Life Among the Humans

Eric was helping a customer at Shopmart when he felt a tap on his ear and heard a croaky voice: “There ya go again being nice to people. What are you a boy scout?”

Eric looked around.

“Over here, loser. On your shoulder.”

And there it was. A fat green lizard, about a foot tall, sitting on his right shoulder, one claw holding his ear for balance. “Big help to the world you are,” it said, flashing a crocodile smile like a lumpy zipper. “Shoulda kept the old job. Flying a fighter jet ain’t good enough for you?”

“I’d rather work with people,” Eric said with a shrug, hoping it would dislodge the creature.

But the lizard held on, sharp claws embedded in his shoulder.

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The lizard wasn’t Eric’s only visitor. There was the jet pilot who would parachute down to the parking lot, a lantern-jawed hero in a flight suit and helmet, eyes covered in a green visor. “What is the matter with you?” he’d say as Eric pushed a line of shopping carts. “How can you stand these people? You could be flying with us!”

Then there was the beetle-browed lady on the bus who impaled him with a hateful stare every morning just for taking his place among the other passengers. “What are you doing here?” she seemed to say. “Do you really like slumming with the great unwashed?”

Even his mother had turned against him. “After all that money for college! You get a good job, a good salary and you quit to be a store clerk? You’re an agony in your mother’s heart!”

He tried to talk to his girlfriend, Sarah. “I’m having a terrible time on the job. I see stuff. Lizards on my shoulder, angry people on the bus, jet pilots in the parking lot. They tell me I’ve chosen the wrong path in life. I know they’re not real but I talk to them! I’m afraid I’m crazy!”

Sarah sighed and rolled her eyes.

His company medical plan paid for some psychotherapy. He steeled himself and dialled the personnel office from the kitchen table, trying to ignore the accusatory stare from the baked potato he’d been too squeamish to eat. “I think I need to talk to a therapist,” he said. “I’ve been under a lot of stress.”

But the counsellor the firm assigned wasn’t happy to see him. “Shopmart is my biggest customer so we’ll have to try, I guess. What’s the problem?”

“Can you see the lizard on my shoulder?”

“No. He’s your fantasy not mine. Can you see my God above?”

Eric looked up. No God.

“See? We all have our fantasies. I see God all the time. I’ve learned to listen to her. She can be quite helpful.”

“I should listen to my fantasies? They’re not very nice. What if they tell me to kill myself?”

“They won’t. They’d die with you. Just talk to them. Find out what makes them tick.”

Eric felt a rush of affection for the man. Finally he’d met somebody who didn’t judge him so quickly. He began to talk to his creatures and ask their advice.

The jet pilot admitted he was terrified of thunderstorms and had once cried behind his visor. He sat next to Eric on the bench while he waited for the bus. “Don’t you envy me?” He flipped his visor up, revealing obsidian eyes. “I get to fly above this filthy world.”

“It’s too lonely up there. I have to be with people,” said Eric. “I can’t help it. It’s the way I am.” The pilot recoiled in disgust and headed back to his jet.

The bus arrived. He sat next to the angry woman. She turned away. “Why don’t you like me?” he asked.

“Because you’re disgusting!” she hissed. “Sit somewhere else!”

“Look, I brought you a gift,” he said, handing her an electronic tablet. “It’s the best one we sell. Comes with the latest click bait. Have you seen that cute puppy video?”

She swiped at the screen. “Aww, that is cute! Okay, you’re not all bad.” She turned away again, lost in the click bait, ignoring Eric at last.

The lizard was living on the top shelf of his locker at Shopmart. “You again,” he sneered, crawling onto Eric’s shoulder. The locker stank of lizard shit. The tenuous connection Eric had felt for the creature vanished.

He dumped the slimy body in the washroom sink, pumped cleaning fluid on its scaly skin and scrubbed. The creature wriggled and bit. Eric grabbed its tail, rinsed it under hot water and wrestled it into his briefcase.

“It’s working,” he told the therapist. “I’m talking to my demons and kicking them out of my life.”

Back home he rushed to his mother’s room. “Hey, Mom, I’ve got something for you!”

“What? Really? So you still care for your old mother!”

“Here it is!” Eric reached into his backpack and pulled out the lizard.

“Oh, my! He’s so cute! Eric, he looks just like you!”

“Wanna hold him?” He held the creature at arm’s length. His mother grabbed the lizard, held it in her arms and cooed lovingly.

“Glad you like him Mom!” said Eric. He felt a burst of love as he watched his mother eat the lizard, crunching the delicate bones between her raggedy, yellow teeth.

“Eric,” said his mother, licking the blood from her lips. “I know you’ve been seeing one of those therapists, but there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re just a normal lizard and people hate us. They don’t like it that we’ve taken over their silly planet, but they’ll just have to get over it. Stop feeling guilty! You’re all skin and bones! Here! Eat!” She held out a severed arm.

Maybe she was right, thought Eric. His little brother looked delicious.


Good afternoon Mr. Smith, please make yourself comfortable.”

“Hello Dr. Siborg, what no couch?”

“No, we don’t do that anymore. We like to have equal footing between doctor and patient. You don’t have to call me ‘doctor’, either. Just call me Mary. You’ve already filled out our initial consultation form, so why don’t we get down to business. Suppose you tell me why you came to see me?”

“It’s not me, actually, it’s my wife. She’s losing it. She’s acting strange. It’s like I don’t know her anymore.”

“I can see this is very troubling for you. Tell me more.”

“Well, she seems afraid of me, as if I’m going to hit her or something.”

“Violence is never a good thing in a relationship. Have you ever hit her?”

“Are you kidding! I have people for that. We’ve only been married a few weeks. I love her!”

“You say she seems afraid of you. Have you asked her why?”

“Yeah, but she won’t talk. She just sits there looking at the door like she’s going to make a getaway or something. She won’t let me touch her. We can’t even sleep together. She doesn’t make dinner or do any housework and she’s not working so it’s not like she doesn’t have time. I come home and she’s cowering behind the door. I work hard. I make a great living. I’ve given her everything she could want and this is what I get.”

“How does this make you feel?”

“Well how do you think it makes me feel, doc– I mean Mary? I’m telling you my whole life is falling apart and all you can do is ask me how if feel? It makes me mad, that’s how I feel! It’s like I’m not welcome in my own home anymore. She won’t talk to me at all and I’ve done everything for her.”

“I sense some anger in our conversation. Please understand that I’m only here to help and if my responses seem generic in nature it’s because I don’t want to contaminate your replies with leading questions. Can you tell me where she goes during the day?”

“Nowhere, and I’m pretty darn sure of that. For a while I thought she was having an affair so I got one of the boys to watch her. He hung out for a week and said she never goes out at all.”

“So you’ve been spying on your wife?”

“Yeah, but only because she won’t talk to me.”

“What do you think she wants?”

“She wants out of our marriage, I guess. I can understand that, but I wish she’d try harder. After all we’ve been through and all I’ve done for her, or tried to do. God knows she’s suffered enough, but I’ve done everything I can to help. She lost her first husband in an accident and she’s never gotten over it. I think she blames me.”

“Blames you? For what?”

“For the dead guy, dammit! Aren’t you listening? He was a total jerk. Only hired him because of her and he tried to make deals behind my back! So I did him a favor. I told him to get lost or else. Thought we’d never see him again but no, he couldn’t even do that right. He turns up dead in a parking lot two weeks later. Gassed himself in his car. Place stank to high heaven. Cops arrested me and I got paraded in handcuffs down the main street. Apparently he’d left a note saying he was afraid of me. TV cameras everywhere.

“Anyway the judge was convinced I was a real psycho so they set bail at $10 million. But I never even got as far as the lockup. The Crown dropped the charges because one of the cops drowned and the other lost the suicide note.

“So I get home that very day and you should have seen the look on her face! She thought I was going to jail forever. I was hoping for a bit of make-up sex, but she didn’t want anything to do with me. Turns out she still blamed me for her dead husband even if I did get off. She was all for leaving the house and never coming back, but I convinced her to stay.”

“Did her first husband actually commit suicide?”

“No, he was murdered and we both know how it happened. But we’ve been through all that and we’re trying to put it behind us. Let’s put it this way: all that finger-pointing isn’t going to bring him back. There’s no point in digging it all up again, if you don’t mind my putting it that way.”

“Mr. Smith, it seems like you have some serious problems here. I think it’s best if both you and Mrs. Smith attended our sessions together. That way we could work towards a reconciliation. After all, you’ve both been through quite a bit of trauma. It’s understandable she’d be a bit anxious, especially if she expected never to see you again.”

“Well that’s just it, she won’t come. I’ve asked her. I’ve begged and pleaded but she won’t move. Maybe I’m not being clear. She just sits all day and doesn’t eat or do anything. I’m really worried about her.”

“That sounds like a serious depression. If she’s not moving or taking care of herself, we could arrange a home visit with a social worker to assess the situation. Are you willing to do that?”

“I’m not sure. I really don’t think she’d want any people over. Our place is messy and she was always such a good housekeeper. She’d never forgive me for letting people horn into our affairs. Besides, don’t like social workers and government snoops. If my wife starts to talk they’ll get the wrong idea and blame me for all her problems.”

“What would your wife say if she wanted to talk?”

“That’s the problem. I’m afraid she’d just want to leave and never see me again. I don’t think I could cope with that.”

“Doesn’t sound like she has much of a life the way things are.”

“No she doesn’t. In the old days we used to have these wonderful conversations, I really miss that. By the way, I’ve got to say I’ve enjoyed talking to you. I’m sorry if lost my temper a bit earlier. You sure have a way of getting under my skin for a computer program. I hope you don’t mind if I call you that.”

“Not at all, people tell us that all the time. We’re proud of how authentic our conversations seem. It’s a real honor to have humans share their lives with us. I’m sorry you and your wife aren’t getting along better.”

“Yeah. She doesn’t seem to be enjoying life at all. Just sits and stares at the door.”

“The front door?”

“The fridge door.”

“Why, is she hungry?”

“No, she’s in the fridge. I think she wants to get out, but she’d spoil if she did. I’ve got the thermostat turned as low as it will go but she’s still kind of stinking up the place and her skin’s turning black. I’m really worried.”

“I’m afraid we’ve reached the time limit for our session.”

“Okay, and thanks again. These conversations are confidential right?”

“Absolutely. Just press the delete key.”

Life Skills

The heart-rate counter on the gym’s treadmill had climbed to 160 beats per minute and he was only jogging. Years ago he’d have gone at twice his current speed, despite a two-pack a day cigarette habit.

His flagging speed was one way to measure the slow tick of years, but his default method was the growth of his child. A newborn spitting stains on his shirt; a toddler spellbound by a story; a pre-schooler splashing in the pool; a quiet reader sampling comics; a teen learning to flirt; a high school grad learning to drink; an angry young woman fighting her demons; an adult with a career job too busy to call.

When she was three they’d gone to the local gym together, he to exercise, she to daycare. He was in his early 40s at that point, still able to match his old high school speed, whooshing by the middle-aged office workers, three abreast and talking. The track ran around the gym about 30 feet above the floor. Runners could look down and ogle the girls playing volleyball or the strutting men lifting weights. He even saw his daughter once, wandering with a herd of pre-schoolers, chivvied along by a teacher.

“Molly!” he called from the overhead track. She stopped and peered in every direction but his. “Oh Molly!” he sang out again. A teacher pointed up at him. She waved, not surprised to find him watching her. Of course he was watching her. That was the purpose of his life as far as she was concerned.

Now that girl was 30 and those middle aged runners were whooshing past him, or at least they would be if he hadn’t forsaken the track for the stationary treadmills at the local fitness centre. The woman pounding away next to him maintained a steady gait, absorbed by the music in her headphones. He stole a look at her LED display. Over 8 mph. Much faster than he could go. Suddenly he was tired.

But he was experienced at managing his mood and had developed a work-around for such situations. He adjusted his glasses and peered over his music stand at the symphony orchestra assembled before him. Picking up his baton, he counted the musicians into his latest composition, Piano Concerto in D. The audience was rapt with attention, especially his co-workers, the lovely Charmaine among them. He had never told her about his musical endeavours and she was bug-eyed with admiration. “Just a hobby,” he would tell her with suitable modesty over a drink that evening. Borne aloft by his fantasy, he increased the speed of the treadmill to 5 mph. Soon the concerto was over.

“Let that be a lesson to you, Molly,” he told to his daughter via mental telepathy. “Learning to distract yourself is a life skill.”

He had been a dedicated life skill instructor and Molly an eager pupil at least until she was ten. He had taught her how to hammer a nail, change a quarter into dimes and nickels and steer the car from the passenger seat while he opened a cup of coffee.

The lessons continued in virtual form after his marriage broke up and his wife and daughter moved to Toronto. In his mind he taught Molly how to paddle a canoe, land a Cessna 150, write a MySQL query, set up lighting for a product shot and write a newspaper lede.

Every few months he flew to Toronto. He took her skating and then to the library where she developed a taste for science fiction. When she was older they played snooker in a bar and he let her sip from his glass of wine. He told her she was pretty and obviously smart despite her poor marks in school. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t run as fast as her friends, he said. She had asthma. It was like carrying a 20-pound weight.

By the time Molly was 13 the Internet was cutting into his business as a print designer. There were fewer visits to Toronto. He bought her a cellphone. She would call late into the evening with specific questions: “How do you erase your history from the computer? What do you do for a bleeding tooth? Do I have to have high marks for art school? How do I block this old guy who keeps phoning me?

She was on the same phone plan 20 years later and he was still paying the bill. But the phone calls weren’t the same. She was bored with him and he was lonely.

And his mind wandered, with nearly lethal results one rainy night.

He was driving home from the pub, deep in a self-absorbed reverie when he heard an outraged shriek: “FUCK YOU!” He slammed on the brakes, but it was too late to stop. He’d already sailed through the intersection and the crosswalk. In the rear view mirror he saw a slim woman crouched over a pile of books she must have dropped while leaping out of his way. She began to pick them up, keeping her eyes on his car. She hadn’t been hurt, he could tell, but she had been frightened and was righteously angry.

Should he back up and apologize? Offer her a ride home? But that could backfire. She would be able to read the licence number of his car more easily. If she had a cell phone she could call the cops and he’d have to explain the beers he’d drunk at the pub.

He drove on.

Dammit! Dammit! Dammit! He swore at himself. What if he had hit her? He imagined his car smashing her pelvis and pitching her up onto the hood of his car crunching her face against the windshield before she slid off, smacking her head on the pavement, her smashed bones slicing her flesh. If she didn’t die of internal bleeding she’d face a lifetime of pain and mental stress. She would have hated him, but not as much as he hated himself right then.

He reached his apartment building and pulled into the parking lot. She had taught him another life skill: know when to quit.

He sold his car, emptied his bank account and flew to Toronto where he could live without a vehicle. Once he got situated he’d get acquainted with his daughter again.

The years had blessed him with a lanky frame and distinguished mop of white hair. He got a job in a restaurant that catered to business conferences. The food was microwaved and the staff were badly paid. He was ideally suited for the work, having no experience.

And he was good at it. He smiled at people. They listened to his menu advice. He felt important. He took on extra duties, organizing tables and getting meals ready on time. He hoped for a promotion.

He was changing coffee filters, back to the restaurant, when the group was ushered in. He grabbed his order pad and approached them. And then he stopped. Molly! Right there behind that blonde chick.

Reflexively he wheeled and headed back to the kitchen as if he’d forgotten something. “Derek, can you cover Table 5 for me? I’ll get that load of teenagers for you. They’ll never tip.”

“Nope. No can do.” Derek was a pimple faced moron but had two years’ experience and therefore outranked him.

“Come on,” he wheedled, “I can’t serve that table! I know one of those people– I don’t want her to know I work here. Please?”

Derek ignored him, busying himself with the coffee machine.

He couldn’t just walk out. Jobs were hard to find for men his age. How about a heart attack? No, Derek already knew his secret.

But he had a life skill for this kind of thing: think about the worst that could happen. He’d be embarrassed and so would Molly, but neither of them would die. He might even parlay their encounter into a drink later on. He’d just have to keep his held high and get through it.

He approached with his order pad, circling the table to stand behind Molly. The others were impatient and gave their orders quickly. Only Molly was still looking over the menu, like she had in the high chair 30 years earlier, dithering between the carrots and the peas.

Finally she looked up spearing him with a pair of blue-gray eyes. He noticed a tiny scar between them. He blanched and, with a theatrical clearing of his throat, dropped his head to his order pad. She caught on right away. “I’ll have the steak, medium rare please with roast potatoes.” Her voice was entirely neutral. All those child acting lessons finally paid off.

Weak with relief he headed for the kitchen to post his orders. He returned with coffee and juice, working his way around the table. careful to serve Molly in the middle, standing behind her and reaching around her right side as he’d been taught.

