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Kayla was having a great game of Wild Thing with her friend Lucy at lunch recess. They took turns chasing each other, one of them being a loathsome, fanged monster that stomped, lunged and tackled, the other its shrieking, flailing victim. Kayla was having a successful go at being Beast, and the January wind was whipping her cheeks as she confidently closed in on Lucy. And then suddenly, there was Mom, raising her hand in a halt.

“Pet, we gotta go,” Mom said, and turned Kayla around towards the parking lot by the pompom of her toque.

“What the heck?” Kayla asked indignantly.

“Don’t be a bold brat,” Mom said. But she was in a good mood, maybe even excited.

“Bye! Bye! Bye!” Lucy shouted, continuing with her fleeing gallop. It made Mom laugh.

Mr. Zhan, the supervising teacher, was giving Kayla and Mom a look in the distance, but Mom mouthed, “Appointment!” and he waved and nodded, recognizing her.

“Um, um, where are we even going?” Kayla insisted as she and Mom zigzagged through the parking lot to their old car.

“To visit Wanda. ‘Member her? The lady with the dogs?”

“Wanda?” A frown jumped onto Kayla face. “Now?”

“You like her funny dogs, remember? One’s as big as an ox and the other’s as tiny as a penny?”

Kayla giggled at this, remembering the big dog and the little dog at Wanda’s house, and Mom’s way of describing them.

They got into the car and chugged onto the road, with the heat hissing loudly but only lukewarm out of the vents, and smelling like mustiness.

“Garrett is helping us lease a new vehicle soon,” Mom said, scowling over the wheel.

Kayla wanted to know, “Am I going back to school after Wanda’s?”

“Nope. You’re free of Grade 3 for the rest of the day. What, that’s not a good deal? Listen, please. This is an important little trip. For us. As a family. You need to concentrate when we get there.”

“Is Grandma coming?”

“We’re still not really speaking to Grandma. And anyway, our true family is us. The two of us. No matter what.”

Kayla nodded, but she felt like she’d just woken up in a strange land full of trouble.

Mom said kindly, “Pet, it’s all fine. I emailed your teacher and she said she’d miss you, but she’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

“Miss Wells?”

“Yes, Kayla. The one you love so much.”

“I love her!” Kayla confirmed.

“I’m glad. Is her spirally curly hair what you love about her the most?”

“Miss Wells doesn’t have curly hair today. She straightened it.”

“Fancy.”

“And she has these new, awesome, really-tall boots that are purple!”

“Coooool.”

“And, Mom, I’m missing Cupcake Tuesday!” Kayla fumed, and Mom said, “Ha. There we have it.”

Mom and Kayla left their town and drove over the dusty roads to Wanda’s, out in the country.

“Look how high the creepy dead trees are shooting into the sky,” Mom pointed out.

“They look like creatures,” Kayla said, glad that she and Mom thought interesting thoughts.

“Kayla,” Mom told her, “Don’t tell Daddy about today, okay?”

“Why? Is he calling me?” Kayla asked, with minimal interest.

“Yeah, it’s Tuesday.”

“Cupcake Tuesday! Grrrrrr!” Kayla made a fearsome Beast noise and elbowed Mom in the ribs, and they looked at each other and laughed.

Mom said, “So Daddy will call you tonight, probably.”

“I guess.” Kayla had gotten a card in the mail from him yesterday. It had a lamb on the front with words that said “Ewe Are Adorable”, which Mom had to explain. And the inside said “Good Things Come To Those Who Wait, Sorry This Birthday Card Came So Late!” and then a scrawl of “Love, Dad” and a ton of messy x’s.

“So don’t mention our visit to Wanda’s to Daddy, okay?” Mom said.

“Why?”

“I don’t even see Wanda that often anymore. Right?”

“I forget,” Kayla said.

“No, I only go when it’s really important.”

“Okay.” Kayla shrugged and kicked her legs out straight, level to her seat, so she could admire her puffy silver boots. They were her main birthday present from Mom a few weeks ago, because Mom knew she loved boots in different colours.

Mom was saying, partly to herself, “Seriously, I’m pretty much done with Wanda. She’s so expensive. I’ve just got one more question for her, and then I’m done. Oh and also, Kayla, don’t talk too much about Garrett to Daddy, either.”

“Why would I?” Kayla said disdainfully. “Garrett is so boring.”

“Well la-di-da, lady. Be nice. Garrett is nice.”

“Can I get two dogs, a big and a little, for my birthday next year? And we can dye them purple?” Kayla was eager for them to be silly instead of serious, since Mom seemed pretty happy today.

“Nawwwt gonna happen,” Mom said. Suddenly, there was a mailbox at the end of a curving dirt lane, and they turned in and drove up to a house that was just a small, light green, rectangular box.

