I covet the stillness of the early morning. A hot cup of coffee warms my hands, and sounds spring to life outside my window: a barking dog, the hum of a car, and the ceaseless waves of the ocean lull me. I like the illusion that, like me, the sea rises and does what it’s called upon to do.
My laptop is on; I resist the temptation to check my emails, blogs, and social media accounts. They’ re destructive to my creative spirit, and does it matter if some man posing as Keanu Reeves on Twitter likes my tweets?
I know the answer.
A collection of notebooks is spread out around me. I write while in bed. There is no desk for me to sit at; the chairs are like torture devices. I take my chance and sit in the lotus position; a pillow cradles my computer.
I bring my breath to the center of my nose, that special chakra place where a soft pale blue light shines the way for me. I think of a million brilliant things to say and try to capture them like the fragile butterflies they are.
The cat nest on my notebooks and keeps them warm.
A document is open to the last scene from the night before, and I read my previous entry, the place when the curtain fell over my cast: That’s where I know Betty from. I saw Betty from my window when the cops dragged her toward the ambulance parked in front of my old house all those years ago. I always believed she looked me right in the eyes—pleading. An unedited chapter from my WIP, The House on Latimer.
Stop! Liar. Not unedited. I can’t write and leave the glaring mistakes marked in red ink from the spellchecker.
Betty yawns, she makes her presence known inside my mind. I wished someone would do something about her mussed hair, that vacant stare and stereotypocal description of individuals with mental health issues, like a Hitchcock scene, yet that I borrowed like a charity shop suit that someone else once wore. She wonders what she’s ever done that I’ve cast her as the crazy woman. But I needed her to own the character. I need Betty to drive the plot and lift the climax in a complex story of murder, betrayal, and the mysterious past of a house. All the while, Helene waits in the shadows. She’s not worried; she knows she is the star of the show.
I write by the seat of my pants. It makes me proud that Steven King writes that way too. Yet, I don’t need to explain to anyone why those characters in my head need a permanent home on paper. They simply exist; they’re not a stolen impression of someone I know. As I dig deeper into their existence, I become lost in their world and emerge with their stories as they whisper it to me.
Some days I become a hostage and can’t find my way out of my own stories, but I like being there. I feel safe and part of something greater. A place where I belong, even if it is just fictional.
There is no process to writing other than typing and organizing the text as it perculates like popcorn, overflowing the vessel and spilling over.
I always wonder what will happen or how. Each day I receive a new installment if I choose to listen. Some moments are filled with raw excitement, while during others, I’m busy sewing the costumes each character wears, and I pray that the eventual reader will fall a little in love with these people so they can come to the surface and breathe.
If there is one constant in this process, it is the habit of writing until I am empty. And then I start to edit, flesh out the context, and with much angst and trepidation, say to my husband, “here, read this.”
When the ax made contact with the wood, the powerful impact surprised Helene. She hadn’t expected that the old wooden panelling would be so hard. On contact, the ax nearly slipped from her grip and off-set her balance. But no matter what—Helene rode the adrenaline rush like a jockey in a derby, determined to win. She braced herself and leveled the ax again behind her shoulder while keeping her eyes set on the knotty grain pattern in the wood.
Oh my, I miss my fiction writing routine. But I sold my soul to content writing for a lousy buck.
Nowadays, getting lost in a quagmire of daily bad news is pretty easy. One bad incident can destroy the reputation of millions, and societies become fractured by color and culture. Without experiencing human interactions, our understanding that we have more in common than not is diminished and distorted. Beneath our skin, however, we share the same wishlist for a happy life: love, food, shelter, respect, and belonging.
My husband and I travel. Our job is managing people’s properties and caring for their pets in their absence. We accept neither job lightly. It’s our reputation and our way of life. On this return trip to the Mexican Baja, we came mentally prepared for what to expect. Heat and humidity. Of course, COVID makes everything more complicated, and restrictions hinder the usual 4.5-hour trip, and it turns into a 24-hour ordeal. Such is life. While the Baja is an agricultural breadbasket, its prime source of income, which is directly related to people’s cash flow, is the tourist industry and the booming construction hub. Both of which the pandemic hampered.
Although Cabo’s quaint airport was like a beehive when we arrived, it hasn’t yet translated into cash for those in downtown Cabo San Lucas who rely on tourist money. But wherever we go, we interact with locals. We ask questions and take an interest in their lives, and we don’t consider ourselves tourists; we come to experience living in la vida loca style minus the loca.
On this particular Saturday, we planned a quick in-and-out shopping trip to the vibrant resort city of Cabo San Lucas. We were excited about the prospects of a beautiful day and, as a treat, a portable breakfast before hitting the stores. Wham bam, and back at the hacienda by noon, we thought. Our vehicle, however, had other ideas.
We grabbed breakfast and decided to eat in the parking lot. Because of the pandemic, we try to have less contact with people (which makes me sad) and surfaces. Our breakfast was delicious; we were ahead of schedule, and then everything changed. Our vehicle wouldn’t start. When my husband turned over the engine, all we got was rattling grrrrr, no spark, no engine response.
While the highway, snaking its way from Cabo in the south to Tijuana in the north, is pristine, sideroads are hard on cars. The paths are either a jarring washboard or a rough ride through miniature mountain ranges and troughs. The struts in most cars grind because sand gets everywhere, and if it isn’t screwed down, it will fall off.
My husband is pretty handy; he popped the hood and tried to adjust the loose battery cables. Since we lacked tools, he ran across the street to buy a set of vice grips. By then, we’d noticed three guys milling in the parking lot, smoking, washing their company vehicle, their gaze drifting toward us.
Mexico is often in the news for all the wrong reasons. Being cautious is wise no matter what country is on the travel agenda. We also understand that less fortunate people tend to view Canadians and Americans as wealthy people with abundant cash. This is sometimes true but not always, and I’ll casually mention here that we have never had a bad experience in any country.
After trying everything he could, my husband shook his head. This was beyond him to fix without some help. In my bad Spanish, I asked one of the men if they could give us a boost. As I discovered, this gentleman, Alejandro, from Venezuela, spoke excellent English. They hooked up the booster cables; I was very hopeful. Our battery, however, was deeply wounded.
Next thing, we had three men under the hood performing surgery. They brought out their tools and gadgets and tested where we had power and what was wrong. They went as far as climbing under our vehicle. After trying everything, including adding water to the dry battery, the diagnosis remained the same. A dead battery. Alejandro walked with my husband, taking half the battery weight, across the street to the club store, where he had a membership to buy a replacement battery. This was after about two hours of trying to resuscitate ours.
While they were gone, I chatted with Sergio, whose English was on par with my lacking Spanish. He explained to me that he earned twenty dollars a day. Cabo is very expensive, he said, and I agreed. A head of cauliflower grown in Mexico and shipped to Canada is the same price as in Cabo. On twenty dollars a day, that’s not too many heads of cauliflower for dinner. Sergio and I learned a lot about our cultures that day. I explained that Canada had its pitfalls too. And that the cost of living was a struggle for many. The pandemic brought it to the surface. The myth that we were all born with silver spoons in our mouths was dispelled.
When my husband and Alejandro returned, they installed the battery and juiced it up, and we were so grateful when our vehicle sprung to life. My husband tipped the guys half a day’s wages, but Alejandro refused his share and instead offered it to his coworkers. He explained to my husband that he had lost his job two weeks earlier and struggled to get his payout from his ex-employer. And while feeling bad about it at his daughter’s graduation, not wanting to ruin her day with news of his dire situation, he chatted with a man who offered him the job he now has. He now earns decent money as a supervisor.
After my husband offered to pay for his membership at the store and the box of popcorn he bought, Alejandro explained it was his privilege to return kindness. He felt he’d been blessed by kindness and how grateful he was for the opportunity to live with his family in the beautiful city of Cabo San Lucas.
That man is a walking life lesson. Alejandro experienced so much turmoil when he braved the challenges of being evicted from his homeland because of the dangerous political situation. Yet, he’s blinded by gratitude for the blessings and opportunities he’s given. That man is an angel and ambassador for loving-kindness. His spirit permanently marks us.
Like many great artists, Beethoven, despite his massive talent was always an outsider. Class snobbery was rife during his day and age and it tormented Ludwig. I’ve always loved Fur Elise and can visualize an entire story. This is my interpretation of how the story came into existence.
The other part of this story is the setting. There is a reason millions of tourists flood the city. It’s gloriously gorgeous. Echoes of past lives linger on every street. If you listen, you can hear them.
So cool to finally see my first children’s story published. The School Magazine (Australia) did such an amazing job and I’m just thrilled that, “Swimmingly, Willie” is the cover story and the center fold in the June edition of Blast Off.
The 2nd Installment
Not everyone knows this but the Calgary Public Library has such a cool story dispenser program. Lovingly, Willie is part of the 5-Minute Read rotation. There are four dispensers right now. One is at the Edmonton International Airport.
Whenever I stand on the shores of the Pacific, I begin to understand myself and my insignificance on the beautiful ball circling in the universe; a place I call home.
It hardly matters that the endless blue I’m looking at is the largest and deepest body of water on Earth and that without it, I, and humanity, wouldn’t exist. Knowing that I’m glimpsing only a few thousand square miles as I stand on the shore of 60 thousand square miles doesn’t impact the sensation. I finally understand the meaning of‘ breathtaking.’
The Pacific in size is greater than all the landmass combined. Pacific means to pacify and be peaceful. Magellan got it right when he named the ocean as he sailed across the tranquil waves in 1520, not knowing that the Pacific had the power to wipe entire fleets off the face of the earth with its killer rogue waves and violent storms.
The beauty and tranquility are overwhelming. Standing on the shore of this magnificent body of water, I breathe in unison with Earth. Bathtub-warm water tickle my toes, sand massages my skin at the beach at Las Lajas in Panama with each frolicking wave. I’m beginning to understand how lucky I am to experience my minor role on this planet.
When my husband and I drove down from El Valle de Anton (Panama) at five in the morning, heading west toward that sliver of silver shining in the distance, a miraculous thing happened. A moment in time that shaped me as a person forever.
El Valle is a picturesque town nestled on the rim of a volcano and similar to Boquete in Chiriqui, a tourist mecca. I’m going to skip over the details in the part where at dusk, following behind a pick-up truck, we slowly saw details emerge in the cargo. At first, we saw household goods and a chicken coop. But like a mirage, we were soon able to discern faces among the brick-a-brack—a child holding an infant inside the cage.
As we turned a bend on the winding road, our eyes on the children, a miracle happened. Not sure about where you went to school, but l learned that the sun rises in the east. Yet, I was facing west, seeing the Pacific in the distance and an orange globe emerging on the west-facing horizon. In Panama, I saw a world not entirely upside down, but definitely sideways.
That morning I thought I’d seen it all. It was a lesson on learning not to pass judgment. Don’t compare your way of life to those living in another country and different circumstances. Where I come from, you will face criminal charges for allowing children under twelve to take public transportation without supervision. In Panama, where the family unit is the pinnacle of society, you can transport children in a chicken coop.
With my mouth agape, I watched the sunrise in the Pacific. I’ve seen whales breach in the distance in this body of water, and dolphins perform acrobatic acts. I’ve seen who I am as reflected in the water and that humanity is never satisfied. It’s why we pillage the ocean’s depths, overfish, mine, pollute, and invade this deeply mysterious ocean.
Oceans and algae help control the Earth’s climate, which is always in constant flux. It acts as a set of lungs breathing and exhaling. Only our human interference has given the oceans (all our oceans) a set of smokers’ lungs. The oceans are coughing. There’s a good chance we’ll need to operate.
Although dipping my toes into the tranquil waves in Las Lajas, I understand that the ocean is the birthplace of great violence. In this deep water, hurricanes are born. Back in 2018, it gave birth to super typhoon Mangkhut, which swept across the Philippines and China, reaching 165 miles per hour. The annihilation epic.
Hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones all feast on the warm waters of the Pacific. In the eastern Pacific, these violent storm patterns are called hurricanes. In the southwestern Pacific, they’re called cyclones, and in the northwestern Pacific, they are classified as typhoons.
For many of us, it isn’t a choice. That inner voice nags us to sit down and expose our most intimate thoughts and ideas on paper. The difficulty lies in where and how to begin. I wish I knew the answer.
There are three trains of thought on how to write a novel. I’m in the Stephen King camp and write by the seat of my pants. Others have a detailed outline, and others snub both for the MFA in creative writing degree.
Google answers that question with 3,640,000,000 hits as of March 24, 2022; minus the four paid ads by Udemy, Friesen, Domestika, and the Book Writing Bureau (I wonder if that is like the CIA or FBI of book writing?)
One of the first things you learn as a novice writer is that snobbery in writing circles is rife. Experts abound; everyone has an opinion on what is good and bad. Some experts decry that so and so, whose piece you just finished chewing through, is a masterpiece. At the same time, the novel you loved from page one until the ending, which you wished never came to an end, resonated loudly with you, is disqualified as mediocre. Or is it loudly resonating?
Literary snobbery is fascinating. You’ll read essays and short story contest winners and second guess your English language skills. Cooking dinner in your leggings (paraphrasing) isn’t a concept I ever mastered. When I tried it, the nylon in the material always melted and ruined what I cooked. The druglords of Columbia can’t be nearly as dangerous as those of Colombia. Somehow I always imagine ‘Columbian’ drug lords as adventurists sporting athletic gear and hiking. It’s COLOMBIA. They even sell T-Shirts (in Colombia), correcting the mistake right next to hockey puck hash and bottles of coke–the powdery kind.
The sound of her winter boots on snow breaks the stillness. It’s impossible to escape with all the noise she is making. Any deer, wild cat, or coyote would hear her coming, if not smell her from miles away. Wildlife, however, isn’t her concern at the moment, as spooky as an encounter in total darkness might be.
She isn’t escaping them; she is escaping him.
Of course, there is also the track of the oversized boot prints. Anyone would see the trail in daylight shining like a beacon, “there, she’s gone this way!” Voices commanding others to run and catch her.
Inhaling the cold, Emma stands still. A painful stitch stabs her side and makes breathing difficult. She keeps her eyes on the light ahead. A light she’s been watching for months now, whenever she believes no one is watching.
The light could be a trap. Emma knows that too. But under the cloak of night, she can observe until it is safe to make a move. She knows she has at least until morning until they discover what she has done. Darkness is her only sanctuary. Light her goal.
Enveloped in darkness, surrounded by forest, she knows as surely as her heart beats that she is right to run. Regardless of what happens next, her life as she has known it will end.