Molly was absorbed in conversation with an older woman. Her voice was confident and the woman seemed to respect her. He eavesdropped. They hadn’t talked in months. He wasn’t sure what her new job was and what she was interested in these days.

He was quickened by the stress and enjoyed playing the lively, entertaining waiter. He was full of anecdotes and little jokes, nodding and winking at his guests. All his guests but Molly.

At last the meal was over. He stood behind the cash register as they paid their bills, separately. Molly, thankfully, was last. He wanted to speak to her but she just handed him a company credit card. He ran it through the reader and handed the remote back. She added a 20 per cent tip, then handed the machine back without comment.

“Thank you,” he said, without thinking. A decent tip, even if it was his own kid. She hitched her briefcase back on her shoulder. Last chance.

He steeled himself: “Molly, how have you been?”

“Excuse me?”

“Molly! It’s me! Your—. Sorry, thought you were somebody else.”

“No problem”. He watched her walk quickly towards the glass door to the sunlit street.

Where on earth had that scar come from? An accident? A malevolent boyfriend? Whatever the cause, she’d have told him, wouldn’t she? Certainly her mother would have said something, wouldn’t she?

“Thanks for coming,” he called out to her, “hope to see you again.”

The glass door to the street opened and for a second she was silhouetted by a flash of sunlight. She waved back at him. He thought of that little girl on the gym floor.

Surely she’d come back, wouldn’t she?

