A Tale of Fraud and Deceit

By Jeanette Jones

Art and Craft (2014)
Directed by: Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman,
Mark Becker

Running time: 89 minutes

“I always wanted to be a philanthropist.”

So says Mark A. Landis, the strangely compelling figure at the centre of the documentary film Art and Craft. It’s an engrossing story, with all the ingredients of a classic art caper, and a strikingly incongruous, real-life anti-hero.

For over 20 years, Landis distributed his own, forged copies of fine art pieces to museums and galleries throughout the United States, until he was exposed by one stubbornly persistent museum registrar in Oklahoma. He donated forgeries under numerous pretenses and identities, most often pretending to be a grieving relative who made donations in honour of the deceased. On other occasions, he has impersonated a priest.

A slight, balding man with stooped posture and a shuffling gait, Landis seems an unlikely criminal, and in fact he has committed no crime: Because all of his forgeries were given as gifts, no laws were broken. The moral ambiguity of the act isn’t lost on Landis, who refers to his own behaviour as “mischievous,” but he doesn’t seem to recognize any potential for harm.

The film introduces us to a handful of the chagrined and sheepish museum directors duped by Landis. They generally seem to accept responsibility for being conned, until Matthew Leininger, former registrar at the Oklahoma City Art Museum, who refused to let the fraud continue— at the expense of his job. The documentary pivots on the unfolding game of cat and mouse between Leininger and Landis, but it’s the peculiar force of Landis’ personality that commands attention.

Landis was diagnosed as schizophrenic at 17, and it’s not always perfectly clear where he draws the line between fact and fiction, or how much space he grants his fantasies within the reality of his life. His soft, halting delivery and child-like morality clash with an arguably shrewd and highly intelligent personality.  He is oddly charming, and utterly fascinating.

Once caught in his prank, Landis is completely transparent about his process and the tactics that saw his reproductions added to dozens of collections. Slouching through the aisles of his local Hobby Lobby, he shows us what he used to produce forgeries that fooled curators in at least 20 states. Returning to the clutter of his small condo, a bit of acrylic paint, a sponge, a rag, and some coffee are all it takes to create a masterpiece. Landis emulates fine art with extraordinary talent and astonishing speed. Every room in his apartment is filled with teetering stacks of the art books and magazines he draws his work from. Surfaces are piled with his paintings and sketches.

Weaving through a comic tale of fraud and deceit, this is ultimately a story about isolation and the deeply human desire for connection, as Landis, in his own off-kilter way, tries to make use of his talent in the wider world. But the details speak eloquently for themselves, and the directors are sometimes heavy-handed in their effort to reveal. There’s an excess of spectacle in the frequent, extreme close-ups of Landis, a few too many scenes in which he sits alone in front of the television, eating his microwave dinner.

Running an hour and a half, the film is perhaps longer than it needs to be. Even so, I walked away feeling that I could have spent much more time in the strange company of Mark A. Landis.   

Not the Colonel’s Chicken

By Alex Lipsett

Zaki Broast & Grill 
1385 Baseline Road 

(613)-723-1500

Who doesn’t like fried chicken? It’s a crispy, salty, guilty pleasure that, more often than not, comes in a bucket. Some of my favourite family memories are centred on the Colonel’s best in the middle of the table. But what if I told you that there was a way to make fried chicken better?

When it comes to Zaki Broast & Grill on Baseline Road, the name says it all. The fried chicken here isn’t actually fried at all. It’s broasted.

Broasting is a technique similar to deep-frying, in that the meat is marinated, lightly breaded, and prepared in a pressure cooker. But, not only does this technique cut down on the absorption of oil into the batter, it also keeps the chicken juicy and tender. This is due to the speed of the cooking process, which prevents dryness and doesn’t allow time for oil to penetrate the coating.

Zaki’s does this to perfection. The chicken is a nutty golden brown, free of the standard fried-chicken-grease-gleam. Also absent is the abundance of salt found in typical fare. Zaki’s keeps the seasoning on the surface of the chicken to a minimum, and instead relies on their marinating process. Along with fried chicken, their menu also includes favourites such as chicken fingers and steak sandwiches.

Because the chicken itself isn’t overly seasoned, the homemade garlic and hot sauces add to the overall flavour construction. The garlic sauce adds richness and pungency, while the hot sauce provides heat and acidity. These two sauces, combined with the tender, juicy meat and crisp batter, create a fantastic balance of flavours and textures.

Zaki’s chicken is served with french fries and a dinner roll, along with the aforementioned sauces. While the fries seem to be fresh-cut and well seasoned, on top of the fact that they are served in a large portion, the dry, tasteless dinner roll leaves me puzzled. It could stand to be left off the plate to make the meal completely satisfying.

As far as service and ambience goes, Zaki’s is nothing out of the ordinary. Place your order at the counter to a friendly and welcoming cashier who then sends it to the open kitchen. There are tables available, but there hasn’t been a great deal of effort put into the dining setting. Everything is bland in colour, and could be described as sterile. The dining area doesn’t have a welcoming feel to it, and the waiting time for each order is rather long. This may have to do with the fact that each item is cooked to order, which actually adds to the overall quality of the food.

 Zaki Broast & Grill is a change from the regular and definitely worth consideration when it comes to fulfilling a fried-chicken craving. For their style of food and service, I give Zaki’s a generous rating of 3.5 out of 5 stars. Stop in and get a three-piece combo with garlic and hot sauce. You won’t regret it.

Welcome To Metalopolis

By Gina Roberts

If you’ve never been to a metal show and are thinking of attending one, this guide will give you insight into the kind of people you may encounter. Of course, there are typical Metalheads: black clothing, long hair, piercings or tattoos (or both). But here, we’re looking at Metalhead sub-species that stand out.

Let’s begin our journey into the wilderness with The Hot Chick. You might be saying to yourself, “There’s always Hot Chicks. Why would this one be different?” Well that’s why you’re here, so shush. She stands out from the crowd, so much so, that one can turn to someone and say “Did you see that chick?” and they will immediately know who you are talking about. This can occur even at large events, but usually it’s because she has done something to stand out. Notice I said usually—there are cases where it’s not as obvious. This is because the Hot Chick ranges based on attire. Sometimes she’s scantily clad and sometimes she's well dressed. Either way, she’s attracting eyeballs. She is always into metal and may have a boyfriend.

This next one is the Irregular Joe. It's obvious this person does not frequent shows. The Irregular Joe (or Jane) can be compared to someone in dark green camouflage standing in a snowbank by the side of a road—they just stick out. This is because they are colourfully dressed in a sea of black band shirts. The males are also usually wearing a cap, which is detrimental to headbanging. However, if he is not wearing a cap, he will over-compensate for his headbanging inexperience, and end up looking like a bobble head. I know I've mainly addressed males here and that’s because Irregular Janes are usually Somebody’s Girlfriend.

Somebody’s Girlfriend has similar traits to the Irregular Joe, but is only there because her boyfriend is a Metalhead. Like the Irregular Joe, she wears clothing different from the female Metalhead, and often mistakenly, flats or sandals. Poor shoe choices at a metal show can end in having your feet crushed or bruised, especially when unknowingly standing next to or in the mosh pit area. Somebody’s Girlfriend is generally displeased to be at the event; whether it’s the music or atmosphere is unknown. If she is moderately interested, she may fall under the category of Disinterested Danny.

The Disinterested Danny is stoic. There are always attendees who stand at the back—but they are NOT to be confused with the Disinterested Danny. He or she is almost exclusively (with the exception of Somebody’s Girlfriend) at the front of the stage among headbanging attendees. They will seem unimpressed, yet still want to be near the excitement, suggesting they enjoy themselves. It is a mystery yet to be solved.

The Extreme Mosher offsets the previous two species by being overzealous. At a metal show, you will see people pushing and shoving in the mosh pit, but you can tell the Extreme Mosher apart by the amount and ferocity with which he (rarely she) moshes. By going overboard, he sometimes bothers those around him and is usually the culprit of mosh pit pockets at larger events. Occasionally this person is a jerk, but usually only when combined with the Smashed Guy.

You probably know who I’m referring to. The majority of show attendees consume alcohol. The Smashed Guy goes overboard and by the end of the night often becomes the Extreme Mosher. This can lead to folly, like being kicked out of a smaller venue or bothering the wrong person. In extreme cases, Smashed Guy will end the night in injury—from falls or hits in the mosh pit resulting in blood spilled, or from dehydration during outdoor shows. Aside from these cases, it’s funny to watch.

This concludes our look at some of the unique sub-species of Metalhead you may encounter at your first show. It might seem like a crazy world in there, but you’ll make it through with the proper footwear.