She stumbles onward knowing that light is never a good distance indicator. In daylight, it tricks the eye into judging distance; it keeps moving farther away and out of reach at night. She’s been stomping through the snow for hours. The deep and uneven path makes every movement difficult. She has already fallen too many times to count. Her shirt clings to her back, soaked, beneath the dark coat she stole from the hook by the door.
It belongs to him and is much too large.
Her stomach rumbles; she has only eaten a bowl of thinned soup. “You’re useless,” he yelled, cuffing the back of her head that made her spit the soup across the table. Emma hasn’t eaten anything with sustenance for weeks. Her stomach is concave, her arms and legs sinewy.
Looking back, he didn’t say that exactly, that she is useless. But he might as well have. He also never resorts to the sort of violence that leaves a physical mark. He is way more cunning than that. Sticks and stones.
And her meager diet is self-inflicted. She has to admit that too. Ego, however, has this delicate shell and insists, “I’ll show him.”
Her ego never behaves as she wants it to. Ego has its own ego to battle.
“Keep moving!” She commands her weak limbs to obey despite the strain, but her mind is her biggest threat. It wants to tell her to lie down, curl up, give up, and invite death to take over.
Ego sulks in the corner. Now is not the time to get involved.
Her legs power through the deep snow. Sometimes she sinks up to her knee in the swollen drifts that are difficult to distinguish in the dark. Emma half expects to hear a shotgun blast, a snowmobile blazing through the snow to hunt her down.
The flickering yellow light in the distance hasn’t moved closer, or so it seems. Emma keeps her gaze forward. She has to keep moving, if not for herself, then for the others. When it all started, never in a million years did she think she’d end up like this. Lost, frozen, beaten to compliance. Fighting to survive in a maelstrom of submission and rejection.
This is not what she thinks she has signed up for.
Her foot lands on solid ground. A road she hasn’t expected spans in long directions. She knows she’s going to make it.
The road leads to a plowed driveway, and a homestead stands against the light of the early dawn with its white clapboard housing gleaming. She slinks up the stairs and peers into the dark windows. She sees the embers glowing in a fireplace; a dog curling into a ball on a rug before it. It doesn’t lift its head and bark at the intrusion, making Emma relax for the first time in months. She appreciates the solitude of her achievement.
She smells the faint plumes of tobacco. She sees the figure rocking in the chair, back and forth, a smile that says, ‘we’ve been expecting you.’
Emma recoils from fright. She recognizes the face—the image on the dust jacket of her favorite author.
“Welcome, Emma. You did it!”
Emma collapses from exhaustion. She rolls over onto her back; she sees the stars blink, that fading light of darkness. She thinks of the others she left behind at the writing retreat. She wonders if they’d be alright. Soon enough, they’ll find the editor tied to his chair. A black Charlie Chaplin mustache painted with a permanent marker below his nose. Pages of her manuscript stuffed into the cavity of his cavernous mouth.
Whenever I have a day between writing content and getting my edits back, which is always nerve wracking, I manage to write a few pieces of short fiction. By short, I don’t mean flash.
This year I submitted to OrcaLit and misguidedly believing I had what it takes to be chosen for publication. I paid to have them review my story and send me feedback. It’s a small fee and worth the price, even if it doesn’t pan out.
I wrote ‘The Habits of Hubert LaSalle’ for fun. Part speculative and part murder/death story. I worked hard on polishing it, and admit that I love the story. The team at Orca advised me that the story was off to a good start, (the first version) and had potential. But then I missed the target and my story became predictable. The editor explained that it reminded them of a Twilight Zone Series (television from the 1960s, not the teen books). They felt it was trite, they could see the ending a mile off.
While they are right, isn’t most fiction like that? Doesn’t that somehow connect us the story? Those authors who totally blow us out of the proverbial literary world are few and far between.
Of course, I was disappointed. I rewrote the story, included more death. People can’t get enough of death, and had the gumption to resend it for another review and rejection. They kindly informed that while some of my revisions were better, I still hadn’t met their target.
Here is what they wrote:
Thanks for resubmitting this story. We can see that you’ve made a lot of improvements, but the story still lacks the punch that we are looking for. You indicate very early on that Hubert is a passive man, controlled by his wife and others. But once that’s established, you basically keep repeating the idea for several more pages instead of moving the narrative forward. We see that you changed the surprise of Hubert being dead to the surprise of everyone being dead. To us, that’s still a very “Twilight Zone” idea—quite overused in literary circles. For this story to work for us you need to take it in a very different direction — something really imaginative that we haven’t seen before. Sorry to be disappointing.
While those words aren’t what I was hoping for, I will let them rest. Hubert can sulk in the background while I find a way to fix what ails him. It’s what writers do. We keep going.
We heard the train a long way off in the distance. A throaty rumble tunneling toward us, sooty plumes of smoke spoiling the blue skyline. Our eyes wide open, we stood in the shadows of our ignorance. Hindsight deftly made fools of us, and in the bliss of our ignorance, we believed this—this happens to other people.
Sadly, based on the idleness of this flawed theory, we were sold a first-class ticket. Entry to a sport gambling on the unsuspecting. We believed we were mere spectators on the sideline. When Fate handed us the ticket, Stage 4, we knew instantly that she had mistaken us … for someone else. For days, we stood in a winding throng begging for a refund. But as we neared the ticket counter, we heard the hush of whispers, “closed for renovations.” The crush of the crowd shuffled us like a deck of cards onward, pushing us past the window clearly marked: Radiation Therapy. To our dismay, they sold out long in advance, and in exchange, we were handed another invitation: Welcome to the Chemotherapy Department. Chemo wasn’t a choice, but intrepid, we forged on. With our breath locked in the dungeon of our lungs, we knocked only to have the door slammed in our face, “access denied.” Swaddled in our complacency, believing that a system would take care of us, we veered in the wrong direction and missed an opportunity that never materialized. Dumbfounded, we wandered and lost our way when time eventually unblocked the long stairway leading us to the platform designated for surgery. Only to discover it had left the station ahead of schedule. Among the hustle of the domed station, like pigeons bobbing their heads to see clearly, we clung desperately to our only option. A carriage clearly marked Hope awaited. The train conductor blew his whistle, “all aboard.” The upside, with Hope, there’s always another way.
We took to our pre-assigned seats, no map in hand, no GPS to guide us on the journey. Blind faith chugging along, riding next to us like Zenyatta on a trot. Numbed and in pain, we were only able to stare out the window, eyes blankly seeing the scenery rushing past; glimpses of our comfortable lives vanishing in a blink. Regardless of circumstance, it wasn’t the sort of day trip anyone survived unscathed. There were, however, many vacant seats to choose from. We slipped the ticket stamped: Cancer—Terminal into the pockets of our wishful thinking. Or more accurately, desperately clinging. Our fingers incessantly toyed with the soft fringes of … why us?
Seated, slouching over our trembling knees, it occurred to us that we had been summoned on this ride based on mistaken identity. An idea we couldn’t shirk. We weren’t the sort of people who deserved this crippling invasion. Cancer happened to other people, and any minute now, someone would unchain us from this misery. Joke’s up! The carriage of Hope turned out to be a ticket to nowhere. Like a merry-go-round, we rode the nauseating ride, dizzy and hungry for a morsel of truth which we didn’t dare face. But Hope generously gave us an extension. Time superimposed a new expiry date to an ending we knew was hurtling toward us at a breakneck speed.
When we arrived at the final destination after endlessly drifting, they took our mother onboard another vessel. No one bothered to ask if we wanted to come along for the ride. Cancer has the audacity to bring entire families down. One word— such debilitating power. Our only option was to ensure our mother’s seat was cushioned. We tucked our love tightly around her and showered her with goodbye kisses. It was hard to smile without tasting the salt in our tears.
While running alongside the train that picked up speed, we watched the track disappear into the tunnel of light. We had passed all the stations of burdens to bear and waved farewell. The image of our mother, a final glimpse of her sweet face, leaning out the window of life, tattooed our souls. Her frail and ravaged body rose above everything she had endured. How she mustered the strength; only a mother can know for sure. Weak as she was, she embraced us with her eyes and heart, she asked just one thing of us, “help me die in peace.” We granted her dying wish and allowed her to slip beyond the curtain, a quick-change act was certain. We whispered a thousand I love yous, like a rosary chant to take with her. When the light in her eyes finally extinguished, her pain lifted and floated toward the ceiling, settling on us with the weight and discomfort of chain mail.
For the first ten years afterward, we journeyed to the platform with a regularity to set a clock by. Willingly, we handed the porter the luggage marked grief, welcoming him to rifle through the vestiges of every predetermined emotion. We no longer packed the hard edges of our anger, and like the train, it came and departed on schedule. And with each visit to the station, we brought the satchel infused with the memories of a lifetime. We remain as the gullible children believing in the Disney moment of our beloved Mama’s return, however impossible. With our ears to the track, we listen for the gentle chug of a train we know is en route. Afraid it’s coming for us too. Even now, we hear the stillness in our hearts softly pounding and realize it is but the footsteps of our beloved mother. She may be gone, but she remains, forever, next to us. An imprint of love and reincarnation.
In loving memory of my Mama.
Monika R. Martyn is retired, married, happy, and a minimalist. She enjoys traveling and creating stories. She has been published in numerous print and online magazines and recently honored with a Pushcart Nomination. The Lucky Man—An Act of Malice, her debut novel is queuing somewhere in the back of the ‘never heard of’ pile, though not through lack of trying.
In town, at the diner, after church, in conversation, between chatting about the crops and weather, their names would pop up like mushrooms or dandelions after a summer shower. Their names were used as a measure of something, the irony wasn’t lost on those who understood irony and the couple had become part of the landscape though they never kept still.
The Walkers. Their name was indicative, though it was Mrs. Walker who started the whole thing and her maiden name was Miller. And milling and walking were no longer fashionable, people bought trucks and SUVs to avoid walking and milling, well, no one gave a rat’s ass about milling anymore either. Unless it was around the buffet table to gossip and tattle.
Lucy, to her Bert, took up ditch walking not because she needed the few measly dollars handed to her at the recycle depot when she dropped off another trash bag full of discarded bottles and cans. She cleaned the ditch because Lucy cared. She wanted the ditch to be as meticulous as her home. Lucy couldn’t stand the clutter.
It all started one day when she tended the flower bed planted around the town’s welcome sign. The hand-carved sign had become a local tourist attraction and Lucy cared about such things as volunteerism even if she couldn’t fully understand the slur behind the meaning of white saviorism. She simply gave a fuck about her environment and community.
On that first day, when she stooped to pick a vagrant soda can, a red one, she also noticed the discarded potato chip bag, the fast-food wrapper, the windblown plastic bag, the tequila mickey, the plastic beverage bottles, and the sole flip flop. She didn’t touch the milk jug with yellow fluid though it grated on her nerves.
On that day, though they’d always been the Walkers, they became the ditch walkers simply because they cared.
Just a Barn Cat
It was the sound that would remain permanently stuck in Ted Wilson’s mind like an old vinyl record hung up in a groove. The animal that made the pitiful sound stretched Ted’s heart and soul to the breaking point.
Although he’d never tell anyone, it was just a barn cat, after all, trapped for a mere minute on the descending garage door installed without a sensor.
Ted couldn’t run fast enough. He felt his heart balloon as he ran toward the suffering cat and tried to force the heavy door off her. Luckily, his wife, thank god, ran the other way and triggered the switch to reverse the door.
The yellow-eyed look the poor cat shot like an arrow into his heart nearly broke Ted. The cat, being 19 years old, scampered to safety and into hiding. Ted, though he knew the cat had nine lives, didn’t think she’d survived the night.
All night long his mind conjured images of a stiff carcass that he’d have to bury in the snow, deep enough that the coyotes wouldn’t make a meal of it. Then again, such is the circle of life.
Three days later, when the sun graced the blue sky, the old cat came out of hiding, she took up her post on Ted’s lap and purred. All was forgiven. Cat’s don’t hold grudges.
His wife didn’t mind Ted fretting over the barn cat, she had, however, a different version of events that didn’t jive with his.
Who We Are, Not What We Are
Lorna Woods smiled at her last client; she could hardly believe the woman had given her a hundred dollar tip. Lorna relied on tips. The generous five and ten dollar bills. The rare twenties went a long way.
On the inside, Lorna vibrated with glee. Getting a job at this high-end salon was like a mercy gift from heaven. Here, she didn’t have to share her tips with a greedy boss, though she had other expenses she hadn’t bargained on. She had to look the part.
“Thank you, Ms. Sanderson.” Lorna escorted her newest client to the door and held it aside.
“I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.” Ms. Sanderson smiled back, she was a stunner and Lorna had noticed a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. As if she knew Lorna’s secrets.
It was an industry truth that clients had strange relationships with their stylists. They shared the most intimate secrets, yet a stylist was always keenly aware of the boundaries etched in client-relationship platitudes.
Lorna checked her watch, she had a ten-minute window between clients and enough time to enjoy a bit of sun outback, vitamin D was crucial for healthy hair and nails.
She leaned against the brick wall with her eyes closed. The alley, though it stank sometimes for chemical hair colorants and a mix of restaurant grease and trash, was a sun trap. Lorna could feel the hundred-dollar bill in her pocket lift a thousand pounds of stress from her shoulders.
Lorna would never admit this to her colleagues, but if truth be known, she felt she was nothing but a fraud. She could style and cut hair with the best of them. That wasn’t the fraud part.
She had learned about hair in high school; watched endless tutorials and YouTube how-to videos and attended a proper school to get certified.
Every weekend she enrolled her friends and family as volunteers to try new styles and cuts, updos, blunt cuts, colors, perms, foils, and tints. Before she was nineteen she started winning competitions. It’s how her new boss noticed her and offered her a job.
The fraud was the person wearing second-hand designer clothing that she scoured vintage shops for. The CK jeans and Gucci top were fake found in a bin rather than a hanger.
She heard the back door of the restaurant open; the noise and smell of a lunch menu in full swing followed. Chef Tony liked a smoke between serving and eating. Lorna smiled and waved, she knew an olive on a stick in that high-class restaurant cost more than the hundred bucks making her smile. Once in a while, Chef Tony would surprise whoever was leaning against the brick wall with leftovers.
Lorna had only minutes left to enjoy the sun when Chef Tony whistled and said, “how’s our newest serving girl today?” His voice was full of approval.
Curious, Lorna opened her eyes and looked at the young woman dressed in a regulation, skimpy white shirt, black pencil skirt, and ballerina flats. The hairdo she recognized.
Her mouth slightly agape, Lorna envied the young woman her ballerina shoulders and physique. That mischievous glint in her eyes.