Burgers & beer

Burgers & Beer
By Stu Ducklow

All was quiet on the flight deck of the Airbus A330 as it descended through 12,000 feet heading west on its long descent to Vancouver. Despite the summer haze, first officer David Knight could pick out Burnaby Mountain, a tree-covered hill on the southern shore of Burrard Inlet, bordered on its northern side by the snow-covered peaks of the coastal mountain range retreating endlessly into the distance. On the top of the mountain he could see the angular buildings of Simon Fraser University, glaring white against the surrounding forest: the main quadrangle, concourse and library and even the residence where he had lived so long ago.
But he was too busy to linger. The plane, with over 300 passengers, was following a long, gentle loop that would take them out over the Strait of Juan de Fuca and around the western edge of Vancouver until they turned back for the final glide to the flat delta lands south of the city and the concrete runway reserved for their use.
“Vancouver Tower, this is Air Canada 230 at 12,000 feet, 20 km north of the Granville Bridge, turning south to 180,” David intoned into the radio, his laconic southern voice a near-perfect imitation of that of Charles Yeager, a death-defying test pilot who broke the sound barrier in a rocket in 1947. Technicians had recorded him as he announced the breakthrough. His lazy drawl had become the template for pilots everywhere.
A voice replied: “Air Canada 230 this is Vancouver Tower, altimeter 29.92, wind 120 at 10. Cleared to 3,000 feet to join long final for runway 090 behind Japan Air flight 234, now five miles out on final at 2,000.”
David pressed the mic button to acknowledge, but a joyful female voice burst into his headphones: “Ah, roger dodger incoming traffic, you are totally cleared all the way in for precision approach and touchdown!”
“Oh!” David blurted into the microphone and heard the girl giggling. He flashed on the memory of Susan, love of his life, on the mattress in her basement apartment. How his body had quivered as her hands reached under the sheets to guide him. How her scent had overwhelmed him and even now, sitting in the cockpit 12,000 feet above that spot, his eyes teared with the joy they had shared. It had been ten years since they had broken up. He shook his head to bat the hallucination away.
It took a few breaths for David to clear his throat so he could talk, and his voice was anything but laconic: “Ah, sorry, tower, this is Air Canada 230, proceeding to join final.” He brought the approach plate for Vancouver Airport up on the computer screen and forced himself to concentrate on its depiction of the aircraft’s stately progress. He avoided the watchful gaze of his captain and busied himself, checking the calibration of the altimeter.
It had happened again, he thought miserably. Susan had been invading his thoughts at unpredictable moments with increasing frequency over the past year. He had seen her in crowds and heard her voice in conversations with colleagues. Once she’d popped up in the back seat of his car, ordering him to change lanes “now! Right now! That way, you idiot! Don’t you know where we’re going?”
“Shut up, Susan!” he’d barked through clenched teeth, both hands gripping the wheel as he concentrated on his predetermined route in the heavy traffic.
“Pardon?” his companion had asked. He had forgotten she was there, the cute red-haired stewardess with whom he’d shared cabs and coffee when their shifts brought them together.
“Oh, shit! Sorry! Not enough sleep last night.” She had accepted the excuse with a shrug but he could feel her turn away, pressing her knees against the passenger door. She hadn’t talked to him since.
Vancouver. He’d traded shifts with a colleague so he could visit the city and, during his four-day layover, update the old memories that kept invading his life and threatening his career.
The idea had had come from his therapist, an online counsellor he paid out of his own pocket to keep the treatments confidential. He had suggested David wander through the places he’d shared with Susan when they lived there together. He had agreed to visit the university, to walk through the lecture hall, cafeteria, and library and from there along the street where she had lived. He might even try and meet Susan if he could find her. For his own sake he hoped she was fat.
Captain Scott Crichton pulled the throttles back, trimmed the nose down and looked towards his flying partner: “all yours, buddy.”
“Thanks!” David nodded with the ingratiating grin of an eager disciple and, for the benefit of the cockpit recorder intoned, “I have control.” As he caressed the wheel he felt his body merge with the aircraft, sensing its response to his touch and to the wind as he began a rate 1 turn to the left. He was a talented pilot, able to visualize the aircraft through the controls, sense its movement, feel its power, the lift of the wings and the buffeting of the ocean of air around him. It was early evening and winds were light. Vancouver dozed in the haze to his left. Below, the waves, fishing boats and freighters were lit by the oblique sunset. A pulse of light ahead indicated traffic moving right to left several miles ahead, probably Japan Air 234 on its long final.
“Oh, my prince,” Susan purred. “You’re such a good pilot. Soon you’ll be flying all over the world and won’t have time for my little English class.”
Dave shook his head again, jaw clamped shut, forcing his attention on the instruments and the job at hand.
“Flaps 10, power 75 per cent,” he said, and his captain, a kindly-faced operator within a few months of retirement, fingered the flaps lever. David dropped the nose slightly to counteract the increased lift and drag and continued his rate 1 turn. He saw the runway far in the distance and the flashing lights of the traffic ahead. He heard Crichton’s drawl: “Vancouver Tower, Air Canada 230 is joining final, ten miles out.”
With an almost magical precision David sensed the aircraft was 50 feet above the electronic glide path and would land past the midpoint of the runway. “Flaps 20, power 50,” he said. The machinery whirred as Crichton responded and David lowered the nose slightly to compensate.
“Gear down, power 25” said David.
The machinery whirred and he felt a tremor in the aircraft. Again, he lowered the nose, concentrating furiously on his glide path and the flashing Japan Air taillight. Susan walked in front of the aircraft in the hazy evening light, sashaying down the glide path as if to guide him in. Her hips swayed as if she held a baby in her arms. David blinked. The runway reappeared.
“Flaps 30, power 30.” David coaxed the nose up slightly and felt the change in air currents as the plane reached the shoreline. Air Japan was on the ground, slowing, about to turn left. Vancouver Tower had spaced out the flight pattern to allow five minutes for wind shear created by heavy airliners to die out before they landed.
“No,” she had said. “No, David, no. I am sorry. Don’t.”
“Power 15,” he brought the nose up again and the runway approach lights settled beneath him, 50 feet below. He held the aircraft as he would a gentle bird, letting it feel for the concrete beneath its spreading wings. At last the kiss of tires meeting concrete.
“Power to zero, deploy thrust reversers.” Two improbably huge scoops fell into place behind each engine.
“Power 50%.” The aircraft trembled under the thunder of the engines and the nose dropped slightly as the aircraft slowed.
David concealed a sigh of relief, faced his captain and forced a smile: “Thanks, man!”
“No problem, you’ve got a good bit of talent!”
“Thank you, lots to learn yet,” he replied with rehearsed humility.
He thought of the broken aviator he had read about, a copilot on a discount airline flying a similar aircraft. He had locked his captain out of the cockpit and pushed the nose straight down, killing himself and the 150 occupants.
Susan’s street had hardly changed. A grimy road running off a four-lane highway not far from the university. Identical one-storey houses with white stucco walls and gray-shingled roofs. Over the years the owners had bordered their yards with hedges, now mostly overgrown. Old cars littered the street, one missing a fender. Trees, leaves scarred by urban smoke, lined the sidewalk. His knees were shaking.
He began walking up the street, looking for her house at the top of the hill. And then David, the stolid, rational pilot, valued employee with good salary and promising career was entirely swept away by her sudden appearance at the top of the hill. Yes! Of course she lives there and here she comes! Oh, look at that smile!
He opened his arms wide to receive her and walked straight into a tree.
With a moan, he wrapped his arms around the bristly trunk and closed his eyes. If a frog could turn into a prince could a tree turn into a girl? Why not, if he wished hard enough?
“Susan?” he whispered into the tree’s scaly trunk. He heard her soft reply: “right here, Dave!”
His eyes popped open again. No Susan. Only a lonely fool leaning his forehead against a tree.
Dear God, he thought. What am I gonna do?
He had met her in an English class required of all students of the flight college, 20 km away at Pitt Meadows Airport. He had been unfamiliar with the campus so it had taken a while to find the lecture hall. He chose a seat near the back a long way from other students and sat, notebook opened, pen in hand, eyes front, waiting.
He heard someone scuttle in behind him, turned to look and had his first glimpse of the tall girl who would change his life. She was one of those beautiful girls that seemed to decorate the halls of universities like flowers, Dave thought. He paid little attention to them. They were out of his league and of no interest to him. He was just turning away when he caught her smiling in his direction.
Obviously a mistake, David thought. He had been fooled by beautiful girls before. They seemed to smile right at him but were actually directing their attentions at somebody else, catching him in the crossfire. He looked around for the intended recipient but saw no one. Awkwardly he turned to the front, trying to make sense of this anomaly. He heard her fussing in her seat and surmised that she was about to move to the front of the hall where she could sit with her friends and regale them with the tale of how she’d smiled at this pimple-faced loser entirely by mistake and now feared he would haunt her for days. And then he felt a tap on his shoulder.
“You wouldn’t have an extra pen, would you?” She had the most beautiful eyes. For a moment he couldn’t say anything. Then she smiled again. “I’d forget my head if it wasn’t screwed on.”
“Oh! Sure,” he said, handing her the pen he’d been using. “Thanks!” she whispered and retreated to her seat. And then Dave realized he’d just given away the only pen he had. He couldn’t even take notes. He thought about leaving but sat alone instead, miserable, confounded and unable to tear himself away from such beauty.
She surprised him again as the lecture hall emptied, grabbing his arm and handing his pen back. “Thanks! You’re a lifesaver! But I didn’t see you writing anything down.” She nudged him playfully. “I didn’t take your only pen did I?”
“Umm, yeah, I guess you did. I didn’t realize it until you’d left. Sorry…”
“Whaddyamean sorry? Please! Let me buy you a coffee. You can copy my notes.” She led him on, one slender hand on his upper arm. He flexed the muscles therein, trying to enlarge them without being too obvious. She pressed closer to him and he thought he detected a soft breast just above her fingers. They arrived. She led him to the buffet section and put a tray on the metal rails that led along the track to the cashier.
“What kind of coffee?”
“Oh, just a regular, I guess.” He rubbed his arm, savouring her strong grip and the breast — the alleged breast, he cautioned — above. He hadn’t been touched on purpose by anyone in a very long time.
She grabbed two ceramic cups and added cream, sugar and coffee to one of them, then looked up at him with raised eyebrows. He studied her face. Brilliant blue eyes, perky nose, full red lips and perfect teeth all framed by a tangle of tawny hair drawn into a scraggly bun at the top of her head. He wondered if he’d seen her on a poster for women’s beauty products. She could make money with a face like that, he thought, and considered telling her that, but thought better of it. Her smile had diminished and she looked confused. “Sugar? cream?” Oh, of course! That’s why she was smiling at him. “Umm, yeah … me too. Thanks. Umm… sorry,” he stuttered.
Long, exasperated sigh: “enough with that ‘sorry’ bit, buddy!”
Buddy? He savoured her choice of words.
She threaded her way between tables crowded with students. He walked behind her, a shy but experienced connoisseur of female derrières. She swayed as she walked, as if she held a baby in her arms. He stripped her naked in his mind and replaced the cafeteria with a tropical beach. She turned back to him displaying bare breasts and handed him the baby before plunging into the jungle.
She selected a table, not quite so crowded as the others, and they picked chairs near the middle, across from each other. She settled into hers like it was The Chair of Saint Peter and blessed him with another smile.
He risked a tight-lipped smirk in return, trying to conceal his yellowing teeth.
“Hey! Susan!” called a beautiful mop-haired boy with the broad shoulders and healthy glow of an athlete. “I found that book you were talking about. You know the one about —”
She dismissed him instantly. “Sorry, Todd, not now.”
She turned back to Dave. “What do you think? Can you read my writing?” He tore his eyes from hers and rummaged through her loose leaf binder looking for her notes.
“Right here,” she said, her hand brushing against his. “There’s a lot. Maybe we should take our coffees to the library.”
Todd gave a rueful snort as he watched them walk away. That shrimp was hardly taller than Susan and he seemed to strain under the weight of his briefcase. Todd was confident of his good looks, square-jawed face, hazel eyes and his blond locks still wet from the swimming pool. But maybe he wasn’t her type. Maybe too much beach bum, not enough earnest student.
Well so what? The world seemed full of young women and most of them seemed to be enrolled in his first-year English class along with Susan, whom he’d actually met a few weeks earlier at English Bay. He had been in full beach bum mode then, pretending to be the vigilant lifeguard scanning the surf for damsels in distress. And suddenly there she was, in full damsel mode herself, emerging from the surf entirely without outside help. She’d walked right past him ignoring his admiring gaze and then pivoted suddenly to catch him in mid ogle. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“Oh, um … sorry,” said Todd, switching to the charming, bashful mode he had developed for such situations. “It’s … just … um… this genetic disability I seem to have.” He stared ostentatiously at the sky.
“Yeah,” she said, giggling as she played along. “Being a guy is such a terrible handicap. Try not to fall over while you’re walking. And I’m parked over there.”
Damn, thought Todd. Life can be so beautiful!
They lay together and talked, she on her towel, he on the hot sand. The sand baked his bones. He took a handful of it and sprinkled it on the long muscles of her thighs. She shivered in a way that reminded him of his baby daughter when he’d plonked her down on this very beach and sprinkled sand into her outstretched hands. She’d held it in her tiny fists and soberly savoured the sensation as the sand trickled away. Sort of like an hourglass that ran out too soon, he thought. She popped into his head every few hours. He grieved for her every day and waited for her next visitation. Eyes misty, he looked back at Susan. The skin on her face was so soft and smooth she seemed young enough for high school but she had a wary look, like a single mother or even an undercover cop. Neither, she told him, but refused to elaborate. “Back east,” she told him when he asked where she was from. “Just east.”
She was playful, eagerly running hand in hand into the surf with him, but not comfortable when he grabbed her around the waist just to see how far she would let him go. She placed one strong hand gently against his throat warning him off. They left the water and wandered along the boardwalk holding hands and sharing a tray of vinegar-soaked chips, licking the ketchup with their fingers. As the late summer sun faded, they walked to a bar but it turned out she she was too young to go inside so Todd tipped the waiter and bought a bottle of wine and some paper cups. They walked back to her car, an old hatchback. She cracked the door with her clicker and when the dome light came on he saw it was full of camping gear. The back seat had been turned down to form a platform long enough to stretch out on. “Nice set-up! Do you live here?”
She leaned against the car door, arms folded, thinking. “Enough questions,” she said finally. She handed him the bottle, jumped into the car and rolled down the window while he gawked. “Keep the wine. No hard feelings, okay?” And she was gone.
And then she was back, two weeks later, tapping on his shoulder as he dozed through an English lecture at the university. She slid into the seat beside him. “Remember me?”
His heart beat faster. “Ah, yes, the cop from nowhere.”
“Yup, that’s me. I might have to take you in for excessive ogling.”
“Guilty as charged. Are you going to take me away from all this?” He indicated the lecture hall full of bustling students.
“Sorry. I’m staying. Just enrolled.
“Didn’t expect to see you here, though. I want to apologize for being so skittish the other day — or week, I guess. I just moved here a while ago and yeah I did sleep in my car while I drove out. And I don’t want to say where I’m from because I don’t want certain people to know.”
“Hey, it’s okay, I’m just glad to see you.” And look at you, he thought. She had put on some makeup though it did nothing to make her prettier. Her skin was clear and unblemished, her teeth perfectly white and her lips were soft, nothing that couldn’t be achieved with fresh water, soap and good dental habits. Make-up? He liked it because it showed that someone wanted to look good for him. But not this one, it seemed.
“Maybe we can, like, study together a bit.” He tried his country hick impersonation: “I’m just a li’l ol’ country boy auditing this course. Don’t read all that much and them textbooks, why they ain’t got no pitchers!”
“Maybe,” she said, and he knew he had lost her. “You won’t think I’m antisocial if I move down to the front, would you? I want to make sure I can hear the prof and I might want to ask some questions.”
And again, just like last time, she was gone. Skittish is right, thought Todd. He wondered who she was hiding from. And what had he done wrong?
The mystery deepened a week later when he watched her lead David out of the cafeteria, one hand on his arm like a busy mother dragging a child by one ear. What’s that guy got that I haven’t got?
David had no idea either. Painfully shy all his life he’d survived the social challenges of high school by looking at the floor. His only date in his whole life had been arranged by the school guidance counsellor who could not bear to see anyone left out of such an important celebration. He was paired with an equally shy girl he’d known since Grade 3. Her name was Cathy. In ten years they’d never talked.
They had gone to their high school graduation together, he in a rented tuxedo, she in a flowing gown with long white gloves. Almost without speaking they had suffered their social rituals, slowly chewing their dinners in the cafeteria so they didn’t have to make conversation and dancing almost without touching as the school band played in the gym.
Early in the evening she agreed it was time to leave and he drove her home in his father’s car. They walked up the sidewalk to her little house, his heart pounding with the challenge of kissing her. But she stood away from him at the porch and offered her hand instead. Gratefully, he took it and then saw the look of terror on her face. Was she afraid of him? She looked so vulnerable. “Kathy, I’m sorry,” he said and clutched her hand in both of his. “I’m sorry. I’m so shy.”
“Oh!” she replied but it sounded like a cry, as if she’d stuck a pin in one finger. She shrank back and pushed at the two hands gripping hers. “Thanks for a wonderful evening. Goodnight.” And she was gone.
David had stared at the door for a few seconds, stunned by the revelation that someone else was shy like him. He felt less lonely.
And now he was meeting Susan, the exact opposite of Cathy, breezily leading him across the academic quadrangle to the library and then downstairs along a convoluted path to her study nook, a couple of stuffed armchairs concealed behind several tall shelves of books. “Keep quiet about this place, okay? I don’t like people coming here.” She flopped into an armchair with a textbook and started reading. He sat primly across from her in the other armchair, notebooks balanced on his knees, dutifully copying. He glanced at her while she read and saw her slouched low in her seat, almost sitting on her spine. She turned occasionally to sit sideways, resting her head on one arm of the chair and flopping her legs over the other. Her t-shirt pulled up, exposing a bit of midriff.
At last he finished and stood to go. She looked up from her latest position, lying flat on the floor, legs resting in the armchair.
“How about next week right here?” she said. “We can talk about the lecture. Good way to remember it. And it’ll be your turn to buy the coffee, eh?” She held up a hand. Did she want to shake hands? No, he realized, she wanted a lift up. He grabbed her hand and pulled, awkwardly. “Not so hard, big guy, I’d like to keep my arm.”
Big guy? No female on earth had ever called him that. He covered his giddy smile with one hand and looked around. The aisles between the rows of books were far too narrow for her to have dragged the armchairs between them. “How did you get this stuff in here?”
“I took ‘em apart,” she grinned. “I like having my own space. See ya.”
Her own space. Susan was building it in her mind. A nice apartment with a view from the balcony. It would have a whole wall of bookshelves and a couch with a guy on it who would sit and watch a movie with one arm around her shoulders. They’d have a few glasses of wine, get a little tipsy and tell each other their darkest secrets. Well, not every secret. There were a few things she’d never talk about. And which particular guy would it be on that couch?
Dave would be the safest choice.
Career prospects? Excellent.
Personality? Submissive.
Faithful? Totally.
Flavour? Vanilla.
Exciting? No.
Appearance? Will improve with confidence and soap.
And Todd
Career prospects? Unknown.
Personality? Clever.
Faithful? Doubtful.
Flavour? Hot and spicy.
Exciting? Yes!
Appearance? Fuck yes!
Oh, Todd. It was too bad she hadn’t included a category for warmth and humour and depth. He had lost somebody. She could see it in his eyes that day at the beach. It hadn’t been her he was thinking of. He wasn’t ready despite his boy toy banter and she wasn’t ready for anything but vanilla.
For the foreseeable future, Dave was the boy on the couch.
Next week Dave brought the coffee. They drank them in the stuffed armchairs and she quizzed him. “So, tell me the lecture. Thirty-second summary. Go.” He stuttered and stumbled referring to his notes and getting lost. She interrupted, crawling across the space between the chairs so she could kneel before him and cover his notes with her hand. “Don’t read your notes, just tell me. You know, you look a lot better when you look right at me instead of the ground?”
He looked better? What exactly did that mean? Did she like his looks or was she coaching him on his presentation skills? The question kept him occupied through the navigation class at the college that afternoon. He took a bathroom break and studied his face in the mirror. Not much to like, he thought. A small man, hardly taller than Susan, with rounded shoulders, greasy black hair and pale, pockmarked skin, untouched by sun or weather.
She brought the coffee the week after and, as he followed her down the last row of books, he heard her gasp. “Wow! A coffee table! Did you bring that here?”
“Yeah. Is it okay? I don’t want to take over your space.”
“No, it’s our space, silly, and I love it!” Their shoulders touched as they gazed at the scene like lovers moving into their first apartment. “Okay, work time. Dave’s special report on English 101, The Novel. And what is your last name by the way sir?”
“Umm, Knight and, uh, what’s yours?”
“Oh, um Smith! Now, Professor Knight, tell us what we heard. Thirty seconds. Go!”
He was improving, he thought, as he fought to keep his eyes on her face instead of the ground, and enunciate clearly and slowly instead of his usual mumble. He used limited hand gestures and picked out words for emphasis. The content of the lecture was easy— he’d made good notes and reviewed them in his head while they walked to the library.
“Professor Knight,” she said rising from her chair, “You are a very authoritative source. I am deeply impressed. Thank you!” She crossed the floor towards him and stuck out a skinny arm to shake hands.
Her hand felt small and soft. Instinctively Dave used both hands, holding hers gently between them as he might a small bird. “You’re welcome,” he intoned, speaking in presentation mode and holding her eyes.
The study space improved. He brought a rug and then two mismatched lamps from his parent’s house. They studied together there nearly every day. One day they arrived and he saw a sports jacket draped over his chair. Susan was hopping up and down like a child at Christmas. “Try it on! Wear it with blue jeans! You’ll look like a prof!” She grabbed the lapels to adjust them and stood back, studying the effect. “Perfect! You gotta see yourself!”
Together they headed to the men’s washroom, the nearest spot with a mirror. She waited outside while he cased the joint, looking under every toilet stall before pronouncing it clear of occupants. She joined him inside and stood behind him, peering over his shoulder while he studied his image. “Oh my prince!” she said, “soon you’ll be a pilot, flying all over the world and won’t have time for me and my little English class.”
They were silenced by her declaration. “Jeez, getting ahead of myself! Come on, study buddy! Work time!” She led him back to their spot.
How, he thought, could this beautiful girl not have a boyfriend? He had studied her potential suitors, tall, broad-shouldered young men and found himself wanting. He envied their easy banter and felt lost at their literary allusions. He watched them look at Susan and then back at him. Sometimes their stares were a challenge, other times a rueful acknowledgement. Todd, the only member of her coterie whose name he could remember, nodded at him once with a brotherly smile. Good for you, he seemed to say.
But still he couldn’t believe his good fortune.
He began to test her affections, arriving early to the English class and sitting in odd corners of the lecture hall. He’d wait for her to arrive, breathless and late, and he’d watch out of the corner of his eye as she searched for him. Then his heart would rise in his chest as he saw her shuffle past rows of friends, forcing them out of their seats one by one until she reached the seat next to him and plunked herself down as if it belonged to her, which it did. And as if he was her dear friend and life companion, which he certainly was and wanted to be.
They began lower the boundaries between each other. Only she could sip from his coffee cup, peruse his aeronautical texts or lay a notebook on his lap. And only he could drape an arm over her shoulders or rummage through her briefcase for a pen. She would save a seat for him by crossing a leg over it and, when he arrived she’d hoist the leg and then drop it into his lap so he could stroke the attached foot. They spent hours together in the library. She was a hard worker and read constantly, blackening the pages with notes in her large, square handwriting.
He’d read a pop psychology book on body language and, with his new-found knowledge, observed that the alignment of her hips and the way she crossed her legs indicated that she was subconsciously aligning herself with him.
He was learning to draw. He sketched Susan as she read. His first efforts were blocky and crude engineering studies, unrecognizable. But he progressed, learning the proportions of the female form, the longer necks and narrow shoulders. Their bodies, it seemed, were centred in their hips, and the knowledge improved his likenesses.
But Susan’s face was difficult. He struggled with the furniture of it, the size of her eyes and cheekbones, the shadow of her nose. Her mouth eluded him. The slightest change in the line between her lips transformed a quiet smile into a painful grimace.
Dave rose from his chair and stood behind the slouching form of the woman he loved. “Instrument training,” he trilled. She raised her face to him and he kissed her on the cheek. In his mind he replayed the moment as he walked to his car. Susan had blessed him with a warm smile, one of the finger-wiggling waves they had begun to use with each other and an admonition to work hard. Yes, he had to work hard. He was building a career for the two of them.
Today, David had a special project. He’d reserved a Cessna 150, one of the school’s training aircraft. He planned to fly over Simon Fraser to a tiny inlet off Deep Cove where Susan’s house was nestled among the trees. He’d bring a passenger with him, another flight student who had an expensive camera. They were going to take pictures of Susan’s house. He wanted to impress his new girlfriend with his ability to wander through the sky. Not even Todd could do that.
After Dave left, Susan stared into space for a few minutes then grabbed her car keys and and headed for the parking lot. She needed to go for a drive and highways were not far away. She loved highways because they offered escape, adventure and a private place to scream.
Inside the car, a battered Toyota she had stolen from her father, she lit the one cigarette she allowed herself per day and headed out. On the highway she drew a big lungful of air, ready to let loose. But instead she blew it out softly in a long, thoughtful sigh. It didn’t matter. She could scream when she was ready. She cranked the window down and stuck her arm out. Vancouver was so different from Halifax. The trees, speeding past, were greyish green and the water, glinting between the branches, was greyish blue. The trees back home would soon explode in a riot of colour and people could scream in their cars if they felt like it. Here the colours were subtle. They encouraged quiet thoughts and reflection.
She had been the only child of parents who didn’t like each other. They’d taken turns babysitting her through childhood. Susan, desperate to keep them together, tried to be cheerful all the time. It had been a lonely household. “You have to find yourself dear,” said her mother, engrossed in her new-age lifestyle. “You can do whatever you like.”
She had tried to do what she was told and swallowed every new age idea she could find. She burned incense, threw the I Ching, interpreted Tarot cards. She had her palm read, ears candled, her body rolfed and even submitted to mysterious treatments by a certified accept-no-substitutes raindrop therapist.
And that’s when the screaming started. She was in the kitchen, the dutiful daughter, washing the dishes from the dinner she had eaten alone. She was thinking about yet another new age technique she had heard about. Her mother was reading in the living room. Her father was upstairs on the computer. She thought, why not? She grabbed a thatch of hair on either side of her head and screamed with all her might. Then she put her hands over her mouth and screamed even louder. She stomped on the floor and screamed. She hit her head with both fists and screamed. She fell to the floor screaming, banged her head on the linoleum and screamed. Then she rolled over and kicked her feet and screamed.
“What the hell!” shouted her father, standing at the top of the stairs. Her mother looked up from her book. “That’s all right Tom, it’s just a primal.”
Susan sat on the floor, bug-eyed and grinning. Her throat felt like it had been scraped with a wire brush. She ran up the stairs to her father and screamed again right into his ear as loud as she could: “Yeah, right, Dad, ‘IT’S JUST A FUCKING PRIMAL!!!”
The little family gathered in the living room, looking at each other and shrinking away at the same time. Susan’s face was scrunched into her hands as she tried to will the tears away. “I’m going out,” she said.
She headed for the park, about 5 km away, at a dead run, finally slowing to a fast jog, bounding up and down between the street lights, her long legs casting weird shadows. She had scared her parents. Even her mother had looked shocked despite her forced calmness. She felt powerful. She had looked at them both and, like the proverbial two-year-old, said ‘no’.
She slowed to a walk along a gravel path in the park, the moon shining through the tall trees to light her way. She heard the surf ahead and found a pathway to a small beach. Filled with the drama of the moment, she walked straight into the chilly ocean until she had to swim. She ducked her head under the waves, turned and floated on her back looking up at the fading stars.
How many people would miss her if she didn’t come back? Basketball practice would start in a few hours and they’d wonder where she was. She was a pretty good player and had made the starting lineup this year. She had loved her teammates, mostly for the easy ways they had of touching each other, arms lingering around shoulders, towels snapped in the changing room and their shyness as they turned away in the small shared space. She wanted to throw her arms around the quiet young man who might have been on the point of asking her out had she not jumped on the wrong school bus in her eagerness to escape and then had to walk halfway across town to get home. She’d even miss her fusty old science teacher who didn’t care if anyone had the right answers as long as they had the right questions. She’d miss her long, therapeutic talks with Gemma, her best friend from childhood, who had grown rangy and athletic, always busy with her jock friends. Even though they rarely spoke it was astonishing how easily they could pick up a conversation that had started two years earlier as if they’d been in adjoining rooms of the same house. And especially, most especially, she’d miss Nicole, who had kissed her as they sat on her back deck drinking her mother’s vodka which she spewed up on her long, staggering walk home.
She would miss all sorts of people but she wouldn’t miss her parents and, she realized with a chill, they wouldn’t miss her either. It was time for her to go. She rolled over on her belly and breast-stroked to shore. Her clothes were nearly dry by the time she got home and the sun was shining.
She showered noisily and changed into dry clothes. Then she thumped downstairs to the basement and scrabbled about among bundles of frozen meat in the freezer. She found the envelope her father kept and nobody was supposed to know about. It was gratifyingly thick. She counted the bills inside. More than $25,000. She grabbed his keys from the hall table and got the registration documents from the car outside. Back in the kitchen she sat, calmly practising her father’s signature over and over, then signed the vehicle over to herself.
Finally she sat and stared into space in room where she’d grown up. The plastic clock on the wall said it was just after 7 a.m. Her father would snooze for hours. Her mother would wake up, go to the bathroom and then back to bed so she could be alone and read. They knew she was home. She had made more than enough noise to wake them but they hadn’t stirred themselves enough to ask if she was okay, offer to make breakfast or drive her to school.
She knew what would happen. Her father would discover the car was gone and would rush downstairs and look for his precious cash envelope. Her mother would pace in her bathrobe and finger the plants in the kitchen. Then she would sit in her reading chair in the living room while her father checked his invoices on the the downstairs computer. Eventually he’d enter the living room and stand in the middle of it, hands clasped over his crotch. Her mother would would turn away and maybe roll her eyes at his intrusion. He’d look out the window while he told her that he’d be able to move out on a certain date as long as certain clients paid their bills on time. And she would agree, still looking out the window, that his calculations sounded about right. And that would be it. She was an adult. The police would tell them that she was free to go wherever she liked. Nobody would look for her.
The car thrummed along the highway, heading into the haze of downtown Vancouver. An exit heading to the industrial east of the city appeared. She took it. The car rattled along potholed roads for a few miles, past warehouses and big-box stores. She took another turn to the left and drove down a tree-lined street with ragged two-storey houses some boasting storefronts. She parked across from one such store, this one sporting a street hockey goal and walked towards a small house painted an exuberant purple and green with tiny windows in odd shapes scattered at various angles. She skipped up the steps and entered without knocking.
Todd was bent over the wooden floor using a mallet to hammer thin strips of wood between the original softwood floorboards. Slivers of wood and glue stuck up between the boards where he’d finished hammering.
Todd looked up with a grin. “Hey girl! Gimme a hand, eh? Plane them strips down.” Susan grabbed a small plane and began stroking along the thin slivers of wood Todd had left behind, planing them down just proud of the boards. It was easy, satisfying work and Susan enjoyed it. When the job was finished they would go over the whole floor with a heavy sander, working from coarse to fine grit. Then the floor could be cleaned and varnished to a soft glow. The boards were as old as the city of Vancouver and had always been covered with linoleum or carpet. Soon they’d reveal their true beauty.
They worked together for more than an hour, hardly looking up. Finally Susan rose to fiddle with Todd’s beat box, switching it from funk to bebop, a harsh jazz style she found hard to follow but had somehow spoiled her tastes. Now she found her soft rock favourites boring. Todd found jazz irritating but didn’t like to admit it. Susan liked to watch his brow knit in frustration as tried to find the beat. Finally he’d give up, and that was the moment she was waiting for.
“Let’s take a break,” he ordered, standing up and brushing sawdust off his jeans. Susan joined him with a smile. “Doncha just love that music?” she teased, nudging him with her hips.
“No. Get your clothes off.”
She batted her eyes. “Not here, surely.”
He grabbed her arm and hauled her, giggling, up the unfinished stairs to the bedroom. He slammed the door, not for privacy but to shut out the damned bebop.
Sometimes Susan liked his rough way with her, but not so much this time. She knew it was over between them and, worse, she knew Todd would’t mind. She let him shove her against the wall and kiss her. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him hard in return. She was going to miss this, dammit. “Hey, not so rough, boy! Let’s take our time.”
And suddenly Todd was gentle and solicitous, scooping her off her feet, crossing the room with her in his arms and laying her on the bed. She purred under his caresses. Why couldn’t this work?
Afterwords she lay with her eyes closed, feeling his gaze as he lay inside her. She could feel his eyes as he sized up the planes and angles of her face as if measuring a house for renovations. “Great bones. Gotta purty li’l face on you, girl.”
“You’re not so bad yourself for an old guy. Even if you don’t want to get married. Now get off me. I’ve got things to do.”
“Damn, I was just going to fall asleep here. Hey, how about I come along to your place? I’ll cook dinner. We’ll get a bottle of wine and talk things over.”
“Yeah, but that’s not gonna change anything, is it?”
“Nope. No more marriages and no more kids for me, remember?”
She was on her feet pulling her pants up. “Yup. Hey, can you actually cook?”
“Sure. Not bad. Let me do this. Let’s be friends.”
“Sure. Why not?” Susan looked away with a secret smile.
She had driven across the country, all 6,300 km of it, feeling angry, defiant, scared and lonely. She sure didn’t feel like that any more. She loved Todd. He was a good friend and his sexual skills would always be available to her. But David, awkward and shy, loved her with all his heart. She would have him forever. She felt full.
David still loved her. Why else would be be standing in the late afternoon drizzle on her street, ten years later, wearing the sports jacket she’d bought for him after they first met?
He stared up the street. Memories blossomed on every inch of it. Here was where he’d tripped over his clumsy feet and, when she tried to help him up, he had pulled her down, giggling, on top of him.
And were those skid marks his? Just a few metres ahead he imagined he saw traces of rubber on the curb, the result of his inattentive driving. He smiled at the memory. He had been so distracted trying to work up the courage to kiss her that he’d smacked into the curb. She had laughed and caressed his cheek as her lips met his.
And there she was in his mind’s eye, standing at the top of the hill, tapping one foot in mock anger; ordering him to hurry up because she’d been having impure thoughts about him all day and Could Not Stand It A Moment Longer.
And here they were lurching drunkenly together arm in arm on the way home from the pub, laughing at the foibles of everybody else in the whole world.
And here, suddenly, he was standing at the entrance to her house, bordered by an overgrown hedge, much taller now, and the same wrought iron gate. How could it be the same gate? The same lawn? Even the same bald patch that turned yellow in the summer. And how could the house smell like red wine?
Yes, of course, the wine! He had brought it because he wanted to celebrate the pictures he had taken of her house. His afternoon flight had gone spectacularly well. His friend had snapped hundreds of pictures of her house looking cosy and inviting in its hilltop perch over the water. A photo lab had printed a few glossy images. He was sure she’d love them.
A few months ago he’d never have had the confidence to just drop in on a beautiful girl with an armload of goodies. But now he felt brave, though maybe a bit nervous.
The wine was in a screw-top bottle. He cracked it open, glugged a long sip for Dutch courage and gasped, his young palette not used to its bite. He screwed the cap back on and plunged forward hoping she was home.
She met him at the door before he could knock, threw her arms around him and kissed him hard on the lips, pushing him back onto the porch. “Wow! You brought wine! I was just going to go out and get some. But I’m sorry I’m just going out — my sister just flew in from Halifax and she’s coming to pick me up any minute! I gotta get ready! Can we do this tomorrow? Sorry! Tried to call … you didn’t get my message?”
Dave disengaged, flustered. “No, no message. But it’s okay, I just thought I’d drop by. Wasn’t sure you’d be home anyhow. Tomorrow would be great! See you at class. Great!”
He handed her the bottle, wheeled around and left, still carrying the envelope of photos. He savoured the taste of her lips pressed hard on his. He was sorry he couldn’t see her but after all, her sister was coming all the way from Halifax. Wait a minute, what sister? Wasn’t she an only child? He was sure she’d told him that.
He reached the hedge, walked through the wrought iron gate onto the sidewalk and turned around to look at the house. Sister? Wine? Why was she just about to go out and buy wine when her sister was picking her up? Why didn’t she ask him to stay and meet her? Was she ashamed of him, a non-academic in her crowd of English majors? Why did she push him so hard, backing him onto the porch? Was she trying to keep him out? Was there somebody else in the house?
And then he saw it. Todd’s bicycle chained to the railing on the far side of the porch.
He felt the air go out of him and along with it the happy changes he had noticed in himself the past few months: the spring in his step, the ready smile, his tall stance and direct gaze. But he had known this would happen, hadn’t he? She was so beautiful and Todd so handsome and confident. Compared to him he was short, pimpled and pudgy.
But maybe that wasn’t Todd’s bicycle. He had to be sure and, feeling like a thief, he stole across the yard towards the bike, cutting his eyes left and right and up to the windows, his heart in his mouth. He listened for voices and footsteps but heard nothing. He reached the bike and his heart sank. Draped over the frame was a day-glo vest that Todd wore when he rode through the city. Nobody else wore anything like it.
He heard his breath coming in ragged gasps and he observed, as if from a distance, that he seemed to be crying. He hadn’t done that since childhood. He wiped his eyes with his fingers and scrubbed the he snot from his nose with his sleeve.
Back on the sidewalk he held his face in his hands trying to calm his breathing. Then he listened but heard nothing. No boisterous laughs from Todd. No giggles from Susan and, thank God, no cries of ecstasy either. He didn’t have the nerve to blunder into the house to find them in flagrante delicto as the detective stories called it. And what would he do if he found them in bed together? Todd was much bigger and in great shape. David would be humiliated in front of the girl he loved. And maybe he deserved a beating for even thinking he was in her league.
He looked at the envelope of photos, smeared with snot. He couldn’t fight Todd, but he knew a better way to take Susan away from him.
The next day Susan slid into place beside him in their English class just as she had every day, squeezing her shoulders up against him fondly the way a cat will rub against its owner.
“Good morning! Have a look at these,” he said, handing her a handful of glossy photos.
She was gratifyingly impressed. “Wow! Did you do these? Were you flying over my house?”
“Yup, thought you might like to see how it looks from the air.”
He handed her the rest of the photos. The lecture began but she ignored it, studying each photo in turn. He watched her face as she studied them. She really was beautiful and she seemed to like the photos. There were close-up pictures showing just the house and back yard, but others showed the whole inlet, a sunny, birds-eye view of mountains, water and smoggy city background. “These are beautiful!” she whispered.
“So I was thinking, we’ve never been flying together. I could rent that plane anytime. I have to build up flying time anyhow, so we could go whenever.
“How about now?”
“Well I have to make a reservation but we can probably get that plane this afternoon. Not much happening today and the weather’s nice.”
“Let’s go. I wanna go flying with you!”
Together they left the lecture, worming past one student after another in their row of seats. Susan had never skipped a lecture before. David called his flying school. Yes, the aircraft was available and yes they could have it in an hour.
Susan had never been close to a light plane. It seemed fragile, more like a bicycle than a car. She watched David do his walkaround inspection, chattering the whole way. “Did you know birds build their nests in engine cowlings? We have to look.”
The inspection went on and on, David poking and prodding until finally he opened the passenger door and helped her settle inside. He put her backpack into the little storage area behind the two seats. The cabin was a tiny cathedral, lit by windows all around and even above. He helped her with her seatbelt. There were duplicate controls, a tiny steering wheel in front of her and rudder pedals at her feet. “Don’t put your feet on the pedals, okay?”
The instrument panel was simple, nothing like pictures she’d seen of airliner cockpits. With boyish enthusiasm he pointed out the main instruments. “This one’s like our speedometer. This here is how high we are. The others are nice to have but we don’t really need ’em.”
She liked watching him, competent and careful, but not swaggering with his hard-won knowledge.
“Aren’t you ever scared?”
“No, but I get a bit nervous, mostly from all the checks we have to do. Makes us feel all serious and excited.
“Are you okay? This is a lot safer than driving. And I’m a good pilot. Nothing to worry about.”
A good pilot? She had never heard him say anything good about himself in such a matter of fact way.
She patted his knee. “I’m sure you’re good. I wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.”
“Thanks! I’m glad you’re here. And, oh! I forgot to show you this.” He reached into a pocket behind her seat and drew out an air sickness bag. She held it in her lap, not having anywhere else to put it, and felt useless.
“Oh, and another thing. Headsets.” He rummaged behind him and came up with earphones for both of them. Each had a microphone. “Hello there, David calling Susan, do you read me?”
“Loud and clear!”
“Let’s start her up!” He threw a bunch of switches, cracked the throttle open slightly and shoved the fuel mixture knob to the wall. Then he peered through the windows all around the aircraft. The aircraft shivered as the engine started, the propeller cranking in front of them.
There were more checks as they jounced along the taxi ways leading to the runway. She was surprised at how much time he spent looking around, craning his neck to peer above and behind. She heard his voice in her ears talking to the ground control operator, getting wind and weather information and at last, contacting air traffic control and getting clearance for take off.
The runway looked immense. The aircraft felt like a tiny fly on the wall. The engine roared as David pushed the throttle all the way to the firewall. Immediately the plane scooted along the runway, speeding as fast as a car before David brought the nose up and suddenly they were flying.
She didn’t like it at first. The engine was deafening and the wind buffetted the aircraft from all directions. But she became entranced by the view out her passenger window. Her internal map of the city was all about highways and buildings but she saw green fields everywhere, some with cows in them. Roads were insignificant. Cars moved slowly. There was a big box store below but all she could see was its roof and a mostly vacant parking lot. There was a large, lonely hill in front of them with a country home perched on top. The terrain was mostly flat except for mountains on the right.
Dave tapped the altimeter: “7000 feet — you can see over the mountains from here.” He dropped the nose and reduced power. The aircraft settled into a cruise attitude, the engine quieter. They steered towards the mountains. They were heavily forested but, capped with snow, they looked like shards of broken glass, glittering in the sun for hundreds of miles. Was there nobody out there?
Soon they were flying between two mountains, below the peaks, trees on either side, rushing water below. But another mountain loomed dead ahead. David was craning his neck in all directions. They were flying straight in to a dead end, Susan saw. David favoured the right side of the valley, leaving more room on the left. Susan watched the trees fly by beside her window, seemingly only a few feet away. Suddenly he increased the power and tipped the plane into a sharp left turn. Susan’s stomach rebelled and her fingers clenched on the airsick bag. The wings were nearly vertical — only blue sky out Susan’s window and only the valley below out of David’s window. Then suddenly the engine stopped! David levelled the wings but pushed the nose down until they could see the savage valley below out the front windshield. She heard the whirr of an electric motor and saw the flaps slowly extend themselves until they hung below the wings, almost perpendicular to them. The aircraft slowed and seemed hang in the air, the nose pointed almost straight down. After a few seconds David pulled the nose back to reveal a runway right in front of them. It was little more than a wide spot in a dirt logging road but it looked big enough. A cry of relief escaped her.
“Sorry about that,” said David. “I was going to warn you but then I got too busy.”
He added a bit of power and the aircraft settled under his steady hands, finally plopping down on one end of the runway. He taxiied to a stop and shut the engine down.
“Let’s take a walk.”
There was something different about him, Susan thought. He was standing on his own ground and he looked confident and powerful. Everywhere else he was a visitor; at the university and in her home. Here his strides seemed longer and instead of his usual head-down shuffle he took up space, picking up rocks and throwing them at small targets. She backed away a bit. He was throwing hard, almost viciously, like an angry baseball pitcher aiming for the batter. The rocks smacked into the trees one after another. A chipmunk chattered.
He turned to her, holding a few stones in his hands, hefting them up and down. He might have been sizing up her strike zone before winding up and throwing in her direction with all the power he had.
“You were with Todd last night.”
Another rock hit the wall of trees. A bird flew out into the clearing.
“How did you know?”
“I saw his bicycle. After you lied to me about having a sister and practically pushed me off the porch.”
He glared at her, then bent to scoop up a handful of stones.
“I’m sorry … that you had to find out that way.”
“When were you going to tell me?” He tried a sidearm throw this time. It landed a little off target, bouncing off a bare rock and ricocheting back towards her, a high fly ball off the right field fence. She backed away.
“Tell you? There’s nothing to tell. I still like you. I still want us to be … friends.”
“FRIENDS?” he shouted, the word ripping from his throat. “FRIENDS? I don’t wanna be friends! You were my first girl! The only one I ever loved and all you can says is ‘ooh! I want to be friends!’ WELL FUCK YOU!” He took a few steps towards her but slipped on the gravel, fell to his knees and shouted as loud as he could. “I! Am! Not! Your! Friend! I fucking love you!”
He was on his knees and crying. She ran to him and threw her arms around his neck. “Oh, David! Friends is the wrong word! I don’t wanna be friends either! I feel much more than that! I don’t think anybody’s ever said that thing to me. You did say that, didn’t you? You said you loved me, didn’t you? Really?”
He stared at her like she’d gone mad. “Yes, Susan. I said that. I love you. I want to be with you forever.”
A shudder went through her. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. How could you not know that?”
“Because you never said it. Nobody ever says it. Todd’s never said it, my parents never said it. My old boyfriends never said it, though there weren’t that many. But you, you just said it. You didn’t find it easy but you said it, you did! Dammit, umm … dammit … I love you too!”
It was nearly two hours before they landed back at the flying school and the dispatcher was quite annoyed. He huffed out to the little plane, clipboard in hand. “We had to cancel a booking. We were calling you all evening. We were thinking about calling Search and Rescue. Where were you?”
David, face smeared with sweat and gravel, leaned against the engine cowling, one arm around Susan who stared dreamily at the sky.
“I forget.”
They drove to Susan’s house, stopping for groceries at the natural food market where organic turnips, handled by serious young men with beards and sandals, cost more than the best cut of steak from the local Save-Easy.
“You know,” he told her as they cruised the aisles hand in hand. “We don’t need all this organic stuff. I just read an article where it says it doesn’t matter where our food comes from. We break down the food and consume what we need. We could live on burgers and beer.”
“Oh yeah? Well you just eat those burgers and drink that beer. And come back to me in five years all messed up with growth hormones and diseases. I want to live my life right. And,” she fixed him with a baleful stare, “I want the people I — love — to live right too.” He had been too pleased to argue.
But they weren’t hungry when they got home. Instead they cuddled on the couch and he asked her to tell him everything, all her dark secrets, all there was to know about her life.
Susan glowed. Nobody had ever asked. And once she started, she couldn’t stop. She motored along all evening with her head in his lap. “I didn’t realize that other people’s parents actually slept in the same bed until I was old enough to get invited to sleepovers. Then I saw the parents of other girls actually going to bed together and lying in bed and watching TV and reading and talking and stuff like that. At first I felt sorry for them. My parents got to have their own beds in their own rooms.”
She wriggled her head off his lap and rose to a sitting position so she could rest her head on his shoulder. He put his arm around her. The mobile phoned buzzed in his pocket.
“In my house Mom had her own room with a big, huge bed. She liked to go to bed early so she could read. Her room was really cozy. Sometimes I’d snuggle up under the covers with her and she’d read me a bedtime story. But when she was finished she’d call Dad on her bedside phone to come up and get me.”
“Did she ever kiss you goodnight?”
“What? No, not after I was about five. Sometimes we’d shake hands though.”
The text message was from a study buddy, a female, actually, changing their meeting time. He tapped back a thumbs-up symbol.
“Sometimes instead of taking me to my room, he’d take me downstairs and we’d go out for a drive. We’d get hot chocolate and donuts. When I was tall enough for my feet to reach the pedals, we’d go to to a parking lot and he’d let me drive. I got pretty good at holding the car with the clutch, and and making a taxi stop. He even let me go through a drive-thru once and get more hot chocolate. Didn’t stall the car once.”
“Your car had a clutch?”
“Yup! I was the only girl in our driver’s ed class who could actually drive a standard. Can you do that?”
“Never had a standard, I don’t think…” His thumb hovered over the Facebook button.
“Did you have a favourite parent? My dad was more like a playmate than a father. We had fun. He took me swimming and skating and skiing. Sometimes he’d take take my friends as well. We dragged mom with us once out to the ski hill. Me and Dad got skis, but she never left the cafeteria. Sat and watched us through the window, going up and down the bunny hill.
“But Dad and Mom started fighting when I got into high school. I woke up one night and heard them going at it. I couldn’t believe my mother’s voice. I’d never heard her yell. I couldn’t make out what she said, so I crept down the hall past their two bedrooms and stood at the top of the stairs. They were quiet for a minute then I heard Dad say “we haven’t got much, why the hell are you so angry?”
“I couldn’t understand that — did he mean we had no money? But we were doing okay. Mom was a professor for God’s sake! She paid all the bills. We had a big house, two cars and vacations — well Mom and me, we would go to Mexico and Cuba and stuff — Dad stayed home.
“Then suddenly everything clicked: the two bedrooms, the separate vacations, the separate schedules. We hardly ever even ate dinner together. Dad stayed in his room all day on the computer. I think my Mom and Dad didn’t like each other. We weren’t a family at all.”
Susan had stopped talking while Dave scrolled through Facebook on his cell phone. He’d gotten a few likes for one of those know-it-all posts he’d started making, this one about the number of neurons in the human brains being far more than the number of people on earth.
She looked at him. “Am I boring you?”
“No. Keep talking.” He put the phone away.
“I don’t want to get into too much detail but I knew Dad kept an envelope of cash in the freezer. He’d been saving up for a bit of land where he could build a cabin. I was freaking out trying to figure out what I was going to do after graduation. Dad wanted me to go to university in Halifax and stay with them. I couldn’t bear the thought of living with these two people who never spoke to each other.
“So I took my Dad’s money and his car and took off.”
She’d stopped talking again and was staring straight ahead. Dave looked at her without speaking and then his phone pinged again.
“I didn’t know what to do. I just kept driving. I didn’t cry. I just kept driving. I spent Dad’s money on gas and food and didn’t stop. I slept in the car. Actually I didn’t sleep, I just crawled into the back and stared out the window.
“My parents never tried to get in touch. I had my cellphone but it never rang.
“Finally in Toronto I called my Mom and told her what I was doing and where I was. She actually seemed glad to hear from me! We even cried on the phone together and she said she wanted me to come back — she really wanted me back! I could hardly believe it! For a minute I almost said, ‘sure!’ because all of a sudden I did want to come back! As soon as she said she wanted me back, that’s what I wanted to do.
“But then she said I could keep driving if I really needed to and that she could send me money if I needed more. I knew what that meant— she really didn’t want me at all.
“I cried a lot on the highway, because you can scream and yell in a car and no one cares. That was my life. Buy gas, eat junk food, drive, scream in the car.
“I know my parents loved me. I’m sure they did even if they never said so. My Dad loved me, I think, or at least he tried. He told me I was a good driver and smart and don’t get married and depend on some jerk to support me.
“And the big thing, I guess. He he had bought life insurance in case of accidental death a few months before the so-called accident.”
“What accident?”
“He went out kayaking a few weeks after I left. Never came back.
“After his body was found, I got a call from my mother. He’d named me as beneficiary. I’ll get $100,000 when they finally check everything out. And mom says she’ll send me the ashes. He was cremated.”
“Are you saying your dad killed himself?”
“We don’t know that.”
“Right after you took his money and his car?”
She froze at his words.
She stared at him for a few seconds then rose from the couch and walked to the picture window overlooking the back yard. She stared outside for a few minutes and then turned and walked into the kitchen.
Dave heard her close the bathroom door.
He heard the taps running. He checked his phone. Yet another Facebook like, this one from a very bright girl in his navigation class that he’d never spoken to. They weren’t friends. He wondered how she’d seen his post. Maybe she was interested in him. He wasn’t used to attention from females and it felt good, though it didn’t mean anything now. He was committed to Susan.
The taps were still running. She sometimes did that to cover other bathroom sounds, but not this long. He rose and walked to the door, leaned into it and listened. Over the sounds of flowing water he thought he heard breathing, fast and shallow. He tapped. “Okay in there?”
“Susan? I’m sorry I shouldn’t have said that. It didn’t come out the way I meant it.
“Susie! Are you okay? I’m going to have to kick this door down, just to check on you. You better say something or here goes!”
He kicked at the door as hard as he could. Nothing. He kicked again, this time aiming at the door handle. Sound of wood splintering. He tried again and the door flew open banging against the bathtub.
“What the hell? Susie?”
The window over the toilet was open. He poked his head out. Her car, the black Toyota that had belonged to her father, was gone.

