November 28, 2010
On the way home from Lake Louise, Mira cries in the backseat, quietly, so quietly that I have no idea she’s crying, but she tells me later that she was. We spent the day on the back side of the mountain going off small jumps and having a session midday at the Thank You For Pot Smoking place with a few of the fiends, the group of dudes from our school with special status due to their ability to smoke the fattest doobs. One of the fiends is missing. Coulter Holmes and three other kids from school. They never came home after snowboarding yesterday. They went to Nakiska before it was officially open to get some early snow, hiked up the mountain with their boards strapped to their packs. Kids went out of bounds all the time, but I’d never heard of anyone going up a closed hill. No doubt why Coulter did it.
“It’s probably just some sort of miscommunication,” I tell Mira from the front seat, my older brother Markus driving, his head bobbing to his chest every once in a while until I slap him awake.
“They’re probably in Banff out getting wastie somewhere,” Markus says.
“Or maybe they had some car trouble,” I say.
It had happened to a group of us just the other weekend. We ran out of gas near Chief Chiniki and had to use torch candles from the ’88 Olympics to keep warm, saving our remaining battery power to play the Fugees as we waited for Coulter’s dad to pick us up. Recently moved here from Newfoundland, Coulter had achieved full fiend status despite all odds and accents, and unlike the rest of the Princes of Malibu – he actually deserved it. The other fiends lived in the nicest homes, had the nicest gear and always had weed. Coulter had nothing but a high tolerance and a friendly disposition. We’d bonded on the trampoline at an out of control house party, deciding that it would be a good idea to ring the doorbell of every house on the block as we hid in the bushes.
“I’m worried,” Mira says.
“They’re probably home by now,” Markus says.
Big things don’t happen, I want to explain to Mira. Life is not a movie. People die, but not dramatically. They die of cancer and heart attacks and old age. There is no plot in life. No matter how much you sometimes wish there were.
The car jets down the highway, the night sky as black as the ice on the road.
My mom is calling my cell. I pick it up and she starts talking about Coulter.
Why is she saying his name?
There were all found dead in an avalanche this morning.
I hear myself burst into tears.
May 17, 2010
The summer has cracked. Illiya can feel it sizzling down at him as he surfaces from Okanogan Lake. This means the people have cracked, too. Sunburnt skin covers the blood-orange strip of Penticton City Beach, families fresh out of winter hiding baking on beach towels in low SPF, parents half-watching their children alongside other half-watching parents, their beer disguised in insulated neon glasses. Illiya dives back under the lake’s surface in a long lunge, the cool water a slap in the face. Underneath, beyond the muffled screams of playing kids, the swarms of criss-crossing boats, the reverberating clash of pumping beats from the train of trucks on Lakeshore Drive – everyone exploding into their summer selves, Illiya wades further out, the sand trailing off under his feet. In the winter, there is hardly any snow in the Canadian desert. No bad storms, the Okanogan valley sheltered by the massive Rockies further north, hardly even much frost, but still everything dies for most of the year. Everyone. They lose themselves when the valley drifts away from the sun. Surfacing past the buoys, the bare red mountains rising up with him the way they do when they come up with the dawn – arid and hovering, layers of the unknown rippling through their cores, a heaviness drains through Illiya like the liquid concrete he pours into the foundations of houses – thick, slothful, and grey. It was last September when Ivy first rubbed those firm circles against his scalp, tipped his head back against the cool ledge of the sink and doused it with that perfect push of warm water. She gave him a discount on his haircut, said she liked his hair short, liked the sideburns, the curl. ‘Almost like a black guy,’ she scrunched a fistful. Not one of those words or touches were real. Illiya floats on his back and looks into the vacant blue sky. Leave you when the summer comes rolling…
A football splashes Illiya to his right. ‘Ill,’ he hears his name.
Illiya squints to see Jer from Summerland wading out to retrieve the football, a girl in a bright red bikini taped to his waist. Jer, an old hockey buddy with a knuckle-crushing handshake, drove his truck off a small cliff last June on his way home from a bush party in Naramata, drunk off the early summer sun and maybe too much whisky. As he approaches, Illiya sees that Jer’s drunk now at only four o’clock.
‘What are you doin’ out here, Ill?’ Jer asks, his eyes sloppy in their focus as he squints through the sun.
The girl in the red bikini looks at Illiya with an unpained smile, her wet hair red like Ivy’s, but her labret, pierced with a silver stud, nothing like the smooth curve of Ivy’s chin.
‘In for a dip,’ Illiya says.
‘Where’s your hot girlfriend?’
Jer nods half understanding, twirling the football and then dropping it. It smacks the water’s surface.
‘Come to the bush party tonight,’ Jer invites Illiya, drawing the girl in the red bikini back in close.
Used to be Illiya couldn’t wait to lose himself in the Canadian night air. Couldn’t wait to press his mouth against the cold, white teeth of some girl beside a barely controllable bonfire, digging through her layers to get to her warm skin.
‘Maybe,’ Illiya says.
‘Better see you there.’ Jer and the girl drift towards the shore.
The desert heat presses against Illiya’s face like the palm of a hand. But this year it’s just heat, the happiness siphoned from it. He imagines her taking a red and white straw to the sky and sucking the sun right through it like an egg yolk. Emerging from the water and stepping onto the hot sand, red like clay and thin as dust, the sun dries Illiya’s skin in seconds. He slides on his warm, dirty work jeans. Funny how they call the town blue collar – he’s never worn a collar to work in his life. Walking home, a thin wind rattles the leaves on the sparse line of trees along the beach, a small relief from the pressing heat. Along the strip of party motels people sit on patios and balconies drinking beer, worries burned up, moods melted by the sun, as though this is where they really live – in summer. As though they’re all okay year round. The smell of exhaust from the busy Lakeshore Drive pollutes their joy, blows their cover. What they really are, or what they’ll soon be: drunk and in debt with more kids on the way. Illiya walks down Main Street against the traffic, the long one way street the town’s strategy to churn the tourists through quickly: get em in, get em out, so they don’t overcrowd the already tainted Okanogan paradise. Don’t tell them that Penticton means ‘a place to stay forever.’
Shrieking inside the old white house. A broken plate on the porch, shattered pieces of blueberry pie. Illiya can hear his sister, Angelica, crying inside. The fights have been happening since Angelica started smoking Marlboroughs, wearing tube tops and platforms, and coming home late or not at all, her summer job at Dairy Queen the shame of her new glamorous life. ‘Another victim of the devil’s playground,’ Illiya’s mother has been saying. But Angelica is like a cat – she doesn’t come for anyone.
Illiya climbs the porch steps, its white wooden posts peeling like sunburnt skin, and he nods at Nate up on the ladder, odd guy around Illiya’s age from down the street hired by Illiya’s mother to repaint the house, always silent, smoking, strange grey halos around his irises that Illiya had never seen on anyone before. Made it hard to look Nate in the eye, literal bull’s eyes drawn around them, he didn’t want to stare. Nate offers a nod, his cigarette smoke wafting down.
Inside, Angelica is yelling, her voice sugary like cotton candy even when she screams. ‘Why are you such a bitch to me?’
‘You read Revelations,’ Illiya’s mother screams back. ‘Illiya,’ she notices him as she removes a steaming hot glass dish out of the oven. ‘Take your runners off.’
Looking around for broken dishes, Illiya does.
It’s the wallpaper that gives the kitchen its crazy feel, red and white checks with different aproned old maids in each white square staring out at you like they blame you for their trapped, wasted lives. At the kitchen table – dark oak covered in a red doily – Angelica holds a bloody paper towel over her foot, her legs wrapped around herself, toasty brown from months of preparatory tanning. Illiya’s younger sister, Kiara, sits beside her cross-legged, a bowl of cherries and an Archie comic sprawled in front of her. ‘Revelations is a crapload,’ Kiara says to no one, twisting a cherry stem in her mouth.
Kiara used the Bible their mother gave her for her twelfth birthday as paper mache for a piñata in the shape of a pink cow, which their mother unknowingly smashed to pieces on Mother’s Day.