We Called it the Fair

By Conor Rochon

Imagine a lawless night when the order of society is temporarily put on hold and people are free to act out their most debauched fantasies. When the streets are filled with violence and carnal desire, and citizens give in to their impulses and act in accordance with more bestial natures. Does this sound like the premise of a bad slasher movie? Well yes, that’s exactly what happens in the forgettable home-invasion flick The Purge, but in my hometown we had our own night of suspended morals. We called it The Fair.

Every September, the Agricultural Society would take it upon itself to spread horse poop around the big field in the centre of town. Skeevy characters were contracted to operate the rickety death traps they called rides, and stalls selling greasy food were trucked in to feed visitors.  All around the shit-field people sat at card tables hawking knockoff watches and selling knives to kids who were too young to cross the street unsupervised.

The Fair was a tiny version of Vegas in the middle of our quiet bedroom community, and everyone showed up to take part. For the whole weekend the noise from the midway would rule the town. Children tossed into the middle of the mess would run around the midway on a sugar high, get separated from their parents, throw up, find their parents, and do it all over again. The adults spent their time gambling with bingo and raffle tickets, while the youth bet on rigged carnival games. Everyone would eat him- or herself sick, and everyone would claim to have a good time. Eventually, the day at The Fair would push into night—and then drunken teenagers would show up.

The high school was a 15-minute walk from the fairgrounds. On the first Friday of The Fair, anyone watching the school buses arrive could be forgiven for thinking this was an ordinary day, but in fact no classes would be held. A decision made not by the school board, but by the majority of the student body, who had no plans to attend. Most kids would get off the bus, turn away from the school entrance, disappear into the woods, and start drinking.

At around nine o’clock, an army of wasted teens would descend on the fairground. With water bottles filled with vodka stuffed in purses and jacket pockets, they sauntered past the front gate earning a stern look from the old farmer stamping tickets, and an even sterner one from the officer keeping the peace. Some kids would be turned away, but since no one is more resourceful than a drunk teenager, those poor few would sneak onto the grounds one way or another.

The first stop for most of these delinquents was the demolition derby. It was at the back of the fairgrounds, far enough from the midway that they could feel a little less exposed while sipping their “water,” and watching cars explode. After the dust had settled, the well-sloshed teens would make their way back out to the midway to mingle with peers who were leaving the dance (and the dance’s beer tent). There would be laughter, rides, and deep-fried snacks. The entire student body coming together under the blinking lights of the Starship 3000— and then someone would get punched in the face.  

Turns out violence is a natural side effect of liquoring up hormonal adolescents and gathering them all in a hyper-stimulating space— who’da thunk it? The initial face punching would spark several more brawls, and often a stabbing. The Fair would close and let loose a wave of amoral vandals, spreading graffiti and firecrackers across town. For one night a year, Main Street would look a bit like the Byward Market after the bars close, except everyone is younger and dumber, and there are more cops. Sirens would howl throughout the town and arrests would be made. The hoodlums would eventually slink off to the houses of friends or the basements of mothers to sleep off the drunk. Come morning everyone would seem to forget the whole thing ever happened. Mothers, fathers, old gramps and grannies, all would make their way to Main Street and watch the parade. The teens would stay home and battle their hangovers.

And the agricultural society would start getting ready to do it all again next year.  

Taking the Fear Out of FIPA

by David Maurice

Anyone who’s followed the political scene has heard the doom and gloom surrounding China’s Foreign Investor Protection Agreement (FIPA) and what it will do to our country. Many fear that we’re selling our government to foreign benefactors and giving them full control of our laws.

Such fears can be dismissed. The Canada-China FIPA requires Chinese corporations to abide by the same regulations as domestically owned corporations. It has little to do with the government, as we retain full power over our people, our land and our laws.

FIPA is simply Canada’s promise to China that we’ll be treating their businesses the same way we treat our own. Unless Chinese corporations have evidence that we’re treating their goods or people as foreign-owned, China has little to no say in how we run our country.

The words “little to no” are of critical importance in the matter, as they are causing the majority of the fear over FIPA. By agreeing to the FIPA, we’ve opened ourselves to foreign-owned corporations being able to open lawsuits against our government for various circumstances and people are afraid these corporations have gained more influence than they had prior to this agreement.

Some could argue that we’re opening doors that would be better left closed, but the potential  to be sued by international interests doesn’t mean that anything will change. Canadian-owned corporations can already open legal proceedings against our government.  Opening a lawsuit means little in the large scheme of things.  What truly matters is winning that lawsuit.

That’s excluding the fact that we’ve been using FIPAs with foreign countries since as early as 1990, the year in which the Canada-Poland FIPA first went into effect. I’d like to point out that as of 2014, there has been no discussion on the disastrous side-effects on our country, nor has our government  received any lawsuits from  the countries we’ve signed FIPA agreements with.

This isn’t to say that FIPAs don’t have problems that shouldn’t be addressed, but such problems can only be fixed when those who’d do better advocating for change aren’t vilifying these agreements and trying to tear them apart.  Many of these deals are done behind the scenes with little to no consultation with the people— we’re simply given the documentation after the ink is dry.

Without much enforcement of FIPAs and with this much cloak-and-dagger behind the scenes, opportunities for shenanigans could theoretically occur and we would have little to no influence on the subject. However, hypothetical situations can be construed to fit any agenda or fear, and as such are the refuge of cowardly politicians.

As we’re moving to an age of globalization, with the disappearance of borders and growth of multiculturalism, FIPAs are going to play a large part in this new world. We shouldn’t be fighting against FIPAs and condemning them with our fears and what-ifs. We should be advocating transparency between government and people and stronger enforcement all around—ironing out the wrinkles before anyone can discover and abuse them.

Cracks in the Ivory Tower

By Eleanor Fogolin

"English professors don't die; they're immortal."

That’s the sage on the mountaintop telling you what she learned in five years of toiling around the base of the ivory tower. You’re welcome.

The people who devote their intellectual energy to the humanities spend so much time defending their academic pursuits to themselves—and to the world at large—that flogging the party line isn’t just second nature, it’s the only thing that helps you sleep at night. “Studying the humanities develops critical thinking skills! It builds empathy! It makes you a better citizen! It’s a necessary part of human existence!”

The problem is that the disciplines are not helping their own cases. The humanities lag behind pretty much every other discipline in terms of respect, prestige, and transferability between theory and practice. As well as dropping enrollment numbers, the oft-cited issue of employment opportunities is a troubling consideration, as I can attest. In an inaugural meeting with my new Graduate Department (for which I had moved my life half-way across the country), I was told that the hiring rate for English doctoral students was less than 20 percent. No-one present—including professors, faculty, and the doctoral students themselves—had words to soften the blow, or suggestions for how to avoid having to retrain for a new career.

I finished my Master’s degree—never let it be said that I quit easily—and moved home, feeling thoroughly betrayed. The discipline that I had defended tooth and nail for five years, pouring in my money, effort, and passion, had tossed me out on my ass with nothing to show for my work and effort.

The typical defences aren’t holding up anymore. Does history really make someone a better critical thinker than, say, an engineer? Does a political-science major have a better grasp of inequality and the violence of a capitalistic society than an uneducated young person living in an urban project? Is analysis of a novel more useful than a more sustainable fuel? And do we really believe that empathy can be taught in a textbook? The opposite tack—that the humanities are valuable in themselves, for the pure enjoyment of the student—is more honest, but one that loses the argument before you’ve even begun. I hate it for the same reason I hate the “Follow Your Bliss” mentality my parents are always trotting out. I want to be a useful engine, damn it.

Some commentators blame the failure of the humanities on the radical splintering of the disciplines into ever more obscure faculties: queer studies, women’s studies, and various cultural studies. Ironically, this is one of the few avenues in which the humanities are going right. When your detractors decry you for being elitist and exclusionary, you’d better take them seriously if you want to get your enrollment numbers up. There may not be vocation in “knowing yourself,” but that doesn’t stop people from wanting to see their identities validated. And the humanities can’t re-discover its lauded place in society if it doesn’t concern itself with the real and contemporary needs of society: representation, accessibility, equality, and an ability to ignore one’s own hype. And if they want to survive the next few decades, the Humanities desperately need to address the latter category.

The Lit Window

By John Leonard

I had started working night shifts around then. Unlike the day shifts, the weekly hours were better, the work was easier, and the office workers weren't around. I liked that. I was kind of ashamed of my line of work and I didn’t want to deal with those suburban, upper crust jerks who returned to their model homes, families and backyard pools, passing me by as if I never existed. Nobody in a suit ever said good morning to me. And they always brought each other coffee. Nobody ever brought me coffee.

I’d always wondered if the office workers would smile and say hello to me if I wore a suit to work. Maybe they’d say, “Good morning, I don’t believe we’ve met. What branch are you?” And then they’d shake my hand, take me to the café on the corner, insist on paying because I was now a part of their team. Not a morning went by where I didn’t play through that scenario in my head.

