Illustration by Andreea Dumuta @galactixy_illustrations
Summer heat crowds in the kitchen window but chilled air prickles your arm. You trace the chilled air back to the small freezer in the room. The lid is open a crack, one end of a skipping rope hangs out.
You relax your grip on the kitchen wall. (You assure yourself you were only resting.) You raise the lid. Scrunched up inside the freezer, her head on a package of chops, is your daughter Tia, the other end of the skipping rope wrapped around her throat.
And you say, Somebody make a wrong turn?
Tia answers with a slow shrug.
You hoist her out of the freezer and peel a bag of utensils off her leg. (Your wife stores knives and forks in the freezer to keep the blades and prongs sharp, advice she read in a book, advice backed by real science, she claims.) Tia shivers, her cheeks shiny with frost, and walks smack into the kitchen table. She looks amused, bewildered.
Opsicle, she says.
You think about this.
Popsicle? you say.
Yeah, Tia says, that too.
Then the fly cruises into the room. Loose in the house for weeks, feasting on frying pan grease and spilled sugar and other found treats, the fly has packed on weight. It looks like a black bean with wings. The fly circles you, spurting and swerving, plump and sluggish maybe but still savvy, dodging your swats.
Go, Bob! cheers Tia.
The fly sputters through a loop-the-loop then snorts and chugs out of the room, Tia running, calling after it. The skipping rope handle chatters along the floor. A thud interrupts the chatter, but soon Tia sounds to be up on her feet and running again.
You dig a Popsicle out of the box in the freezer and wait for Tia to return.
Your wife sits up in bed reading two novels, switching back and forth, it appears, at random. She wears the nightshirt that came free with the set of glow-in-the-dark encyclopedias, X-Z embroidered on the nightshirt sleeve. Her long auburn hair shimmers.
You climb over the pair of cedar chests brimming with books and slip into bed. You glide your hand past the dictionary and the world atlas your wife likes to keep within reach. You squeeze her calf.
Here, she says, in the elevator?
We’re stuck between floors, you say.
Something flickers through your wife’s expression. This is the spot in your stuck-elevator scenario where she usually says, Though, it is an emergency. Now she bookmarks her novels and for several moments doesn’t speak.
Then, with her finger, she draws a circle on your arm.
Yes, she says.
Afterward, her X-Z nightshirt drapes the lampshade. (The pineapple-mango scent of your wife’s skin cream calms you, usually, yet the coffee table books she enjoys must tax her wrists, The Illustrated History of Road Construction & Rehabilitation, with its authentic samples of road surfaces, tops a bulky pile of books on the bedside table, the table begging it seems, legs bowed from the weight of the books, but here in bed at this time of night you should be detaching, discarding, you should be dwindling towards sleep.)
You squeeze your wife’s calf again, hunting another scenario, perhaps the one where she is the night nurse and you the new custodian who knows only a few words of English and must be shown, not told…
Your wife, however, says, Sixty-three pencils!
You stop squeezing.
She shoots up her arm. (Why, after all these years, do you continue to find her shaved armpit an odd sight?) She waves a piece of paper.
Her hair sprays the pillow, it laps at her shoulders, and you want her to promise: Never will she have this hair cut short, tamed.
This letter came a month ago, she says.
She lowers her arm. After a pause you take the letter. You angle it to the light. You angle it some more.
You don’t need glasses, says your wife, not quite yet anyhow.
Gradually, your eyes make sense of the smallish print. (Blame the shadows caused by the nightshirt over the lampshade.) The letter is from Tia’s kindergarten teacher-to-be, her signature a jagged line, and lists the items each student must bring the first day of school. A legally-witnessed sample of both parents’ saliva heads the list. Your DNA is safe with us, the note promises.
I’m flummoxed, says your wife, tucking the bed sheet under her chin, sixty-three pencils works out to be more than a pencil a week. Is this a school or a gulag?
(Outside, in the distance, explosions belch. The ongoing demolition of Mount Hewitt. A multi-level, height-adjustable ski hill will be installed in its place. For the warm months the hill inverts to become Lake Jubilee. A glossy pop-up brochure trumpets: We Take The Worry Out Of Leisure.)
Then you say, Saliva sample?
Under the sheet your wife hooks a finger around your thumb.
Aunt Bubbles, she says.
You welcome your wife’s touch. Yes, you say.
You never met her, says your wife.
Her finger tightens around your thumb.
Accidents followed Aunt Bubbles everywhere, says your wife, not the bladder and bowels kind, no, I don’t mean accidents of the swampy variety.
You listen. (How can you respond to that anyways?)