Lorna wasn’t sure how to react, a minute ago she’d been thinking she was a fraud and didn’t belong when Ms. Sanderson showed her the true meaning of fraud.
Fraud didn’t really describe what Lorna was. Lorna knew well enough that the servers at the posh restaurant were expected to serve more than just meals for the ‘generous’ tips they earned.
Fraud was a word that belonged to a culture run by people who gorged themselves on the backs of others.
I’ve been interested in watching and identifying birds for a long time. It’s not easy because these little critters don’t sit still long enough and some look so similar at a glance that you need to get the book out and make the comparison over and over until you can identify the subtle differences.
This winter season, I’ve fallen for this adorable little nut hatcher who comes to the feeder and hangs around upside down. When it’s really cold, they puff themselves up. But they never sit still.
This post isn’t anything important. I just wanted to share this little birdie with you hoping it will bring you as much joy as it does me!
Seeing the birds and enjoying them doesn’t perhaps match the thrill of seeing a rockstar or a movie star, or winning the jackpot, yet I find it rewarding to connect with nature and to appreciate its beauty.
The planet doesn’t belong to us (people) alone and yet at times it seems like we are so busy wiping out another species with our insatiable appetite for more and more.
Instead of giving back, why ‘not’ not take in the first place.
What I’m trying to say is, forget about stuff and mementos, live to make memories and experiences. Watch a bird instead.
Happy Holidays, may kindness be the gift you keep on giving.
I always wondered if I would ever have the opportunity to learn what a Pushcart Prize nomination would feel like. Now I know, because this morning I received the news that https://www.honeyguidemag.com/ nominated “The Glass Wall Between Us” for the prize.
I know a little boy who uses this phrase, seriously, and it’s got me wondering too.
What happens to time? When I was a child, I remember that an hour seemed like an eternity when we were told to sit still at my aunt’s house. Now, each Friday I’m aghast that another week has ended. Where did the time go? How can I slow its breakneck speed and passing?
Success is a goal that is set yet hard to reach because it’s a moving target. I’ve been writing, seriously, for about 10 years now. It’s a labour of love and hate. I love it because it’s what I’m meant to do. There’s no point in arguing or debating. Whether I’m good enough or not doesn’t matter. It’s like breathing and comes naturally.
I hate it because it consumes me wholly and leaves no room for anything else. The constant teeter-totter struggle of success and failure is tiresome yet motivating.
Seriously, if writing was about writing, I’d be happy.
For the last three months, I haven’t looked up. My nose has been bent to the grindstone churning out internet content for an agency. It’s official, I’m a professional writer, and I get paid for each word I contribute.
But man, it’s a tough gig.
The creative me struggles with producing regurgitated web-oriented, cookiecutter content because I’ve always been the sort of person who likes to colour that space outside the lines. But writing isn’t just about putting words on paper; it’s about learning and moving forward.
Writing is who I am, yet I don’t enjoy that other side of writing that I need to embrace. Self-promotion.
I’d much rather get lost among the characters living inside my head. They are good company but also demanding, and I’ve neglected them.
This morning, I decided to edit two stories that I wrote as companions to “Swimmingly, Willie,” a children’s story about a bee, soon to be published and illustrated by The Australian School Magazine.
Reading those two sequels reminded me of the pure joy of writing.
Seriously, that is why I write. For the joy, the small successes and the big ones and the failures that are mere rungs on a ladder.
The weather app on my phone lies and says there’s only a 10% chance of rain; it’s raining. I listen to the sound of the soft rain as it mingles with the stillness evaporating with the rising sun. The world sleeps, and only the doves are awake with me. Humidity is 96%. Maybe it isn’t raining after all, and the sky is merely sweating. It’s hot in Mexico.
My free hand brushes over Honey’s dusty fur. She needs a bath. With each gentle stroke, I’m reminded of the mango tree. There are thousands of mango trees; they stink as the fruit rots and ferments. Before fate intervened, Honey’s life centered on being tied to the trunk of a dusty mango tree next to the highway that runs from Cabo San Lucas to Tijuana and switches sides from the Pacific to the Sea of Cortez for optimum viewing.
Although there’s a dark desert highway, Hotel California is a fifteen-minute drive north and snakes along cactus after cactus to provide a point of direction. The lawsuit has been settled.
Abandoned to the Mexican heat, often without food and water, and denied the simplest gesture of love, Honey’s chances were slim. Dogs are social creatures, and even to this day, she soaks up affection like a dried up sponge. Beneath her shaven white fur, which acts as a strip of Velcro, her skin shines through in patches—a mishmash of seal-grey and purple. Her twitching nose is as black as her eyes. She’s one of four rescues. All thanks to a compassionate woman who one day couldn’t bear driving past the mango tree and seeing that pitiful sight. She paid to have Honey untied from a life of misery and brought her home.
Falling coconuts don’t make a sound until they land.
The thickness of the hovering humidity shrouds the mountain range to the east in a dense mist. But I know it is there. Mountains don’t move. Yet they move me with their breathtaking beauty on those mornings when the sun rises between the peaks and highlights the countryside surrounding me. I’m at the hacienda in a semiarid desert and a temporary surrogate for the pets.
A hacienda is a homestead on rural, agricultural land.
To see the beauty of Mexico, keep your focus trained slightly upward. Allow your eyes to skim over the palms and mango trees, the greenery that is coaxed from the soil with plastic water lines and plastic tarps to conserve each precious drop of water. The fields look like a Christmas tree, red and green, growing either tomatoes or peppers. The soil is a perplexing mix of dust and sand. Snakes leave their ribbon pattern; dead scorpions squashed by car tires are still recognizable if you know where to look.
A dead, upside-down lizard looks in bone structure like an alligator.
A good place to look for scorpions is in your shoes before you put them on. It’s not simply women who have a shoe fetish; scorpions like them too, only they don’t care about brands or size. It takes months to stop the habit of shaking out your shoes and clothing when you return home to the northern hemisphere.
The humidity drops to 95%, and the temp hovers at 19C. The chance of rain remains at 10%. The cement deck is awash and a shade of chocolate brown and slippery as hell. Gentle drumming raindrops land on the enormous palm leaves all around me. It is like the sound of God’s tears falling. He sure has much to cry about. I have no idea what God sounds like; I’m just saying.
Although it’s imperative always to look where you step in Mexico, look up if you want to see its beauty. The sky in Mexico is a moving picture show. Clouds moving across the blue canvas are like Monet’s brushstrokes and palette, best seen at a distance to appreciate the spectrum and detail. At dusk, I see islands and oceans in the sky, even though there are no islands and oceans in the sky. I do see the Pacific.
The Pacific makes me humble. It is a reality check that despite 7.674 billion of us, each of us is about as important as a single grain of sand. It doesn’t mean we don’t have a purpose and bring meaning to someone else’s life. Just as each grain combines to form a beach, each person needs to realize they are on Earth for the greater good. Alone we are ineffective and meaningless.
The Pacific is varying shades of blue. I’m lucky because I have seen a long portion of the magnificent Pacific. From Vancouver down to San Francisco. I’ve swum along the coastline of Panama where the water is about as warm as your bathtub. I’ve seen the sunrise in the Pacific in Panama, which is so wrong when you think about it. On the Mexican Baja, it inspired my novel and this short ramble and musing. No matter how often I stand on the shores of this natural wonder, I am awed anew. Its relentless heartbeat, as it heaves and rolls the waves and sends them crashing ashore, leaves me humbled. It’s only toying with us, giving the world a minuscule sample of its power. I’m not a gambler, but in a contest, my money’s on Big Blue.
Despite the 10% chance of rain, I take a walk. I worry about the gecko in the bathroom sink. It sometimes moves but most often doesn’t. My husband and I argue. He wants to end its suffering; I say, “give it another chance.”
The rain makes tiny dots on the soil; I’m hardly getting wet. The difference between humidity and rain is minimal. I head back to the hacienda. I walk through the plot of manicured land ready for sale. A Mexican retirement plan. The rectangular field is divided into sellable “Gringo” plots and cleared of weeds, cacti, and trash. Embedded deeply in the soil are the shredded black plastic sheets that speak of its farming history. I spot one can of Corona cerveza in my periphery. The rest is as pristine as it gets: that’s marketing to your target audience.
Cerveza is Spanish for beer. Corona Extra is a type of Mexican beer owned by a Belgian company. Corona Extra is not responsible for the virus, though it may make you sick. Why people chose to boycott it? (Insert head shaking.) That’s people for you.
Humidity is 94%—time for more coffee.
Here, I could go on a tirade about the trash, the plastic collection of soda bottles, agricultural waste, but no one gives a damn. In Canada, we also have individuals who chuck their trash wherever, whenever, too. It doesn’t even phase their conscience, and they don’t lose any sleep about the garbage they leave for someone else to remove and the generations yet to come. Don’t get me started on what it does to wildlife.
And I’ve heard every argument. You can’t make people care.
If you want to see a difference, you have to be the difference.
In Mexico, the sun sweats, the air is wet, yet the land is dry. When the coconut lands, it makes a thud. The jury is still out if coconuts kill as many people as some internet blogs suggest. Yet, I believe in the one-sidedness of truth—a falling coconut to the head will make you see stars, regardless. Coconut is a drupe and technically a fruit, a nut, a seed, and delicious. So is a fig. Learn something new every day.
About the stars. The sky at night in Mexico is also breathtaking. The Big Dipper follows me throughout life, always to the left of me. Satellites criss-cross in erratic patterns, and I had no idea there were so many. It’s a veritable freak show of space debris.
Humidity is 85%, temp at 21C. The chance of rain is still 10%. It’s no longer raining. The dogs had a bath. It’s not something I’d try with the cats. Honey’s coat is sleek and curled around her neck and stilt-like legs. We remove the prickly stickers she collects on our walk; remember the Velcro I mentioned, stuck to her upper and lower lip. I now know why I travel with nail scissors.
Later that day, the gecko vanishes from the sink.
Lester, the coolest cat in Mexico, a YouTube star in the making, is stretched out on the leather sofa. He doesn’t like getting wet but enjoys shrimp for breakfast. He’s number one in the pack of rescues, and his claws are about as sharp as Edward Scissorhands. Only he doesn’t sculpt any hedges.
Chuy, a black mini-pin pug-cross and sometimes a diablo, hates anything with wheels and is sound asleep in his little basket. Snoring, he’s dreaming of chasing hot-dog cookies and Honey’s tail. He doesn’t know he’s a rescue dog. He was too young when fate intervened in his life twice.
Ha! Chuy is a nickname for people named Jesus.
Lola is curled into a tri-colored ball. She purrs in her sleep but is still timid when a hand moves too quickly toward her. That she flinches tells you everything. They were all brought to the hacienda of love by that same woman.
The next chapter is waiting at the front gate. He’s black, not a good color to be under the Mexican sun. He wags his tails and whimpers whenever I meet him with a bowl of kibble. Black Dog doesn’t have a home, but I see the inevitable. He now lets me pet his head.
That night, a gecko climbs the wall, and I say to my husband, “See, you have to have hope.” I suspect, however, that he had something to do with the miraculous recovery of the gecko.
In Mexico, life happens. The Pacific reminds you that life is precarious for everyone. Hard for many. There are varying degrees of hardship. Yesterday, on a return trip from La Paz, I saw a man walking along the highway. His legs, bowed as if his hips were two sizes too large, were spindly. He wore flip-flops, which are never good for posture or walking long distances. The lines etched into his face wrote the textbook thesis of hardship. He carries bags slung over his shoulder. He collects aluminum cans to earn a few pesos.
In the rearview mirror, I watch as he dives into the ditch and vanishes—what a bunch of spoiled babies we are.
The weather app on my phone lies and says there’s only a 10% chance of rain; it’s raining. I listen to the sound of the soft rain as it mingles with the stillness evaporating with the rising sun. The world sleeps, and only the doves are awake with me. Humidity is 96%. Maybe it isn’t raining after all, and the sky is merely sweating. It’s hot in Mexico.
As an internationally qualified housesitter, I’ve been places. Back in the day the biggest hurdle while traveling used to be dragging my suitcase over cobblestones or through narrow aisles on trains.
COVID sadly changed all that. Not only has it cost the lives of millions, but it’s also impacted industry and families alike and complying with the ever-changing rules leaves most of us breathless, stunned and wondering, now what?
Although the cost of increased airline fees and molecular testing inhibits many from traveling it can’t be compared to the cost of having anyone infected with the virus.
Of course, I shouldn’t complain because after all I have had so many wonderful travel experiences, met amazing people, seen ‘stuff’, and have fortunately never been infected by this stupid virus that won’t go away, but I have been affected by the inconveniences of new regulations that don’t always make sense. Throughout, I’ve followed the guidelines and not always understood the shifting goalpost. For over a year I’ve lived with my husband in almost constant isolation. I’m so f’n done with it.
Old Cannery Near Hotel San Cristobal
I traveled to Mexico in May when it was first possible to leave because I’m a housesitter. I take care of people’s pets and homes and enjoy this unconventional lifestyle. I got the first jab in the arm as soon as the government allowed my age bracket the chance to get immunized.
Before leaving for Mexico, even though restrictions were lifted at that time, I cautiously avoided meeting with family and friends. I couldn’t risk a negative test because people relied on me. It hurt not being with people I care about; I did what I had to. I’m a bit miffed that the government was too slow in allowing me to get a second shot before leaving. I know, cry me a river.
What’s interesting about the travel restrictions in place at the time was that a flight to Cabo San Lucas used to take four and a half hours on a non-stop flight. With the restrictions, it took 24 hours and exposure to so many more people. The logic, well, I know, cry me a river.
A Moving Picture Show
While in Mexico, I continued this self-imposed isolation. I didn’t socialize, I shopped once a month and avoided people. My husband is pretty sick of me by now. Just kidding of course. I’m sure I’m highly flammable from all the sanitizer on my skin.
When the time came to return to Canada, I booked a flight, downloaded the government regulation app, had a PCR test and waited for the airline to take me home. This is where my trip came unglued. A fallout from COVID that most experts probably didn’t predict. No qualified staff. I mentioned this to my husband months ago, I worry about the mechanical problems of sitting airplanes and pilots.
With all my apps lined up, the paper version in hand I arrived at the Cabo airport prepared. It was a bit of a gong show right from the start. Our flight was listed as delayed but optimism persevered because in all my travels, I’ve never experienced this issue that would become a nightmare for me and everyone else booked on the flight.
Information about our flight status was sporadic. The airline representative tried to keep us informed but vagueness never makes anyone feel comfortable. With eyes perpetually trained on the departure board and what others were saying, I waited. I read lips, I eavesdropped on conversations for news.
