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We were driving. It felt like we were always driving. Dee was sucking down cigarettes in the backseat of Dad’s old Volkswagen. She cranked the window down and pursed her lips into the frigid outside air. Exhale. The smoke billowed behind us, an ethereal paper trail. She cranked the window back up. Took a breath. Took another drag. That was the process for the duration of New Brunswick. That had always been the rule.

I squinted into the sunset. I could have driven this road with my eyes closed, if it weren’t for all the fresh potholes.

“How many times have we taken this highway, Dee?”

“Too many.” Exhale. A burst of January bit my nose.

“I wish ya wouldn’t smoke ya know?”

“Yeah well I wish ya wouldn’t fucking cry so much.”

The road started to wind. We crested a feeble hill and I took the exit for Nova Scotia.

“Time’s up,” I said.

Dee rolled the window fully down, and hurled her lit cigarette as far as she could out the window.

“You and your fucking rules,” she mumbled from the back, the wind streaming in, blowing hair in my face. I merged onto the 104, temporarily blinded. A transfer truck bleated loudly as it accommodated my abrupt entrance.

“We could have died ya know.” I spat the hair out of my face.

“Fuck you.” She cranked up the window.

An hour later and we were almost to Truro. Dee was dozing in the backseat. An unlit cigarette pressed between her lips. I don’t remember when she started smoking. Dee was older. Dee was unstable. Dee was never around much. Dee didn’t deal well with other people.

When I was eleven she got pregnant, but nobody told me. I never met my niece. She was born in June. Died in August. At least she got to have one beautiful island summer. The funeral was discreet. There was no obituary.

I was expecting Dee to do something after that. Something irrational or crazy. Something that might warrant another trip to the psych ward. Something that might illicit hushed conversations that ended abruptly when I entered a room. Something to talk about.

Dee was never quite capable of complying with the expected, though. She got a job at a bank. From nepotism or pity it was never clear, but it certainly wasn’t from her qualifications. The bank was good, as far as I can tell. Good benefits, good pay. She bought a new quilt, took the Volkswagen to a mechanic. By all accounts she was managing fine. Dad even let me see her every once in a while. We would take road trips to Nova Scotia for the weekend and I would sleep on a futon in the basement of one of her friend’s apartments. I don’t know where Dee slept, but I have a guess. She smoked a lot on those trips, and it made me nauseous. One time I actually did throw up in the backseat. That’s why we have the rule now. You’re only allowed to smoke in New Brunswick. We never liked New Brunswick. The views were shit. The highways were shit. The gas stations were shit. The weather was shit. One trip we were driving through around Christmas. It had long gotten dark even though it was barely supper time. Dee was driving. This was back when Dee liked to drive. I was counting stars somewhere above the Big Dipper, when the tires caught some ice and we careened into a ditch. It was nothing, the airbags didn’t even go off, but it gave Dee a real scare. A red Toyota passed us before we pulled back out onto the highway. We had barely gotten the car back up to 80 when Dee had to slow down and pull over. We couldn’t tell right away, but some bastard moose had wandered out into the road.

If you’ve ever seen a moose, you don’t need me to explain this next part. But if you’ve never driven through New Brunswick after dark before, then you might not understand what it looks like to see a car frame crumpled underneath an enormous heap of muscle and fur. This was no noble Canadian mascot. It was a gruesome and lethal corpse, smearing dark blood across the pavement. Dee told me to call 911. I don’t remember what I said to them, but we waited there for the ambulance. A police officer asked Dee some questions. He told us we were lucky to have been going so slowly, otherwise the situation could have been much worse. Dee looked frozen and not just from the cold. The ambulance left quietly, bumping gently along the cracking and icy pavement. The moose had been dragged to the side of the road, her tongue lolling awkwardly out of her mouth. Her eyes unnervingly open. The red frame of the crumpled Toyota was dragged away. I could see where they’d bent the metal to retrieve the body. It was obvious why there were no need for sirens.

Dee didn’t drive any more after that, so our Nova Scotia trips were on hiatus until I got my license.

Of all the things that had happened in Dee’s life, I was always surprised that the incident with the moose is what stuck. I would have expected her lost daughter to be the most traumatizing, or her later miscarriage. I expected that the ghost-fathers of these children would have damaged her in psychologically irreparable ways, but nothing ever seemed as painful to her as the moose.

Years after, I started to understand that what Dee hates and fears more than anything is culpability. What scares her most is being in control and making the wrong choice, making the wrong mistake.

One year, Dee had taken the bus to Halifax without me. I was seventeen at the time, so I decided to go up to meet her. I texted her to tell her I was coming and she responded with an address. By the time I got to her friend’s apartment, it was dark and cold, the kind of cold that gets right into your bones. Dee didn’t answer when I knocked. An ugly man in his underwear came to the door instead. His penis was a hard curve under his black briefs. He stank of cigarettes and something I would later recognize as alcohol. I told him I was there to see my sister. He introduced himself as Mark and brought me downstairs. Dee was lying naked on the couch, a blanket partially covering her hips and pelvis. Her breasts were fully exposed. There was something on the coffee table too. I still don’t know what it was. Some kind of drug, I guess. We’ve never spoken about it. I remember hearing men laughing upstairs. We’ve never talked about that either. I have my own ideas about what happened. I prefer not to think too much about it.