‘We’ll see who’s laughing when the sky starts to fall,’ Illiya’s mother slices the casserole with the hack of an axe.
‘Will you be laughing then?’ Kiara asks. ‘Really, Mom?’
Illiya hovers in the kitchen doorway, his mother’s mind like a factory home – an unsturdy frame built from a pre-packaged blueprint, no use even trying to renovate.
‘Only Jehova can read hearts,’ his mother tells Kiara, her stock non-answer to difficult questions.
It was Illiya’s mother’s Seasonal Affective Disorder that got her hating blood transfusions and independent thinking like Jehova himself. Got her handing out pamphlets of people petting lions to her poor ex-league mates at Sun Country Bowl. But even with Jehova, she still spent winter days curled up in bed, the dishes piling up in the sink. Even with the special sunlamps given to her by church elders propped up on desktops and cabinets she still some days couldn’t speak to her own kids. Her SAD lights, she calls them – ten times the brightness of normal lights. Lights as close as possible to the sun, built to drown out any darkness, inside and out. Above the kitchen table, in a stained-red glass pizza parlour fixture, one of them gleams down now – bright as an eclipse.
‘You’re grounded,’ Illiya’s mother tells Angelica with her knife.
‘What?’ Angelica cries. ‘It’s finally decent out and you want to lock me inside this hellhole?’
‘Mom found crystal in Gel’s purse,’ Kiara reveals.
Angelica sobs under the hood of her pink sweatshirt, the smell of hot broccoli casserole braiding the room.
‘What is crystal anyway?’ Kiara asks, delighted. ‘Speed, right?’
‘Shut up, Kiara,’ Angelica shrieks.
‘The devil’s poison,’ Illiya’s mother scowls.
The SAD light burns down on them in technicolor, the wash of light against the sun outside somehow making the room somehow darker. When Illiya was in high school there were budding alcoholics, burnouts, even some cokeheads among the orchard owner’s kids, but meth was new – the poor man’s coke, a fraction of the price for a dirtier high that grinds your jaw. ‘Why don’t you just smoke weed or something, Gel?’ Illiya suggests.
‘Fuck you, Illiya!’ Angelica shrieks through her smudged mascara. ‘I’m not even doing it anymore!’
‘I can see it in your face,’ Illiya’s mother spits. ‘You’re ruining your beauty.’ She slams the casserole down on the table. ‘Illiya. Sit.’
Blood seeps through Angelica’s paper towel in the thick kitchen heat, the cherry rim around Kiara’s mouth like badly drawn on lipstick. The day’s sweat gathers at the base of Illiya’s neck. ‘I’m going out,’ he mumbles. Chucking his hat on the banister, Illiya disappears into the basement and steps into the shower, its droplets prickling his face like tears. Ivy never cried. Physically shrugged him off when he wanted to know her reasons, just like a dude. Illiya lathers the bar of soap in his hands like he’s lighting a fire and scrubs his face with it even though it burns his eyes. Ivy wants her summer. With no boundaries. Like that house he’s working on down in Keremeos – no line between its backyard and the bush. Under the hot drizzle of water, Illiya can feel the metallic grit of her scissors skimming his ears.
As the sun lowers itself into the sheer screen of red mountain, Illiya backs his truck out of the driveway, the holographic bumper sticker on his mother’s hatchback flashing in the falling sun: ‘Choose Life, Your Mom Did.’ Stopping at a gas station on Main Street to fill his tank, the attendant slips him his chips and change under the hard plastic window, the town’s transient nature a perfect anonymous setting for lapses in honesty, sanity. Illiya drives through the town centre, one of the storefront shop windows smashed but still hanging in delicate web of glass. Lapse.
The black night air is mild and glazed with salty grease from the French fry truck on Orchard Lane. Across the street, a girl with a perfect body wearing a skirt just short enough to make her look pitiful roams past the lined-up clubs. Lately, the bush parties had been dying out, Illiya’s friends figuring they were grown up now and should be getting dressed up and going to the town bars. A revolving beat thumps into the street as Illiya drives past the waiting girls in white dresses and sandals, guys in white collars and dark jeans. Ivy’s in there now, probably. This is what she wanted. To be in the centre of the things. Illiya lets the one-way lead him out of town.
Each jutting rock on the mountain road clinks together the beer bottles in the back of Illiya’s truck. At the site, fifteen or twenty cars line the dirt road that trails off into the large open field, another ring of trucks further out circling a tall fire of things that probably shouldn’t be burned in the black expanse of night. Illiya parks, grabs his beer, and walks out to the fire, loud, hard, sad rock playing from someone’s fuzzy truck speakers. He kicks the case under the wheel of a truck and breathes in the tannin dry night air.
‘Ill,’ Jer thumps him on the back. ‘Sweet that you came.’
Jer has sobered up since this afternoon. Illiya recognizes that look of paranoia in Jer’s eyes, the look of things falling apart – why Jer drinks in the first place. Why most guys do. If they can get there, to that place where they can pretend it’s all good, it almost is. Illiya’s buddies greet him with half-hugs and handshakes dodging the sparks popping up from the fire. The smell of campfire smoke used to make everything make sense to Illiya, gave him a sense that life was happening. Tonight it stings his throat.
‘You look nice tonight, Illiya.’ A girl named Jade slides into the crook of his arm. ‘Same as always, but nice with that white hat of yours. The only clean thing on you, as usual.’
‘Huh,’ Illiya manages, removing his arm to pull his hat down.
‘You’re always tugging at that thing,’ Jade re-hooks herself into his arm, her waxy perfume too much. ‘Kind of cowboy-like. I like it. I do.’
Illiya removes his arm again to take a swig of beer. In the blur of the fire everything looks as it always has except tonight it’s as though someone has turned the lights on. Exposed them all out here for what they really are – just a bunch of kids drunk in a field.
‘You’re quiet tonight,’ Jade says. ‘Don’t think too hard, baby.’ She brushes his arm as she walks away.
‘Yo, Illiya,’ Jer cups his shoulder, the girl in the red bikini now replaced by a typical Penticton girl – skin cancer tan, lit cigarette hovering between fluorescent-white tipped fingers. Jer looks across the fire.
Through the fire, Ivy sits in the back of an open truck bed, her hair falling over one shoulder like a foxtail. Dark red like cherry wood. She looks at Illiya, her eyelashes blinking their relaxed bat, then looks away. He doesn’t exist. He’s been shut out of his own life. Illiya walks away from the fire, kicking his beer bottle out into the field, and heads over to the shack at the edge of the tree line that burnt down when he was in high school. He unzips his fly and goes, looking over its scorched Blair Witch walls. He didn’t burn it down, but he did watch it burn. The wind jostles the trees with that same beaded shake as earlier, except this time it sounds like shhh… Like they’re telling him to shut the fuck up.
He can’t help but picture her naked. You can feel it when someone is beside you seeing things how you see them.
Back at the fire, a joint is being passed around. It swirls with the beer in Illiya’s head, blurs his thoughts. He chugs beer after beer. Lets the lukewarm poison numb his insides, lets it dissolve his misery like peroxide on a wound.
‘Hey man, you want to come quadding tomorrow?’ Jer is asking.
‘Yeah…’ Illiya can hear himself answering. He tries to grab onto this feeling of actually wanting to do something but the feeling dissipates into nothing like the rising ashes swirling above the fire. In the firelight, Illiya catches a flash of Ivy, a guy in a sweater standing too close to her smoking. She hates cigarettes.
The guy touches her face then slides a hand down her ass.
Illiya feels himself jumping through the fire. Feels his fists melding into steel.
‘Get him off!’ people are yelling as hands lift him off the ground.
Illiya looks down at his fists covered in blood.
Did he really jump through it? It felt like he did.
‘What was that?’ Ivy is screaming in his face. ‘What the fuck are you doing, Illiya?’
Illiya takes his hat off, leaving a red handprint along its white brim, the blood swelling to his knuckles. He backs away from her, spitting blood onto the ground, her skin glowing petal pink in the fire.