The Sun Always Rises Somewhere
Scheduled to leave at 3 pm, the clock ticked and after several annoying delays, we were summoned to the gate where further vague instructions were given about our cancelled flight.
Follow person to gate 13 to reclaim your luggage
Retrieve luggage and make your way out through customs; follow the faces that have become familiar
Duty free shoppers with tobacco, liquor make sure you get your declaration form back (it’s your responsibility to ask, don’t rely on the agents to hand it back)
Instructions will be as vague as finding your way through thick fog
Return to airline check-in and wait for an eternity while the line moves slower than you could have believed possible (move quickly, first in line is always a good place to be)
Wait for assigned accommodation voucher and make sure it comes with food allowance on voucher (you will be hungry) (allocated hotel may not have a restaurant or be near a restaurant)
Follow instructions to get on shuttle, or bus provided by airline
***Get bus or shuttle contact phone number*** I cannot stress this enough
Do not rely on hotel to provide you with information about any changes to your shuttle pick-up times
Do not rely on your airline to personally notify you of any changes to your shuttle pick-up times
Check your flight status app or go online to monitor flight departure changes
It’s virtually impossible to contact your airline via phone; the wait lines are longer than your holiday
While you may not be reimbursed by the airline for any taxi/uber fares sometimes you have to fend for yourself (we booked an uber to the airport because the airline changed our shuttle pick-up without notifying us which left us with no confidence in their ability) (another long story, the shuttle driver who picked up the first group rescheduled on an earlier flight refused to pick us up because of his company rules laid out by airline)
Always have paper copies of everything if you can, which of course becomes a challenge when you are in transit
If the hotel is not up to your standard, let them know
Be considerate of other travelers in your group (in our group several weary travelers were given a voucher for one hotel only to be told that there was a mistake and they had no accommodations booked. Not words anyone wants to hear. Luckily many travelers from a large group bunked together freeing up rooms for others.)
Be courteous to staff at the hotel, at the airline, these people are doing what they can but that doesn’t mean you can’t send management a note to suggest improvements. Which I will do once I compose this note
Send valid but unemotional feedback to the airline carrier about your experience and what you see as a way to improve the experience for future travelers
It may seem impossible at the time, but remain positive
We’re In This Together
Quarantine is not fun. The officer and the system that decides this fate for you don’t care that you have been following all of the guidelines, restrictions, precautions and they can’t differentiate between those who have followed the advisory and those who haven’t. It doesn’t matter to the system that you have a story behind your choices or that you haven’t seen members of your family for months and years. Covid has made us cogs on wheels that perhaps aren’t heading in the same direction as you intended to go.
Quarantine feels like a sentence for a crime I’m sure I didn’t commit and circumstances make me guilty just for living. Suddenly, the idea of freedom has a new meaning yet I also understand that my restrictions are for the great good though at times that goal is difficult to see.
For me, the difficult part is that I have to depend on someone else, and I may put someone else at risk. COVID is like slinging mud and it may stick to my skin or someone I care about. Quarantine isn’t about me. It’s about the rest of the world.
I admit I’m sick of the pandemic. I miss the old ways of doing things, but mostly I want people I care about, and the frontline workers to be safe. I also want everyone else out there on this frequency of suffering in quiet isolation to know that I am embracing the choices you make for yourself and your family, just as I am. I wouldn’t think of degrading you because of those decisions, please respect mine. Stop the hurtful name-calling, the spiteful memes that only goad us deeper into the divide.
A new feeling amidst all of these is anxiety. It’s that rushing of nauseating adrenaline that makes my heart race and a ball in my throat gag with an attack of emotions that are mine yet I don’t want them.
What if I have this frigging virus?
Always Checking Over My Shoulder
Because of my lifestyle choices, I rely on the kindness of friends and family to put up with my needs once in a while. To them, it might also mean more frequently than I like to admit. Being beholden even within the circle of kindness is not something I do lightly. The idea that these virus spores are stuck to my skin and clothing each time I enter a house causes panic.
With this last airline fiasco, I was upset about the many levels that went wrong. The missed flight, having to stay put, having to ask family and friends to change plans to accommodate mine is annoying. But the airline also exposed me. As I said, my contribution to avoid spreading this thing has been isolation, a lot of handwashing and cleaning, more isolating, physical and social distancing, yet they forced me into a situation I’ve avoided.
And each day I log my symptoms on the ArriveCan app, I read the yelling letters from the Government of Canada about quarantine rules and that I will be beaten with legal implications and worse for breaking the rules.
Traveling is still fun. After my quarantine ends I can venture into territories, perhaps a beach resort, an upscale boutique hotel, or a road trip because I am so blessed to have these experiences and grow from them.
These hurdles are mere learning opportunities to keep everyone safe.
Life isn’t just about me. It’s about community. It’s about appreciating the good things in life. They exist.
As a Canadian, I know about the weather. It’s a gateway to a conversation, and everyone has something to say. Opinion is divided. Sometimes it sucks; sometimes it’s absolutely glorious.
While I think about the snowstorms I’ve survived, I wonder how a Mexican, a Panamanian, an African who has never experienced the winter of my discontent feels about the blizzards I’ve shoveled my way out of. It must be not unlike how I feel when I watch the footage of a hurricane or monsoon race toward a population that can’t possibly survive the onslaught yet most miraculously do.
I’m waiting. I hear the sound of pitter-patter. Rain has been falling off and on. It’s not as loud here as it is in Panama during the rainy season. Humidity is no longer a feeling of moisture. It’s become an extension of who I am. Hurricane Olaf is jockeying on the southern tip of the Mexican Baja and getting ready to blow.
Shortlist Winner published in Adelaide Literary Award 2020 Anthology
In light of the travesty unfolding in Canada, where authorities are unearthing hundreds of Indigenous children buried in unmarked graves, I thought I’d share this scandalous story with you. Several months ago, I came across the story of Catherine Corless, an Irish woman who exposed the sickening truth behind the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Ireland. The similarities between what the church inflicted upon the children and their unwed mothers and the Indigenous are a breathtaking reality. This revelation is not to diminish the travesty inflicted on the Indigenous community; it is to highlight and support their cause for justice and reiterate that what happened to them is criminal.
I can honestly say I’ve never recovered from discovering these facts of what the Irish government and church officials sanctioned as appropriate. What is alarming to me is that we allow the real culprits an escape when we hide them behind the terms: government and church. Government and church are the names applied to people in charge of organizations. It isn’t a building or conglomerate–it’s people.
In Ireland, as many as 35,000 unwed women entered into the care of these horrific institutions. As many as 6000 babies are assumed buried without records across the beautiful Irish countryside. And at best guess, as many as 15,000 children were sold in an adoption ring without consent (or forged consent) from their mothers by the nuns in charge of these institutions.
Just as devastating is that these women and children were abused to such an extent until 1996. Even now, the government of Ireland can’t face the horror and no matter how you say it, Sorry, is simply not enough.
And there is yet another layer that needs to be brought to the surface. Just where were the fathers of these children? The families of these girls who were subjected to such inhumanity?
Thank you for devoting so much effort to promoting The Lucky Man-An Act of Malice with your rather unconventional methods and for no payment/ransom fee. Just saw a nice spike in my book sales, thanks to your action. Maybe there is something to reverse psychology. You might be interested to know that someone who read my book mentioned me in the same sentence as Hemingway. (I think that was so nice of them, don’t you?)
Have a fantastic day!
Sorry for calling you names, but with all your aliasses, Gavin, Joseph, Kenneth, perhaps something foreign, or Clarissa, it’s hard to decide what to call you. I’m sure your situation is dire. Why else would someone resort to such tactics? Extortion is a crime. But have you ever considered getting into marketing? You’d have to drastically change your business model, but with some hard work, who knows? Look where it’s gotten me. I was published. The Lucky Man-An Act of Malice
(In response to a threat I received this weekend.)
(Shitty People is the name Joseph applied to his partners and they pride themselves as being a team of shitty people.)
Part One: The Ransom Note
Thank you for your last email. It is endearing how you called me a penny-pinching bitch and threatened to destroy my career before it even began—really heartwarming on your part. I’m not going to lie and say your note didn’t affect me. And I’d like to share with you the reason behind that initial emotional bruising, and that you are completely wrong about me. But thanks for choosing me as your target. I’m many things, but I’m not a bitch.
My novel is the catcher and keeper of my dreams. I didn’t just fire it off. Unlike you, I work for what I have and don’t feast off the efforts of other people like vermin. For me to publish my novel, it’s taken roughly ten years to become even remotely good enough. During those ten years, I have dedicated my life to writing, to taking classes when I could, and never giving up. So you want to fuck up my dream? Well, here’s the truth. Go ahead. I obviously can’t stop you and your team of shitty people. Now why anyone would associate themselves with shitty people is beyond me. My approach has been slightly different, and I reach out and commit myself to partner and support amazing people. Just a suggestion, but try it sometime.
It’s also interesting how you are so kind in the opening of your email and are offering to provide me a service (completely illegal by the way) to work and promote my book and I quote, ‘we want to strike a deal with you’. And whether you meant to imply it or not, I take it that you see the huge potential in my novel The Lucky Man-An Act of Malice, otherwise you wouldn’t bother.
You are suggesting that I am doing something immoral or illegal by using a sanctioned Goodreads platform designed for authors to reach authors and reviewers to exchange ARCs and swap reviews. You must be getting your information from fake news because it’s a practice that has been ongoing and Amazon, who owns Goodreads, is aware. Please read up on the subject. Amazon does have a policy and I follow their guidelines.
About ruining my career. Thanks for that. Not that there’s much to destroy at this time because I just got going, and, without a doubt, it would be devastating nonetheless. But remember how I mentioned that it’s taken me ten relentless years of trying to get here? Well, if you decide to fuck with me, I promise that whatever shit you throw at me, I’m simply and creatively going to spin it to my advantage. Authors are used to taking ‘shit’ and making something from it.
And here’s a tip. By going after those of us just starting out you are targeting some very tender egos, but I can guarantee that we are fighters. What you fail to understand is that budding authors don’t have a budget to hire marketing teams, publicists, agents, tour managers, and the what-nots, or extortionists scumbags like you, to become rich and famous. Here you might also do the math: count the names of the very famous authors alive making huge money (I’m sure math is hard for you) and then subtract the thousands of authors who don’t make a dime from their efforts but continue to write simply for the love of writing. I’m on that team with thousands of others.
So you and your crew of shitty people, go ahead, make my life miserable. I already learned from the thousands of rejections that I am a survivor. Should you happen to live in a country where life is the shits and this is the only way you can see a way to get out, I suggest you come up with a better, hopefully, more honest attempt. Try hard work, it always pays off.
Wishing you and the shitty people you’re in cahoots with a lovely day. May those be raisins in your cereal.
Getting book reviews is not the only uncomfortable request authors have to master, but when another reviewer emails you this comment, the hours you devoted to your book are all worth it.
I’ve finished with The Lucky Man, and was quite impressed. It’s definitely a page-turner and delves into the deep end of the plight of our planet while keeping the reader in a state of suspense that only a well-conceived well-written who-done-it can do.
I was kept on the edge of my seat The Who way, and the … of the Spencer’s completely took me by surprise. Well done. Nothing will change my mind about giving this a strong FIVE stars.
Nowadays, we are often led to believe that the world is a terrible place. That there is crime everywhere, that we shouldn’t trust anyone.
While there is crime and everyone is out to make a dollar, the world is also full of unique, kind-hearted, generous people. Think of our healthcare workers who have been fighting for a year now to keep us alive. Despite being physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, they forge through the fire: For Us!
Take a moment. Close your eyes and think of that person who reached out to you when you needed someone. Or the stranger who smiled and held the door open for you. Or those individuals who rescued a dog and are giving it a good home or those who donated to this or that cause. Those are kind people. And yes, people’ fuck-up’. That’s who we are. All we can hope for is that we learn from our mistakes, develop a growth mindset, and move forward, even apologize if the occasion warrants it.
This week, I also want to thank one of those individuals I have never met in person. I met Sir Peter through WordPress, and he gifted me with a wonderful gift. He took the time and read my manuscript and gave it such a glowing review that I cried. So thank you, Peter. It means so much.
This is the book cover for my novel, with emphasis on my. It’s been in the making for a year and, at times, frazzled my nerves. Publishing is slow-moving.
Now that I’m so close, I feel a bout of stage-fright coming on.
If you’ve never written a book but love to read them, please do so with the perspective that the person behind the words put their soul into their effort and to bring a story that you may (or may not) enjoy.
Writing takes hardtack, perseverance, dedication, and grit. While I love writing and could do it for hours and hours, this self-promotion is another species altogether. To write a novel, I had to learn so many new skills, mostly self-taught, and sometimes it felt an awful lot like a fish out of water, knowing I had to return to the water to survive but not always knowing how to get there. But promoting myself is the opposite: I feel like I’m drowning in so much information and advice that it becomes impossible to know what is what.
Writing has taught me that those who commit, whether self-publishing, indie, or house publishing, take on a tremendous amount of effort. There are many days when the question, “Why am I doing this?” begs for an answer.
Because we love it, or a voice tells us to. Some might even take it on as a challenge to explore our most inner selves. There are countless reasons for writing, just as there are for not choosing to write.
So in the next few weeks, I will be seeking out individuals who would like to read a copy of my novel and post a review on amazon.com. It would be so awesome if you could.
If you want to make anyone uncomfortable, simply tell them that you own nothing. In a second, their eyes roll slightly inward as they compute the idea of what nothing could mean and that you must be joking: they’re waiting for the punchline that what you’re saying can’t imply the same nothing that means nothing.
Others may nonchalantly glance over their shoulder to see their belongings and that your nothing has nothing to with their everything. After all, what is life for if not for gathering stuff?
When we are born, people already bring us stuff. Baby clothing, toys, food. As we grow up, more stuff comes our way. We receive a collection of items to make us happy, to make us fit in, to help us live comfortable lives, and to shape us into unique individuals. Those articles are often given out of love.
There is also a constant trade and evolution, perhaps. Pink bikes are exchanged for ice skates, blue bikes are exchanged for balls, dolls are replaced with sweaters and lipgloss, real cars and trucks replace the Tonka trucks and Matchbox cars taking up space attic or basement. Of course, some of us collect those items forever because they are too precious to part with.
As writers, we sometimes take our work and effort much too seriously. Sometimes you just have to have some fun and allow your mind to do what it will. It’s part of the creative process. So here is me having fun with words.
Ménage à Trois
There’s something about a sunshine-filled day that brings out the best in people, but I still always wonder, ‘where do they all go?’