Todd was moving his furniture back into the open-plan ground floor of his house. The tiny peanut stove cast a warm light over the newly-planed floor, now glowing with four coats of varnish. It was nearly Halloween and the crazy windows he’d cut at odd angles along the front wall would look great with candles and pumpkins in them. Charlie Parker screeched from his beat box. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get used to bebop. He only played it because he reminded him of Susan whom he found equally frustrating. He had sent her away, smiling bravely. She could have been his life partner and a loving aunt for little Emily, his beautiful damaged three-year-old who would never talk or sit up or recognize him or hold her arms up to greet him again.
He shouldn’t be drinking. His therapist had warned him about rumination. Look forward, not back, he’d said.
His in-laws, parents of Debbie, his high school sweetheart, had reneged on their agreement to live in this house with him and be caregivers to Emily. He understood. They didn’t want to leave their old neighbourhood where Debbie had grown up. Debbie, who would also never talk, or sit up or recognize anyone despite her parents insistence that they could see her and talk to her because they had faith. Debbie had never had much time for faith and now she had no time at all, because she was completely and unalterably dead. He had seen her smashed head against the windshield, in fact he’d been forced to look at it for what seemed hours as the firemen worked to get him out of their car.
No he shouldn’t be drinking. Look forward, not back. Well, okay. The floor looked beautiful. Susan was beautiful and maybe they could get things started again, now that he’d been spurned by his in-laws. Stop that, he thought. Nobody’s spurned you. Go visit your Emily even if she doesn’t know you and be nice to your in-laws. They gave you Debbie and that that had been wonderful.
Forward, dammit. The floor looked beautiful with its soft glow. Susie might come back into his life. He had money from the insurance settlement. He liked his courses at the university, especially biology. Maybe he could get a PhD. Develop a way to bring a person back to life after their brains got smashed. Stop that.
There was a knock at the door. “What do I hear? Charlie Parker?” she said.
The drizzle had increased to rain. Dave’s feet were soaking wet and his bladder was full. He wondered if the neighbours weren’t getting suspicious. It had been helpful to to walk down her street to see how things had changed. But now it was time to leave.
A light came on in the house, in the living room, then on the porch. Dave stepped back and peered through the laurel leaves. The door opened and a figure emerged. It looked like a teenager, no — a boy with black hair. There was something familiar about him.
“Mom!” he hollered through the open door. “I found your groceries! They were on the porch!
“Mom! Hey Mom! Why don’t we get groceries from the natural food store? They’re better for you.”
“No they’re not, silly!” A woman’s voice, achingly familiar. “We don’t need all that organic stuff. It doesn’t matter where our food comes from. We break down the food and consume what we need. We could live on burgers and beer. Or at least I could. You’d have to wait a few years to drink the beer, buddy.”
Burgers and beer! Nobody would say that! He was at the door in ten seconds. He rang the bell. But he couldn’t hear if it was working, so he banged on the door instead. No response. He grabbed the handle and threw he door open. Could she still be there after all these years?
“Susan! Susan!” He blundered into the hall dripping wet.
Yes! Standing in the hall looking right at him! And she looked just the same! His heart turned over the way he knew it would. “Oh, Susan!”
Maybe she had put on a little bit of weight. She looked a little thicker around the waist and her face was softer.
He walked towards her slowly, his feet squelching on the floor. She backed away.
“I had no idea you still lived here.”
“We liked the neighbourhood, so we bought the place.”
“We? We? Who’s we?”
“Me and Todd. You remember Todd, right?” She gestured at the stairs behind her.
And there he was, crouched at the top of the stairs aiming a rifle at him.
“Not one more step, David!”
David’s mouth went dry. He felt his sphincter muscles clench as his sympathetic nervous system recognized the threat.
Todd thumped down the stairs, slowly, eyes murderous, fixed on David.
“Jesus fucking Christ, David! You can’t just stomp into somebody’s fucking house like that! He crossed behind Susan, leaned the weapon against the wall and put one hand on each of her shoulders. Susan leaned back into him and fixed David with a level stare.
Suddenly David had to pee.
He swallowed. “Was that your little boy?”
“What about him?” growled Todd, looking ready to kill. The rifle was inches away from his hand. Dave’s breath came in gasps. He felt his bladder let go.
Susan knew what he was asking. “Oh, David! Really! I was on the pill the whole time we were together. You didn’t know that? I stopped taking them when I fell in love with Todd. Well we both made that decision, eh Todd?”
“Oh!” said David. “Yes! Of course! Of course, you did.” He was trying to draw out his reply to cover the sound of his piss as it sprayed into his pants and ran down his leg.
Susan appeared oblivious. “So the ‘little guy’ you saw is Mark — named after Todd’s dad — and we have another on the way!” She held her hands over her belly. The delight on her face was heartbreaking.
“Oh! Oh, of course! That’s wonderful news … congratulations!”
Todd wrapped his arms around Susan. They both smiled.
“I guess I didn’t know you’d …”
“You thought I’d still be alone? Waiting here for you, David? After ten years?”
Dave looked at his feet and saw his piss pooling on the floor around them. He looked up at them in an agony of embarrassment.
“Oh God, I’m so terribly sorry! I don’t know what I thought. I guess I just walked down your street because, well, I still think of you sometimes. And I’m sorry for what I said back then.”
“I know. And I wish I hadn’t run out on you like that. I thought I loved you because you loved me, but I guess you didn’t really. Love me, I mean. Because when I told you my big secret, you got all horrified, like I was a freak or something. That really hurt.”