‘I don’t belong to you, Illiya. I never did.’
A few people stand and watch, the bloodied guy gone, dragged away.
‘I don’t want you anymore, Illiya. If that’s what you need to hear. I. Don’t. Want. You.’
The words echo into his pulsating knuckles as the fire lashes at her face. He knows why she said it this way. He can see her looking around for who’s looking, the words meant more for them.
It was the winter, not the summer, that ruined everything. So used to being unhappy, Illiya let himself worship Ivy in place of the sun, saw her as these few perfect images he couldn’t let go of. Pulling the covers over her soft shoulders, the way she would slide her hand up his leg when they were driving. Illiya lies on his basement cot, grateful for its damp chill against his wounds, his stomach ill from the bumpy ride home in the back of someone’s truck. His mind spins like a stuck tire. The guy’s face who he attacked lingers in a red blur. He messed him up. Badly. He’s pretty sure. He’s become a guy who hurts people. An attacker. He feels it hard now, this version of himself, and it hurts. Not the regret, the unchangeable fact of the man he’s grown into. Common. Unedcuated. A regular hothead. People say your personality is who you are most of the time. But the people here, they save themselves all year for summer. When you save yourself up long enough you’re bound to crack.
Illiya’s swollen fists bleed through the white towels wrapped around them, but his nerve endings have been shot for awhile. Falling into a thick sleep, Illiya wakes up to a crack at the window.
Ivy sliding down through the window like she used to, her ankles cracking as her feet hit the floor like bonfire sparks.
‘Illiya,’ she stands over him. She climbs into bed beside him, peach coolers on her breath, her hair musky with campfire. And he lets her lie there and hold his bandaged hand. She plays with his hair, puts a hand on his forehead.
‘You’re no good for me,’ she says.
Saturday and the desert blazes, the temperature a full 43 degrees by eight in the morning. Hardly any shade in the wide Penticton basin. Nowhere to hide. Turns people skittish like ants under a magnifying glass. Illiya drives Angelica to work for her early shift, stealing side glances to look for grey meth patches on her face, forgetting he’s the one who has wounds to cover up, Ivy’s scent still on his skin.
‘Happened to you last night?’ Angelica asks.
Illiya keeps quiet, knowing she won’t press it given the free ride. At this hour, only the old people are up, the snowbirds – southern desert in the winter, northern in the summer. They graze the donut window in the air-conditioning of Tim Horton’s, their faces fermented like wine, aged more by their religions than the sun, all that stored spite that they might end before the world, unlike what they’d been told for so long.
‘You gonna stop doing crystal?’ Illiya takes his eyes off the road.
‘I told you, Illiya, I’m not doing it anymore!’ Angelica stares at herself in the side mirror, her tanned arms crossed over her Dairy Queen t-shirt – white with a red heart made of the words: I LUV DQ I LUV DQ I LUV DQ…
At dawn Ivy left the way she came, kissing Illiya on the lips before hoisting herself back up the concrete wall.
‘I don’t trust you,’ Illiya tells his sister, turning into the Dairy Queen parking lot. Pulling into a space, he gives her the two-eyes-on-you gesture. ‘Now get out,’ he says.
‘Wait,’ Angelica jumps out of the truck. ‘Just wait a sec.’ She runs inside the store and returns with a large Oreo blizzard. ‘Thanks for the ride.’ She leans on the window frame. ‘Only a few months of summer and I’m stuck inside Winter Wonderland all day.’ She canters back inside taking a quick look to see if anyone has seen her go in. It’s the transition she doesn’t want them to see – the link between this self and the other.
Heading to work, balancing the cold cup against the steering wheel, Illiya leaves the windows down to let in the sauna-dry breeze, a hint of a faraway forest fire lacing the wind’s current – the scent of burned possibilities. He can’t picture Ivy in his bed last night, can’t indulge in that thought. Ivy’s like the pinnacle of summer, no matter what you do it always slips away.
The days get hotter, the town flattened by the sun, and no word from her. From the shore, in the white morning light, Illiya watches a young couple suntanning on the floating dock in their underwear, the only ones on the beach so early in the morning as the beach tractor combs the sand. Illiya walks over the freshly raked ridges, his wounds from that night thick and leathery with dried blood from not taking care of them, swollen, probably infected. Yesterday, in the river that runs the edge of town where people line up to float down in tubes and dingys, a body was fished from the water. One depressed winter body from months back. A few of them every year. Illiya pictures its grey, clammy skin covered in leaf mulch, limp like a dead fish. He walks down to the East side of the beach, the water scummy and green from the giant beached paddlewheel in the reeds. He used to wonder about the girl painted on its side, waving to another incoming paddlewheel from Sicamous in her old-fashioned bathing suit that covered her elbows and knees. He used to wonder if it wasn’t as hot back then for her to be so covered up. If it didn’t get a little hotter every year.
Jer, Brody, and Emery pull the boat around. Illiya gets into the water, still cold from night, and swims out to meet them, open beer cans already in the cupholders to drink off last night’s hangovers. After high school, Illiya slowed down but they all kept going, drinking five nights a week, their hockey six-packs padded with solid layers of gut now, their hairlines receding like the summer. Brody rips the boat across the lake. It lashes the water in hard slaps, its motor like a chainsaw. Brody Wooley used to wear wool sweaters to school almost every day in high school, the kind with the red rim around the collar like Levi’s socks. Proof of pre-destination, Illiya was convinced. Last summer, they worked together on an A frame house in Peachland, the hotter the day the less chance Brody would show, his dad’s boat too much temptation. Illiya usually wouldn’t let himself go. Last summer there was a sense in the breeze that something was going to happen. Illiya worked hard in the frame of that still roofless house under the hot sun almost every day, and at the end of summer when nothing out of the ordinary had happened he began to feel the disappointment – he’d waited too long. But then there were her white fingers stimulating every tip of his nerves through his scalp.
As the sun hits the top of the sky, the guys take turns on the wakeboard, lacerating the water along the boat’s choppy wake.
‘Heard you got in a tussle with Brett Holmes last weekend,’ Emery yells to Illiya over the wind, tossing him a beer from the bow of the boat. ‘Heard you messed up his face pretty bad.’
‘I lost it,’ Illiya admits.
Emery’s own record is far from clean, a pink scar across his right eye from a knife fight on Skaha beach last summer.
‘What is it with you and that girl?’ Emery shakes his head.
The way she never looks right at you.
The way she fits his body like a missing limb.
‘She’s not worth it,’ Jer cracks open a can of beer in the captain’s seat. ‘She’s fucking with you, man.’
‘That chick will fuck anything,’ Emery adds.
Laughter around the boat as Jer cuts the engine so Brody can pull himself in.
Illiya feels the blood pumping to his fists. The boat drifts parallel to the shore.
‘Now those chicks…’ Emery points to some faraway girls.
The beach by now has had enough time to form into its speckled mess of bright brand new plastic store-bought poppable things.
Illiya looks at the girls in their bikinis. It’s like eating ice. Nothing. Just nothing. He really doesn’t need the summer. He may have at one point, but he doesn’t anymore. The seasons are just a backdrop, just detail.
Buzzed from the sun off the water, Brody whips the boat around in figure eights, the boys yelling for him to go harder ‘until someone falls out.’
On the porch steps – white, but not the white they were before – greyer, a cloud white, Illiya trips over an empty Dairy Queen cup.
‘Nate gone for the day?’ he asks Kiara who swings on the white bench in a pile of Archies.
‘Gone,’ she says, clearing some Archies off the bench for Illiya to sit.
‘Strange guy.’ Illiya sits, taking off his hat, his hair knotted like rope from the boat ride.
‘He’s just depressed,’ Kiara says.
‘What do you know about depression?’ Illiya laughs.
What would his twelve year old sister know about sadness not worth expressing?
‘Where’s mom?’ Illiya asks.
‘At the Elvis festival in town. I tried to tell her about worshipping false idols. Told her she’ll lose her reservation in the 144 000 witnesses going to Heaven.’