The doctors dreamed up a hundred and two explanations and suggestions, says your wife, but Aunt Bubbles spent her days falling and failing and speaking more and more in half-words, her condition taking over, while she herself barely acknowledged that anything was wrong. As for the doctors, they might as well have prescribed pixie dust.
(Bubbles, you think, is quite a nickname.)
Your wife draws your hand to her cheek. But, she says, for someone Tia’s age, telling lies is good and normal, it’s a sign she’s maturing. Soon she’ll let it slip that her falls and other accidents are her way of testing us, nothing more. We have to listen, says your wife, we have to catch her in a lie, otherwise…
She doesn’t continue. You hold her hand.
Later, your wife flips through a coffee table book in the dark. Pages crinkle. The X-Z glows. She has put the nightshirt back on.
You pick out a second sound. A low, steady buzz, hovering above you like a tiny helicopter. In the past week the fly has become nocturnal.
I used to hope anyone but me would be next after Aunt Bubbles to get the condition, your wife says. I started praying, I named people, lots of people, more deserving of the condition than me, people who—
Nothing more for me to say, your wife says.
The next morning you peer out the front door and find another silver and gray sky. This shade of sky is becoming the new blue.
Across the street a man bent over an air pump speeds the handle up and down. He lives in one of the houses built where the asbestos factory used to be. Every August, like now, golf ball-sized skunk berries swarm that part of the street, the thick vines slithering and tangling and the skunk berries splitting open in the heat and oozing a scorched, oniony odour. (Skunkberry pie/Skunkberry pie/..? The rest of the rhyme eludes you.)
The man stops pumping. He remains bent over, breathing hard. His inflatable garage, so far, resembles only a huge rubber waffle. (The new train bridge in town, like the garage, will be an Air-Flex product, and come October the company launches its own airline, Air-Air. Two Air-Flex factories in Vietnam manufacture canned air around the clock, seven days a week.) The price of the garage must not include the canned air—
(A memory butts in.)
Your wedding. Confetti falling. You on the steps outside the church.
How amazing, says your bride, and how unlikely. She flows, she rustles. The church bells tinkle. (Clappers remain on back order at Ding Dat Bell, the ones from the church stolen a couple days earlier while they were down from the bell tower for cleaning. Soup ladles from the parish kitchen don’t quite work as replacements.)
With hardly a sound a woman collapses and slides headfirst down the steep church steps then across the sidewalk, stopping just shy of the road. She coughs up confetti, then part of the confetti bag itself, her wide-brimmed hat crooked over her eye. Pink confetti dots her chin.
No, says your bride, not this, not her, not today.
She steers you around the commotion. You glance over and the woman sends you a smile as she pulls the last of the confetti bag from her mouth.
Ello, she calls to you.
With a tug you stretch then hook the final cord into place, your knee on the back seat of the car for balance.
Comfortable? you say.
She’s one comfortable girl, says your wife, positioned on the other side of Tia. Strips of foam cushion the belts and elastic cords webbing Tia to the back seat, while pillows support her head and cup her face. She can, if she needs to, rub her hands or tap her toes together.
Here’s a present, honey, and your wife fits the new goggles on Tia. (BlazeGuard Eye Shields, shatter-resistant, only one grade of goggle below the Eye Shields worn by the elite military STRiKE team.) The murky lenses seem to swirl.
Jazzy, you say, you’ll be the talk of kindergarten when school starts.
It’s midnight in here, Tia shouts.
You’ll miss the goggles if they’re not there, says your wife.
You push a pillow away from Tia’s ear and say, Today will be fun.
Eureka, says Tia, I heard you that time.
Your wife adds a third knot to Tia’s shoelaces. Anything you want to tell us? It’s safe here, honey, letting go of a secret won’t hurt.
Tia is silent.
She curls her lip. Uck, she says, I smell stinkberries.
Without a word your wife gets into the front seat.
You smile at Tia. Then you release the pillow, smothering her ear again. She sighs. You start the car, (Skunkberry pie/Skunkberry pie..?), the camera next to you on the seat. Your wife snatches her book—just one book for her today—from the dashboard, a book with the title Scissors. A Q-tip marks her place. You pull out of the driveway. Across the street the inflatable garage stands a solid two stories high, a motorhome parked on the top level.
I know who she is, you tell your wife. At our wedding, I remember when Aunt Bubbles—
Scissors, your wife says, are under-appreciated. Think how messy things would be if we couldn’t make any straight, even cuts.
You persist, telling what you remember about the woman and the church steps. You leave out the part where your wife steered you away from the commotion.
Your wife turns to her open window. Hair romping in the breeze, she lets five minutes pass.
Then she says, Good try, but no man pays attention to his own wedding, he’s too busy fretting about how he’s abandoning his mother, so he substitutes in all sorts of
dreamy stuff. You’re competing against the unbeatable one-two punch of genetics and guilt, my dear, you’re not to blame for being dead wrong.