Dee didn’t get off the couch until the next morning. She woke me up early, before sunrise, and said we were going. I was used to Dee riding shotgun by this point, but this time she crawled into the backseat. Her body looked harsh and sharp. She was thinner than I remembered her. She laid down in the back, her seatbelt tucked under her arm but not fastened into place. She took a cigarette out to chew on and told me she needed Joni Mitchell, hurling her iPod to the front. Dee wasn’t quite the same after that either, now that I think about it. But when she miscarried three months later, her relief helped clear some of that disaster away.

When we finally arrived, Dee woke with a start.

“Fuck,” she mumbled.

“Fuck.” I nodded back.

“Fuck’s sake, have ya been crying this whole time?”

“Yep.”

“Yer a real piece a shit sometimes, ya know.”

“I know.”

“Let’s get this over with then, eh.”

“Dee, I–”

“Shut up.” She pulled a fresh cigarette from her back pocket. “I know ya can’t stand it when I smoke, so I’ll hold off lighting this one til I see the tail-lights.” She offered me the pack. “One for the road?”

I shook my head but took one anyway. Camels.

“Cheers to whatever’s next.” She yanked a backpack from the backseat and blew me a kiss, her cigarette tucked elegantly between her middle and ring finger. She slung the bag over her shoulder and started walking. I had no idea where she was going. She wouldn’t tell me.

“Dee, wait–”

She turned back towards me, cigarette dangling lazily from her lips.

“Nope. I’ve got to go. But for the love of god you gotta stop crying.” She was backing away from me slowly, trapesing backward into the fresh night. “If you cry over every fucking thing, every time somebody leaves, then you’ll be crying an awfully long time.”

I kept staring as she walked into the darkness. There were houses on one side, highway on the other, a sidewalk disappearing into the horizon. She was going somewhere she didn’t want to be found.

“I was never good to ya. Not like ya needed.” She was shouting this now, the wind cutting in and out of her phrases. “When mom died–I couldn’t cope. I–”

She said more, but I couldn’t hear her over the wind. I put the cigarette awkwardly against my lips, breathing in the disgusting smell of those hours driving through New Brunswick, the cold air clamouring into my empty lungs, the taste of loneliness already bitter on my tongue. I turned the car around and sped back out onto the highway. Tears burned in my eyes and throat but I bit them back, focusing on the highway in front of me, on the sound of the engine, on the whistling winter road beneath the tires.

Emily Cann

Originally from PEI, Emily is an English Master’s student at the University of Guelph. She lived in Nova Scotia during her undergrad at Acadia, and is abundantly familiar with the highways on which her story is based. Like the characters in her story, Emily also hates New Brunswick, but in an affectionate way.

 

34 comments

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  11. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

    After another read through, I’m still a huge fan of this piece. I’ve got some more thoughts on it 🙂

    When I first read the story I imagined the narrator as a guy for some reason. I don’t really know why, there doesn’t seem to be anything in the story to suggest a specific gender, unless I missed something. I don’t think it necessarily matters, except I am left wondering how the narrator was able to avoid the drugs and sexual exploitation that Dee was involved in while sleeping in the same apartments, especially the one with the couch that presumably leads to the abortion. I would like to see that explained a little bit, whether through Dee being protective or the narrator being aware that they don’t want to end up like her, or something else? But I also think that aspect of the story still works as is. I would love to hear your thoughts about the narrator’s place in all of that! I get the observer standpoint but the setting feels like it might endanger her too.

    I’m also wondering why the dad let the narrator go places with Dee, given her background. Weekend trips to stay with ‘friends’ is a lot more freedom and trust then a supervised visitation or something. Does the dad not know what they are doing? Does he trust the narrator to take care of herself and Dee? If so that makes Dee’s last line about their mom even more interesting, like she’s aware of the fact that she is the one being taken care of. I don’t really think that’s the case though, because the narrator looks up to her so much. I want to know more about the family dynamics in that way, but I also like the narrow focus on just this one relationship. It could be interesting to insert a little more parent/kid stuff into the story to build to the mom line? Just a thought.

    Lastly, I am a selfish reader who wants to know whatever’s next!!! I know not knowing is like the point of the story but I still want to know! Knowing that I can’t have that, I still want to know why the narrator is agreeing to take Dee to this random freeway neighborhood to say goodbye forever. Is it for a fresh start? Did they talk about it? As someone with siblings (who are, admittedly, very much not Dee), it was hard for me to understand why she was doing this. I think some exposition could be worked in, maybe to one of the flashbacks you have here (which work GREAT in this story), to make this moment make more sense. If you want it to make more sense, that is.