Illiya grabs his sister’s head and messes up her already greasy, tangled hair. ‘What’s that?’ he asks.
On Kiara’s lower stomach is a red raised scar, the word NO etched into her skin.
Kiara pulls her shirt down. ‘It was a dare,’ she says. ‘My friends and I.”
‘Why NO?’ Illiya asks.
‘Just… no. You know… Like ‘fuck it’. Refusal. Defiance.’
‘Don’t do that to yourself anymore,’ Illiya tells her. ‘Don’t wreck your body.’
‘Look at you, trainwreck,’ Kiara looks down at Illiya’s destroyed knuckles. ‘My poor sad brother…’ She shakes his hand as if they’re meeting for the first time.
‘You’re twelve,’ Illiya reminds his sister.
‘I’m a person,’ she says. ‘Just like you.’
Illiya goes down to take a shower, having agreed to meet the guys for pints at the dreaded Nite Moves – girls doing body shots off each other in front of guys with muscle cleavage. But tonight anything is better than himself. Illiya makes a point of putting on his same dirty work clothes, smelling them to make sure they’re halfway decent, then puts on his white hat out of the dishwasher – four trips to rinse out the blood.
‘I don’t want to hear it!’ The backdoor opens, his mother carrying a full load of groceries, Kiara trailing behind.
‘Funny,’ Kiara says, her feet black with dirt, ‘how all the messiahs since ancient Egypt were born of a virgin, died on the cross, then resurrected for three days.’
‘Kiara, get out of my hair and go sweep the floor. By the looks of your feet, it needs it.’
Kiara gets the broom. ‘Fine. I like sweeping,’ she says. ‘It makes me feel like a peasant girl.’
‘Illiya,’ his mother spots him. ‘I need you to mow the lawn. I’m having a Kingdom Hall meeting here on Wednesday…’
‘Later,’ Illiya says.
‘It would be nice if you’d come.’ His mother unloads a bag of tomatoes. ‘If you accepted His word you wouldn’t be so down all the time.’
Kiara sticks out her tongue and clamps it with her teeth.
‘I’d rather learn from life,’ Illiya says.
‘What you’ve learned is in the past,’ his mother reaches into the fridge. ‘The future is yet to come, Illiya.’
‘You mean the mass floods and the slaughter of anyone who doesn’t go to your church?’ Kiara blurts out.
‘You have no faith,’ his mother says. ‘Neither of you.’
How can you have faith when you live in a place of ups and downs, highs and lows, hots and colds? A place of no consistency. Untrustworthy.
A rainbow of lights assaults Illiya’s white hat among shouted, beat-fuelled conversations. At a stand-up table, Illiya’s buddies shell out twenties on rounds of Jaggerbombs, Jer swaying like a sawed Douglas fir.
‘That’s what I’m talking about…’ Emery leans back to check out a passing girl’s ass.
Illiya turns to face the dancefloor, letting his full beer bottle sweat on the table. As much as he’d like to think he sees through this town, the truth is he rarely thinks beyond it, the sun sedating his imagination, the mountains blocking him from looking too far. The deafening music does its job of drowning out any incoming thoughts, like he hoped it would. He looks around – the same bright brand new colours of City Beach glowing blue in the orb of the black lights. Gyrating, vodka-guzzling kids trying to squeeze every last drop out of their summers. Their summers, they really see it this way. Across the dancefloor, among the girls grinding up against each other, Illiya spots Ivy, her head tipped against another girl’s. They’re kissing. Eyes closed, hoop earrings colliding under the relentless thud of the beat.
Illiya sits back. It’s possible that everything he knows about the seasons is wrong. The season can change at any moment – each entirely different than the next, the slate clearing with each breath. Clear. Clear… Illiya’s head flings forward from a hard pound on the back.
‘Wake up kid!’ Jer puts his arm around Illiya. ‘Drink your beer, queer.’
They haven’t seen Ivy. They’re too drunk. Illiya looks back at her, a group of guys gathered around her now, getting in on the action. This was all for them. Wasn’t it? ‘I’m out,’ Illiya stands, raising a hand to the guys.
‘It’s midnight,’ Jer blocks him with his barrel chest.
‘Well, I’m peacing out.’
‘Being a good boy?’ Jer asks, that look of paranoia coming through his eyes despite the full day of drinking, so drunk he’s looped back around to sober. ‘You think you’re better than us, bro?’
If it wasn’t for Ivy leaving him, Illiya would never have been able to see how similar to the people here he’d become.
‘You’re wasted,’ Illiya walks away. Head down, hands in his pockets, he exits the lined-up club, Jer too drunk to trail him. Main Street is abuzz with drunk kids singing loudly and smoking, parked cop cars waiting for the bars to close so they can snag the drunkest of the drunk. Outside the entrance, Ivy leans against the wall pressed against some guy. She’s cloned, everywhere at once like in a dream. The guy has a thick arm around her waist, a tattoo rising from the white collar of his shirt. A diamond stud from his earlobe gleams under the Nite Moves sign.
Illiya keeps walking.
Ivy calls his name.
He keeps walking.
She slips away from and starts walking after him.
‘Look, I get it, okay?’ he keeps his pace. ‘Anyone except me. I get it.’
‘I don’t want to hurt you, babe…’ Ivy drunkenly warbles, her unthinkable beauty dimmed by her generic words.
Illiya looks both ways before crossing the one-way street. No main street can only go one way, he decides. The whole notion of gathering, mulling – one-way streets can’t provide this. This town was built with no centre.
On the street corner, Ivy touches his shoulder. ‘I do want you,’ she wavers into him.
He looks into her eyes, speckled like Olive Lake, a lake the deepest shade of green that no one can swim in. Stepping onto the crosswalk, he leaves her standing in the street.
The sidewalks chug like train tracks under Illiya’s large steps, radiating the day’s heat back up to him. ‘Thank God it’s over,’ he says to himself, quietly. But around here, it’s never really over. There is no point at which you can stop and relax. Always a winter coming, just breaks in between.
In the dark, the old house shines white against the starlit sky, though Nate has only finished one side, the white just a false front. Illiya quietly unlocks the door to not wake anyone up, but a light is on in the kitchen. Pieces of a broken lemonade glass lie shattered down the hall like thrown jacks. Illiya crunches over the glass. At the oak table Illiya’s mother and his sisters sit in the kitchen’s blinding light, a sheen across their foreheads from the hot night, a pathetic fan in the corner spreading the heat, the empty brown paper grocery bags piled at their feet like boulders from Frank Slide.
‘Your sister’s pregnant,’ his mother says, a sour exhaustion across her face.
Illiya looks at Angelica, black tracks of mascara running down her California girl cheeks.
‘When the fall comes, you’ll have to put your shoes on,’ his mother’s eyes lie in slits. ‘Then it won’t be so funny anymore.’
Illiya looks at Angelica’s feet, toes painted pink to match her flip flops, the blueberry pie plate cut across her baby toe. Kiara tucks her dirty feet under her chair, a band of red along her nose and cheeks.
‘I will kill that man,’ his mother slaps the table, swivelling the cherry bowl. ‘You’ll have to fish his body from the river.’
‘It’s not his fault,’ Kiara says, her eyes shaky against her mother’s.
The NO on Kiara’s stomach: Nate Olsen.
‘You’ll get rid of it,’ Illiya’s mother stands, knocking back her chair.
‘What – and stop a beating heart? A living soul?’
‘What have I done to my children?’ Illiya’s mother rubs her face.
‘Leave me out of it.’ Angelica runs upstairs.
‘You’re addicted to that junk!’ Illiya’s mother calls after her.
‘It helps me get stuff done!’ Angelica slams the door to her room.
Illiya looks at Kiara, her face and hands so small at the large wooden table.
The back door slams as his mother storms off, swinging back open behind her like an entering ghost.
‘Did he rape you?’ Illiya stares down his sister.
‘No,’ Kiara says. ‘It was a mistake, Illiya. I don’t love him or anything.’