Big and Little were racing down from a lopsided gravel hill, and Kayla rejoiced with, “Oh yay!” as Big came lumbering and Little came zipping alongside the car.

“Big and Little!” Kayla called, and opened her door, and Mom yelled, “Jesus Kayla, we’re still moving!”

Kayla had forgotten that Big and Little were actually named Zed and Zee.

“Zed and Zee live outside, Kayla,” Wanda instructed at the front door when Kayla tried to usher them inside.

“Even in the winter?” Kayla asked worriedly.

“They’ve got fur and a house of their own over there,” Wanda said, pointing, but when Kayla followed Wanda’s finger all she could see were a couple of trucks.

Kayla pouted while Wanda said, “Come in, ladies, give me…give me…” piling their winter clothes over her arms that were bony through her white sweater. Wanda was old and tall, but also stooped over. Zed and Zee stared with sad eyes as she closed the door in their faces.

“I think Zee is too little to live in an outside house,” Kayla confided to Mom, because it was weighing on her.

Mom narrowed her eyes and said quite meanly, “Shhhh, zip it.”

At Wanda’s, Kayla remembered, Mom acted like she was in one of her bad, silent moods, except with talking.

Wanda’s living room had a scratchy flowered couch and chair, and some TV trays folded in a corner, but no TV. Kayla went over to settle on the chair, and reminded Mom, “I need your phone to play while you’re in the kitchen.”

“You’re coming with us today,” Mom said, shortly.

“Why are you mad at me?” Kayla whined, and Mom snapped, “I’m not!”

Wanda had finished hanging their stuff on the coat tree and she put her long, veiny hands on Mom’s shoulders and said, “We’re going to get some peace here today, okay Rochelle?”

“Sure, yeah,” said Mom, as though someone was forcing her to be there.

Wanda’s kitchen had a heavy smell of long-ago cooking, and there were also fresh blueberry muffins on the counter that spilled over the tin. The table had a plastic covering with cherries all over it.

“Sit,” Wanda said. “Kayla, have a muffin. They’re already very buttery.”

Kayla took one from Wanda and sat at the table, because what else was there to do? She split the muffin open and examined the bright, wet, twinkling blue before she took a bite, which was yummy. Some got on her nose.

“Don’t eat like a savage,” Mom lectured, and Kayla glared at her.

Wanda rubbed her witchy chin, which Kayla thought should have whiskers on it. Wanda said, “So when you called, you said Kayla had had a dream.”

Mom was impatient. “Kayla, tell Wanda the dream you told me about this morning. About the tiger.”

“What? Oh! Garrett let the tiger out of the zoo and it ate everyone at my whole school!”

“Including you?” Mom pressed.

“I think it just bit me. I don’t know. Did he?”

Mom flicked her hair. “So, Wanda, we went through this this morning, too. I can’t get an answer. I want her to figure it out, and have her tell you herself. She’s half of this family and she has a say in what I do next.”

Wanda said, “Rochelle?”

“What!”

“You’re not looking to reach John today?”

Kayla felt a bolt of warmth. “Uncle John?”

“Shhh, Kayla! Listen, Wanda. So, I have huge amounts of confidence in myself these days. Huge.”

“Yes,” said Wanda.

“I go through a lot more times now where I feel special again, and like, un-cursed. Although, most of the time I still feel like shit, actually, I realize now that I said that out loud.” Mom laughed but her mouth didn’t match. “But I’m pretty confident I don’t need to get a dead person’s approval anymore. Gotta be done with that.”

“Mom, can I have your phone to play?” Kayla asked. She was bored, tired of the big muffin, and confused about why she couldn’t sit in the living room like the other times at Wanda’s, while Mom cried and cried in the kitchen but always smiled and said she was fine when she came out.

“You cannot have my phone,” Mom sniped. “And don’t pester me, I’m trying to figure out our lives!”

So Kayla stayed at the table hating Mom, and picking at her nail polish that was chipping off anyway. There were ten tiny, ice-blue snowflakes that Mom let her get at the salon on the weekend to keep her birthday celebrations going, while Mom got her hair turned a bright kind of brown with lots of blonde in it.

“You think Garrett will like?” Mom had asked her hairdresser, who rushed in with, “Oh my god, yeah!”

And Mom had sighed and said, “I need to care more about what Garrett will like.”

Mom was saying to Wanda, “Garrett helps me. He gives me these… boosts. But I have all these bad associations with being trapped, right? But also feeling that I need to be kept in check? Remember all that shit? So I’m the tiger in Kayla’s dream? And if I stay with Garrett, he’s unlocking me, and I’m gonna to do damage to everyone, as in, her ?” Mom pointed at Kayla.