A reddish cloud descends on the highway. (The demolition of Mount Hewitt.) You brake.
Tia shouts, If a truck whacks into us, we’ll all be the same size.
You grip the wheel tighter, windshield wipers chopping and wiper fluid squirting, the window smearing red.
That was your cousin Dorothy and her faulty air passages who fell at the church, your wife says. I rode with her in the ambulance to the hospital. Remember?
(Dorothy? Ambulance? You have one cousin, a Yolanda.)
Of course you don’t remember, says your wife.
On the boardwalk at Port Lewis the man closes the power pack strapped to his pant leg and flicks the switch. The new batteries revive the message. THE PICTURE GUY flashes on the screen built into his wide shirt, while a hidden speaker plays a song that reminds you of how snow used to be: white and cool to the touch.
You hold one of Tia’s hands and your wife, reading Scissors and chewing her lip, holds the other. Knee and elbow pads, a padded hat with chin strap (a helmet, really), a life jacket, and the goggles all fend for Tia. Your hand holding hers perspires. You’re in Reflect-Wear clothing, as is your wife. The camera hangs around your neck.
Or in Latin, says the man, then claps his hands and points to his shirt screen. THE PICTURE GUY it flashes.
I don’t know a second language, you say.
Then you’re getting only half the story, says the man.
Exactly, says your wife. She snaps her wrist and the page turns in her book.
Which is it, says the man, your camera or mine?
(Beyond the concrete barriers coiled with razor wire, the lake simmers. An oily geyser blows, gulls shriek. On the Air-Flex Sandee Beach a crowd of people outfitted in SafeTan Second Skins sky-fry themselves, facedown of course, the red suits appearing aflame, while giggling children jab spears of wood at something large and fleshy, and squealing, in the weeds alongside the boardwalk. You, however, feel as if you are remembering what you are seeing and living, unable to plant yourself in the here-today. Where are you?)
Dad, says Tia, don’t mincemeat my and.
You ease your grip on her hand, once she explains what she means.
Let me frame this nicely, says The Picture Guy, backing away with your camera, which you must have passed to him. (He charges more if he uses his own camera. You don’t see his own camera anywhere.)
She needs sixty-three pencils for school, you tell The Picture Guy.
In my day, the man says, we wrote with coal. Lose your one piece of coal? Sayonara, you’re out of luck. Kids today and their fancy-dancy pencils, says The Picture Guy, shaking his head.
Your wife says, Hey.
Your wife says, Yes, and looks up from her book.
Your wife says, Well, what do you think?
You say, Well?
Let’s, your wife says, make her fly. She drops the book to the ground, her page unmarked, the Q-tip still behind her ear, and says to Tia, You want to fly don’t you. Today, we have the chance.
Ob’s gone, says Tia.
Say champagne, says the man with your camera. Now his shirt does change, flashing the image of a toothy smile. The music accelerates into a jig.
Wait for me, you say. Please. (You might be the only person who hears you.)
You follow your wife’s lead. The two of you lift Tia. Carefully. Then not so carefully, four hands clamped onto her, the two of you swing her by the arms (as you used to do, or if you didn’t you should have, and from this day forward you must do it, you can’t wait for luck or magic to wink at you). Soon Tia’s padded and life-jacketed body is horizontal, her legs thrashing with delight. Take the picture now, says your wife, and The Picture Guy says, You’re ruining my shot, and Tia gasps and buzzes, and your wife says, It’s all a great lie, and your wife says, Bubbles she stops here, and Tia shouts, I’m doing the Bob, and your wife says, Bob, what Bob? And you smile, like the flashing shirt wants you to, and call out, One teensy taste and cry cry cry/Eat a bit more and die die die, remembering finally the missing part to Skunkberry Pie but now realizing you can rescue more, much more, than a playful rhyme. You have to. You just hope you have left enough time to be able to do it.
Larry Brown lives in Brantford, Ontario. He once spent an entire day atop the Bell Canada building on University Avenue in Toronto, running and screaming, screaming, part of a panicked crowd. He was an extra in the ‘classic’ movie Yeti, and the captured beast, you see, had broken free and was terrorizing the crowd. The horror. Sensing his acting career had peaked, Larry chose to try writing, where the screams are more internal but the money about the same. Having lived through the Yeti attack, Larry feels prepared to climb into the Deathmatch cage and face readers and their opinions (though we’ll see how long he really holds up). Larry thinks writers need, sometimes, to lighten the heck up. (He is the author of Talk, published by Oberon Press, and his story Triangle appeared in Best Small Fictions 2017.)