‘So what are you gonna do, Ki?’ He sits down at the table. ‘Soon it’ll be fall and you’ll have to go back to school. What are you gonna do then?’
Kiara twists a cherry stem in her mouth, tying it into a knot and spitting it into her palm. She stares at it, then stares into the sour wisdomless faces of the beheaded old maids. ‘I’ll kill it,’ she decides. ‘Before it becomes a person.’
In the muggy kitchen, crane flies from the open back door buzz up near the SAD light unable to fight the urge to immolate themselves against its brightness, and Illiya sits with his sister in the muggy kitchen before fall infuses the air and time is up.
April 21, 2010
* The following short story is experimental fiction
She knew she was in Los Angeles because she felt no chill. They were shopping. Alexis and her mother had decided to drive down for the weekend. But this couldn’t be because they lived in Canada. It couldn’t be – but it was. Where else would there be palm trees, bars on the windows, and this much shopping. Alexis drummed her nails against the rubber ledge of the window and hummed to herself: what you waiting, what you waiting, what you waiting for…’
She heard her dog whining. No. It wasn’t the dog. They wouldn’t have brought Scoot. It was sirens, quivering in the distance.
‘Where are they coming from?’ her mother asked.
‘I don’t know.’
It didn’t occur to Alexis to be afraid. She hadn’t done anything wrong. Except what was this? – a Jean Paul Gauthier dress draped across her knees – purple and red patterns crisscrossing against a sheer yellow bodice. She didn’t remember buying a dress. Maybe she hadn’t bought it. Maybe she had stolen it. She listened again for the sirens. Alexis’s mother gripped her long red nails around the steering wheel, ready to drive. But her mother never had her nails done. Maybe she’d had them done for the trip – after all, they were in L.A.. A special occasion. The dress still lay draped across Alexis’s lap. Should she put it on? Then the cops would think it was hers. If Alexis changed in the back of the van, they might pull up just as she was taking off her clothes. Then they would see her naked. What else could she do? Throw it out the window? Alexis looked over at her mother only to notice that it wasn’t her mother at all, but her father. She looked out the window – they were no longer in L.A., but in Northern California, driving through farmland. A distant blue ocean lapped at golden fields ahead.
‘What did Mom buy on the trip?’ her father asked.
‘Um… I don’t know,’ said Alexis, ‘she got her nails done, though. Red.’
The van glided dolphin-like through the falling twilight. They were almost there.
‘Where are we going?’ Alexis asked.
‘I’m taking you to school, remember?’
Ah, yes. School. Alexis had forgotten – it was the first day. Shouldn’t it be morning? she wondered. Driving over a series of curved bridges that looked like mini-golf walkways, they pulled into the school. It reminded Alexis of her elementary school and her high school mixed together. The same layout as her elementary school, but in her high school’s colours: green and blue. She watched three blonde girls in blazers and berets kick around a soccer ball on one of the vast green fields. And there were more of these uniforms. Everywhere. Riding shuttle buses, eating at tables, hooking arms. An excitement bubbled inside her as she watched the students go about their day, which is was now – daytime. It was all so perfect. But just then she remembered – she wouldn’t be able to go to this school because she’d already graduated.
‘At Sunken Meadow,’ said a passing teacher, ‘we are technically a high school, but we allow students to do their university degrees here as well.’
Alexis was overjoyed. She would get a second chance. She would be able to be a part of this. But then she remembered: she’d already graduated from university as well.
‘Damn,’ she whispered, and wondered if she couldn’t just pretend she hadn’t. Maybe she could attend the school simply out of interest. Get another degree maybe. She stepped inside the girl’s locker room. Endless rows of lockers mazed off in every direction. She ran down one, dropping the padlocks against the peach-pink metal in a series of clangs. In the centre of the locker room was a fountain where girls bathed in yellow one-pieces and flowered bathing caps.
‘What a great way to get clean,’ thought Alexis, ‘this is so much better than showers.’
There was a boy standing to the side of the lockers. He wasn’t spying; he looked like he was waiting for someone. It was Cody. Cody was here. Oh God. Maybe Alexis would get another chance with him, too. She walked over to where he stood.
‘Do you want to kiss me?’ he asked.
‘Well,’ she looked down, ‘your eyes do match the stripes of plaid on my shirt.’ She looked down, hoping she was wearing plaid. She was. She gently tapped her eyes shut as though trying to sink a put, and as their lips met she felt a row of spiky hair above his lip.
‘Oh my God,’ she drew back.
Cody didn’t have a moustache. It wasn’t him after all.
Suddenly it was hot. They were outside. She could feel the heat crushing her against the sky.
‘God it’s hot,’ she said to the stranger with the moustache. ‘I don’t know how you can stand having that thing on your face in this weather.’
‘Oh,’ said the stranger, ‘it’s a peel off.’ The stranger peeled off his moustache and shrunk four feet into a little girl.
‘C’mon,’ said the little girl. She took Alexis’s hand and began to run through an oceanside ruin of smooth white walls. They were at a resort built in Mexican architecture. Inside the white walls were series upon series of dining halls – all empty, having just been used for some sort of celebration. Yellow and black helium balloons still buoyed from the chairs, a rain of ribbons scattered on the white tablecloths of the banquet tables.
‘Where did everyone go?’ asked Alexis.
‘Who?’ asked the little girl who wore a tight dress in shades of watermelon pink and green. The dimples on her cheeks were like black seeds. ‘C’mon, we’ve got to get to class.’
‘We have class?’
Was this part of the school?
‘But I haven’t been to class all semester,’ said Alexis.
The girl was running now, away from Alexis down the red carpet of the white walled halls.
‘Hey,’ shouted Alexis. ‘Do you think I’ll still be able to pass?’
Alexis considered running after the watermelon girl but she was already out of breath and slumped against an arcade game. Green and purple flashing lights came on. She’d set the thing off. ‘Good Day,’ it introduced itself.
Hearing it speak, Alexis realized it wasn’t an arcade game – it was one of those fortune telling machines. Not the kind you put your hand on that tells you whether you’re a heartbreaker or a dud, the kind that really grants wishes – like in the movie where the boy wishes to be big at the carnival and gets turned into a man. The plastic face of the fortune teller, Alexis noticed, was her fourth grade math teacher, Mme. Lavalle.
‘Mme. Lavalle,’ Alexis began, trying to muster up her French, ‘je ne savais pas qu’on avais une classe a cette heure. It was an accident. Je m’excuse.’
‘Why should I believe you?’ Mme. Lavalle asked in French. ‘How is it possible that this has all been juste une accident?
Alexis knew she was innocent – that her gaping absence from school had been a mistake at least in part, just another product of her scattered brain. She attempted to explain why she’d missed each class: the first time she’d fallen asleep waiting for class to start, the second she’d had to go somewhere important with her mother… Shopping in LA. It was all coming back to her. As Alexis spouted off the excuses, she became sure they were true. She looked into Mme. Lavalle’s marbled eyes. ‘C’est pas ma faute.’
The tide was coming in now. Tiny starfish began to float around Alexis’s ankles.
How was the ocean coming through the white walls? They were so thick. Everything would be ruined.
‘Je dois partir,’ Alexis told her teacher, looking up out a circular window to a cliff above. She had to get to higher ground. Fast.
Opening the circular window and squeezing herself through it, she fell several stories into the ocean. Snakes began to surround her in the sea-foam green curls of the tide. Wide snakes, with bodies like eels. Their eyes were yellow. Their tongues were slit. A bullet of panic sped through her chest. She pressed down on the surface of the water until she lifted herself into the air. But the snakes began to rise up out of the water as well, like the balloons on the backs of the chairs. They stood upright as if they were being charmed, their mouths open and twisted brimming with teeth. She pressed down on the air below her and rose upwards. The more she pressed down, the higher she floated up. She knew that the moment she forgot she was floating she would fall.