“Rochelle,” Wanda said calmly. “I’m sorry, but I don’t do dreams. Psychologists, and psychiatrists, and even counsellors might do dreams.”

“Oh, come on, Wanda! Kayla! Did the tiger eat you? Talk to Wanda!”

“Yes,” said Kayla, right to Mom. “The tiger ate me.”

“Wanda, can you figure out if that’s true? What am I gonna end up doing to her if I let Garrett keep worming his way in?”

Now Wanda was mad, too. Kayla could tell by the way her breath huffed out of her nose, like when Kayla was Beast during Wild Thing with Lucy. But Wanda still talked quietly, and said, “Rochelle, are you worried that Garrett is abusing Kayla?”

“What? Jesus Christ! No!”

“So do you want me to contact John to get his blessing for you to marry, or be with, Garrett, on a more permanent basis?”

“Wanda, you’re pissing me off. Should I just leave right now?”

“Look,” Wanda said. “I can help you access John, as we’ve often done. But other than that, I don’t do dreams, and I don’t work with children, for ethical reasons. So, if you want to talk to John – ”

“Uncle John passed away,” Kayla admonished, perking up from a daydream she’d settled into to calm her nervous feeling. In it, her teacher Miss Wells had picked her, only her, to go on a scavenger hunt, where together they had to collect all the clues by using golden swords to fight insects the size of buildings.

“You shouldn’t bring Kayla into this,” Wanda said, shaking her head at Mom.

Kayla reminisced, “Uncle John always remembered my birthday, and one time he got me mice! Like, three white mice.”

“Yes he did,” Mom said, surprisingly softly.

“But then you made him take them back to his apartment. That was so mean!” Kayla accused.

Mom ignored her and starting railing at Wanda, “So it’s ethics with you? For two years you charge me out the ass to pretend my murdered brother was sending me messages of love and support, and now you won’t analyze my kid’s fucking dream?”

“Rochelle. I think you should go. You should get help from others. Are you and your mother still not speaking?”

“None of your business! Fuck you, we’re going,” Mom said, but she didn’t move.

Kayla was back committed to her daydream. She slayed another gigantic bug with Miss Wells. Mom was figuring out whether she was raising hell or calming down, as Grandma called it, and Kayla could be patient. And in actual fact, Kayla didn’t care what happened. She and Mom would eventually go home, have supper, and watch a movie or make a craft. Truly, Kayla was more concerned about Big and Little, and how they were feeling. She could hear them now that she listened, barking up on that hill.

Jenny Prior

 

Jenny Prior is more interesting once you get to know her. She wants to see her characters and their strange and stressful world go head-to-head with the concocted brews of other writers’ bizarre imaginations. Prior’s stories have been nominated twice for The Journey Prize.

She’s working on a collection.

84 comments

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    1. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      Apparently national cupcake day in the US is in December. There’s also a separate national chocolate cupcake day in October, which seems odd but I think I’m ok with it. Let’s celebrate all three!

  16. Bill Lee ( Likes: 130 ) says:

    I feel as the stakes raise in the game, the quality of this story rises up too. It breaks the through the ceiling, rocketing as the phoenix towards a glorious victory.

  17. SimonP ( Likes: 19 ) says:

    Interesting story! My major comments were already mentioned by Mark. The realities we are cycling through are not well defined enough for me and I found the adult dialogue a little misplaced, and would have found the story more compelling if it was entirely from Kayla’s perspective. This would heighten the oddity of the mother’s character development/behaviour (and provide justification for calling her simply Mother, though that is hardly important), reinforce the disjointed narrative, and ultimately make the adult conversation more interesting as it is interpreted through the mind of someone who doesn’t quite understand what’s going on. I would appreciate that especially as someone who doesn’t partake in the occult; i.e. my understanding is similar to that of a child’s – a nice wink to your readers. I also found the back and forth dialogue difficult to follow which could be played up if it were from Kayla’s perspective. In short, with an omniscient narrator I was frustrated by not understanding what was going on, however this could easily be remedied by shifting the story to first person from Kayla’s perspective.

    1. storygirl ( Likes: 15 ) says:

      The dialogue drives the piece. It’s here that we are challenged as readers to hear the depths of the characters without the narrator telling us what to think. The story is remarkable for its psychological and emotional depth, for how much history it conveys so succinctly.

    2. Emily Cann ( Likes: 148 ) says:

      So unlike some of the commenters here, I have no problem with a dialogue heavy piece and re: Mark’s comment, there are many reasons to keep it dialogue heavy and not adapt it to stage. Stage is far more complex than just dialogue, and the emotional spectrum you write in a script appears to be vastly different from a fiction genre (like short story or novel). Ernest Hemingway does an excellent job of using dialogue to underline emotion and depth in “Hills Like White Elephants” (something I highly recommend you–Jenny–read if you haven’t already).