  12. storygirl ( Likes: 15 ) says:

    Really like the reach and the premise of this story and the two hander stuck-in-a- car relationship works well to tighten the drama. However, the melodramatic tone throughout put me off. When Dee throws out a line about their mother dying at the last moment – too blatantly manipulative – I felt a bit gooey. Given Dee’s self-destructive tendencies, I admit I wanted a cooler narrative that felt more contemporary, less 1950’s weepy film. To see what I mean, please check out At Wanda’s for a take on a hard personality who’s destructive yet sympathetic without being cartoony and melodramatic.

    1. Emily Cann ( Likes: 148 ) says:

      I’m sorry, which of the characters of At Wanda’s are you directing me to? The characters in that piece, as far as I’m concerned, are poorly concocted and portrayed. They mother has a bit of a cheesy feel to her, Wanda herself is barely included, only to ask questions that more or less function as exposition, and Kayla is almost cliche.

      I could try to defend my work, if i had any idea what you were getting at. If you think the plot is too dramatic, then I should introduce you to some people. If you think the writing is too dramatic, I really don’t know how I could have toned it down any further.

      I admit, I would have preferred to develop the idea of the mother’s death a touch more, but I didn’t want it to overtake the other reasons for Dee’s behaviour. If you give a reason for someone doing something, like “oh she’s only like that because of this” then you diminish the story and the complexities of how life shapes you.

      If you felt Dee too “cartoony,” perhaps you could indicate which cartoons she is most like? I sincerely don’t know what you mean. If you could also explain more of what you mean by “cooler?” Do you mean leather jackets or do you mean frostbite? In the narrative or in the character?

      Also, idk where you’re from but “contemporary” in the maritimes does sometimes feel like it’s a step behind.

    2. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      I do feel that way about the mother dying line a little bit. The presentation itself fits into the story well though, as so many other tragedies from the past are mentioned with the same brevity. Like “another trip to the psych ward” or the miscarriage. If that line hadn’t been coming from Dee’s mouth I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but it does feel a little out of character. Then again, it’s a dramatic scene, and rightfully so.

      Also “If you cry over every fucking thing, every time somebody leaves, then you’ll be crying an awfully long time.” I am still SHOOK about this beautiful heat line.

  13. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

    “If you’ve ever seen a moose, you don’t need me to explain this next part.”
    Even if I HAD seen a moose (I haven’t), I would have wanted to read the paragraph that follows this line. It’s explained expertly, with subtlety and style, and I love the grim weight of the last two lines. Nice work!

    1. Emily Cann ( Likes: 148 ) says:

      Always happy to describe a moose! The dead ones do look pretty gross though. I’m also v glad you appreciated the last lines, they were the only part of this story I really struggled with.

    2. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

      Sorry, just to be clear I meant the last two lines of the paragraph. The “ I could see where they’d bent the metal….”

  14. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

    I honestly love this. You are vague in all the right places and clear in all the right places. And your characters are so whole and real in a quiet, human way. It’s stunning. And the phrase “making the wrong mistake” is really sticking with me.

    Have you seen End of the Fucking World on Netflix? The dialogue/internal monologue relationship is similar, but this is what I wished the show had been.

  15. SimonP ( Likes: 19 ) says:

    I would love to find something to criticize here (honestly) but I searched high and low and I think this is the real deal. The character’s are deep and well-developed and the writing style is unique and full of life. I am reminded of Sondheim: “Sometimes people leave you / halfway through the wood. / Other’s may deceive you, / you decide what’s good. / You decide alone, / but no one is alone.”

  16. Sophie-Anne Belisle ( Likes: 1076 ) says:

    Oh no! I can’t believe I got in competition against this story! It’s one of my favorite, I’ll have to work hard to find something to criticize… Stay tuned!

  17. Mark ( Likes: 33 ) says:

    Awesome story. Very Atlantic Canada without being cliche, despite one character having a tragic backstory involving a moose. I love the line: “A burst of January bit my nose.” I’m trying to find constructive criticism here but, honestly, I think this story is knocked out of the park. Maybe it’s my Haligonian identity being validated, but I also think you’re a wicked talented writer.

    1. Mark ( Likes: 33 ) says:

      let me clarify that I in no way feel my identity validated by the character of Mark from Halifax. More the cold and the cigarettes and the being scared of highway-moose.

    2. Emily Cann ( Likes: 148 ) says:

      Hey thanks Mark! There’s nothing that makes me happier than seeing East Coast Canadians being united through their fear of moose.

    3. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      If I ever start a punk band we will be called “Tragic Backstory Involving a Moose” and you will be given credit, Mark!

  18. Mike McGraw ( Likes: 84 ) says:

    As somebody from New Brunswick, I can attest to the long, tree-lined haul that is driving through it. I loved this story, sad but beautifully done. Great work!

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

    Wow! I love those stories that gives you a heartache and make you laugh at the same time, this is one of them. Your characters are well developed and relatable, it’s just like I know that Dee and I feel for her…
    “Bastard moose” is definitively how I call them too.

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