But she no longer had to remember to float, thank God, because she was at the edge of the cliff she had spotted from the circular window in the white wall. She had floated up all this way. Stepping gingerly from flight onto the cliff, Alexis saw flickering images on the roof of a white dome ahead. There was a movie playing inside. It was a theatre. Finding a seat for herself in the dark, Alexis picked up the familiar scent of sawdust and nicotine. Her grandfather was sitting beside her.
‘What movie is this?’ she asked him.
‘It only looks like a movie,’ he said, ‘really there is no story. It’s just a series of random events.’
On the movie screen, a young boy and a young girl held hands in a picturesque meadow. A flat expanse of verdant grass hidden in the woods, tucked away so secretly that perhaps no one else had ever been there before. The girl had a crown of white Gerbera daisies on her head. She planted a kiss on the boy’s cheek.
‘There is a story,’ Alexis told her grandfather. ‘There must be. Because it’s making me cry.’
The lights flicked on. The usher came onto the stage in a velvet red coat. ‘A natural phenomenon is occurring!’ he announced. ‘I would advise that everyone forget the movie and go to the side of the mountain. You will never believe me,’ he said, ‘but natural waterslides have somehow formed in the mountainside.’
Ignoring the suggestion, the moviegoers lingered and chatted. They were teenagers, Alexis reasoned. Left unattended in this pristine white movie dome. Inevitably, a party began to start up. There was music. A techno disco beat. Yelling and laughing. Girls with their shirts rolled up past their belly buttons climbing over the seats. Someone swinging from the chandelier. Alexis wanted to stay, but the waterslides…
Arriving at the mountainside, Alexis was disappointed. She had expected there would be an entangled series of clay chutes with water running down them into an immaculate lagoon basin. Instead, there were only fibreglass tubes, like the ones you could see at any waterslide park. It was an unnatural natural phenomenon. Although she was wearing her uniform (she must have changed into it in the locker room) she sat down in a tube, the water pressing against her back and then moving her through the tube. The waterslide took her down the mountain slowly, frustratingly slowly. And at the end of the long ride, she had reached ocean level again. Except she was not ejected into the ocean, but a river. A very shallow river, though it carried her with much more ease and buoyancy than the waterslide. Under the river’s clear surface were smooth shining pebbles the colour of walnuts. It was more like a brook. A very wide brook, with pockets of sunshine speckling its surface through willow trees. Eventually, she was joined with a crowd of others floating on objects. The teenagers from the party in the movie dome. She hadn’t missed out after all. The kids drank beer in various flotation devices: inner tubes, loungers, rafts. Never had she been to a party like this before. It wasn’t a party, she decided. It was a forever. The trees on either side of the river were weeping jubilant pink and golden petals into the water. Their lower branches drooped into the water, their shimmering leaves dipping into the brook’s glistening surface. It was so quiet. The noise of the party acquiesced to the silence of the surrounding trees. What was the destination of this forever party? Where would it end?
The brook was nowhere in sight. Alexis was alone and swimming in the ocean again, out in open water, the sun a speck in the sky. She could see land at a very far off distance. She was petrified, but at least she could see land. She would have to swim back. The horizon engulfed her, seemed to suck her towards it. And now there were rows upon rows of houses with docks and boats attached. These waters were safe. These waters were the waters of dolphins. Finally reaching one of the docks, she pulled herself out of the water and rested her upper torso on its wet wood. She was home, she realized under the steady sun. This was where she lived. This was her dock. And yet she also knew that she was on the other side of the world.
She turned around to see Cody standing where the land met the water on the dock. The sun shone behind him, darkening his contour. He was just a black shape but she knew it was him.
‘Didn’t you see me at the party?’ said Cody.
Alexis couldn’t remember seeing him. Had he really been there?
‘I was waving at you,’ he said. ‘I was calling you, but you didn’t hear.’
Alexis wanted to cry. She wished she’d had the chance to share that moment with him. Now, it was over and she would never be able to get it back. If only she’d heard him calling.
‘Cody,’ she called for him now. But he was gone. And Alexis was propelling forward at high velocity, skimming the surface of a wide deep river in the Amazon. It was half ocean, half river, and she was hydroplaning over it with motor force in standing position as though she were waterskiing, though she held on to nothing. She was barely balancing. She could fall over at any second. Long reeds cut through the river’s surface and whipped at her ankles. The soles of her feet on the water’s surface burned with friction. How did she get herself into this mess? Careening at such speed across this dangerous body of water with no flotation device? It seemed she was always finding herself in the midst of disaster. If she could just slow down, she could think.
Though she didn’t want to sink into the wild waters, not knowing what lurked below, she had to come to a stop. How could she stop? In a moment of epiphany, she understood: the speed wasn’t coming at her from the outside – the speed was coming from within.
‘I want to slow down,’ she thought, fimrly, ‘I want to slow down.’
And then she did. Slowed into a stroll as the surface of the Amazon river turned into red and green patterned carpet. A hotel carpet. Alexis was walking down a long, long hallway, boutiques on either side. She was in the underground mall of a hotel. One of the boutiques was overstocked with items of alluring fabrics and materials. Alexis entered the store. It comforted her, how heavily packed it was with goods. She brushed a black feathered boa up against her face. Along the walls were a full rainbow of colours of every single product. Sequined visors in greens and blues and purples, fun fur in yellows and oranges and pinks. Alexis was thrilled. She was tearing things off the shelves and racks and piling them into her arms. So many colours and textures and shades.
‘You see,’ said a saleslady, ‘we have so much to offer you.’
‘But how much?’ asked Alexis.
In response to her question, the sales lady pointed to the clock, tapping its glass surface with pearly white nails. ‘Closing time,’ she shrugged.
There was a bustle outside of the store. Everyone was rushing. Rushing to get out. Alexis dropped her pile of clothes and hurried into the crowd. But everyone was going in the opposite direction of her no matter which way she turned. Unless she wanted to be caught inside the mall, Alexis figured she had better just choose a direction if she wanted to escape. So she marched against the flow of the crowd. Maybe she was the only one going the right way after all. The hard, tightly stretched Christmas-coloured carpet sprawled under her feet. The hall seemed to never end. She arrived in a grand, airy hotel lobby. But this was not her hotel. She couldn’t remember which hotel she was staying at, but she knew this wasn’t it. Trailing her hand over a brass railing, she continued past several other lobbies, all adjoined, and with her next step, stepped onto the pavement of an empty mall parking lot lit with a grid of white lights in the midnight sky. She was in Texas. The lights hummed above her as the last car in the parking lot drove away. She sat on a cement meridian and looked at the grassy field beside the lot. If only she could remember where she had come from. She was always ending up this way. The light above her shut off. It was dark now, except for a blurry spot of light in the field. Alexis navigated herself towards it. Following the light to its source, Alexis came to see that it was a single exposed light bulb dangling from the ceiling of a very large house. Its cord swayed above her head as she stood under it. The house was almost empty. It had white walls and old, abused carpet the colour of sand. There was a rocking horse to her left and an antique green velvet couch. All she could think of was to pull the string, to turn off the light. But something inside told her not to. She sat down on the green velvet couch. She didn’t know what to do.
She remembered the young girl and the young boy in the field with the flowers. And then, she was the girl. And Cody was the boy. Younger versions of themselves. They were standing in a meadow sunken into a valley between two mountains. The sun was shining down in diamonds and a gentle breeze played. Trees surrounded the meadow like curtains around a stage. Chirping birds accented the silence. Sparkles of butterflies rose up from the wildflowers. It was entirely possible that no one but them had been there before. As the girl in the movie had, Alexis moved over to Cody to place a kiss on his cheek.
She wondered, how long could she stay here?
How long would this moment last?
April 11, 2010
The following short story was originally published, by Twenty3Magazine.
‘Lighted souvenirs?’ she drones, sauntering through the flashing casino. Fishnet stockings, tuxedo leotard – she almost pulls it off. Could have twenty years ago. She slithers toward the cards tables adorned with glow-in-the-dark this and that, a heavy tray of lit-up goodies strapped around her neck – glow sticks, magic wands, trinkets blinking neon. ‘Lighted souvenirs?’ she offers them, the guests – those who celebrate while she slaves.