I wasn’t handling the day shifts well, so when Mr. Raymond offered me nights for a change, I immediately accepted. The only people I saw on night shifts were other custodians and that was just fine with me. Most of them were decent people who went about their work and didn’t say too much about anything. I don’t really like talking to anybody anyway, so it seemed like a suitable situation.

***

I’d been living alone for about a year at that point. The woman I’d been living with left me for somebody else. She said I didn’t care about anything anymore— that I needed to take pride in what I did, regardless of what it was, and at least I had a job. I always cringed when she told me things like that. Her words made my skin crawl.

Just before she left me, I had an opportunity to get a position at work that would’ve paid me some more money. It was a custodial coordinator position, mostly scheduling employees and monitoring all floors of the building. I work in a large building, thirty stories tall, so it would have been a role with a lot more responsibility, and I had absolutely no desire for that.

Jenny, the woman who left me, made such a big deal over this potential job. She always talked about how after a few years of working and making a little more money we could think about bigger and better things, like having children and moving to a nicer neighbourhood. I often imagined myself bringing a child into the world and trying to raise him. The thought made my stomach turn.

What the hell would my kid think of me? Leader of the custodians, the big boss garbage disposer, the face behind the cleanest office building in the city. The idea made me sick. It just couldn’t happen and there was no way I could tell Jenny what I really thought about the whole thing.

She eventually convinced me to interview for the job. She cried and said she didn’t think there was a future for us if I didn’t try to better myself, even though, basking in my own insecurity, I thought it was a step back. She made me prepare for the interview as much as she could. I put on a suit and she dropped me downtown for the meeting with the building manager. She kissed me, said good luck and drove off.

I stood in front of the building for ten minutes before I built up enough courage to go inside. My briefcase had nothing but my one-page resume inside. Once I got to the floor where the interview was, I froze.

I stood there as my thoughts raced. I thought about Jenny, our hypothetical child, the office workers not buying me coffee, and me, in my dark blue custodial coordinator’s shirt, sitting behind my desk in my shit office without windows. The sweat poured from my face and seeped through the white dress shirt I was wearing under my only suit jacket.

I left the building without going to the interview and wandered into the closest bar. I wasn’t much of a drinker, but scotch seemed like a good idea so I sat there sipping one on ice as I stared at my watch. After a while, I caught a bus home. I told Jenny the interview seemed to go fine, but there were quite a few other applicants and it wasn’t a sure thing by any means. The truth was I didn't have the slightest clue how many people interviewed for the job, and when Jenny found me out, she’d had it with me.

***

The first few weeks of night shifts went fine. The work was simple and free of distraction, and I felt comfortable not being seen by anyone other than the few people I worked with. I didn’t feel threatened or worthless being around them, just content and at ease. I tried explaining that to Herbert, another nighttime custodian, and he couldn’t understand it. He was desperate to work days and I told him he didn’t know what he was wishing for.

Our shifts started at 10 p.m. and ended at 6 a.m. We each had certain floors of the building that we took care of. I cleaned floors ten through fourteen. On the thirteenth floor there was a fancy lounge room with leather sofas and a big screen television. Every night I would take my break in that room and look out at the great view of downtown. The glimmering lights from the tall buildings, street lights, and the few driving cars lit up the dark sky and cast a sense of quiet relief over me.

One night on break, I noticed a man in the building across the street from mine as I glanced out the window. He was sitting at his desk sifting through files and writing diligently, by hand and on his keyboard. I watched him for almost a half hour, hardly budging as he worked so persistently in his office at three o’clock in the morning. My first thought was that this man must have been just like all the people who worked in the offices in my building. He was probably just another jerk who would unintentionally nudge me as he walked past and not even bother to apologize after. He was one of those people with a backyard pool and a happy family. But then part of me felt differently. I thought, at least he’s working harder than all those other business people I see around here. This guy’s different. He’s not like the others. He works all night because he absolutely has to.

The next night, I took my break at the same time in the same room and I noticed the man was working in his office again. Papers and folders engulfed his desk. It seemed so unusual to me. Aside from custodial staff, I didn’t see any other people working in offices during the night. It was after I’d seen him five nights in a row that I began to strongly admire the fact that he worked alone, away from everyone else, like I did. Because he probably felt the same way I did. Maybe he didn’t like the people he worked with during the day, or better yet, maybe he disapproved of the way they viewed the custodial staff.

It had been almost three weeks straight that I’d seen this man working away in his office in the middle of the night. I kept taking my breaks around 3 a.m. and going up to the lounge just to watch him. I can’t explain why I was so captivated by him. But since I’d first seen him, I felt myself beginning to change. I started to take a little more pride in my work, as ludicrous as that sounds, and in doing so I began to slowly feel a little better about everything. Even Herbert noticed and asked if I’d gotten laid. I didn’t answer him, though. I hadn’t since Jenny, and my mind stirred when I thought about how she’d left me for somebody else.

One night, I actually felt like socializing so I asked Herbert if he wanted to take his break with me and eat our snacks in the lounge up on thirteen. He looked surprised at first, but he agreed and we took the elevator up together. We sat in the comfy leather seats and talked while we ate. Herbert was much older than me and had little to say. I talked about my failed relationship and my job. He listened and ate a box of raisins, nodding his head every so often. It was soothing being able to talk to someone, just about anything. It had been quite a while since I’d done that.

I told Herbert I felt better these days because of the man I’d noticed in the building across the street from ours, how seeing him inspired me to take my work more seriously. Maybe I went on about him too much, but I envied this man and his dedication, and I wanted Herbert to know that so he could understand, too. I finally felt I could relate to someone white collar and it gave me joy. He smirked at that idea and said, “Whatever, kid. I guess if it helps.” I liked talking to Herbert. He reminded me of a wise grandfather. I never showed Herbert the window where I could point the man out, though. I didn’t want him to see.

The next night I asked Herbert if he wanted to spend break together again. He sighed, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m going to work through break tonight and try to leave early.” I didn’t think he was telling me the truth and I was a bit insulted. I told him I thought we’d had a nice talk and that we could spend break together more often, even every night if he wanted. He chuckled and said he’d see me around. I stopped in front of him, blocking him from where he was headed. I told him if he came with me I’d point out the man in the office. He said he didn’t care and that, quite frankly, I shouldn’t care either. Then he said, “The man is just a man and plenty of men work at night, so you may as well get over it.”

I found it difficult to concentrate on work after that. I wasn’t feeling very well. Herbert had pissed me off so I decided to head up to the lounge and have a rest on the comfy leather chairs. After sitting for only a few minutes, I got impatient and stood up to watch the man I so genuinely admired.

When I approached the window I couldn’t see him. The light in his office was on, but he wasn’t at his desk. I could see shadows moving in the room, but I couldn’t tell from where. My heart raced and I waited for him to sit back down at his desk. I wanted to see him work again, to see him write and file lavishly as he’d done every night since I’d first noticed him. Sweat began to pour down my face and through my shirt just as it did when I skipped my interview for custodial coordinator.

I started to panic so I sat back down to catch my breath. Maybe Herbert was right. Maybe I should’ve just forgotten about it, about him. But I couldn’t. I realized this man was the last thing keeping me sane at my embarrassing, bullshit job. My thoughts spun. What if he stopped working nights? What if he never came back? What the hell was I going to do?

I tried holding myself back from returning to the window, but I couldn’t. I stood up again and looked toward the man’s office, and as I did, the window went dark. My blood ran cold.

The man left his office before midnight. I pictured him getting into his luxury car and driving home to his suburban mansion. I was sour. I thought about him going home to his wife who’d be asleep already on the left side of the bed. I pictured Jenny lying there, and him quietly lying down to avoid waking her. Then I thought about me, holding my empty briefcase, standing in front of the office where I was supposed to have my interview. 

79 Fallen Garden

By Martin Dash

It’s natural for humans to be creative. Since the time of our caveman ancestors, we’ve had the urge to set ourselves above each other. So when you’re the 2,347th person that year to kill yourself, there’s an urge to make it unique. After all, it’s anyone’s last act of their life by definition. It’s what Don always feared when he got each call. He was one of the guys who were there to pick up the corpses when people killed themselves.

Thankfully, most people weren't that creative. They quietly overdosed on pills and expired in a corner of their house. The real bummer for Don was that the bodies usually stank. Nobody would notice their deaths for a while— Don supposed that was why these people didn’t care to live anymore. Neighbours would notice a rancid smell wafting over from next door, or somebody would report something they did online had gone quiet. Much more rarely, a family member would report their cousin, sibling or parent missing. The end result is that the body was often in an advanced state of decomposition, and it was Don’s biggest annoyance.