From my apartment window, I have a good view— a snapshot perhaps of the world. As it stands, I’m not inconvenienced or affected by what occurs beyond the thin pane of glass, the lock and key, the apartment complex within a complex.
If anything, I am spoiled. My home is warm, I am loved and eat nothing but the best, although I work very hard to earn both of those life-sustaining elements.
The woman I love is one of those people out on the sidewalk. Every morning, I watch as she heads east to catch the bus that shuttles her to the tube. And farther, to the fabulous place that employs her and pays all of our bills. I know all about bills and contributing. Sheila, the woman who adores every nuance within me, reminds me daily of how hard she works, how no one else works any harder, so that we can live in comfort and style. Of course, I appreciate her effort and let it show.
When Sheila arrives home, the first thing I do is show her how glad I am that she is back and that I missed her. I heard someplace, probably on a talk show or news radio station, that one of the key elements in any successful relationship is appreciating your partner and all the little things they do to contribute to the relationship and your well-being. Sheila and I share such a bond, and I value her contributions.
Off to the west, I see a grey cap of clouds rolling in. A summer shower is in the forecast; I can feel it in my bones. But a minor storm is always welcome. It brings out the birds I enjoy watching as they peck and bob their heads on the soft lawn in the park across the street. I have a keen eye for such things and can identify many species of birds, chickadees being my favourite because they are entirely comical to watch. I’d dare say they are parrots of the north.
Sheila, of course, affectionately encourages my hobbies. She bought us books on bird watching, and we have a magazine subscription that the mailman brings monthly. Sheila recently read that there has been a shift in the migratory and behaviour patterns in birds, which are highly influenced by an insect invasion in the city. Most people don’t know this, but in many countries, insects are thriving on city landscapes and are sadly vanishing in rural areas because of chemical pesticide toxins. That’s the thing about Sheila, she reads such fascinating facts all the time.
There’s no point in denying that consistently blogging is not my thing. Not that I don’t enjoy reaching people and receiving their kind comments and replies, but I’m really torn between focusing on my creative writing skills and committing to a blog. For the past few months, I’ve been knee-deep into the writing courses I registered for and am looking forward to the next set starting in March. Writing, it seems, is a never-ending learning curve that is mostly uphill. But the truth is that I love it.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve also thought much about a continual trend I see in the television and movie industry: Remakes, Spin-offs, Sequels, Copy-Cats.
There are twelve Superman movies listed on Wikipedia, and to me, it feels like there are hundreds. The same can be said for Spiderman, Jedis, Karate Kids, Witches, and über-cops, (who like witches, don’t exist anywhere on the planet). While I understand that some of those concepts are sequels or reinventions, I have to ask: Are we that boring that we can’t come up with something new?
In this house, Friday night is movie night, and there are a few shows that really deserve a shout-out. While book or movie reviews aren’t generally my thing, as we head into lockdown in Alberta, Canada, watching a film that has depth and meaning might make the next four weeks more bearable.
Lion is a breathtaking and emotional journey best enjoyed with good friends, and a box of tissues. I give this movie a solid 10/10. It’s a cultural excursion loaded with sensory overloading imagery and thought-provoking scenes. (Same calibre as Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire)
This title and book belong to the author and leadership guru Jayson Krause, and I feel so privileged to have been given an advanced copy to review. It’s a great companion book to Carol Dweck’s Mindset and I can’t wait to put the lessons into practice. It also explains my absence from this website, these books involve a true commitment to self-development.
While Jayson is a well-respected leadership strategist and founder of Level 52, and a former team bobsled pilot on the Canadian national team, he shares his experiences and growth mentality generously. The lessons harvested in his book speak to all aspects of life and help individuals fine-tune their growth mindset, the power of their influence, the culture they thrive in (or not), and personal development.
Every week, Grammarly https://app.grammarly.com/ sends me a progress report and encourages me to keep on writing. My current status is ‘Philosopher” and in October I managed to write 48,000 words. That’s the reason I’m not always active on WordPress, on any Social Media platform. I am, however, always touched when my followers like my posts or comments. Thank you for that.
As a writer, I’m familiar with the rejection process. When I submit I float on that cloud that maybe, just maybe, this is the submission that will be recognized. That glimmer of hope floats until that email arrives that holds the power to change everything.
The Spanish Flu was tragically given an erroneous name. Spain wasn’t the origin of the devastating influenza strain, but Spanish newspapers acted as the first messengers when the pandemic competed with the tragic events of WW1. Because of military censorship, countries involved in WW1 prohibited the release of vital information, which may have contributed to catapulting the flu to epic proportions. The flu crippled the entire world, ravaging bodies from 1918 to 1920 and decades to come. No reliable data can determine the origin, yet some truths regarding this catastrophic pandemic remain relevant today.
In Canada, the H1N1 influenza A, or Spanish Flu, strain took the lives of 55,000 people who competed for grave plots with the 60,000 soldiers who fell in WW1. This international pandemic also took 675,000 US citizens to their grave. In New York alone, 19,000 people died from complications associated with this lethal strain. In total, this flu claimed 40 – 50 million bodies. Some experts even suggest a number as high as 100 million. As records indicate, 500 million people became infected during four ferocious waves, making the Spanish Flu one of (if not the most) deadliest pandemic in human history.
Every writer needs validation. We may kid ourselves and say we write for our well-being, but the truth is, most of us write because something in our ‘soul’ propels us to do so. And it’s impossible to argue with our inner self; we are deeply biased.
I come to the writing process the hard way. When I was a kid, I dreamed of working in the cosmetic industry. I enjoyed a great career and still miss all those fabulous freebies. In college, I was introduced to some amazing ladies: Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, and Virginia Woolf. Meeting those ladies sent me on a journey to read just about every Penguin Classic novel ever written because my dear Jane’s collection is relatively meager. I chewed my way through: Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Twice, once for the characters and the second to really understand the war portion) Hardy, Thackeray, Dickens, Eliot, Hawthorne, Fielding, Cleland, Collins, Steinbeck, Twain, and Harper Lee all the way to Dostoyevsky among many others. Finally, I hit a roadblock when I tried to tackle Cervantes and failed. Although I didn’t know it at the time, reading the Classics prepared me for something despite not understanding the journey.
For most people, the prairies inspire feelings of boredom. The vast landscape of nothing, the images of flat land, and endless poker-straight roads are not appealing. Most people crave the scenic beauty of mountains, the sun glaring off the sand at some ocean resort in the tropics, or the hubbub of metropolitan flair.
But the Canadian Prairies are so much more than that, and seeing this landscape amidst the fall harvest puts it in a new light. Leaving Calgary on the new ring road takes us quickly away from the city, and we enter the countryside. Our destination is Mantario, Saskatchewan. A bleep on the radar, population (2011) is 5, yet it has its own Wikipedia page. We immediately taste the prairie landscape as we travel the lesser highways and appreciate the blue sky, populated with sheep-clouds as a reference point. Soon, we encounter massive farms, Hutterite operations with silver silos that twinkle in the sunshine. Before we reach our first stop, Drumheller, we pull over. With the window rolled down, I ask two farmers who are chatting, undoubtedly, about the best harvest in the history of mankind, in the middle of nowhere, leaning against their big trucks. “Is there a McDonald’s around here?” They laugh, and appreciate the joke and point us toward Drumheller, the last chance for gas, and the burly man jokes, “there’s a McDonald’s, a Tim Horton’s.”
Despite arguing against it, most of us are affected, afflicted, and impacted by the internet and its child prodigy: Social Media. Even those who sneer at Social Media with disdain and refuse to surf the gigantic internet waves championed by AI forces, must submit that technology is a revolutionary tool destined to stay and there is no escape. Refute technology and progress if you will, but humanity is attached to the sticky substance of the web and is entrapped in the process. Blindly, yet willfully, we are maneuvered like puppets, and our shallow lives are starting to resemble those of Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984.
On the other side of our device’s screen, be it an Apple, or Google, or Smartphone, or Microsoft, someone is commanding how we think, move, shop, vote, eat and even decide how we inform ourselves. And those conglomerates aren’t in it for the good of humanity. It’s a business, first and foremost, that wants a piece of our money and even our soul. Every contingent of our lives is ruled by the wide-reaching net called the World Wide Web (WWW).
Last summer, I had the pleasure of experiencing three wonderful months living in England, and, I adored every day and every minute experience with Britain’s friendly people. But there was one minor interaction that puzzled me. The question: You alright? (often followed with dear) insert favorite British accent here.
My first instinct was to check myself? Do I look ill? Is there something on my face? Am I covered in blood? But it turns out it is just their quaint phrasing of, How are you?
Frankly, it’s surprising. Since the beginning of time, some version of ‘people’ has been roaming this extraordinary planet. Estimate for human existence is at roughly 3.2 million years old, subject for an everchanging debate, yet, the question of what to eat, when to eat, or how to eat is still on the table—untouched. Is the answer lost in the fact that people have been roaming for so long that they misplaced the original instruction manual and became complacent? While eating is a complex issue, it doesn’t have to be.
What is fascinating is that as people, passion for food literally consumes them. They want to prepare it, share it, ‘you must eat something,’ and it ties them socially into a fabric; each culture weaves their own pattern. It’s the one common thread they can agree to, even if the question of what sort of culinary delight tangles the weaver.
For this article’s intent, let’s glimpse our North American and European eating habits. Many cultures exist which still consume a diet closely related to their ancestral roots. This is not about vegetarianism, veganism, keto, paleo, Atkins, or the many other so-called best diet regimes. This is speaking in terms of culture and ancestry. It’s no secret that people have conflicting theories on this continent about diet, exercising in correlation to health. If people ate what was suggested, …well, it explains the state of their health reflected in their bodies. Confusion is rampant. What should they put into their mouths?
Clasping his grandson’s small hand, Pierre led the way around the soft bend in the lane, around the outcropping of trees rustling in the breeze, and away from the Sunday church crowd, gathered on a picturesque Normandy landscape.
“There,” he pointed.
He watched his grandson strain on his tippy-toes to find the marker in the green field that had been embedded not in the soil, but Pierre’s memory. Pierre’s eyes glistened, as always, he had just stepped backward in time to July 13, 1944, a day tattooed with the ink of blood in his mind. He lifted the child in his arms, held him close, and inconspicuously wiped his tears. The boy didn’t need to see that.
“I was standing right about here,” Pierre spun them around, “when the airplane fell from the sky. A plume of black smoke spiraled across the sky. We’d been listening to the dogfight among the clouds. It was hot that day, and I hoped that any second the pilot would bring the nose up and land safely in the field.”
Jack Spencer made a fatal mistake. One that landed him in the Pacific, literally without a paddle. As he struggles to survive the elements that the perilous blue throws at him, Jack comes to terms with the truth. He’s guilty. The most prevalent mistake: an affair with the woman about to marry his best friend. But does the punishment of being set adrift on the ocean warrant the crime? Only he can answer, only one person can save him.
As soon as Myra Spencer reaches Hawaii, her senses shift into overdrive. Her son, Jack, is missing. But everyone downplays his vanishing act and evades the truth. Hints suggest too much of a good thing as rumors of a mysterious beauty surface followed by copious amounts of booze before a wedding that will never take place. But as his mother, Myra knows better. Jack’s in trouble. Only she has no way to prove it—other than the suspicions her heart dictates.
Dumbfounded, Kai Hale holds the paddle belonging to his missing canoe in hand. The canoe is his lifeline to make amends with mounting debt. Slowly Kai’s life collides with the Spencers, and the reality of Jack’s disappearance is tied to his canoe.
But why? That is the question everyone is desperate to answer.
What Jack can’t know is that he’s on course with destiny. A path that leads him to an island and people who await his arrival. An island not charted on anyone’s map. The truth changes everything.
( What Jack can’t know is that someone close to him is out for revenge.)
Whenever Emmerson entered, a perceptible shift occurred in the room’s atmosphere. He was used to it. But after all those years, the gasping and staring still made him uncomfortable.
He dreaded those small gasps that intruded on conversations and hung in the air or when people stopped and stared without wanting to be caught. The chilling hush. It had been happening since he was a small child. And as bad as the attention was, it was worse when they reached out to touch him without permission.
“How’s it going?” Emmerson set his refillable mug on the counter.
“Good. You Em?”
Dorothy no longer saw him as he was. She saw him as a young man with ambition, good manners, and dreams of being like everyone else. With her back turned to him, she slipped a few extra mini-donuts into the box. It was her only way of saying she cared for him without making an embarrassing fuss.
“Great. Nice weather. Finally.”
Emmerson smiled and set his client card on the counter for Dorothy to stamp. Behind him, he felt a person invading his space. To others, it may seem imperceptible, but it made him apprehensive. It was too close for his liking, so he stepped aside, trying not to be rude or cause a commotion.
“Well, you get out there and enjoy that sunshine.” Dorothy shot a defiant glare at the person standing behind him.
Emmerson gave Dorothy a small wave, took his coffee and box of donuts, and left. He wasn’t the sort who could sit in the local coffee shop. He learned long ago that it ruined everyone’s day. And when he took his coat off—their appetite. Well, and it actually ruffled his feathers. Back out under the sunshine, he strolled toward the river. A few years ago, an old log washed ashore during the last flood and remained stranded on the bank. It served as a bench and as his sanctuary. He spent his lunch hour there, weather permitting, and watched the sun reflect on the waves. A place where waterfowl dived and plodded along to entertain him. Next to the river, any body of water, he felt at peace.
He took his sandwich out and set it on his lap. Sometimes the geese and ducks teased him into sharing, but he knew that bread wasn’t part of their natural diet. And like him, they had to learn not to rely on people. It was best that way, even if sometimes the loneliness eased its way in and made him feel hopeless. At least he had his parents, and siblings, and a faithful dog who adored him—just as he was.
On the far bank, Emmerson watched a solitary swan glide on the current. Drawn to its elegant neck, graceful disposition, and beauty among beauties, he wished he could paint. From this vantage point, it was difficult to determine if it was male or female, only that it swam without a partner while the other waterfowl paired off. He felt an overwhelming affinity toward the swan.
“Mind if I join you?” The woman behind him asked.
He’d been so intent on watching the swan he hadn’t heard the footsteps on the path and missed seeing the shadow approach. A warning that the sun was intent on sharing, only he’d been so entranced by the swan that he missed seeing the elongated shadow cast over him.
Emmerson rose. “It’s all yours.” He was used to moving out of the way for people. It was best to be compliant and move on. Long ago, he was forced to stop caring; people seldom had the best intentions when approaching him.
“No! Please. Don’t. It was rude of me.”
