I saw that it was a paler grey than the rest of the floor. This mound looked exactly as I expected my mound to look.

A chisel and a hammer and I found it: a foot in a sandal. Someone was buried in there and they still had flesh on them. I stopped chiselling.

#

The wall in the basement is boarded up again now. If anyone ever squeezes in there, they’ll find a mound twice the size as the one I cracked open. It took all four bags of concrete and a good six hours, not counting drying time. There’s been no stench at all, and it’s been months now. The investigation has come and gone. I got nothing more than a perfunctory questioning like all the other neighbours.
Claire and I now have two good anecdotes about our house. One is something we learned during the investigation: that our place was previously owned by an old lady who went missing a year before we moved in. Martin Feldman had bought it from her next of kin. Claire loves that as a spooky story, particularly when told in conjunction with the story of the man across the street, Richard Thompson, who has also gone missing. Claire loves macabre stuff. She treats it as a game.

Our other anecdote is the time I kicked the wall in front of the real estate agent. “It was so funny,” Claire says. “What the hell does he know about walls?”

*

Originally from Brantford, Ontario, David Gerow studied Theatre at the University of Guelph. After graduating, he spent ten years teaching English in China, South Korea and Italy, as well as working odd jobs in Newfoundland and Nepal. He moved to Scotland in 2014 to do his Master's in Film Studies, and recently had a scene from his first play workshopped at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. This is his first published story.

Photo credit: L.L. Nelson.