“You and Seth have been assigned to investigate 79 Fallen Garden Crescent.” Don read his orders an hour after he got them. He had felt his phone vibrate and knew it was the Ministry, but he was making lunch and eventually lost track of time. He once mused that it was funny they said “investigate” when nine times out of ten, there would be a dead body. He’d eventually figured they were just erring on the side of caution. But the text still made him edgy. He was paired up with Seth, and a conspiracy-obsessed sociopath was not a person he liked working with.

Seth was already on his way. He pulled up with the work truck in front of his house and Don went out to meet him. In spite of his intense dislike for the man, he always tried to be cordial with Seth, if only so he would shut up. On the way there, it seemed to work. They had a pleasant conversation with Don extolling the virtues of his newly bought meat smoker. But as they neared the street sign for Fallen Garden Crescent, Seth put on a snarly tone that meant he was getting started.

“Alright, let’s scoop up this piece of rot.” Don sighed. Seth had no respect for the dead. He held those who lost their desire to live in utter contempt. It seemed to Don he’d only be satisfied if a person died in battle.

The smell hit them both and they put on their gas masks at the same time. The front door was locked, so they went around back. A young woman was slumped in a computer chair. She’d taken a pill and wine combo which was the favoured tactic of most people, especially women. It meant there was no blood to clean up. The identity of the person was never disclosed to the pickup crew, but it didn’t matter to Don, who’d seen it all.

“What a shame. She should have called me up. I would have totally shown her a good time,” Seth said, punctuating it with a short “ha ha”, an almost cliché scumbag laugh. Don gritted his teeth. All they had to do was pack her into a transfer tube and ship her to the morgue. But he knew the drive would be awful. “I’ll call the Ministry,” said Seth, doubling back.

Don walked over to inspect the body. The only thing illuminating it was the light of a computer screen— another common sight for Don. Her internet browser was full of conspiracy websites, like worldunderfire.org and whattheydontwantyoutoknow.com, each telling of the government’s atrocities. They orchestrated 9/11, they were deliberately funding terrorists, the people who were supposed to run society were all power hungry psychopaths, and Big Brother sees your every move. Don had heard it all before from Seth.

He looked through her computer to make sure that she was the one who lived in the apartment. It was simply a formality to Don. The body they found always belonged to the person who lived in the house. Who would sneak into a house to die? But they always had to make sure. It saved them having to call in a family member to joylessly identify the remains.

Seth walked up behind Don while still on the phone. “Give me a sec— Hey Don, can we identify that the bitch lived here or what?” Don scrolled back to the conspiracy websites, just to wind Seth up.

“Hand me the phone,” Don snatched it out of Seth’s hands before he could say anything. “Hello?”

“Hey Don, it’s Rana. Can you ID the body?”

“Yeah, she’s got a few pictures of herself on a computer that resemble the corpse. It’s still in a state where I can ID it.”

“What was she doing when she died?”

“Oh, she was all over those crazy conspiracy websites.” Don watched Seth as he spoke, noting how uncomfortable he was getting.

“Shit, she could have been Seth’s wife,” Rana said. He knew about Seth. “Anyway, you know the drill.”

“Bye.” Don ended the call. He liked Rana way more than he liked Seth. Rana always sounded sympathetic when talking about the dead, even though he never had to see them. “Seth, I think we’re ready to pack her up.” Seth got up and looked at Don sadly. Don was feeling particularly sadistic, so he decided to have a bit of fun with Seth. “You two were kindred spirits.”

Seth’s face twisted in fury. “Fuck that! She was supposed to join in the fight against institutionalized evil, and she copped out. She can rot in hell for all I care.”

Don was enraged. He couldn’t handle how thoughtless and cruel Seth was being. Not this time.

“Goddamnit, Seth, do you care about anyone? She would—“

“I don’t give a damn about people who give up!”

“Yeah well, she would have been a perfect match for you. Now she’s dead, and all you wanna do is talk shit! She thought about the world the same way you do. It drove her crazy and she killed herself. Who says you won’t do the same?”

“Whatever, D—“ Don interrupted Seth by punching him in the jaw, knocking him over and breaking his gas mask. He stormed out of the house, and left Seth to do the job alone. Seth had always been like this, but today Don just couldn’t deal with it. He had to walk home and he knew he'd be seething the entire way.

Don pulled out his phone and called his best friend to help him calm down. He hadn’t spoken to Josh for a month, but that never mattered. The phone rang twice, and his friend picked up. “Don! What’s goin’ on, man?”

“Josh, I need a ride.” Don said it with a laugh to make it seem like he wasn’t in trouble.

“Sure man, where are you?”

Don told him where he was. They met up and found a bar where they could talk over drinks. Don explained the situation with Seth. They made fun of him for a while, and talked about the rash of suicides that provided Don with work. There was a massive meeting going on in the bar. In an attempt to curb isolation, the government was organizing large social gatherings. The meetings were thought to be only for desperate loners, but people went to them anyway. Don and Josh didn’t think this would stop all the suicides.

They went back to Josh’s place where they could smoke some weed. Don’s phone rang, and it was Seth. He was probably calling to rip Don a new one, and Don knew the call was going to be good. He set it to speakerphone so Josh could hear.

“I’m reporting you, man! What the hell is your problem?” Seth sounded like he was close to tears. It was the first time Don had heard him so upset.

“Seth, you’re a scumbag. I just couldn’t handle your bullshit anymore. Relax.”

“Do you have any idea what it’s like to be the only one who knows the truth about the government? To watch as everything goes to shit? Nobody wants to hear the truth! They just want to be blissfully ignorant!”

Don rolled his eyes while Josh laughed. “Here you go with this crap again, Seth. But that’s not the problem. It’s that you act like an asshole. I couldn’t care less about the conspiracies you go on about.” They started to shout over each other. The conversation began to escalate so Don decided to shut it down. “I’ll deal with you when I’m not stoned out of my mind. Bye, Seth.”

As Don hung up, he looked over at Josh, who’d been snickering in the background. “Think he’s still yelling into the phone?” This made Don laugh, since that was exactly what Seth would be doing.

On their sixth bong hit, Josh’s girlfriend came home from work. It was late then, so Don got up to leave. He and Josh got into the car. When they reached Don’s place, they both stepped out to say their goodbyes.

“It’s always good to see you, dude,” Josh said.

“Yeah. You’re one of the few guys I can talk to about anything.” They both laughed.

“You should quit that job. I don’t want you to get too down.” Josh had said this before.

“I’m good. It’s good money, and you get used to it. And I know you think I’ll kill myself, but I’ll be okay as long as I’ve got friends like you.”

Josh sighed. “Okay. You know all about this stuff. It won’t happen to us.” Josh laughed nervously, as if suicide hung right around the corner, watching.

Cardboard Cut-Outs

By Carole Besharah

“I knew who I was this morning but I've changed a few times since then.” 
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

“And that’s how we used an empty milk carton and a Cracker Jack box to build our church.” Ches Shireman stood in front of the class grinning. He shot a glance at Ella, who blushed at her desk.

We clapped while Ches and his partner Max carried their tiny model of St-Teresa of Avila to the back of the classroom. Max tripped over a book bag, nearly dropping their project to the floor. A bunch of kids giggled, including Ella whose cheeks were now the colour of pink bubble gum.

Ches grabbed the cardboard church with both hands, lifted it over his head and yelled, “Disaster averted!” That got me giggling with the others.

“All right, everyone. Settle down,” warned Miss Laurence. She sat at her desk, scrunching up her painted-on eyebrows. 

I watched the boys lay down their church in between replicas of Potter’s Tavern and the fire station. Each team had to make a different landmark that, as Miss Laurence had explained, helped make our town unique. Across the long bookshelf stretched a mishmash of small cardboard buildings that made up our miniature town of Bridgeton.

When Ella had chosen me to be her partner, I was so excited. She was the most popular girl in class. In all of Grade 7, actually. I think she only chose me because I’m a good artist. But that’s okay. Last Saturday I got to hang out at her house when we finished painting our tiny library. Well, when I finished painting it. Ella spent most of that afternoon watching me speckle brown bricks while she talked about Ches Shireman. Ches this. Ches that. Her Ches-babble had made my head spin.

Miss Laurence cleared her throat. “Well, it seems as though there is only one presenter left. Alice, please set up your model.” 

We all turned to look at Alice Winters, the only student without a partner. She was the scatty, quiet kid nobody paired up with. Alice always seemed to be dreaming of a faraway place.

Pudgy Pete, who sat next to her, whispered, “Hey Alice, did you make a model of Lalaland?” I pretended not to hear and squirmed in my seat. 

Ches mouthed, “Alice in Lalaland” to a couple of girls. They laughed.

Miss Laurence shot a watch-it look their way with a wrinkled brow. 