“It’s fine.” Emmerson avoided eye contact. He saw she wore Dr. Martens, in vegan red, the same as his, and polished to a mirror shine.
Emmerson gathered his lunch bag, donuts, and his coat. He knew the woman was staring but couldn’t force himself to look in her direction. People couldn’t hide the shock taking up residence on their faces. It surprised him that some were adept at poker, as most could never hide their revulsion.
“Please.” She took a step closer. “I.” She stammered. “I’m sorry.”
It was the sincerity in her tone of voice that made Emmerson turn. Sometimes people mistakenly believed he had the power to heal. Hell, he couldn’t even heal himself, he always said. But what he saw surprised him. The woman slowly unfolded herself from her trench coat though it did a poor job concealing her disfigurement.
“It happened to you too? When?” For the first time, Emmerson desired to reach out and touch someone.
“About a year ago. In college.”
The woman was Emmerson’s junior by a decade. He had lived with his condition since he was a small boy. Not that he ever fully adapted, but he got used to it to some degree. It wasn’t difficult to see that she hadn’t.
“Sit.” Emmerson gestured to the log.
“How do you stand it? The staring. The rude comments? The incessant prodding by doctors?”
Emmerson understood, although the only prodding that happened now was when he had his yearly physical. And there were more uncomfortable methods of prodding than the pinprick of drawing blood, and spit to analyze his DNA.
“I admit. It’s not easy. How’d you find me?”
“Internet. You were the one closest to me distance-wise. I’m desperate.”
“I have no insight to share other than to hang on. What about your family?”
“They’re completely freaked out. There’s a lawsuit, but I’m not sure I can stand being dragged through the wringer.” Susan dared to look into Emmerson’s eyes. They were pale gray and sad, yet as beautiful as he–at least to her.
“I understand. It won’t help. But your family needs to feel that they are doing something to help you. It’s the only thing they have.”
She nodded. A tear splashed onto her lap, wetting her beige coat. Across the river, the swan spread its wing; it honked at a passing goose.
“What’s your name? I’m Emmerson.”
“Susan Watkins.” She held out her hand and, for the first time, allowed herself to smile.
“Being seen together is only going to make it worse.” Emmerson folded over his knees and clasped his hands. “People. You know how they are.”
“I’m just so lonely. I want answers. Now that the pain has diminished, I want to move on; or die. Every day I fight for one or the other.” Susan mimicked Emmerson’s pose.
“You have to find that one thing that means something to you.”
“I suppose I could go back to my music. What’s your thing? What motivates you to hang on?” Susan dabbed the tears with a crumpled tissue.
“Nature. Wildlife. My family.” Emmerson looked up and saw the swan vanish among the low-hanging branches on the river bank.
“I read you were very young when it happened. Is it true?”
“Yes. Maybe that made it easier. On me. Probably not my parents. I remember spending months and months in and out of the hospital. So many doctors. Men in suits. There was pain.”
“The legal costs must have been something. To take on such a conglomerate. My lawyer advised it would bankrupt my family for decades.” Susan let out a long sigh; the stress of it seemed insurmountable.
“Yes. We’re still paying off the debt. Another reason I can’t check out. At least by working, I help with the bills.”
“But isn’t it gross selling yourself like that?”
Susan hadn’t meant to imply prostituting himself. She’d been offered a job at a strip club for men with fetishes. The money they offered was incredible. But she just couldn’t. It was bad enough. And she respected that Emmerson had taken on a job at the local zoo.
Emmerson let out a long exhale too. He asked himself the same question, yet he had the right to make money—by any means. In the end, exposing himself was easy money. But he had negotiated that part of the profits he earned for the zoo would go back into building the best environment for the animals he had learned to love and respect.
“I can lie and say it gets easier. But I’ve come to terms with how I am. The name-calling, well, that’s still hurtful. Some people try to be compassionate, yet they don’t get it. And what’s worse, they don’t listen. They want to know what happened to me and how it happened, but they still spend over three-hundred-million dollars a year on the product that did this to me. To us.”
Emmerson braved a glance at Susan’s lovely profile. If it weren’t for the disfigurement, she’d be the sort of young woman men would dream of.
“It’s disgusting. I know. But is there nothing?”
“No recourse. It says so clearly on the can. Their slogan says it all.”
“It’s what my lawyer pointed out too. We don’t stand a chance. He said it’s clearer than the warning on cigarette packages,” Susan said, staring at the river.
“True. We’re living proof. For me, the biggest insult came when they offered to pay me thousands to appear in their ad. I guess they finally found one of us.” Emmerson snorted with disgust.
“But who would have believed it? My friends in college drank it by the case. It didn’t work on them.”
“I only drank half a can. Left on the coffee table by my father. He worked nights, then. The guilt is forever imprinted on his face.”
Emmerson pointed across the river, and Susan’s gaze followed. The swan had reappeared, and a mate joined him, protectively swimming behind six gray cygnets. Emmerson noticed Susan’s smile; he smiled too.
“Sad. We’ve got nothing to go on. The truth won’t set us free. Red Bull gives you wings.” Susan stiffened her spine. She hadn’t felt so hopeful in a long time.
When I first saw Puppycito, it didn’t take a veterinary degree to recognize the signs that his past involved pain. He was broken in more ways than one. His hips weren’t entirely aligned and sloped unnaturally, causing him to limp. He was thin, but his coat was healthy and jet-black. His smile and demeanor said, hey, may I stay awhile, always wagging his tail.
The name Puppycito was a temporary marker while trying to come up with a suitable name; perhaps I still believed in happy endings and a family reunion. Several names popped into my head while observing. Clown and Goofy were two contenders that crossed my mind when he joined us for our morning and evening walks. He was rambunctious and bounced like the happiest dog in the world. Because of his hip injury, his gangly legs often failed to work in unison. However, he had adapted to his situation.
But those names didn’t quite suit him either. Besides, Puppycito didn’t seem to speak any English. In Spanish, people add the ending cito or ito to a word to attach a term of endearment or size. It means little or bears the nuance of affection. Essentially, Puppycito meant little puppy or dear puppy.
My husband and I are traveling house and pet sitters. During this stay, we were caring for a gorgeous home in Mexico. Two adorable cats and two little dogs, Chuy and Honey, who accepted Puppycito into their midst.
Puppycito whimpered whenever he saw us coming out the gate and bounding to meet us. We already knew of his existence from our clients. He was a new stray in their neighborhood. They’ve offered him food, which he didn’t care for because what self-respecting stray eats plain kibble? He preferred a meat and human trash diet. My instructions were to feed and water him when I could, which I would regardless, I’d never deny a dog a meal.
After a few weeks, it became apparent that Puppycito didn’t have a permanent home. Even after a lost and found photo of him was posted on Facebook, no one came to claim him.
I jokingly named him Steve’s Dog for a while, hoping that the neighbor who lived up the road, named Steve, who didn’t have a dog, would open his heart to Puppycito. Sadly, there are thousands of stray dogs—pick one. It’s easy to find one to shower with mercy and kindness. Sometimes they find you.
During the day, Puppycito enjoyed hanging out with the young couple living at the corner lot. They had a beautiful and docile black lab, Jake, that accepted Puppycito as a companion. One bark from Jake and Puppycito would gallop across the field to answer the command. This behavior exhibited his first sign of absolute loyalty and attachment.
I continued to feed Puppycito twice a day, sometimes having to scour the thick weeds in the ditch for the dog bowl. Puppycito enjoyed take-out food and would carry his food to his other home. Life with dogs has taught me a few tricks to entice a stray to eat. He’d eat the quality, good-for-him kibble by adding an egg or a bit of raw food. It was a sure way into Puppycito’s heart, closely linked to his stomach. I may not have spoken Spanish well, but I am well-versed in speaking dog.
We formed a natural trust by encouraging Puppycito to walk with us and feeding him regular meals. He allowed me to pet him, respecting that he didn’t like fast movements or aggressive gestures. His confidence regarding most men was fragile, yet over time he learned to embrace them too, but at a distance.
Eventually, I was able to put a leash on him. When I tested our bond and trust boundaries, Puppycito again surpassed my expectations and heeled better than most dogs. He was full of surprises.
But the truest test of his loyalty came one morning while I was walking Honey and Chuy as I had done twice a day without fail. I knew which yard had dogs; I respected that. But this was also where I failed.
Before I realized my judgment error, this usually locked gate was wide open. A huge dog came barreling toward us. When my thoughts and reason argued within that tiny window, I mistakenly believed that we were safe since there were people in the yard.
I was very wrong.
This dog had it in for us. He lunged after Honey, a sweet, timid rescue dog, and was about to sink his fangs into her neck. Like a superhero, Puppycito flew into our midst, bounced the dog off Honey, and toppled him into the ditch. There was no hesitation.
While everything happened in slow motion, it happened with a lightning intensity that is difficult to explain. I know I yelled; I can still hear the echoes of my voice rising in panic. There was a chorus of barks, snarls, yips, and white fangs, and my voice yelling, no!
Puppycito put the dog in its place without drawing blood. He was so cool about it, like it wasn’t a big deal. He showed that dog he was the alpha on the block, and to dominate, one didn’t have to be a jerk about it. Honey wasn’t injured because Puppycito protected us with his unwavering loyalty.
The memory of his courageous behavior still brings tears to my eyes. He never hesitated. He put us, his new pack, first. I still see the images like miniature movies rolling in my mind. There was no doubt in Puppycito’s mind that his job was to guard us.
He still whimpers when he sees us. He enjoys a gentle pat on his head. His English hasn’t improved much. One night, he rolled over and let me pet his belly while eating his evening meal in our yard.
Regardless of what happens when the young couple moves away, if they take Puppycito, he will have a permanent home at this hacienda. A place in our hearts remains reserved for him.
He’s a great canine friend. He’ll remain our Spanish Angelito.
I couldn’t believe it. But there he was, the handsome man I had met on the train in Germany three years earlier. I stood motionless as a still portrait of his attractive face was broadcast on the television. I know I stared, my mouth was surely agape; the mug in my hand crashed unceremoniously to the tile floor sending the dog scampering.
When I met him, he was eating a tomato and cheese sandwich. Such a strange little fact to remember, yet when I thought of him over the last three years, two things stood out for me, and the sandwich was one of them.
I was on my way that day from Frankfurt to Linz, Austria. My visit to Germany that year taught me that Germans keep a pretty good secret. I would be foolish and even reckless to share it on such a public forum. Revealing what I learned would change everything.
But that morning, as I stared at the television, the anchor’s lip rushing, eager to share the tantalizing tidbits somewhat confused and intermingled with opinion and fact made me relive my German experience.
His name, they said, was Jacob Braun. He was thirty-six, an influential architect from Bonn.
On the train on that June day, I sat in the wrong seat, in the wrong carriage, and potentially even at the wrong time. Coming from Canada, I learned all about the importance of the railways that built the country. My grade eight geography teacher had bored me to death with RR2 this and the CPR and CNR that, that no teenager would ever find interesting. He didn’t teach us how to navigate the system, only the tedious elements that forty years later weren’t helping me find my way through the network of train lingo and fast moving stations.
In Canada, people associate the train with the past. Too bad for those hardworking individuals who devoted their lives to laying track and dying for the economy’s advancement and prosperity. In Canada, people drive everywhere. Only those who live in major urban centers rely on some type of train or subway service. Cars and trucks dominate our transport system. A scenic train journey is for people who can afford the opulence of chugging across the vast terrain on a Via Rail vacation.
In Europe, people rely on the train. I envy them the luxury of traveling to their destination in style and never having to find a parking spot; never mind parallel parking which is on the driver’s test but infrequently used. Traveling by train is second nature to Europeans. Thinking of the incident, I remember another particularly striking feature of the man. He had beautiful hands. The sort men who play the piano should have. His digits were long and slender. Each nailbed had a distinct lunula showing, and his cuticles were healthy and pink. He wasn’t the sort of man who got his fingers dirty. Riding the train can be such an intimate experience because you can’t escape the proximity of other patrons regardless how you try to hide behind the cover of a book, earbuds, or staring rudely out the window.
Because I travel frequently, I speak with many people, sometimes poorly in foreign languages, I can’t quite grasp. My train partner was highly educated. I sensed that from our short conversation and his mannerism. His impeccable English, even though it was laced with the typical German accent and lyrical lilt, suggested a worldly education.
I had just finished my sojourn to Germany, visiting many villages and cities reachable by efficient train links. In Darmstadt, I toured my first Hundertwasser building and became fascinated by Germany’s beautiful and serene parks.
While Germans understand structural elements as is so evident in cities like Wiesbaden, Bremen, and Leipzig, their parks charmed me the most. Parks in Germany reflect nature. Somehow those landscape architects found the true meaning of balance between serenity and nature. God couldn’t have done it better.
Reserved as they seem to strangers, Germans keep the secret of their beautiful country to themselves. Jacob kept his secret as he conversed with me and smiled. Guarding his secret, which, as the news was spelling out, went unnoticed for nearly a decade.
During the lulls in our conversation that morning, I looked out the passing scenery, and flashes of lush greenery from perfectly manicured clover, wheat, corn, and beet fields zoomed past my periphery.
I remember being nervous. Shifting nervously, thinking the train conductor would usher me unceremoniously from the carriage, I must have talked too much.
Although my German has deteriorated, I still understand the basics. Jacob was reading Die Welt, a popular news magazine. The front cover captured a series of photographs of missing women. Grainy images of women loved by family desperately searching for their whereabouts and clinging to that deceitful monster called Hope. I couldn’t say for sure, but there were at least twelve squares with portrait faces of young women. Vermist! Like people on our Canadian milk cartons, each missing German person had a name and a family desperate for answers. I couldn’t help them then.
Jacob, I remember, exited at Regensburg. A beautiful city that most tourists have never heard of. Yet, it’s so charming with its medieval core, its surviving 12th Century stone bridge, and intersected by the blue Danube that Strauss made famous with his waltz serenade.
Enough already. I knew Jacob had boarded the train in Bonn from my short interlude. He said so. And since it was the weekend, he was making his weekly trip to Regensburg. I didn’t know the importance of the statement until I saw Jacob on the news.
Jacob smiled at me as he alighted the train, his suitcase wheeled behind him. I’m an observer. A bit of advice to my family, friends, or even strangers within my proximity. I see you. I notice intimate details that will eventually give you away.
The newsfeed had switched to a courthouse staircase. Jacob’s lawyer faced a hundred microphones and recorders shoved in his direction. Nicht schuldig. Der falsche Mann.