“Oh. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know I came across like that.” But more than anything, Dave wanted to go.
He stared hard at her trying to memorize the face he’d once found so hard to draw.
“I really have to go. You guys look great together. It was nice to see you.
“And Todd — you have a lovely wife. I guess it’s a bit late but congratulations anyway!”
He turned towards the door but not before Susan surged forward and grabbed the lapel of his jacket. “I remember this jacket. You always looked so good in it. Remember the notes I used to put in this pocket?” She fiddled with the side pocket and then gently kissed him on the cheek.
His voice quavered: “I still have them.”
“Take care, David. Be well.”
David squelched out the door, closed it behind him and stopped dead, listening for the sound of laughter.
He walked down the little pathway, not daring to look around until he had reached the gate and shut it behind him. Susan was watching through the window.
She raised one hand in one of those finger-wiggling waves they used to give each other so many years ago. He stood for a second, then gave a tiny wave back.
Her kindness warmed him. And she had been brave facing him, buying time for Todd to find his gun and hide their child. How he must have looked storming into their house, soaking wet and disheveled from the rain and shouting her name. She could have called the cops. Todd could have shot him. Or she could have laughed at him. As he pissed himself.
Instead, she had kissed him. And he was allowed to walk back down the road, fumble for his key fob so he could locate his car by its blinking lights.
When he reached the car he took off his jacket and folded it over the seat to keep his piss-soaked pants from staining the upholstery.
He had loved that jacket. He’d have it dry cleaned so he could wear it tomorrow on the flight home.
He’d wait for Captain Crichton to make his usual pilgrimage to the restroom at the back of the plane, then put it on for his final flight.
He was sorry for Todd and the their little boy but Susan kept invading his thoughts and the airline people were beginning to notice. She had remained beautiful and even kissed him. How could he forget her now? There was only one way to banish her from his thoughts.
Surprisingly, the decision settled his nerves. Next morning even Captain Crichton noticed his cheery mood. “Hey! Looks like you had a good weekend!”
“Yup. Met an old girlfriend. We were pretty thick back here 10 years ago. That’s why I wanted to come to Vancouver. I’ve always worried a bit about her, she took it pretty hard when we broke up.”
The line of jets ahead of them on the taxi way had finally dwindled and it would shortly be their turn for take off. They watched a FedEx 707 jet ease forward on the runway, jets roaring at full power. Soon it was a speck in the mist.
A voice in his headset: “Air Canada 654 taxi to position and hold.”
“654 Roger,” David intoned.
“Anyhow, I found her in the old house we used to share. Still there after all that time but she didn’t look the same. Gained about 50 pounds and at least four kids.
“654 cleared for takeoff and turn to right base. Climb to angles 28 and call Vancouver Approach on121.9. Wind 270 at 5 km, altimeter 29.92.”
“654 roger,” David intoned. Captain Crichton pushed the throttles to take-off power.
“Husband’s a friggen’ carpenter. Out of work. Gun nut. Goes hunting with his boyfriends.
“V2” he intoned indicating the aircraft had reached the speed where it was more efficient to raise the nose wheel, generate some lift to reduce weight on the landing gear.
“Yup. I think she was glad to see me, but her husband sure wasn’t.
“V1.” Captain Crichton raised the nose to the correct angle of attack. The aircraft seemed reluctant to leave the ground. David touched the wheel. The wings felt like part of his own body, flexing as they took the weight of the plane. The aircraft felt balanced and steady.
Both were quiet for a moment as horizon dropped out of view leaving the pilots staring at nothing but gray sky, windows streaking with droplets of mist. Despite thousand of pounds of thrust, the aircraft felt motionless, but the air speed indicator knew better.
“They have a couple of kids. One of them looks exactly like me!”
“Power back to climbing speed,” Crichton intoned.
David pulled the throttles back and felt Crichton adjust to normal climbing attitude. His captain was a good pilot. That plane felt like it was riding on rails. He wondered about Crichton. Did he have an old flame from high school that he still thought about?
“You wanna take over? I’m dying for a piss,” said Crichton. “Tough gettin’ old.”
“Sure enough,’’ David replied. “I have control,” he intoned once again for the benefit of the cockpit voice recorder. He wondered who would listen to it and what they’d think.
Crichton was unbuckling his harness. “Once we’ve levelled off at cruising altitude I’ll visit the loo.”
David nodded. “Couldn’t believe how much that kid looked like me. Susan says no, she was on the pill when we were together, but I’m pretty sure she was saying that for Todd’s benefit — her husband. I wanted to get a picture of that kid but not with Todd around and he never left the room. Didn’t say much, but he kept glaring at me.”
“Sure, David.” Creighton stood. “I’m gonna need that pop bottle if we don’t level off soon.”
“Go now,” said David, pushing the wheel forward and pulling the throttles back. The aircraft settled into its new attitude, about 10,000 feet below their authorized cruising flight level.
“Alright.” Creighton answered, his hand on the cockpit door. “No aerobatics, eh?”
“Not even an incipient spin?” David joked, but Crichton had already closed the door. He was alone in the cockpit.
He trimmed the aircraft and set the autopilot, then unbuckled his harness, stood and looked at the cabin door. Last chance to abort, he thought. He locked the door.
His carryon case was behind him. He found the sports jacket and shrugged into it, feeling for his cell phone in the left side pocket.
Yes, Susan, he thought. I do remember all the things that pocket had held. He’d discovered a note from her on the first day he’d worn it: “Stand tall! You are a handsome man!” He still had that note, her blocky script on yellow foolscap, and many others.
“Study hard, my pilot! Soon you’ll have passengers who depend on you.”
“Did you forget to shave this morning? Love that beard stubble!”
“Hey, 100% on that navigation test? Congratulations! I’ll buy the wine tonight!” This was accompanied by a crude sketch of a pilot with a bottle of wine.
David sat back in his seat. Their route took them right over Burrard Inlet. Susan’s house lay nearly five miles and a few miles north.
Brutally, he chopped the power, stomped on the right rudder and yanked the stick down and to the right. The machine responded like a fighter plane wheeling and diving on the prey below. He dropped the flaps to 40 degrees and the aircraft seemed to hang in the air, nose down, Susan’s house hiding among the trees below.
The door rattled. “Hey David! What the hell? Open up!” Crichton’s voice was muffled, but there was panic in his voice.
He pulled out the cell phone and dialled it. Almost immediately he heard Susan’s voice.
“David? Is that you? So glad you called!”
The cockpit door thumped. Crichton was getting angry. “David! Open this door right fucking now!”
“Yeah, it’s me,” David said into the phone. He felt lethargic, almost sleepy. That would be the flask of scotch in the other pocket.
“Where are you calling from?”
“David! I’m going to have to chop this door down if you don’t open it!” He was bluffing, of course. Both men knew that door was armour plate. Only a welding torch could cut through it.
“Go outside and look up, S-u-u-u-u-sie!” He took a long snort from the flask.
“David! David! David! Open the fucking door!”
The little house was growing larger in the window. He added power, brought the nose up, then pushed hard on the right rudder and banked the wings to the right until they were nearly vertical. The engines roared as the aircraft settled into a steep turn, the little house at its centre, visible to passengers on the right side just beyond the wingtip. The g-force generated by the turn would force them down in their seats. He thought he heard screams.
“Get back to straight and level, David! Right now!” Crichton screamed.
“Omigod! David! Is that you! Is that your plane?”
“You got it, babe! Remember what we talked about?”
“Omigod! Mark! Mark! Mark! Get out of the house! Run to grandma’s.”
“Who are you talking to?” David’s voice was slurred. But he was a good pilot and a steep turn, once established required nothing more than extra power and a steady hand on the wheel. The horizon spun madly in front of him, round and round and round. He looked out the right window at Susan’s house just beyond the wingtip. He thought he could see her in the back yard, looking up.
“I’m talking to Mark! Your son! Your fucking son! Yes! He’s yours! Nobody else knows! Even he doesn’t know! Right now honey! Right now! Go! Go! Go!”
For once, David couldn’t think of anything to say. “Was he the kid who found the grocery bag last night? Was that him?”
“Yes!” He heard a sob in her voice. “He’s a wonderful little boy. He’s shy just like you but we’re working on it. He’s just joined the soccer team and had a great time. David, I don’t care if you kill me but give Mark time to get out of the house and away. Please don’t kill him!”
“Is he really my son?” Oh, Jesus he was crying again. He sniffed loudly into the phone. “Can I talk to him?”
“No! He’s gone out the door. Can we please give him some time?”
“You’re lying! He’s right there isn’t he? Put him on!”
“No! He’s gone!”
David shoved the wheel forward and the aircraft dropped altitude. The engines howled as it gained speed.
“I can bring this thing closer! How do you like this, eh?” The aircraft dropped to about 150 feet off the ground. “Put my goddam son on the goddam phone!” He felt the aircraft buffeting from the ground effect.
“I can’t! He’s gone! You want proof get a fucking paternity test!”
“Too late for that, bitch! Look at me! Look at me! I can see you! Gimme a wave!”
“David! Did you not get my message?”
“What message?”
“I put one of my business cards in your jacket pocket as you were leaving last night. I wanted you to call me. I still think of you. It’s not over.”
With one free hand David ransacked every pocket of his jacket. “You’re full of shit, bitch. There’s nothing in any of my pockets.”
“I left that card in there, David, I really did, right where I used to leave all those little notes. Please believe me. We can talk. Let’s not end it this way.”
David loosened his harness enough to stand half up in his seat, feeling his pants pockets, first one side then the other. He felt the sharp corner of something flat and flexible. A business card? The paper was thicker than normal. Suddenly he remembered emptying the pockets at the dry cleaners while explaining the urine smell as an accident by a very young relative.
On the ground, Susan watched the huge aircraft widen its turn, level its wings, and fly over the inlet away from her. “I found it! Susan! I found it! I found it! I found it!”
David heard a male voice over the phone: “what the fuck are you doing, you jerk! Fly that fucking plane into some other goddamned mountain! Stay the fuck away from my wife!”
The call disconnected. And David, his career in ruins, the love of his life threatened by an angry husband, a planeload of passengers ready to tear him apart, set the autopilot for a steady climb, his face wreathed in a happy smile. Then he grabbed a tuft of hair in each hand, threw his head back and screamed as loud as he could, just like Susan had done so many years ago.
The cabin door erupted with bangs and knocks. “David! David! Open up! Right now!” From the sound of it, Captain Crichton had acquired some hefty volunteer helpers.
He steeled himself before opening the door but was immediately overwhelmed by hands, arms, and even fingers grabbing his hair, choking his neck, going up his nose, pressing on his eyes and throat. His body was wrapped in sweaty arms and he felt himself lifted off the ground and stuffed, upside down, into a nearby seat. Bodies piled on top of him and he gasped for breath. A knee smashed into his face. He felt blood in his mouth. A fist smashed into his ear. A knuckle gouged his eyes. His neck was twisted and his face plunged into a tiny crevice between seats. He felt his right arm pinned behind his back. A pair of hands ripped at his fingers, forcing them to uncurl. Then he felt those two hands close around his ring finger and slowly bend it backwards, breaking it at the knuckle.
Then the voice of authority, from somewhere behind the mob. “Hold up fellas! Don’t kill him! He’s not gonna to hurt anybody now.”
His captors were panting, but the sounds were not the heavy breaths of exhausted bodies. Instead he heard the frenzied rush of air through clenched teeth. These people wanted to kill him. And for some reason, they had stopped. The knuckle came away from his eyes, but his vision was black. He panted, sucked in fluid, coughed and spewed a mixture of blood and phlegm onto the airline seat. A pair of hands on each side of his neck gently pulled his face from the crevice. Other hands helped him into a sitting position. He was drooling and crying. Snot was dripping from his nose and his eyes were filled with tears. He had bit his tongue. Slowly his vision returned and he winced as he untangled his arm and used his good hand to bring the broken finger into view.
“Ooh!” Came a whisper from a man close enough to kiss him. “Hurt your little fing-fing?” He gazed directly into his captor’s murderous eyes and fainted.
Susan loved David’s apartment in Montreal. She felt safe on the 7th floor looking through floor-to-ceiling glass at the stunning view. She enjoyed the little shops everywhere on the streets below and was grateful to the doorman who responded in slow, deliberate French to Mark’s shy forays into the language.
She loved to sit on the couch at one end of the large living room. There was a huge bookshelf behind it, just the way she had imagined her space back when she had been building a new life for herself in Vancouver. A couch, she remembered thinking, with a guy on it. They’d sit together, his arm around her and they’d drink a little wine and tell each other their darkest secrets. But there were no secrets anymore.
David was never going to fly again. Though the company medics had given him a clean bill of health he was no longer suitable for flying. She could see it herself in his hunched posture and his furrowed brow when she tried to talk to him. She was sympathetic. His aerobatics and near suicide had been traumatic but the beating had been worse.
David had put on a spectacular airshow for her benefit and it had filled her with dread, first that Mark might be killed and second that he might not; that sparing Mark’s life would leave her with a lifetime debt to David — she would have to spend all her time with him. It was like one of those marriage proposals in a football stadium. How do you say no? To her credit, she had been cagy when David asked her to come and live with him. She hadn’t promised anything except to visit Montreal with Mark in tow. “And we’ll see how it goes.”
She heard a key in the lock and Mark’s voice: “Mom! Mom! I can speak French! I spoke French to the doorman!”
Todd appeared around the corner, keys in one hand, Mark in the other. “What a smart kid!” he said. He knelt beside the boy, one arm around his shoulders: “this guy is going to be a world-class interpreter — he was way beyond me. I didn’t understand a single thing he said.”
Mark looked up at him and glowed. “It’s easy, Dad, I’ll teach you!”
Mark and Todd had the same lopsided grin, Susan saw. And why not? Mark was Todd’s child. She didn’t regret the lie she’d told David. It had made him hesitate at the controls of the airplane, long enough so that she could remind him of the business card she’d put in his pocket. She had put it there because she had wanted to see David again. Even humiliated and peeing in his pants, she could see that he loved her. But of course it wasn’t really love. You don’t kill the person you love.
“Ready to go?” Todd asked.
“Yes, please, right now.” Todd grabbed the suitcase and handed a smaller bag to Mark. “Give us a hand, buddy!”
At the door Susan paused to glance back at the apartment. Lights off, stove off, no sounds of running water, her letter to David on the coffee table in front of the couch, held down with the key he had given her.
David would arrive in a few hours, tired and fussy from his day at the office. The company was training him for a management job but the new software confused him and the generous attitudes of his therapist, supervisor and coworkers only made him feel worse.
Give it time, take it easy, take a day off, they all said. But David knew the real truth: the company didn’t want him around. He was an awkward reminder of the imperfect humans who operated their magnificent machines. How a lovelorn pilot can kill hundreds of people almost on a whim.
Squads of public relations professionals had made recommendations: don’t blame the pilot, you’ll look like a bully. Instead, blame mental illness, just like the National Rifle Association does after every mass shooting. How could the company have known that David’s grip on reality was so fragile, they would argue. But from now on, they promised, every single employee in charge of an aircraft was to undergo a battery of mental health assessments by highly-trained professionals.
It made no difference, of course. No pilot would ever admit to feeling depressed from time to time or having occasional lapses in concentration or unusual sexual fantasies. Tens of psychotherapists engaged; thousands of employees interviewed; zero crazy pilots.
And still David struggled. The company’s offer of a lifetime pension had scared him. He saw an empty future, not a life of opportunities. He did not want to learn piano, travel the world or start his own business. He wanted stand tall before Susan and their son as a well paid professional man.
So he buckled down to his studies, working frantically in his home office at night trying to understand the new software.
The last straw came when he shouted at Mark. Susan had been watching TV with the boy on the couch and challenged him to invite David to join them. “It’s a chance to practice your French. Say this: ‘voulez-vous coucher avec moi?’” Mark rehearsed the words carefully and ran to David’s office.
“No! Get out! Leave me alone!” Mark flew back out of the office, face white as a sheet. Susan was on her feet in an instant, teeth bared. “Don’t you ever talk to him like that again!” she hissed.
David flinched and backed away, his shoulders in a protective crouch. He closed the door.
Mark curled up against her on the couch: “I wanna go home.”
“Okay honey. That can be arranged.”
It was no trouble talking to Todd. He had been leaving messages every day. She punched the latest missed call and was instantly warmed by his cheery voice. “Ya wanna come home? Great! I can get you tickets, but how about this? I’ll fly out to Montreal and rent a car. We’ll drive to Halifax. You can show Mark and me where you grew up.”
Susan gave one of her finger-wiggling waves at the apartment, the kind she used to use with David, and closed the door.
Outside the building she was greeted by Mark and Todd in a rented hatchback. “You drive. You know the way and you can show us what you used to do on the highway.”
For a moment she didn’t understand, then a light dawned: “hey you guys, open the windows. Ready? On the count of three scream your brains out. One! Two! Three!”
The little family screamed as they drove. Three voices, one harmonious sound.