She’s lived in Vegas for years. Made a living off the bright lights. Slept during the days, partied at night. Now an overtold joke, Vegas used to at least make her laugh. Still she keeps at it everyday. Plays the slots. Drinks her Scotch. Tries to behave.
Everyday they build it up: The Strip. How appropriate. It does just this. Takes it all off.
Stripping had been her ride to the top. Thank God she’d had the body for it. Helped that she drank her meals and smoked her desserts. The booze gave her the nerve to get onstage, the cigarettes rewards for being brave. Nowadays, her job is to make her guests feel at home here at The Stardust, even though she wishes they were. They just keep coming. Never leave. And it never, ever stops. It’s true what they say: the city never sleeps.
She can’t sleep either. Hasn’t for months. Takes a catnap here and there, ten, twenty minutes, then her body jolts awake, eyes pop open, spine snaps up. No rest.
She glides through the ruffle of the spinning slots at the end of her shift and punches out. It’s noon, time for bed. She heads to her suite on Floor Nineteen. Sits on the bed, looks out the window. Thick pings of the ice cubes dropping into her Scotch. She swishes it around in small sips – eye twitching, stockings itching. When she sleeps, when she really sleeps, is when she takes off her clothes and stands naked in front of the window for all of Vegas to see. When she shows them who she is. What she was. What she could have been. She sleeps then for hours and wakes up sometimes feeling almost alright. Not today. Today she will strip for no one.
On days like this she heads downtown away from strip, back to old school Vegas. She puts on more make up on top of the old stuff that’s worn off. It’s always doing that, sliding away in the heat. She smears on cover up under the bathroom’s red heat light with a dirty sponge. Cakes it on. The thicker, the better. Now the eyes. Damsel Discobeat eyeshadow for class, Moroccan-orange blush for sass. She look in the mirror. Stuff never does what it’s supposed to. Crappy junk. Still she doesn’t like to take it off. Although it does come off, sometimes, late at night, when she sneaks into the pool alone. She leaves it on while she swims, oily streaks of purple and orange chasing her, an eye out for security guards. She never lets them come too close. Even though she doesn’t care what they think.
The Vegas heat hurts as she steps outside. Sizzles up at her from the pavement like a rattler. She staggers down the sidewalk like she’s already drunk in her too-tight hot pink heels. Five naked asses joined at the hips moon her on the tail of a taxi as it sails past. She lifts a sagging arm to flag it down. It pulls over. She shovels herself inside
Billboards shout into the car: Girls, Girls, Girls. Live Young Girls.
‘I used to be a ripper.’ She tells the cabby.
‘Uh huh,’ the cabbie mutters, tilting the rear view mirror away.
She tries not to look out the window. The air-conditioning stings her eyes.
The old Las Vegas is empty today, every day. A few sad hot streets left behind. “Here,” she tells the cabbie nowhere in particular. She chucks a ten at his head on her way out.
She looks around. Can’t decide which one today. Nude Girls Daily. Girls: Barely 18. Girls. Little bitches only. No women. The downtown heat swarms her fast. Overheated after only a few minutes in the sun, she steps into a Seven Eleven and eyes the newsstand from from behind her eyeliner. Picks up a copy of The Daily Star and teeters to the counter, her high-heels too steep, gnarling her toes.
‘Pack of Camels, too,’ she says, eyeing a VLT at the front of the store. ‘And ten bucks of quarters.’
She slouches onto the stool ignoring her reflection in the glowing screen and pops in the quarters with last month’s fake nails. She’s played this one before. No win. No win. No win.
She goes to stand, falling off her heel, grabs her purse, and stumbles next door to a place called The Cave. Her kind of place. Dark, almost empty. No girls on stage. No girls at all.
‘Can I getcha?’ asks the bartender, his blue eyes on the empty stage.
She lights a smoke. Drink in hand, she flips through the pages. Worthless fools. Nobodies. Madonna – she’s about this close to washing up. It’ll all come crumbling down. Same story for this Spears – fake ditz with her glamour and glitz. They’ll get what’s coming to them. They’ll see. She orders another drink. At the end of the bar sits a handsome young man who deals blackjack at The Stardust. She takes her ashtray and slides over next to him. ‘You work at The Stardust, don’t ya?’
‘Sure do. How d’ya guess?’ He takes a sip of his beer, his gaze on the corner TV. Big brass belt buckle, blonde moustache, hairy arms.
‘Work there myself,’ she says, exhaling smoke the way she learned to – like you’re blowing a kiss.
He nods, looks around. ‘Speaking of I reckon I’m due for a shift.’ He tucks in his stool, slaps some cash on the bar, and flicks her a nod as he leaves.
‘I sure don’t bite,’ she says to her drink.
But he’s long gone. Cheesy jerk. She orders a shot of vodka, downs it, and steps into the burn.
It’s dizzy hot out. She grabs onto a bus stop bench for balance. The couple sitting on it leans away.
‘Matter?’ she spits. ‘Never seen an old woman before?’
She hates the term. Never wanted it to come to this. She wonders if she could still sell her body. Maybe she could – give them more for less. She smiles at the thought. No. She doesn’t do that anymore. She’s a lady now. She pulls out her compact and puts on more lipstick – pink to match the sun.
She decides to walk back to The Strip. She wants to see the transition between the old and the new. Wants to feel it. In the baking heat her high-heels draw blood from the backs of her heels. She could take them off but the sidewalk would scorch her feet. How would a lady walk? Back straight, small steps. She can do that. What would a lady do? Go for a nice drink at one of those fancy hotels. She’s good enough for those dumps. She’s what made Vegas what it is today. Shouldn’t she get to enjoy it?
She breathes in the air like nicotine. The Bellagio, the MGM Grand, the Venetian – parties she’s never had the nerve to crash. Maybe she’d fit in there as a lady. A lady on her way to have a nice drink.
Parched, she nears Casear’s Palace. In the gel of tourists, no one steps aside for her. Lousy rich folk. Hussies. Spoiled brats. She hangs her head down to the sidewalk cracks – littered flyers of naked women strewn over the ground. A deep thirst shrivels her throat. She needs that drink.
Her purse slides off her shoulder and its contents scatter. Too tired to bend down and pick them up, she lets them roll into the gutter. A white limo pulls up beside her. A starlet steps out, wrapped in glitter, head held high, and takes someone’s hand. Cameras snap as people crowd around. Her bodyguards form a shield.
‘Tramp!’ she calls out as loud as she can.
The star turns, selling her stunning smile.
The star pretends not to hear.
She spits in the star’s direction. It hits the bottom of her leg.
Ladies don’t spit she realizes too late.
The star bends to wipe her leg as her bodyguards encircle the star and the crowd encircles the bodyguards. She’s shut out, left to wither in the sun. It can’t beat her. She knows it too well. Just when you think it will, it fizzles out. Fast.
As night finally drizzles down and the blue-bright lights start to blink leftover heatwaves steam up from the pavement. Just one drink. That’s what she came here for.
The walkway of The Bellagio stares her down with its perfect curves and soft yellow lights. No. She’s too tired. Too hot. Too damn thirsty to go in there. She crosses the street to a small souvenir store and buys a bottle of water for fifty cents. Takes a sip, then pours the rest over her hot bleeding feet. She disappears down a slim sideway between buildings, looking up at the lights to find her way. Never could get a good picture of them at night. Always foggy and streaked like a photograph of a ghost. She spots an old ladder beside an overflowing dumpster and reaches up on its rungs.
She starts to climb.
Up one story, two. She drops a heel – lousy knockoff piece of crap. She keeps climbing. She’s never felt this high before, except in her suite on the nineteenth floor. She flings off the other shoe. The pain subsides. Her stomach jitters. She watches her toes to make sure they don’t betray her.
On the roof there’s a sign lit so bright her eyes hurt. She’s too close to read what its bulbs spell. She reaches out to touch one of the blazing lights. It burns her. Melts the print off her fingers. ‘Damn it,’ she curses.