Of course, Jacob was innocent. Of course, the police arrested the wrong man. In some lecture hall, the world over, attorneys must practice that phrase repeatedly until they sound authentic. I once abhorred defense lawyers. I couldn’t grasp their rationale for defending criminals. I’ve since learned that we wouldn’t have rights and laws without them. I believe in justice and truth, though both are not always swift and dutiful. What else would we do instead?
The lawyer was a stout man wearing a fine suit. He had a polished look about him and a seriousness that suggested his client was as innocent as he claimed. He barked into the microphones, “nicht schuldig!” to every question and accusation.
I learned many things about train travel in Europe. Train travel is an elegant way to cross from one country to the next. I learned the word alight.
When the automated voice announced the word, “watch your step as you alight from the train,” I assumed something got lost in translation. But alight really just means getting off a means of transport. It means get off or come down. A lovely word that doesn’t quite capture what happens as a person exits a train dragging an oversized suitcase like Jacob did that morning in Regensburg.
Jacob smiled at me once more before he alighted, and I waved. I wondered what on earth he could be dragging in that cumbersome luggage. I speculated he transported exotic antiques or religious artifacts and architectural salvage to decorate his apartment. As I mused over what sort of apartment a man like Jacob would own in Regensburg, I formed a detailed character sketch. He was a modern man, yet I sensed he’d choose an apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows, the shutters spread open, and a breeze billowing in the sheer drapes. The apartment would have to be renovated but with the original charm intact. It would be just off the downtown core, in a warren of narrow passages and cobblestone streets. There’d be no elevator, and Jacob would manhandle the luggage to the top floor.
I pictured an exposed wall, the original brick, and beams setting the theme. The kitchen would be ultra-modern and small. The washing machine built into the bank of cabinets as Europeans do and which always horrifies American and Canadian tourists on all those international travel shows. A washing machine in the kitchen is where audacity and practicality meet ignorance.
As the train pulled from the station, I saw Jacob weaving his luggage through the crowd and terminal. A few pigeons scattered and parted the way for him. I’m pretty sure he no longer thought about me.
For the next hour, I created a life for Jacob. I made assumptions and was right on one account. Jacob was notoriously meticulous. While I pictured him in his make-believe apartment, I assumed Jacob decorated tastefully with high-ticket items, like the marble bust of Beethoven or Mozart, a crystal glass bowl in liquid shades of blue. A landscape painted by an acquaintance with talent. Jacob wasn’t the sort who decorated with trash bought off the internet.
He’d keep his shoes in a row, polished as leather should be, the warm scent wafting in the room whenever he opened the antique armoire that housed his wool jackets, his leather shoes, and the umbrella with the carved handle. Every detail about Jacob was exactly like the knit in his merino wool socks and cashmere sweater he wore that day.
His girlfriend would be tall, lanky, and athletic. She’d have poker-straight hair like she had grown and styled since she was young. She’d gather her blonde strands into a ponytail whenever she got down and dirty to sprint in the park. It would bounce with each stride. I think I called her Giselle, or Gaby, then changed her name to Nina. She had the sort of complexion that tanned easily; she had a permanent healthful glow and no wrinkles in sight, although she was a year or two older than Jacob.
Nina would joke about having children. Secretly she didn’t want any because, like Jacob, she preferred order over chaos. She had a shrill authoritarian laugh and a direct way of speaking to people, making them feel vulnerable with no place to hide. She worked in finance. Numbers were her thing, and she could understand and debate complex topics.
On her nightstand, she kept a few copies of the works by Schiller, Nietzsche, and Goethe. She didn’t read modern fiction and deplored romance novels and films.
If Nina had a weakness, it was her inability to resist chocolate. She hid bite-sized bits of Suchard and Lindt in the kitchen and her coat pockets. Although there is no shame in liking chocolate, Nina thought it was her Achilles Heel. She didn’t want anyone to know, especially Jacob.
Jacob knew about Nina’s secret addiction. He found it intriguing that she would go to such lengths to hide this secret. Nina didn’t live at the apartment; she only came for weekends. She owned an ultramodern home that her parents built for her. It was all glass, steel, and white with sharp corners, hygienic tiles, and futuristic furniture imported from Sweden.
I didn’t like Nina. She was the sort of woman who made me insecure with her stallion-like beauty. We had nothing in common. I didn’t like math at all. But I wanted Jacob to be happy.
Jacob wanted to have children eventually. A boy or girl. It didn’t matter to him as long as they were healthy and miniature replicas of himself and Nina. Jacob found Nina fascinating. He’d never met a woman who was so intelligent and confident. Nina knew it all and believed that knowledge was a permanent condition. Jacob would watch her over the rim of a book and mused secretly that Nina, though seemingly perfect, had a giant flaw. She was blind. Blind to her ignorance and impeded vision of life. It’s why he kept her around. He wasn’t so much in love with her beauty, but with that giant fissure that exposed her for what she was once you got up close and personal. She was a snob.
When the train reached Passau, I had to show my credentials to the border security who boarded the train. He wasn’t interested in my Canadian passport. He seemed to be looking for someone. A refugee or illegal.
I slowly stored Jacob away in my memory bank for safekeeping. The last time I saw Jacob, he opened the door to his apartment and felt content to have reached his destination. He slipped off his shoes, stripped his garments, and folded them neatly into the hamper. He wanted a hot shower before Nina arrived. He left the suitcase in the hallway. He poured himself a glass of merlot and sat barefoot on the Bauhaus chair facing the street and sinking sun. His stomach rumbled, thinking about dinner.
As the news ticker spun across the bottom below the anchor, a series of faces populated the screen. It’s when I recognized Nina. Every single face had a classic symmetry. Pale skin, long blonde hair, startling eyes lined to accentuate their iris, and keenness on their brow.
Those women in the picture had something else in common. They were missing. They had vanished from their ordinary lives without a hint of where they were hiding. Their missing date ranged from six years ago to one month ago. I dug into the information about the case available on the internet.
With trepidation, I returned to my travel log and confirmed the date. The day Sabine Hofer didn’t show up for work, missed her lunch date with her girlfriends, and hadn’t been seen since coincided with the date on my ticket stub.
In my pathetic German, I explained what I witnessed on the day to the agent taking my call on the tipline. It’s circumstantial, he told me.
The police released a few details, like the remnants of a tomato and cheese sandwich and track marks on the carpet from a large suitcase. There was no DNa.
None of the women came from the same city. Their last whereabouts became pin marks on a map that followed the train line in a country that is breathtaking and perhaps the tourist industry’s biggest secret.
Despite my keen sense of observation, I had sat across from a serial killer, and I found him charming.
Loud Muzak played familiar ‘surfin’ music’ Rose recognized yet found inappropriate, considering near-blizzard conditions enveloped the village like the inside of a snow globe. Rose knew she shouldn’t have driven on the icy roads despite only living three minutes away by car; she had made a rash decision. But she needed a packet of vanilla beans, confectioner’s sugar, and that something else she was now cruising the aisles for but couldn’t remember.
“You need help?” A lanky store clerk asked Rose as she passed him yet again.
“Yes, it would be great if you could tell me what else is on my list.” She laughed. The clerk had heard that same line perhaps a hundred times.
She had made a list. On the advice of well-meaning family and friends, her house looked like a Post-it-Note factory that exploded and dotted the landscape of every surface.
Take your thyroid pills.
Water the plants.
Don’t touch the thermostat.
Don’t leave the stove on.
Your keys are in the bowl in the foyer.
It was true. She had difficulty remembering. It was normal. Everyone said. It was part of the grieving process. She would recover. She was too young for something more serious, like dementia; she wasn’t even sixty yet.
Lists. Yes. Rose made lists. She made a list of what she wanted to accomplish and what she had to finish. Her daughter Meghan had brought an assortment of cute packages of Post-it-Notes, and a litter of colored squares decorated her fridge, kitchen counter, and bedside table.
The little lists helped with the daily tasks, but they didn’t replace the giant void in her heart, and Rose dreaded the thought of her memory vanishing completely.
Yet, here she was loitering in the grocery store aisle, looking for that last item on the list that tormented her memory because she hadn’t remembered to bring the list.
How’s that for irony? She thought.
Most of the aisles had thinned out; there were only a handful of others desperately looking for that thing they couldn’t find. Rose didn’t think the man in the produce aisle was really looking for a kumquat or shallots; he was looking for conversation even if it was meaningless as “some weather!”
Rose had already given him that small token and a smile. It’s all she had to offer.
While scanning the shelving in the bakery aisle, she tried to find the clue that would trigger an avalanche of words that may guide her to that singular item she could visualize written on the bottom of her list, yet couldn’t read. She did a mental checklist: shortbreads, vanilla crescents, Linzer jam cookies, palmiers, cannoli, kolaches, meringue, and coconut macaroons. She’d been baking this European menu of cookies since she was young.
She had the essential ingredients, as any decent baker would, in the pantry. However, without that last elusive ingredient, her foray into her baking endeavor, if the weather forecast held, could end before she even got started.
She had taken the chance to leave the house when the storm granted the neighborhood a five-minute window. The idea to go came out of nowhere because Rose thrived on giving her home-baked cookies to friends and even strangers who would enjoy them. This little gratification went a long way to suppressing her feelings of loneliness and worry. It didn’t always pan out.
Since Mike died, the house had become too much. She could manage the inside, but the yard and the long circular sidewalk that bent around her house like an elbow was a bitch to shovel. Mr. Chapman helped when he could, but he had other battles. Rose hated that sidewalk; in summer, she hated the sloped lawn.
Standing in the baking aisle, she picked up a few tubes of sprinkles, miniature silver balls, and tiny white snowflakes. She added them to her basket, although the price was ridiculous. And she knew they weren’t what she came for.
That elusive item tickled her brain and ran away with the secret in a game of hide-and-seek, and she was losing more often than winning. And for the kicker, her memory played that other game of peekaboo at the most inappropriate moments. Of course, Rose kept that secret under wraps.
The forgetting didn’t exactly happen as she always thought it would happen. It wasn’t orderly how she usually liked to do things. It was random, without rhyme or reason, but always elusive.
Well-meaning people assured her: everyone forgets stuff. Who hadn’t scratched their head wondering where they put their keys, where they hid those important papers, people’s names, or that convenient lie: oh, I forgot to call, to pay the bill, to send a thank-you note. It was a side effect of living. They suggested she find humor in every situation.
And Rose knew that forgetting always lurked on the other side of remembering.
However, this forgetting was never as convenient as that. This forgetting habit played tricks. Rose forgot to eat. She forgot what program she was watching a minute ago. She forgot words and names. Common words. The names of family members. She arrived in places and didn’t know how she got there. What was worse, she was aware that these out-of-place moments were becoming a repeating occurrence.
It also happened with her dreams. Although her doctor tried to appease her, Dr. Halat said that forgetting her dreams wasn’t part of any diagnosis, yet it bothered Rose more than anything. She’d always been a vivid dreamer, so vivid that some mornings she spun herself deeper into the delicious web of the dream after she woke. Within her dreams, she felt so in tune with her world. Sometimes the images in her dreams were a confusing sequence of pets she once loved and a basket of distorted memories she took comfort in them. She resented that forgetting also robbed her of secretly meeting Mike in her dreams, yet these dreams also introduced her to people she had never met. Characters whose features she could see down to the moles on their upper lip and recognize the sound of their voices. As if a stranger visited her in her dreams. After Mike died, she didn’t sleep well for a long time. It disrupted her pattern—her doctor said. It would take time—her doctor said.
One morning a few months ago, she woke with the distinct impression that she had had a powerful dream. But when she transitioned from sleep to waking, the dream lagged. All that day, she felt the residual of dreaming and could hear the laughter and feel the sensation as if the dream was on the other side of the wall. Only she couldn’t pass through the door.
At first, it was a one-off. Like her doctor said, dreaming returned, and Rose took comfort in that. Then the memory lapses happened more frequently, and she googled the symptoms of dementia. Disappointed with her search, the top sites from the leading medical authorities listed cookie-cutter symptoms—a regurgitated list of ten signs.
Her doctor chided her for self-diagnosis, which irked Rose. If the NHS, the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and the John Hopkins Clinics all invested in broadcasting medical advice on the internet, didn’t that substantiate the facts?
Rose merely twirled her thumbs and said nothing when her doctor told her not to worry. Yet, here she was in the grocery store looking for that thing she couldn’t remember. The more Rose strained to see the list she could picture on the kitchen counter, the more convinced she became she had onset dementia.
“You alright then?” A plump check-out girl tidying the front checkout asked with a courteous smile. It’s when Rose noticed she was the last customer. The light outside had transitioned into that nebulous white where snow glare and dimness uncomfortably meet and become indistinguishable from each other.
“Are you closing?” Rose suddenly became aware that the Muzak had stopped. Quietude replaced the incessant noise from cash registers chiming and clacking, or whatever the noise cash register made.
“Yes. The storm. We’re closing early so everyone can get home .safely.”
“Okay then. I’ll pay for my things.” Rose smiled and pushed her cart toward the checkout. Outside, the snow formed soft dunes on top of the few cars remaining in the parking lot.
“Sorry. It’s really coming down out there. Lost track of time.”
“That’s alright. We’ll get you on your way.” The check-out girl faked compassion and put the few items into Rose’s cloth bag.
The door silently swished closed behind her; Rose pulled up her collar and ducked deeper into her coat. She couldn’t remember where she had parked, but she concluded the grey Honda was hers since there were only four cars. It had the least amount of snow and was parked closer than the others. She deduced that employees always got shitty parking spots.
She rummaged in her purse for the fob and cut herself on a piece of paper; she should have kept her leather gloves on. A red drop of blood surfaced, and she fished out a tissue to stop the bleeding and walked toward the Honda; clicked the auto start and door locks, and threw her purse and shopping bag onto the passenger seat. It was a slight cut, but it stung.
The wiper cleaned most of the snow from the windshield, and her breath fogged the inside of the windows. Rose shivered in unison with the dropping temperature. Snow grumbled beneath her tires; the snow made it impossible to see where the parking lot ended, and the street began. She relied on instinct. Luckily, she only lived a few blocks away down the road. She looked forward to a piping cup of tea; a blanket draped over her knees while looking through the cookbooks to refresh her memory of which cookies to bake first. And more importantly, figure out how to cope with the missing item on her list.
Her speedometer said she was doing ten miles per hour; she couldn’t get much traction because beneath the snow lay a slippery layer of ice she now remembered had been an icy drizzle that morning before it turned to snow.
A car stuck in a deep drift blocked her street, so she had to keep going straight and backtrack up the laneway that separated the last block she lived on from the small wood but gave everyone on her street access to a garage and stored everyone’s whatnots. Except for Mike, he imported the habit to park in the garage from Canada, although he had to wiggle himself in and out of the car as there wasn’t enough room to open the car door properly.