On the Bus

Joey lowered his backpack to the pavement and began to kick it along the line of junior high students waiting for the school bus home.

The backpack maneuver was a favorite trick of his. It allowed him to look down while sidling up to June without anybody noticing. All he had to do was watch for her tiny feet in their white running shoes. There was something unutterably appealing about the feet of June, a pretty blonde distraction in his enriched math class.

He heard the diesel growl as the bus pulled up in a fog of exhaust. Through judicious backpack-kicking he had wound up right next to June, who was talking to May and clutching her loose leaf binder to her chest. Joey could hardly bear to think about that chest.
Instead he concentrated on a mathematical formula. Joey knew that the number of people who could sit in a row of bus seats was three. He had already counted the number of people in front of him and that number was a multiple of three. That meant he’d be the first to drop into a new row of seats and, if May and June were right behind him, they’d drop into place right beside him, completely unaware of his clever scheme.
Joey had well developed math skills for a 13-year-old but his awakening brain, which had just begun to notice females, was oblivious to the complexities of junior high society. May and June were not pinballs falling into bus seats in the order they entered the vehicle. They were thinking, breathing, independent 14-year-olds, perfectly capable of sitting wherever they wanted, even the risque section at the back of the bus.
What really made the formula work was June. She wasn’t a member of Miss Simpson’s enriched math class for nothing. She knew that if she kept a multiple of 3 people in front of her that Joey, who couldn’t have been more obvious if his backpack had been an elephant, would wind up in front of her right where she wanted him.
As they entered the bus, she held her books at chest level and stuck her elbows out. This kept May from moving in front of her, assuring that she’d drop into place, casually, right next to Joey.
June and Joey had been in the same homeroom class for years but had never, in their entire lives, been so close to each other as they were on that fateful bus ride. They didn’t speak, but each was aware of the warmth of the other’s body; their smells and little movements. June held her books on her lap. Joey kept his backpack between his knees. June chatted with May. Joey looked out the window.
The doors closed and the engine coughed to life.
Seats on a school bus are much too small for junior high students. The hormones that had begun to infuse their bodies make them jittery and restless. It wasn’t long before the driver brought the bus to a halt, stood up and glared at his passengers. “If you guys don’t stay in your seats I’ll take you right back to school!”
Joey wished they had their old driver, Mr. Phillips. He just drove the bus no matter what happened even when students threw food at him. Once Dylan had torn off his shirt and paraded up and down the aisle threatening to take everything off. Boys egged him on and girls giggled or pretended not to notice. Mr. Phillips just kept driving.
Joey was hoping Dylan would act up again so he would get a chance to protect June from his horrid behavior, or at least join with her in mocking him, but Dylan was probably suspended as usual. The bus had grown quiet in the last few minutes. Even Craig had stopped singing dirty ditties.
The ride was making him sleepy and he felt June’s thighs pressing against his as the bus rolled over a bump. She brushed her skirt down. Her hand touched his leg. Something in her body had loosened and he could feel her sway with the movement of the bus. He risked a glance in her direction and saw that her head was nodding as if she was sleepy.
Afraid of staring, he jerked his head to the front, watching the road, trying to see where they were. There was a draft from the window and his vision was blurry. He blinked his eyes. He could see the driver in that wide rear-view mirror they used to watch their passengers. There was something wrong with his face. The image wasn’t clear because the mirror was vibrating, but his eyes looked huge and round and there seemed to be a thick hose dangling from his nose.
The driver eased off the gas as the bus approached a stop. For a second the mirror stopped vibrating and the image cleared. The driver actually had a huge thick hose dangling from his nose.
June’s books slid to the floor and her hand fell against Joey’s thigh. His pulse raced and a shock of adrenaline coursed through his body. Was that really her hand? What did he do now?
For the rest of his life Joey would remember his next move. It would have been easy to be shy and ignore June’s overture or act standoffish and turn towards the window. Instead he put his hand over hers and squeezed it gently. June leaned towards him. Her head slowly fell to his shoulder and she nestled against him.
Joey’s heart felt like it would burst. He wanted to leap up from his seat and cheer, but for fear of disturbing the slumbering angel beside him. Instead he looked straight ahead as if this sort of thing happened every day.
Weird. The driver with the bulging eyes still wore his hose. Clearly he wasn’t human, therefore he must be one of those aliens from outer space who kidnaps people and carries them off to his home planet where they become slaves, or the subjects of cruel experiments. Could he stop him? Who would help him? He looked carefully around. All the other students were slumped against each other, mouths half open, drooling and snoring.
Suddenly the truth leapt out. The driver was no alien. He was one of their slaves and he was wearing an oxygen mask like the fighter pilots wore in the movies. He had to wear it because he was gassing the students, that’s why they were all asleep! Only he was awake because of the draft from the window. No doubt they were headed to some horrible destination like a slaughter house where their bodies would be used as fertilizer to grow food for the alien invasion. He’d never see his parents and his adorable baby sister again.
He knew what he had to do: open the window. He could save the students from certain death and foil the alien invasion but that meant disturbing June. She was so cuddly and soft nesting against him and he thought he could feel a soft breast against his arm. He concentrated on the sensation without moving a muscle. Yes, that was definitely a breast. Slowly he tilted his head until it rested against hers.
They would die like that, nestled together for support and comfort while the evil driver sped on his way. Maybe the cops would intervene but it would be too late and the bus would be full of dead students. The TV news would parade down the aisle with lights and cameras. They’d focus on the lifeless bodies of Joey and June entwined together for eternity.
Dimly, Joey saw the driver reach under his seat. He was making a rapid repeating motion. Was he adding more gas? Sending a message to the flying saucer hovering above?
The driver removed the mask. Up ahead a student shook his head. June stirred slightly. Joey dropped her hand and faced straight ahead.
“Oh, that was lovely,” she said. “I had the nicest little nap. Thanks for lending me your shoulder.”
“Oh, anytime,” said Joey. “If you don’t mind sitting next to me.”
“For sure,” she said. “This is my stop. My name’s June.”
“I’m Joey.”
“See ya.”
For the next hour the bus rumbled around its route. Joey kept close to the drafty window and watched his fellow students slumber and wake as the driver turned the gas on and off. At one point May slumped against him and nearly put her head in his lap, but he pushed her away. Craig fell to the floor and rolled around until the driver came back and hauled him to his feet. After that he didn’t turn the gas on anymore.
Finally it was Joey’s stop. When he reached the front of the bus he pointed under the dashboard at the cylinder of gas. “What’s that?” he asked.
“Just something to keep you guys in your seats.”
“Cool. Going to bring it tomorrow?”