Alice rose without looking up and tugged at her faded, blue t-shirt— the one with the cartoon cat she always wore. She was so tiny, she probably got it in the little kid section of the department store. She was the only girl in class who wore eyeglasses and didn’t wear a bra.

Her project was so big, it had been placed on a work table near Miss Laurence’s desk. None of us had seen her project because it was covered by a wrinkly bed sheet dotted with fluffy, white clouds. Alice walked toward her project slowly, like she didn’t want to be there. Then, she turned to face us —small and scared-looking— with her arms wrapped in front of her chest.

In a quiet voice, Alice said, “I’d like to present the Bridgeton Middle School.” Then she removed the bed sheet with a soft swish. 

Most of us gasped seeing the life-like, little school. It was so beautiful. I noticed that it was painted the same shade of blue as our school. Alice had textured the walls to make them look like real stucco and used cellophane inside the window sills to make them look shiny. She had even lined the cardboard school with teeny weeny trees made of sticks and green tissue paper. Only a real artist could have pulled this off so well.

While Alice talked about the history of Bridgeton Middle School, I heard Ella and the other girls giggling. Then I noticed Ches was making a “Four Eyes” sign with upside-down hands, shaped to look like glasses against his nose. I felt a twitch in my belly. I looked away before they saw me looking.

That’s when Alice’s soft voice cracked and her eyes became teary. She bit her lip and stopped talking. She must have seen Ches or heard the giggling. Miss Laurence hadn’t noticed a thing. She was too busy scribbling away on Alice’s evaluation sheet.

“Watch out,” whispered Pete. “Alice’ll flood all of Lalaland with pools of tears.”

More giggles. My stomach tightened, like an animal balloon being twisted into a gazillion knots.

Alice swallowed back tears. She took one end of the platform and spun it around, slow and steady. Now we could all see the schoolyard that had been hidden behind the school. Little cut-outs of kids decorated the platform. I heard a couple of “wows” and “ahs.” 

“In 2008,” Alice continued, “the PTA raised enough money to fix up the schoolyard. They planted maple trees and laid down synthetic grass for our new soccer field.”

Alice had placed a bunch of tiny cardboard cut-outs on the green field. They looked just like the sporty boys in our grade. She had painted them with a lot of details, from little fingers to rosy cheeks. I could make out Little Max in his striped jacket, Little Axel with his cornrows, the identical Little Castillo twins, and Little Ches. I never knew Alice was so… talented. Everyone was straining their neck to get a closer look at the delicate cut-outs. In fact, the kids sitting farther back in the classroom moved up so they could see better. 

“Hey Ches, she got your hair right,” snickered Pete. It was easy to spot Little Ches, in the middle of the field, with wild, red hair. 

“You’re there too, Pete. Look!” Someone pointed at Little Pudgy Pete. He sat cross-legged, wearing his favorite yellow sneakers, right on the sidelines in his usual spot.

Curious, Miss Laurence rose from behind her desk. She walked up to look over the shoulders of the kids who were crowding closer and closer around Alice.

“Over here we have the climbing gym. It’s eight feet tall. As you can see, lots of kids can climb it at once. It’s made of solid steel.”

Alice had made pretty cut-outs of the cool girls and sat them on the wire climbing gym. Sitting in a tight ring were Little Ella with wavy, blond hair, Little Jess wearing her bright red leggings, Little Chelsea covered in freckles and… Little Me. It had to be me. Alice had painted my black bob and my favorite polka-dot shirt. 

“Oh! Look, there’s a little me!” Ella said, smiling. I was surprised she sounded so happy because I felt so… weird. Once in a while, I got invited to join their circle of cool. I spent those recesses feeling out of place, trying to figure out what to say so the others would like me. Seeing Little Me in that ring of cardboard girls didn’t feel right.  

I looked away from the dome and noticed the lone park bench made of craft sticks in the middle of the schoolyard. There sat a lookalike of Alice in her kitty cat t-shirt. A cardboard girl reading a tiny book. Alone.

“Well, that’s the end of my presentation,” Alice said. Everyone clapped. Even Pete and Ches, who seemed almost impressed. Ella was beaming. She let out a “woo-hoo!” 

“What a wonderful project, Alice,” said Miss Laurence. “I think we’ve learned to see our school in a new light. Please bring your model to the back with the others.”

“But it’s too big, I—”

“I’ll give you a hand, Alice,” I blurted out.

We walked together toward the little town of Bridgeton, while gripping both sides of the cardboard platform. 

“Your school is so beautiful, Alice, it must have taken you forever to make it. You’re a real artist, Alice. A real good one, too,” I said. Her eyes brightened when she glanced up at me. After we set Alice’s project down at the end of the bookshelf, she smiled and straightened her shoulders. She seemed to grow taller, just then. 

We stood together for some time without talking and studied the cardboard schoolyard. “I love your leafy trees. Maybe you can show me how to make them? I could use a couple near the steps of the library entrance.” I nodded toward my own model. “It looks so bare without trees.”

Then I grabbed Little Me sitting on top of the climbing gym. Carefully, I removed the tape sticking her to the wire dome and the ring of cardboard girls. Alice watched, curious but silent, while I sat Little Me next to Little Alice on the park bench. They looked like they were reading a story together.

“I’d like that.” Alice’s voice was as bright and cheerful as her eyes. I wasn’t sure if she was talking about us making tissue paper trees or reading a book, but either one was fine by me.

“I’d like that too,” I said, smiling. I felt a little different than I had that morning. For the first time in forever, I was excited about recess.

Moving Through Chaos

By Stephanie Dor

I sat across from George*, my therapist, at a round table. After we introduced ourselves, I briefly told him about my history of depression, past counselling, and the work of my recovery. He was different from previous therapists in the casual way that he spoke. He laughed more than any counsellor I’d ever had, and didn’t make notes during our conversation. I wasn’t lying in a long chair and he never said, I see. Tell me more. He told me about his recent move and that he was still transitioning to a new job. He even asked me where to buy eco-friendly light bulbs before he asked if there was anything I wanted to talk about. He also offered me tea.

With past therapists, our conversations were terse and professional. We only discussed the immediacy of my depression, cognitive-behavioural changes that I had to make, and medication. But now that I felt like my depression was dealt with, I decided it was time to talk about something I had avoided in the last years of therapy: My father. He was an alcoholic, and I grew up in an alcoholic home.

Talking about my dad’s drinking in therapy had always felt inappropriate and out of place. I focused on pressing issues like my insomnia and low self-worth because “reaching back into my childhood” was too big a task for me to handle, especially while I was clinically depressed. Now that my depression was gone, I was ready to lie back in a long chair and tell someone about my father.

I told George what living at home was like. As far back as I can remember, my father drank every night. He filled and refilled a short glass with ice and whisky. He would start at dinner time and go on until after I went to sleep. I realized that he actually had a problem in 2007. When I was 16 years old, I saw my dad get violent with my mom for the first time. He hit her, and locked her outside of the house in the middle of the night. It was the first time I had to dial 911.

When I was 19, I started taking antidepressants and was doing poorly in school. By then, one of my sisters had tried to run away several times. My mother was also depressed and wasting away. My dad’s drinking was only getting worse. He’d started drinking during the day on weekends.

My family was beyond the breaking point, but my mother wanted to hold on a little longer. She planned to wait four more years before divorcing and leaving my father. By then, my youngest sister would have graduated from high school and hopefully my mother would be stable enough to take care of us on her own.

George asked me about the incident in 2007, and asked if anything that significant ever happened again. I decided to tell him something I’d never spoken about with anyone outside of my family: I told him about the day we walked away from my dad for good.

It was Saturday, June 18th 2011. I slept in that morning. My sister knocked on my bedroom door and came in to tell me that she was leaving. She didn’t know where she was going, or if she’d be back. She told me she was leaving after breakfast. I was too tired to fight, and said okay.

Right after my sister closed the door, my mom knocked and came in. She wordlessly handed me a grocery list. My dad had crossed out each item and wrote the words need a court order at the top of the list. My mom worried that my dad was going to refuse to buy food. I got out of bed and went downstairs to reason with him.

I told George that my dad was a reasonable man when he wasn’t completely drunk (there was never a time when he was completely sober). Truthfully, he was something of a genius. He had been a university math professor since he was 16 years old. He was an excellent conversationalist, spoke four languages fluently, and was an avid reader. But every morning before going to his lectures, he masked the smell of whisky with Colgate and Old Spice. When he was drunk, he was disagreeable and confusing.

On that Saturday, he was very unreasonable. I asked him about the grocery list, but the conversation went nowhere because he was drunk and angry. My father had a tight hold on everything. He had complete control over the household money and the car. If he refused to buy food then our fridge would simply remain empty.