      That said, the dialogue needs to be good, and feel real, especially if its a non-verbal medium. If a play’s dialogue is poorly crafted, there is still some hope the actors can bring it to life. In a short story, there is only the writer, and the writer must effectively confer the appropriate tone in moments of gesture and environmental description in order for the readers to understand how the dialogue should be coming across. I don’t think this story does a particularly effective job here. Sure, it has it’s moments, but other phrases are awkward, or clearly being used for exposition (“You’re free of Grade 3 for the day” alerts us to her age, but feels a little forced in my opinion).

      My other major issue with this story is the blunt way that death and grief and moving on are dealt with. I agree with Simon: keep the perspective limited and therefore the pain understated. It will be all the more poignant for that. It’s rare in cases where things in life are really hard that people are capable of communicating so directly about their pain, fear, and frustration.

      You have a wonderful idea about the role that deceased relatives play in a family (and yes, they absolutely do play a role, it is beautiful to see a short story tackle that dynamic), as well as the heartbreak and resistance to moving forward with your life. You could have done so much more with these ideas. Instead many of them appear half-baked, veiled by an uninteresting metaphor of a caged wild animal being set free (it’s a bit common, and something more unique might have given the story more life).

      I really like your ideas, but they’re both underdeveloped and overstated. When it comes to the dialogue I think you could say a lot more by saying much less, if you catch my drift.

      100% in favour of cupcake Tuesday though.

    3. SimonP ( Likes: 19 ) says:

      Mhm, I’m not disagreeing with that idea but I just think it would have a lot more impact if the perspective were limited. I find it was not as succinct as others have discussed; I find the ideas of the a story muddled by clumsy dialogue. I’m all for succinct, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” by Hemingway is a testament to depth and meaning in few words

  18. Sophie-anneBelisle ( Likes: 1076 ) says:

    I thought the child character was well defined and believable. Got to agree with Mark on the amount of dialogue, it got me a bit lost. What I like the most about this story is that from the start there is an ominous feeling even though nothing out of the ordinary has happened yet.

    1. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      I’ve been thinking about the dialogue in this story a lot. I think it does a lot of the storytelling, especially with the backstory of the death and establishing the mother’s character and stuff like that. That’s all important stuff. I’m not sure how else you could convey all of that without relying on dialogue as the vehicle, unless it was a longer piece? I’m sure you could tell some of that from images or memories or something, but I’d hate to see you lose pieces of the story for the sake of cutting down on dialogue.

    1. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      Her name is Kaisha Gwynn, she did all of them! I love them, such a cool surprise!

    1. Jenny Prior ( Likes: 116 ) says:

      Same to you! Not my style either! Perhaps our style is “Gentle Deathmatch”…?

    2. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      I think our style can be “Friendly Deathmatch That Ends With Cupcake Tuesday”? lol

  19. Mark ( Likes: 33 ) says:

    This is a super cool story. I think you’ve done a great job capturing how imagery and excitement are the currencies of intergenerational dialogues, and I’m always a sucker for a dark turn towards the end of a story. I think the dialogue is too heavy. Stories that have long stretches of two people talking always bring the question to mind of why isn’t this just a stage play, if it’s two people talking? What I wanted to see was your narrator’s interpretation of the conversation, her internal monologue lensing the conversations around her in to speculation towards this adult world that isn’t fully understood. There’s three worlds that I can see here; the fantasy world where beasts ravage the innocent, the childlike reality of the narrator, and the higher-order “adult” relationships. I think more disambiguation between the three would be very interesting. That being said, your word choice in this is unreal. Witchy chin, big as an ox, tiny as a penny, it all paints a really vivid picture.

  20. Mike McGraw ( Likes: 84 ) says:

    Jenny, I love that this family’s relationship extends to a dead relative, it’s neat to think how John’s spirit is still a factor in the mom’s life. Really cool slice.

  21. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

    Like Christina, I thought the perspective was important, and I’d say it’s perhaps the story’s most important feature since it allows us a kind of dramatic irony as we see how strange and somewhat dysfunctional she is. Of course the narrator would be trusting. She’s a kid, and kids, up until a certain age, mostly go along with their parents. I like details about the father’s card she received, in part because I’m always a sucker for a good pun.

  22. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

    I think we should all celebrate cupcake Tuesdays! The perspective in this story is interesting. For the most part the world is small, as Kayla would see it, and I really like that. Some of the details that she doesn’t notice, like some of the dialogue between the adults, pulled me out of her world a little bit. Something to consider in further edits! I also love how ambiguous the ending is.

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