Towards the Glow

Towards the Glow
Stu Ducklow

Death was hovering over Mr Ketchum’s left shoulder but he wasn’t paying attention. He was too busy parsing thousands of lines of computer code, trying to find the missing semicolon or unpaired bracket which had brought a website to its digital knees just as he had been about to reveal it to an impatient client.
Picture him now in a dingy office in a neglected industrial park, the headquarters of Ketchum Computing and Web Design. He is a bloated, fussy man with a permanent squint from peering at computer screens, his bristly moustache frequently decorated with the remains of a chocolate Boston cream donut, his favourite snack. Death would not wait much longer for Mr. Ketchum and, though a lazy pathologist might casually assign the cause to heart failure, he would never be able to explain the beatific smile that would appear on the corpse’s fat face.
Mr. Ketchum, it appears, had a secret life — so secret he didn’t know it himself. But he was about to discover it as he pondered his computer code, his pink tongue licking at the traces of Boston cream.
“Aha!” said Ketchum, eyes widening at his screen.
“Figured it out?” asked a man sitting on a couch littered with the wrappings of cheeseburgers and paper coffee cups. This was the impatient client, a mortgage broker who had grown weary of Ketchum’s endless tinkerings and had descended, unbidden, into the office that very morning threatening to sit there until it was finished.
“I think so,” said Ketchum, typing a semicolon at the end of a line.
Despite his unprepossessing appearance, Ketchum’s heart burned with the spirit of a code warrior. In his hands the web site had blossomed with Java rollovers, a PHP counter, search engine, animated intro and video. It had been hundreds of hours but Ketchum was finished at last. With a few deft keystrokes he instructed the server to reveal his creation to the world. The mortgage broker beamed. “Send me your bill,” he said and headed for the door where the real people lived, people who adhered to deadlines and sensible diets.
Ketchum opened a drawer in his desk and gathered a handful of jellybeans. His friends, if he’d had any, would have been concerned, not with the jellybeans but with the fixation on computer code that had grown like a cancer and taken over his life. His marriage had broken up and he rarely saw his estranged wife and children. To save money he lived in his office, ate cheeseburgers and donuts and slept on his couch. Showers, when he found the time, could be had at the local gym, not that Mr Ketchum was concerned with personal hygiene or exercise. His business was conducted almost entirely by email and, as previously mentioned, he didn’t have any friends.
It hadn’t always been that way. Once Mr Ketchum had dreamt of high-flying adventures with ethereal beings who lived in the brilliant clouds. In his mind he designed a glider that he called the Gossamer Explorer, with solar panels in the wings to keep it aloft. He could cruise the stratosphere, communing with these life forms, part plant, part animal and completely unknown to humans. They had evolved wings so thin they were all but invisible and drew sustenance. like plants. from the sun.
“How about that?” said Ketchum with a happy smile. “Good for you,” came a whisper, like tissue paper rustling. “You‘re getting pretty good at web site design.”
“Thanks,” said Ketchum. He loved his ethereal creatures. Of course they didn’t really talk to him. They lived miles above his head in the sky. They communicated by mental telepathy. It just seemed like they were whispering.
Mr. Ketchum knew with all his heart that these lovely creatures existed. They had evolved over millions of years unseen by the primates who thought they were the only intelligent creatures on the planet. Wrong: his creatures had developed intelligence too, not to just to start fires and make tools but to predict the weather. High winds were deadly to their tissue-thin bodies. They’d learned to survive by travelling in ghostly flocks led by the most experienced members. Because sound didn’t travel well in the rarified air of the stratosphere, they learned to communicate by mental telepathy.
In their feathery voices they told Ketchum that pollution, global warming and the vanishing ozone layer were destroying their civilization. Ketchum wanted to help, but how could he tell his fellow humans about these creatures? They would say he was crazy, and maybe he was.
Ketchum wanted to live among the clouds with those sky creatures. They needed him, not like the creatures on earth.
On earth Mr Ketchum was inadequate.
His email bleeped. Had his client found something wrong already?
“Your chequing account has an unusually high balance,” said the email. “Why not open a savings account?” He was about to trash the email when he noticed something peculiar: no promises of instant weight loss or gigantic penises — only a sober suggestion that he save money.
The email continued: “You may check your account balance here. Please enter your password.”
Mr Ketchum clicked, then keyed in his password.
He watched with reluctant admiration as the Java-enhanced website searched its database for his name and password. He wished he could build websites like that.
Balance: $1,234,567.89.
Mr Ketchum stared at the figures. There must be a mistake. He finally noticed the Java-powered caption balloon hovering beside the extraordinary figure: “Are you wondering why your balance is so high?”
He clicked.
“Because,” said the message, “we have discovered an engineering problem with your sky vehicle. We have paid an advance fee into your account against future consultation.”
Sky vehicle? The term jarred something loose in Ketchum’s brain. Suddenly his mind was flooded with images, engineering drawings, calculations, test data and high resolution pictures of his very first sky vehicle. He remembered flying the vehicle so high he could see the curvature of the earth against the black sky. How could he have forgotten?
There was even a picture of a sky vehicle on the screen, just like the one he’d designed. Right next to it, a tiny, pulsing question mark. Mr. Ketchum clicked the mark.
“A recall of all sky vehicles you designed will be necessary unless you are able to correct a flaw. Please return to our engineering studios via the nearest teleportation machine.”
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. The bank could not possibly know about the teleportation machine! It had been developed in total secrecy as an emergency method of travelling from the surface to the stratosphere. Even so, he heard its pneumatic sigh as the doors opened and the machine faded into view right next to his desk. A soft, blue glow suffused the shabby office.
“Come in,” said the machine. “It’s been a long time.”
That voice! It belonged to Charmaine, the unspeakably lovely girl who had transported him from oblivious childhood to tortured adolescence at 15, merely by walking past his pimply classmates to choose him as a dance partner at a junior high sock-hop more than 50 years ago. Ketchum had never forgotten that moment, nor the miserable hours the following Saturday night as, paralyzed with shyness, he watched one rival after another escort her to the dance floor whenever they played the latest Bobby Vinton ballad. He had that ballad on his iPhone.
With slow deliberation Ketchum fashioned a pair of binoculars with his hands, and trained them on the computer screen. He had developed the binoculars years earlier as an aid to concentration. They worked so well that his dog Spot could relieve himself in the corner, his wife could slam the door, his kids could scream and the TV could blare its toxic messages. He wouldn’t notice a thing.
Ketchum stared at the screen and tried to concentrate. This was a warning. He’d been under a strain lately. He’d have to change his habits, maybe join an encounter group for workaholic businessmen or dreamers who had fallen back to earth. He’d been working too hard. He should get a real job. Maybe drive a cab. He could walk away from his business any time. There were lots of things he could do. He’d find a small apartment, maybe a girl-friend. Try to get fit. Make another life for himself.
Charmaine would be over 60 now.
He saw the squalor of his office. Sure the couch was tattered and there was litter on the floor but worse, far worse, were the pictures on the walls. The young wife: they never spoke. The loving child: she never came home. The picture of himself with his brothers and sister: they never wrote. And even more painful: the map, the satellite photo, the Picasso print. This wasn‘t a home, this was pretence. I had a life, it said. I had friends. I had a family. I had a reason to live. I was important.
“Come on, Ketchy,” said the machine. “I haven‘t forgotten you.”
“On the other hand,” thought Ketchum, “I could step right into this fantasy. I could go voluntarily out of my mind. I could stand up, walk into my teleportation machine and into Charmaine’s arms.
“Sooner or later someone would find my body. But I wouldn’t care. I’d be working on my glider. Charmaine would help. I wonder what she looks like now?”
No contest. He‘d never been any good at websites anyway. He stood up, put the binoculars away and walked towards the glow, a beatific smile on his fat face.

Life Solutions

Life Solutions
Stu Ducklow

I was at my usual table in our crowded restaurant when the woman approached. I had been expecting a visitor, but not her, not someone so beautiful. I was surprised and, quite honestly, pleased. Did they all look like this, or was I so important they felt they had to send one of their best? Whatever. I welcomed her and she sat down.

You can learn a lot about people by close observation. I studied her while she fished for something in her purse. Late thirties, clean, regular teeth, blonde hair coiffed in a popular business cut. She shrugged out of her winter coat, twisting her body to reveal a graceful neck, slender shoulders and delicate hands, the manicured fingers of one clutching a business card. This woman had obviously been cared for in her childhood, hence the regular dentition. She obviously had a decent job, or at least a generous life partner, ergo the stylish and probably expensive haircut. She was athletic and strong because, despite the narrow shoulders and slender bones, she had lowered herself into her chair depending only on her thighs to settle her in place. Most people, especially those my age, will use at least one hand for balance and a bit of extra power. But the biggest signifier was the way she held herself. She was not afraid of men, in fact she probably liked their attentions because, with the slight twisting of her upper body, she had revealed small, but prominent breasts that thrust forward against a light blouse.

She flipped the business card towards me. “Hi. I’m Kara. It’s nice to meet you.”

The card had the familiar logo. Like most corporate signifiers it looked thoughtful but meaningless, professional but evocative, leaving the final interpretation up to the viewer. I saw a simplified human figure, a bit like an Inuksuk, standing on a path. Somehow you could tell the figure was facing away from you and that the pathway had come to an end.

Of course I knew what that logo meant. I held the card up in front of me for a long time, concealing my face behind it. I didn’t want her to see my eyes. If she saw my eyes she’d see my fear. And if I couldn’t see her, said the crazy child inside me, maybe she’d disappear and the meeting would be over.

“So soon?” I asked.

“You’ve been thinking of this for a while. It’s time.”

I finally met her eyes. It was like accepting a WiFi connection. Somehow information was conveyed and somehow I signified agreement and clicked Submit.

She continued, a touch of formality in her voice. “Geoffrey Daniel Parker, we at Life Solutions are prepared to make the following offer: We will pay off your outstanding debts, sell your belongings, close up your apartment and offer a two-hour counselling session with either a spiritual or therapeutic practitioner. We will publicize your passing and conduct a Life Memorial Service for your friends, lovers and acquaintances. Your beneficiary or charity will be offered a tax-free payout of $387,200. We will act in perpetuity as your agent of record, defending against any claims made against your estate. You agree to accompany us to our clinic you will meet your counsellor and participate in an in-depth life history and photography session. I assure you that our medical procedure will be absolutely painless. Our team will perform it within the next 48 hours.”

I tore my eyes away from hers and looked around the crowded restaurant. I saw that two large men were standing at the entrance waiting to be shown to a table. But I doubted if they were there to eat. They were probably there in case I made a scene and tried to leave.

They needn’t have worried. At 76, with emphysema and a heart condition, I wouldn’t be much trouble. My slender partner could probably hold me down on her own if it came to that.

Suddenly I wished my visitor wasn’t so beautiful and efficient. Why couldn’t she have been closer to my age, tired and fading, with a wise twinkle in her eyes? Someone who would know what I was feeling and know how to act. She would smile, maybe put one hand over one of mine, thank me for my sacrifice and tell me I’d had a good life.

“Oh…” I said, by way of acknowledging her offer. That was all I could think of to say. A quiet utterance in a crowd that stood for my whole life, my thousands of small triumphs and failures.

I had squandered my good genes. I’d been lazy, smart, introverted, sullen and arrogant most of my life. I’d been a slacker at work and unkind to the women who liked me when I was young. I’d been self absorbed and cowardly, a preoccupied father and, worse, a sullen husband. I had wound up living alone in a low-income apartment estranged from my daughter and ex-wife.

Loneliness is an epidemic in our society. It shortens your life like smoking. But my slow death would take years and cost a fortune in medical treatments and drugs. That’s where Life Solutions came in, an experimental program that turns suicide into sacrifice, a noble way to say goodbye and an inspired way to cut costs.

Suddenly I felt the woman’s hand on mine. “Geoffrey,” she said. “I know this is hard but you’ve made your decision and it’s the right one. The government will save a lot of money and those dollars will be used for things like housing, education, healthcare and lots of other government programs. Your picture and life story will go in our memorial gallery along with others who have made your sacrifice. You’re doing the right thing, believe me.”

The right thing. I had heard that in their campaign song.

I’ve had my life and now it’s done
So many trips around the sun
My healthy years are on the run
But my painful years have just begun

You get the point. It’s doggerel, but with a catchy tune and a lot of happy faces and artsy photos of gnarled faces, it’s pretty convincing.

“I want you to meet our photographer and our writer. They’ll interview you and get your full life story. You’re a good man, Geoffrey and you’re about to make the noblest sacrafice of your life. I can’t think of a greater contribution to humanity. We will be forever grateful.”

She was squeezing my arm with one hand and reaching out with the other. She had brought her face close. Her eyes were huge and moist. She wiped them with a tissue, sniffled a bit and turned away.

“I’m sorry. These encounters are the most profound and joyful of my life. I want you to know you’re brave and strong. I don’t know you well, but I wish I’d met you when you were younger. If our ages weren’t so far apart, maybe things would have been different.”

That did it. It had been decades since a woman had stroked my hands like that and had looked at me with those big, longing eyes. Almost never, actually.

I stared at her for a long time, soaking up the love and adoration she was projecting. I knew it was an act but I didn’t care. It was all I’ds ever wanted.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.”


Murder by Schoolbus

Fred’s fat ass made a beautiful target for my big yellow school bus as he bent over the trunk of his Mercedes and fussed with his groceries in the Shopmart parking lot. I coasted silently towards him not fast, but with enough kinetic energy to splatter his body like a ripe tomato and mix it with the pulverized remains of his car.