I can’t remember which of us called the police. Two officers arrived and tried to reason with my father. I remember one officer gesturing to our well-furnished home and family photos on the wall. It was as if he was saying: You have a nice family. You have so many good things around you. This doesn’t look like the typical broken homes we’ve seen.

I explained to George that my father prided himself on his image and the image of our family. In pictures you’d see a husband and his beautiful wife and three daughters. In public, you’d see a well-dressed man wearing a nice watch and driving a nice car. In person, you’d have an intelligent conversation with a man who was passionate about classical music and the World Cup.

At home, my father abused my mother and upset me and my sisters. On that Saturday, he insulted us in front of the officers. He called us stupid, ignorant, and ungrateful. He tried to tell the officers that he’d buy food and that everything was fine. My sister was outraged, and refused to hear what he was saying. She yelled at him and called him a monster, a narcissist, a drunk.

Something lit up in my dad’s eyes when he heard the word drunk. The tone of his voice and the anger in his eyes scared me more than anything. He looked at my sister and said You wait and see. I feared something was going to happen to us once the officers left.

I realized that waiting was no longer an option. We couldn’t endure another four years of his abusive behaviour and his drinking. We couldn’t wait for my youngest sister to graduate. We couldn’t wait for my mom to get on her feet so that we could leave.

So I made a decision: We had to leave, and right that moment. I told my mom and my sisters to pack some clothes and food. I asked the police officers to stay while we gathered our things. I made sure to pack the dog, and poured some of his kibble into a Ziploc bag while my father shouted at us.

That was how it happened. In a few seconds, I made what seems like the obvious choice. I know now that my mother was willing and likely to stay with my father because she was a victim of more than 10 years of abuse. She saw no way out. Without my father, we had no shelter, no car, and no money. Knowing that, I told myself that those weren’t reasons to stay. The thought of my dad hurting us scared me more than the idea of being without food or shelter. I decided that living on the streets was better than living with him, and I made that reckless decision for my entire family. In retrospect, I know I made the right choice.

Things weren’t easy when we left. One of my sisters stayed with her boyfriend’s family. My other sister, my mom, and I stayed in a cheap motel for a month. I racked up credit card debt paying for the room and food and toiletries. But after a few weeks we were reunited again with the help of family friends who opened their home to us. Technically, and on a legal front, my father should have been paying to support us, but we didn’t hear from him again and were happier for it.

I looked at the clock in George’s office and realized that I’d been talking for over half an hour. I felt exhausted. He commented on the decision I made on that day. He asked if I always assumed responsibility in chaotic situations, and I admitted that I had. I stepped in the middle of fights between my parents. I tried to reason with my dad when he was unreasonable. I also tried to keep my sisters away from the chaos, telling them to hide in my room when they got scared.

George asked about my support system. I joked and said that it was my job to support everyone else. For a large part of my childhood and adolescence, I was running on empty. There was little to help me get along. It was around that time that my depression started.

George asked me why I took that role, and I gave the same explanation that I gave to previous counsellors: I helped and protected my mom and my sisters because my father failed to do so. After all, I was the oldest child and the oldest sibling.

Our first session together came to an end. I was surprised by all we had talked about. George suggested that I do some reading on adult children of alcoholics (ACOA), and in our next session, we would talk about whether or not I could relate to anything I read.

The research was startling. I read through a list of typical traits and behaviours of ACOAs and saw a lot of myself:

I burden myself with responsibilities and take on roles that don’t belong to me.  

I tend to see things in extremes.

I get anxious when people display too much emotion.

I get anxious when I start to feel too much emotion, even feelings of joy and happiness.

I have a difficult time forming intimate relationships with people.

 I only get involved with people I think “need my help.”

I have a fear of being abandoned.

I constantly seek the approval of others and strive to appear perfect.

The more research I did on ACOAs, the more I saw myself. And it also felt like I hadn’t really walked away from my father and his drinking. When I saw George again, we talked about all of that.

As the adult child of an alcoholic, I’m still the kid who grew up with all that chaos. I’ve held on to those coping mechanisms that helped me in the past, even now when my environment is more stable. The trauma I grew up with manifested itself in an inexplicable depression that lasted for years. But now I understand why.

I came away from that session with a lesson. The environment that I grew up in was unfortunate and chaotic, and nothing was my fault. My father would have likely been an alcoholic no matter what I did.

I will never fully understand my father, and that hurts. I can understand that because of his drinking, he couldn’t love his family, but I’ll never understand why he couldn’t love himself. Chances at making peace with him are slim. I don’t know where he is, or if he’s even alive. I have no way of contacting him. But I can continue to work on making good changes in my life, despite my past, even if my father isn’t a part of it. I can help my mom and my sisters make peace too.

I did more research and read the “Twelve Steps of Adult Children of Alcoholics.” The first step is “admitting you are powerless over the effects of alcoholism, and that your life has become unmanageable.” I know my life isn’t unmanageable and I refuse to feel powerless.

I had unreasonable expectations of myself after my dad left. I tried to fill his shoes, to be a top student, and to be the best retail employee. But things fell apart for me really fast. My sisters and mom fought with me because I was too controlling. I failed my second year of university. My manager “let me go” because all I did at work was break down and leave partway through my shifts.

I spent a few weeks wallowing in my room and decided that I had to restart if I wanted to keep going. I went to therapy twice a week (I lied and told my mother I was still in school and going to classes) and got on medications that helped me move through the chaos. After a few weeks I got another job and worked for a year, and then I started a new program at a new school.

It’s a work in progress. Sometimes I take steps back instead of forward. My last two relationships have been with people I thought I could fix (and one of them had a bit of a drinking problem), but I woke up and realized what I was walking into before I went too far.

Maybe I should talk to George about that in my next session. There’s still a lot that I don’t understand and a lot that I need to work on, but I have more control now. The fog in which I existed during my depression has lifted and I have more clarity. But I still have a lot of talking to do in counselling.

*I’ve changed my therapist’s name for confidentiality purposes.

The Art of the High Score

By Peter Doney

Are video games an art form? This question has always been at the heart of the gaming community. Ever since their conception, they have been viewed only as a means of amusement, just something to kill time. Others see them as corruptors of youth. But nowadays, the question of whether video games can be considered an art form has become increasingly prevalent.

Many believe that games cannot be a form of art. The late Roger Ebert may have been the most famous of them. “One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.” Ebert was certainly right. Games are a medium unlike any other. You can’t manipulate a painting the same way you would a game, or restart a book whenever something you don’t like happens. And video games, in order to function, require a core set or rules and limitations that make up what’s known as “mechanics.”

As it turns out, it is through a game’s mechanics that its full artistic merit can shine through. James Portnow, a writer from the YouTube channel Extra Credits, has done a number of videos on the subject of mechanics as metaphor. The idea is that you take the way your game plays and use it to express a theme. In the game Spec Ops: The Line, for example, they use standard shooter mechanics and moments of communication intended for the player to explore the mental disorders experienced by soldiers, as well as critiquing the shooter genre as a whole.

This idea can even be found during the early days of gaming. The simple arcade game Missile Command was released back in the 80s. Defend six cities with three missile silos with ten shots each from a barrage of incoming missiles. The thing is, you can’t beat Missile Command. There’s a high score board and bragging rights, but the game is set on an infinite loop of increasing difficulty. And when you do lose, instead of the standard “Game Over” you get “The End.”

This game is just as much a statement about the horrors of nuclear warfare as any painting of blasted cities, or novel about the haggard survivors of a post-apocalyptic world. Even during its creation, programmer Dave Theurer says he had constant nightmares where he’d wake up and look outside his window to see a mushroom cloud forming in the distance, knowing that the shockwave would hit in the next few seconds. In his mind, those nameless six cities you defend were the six coastal towns where he lived.

It is my opinion that games are a form of art and expression. On the surface, you might see nothing more than simple amusement, but if you dig deeper you may find a heart with the soul of an artist.

Girl Down Under

By Cara Jean

When my best friends turned 18, some exercised their newfound legal rights by purchasing lottery tickets and pornography. Some bought cigarettes they didn’t know how to smoke. Others made plans to attend university. I was a little more lost than my friends were. So I applied for an Australian Working Holiday Visa.

My parents thought my performance in a local theatre production of The Vagina Monologues would be the story of rebellion they tell about their free-spirited teenage daughter. But they blame their grey hairs on my decision to backpack Australia alone – mostly on what I did for work when I was there.

Travel writer Cheryl Strayed once said of backpacking: “You don't get what you expect. You get what you didn't expect, and you deal with it.”

I don’t know what I expected to get out of backpacking, but shovelling cow shit to pay rent wasn’t part of the original plan. 

“Remember to look up the aerial view on Google Maps before you take a job. Make sure there are no heads on fence posts.” After the floods that devastated Queensland in 2010, my dad was especially nervous that his baby girl would end up destitute.