She takes off her sleeveless blouse and wraps it around her hand. Freshly bandaged, she tries again. The bulb dims in her hand as she unscrews it. But nothing else happens. She hasn’t been electrocuted or anything. Dead bulb in hand, she squeezes it firmly. As hard as she can.
It doesn’t break.
She steps to the edge, barefoot and topless, her blouse around her hand like a boxing glove, the lights a nighttime desert rainbow, and looking down onto the people-clogged streets, at the vermin so crammed-in they can barely move, she drops the bulb and watches it fall.
A hole emerges in the crowd.
‘What do you know?’ she smiles.
The next one she tosses overhead like a baseball. Waits for a gap to appear.
‘Lighted Souvenirs?’ she sings.
January 23, 2010
*featured on Storytime today is a piece of flash fiction (under 1000 words) that I submitted to Flash Fiction Online entitled, Chalk. The piece is followed by the editor’s questionable feedback . Hey, it’s a rough game.Thought it would be more fun to post a reply where thousands can read.
When K-Sauce hawks a loog in my water bottle in biology, Jaylene and I stop feeling bad about poisoning him with our toxic nail polish remover. A dark shimmery red is my fall colour, even though it gets on my cuticles and makes my fingers look like they got stuck in an electric pencil sharpener – beauty a near impossible craft to master. Jaylene dips her brush into the clear jar as Mr.Wong drones on. She sticks with clear because she worries about what people think. Mr. Wong scribbles madly with yellow chalk, reaching his entire body across the board as though he’s fallen thirty stories and landed face down on the pavement, chalk smeared across his tweed jacket as he pulls away to face the class. “Fight or flight,” he shouts. “Like a trapped animal. That’s the perpetual dilemma of the endocrine system!”
He draws these mind-maps all over the board every day, and when he runs out of board space, he draws on himself – white lines right down his belly circling his own organs. He really is trying to tell us something. But I just don’t feel that any subject can be linked together by bubbles. Drawing lines between topics doesn’t necessarily demonstrate a connection. Plus, is there ever a centre to any subject? One prime target to link the random to? What would the centre bubble of my life be? I consider asking Jaylene.
Snooze fest, I write to her on a ripped corner of lined paper, adding a P.S. that Holly Warren has worn the same outfit three days in a row.
“I know,” Jaylene says, not bothering to whisper. “It’s like she says: ‘yep, this looks good on me’, and then can’t get enough of herself!”
Jaylene and I take the time to ensure variety in our wardrobes by drawing outfits on Mr. Wong’s handouts (which sometimes conveniently have images of the human body), tiny arrows indicating fabric, colour, and name brand.
”Stuff goes in, stuff goes out!” Mr. Wong pecks the board with his chalk until it snaps in half. These final sum-ups, these over-simplifications – they don’t mean enough to me. Why do I care to know the inner workings of the human body when there is so much to think about on the outside? I pencil in these irritating blanket statements on our lab tests, regurgitating Mr. Wong’s gibberish right back at him, skeptical as to whether there is a cohesive order to his mind-maps at all, to his mind.
During an excruciating schpiel about the ovaries, Jaylene and I play a game of matchmaker – combining our names with the names of semi-decent guys in our grade, then pulling out matching letters and calculating the probability of whom we’ll end up with.
“K-Sauce!” Jaylene blurts out when she sees her match. “Sick!”
“Shh…” says K-Sauce. “Shut up, ditzes.”
“…hair in embarrassing places!” Mr. Wong projects from the front of the room, taking a torch to the enchanted forest of adolescence. Dark shadows of perspiration seep through his suit jacket, an emphatic strain on his Shar Pei brow.
‘That’s what you have,” K-Sauce whispers over to us from his lab stool, his flabby biceps inches from knocking over the bottle of nail polish remover.
I give him a stolen-from-teen-movie glance for which he proceeds to give me the finger, then makes a swipe for my water bottle again, knocking over the bottle of acetone. It spills onto the floor and all over my backpack (which already suffered a serious Tommy Girl spill last week) a sharp, noxious aroma dispersing.
“Thanks, asshole.” I tell K-Sauce, the entire class twisted around in their chairs to watch the endocrine system at work.
Mr. Wong begs with his eyes for the outburst to subside, for him to not have to make an attempt at discipline. Another teacher would have already sent me to “le grand bureau”. Not like it hasn’t happened before.
“Sorry,” I mumble to Mr. Wong, sad hormones about to secrete from his eyes under the sick green tint of the neon lights.
After the bio midterm (Jaylene and I both curiously receiving identical grades of 52%), Mr. Wong doesn’t show up to class. His son has committed suicide, the principal comes in to tells us. We’re given a free period to study.
The kid hung himself with a belt, people whisper. It was a cry for help gone wrong.
I picture Mr. Wong at home with his box of chalk, tracing the pain through his arteries and into his heart, then onto the wall when it gets to be too much.
I look down at my red nails and realize just how ugly they are.
Flash Fiction Online’s Feedback
Thanks for your patience.
I wish I had better news for you, but I’d like to congratulate you on your
story, “Chalk” passing the first round of our selection process. That’s no
small feat. Only 15-20% of stories make it this far.
Unfortunately, the second round proved too great an obstacle.
As a writer I always appreciate feedback. Our readers had this to say
about your story:
*The characters are bored, so the reader is bored. The drama is in the
suicide, Wong’s reaction to it, and the chalk lines tracing his pain —
that’s a good concept: I’d encourage this writer to concentrate on
that, and use the classroom scene to engage us with the main character, her nails and Mr
Wong rather than make us sit through their boredom. I would also suggest
making the main character more interesting than just another dumb teenage girl stereotype.
*Biggest problem is that the narrative voice does not come anywhere close
to matching up with the protagonist. They are miles away from each other.
Also, what’s the “message,” if any? What should I walk away from this story
with? I left it with nothing other than how inane and shallow the protag
*The characters didn’t interest me much, so the lack of a plot was too
We wish you the best of luck finding a home for your story elsewhere and
hope you will consider submitting with us again.
Flash Fiction Online
The Author’s Reply
Firstly, I would like to defend, Chalk, by providing a brief synopsis of what it is meant to convey.
Chalk is about a confused girl seeking the meaning of beauty. She attempts to block out the biology curriculum because it’s an overload of information in her already confusing life, boldly doing her nails in class to build herself an attractive rebellious persona. However, her curiosity does snag on Mr. Wong’s neurotically enthusiastic character. When tragedy befalls Mr.Wong, her connection to him answers her question about what beauty is, or rather, provides her with a shameful reminder on her fingers of what beauty isn’t (Mr. Wong brought to tears the day she walked all over him, how will he handle the death of his son?)
While I appreciate receiving constructive criticism, I don’t feel that most of Flash Fiction Online’s comments were constructive. When you choose to label a character with words like “dumb”, “inane”, and “shallow”, these are not suggestions for improvement – these are put downs.
*The characters were bored, so the reader is bored.
If the characters had been zealous biology students, this would have been a different story.
*The narrative voice does not match up with the protagonist….
Um… the narrative voice WAS the protagonist! Duh?
*What’s the message? If any.
In their writer’s guidelines, Flash Fiction Online advises against “message” stories.
But more importantly, spelling shit out is bad fiction.
*The drama is in the suicide, Wong’s reaction to it
The drama is not in the suicide, or Mr. Wong’ s reaction to it, but in the main character’s reaction to it, which is the last line.
*I would suggest making the main character more interesting than another dumb teenage girl stereotype.
Do dumb teenage girls contemplate the objective nature of conceptual connection?
Okay, I’ve said my piece.
Thanks for reading everyone!
October 4, 2009
It’s Healing Week on Dawn of A New Era
…because I decided it is because the internet is a fantasyland ~booya~
…and because Misery Loves Company.
We all have our crosses to bear. Or do we? *Snap* Some people just seem so frickin’ happy all the time. Well okay, we may not all have our crosses to bear, but I certainly do.