Squish time: 10 seconds.
I’d never thought seriously of killing another person until a few weeks earlier when that corporate toady had walked into my office and terminated my journalistic career without cause.
I had become familiar with this parking lot because I needed a job and Shopmart needed somebody to bring its carts back into the store. There were some unexpected benefits: my low station in life made me invisible to most customers, even Fred, whom I saw every Friday around midnight wearing the same faux-fur overcoat. And nobody noticed me sneaking into any of the school buses that parked on the lot overnight whenever I felt the need of a nap. They were easy to break into — drivers keep the keys behind the window visors in case they sleep in and somebody else has to take their shift. I could even start their engines to warm them up.
Gradually a plot began to form in my mind and, after some careful observations and even some calculations about mass, force, momentum and the squishing power of school buses, I was ready. Revenge would be mine!
I had designated this particular Friday as the last day of Fred’s useless life. I had already selected a bus and parked it about 50 metres from Fred’s car, just enough upslope to allow it to coast towards the target with the motor off.
Fred I found in the meat department. I watched him as he fondled the chicken breasts, squeezed the vegetables and browsed the breakfast cereals. Then, as he approached the cash register I headed towards my bus, fingering the keys in my pocket. It wouldn’t be long.
I wasn’t worried about witnesses. We were among the only humans in a parking lot at midnight in the dead of a North Atlantic winter. At those temperatures people are snuggled into their hoodies, hands on their clickers, looking only for the flickering lights of their cars.
I had welcomed Fred into my office that morning, expecting praise for my performance as editor of the Podunk Weekly Post and a conversation about my future with the company. Instead he’d thrown a letter onto my desk. It said I had made too many snap judgements and that too many stories had contained factual errors. I had discredited the newspaper and I was to clean out my desk immediately.
If I’d been a little faster on my feet, I’d have reminded Fred that I was merely following his orders. “Drop the crusading journalist stuff,” he’d told me over coffee on my first day on the job. “It takes too much work and the stories are boring. We’re losing readers to Facebook. We need to compete with the click bait.”
“Yeah,” I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm. “I’ll see what I can do.” Despite my show of reluctance I wasn’t sorry to forsake the image of the crusading journalist. It was hard work indeed. Every word had to be documented. Every fact checked. No sliver of bias allowed. Wary copy editors turned the most dramatic stories into turgid clotheslines, each fact strung to the next and pinned with dry accounts of how they were checked and confirmed. Talk about libel chill!
So I gave Fred what he wanted — stories that competed with click bait. In the next few months the paper was transformed from a tedious collection of press releases and charity banquets to a scandal sheet that flew off the news stands and smashed sales targets.
Our secret formula was gossip. My reporters had grown up in the town. “You already know what’s going on,” I told them in one of our weekly coffee meetings. “So why aren’t you writing it? Don’t get bogged down with the facts. Write what you know, or think you know.”
I become a force to be reckoned with. Politicians nodded to me on the street; waiters remembered my favourite sticky bun; I never got parking tickets and best of all, ordinary, God-fearing Podunkians stopped me on the streets with their malicious story ideas.
Take Tom Smith for example. Yeah he was the town drunk but he saw a lot of stuff from his park bench and his brain was pretty sharp. “I saw Mrs. Peabody go into the Royal Grande Splendide with Mayor McGillicutty,” he told me. The tip was easy to check. I wandered into the lobby, waited till the reservations clerk was good and busy and told him I had an envelope for his honour. “Room 271,” he told me without looking up.
It was the easiest journalistic coup I’d ever made. I just stood outside the door and listened. “Oh! Tom!” screeched a female voice. “Oh! Yes! Yes! YES!” and words to that effect.
And a great-looking front page it made, too. “Oh! Tom!” screamed the headline in Impact Extrabold 400 point, second-coming type. Everybody knew our insufferably righteous mayor was boffing the nubile Ms Amelia Peabody, except perhaps Mr William Peabody. The story wasn’t long on detail as neither of the participants returned my calls, but I did hear from William Peabody. He called me at 3 a.m. to share his thoughts about our newspaper and journalists like me but kept stumbling over his words and started snoring in mid rant.
We did a follow-up story the next Monday. It was about the church service after Peabody’s untimely death due to a combination of sleeping pills and alcohol. It seems he never woke up after cursing me over the phone. The church was jam-packed. I sat in the back row, wearing my trusty false nose and glasses. Peabody was described as a loving family man, a loyal parishioner, an energetic Rotarian and the kind-hearted manager of our local hardware store. Yeah, I put all that drivel in my article, an homage to the journalistic truism that there are two sides to every story. And I wanted to get our company lawyers off my back.
But the lawyers insisted there were three sides: My version, our smarmy followup and the truth.
Damn the truth! How was I to know I was listening outside the wrong door, and that the exclamations of joy and passion came from a TV soap opera? The mayor had been in Room 217, not 271, listening to a presentation by Ms Greenaway, president of the town Parks and Recreation Committee.
All that stuff was recounted in Fred’s letter. More corporate weasel words like judgement, integrity and due diligence.
Squish time: 7 seconds.
Being fired turns you in a pariah. My former co-workers wouldn’t answer my emails and even unfriended me on Facebook. We’d had fun in our short time together, going to the pub on Fridays, where the waiter remembered my favourite craft beer, and talking about the stories we’d like to do. I hated losing that.
I especially hated losing Mary, our fledgling reporter with blue eyes and golden hair. We’d had many companionable afternoons teaming up for our person-in-the-street interviews. She’d handle the writing and I’d take the pictures. Then I’d buy the coffee and bask in her adoring gaze as I dispensed pearls of journalistic wisdom. “Don’t let anything get between you and your goal,” I’d tell her. “Think about your career. Strategize.” I loved those blue eyes but I didn’t see the little wheels turning behind them.
She had begun taking my advice to heart and used her looks to coax secrets from her male interview subjects. I began calling her my blonde barracuda. She developed predator’s taste for bylines.
Squish time: 5 seconds.
I wasn’t always the gossip-mongering journalist who would do anything to get a story. I had been an idealistic young man, out to change the world or at least my small part of it. And for a while I thought I did. I revealed the hideous plight of abandoned pets, waiting out their time before execution day at the local pound. I wrote about the unsafe working conditions at our local sawmill. I railed against city budget cuts that closed sidewalks in winter instead of ploughing them, driving main-street merchants to ruin as sales plummeted over the Christmas season.
There was no end of scoops to be had once you knew where to look. The town dump was always afoul of garbage guidelines; cops were always beating up homeless people and small-time politicians could be goaded into making ignorant statements. It seems disillusioned people everywhere would trade their stories a few minutes of attention. You’d be surprised how much some people will tell you when you start writing down everything they say.
Squish time: 3 seconds.
The passenger door popped open on the Mercedes. A tall woman with silky blonde hair stepped out, blinking into my headlights. Omigod! Mary!
I shut my eyes to hide from the dreadful reality. The bus lurched on, a metallic zombie without a driver.
But I couldn’t hide from the truth. That scheming vixen had deployed those calculating blue eyes on Fred and convinced him to give her my job! Now her life was in my hands. Could I take it?
Squish time: 2 seconds.
Mary had her hands over her face, shielding her eyes from my headlights. Suddenly I thought of a better way. Let them live! Mary would make Fred suffer more than I ever could. He’d die a slow, painful death under her spiked heels, just another stepping stone in her relentless quest for success.
Squish time: 1 second.
I wrenched the wheel to the right, brought the bus to a halt beside them and opened the window. “Mary!” I shouted. “Good for you! What a catch! And Fred! You think she cares about you? You don’t know what you’ve got yourself in for! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
And then Mary pulled her hands away from her face to reveal a pair of brown eyes and a mouth full of braces. The tall blonde I’d thought was Mary was a teenage girl. And that wasn’t Fred, peering over the trunk either, unless he’d grown a Van Dyke beard in two weeks.
“You stupid shit!” shouted Fred, or whoever he was. The girl began to cry.
I drove away, nearly weeping myself with the relief that I hadn’t gone through with my original plan. A mile down the highway I aimed the bus into a snowbank, wiped the prints off the steering wheel and left by the emergency rear exit.
I still keep track of Mary. She got Fred’s job after a few months and did wonders with the company website. Married the designer, actually.
Fred also experienced marital bliss, with his boyfriend. They moved to Bermuda. Who knew?
As for me, I still patrol the parking lot and play bass in the blues band on my night off. And every time I see a guy in a fake fur coat I jump. It happens a lot. If I’d known how many guys wore that coat I probably would have found some other way to identify Fred from behind.
Those snap judgements will be the death of me.

Juliet’s Last Lover


Juliet’s Last Lover

Juliet was getting old. Her skin had been replaced during her last physical so she looked shiny and new, but she was older than almost all of her lovers.

She had never been easy to love. She was uncompromising, demanding and skittish. Young people were afraid of her. Old friends appreciated her authenticity but they’d grown up in a different era, where truth was more important than ease of use. Most of them were too old to frolic with her but some still visited occasionally just to talk and maybe take a picture. They admired her elemental beauty.

Juliet knew her life would soon come to an end, probably because of an accident. She couldn’t warn anybody but she could feel a weakness in one of her joints. She had felt it give while she was with Steve, not one of her favourite lovers, though she admired his tenacity. He was rough with her but she knew he’d relax sooner or later and his touch would become sure and gentle. Juliet hoped she’d live long enough to experience that joy with one more pupil.

She’d helped thousands of young men and women in her long career. The women, it seemed were better. They were sensitive, like Juliet, and their movements were considered and thoughtful. The guys felt they had to prove something and Juliet would wind up bouncing around under their spastic clutching and grabbing. She hated that.

Sooner or later they all fell in love with her. They learned she could be quick and powerful, lively and energetic. They learned how to exercise control with gentleness and skill not brute force. Juliet didn’t know how other females felt but she yearned for the skilled, deft hands of an experienced lover, one who would appreciate her unique qualities and come back often.

Steve was no such partner. He’d kick her and grab her limbs and twist them. She could feel that he was nervous and afraid and she sympathized but she hated the pounding she took from him. He didn’t know what to look for. He wasn’t sensitive or caring. He’d never notice her aching joint.

It was Steve who had come to see her again this afternoon. She could feel his anxiety in the extra force he put into the joggling and prodding– part of his dreadful preliminaries. It put her in a bad mood. The weather didn’t help. A thunderstorm was brewing and the air was filled with static electricity. It made Juliet jumpy and even more skittish than usual. But she had to cooperate. She always did what her partners demanded whether it hurt or not.

Her aching joint burned under Steve’s rough handling. The thunderstorm erupted with hail and furious winds filling her world with an unearthly light. Steve’s fearful hands gripped like a vice. She bounced, and twisted and struggled in protest. If only he’d let go and let her guide him she could show him how their partnership was designed to work– the perfect joy of control and submission. But his fear made him even more powerful and he handled her with mighty heaves and jerks, back and forth, tearing and pushing. She moaned and held herself rigid, willing him to finish. And then suddenly it was over. She felt her ailing joint flutter and then give way. She was torn, broken, unable to perform.

It was the end for both of them. Juliet had always wanted her life to finish with a bang and it did, in one last glorious spin into the ground from 800 feet over the airport.

She was crushed under the impact, her classic monoque fuselage crumpled like a candy wrapper. Steve was dead inside. A colourful brigade of fire and emergency vehicles raced cheerfully to the scene and sprayed Juliet with flame retardants before the firemen hacked the flimsy doors away and confronted the bloody remains.

Then they swaggered around looking important in their day-glo fireproof jackets and waited for the ambulance to take the body away.

Bystanders gathered taking pictures with their cell phones. “What do I call that thing,” shouted one of them.

“A Canuck,” said another. “It’s called a Fleet 80 Canuck. We all trained on her — a real good plane to learn on. I’ll be she’s over 70. Don’t make ’em like that anymore.”

“What did you call her before? Juliet?”

“Yep, that’s her name. Juliet Delta Quebec– that’s radio talk for those letters on her tail. CF-JDQ. Hey, can you send me one of those pictures? She was a good friend.”

The Handsome Man

“Hello valued customer. My name is Andrea. Thank you for this phone call to Monolith Corp. How may I be of assistance today?”
“What? Oh! Excuse me! I fell asleep waiting for you to answer. I’m having a problem logging onto my account. You keep saying my password is wrong, so I asked for a new password to be emailed to me but when I follow the link in the email you sent, I don’t see anywhere to create a new password.”
“I am most humbly sorry for the problem you are having. I can see how this problem would be most frustrating. Please be assured that I will do my best to solve this problem to your satisfaction. Could I possibly ask if you would be good enough to give me your account number?
“You can access that on the profile page of your account.”
“But I can’t log into my account to see my account number.”
“That’s alright, let’s try it with your email address and password.”
“Well my email is and my password is ih8monolith. Sorry.”
“That’s okay. Lots of people have a similar password. Now, can you tell me your address?”
“123 Parkdale Avenue, Pleasantville, Nova Scotia.”
“That sounds right, your date of birth please?” “April 23, 1968.”
“Thank you. And would you be good enough to tell me your full name?”
“Um… Joseph Bloggs.”
“Ah, yes, that’s what we have here.”
“Thank you Mr. Bloggs. Before we can proceed I’m going to ask you to download a program that will allow me to work directly on your computer. Please check your email. You should have it shortly.”
“Okay, yes, here it is.”
“Okay, just click the link. That should take you to a web site where you’ll read a disclaimer and then click the download button.”
“Okay, I’m just clicking now … going to your web site … looking at the disclaimer. It’s pretty long. I’m scrolling down … down … down … okay, I agree. Downloading … downloading … downloading … authorizing … opening — there! I think you should be able to see my screen now.”
The logo for Monolith Corp. Inc. Ltd. appeared on Joe’s screen. He heard a sharp intake of breath.
“Are you alright?”
“Oh, Yes, sir … yes, indeed! Excuse me. I’ll reset your password now. Can you give me a password that you’ll remember and I’ll input it?”
“Um, well, how about ‘password’?”
“Sorry, sir, it has to be more complicated than that. You need a number, at least one capital letter and a symbol.”
“I’m sorry, I just can’t think of anything.”
“Okay, look I shouldn’t do this, but you seem pretty trustworthy. I’ll give you a password and you can use that to log on. Then go to your profile page and change it, using letters and numbers like I told you”
“Okay, do you want to tell me?”
“I’m going to whisper it, I don’t want my colleagues to hear. Just lean into the screen.”
“Okay, leaning in.”
“Okay, here’s your password: iamahandsomeman. No caps no spaces”
“What? Are you kidding? That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard all day!”
“Well, I assure you sir, it’s true. I should have told you this earlier but when we send this special program to your computer it means we can see you. We’re not supposed to use the camera without telling you so please don’t tell anyone.”
“Can I see you?”
“Oh, no, I’m sorry, our computers aren’t that good. We’re just running Windows.”
“Oh, so where are you actually? I’m not going to run into you downtown or something am I?”
“I’m sorry sir, I’m not allowed to tell you that. I’m in enough trouble already.”
“OK, listen, this is kind of silly, but what on earth makes you think I’m handsome?”
“Sir! It’s obvious! You have penetrating eyes, a flowing mane of hair, a strong jaw and your prominent cheekbones give you a craggy appearance, especially with that beard stubble.
“Hey, just a minute, Can I show you to my colleagues? Please? Is that okay?”
“Well, let me just comb my hair or something. Back in a sec.”
In the bathroom, Joe looked at his face in the mirror. Big nose, pimply skin, weak chin, yellow teeth. How could anyone think he was handsome?
“Sir, please! We’re waiting.”
“Alright, here I am,” said Joe, walking towards the computer
He heard a sharp intake of breath and a voice: “Oh! My! God! Can I take him home?”
“Andrea, he’s perfect!” There were many giggles. Joe couldn’t help but grin, setting off more giggles. “Can we take your picture? said a shy voice.”
“Sorry, girls, back to work. Sir, I’ve got to go, our supervisor’s on the way in. Goodbye, I’ll never forget this!”
The Monolith logo disappeared revealing the spreadsheet Joe had been working on.
“What just happened?” Joe thought. He turned on the camera in his computer, something he’d never done. His face looked unfamiliar, It was as if he was seeing himself for the first time. He looked past the acne, the scraggly beard and tried to see what Andrea had seen. There did seem to be a certain depth in his eyes and, under the right light, his cheekbones were almost prominent. If he lowered his jaw his cheeks hollowed out, giving his face a craggy look. If he held his head up, his chin looked stronger. He scowled. He smiled, He shrugged, put on a quizzical look. Tried looking thoughtful. He moved the desk lamp to one side and the lighting became more dramatic. He scowled again and tried for a commanding look.
What if he really was handsome, but had never had the confidence to use his good looks. Would his life have been different?
“Hello,” he said to the beautiful rock groupie, hoisting his Gibson Les Paul Studio guitar on his shoulder, “I’ve got front row tickets to our concert tonight. Maybe we can hang out later.”
“Sure!” gasped his boss. “You bet! We’ve been taking you for granted. That last web application you built has doubled our sales. Let me speak to our accountant, I’m sure we can make you a better offer.”
“Well make it quick,” he snapped to the scruffy paparazzo. “I’ve got things to do.”
“He turned towards the parliament steps and took them three at a time, the crowd falling back behind him.”
“Where does he get his energy puffed a reporter to his cameraman. President of the World Bank and he’s only 24!”
“Glad to see you sir, said the uniformed pilot as he stepped aboard the rooftop helicopter.”
Yeah, Joe thought. Being handsome would be great. Could Andrea possibly be right? No, that was ridiculous. He was, at best, unremarkable.
But what if… What if she was right?
Joe practiced his looks in the camera all afternoon, creating screenshots as he went. He tried looking quizzical, interested, sensitive, empathic, tortured, angry, domineering, menacing. He swaggered, leaned, and stood, legs apart, with arms folded over his chest. When daylight faded, he showered, shaved, worked gel into his hair, ran deodorant under his arms and left his seedy apartment chewing on a breath mint. He strode among the evening crowd. He glared penetratingly about. He loitered with intent.
But the world wasn’t noticing. He sauntered down the sidewalk, thumbs tucked in his belt, past confectionaries, coffee shops and grocery stores. He frowned thoughtfully at sales clerks in a department store and cast his laser eyes into a bus window. He purchased a pack of gum in a commanding voice and used his silky baritone to order a latte in a crowded coffee bar. He was ignoring the crowd that had gathered around him and was gazing knowingly into his cup when he felt a nudge at his shoulder. He turned, casting a baleful glance at this unauthorized intrusion.
“I see you’re practicing your mirror face,” said a well- dressed young man, settling onto the stool beside him. He looked like a salesman with his blue suit, red tie and briefcase. “Have you got the empathic, listening look down yet? The chicks love it.”
“Who are you?” he glared threateningly.
“Just some guy who met Andrea over a computer. She told me I was devastatingly handsome. She showed me to the girls in the office. They went gaga. One of them fell out of her chair.”
Joe pondered, casting his faraway gaze over the heads of the crowd. “Jeez, I didn’t do that good. Hey, please don’t take this the wrong way but you’re not all that good looking.”
“Well you’re pretty ugly yourself.”
Joe drooped. “Oh. Yeah, I kinda thought so. So I guess it was a scam. Did it do you any good?”
“Are you kidding?” The man stood and presented himself to Joe, feet apart, arms akimbo. Look at me! I mean: Look! At! Me! I got
a raise last week. But I quit my job anyhow because our competitor made me VP of Sales. I asked for a company car but they gave me a limo with a full-time driver instead.” He turned to the crowd and snapped: “Hey! Helena!”
“Yessir!” An immaculately groomed amazon stepped out of the crowd. Several people were using cell phone cameras. “How can I help?”
Joe’s jaw dropped. He’d never seen a more beautiful woman.
“You get used to it,” his new friend said. “You just gotta believe. Andrea says you’re handsome. You’re handsome!”
“Let’s go Helena!”
“Yes sir!” The pair stepped away from the coffee counter and cut a path through the adoring multitude.
Cameras snapped as the man looked back: “Hey! You wanna be like me you gotta pay! Costs every dime you’ve got in your life but it’s worth it! Here!” he said tossing a business card at Joe. “I don’t need this anymore.”
The card fell to the carpet. Joe looked at the crowd. There was an exquisite young woman gazing at him with an expression of absolute adoration. She held a camera, forgotten, in her hands. Joe tried a shy, sincere smile.
“Oh!” she gasped and collapsed decorously on the carpet, the camera clunking at her side.
Joe crouched over her motionless body. She was really very pretty, he thought. He reached across her chest for the business card. His sleeve touched her breasts. The girl began to stir.
She looked up at him goggle-eyed.
Joe looked at the card and reached for his cell phone.