I was in Australia four months with no job, spending my days bumming around the outback and applying for waitress positions. But with half of Australia underwater, and the other half on fire, it became painfully obvious that I would have to take work wherever I could find it.

I was sitting outside the employment agency in Perth, Western Australia when I got the call. Backpack between my knees, huddled with a crowd of other smelly travellers desperate for work, I waited two hours on the hot pavement in 30+ C heat until the office opened. We were then ushered into a tiny purple room that had a pole in the middle. Not a pole-dancing kind of pole, but a height pole. Depending on how tall you were, you could pick different kinds of fruit. Berries, grapes, bananas, passion fruit. That was how a backpacker found work. I was grape height.

I stood in that room, determined to get anything. My pocket rang—a call back from an online job posting. A farm in southern Victoria needed a dairy-hand.

“I’m looking for a Cara Jean?” asked a thick Australian accent.

“Oh, speaking.” It wasn’t until the moment I heard an Australian dairy farmer say “Cara Jean” that I realized my name sounds facetiously country.

“I’m looking at your resume here. Just a couple questions for you. Are you a good, strong Canadian girl?”

“Well, um… yes.” I weighed a little over one hundred pounds.

“Can you cook?”

“Just Canadian food.” I had never cooked a proper meal in my life.

“I’m sure it’s all the same. I’ve always had good luck with Canadians, not so much with the Irish. When can you fly out?”

As teenagers living at home, we are constantly reminded of how good we have it. The rent is paid, and most of us will leave home with a high-school education. It’s hard to know what good is until you’re standing in a room with a height pole for berry picking. Until your best job offer is milking cows for minimum wage, working for some stranger who is prejudiced against the Irish.

March 16, 2011

Dear Mom and Dad,

It has been 11 days since I first left Perth Airport and landed in Melbourne, to begin work on a farm in the small township of Nullawarre. A man named Max Anderson owns the farm, and I work with an English girl named Tara Jayne. The fact that our names are so similar confuses everybody. Together, we milk 200 cows twice a day, five days a week. We share a room in what is, essentially, a furnished garage.

The idea of finding oneself in Australia sounds awfully romantic at first. When I first bought my visa, I imagined myself as a mysterious foreign waitress who would make a few lifelong pen pals, and find some necessary enlightenment before coming back to Canada and starting post-secondary. But instead of folding cloth napkins and discovering the secrets to adulthood, I combed cow shit out of my hair every morning and night.

Tara and I wake up at five every morning, before the sun has risen. One of us takes Toby the cattle dog to herd cows while the other opens the dairy. I finally got the hang of where all the pipes lead so now I am able to set up and shut down the dairy on my own. The first milking of the day is always the hardest because it's cold and even the cows are grumpy from being woken up early.

The job wasn’t so bad, but I had a rocky start. Maybe it was because I looked Irish enough—dark hair, green eyes, and alabaster skin—that Max the farmer didn’t trust me at first. Not to mention, I didn’t have the handshake of a strong Canadian girl. But I knew how to boil a potato, and he saw how willing I was to take the job, so he kept me on.

Whenever I made a mistake, I took solace in the fact that Max didn’t like a lot of people. I discovered that Ellen DeGeneres was banned from his living room, that he refused to buy a Japanese television, and that he watched a lot of conservative talk shows. Max lived alone. His son and grandson sometimes visited.

“My ex-wife took everything,” he told me during breakfast one day. “Everything except that refrigerator. Because, being a woman, she found it too much work to carry.”

To give the experience meaning, I told my friends back home some narrative about honest work and self-discovery. But every morning when I heard the shlurp of suction cups as I placed nozzles on cow tits, I realized I was just as lost as when I started out. And working for an Aussie “bogan” who only hired me because I was a “good, strong Canadian girl” didn’t feel honest.

However, I was doing more physical exercise than I had ever done in my life. My part-time retail job, local theatre, AP classes in high school —none of these could have prepared me for the physical drain of farm work. Tractor driving, wood chopping, operating a dairy and shaking tarantulas out of my boots every morning—all of this became routine for me.

March 20, 2011

I woke up early this morning to milk with Max while Tara had a day off. It went really fast this morning because Max is faster at herding the cows than Tara and I combined. He hits them too, which is something Tara and I won’t do. I try not to be judgmental of farmers, but I don't agree with hitting animals.

I found out today that one of my favourite cows, Bridget, has to go soon because she's not producing enough milk. For this reason Tara and I call the truck ramp “The Stairway To Heaven.” This next week is going to be hard for us, I think, with calves being born and sold for veal, and the older cows being sent away to the stockyards…

Since the age of six, I had been riding motorbikes. It came as a shock to everyone, including me, when I ended up in a motorbike accident that hospitalized me for a week. This happened when a bunch of cows escaped during the pregnancy tests, and I hopped on a bike that didn’t have brakes.

“Ride like the wind!” yelled Max.

So I did, wearing no helmet and a rubber apron covered in cow shit. When I realized that I had mistaken the sensation of an engine break for an actual manual break, I knew I was up shit’s creek. I couldn’t slow down. I had a choice between the cow and the fence post, and I chose the fence post. 

I can’t remember if I flew off the bike, or if I stayed on upon impact. Whichever way I went, I snapped my wrist in the process. I also uprooted about a half-kilometre of wire fencing. The herd stopped running to watch as I attempted to pull the bike out of the barbed wire, with no success.

I marched four kilometres back to the farm with a herd of runaway cows trotting ahead of me, my broken wrist, and a piece of barbed wire imbedded in my thigh. I was swinging a stick so that the cows would keep moving. High on adrenaline, I remember yelling at cow butts: “I’ve been here six months, and now it’s ruined! I don’t even know who I am yet.”

Part of me wondered if I would have been better off hitting the cow. While I felt stupid at the time, the story of my motorbike crash ended up being the story of strength and discovery that I took home with me. I managed to round up all of the cows that had escaped with no herding dog and no bike. The cows were trotting dutifully ahead of me when Max and Tara saw me walking back towards the farm, swinging that stick, bloody and covered in cow shit.

I didn’t lose my job, in part because Max didn’t want to lose his employers’ insurance. But I was a little out of sorts after my stint in the hospital. Before my cast was even off, I tried helping out again with the daily chores. I ploughed fields, I cooked meals, and I helped chop wood for the Lion’s Club raffle. An old Irish professor who was also chopping wood lent me a pair of safety goggles that Max had neglected to provide me with.

“They’re a boomerang,” he said.

“Sorry?”

“A boomerang. Get it? You’ll get it.” He winked.

After six months, I was used to locals trying to convince me of weird happenings in Australia. Not this time, I thought as I threw the goggles into the woods to prove that I knew they weren’t a boomerang. The entire Nullawarre Lion’s Club halted work just to laugh at me. The Irishman picked up the goggles, and brought them back.

“A boomerang, meaning that they come back. A loan.”

“I am so sorry…”

“Don’t be sorry, I heard about what happened. You’ll get it back… And Max!” He shouted through the trees, “Give your employees safety goggles!” He winked at me again, and I laughed.

Tara left the farm shortly after my accident, but we still keep in touch. She’s engaged to be married. During my last month as a dairy-hand I trained a Scottish girl, Michelle, who ended up leaving the job when I went. Turns out that Max was too ignorant to work for, especially without a friend to cope.

When it was all over, Tara, Michelle and I met up in a pub in Melbourne to blow off steam. To celebrate our survival and return to civilization, we drank our weights’ worth in pints. I remember accidentally slamming a pint down on the table with muscles I didn’t know I had. The next morning, before sunrise, I woke up to Michelle sleep-talking in the other room: “Cara, Cara… we have to go get the cows...” I didn’t understand the rest of what she was saying—her Scottish accent was thicker when she drank. Knowing that I could fall asleep, and that there were no cows in Melbourne, was the best feeling in the world.

I didn’t find myself in Australia; I got lost. I’m still lost. But if I learned one thing, it’s that life is a piece of cake after an almost fatal motorbike crash in the middle of nowhere with a herd of runaway cows. I discovered that what you get from travelling isn’t an answer, but a story. Then you write about it and carry on.

Bonfires and Broomsticks

By Nathan Mulcahy

As a lifelong Pagan, I have always listened to old folktales by the fire and fallen asleep to the sound of drums. Paganism has always been so joyous and inoffensive that for a number of years I couldn’t imagine anyone having a problem with it.

Then one day, I returned from school to find my mom sitting at the computer, shaking her head. A video from Fox News was on the screen, discussing how Paganism was a “threat to our nation.” They alleged that Pagans were just lazy New-Agers trying to scam extra holidays out of America.