Driving through the storm, she could barely see the houses. Snow dunes formed on people’s lawns—people she should have known because they were neighbors yet couldn’t remember their names. She concentrated on cutting a swath through the deepening snow, her hands knuckling the steering wheel like when she was sixteen and learning how to drive while her father yelled instructions at her and braced himself for impact.
“Eyes on the road!” She could hear his voice and the frustration that he’d rather be at The White Elephant on a Saturday afternoon with his friends than his teenage daughter, who couldn’t tell the clutch from the brake.
Rose awkwardly parked her car in the lane, ten feet away from her own garage, because a drift created a natural barrier like a dune in the Mojave desert. She reached for her belongings, pulled the collar up once more, and left deep prints in the snow, the walls of snow collapsing into her ankle-height boots and melting against her thin stockings.
Rose used the fence to steady herself and propel her along when she stepped on a shovel buried in the snow. The handle sprung upward and punched her in the face with lightning speed, and ignited a spark on impact. If Rose had seen this happen on television, she would have laughed. But the pain was surprising and utterly unexpected.
She lost her balance before she could catch herself and fell face-first against the cement fence post she didn’t feel the collision or her skin tearing against the rough edge. Although she saw a series of sparks like miniature stars in a firework explosion, the flash of intense pain dominated all else, though she wouldn’t remember it later.
Rose landed awkwardly on her side, bracing her fall with her free hand. Speckles of red stained the snow like holes poked in a sieve. She might have passed out from the pain momentarily. She felt the slow crawling of a rivulet of red blood trickle down her face, over her nose, down along her skin until the collar of her turtleneck absorbed most of it. The rest bled into the snow.
Rose kept her eyes closed and summoned the strength to surmount the fire-like pain in her head when she thought she could hear the faint ringing of the telephone inside the house. She had one of those old-fashioned phones because she liked how they looked and how she could cradle the receiver into her neck while talking and cooking. She opened her eyes, and a big fat snowflake landed on her pupil. Instinctively, her eye blinked it away.
She tried to sit up, but the movement sent a burning poker of pain through her head. She fought for strength and prayed that the pain would cease. Undoubtedly, Rose knew she had to get up or crawl toward the gate, use the lethal post to pull herself up and pull the latch. Something she could do in her sleep most days.
Rose talked herself into taking three long breaths before trying to rise again. She was sure now that it was her phone that kept ringing, though, for a split second, she thought the ringing stemmed from the pain. She grimaced when suddenly, she could hear Rusty, her neighbor’s annoying Jack Russell, bark. That meant Mr. Chapman was coming outside to take the dog out for a piss. Small bladder. Rusty barked again and again. She overheard Mr. Chapman say, “Oh, stop it! Just do your thing.”
Rose could hear Mr. Chapman’s frustration; the dog was, after all, the family dog that their teenage kid was supposed to look after but seldom did. She strained to listen, and in between Rusty’s sharp yaps, she mumbled, “Help me! Help!” Only Rusty cut her off each time.
Rose brought her legs closer for warmth, and more snow infiltrated her boots; her one leg was exposed because, during the fall, her slacks had risen to mid-calf. The cold and snow burned her skin like fire, and shifting to pull her slacks down not only hurt her head, it intensified the cold.
One more minute. Rose braced herself for more pain and dug deeper for the strength to rise.
Rusty’s bark changed from annoying yaps to frantic barks and intermittent growls. Mr. Chapman reprimanded the dog, his curt, “shut the fuck up!” billowed through the snowy quietness.
And then the screen door slammed. The distant phone stopped ringing. Rusty barked through the glass, and only a stillness attributed to heavy snowfall accompanied Rose’s breathing. The snowy landscape took on a pale blue hue. A tear rolled over the bridge of her nose and splashed into the snow, burrowing like a worm next to the traces of blood. The annoying ringing in her ear broke the stillness; she heard her pulse emitted like a signal through the snow.
The news would report that it was the worst storm of the century. The snowfall broke records for the accumulated inches and the coldest day on record. Logistics became a nightmare for the number of accidents reported on the highway, injuries related to accidents, insurance claims associated with accidents, and broken water pipes.
Rose opened her eyes; the snow was quickly covering her red coat and black slacks. Her teeth chattered for some time until a warmness spread throughout her body, and she could no longer feel her body. Her blurred vision made everything look like a mirage, and the endless white shimmered like heat set on atmospheric boil. She also remembered the item on her list.
When the snowplow came down the alley, the driver cursed the grey Honda parked at what he called: “a fucking stupid angle.” The car forced him to pass closer to the opposite fence line than he liked, and the blade sent a stream of dirty snow into an arc that left a tall snowbank that someone would eventually have to clear by hand.
When the dull glare of the sun returned for half an hour that late afternoon, Rusty pissed on the mountain of snow. He sniffed the dropped leather glove frozen to the ground. Mr. Chapman lit a cigarette, cupping the flame and checking over his shoulder to ensure spying eyes weren’t watching.
He wondered why on earth Rose had parked her car that way until he saw a small mountain of plowed snow covering her garage door. He wondered if he should offer to shovel the snow; then again, he corrected his thought pattern, she could always ask for help. She has my number.
He stomped with Rusty down the plowed path toward the street that circled back on the sidewalk to the front door of his house. Using the front door would allow him an excuse to slip into the two-piece bath and wash his hands and face with the potent flowery soap and remove traces of his cigarette. He rarely smoked on his street; he waited to get to the park and hide beyond the row of evergreens before quenching the craving.
When he hung his coat up, he said to himself, “it’s getting dark so quickly.”
Later that night, he woke at two o’clock to the sound of ringing. At first, he thought he dreamed the sound, but he distinctly heard the soft ringing as he lay in the stillness. He recognized it as being Rose’s antiquated phone. He considered closing the window, but not with his sleep apnea. Nah, he just couldn’t. Instead, he hoped everything was okay. Only bad news ever came after midnight.
In the morning, he took his cup of coffee to the den. He’d be working from home today; such was the privilege of being the boss. He fired up his laptop and checked on the latest news. As predicted, the snowstorm had left a swath of destruction in its path. Road closures occupied the newscasts.
When the police cruiser pulled up at Rose’s door, he craned his neck. Two officers rang the bell and knocked loudly; one stomped in the deep snow to look inside Rose’s living room window. Mr. Chapman shouldn’t have been so nosy, but he watched the officers shift on their cold feet and wait impatiently.
On second thought, Mr. Chapman rose from his chair and inserted himself into their visit by opening his front door. “Can I help you?” He said while this breath sent plumes of white in their direction.
“Do you know Rose Grimshaw?”
“Of course. She’s lived on this street longer than most. Did something happen to her daughter?”
“No. We’re looking for Rose. Her daughter said she’d been calling all night. No answer, and that her mother wasn’t the sort not to pick up.”
“Her car’s outback. Covered in snow. So she’s got to be home.” Mr. Chapman gestured to the north.
The officer stomped through the high snow toward the gate when Mr. Chapman called him back.
“Come through the house. You won’t get that gate open without a shovel.”
While the officers backtracked through the deep snow, Mr. Chapman slipped on his coat and boots. He waited by the door.
Rusty barked and sniffed the police officers’ legs, but as a dog, he had a solid amount of respect for anyone in uniform, and he behaved. Mr. Chapman led the way out the backdoor; he had already shoveled a path for Rusty. Yellow snow marked the way.
“That’s hers. I think.” Mr. Chapman brushed the snow caked on the license plate away and nodded. “Yup. Snowplow really socked her in.”
“You think she may have gone someplace with someone?”
Mr. Chapman didn’t appreciate how the officer probed and dug into his eyes for an interrogation. Mr. Chapman blinked and looked away.
“Not that I know. She has some friends. But last year or so, she’s been staying home. Lost her husband.”
Rusty peed on the high snowbank; he scratched at the glove frozen in the snow, biting the leathery thumb.
“I guess we need to find a way in. We’ll try the front again. Maybe she is a sound sleeper.”
“She keeps a spare key under the dwarf holding the lantern. In case you need to.” Mr. Chapman didn’t like to divulge this bad habit and had warned Rose several times to find a better hiding spot. Now he felt guilty for knowing where the key was.
“She have any medical issues? That you know of?” The shovel dug around in Mr. Chapman’s eyes again; cops made him uncomfortable.
“No. Never one to complain.”
“Thanks for your help. What’s your name?”
When they entered Mr. Chapman’s house again, Mrs. Chapman rolled her eyes, questioning her husband with unspoken words. She nodded at the officers while pinching her housecoat tightly at her throat.
Mr. Chapman closed the door on the officers and the cold that entered the front door. He explained to his wife that they were concerned about Rose at the behest of Rose’s daughter.
“I’m sure the old bird’s fine. Probably drank herself to sleep or mixed up her meds. You know how old people are.” Mrs. Chapman poured herself a cup of coffee and stared out the window with a blank look on her face.
“When are you going to shovel the driveway?”
“I have work to do. Get your son out of bed. Since he’s not going to school, he might as well make himself useful.”
“Yeah, like he’s gonna listen to me.” Mrs. Chapman turned her back on her husband and plopped a piece of bread into the toaster.
Mr. Chapman sat back in his office chair; his coffee had gone tepid. He saw one officer leave the house, get something from the cruiser, and return a few moments later.
Mr. Chapman decided it was only courtesy to get his coat and boots on again and shovel Rose’s long sidewalk. There was a fat chance his son would do it for nothing. And he didn’t want another confrontation.
He heard the tail-end of the weather forecast; they expected another three inches of snow.
He yanked his woolen snow hat down over his ears and wound the scarf across his lips. Sometimes he resented his son and that lazy attitude.
The patrol car remained parked in the driveway all morning. Mr. Chapman shoveled three times to keep up with the falling snow. He took Rusty for three walks, and three smoke breaks, and debated the independent thoughts of what he would say to his son at the dinner table tonight. They couldn’t let him continue as he was.
At midnight, the snowplow made another pass. Because the driver had a cousin who lived on the street, he also cleared the back laneway again. There was no point in denying that who you knew paid dividends.
The evening news had shown the highlights of the havoc on a loop; every essential service personnel heeded their call of duty. If only his son had such inspirations.
Rose Grimshaw’s latest Facebook imprint made the evening news. A quick and breathless interview with Meghan, Rose’s daughter, asked about her mother’s last whereabouts.
Rusty hadn’t stopped barking all day and evening as officers came and went. Nosy onlookers tried to pump Mr. Chapman for details that he couldn’t answer. Rose Grimshaw competed the following morning with highway and school closures, weather advisories, and stay-at-home warnings.
“Last seen…” Mr. Chapman’s head snapped around, “…at the independent supermarket on Crenshaw Avenue, just before closing. The anchor said, “Rose Grimshaw was last seen wearing a reddish coat, dark slacks, and carrying a cloth shopping bag with flowers on it.”
The news anchor also included that Rose, now classified as missing, seemed dazed. A courtesy interview with a check-out girl added a personal detail. “She wasn’t out of it if you know what I mean, but she was oblivious kinda; she was in our store for about an hour. We asked her several times if she needed help, but she just shook her head. I think she bought some baking stuff.”
Mr. Chapman was confident they had the right Rose. Rose had always been an avid baker, and with Christmas two weeks away, it only made sense. His family always looked forward to the tin of international cookies. But what made little sense was that Rose vanished. Who would harm that demure old lady? Sadly, Mr. Chapman had suspicions about his son, who wasted hours playing games pretending to kill. However, the police let it slip that nothing appeared disturbed or stolen.
Over the last few days, Rusty had barked himself hoarse and was now barking with a winded rasp. Mrs. Chapman talked on the phone with the vet, who advised her to keep the dog calm and secluded and away from the disturbance.
Rusty was now whimpering, scratching, and frantically yipping in the two-piece bath. Mr. Chapman had no doubt that when Rusty ceased the pathetic behavior, he was unraveling the toilet paper or chewing on the toilet brush during those rare intermissions of quiet.
Although Mr. Chapman kept vigilance, Rose’s house remained dark and quiet. As the snow melted on the sidewalk, nosy passersby would point at her house and even dare to look inside the dark window until he shooed them away.
A reward poster made the rounds on Social Media channels, light standards, bus shelters, and the supermarket’s bulletin board. Everyone on the street speculated. Meghan was beside herself. She phoned Mr. Chapman for an update every evening.
Mrs. Chapman noticed the first green shoot of an early crocus under their bay window where the west-facing sun always fooled the flowers into sprouting too soon. Christmas was a distant memory. Winter had been too long and severe. Everyone was sick of snow.
The roads were a mess; there was talk of flooding. The village didn’t have it in their budget to remove any significant accumulations of dirty snow on the side streets; they concentrated on major arteries and highways leading in and keeping to their strict budget despite irrational complaints.
Mr. Chapman returned to his routine of going to work, and each time he saw a grey Honda, he wondered what happened to Rose. Rusty recovered his barking voice and was still pissing on the giant heap of ice on the north side of the fence in the alley.
Hundreds of people called the hotline and claimed they had seen Rose in locations that always proved false. Everyone has a look-alike.
Mr. Chapman no longer bothered to hide his smoking from his wife. Although she was often on the cusp of nagging him, he shot her a look that stopped further discussion. He never bothered her about the chocolates and candy she consumed when she thought he wasn’t looking.
Rusty discovered the body; in hindsight, Mr. Chapman believed that Rusty had always known. As more of the snow pile melted, the dog became obsessed with tugging on a corner of red wool cloth. It’s true what they say about a dog and its bones.
Meghan had sent a tow truck to move the car to storage weeks earlier since Rose’s garage front had become a deposit for excess snow. The cops had dusted the car for suspicious prints and other telltale signs of foul play.
Mr. Chapman cocked his head when Rusty pulled out a leather handle that slowly gave way from under the snow. It looked like a purse. And then it was a purse. He dropped his cigarette butt, and it hissed for a brief second on the wet ground.
He fought Rusty for the purse and when he won, his hand dove into the purse to retrieve the wallet. His gut churned with excitement and trepidation rolled into a nausea-forming ball in his gut and throat.
The wallet came out and dragged a square, orange piece of paper with it and cut his finger with surgical precision. It fluttered like paper flutters before it lands.
The license identified Rose Grimshaw.
The Post-it-Note, which was stained with two drops of blood, was a short shopping list. Two ingredients: vanilla bean, and confectioner’s sugar.
Beneath the shortlist it said: “My name is Rose Grimshaw; I live at 2023 Burnhamthorpe.”