On this occasion, Fox was immediately met with a fantastic display of support for Paganism from across the world, leading to an apology from the broadcasting company.

But the misunderstandings go far beyond those of an oft-disgraced news outlet. If my sole understanding of Pagan practices came from a Google image search of the phrase “Pagan rituals”– one in which sinister, toothed monsters and masked orgies abound – I would never let anyone I care about go near one. I would also be completely unprepared for the true horrors that lie within Pagan gatherings, involving such depraved acts as singing, holding hands, and potlucks.

You’d never slight someone by calling them a rabbi, or a nun, or a bishop. Those words simply don’t carry the negative charge that “witch” or “pagan” still do. In fact, it is strange that these words still carry these connotations, considering that groups like Catholics and Protestants attacked each other in much the same way, yet nobody would use either as an insult in our Canadian social context. While we no longer consider ourselves a religion-based society, we have continued to discriminate against witchcraft in the same way.

The word “Paganism” itself was used by the church to refer to beliefs besides Christianity, which were heavily persecuted. Long after this dark time, witches are still portrayed as cruel, sadistic crones refusing to conform to society, despite witchcraft itself originating from benevolent folk healing.

That is not to say all media portrayals of witchcraft and Paganism are bad. Most reporting on Pagan events is relatively unbiased, and upcoming events and rituals are occasionally covered by the news. In addition, movies like ParaNorman and Oz the Great and Powerful feature far more sympathetic portrayals of witches. Positive change has already begun - but there is still lots to do, and we all need to do our part if society is to truly improve.

If you hear someone refer to themselves as a witch or pagan, don’t judge too quickly. Treat them as you would a member of any other religion. If these subtle biases and stigmatizations towards less-known groups can be successfully stamped out of our society, we will be one step closer to a golden age where people aren’t attacked for their beliefs and lifestyle choices.

Lost and Found

By Michael Belkie

“Who are you?”

These were the last words my 12-year-old ears heard from her as she was dragged out of my parents’ house to the ambulance, my father in tow to make sure she was okay.

The house was locked, and I stayed in my room, in a daze. I went back to the video game on my old Nintendo Entertainment System. I would sit and wait, and time would blur. I couldn’t think – I couldn’t figure it out. I was young and innocent back then, but I was so disillusioned by these words from my own mother that I never went to visit her in the hospital. I didn’t want to visit someone whose ability to recognize her own son was robbed from her by cancer. I didn’t want to go through that again. I wanted my caring, loving mother back - the woman who would take us to play softball, who always had snacks and a hug ready for her little man. I wanted the woman who actually recognized me to come back.

My childhood was broken. My mother was gone. It was time to begin picking up the pieces and moving on.

When I finally came out of my daze, I found myself in a suit attempting to entertain my entire class in the basement of the Kelly Funeral Home. My elementary school had given all teachers and pupils the choice to go to the funeral if they wanted to. In hindsight, it’s overwhelming that the school made it possible for every single student to be at my mother’s funeral. I remember my father on the podium, near my mother’s body, crying that he would have arranged for a bigger church to fit the people lining up outside the door, if he’d realized there would be so many. I don’t think we could have predicted the turnout, or what a profound impact my mother had on the world.

I continued on to high school, but at that point, I was disassociated from the world around me. I began to wear long black coats, and I felt the need for time to myself. Mostly, it was an attempt to garner some sense of self-reliance. Without my mother to draw strength from, I had little choice but to grow up quickly. I never took the time to get over my mom’s death, simply dismissing it as “something that happened.” I began to delve deeper into something I could take pleasure from, in the same way being around my mother used to comfort me. I chose to escape into video games. I threw myself at them hard. I became better. I became stronger. I developed the ability to overcome and destroy video games like they were made for toddlers.

It was also at this time that a new player entered the field of my video gaming life: Massive Multiplayer Online games, or MMORPGs. Ultima Online was one of the first real MMORPGs to hit video game markets. Naturally, and without hesitation, I got into the game. I slowly became more disconnected from my surroundings, as more and more happened in the game. School became less important to me, friends became guild mates, and opponents became corpses before me. I got involved in an online relationship in-game, and while nothing serious came of it, it was important to the state of my psyche when things went wrong.

At one point, I lost contact with my online partner for awhile. No one saw or had contact with this player at all. She simply disappeared from the universe, and as a result, my character became depressed over the loss of his love-interest. What I hadn’t expected was the impact of this situation on me directly. I began to channel the emotions of my character into my own life, and became even more reserved and isolated as a result.

These are common symptoms of video game addiction, and they’re better understood these days. But back when I was 15 or 16 years old, I couldn’t have interpreted or diagnosed this kind of behaviour in myself. In a strange way, this was actually a good thing for me. It would be this addiction that set me straight.

Eventually I hit rock-bottom in the world of Ultima Online, and I decided I’d had enough. I stopped playing the game, but now I was truly alone— without a mother to love me, without my video games to make me smile, and without school to occupy my time. My father didn’t know it, but I had dropped out and was actively lying to convince him I was still going. I don’t know why I did it. I can only speculate it was a defence mechanism to try to sort out what the hell to do with myself.

I began to walk, looking for ways to pass my time. I would leave the house first thing in the morning, pretending to go to school, and then wander. I’d end up along the banks of the Rideau Canal, in the food court at the mall, on the streets of Ottawa South… I walked a lot. It wasn’t for fun. It was me trying to sort myself out. I was a mess, a disgrace, a waste of time.

Sitting near the water one day, watching the rapids crash down towards Carleton University, I came to terms with something—this wasn’t how I wanted to live my life. I didn’t want to be some useless, wandering vagabond. When I was still that innocent little boy, I wanted to work in video game development. I wanted to create stories for Sierra Interactive Studios, after playing dozens of their games as a child. But I needed something else before I could do that, something I was missing.

I needed to be happy again. So simple, isn’t it? I wonder why it took so long to figure out.

Even with my black coat and isolated gamer personality, I still had friends to rely on. I still had people out there who liked me for who I was. I had people who were counting on me to do the right thing. I never talked about this struggle with my friends, but I’ve always been a self-teacher. I had to start at the bottom and work my way back up.

So I finally told my father I’d been lying.

It was the single most difficult thing I’d ever had to do, breaking his heart to end the darkness that was dividing us.

I’m not going to suddenly one-eighty this story and say that life was all sunshine and rainbows after that, but things did get better. Once I got on track again, it was simply a matter of applying myself to something, and being happy while doing it.

School became a focus again. I rekindled lost friendships. I didn’t fall back into that dark place I once was. I stayed away from Massive Multiplayer games, but continued to conquer other types of games – ones that had an ending. Since Ultima, I’ve been wary of gaming addictions, and I made sure never to fall into that kind of depressing world again.

But through all this, the death of my mother continued to loom over me.

I stopped having depressing thoughts about my mother when I started dating my wife, during the final years of my work at Adult High School. She made it clear that if we were to continue our relationship, she came with attachments – specifically, children. But that didn’t scare me. My father did his best to raise us right when mom passed away, and I like to think that some of his parenting abilities passed on to me, because I didn’t hesitate to take on the role of stepdad.

It’s been 18 years since my mother passed away. I’ve been a father to my wife’s children – whom I adopted, and consider my own - for seven years now. I’m no longer the little boy that my mother’s mental state caused her to forget – the mother that cancer stole from me. I often find myself pondering whether my mom would be proud of me, even now. Someone will always try to praise me on her behalf, but it’s not the same.

Even as I move forward, there’s still that child deep inside who wants his loving mother back. A boy who wants to show his mom everything he has accomplished in life. Graduating, falling in love, taking on the responsibility of being a father to three wonderful children who will never meet their grandmother. Anyone who has lost a parent understands that notion.

I’ve even wondered what my kids’ futures will be like, having both their mother and their stepfather around for the length of their lives. They’re growing up with two parents, which is something that circumstances denied me. Will they follow down that same dark road I found myself on? Will my influence set them on a different path, away from my own personal failures?

I don’t wager I’ll ever truly get over the loss of my mother. I work hard each and every day to try to build a better life for myself and my family, despite past tragedies. I can’t say that I’m in the best position in the world – I’m not rich, I’m not powerful.

But I’m doing just fine, Mom. And I want to hope I’m going to be. You and Dad raised me to be strong. Your last words to me might have been “Who are you,” but I can tell you proudly now. My name is Michael. I’m your son, and I always will be.

An Invisible Grief

By Peggy Sands 

Hushed, sombre whispers floated around the room, then sunk into the wood-panelled walls. I sat straight-backed, hands folded in my lap, ankles crossed. I wanted to look around to see if there were any recognizable faces. Instead I looked without focus. The crowded room was warm, and people had removed their winter coats and sweaters and draped them over the backs of the pews. I nestled deeper into my black wool coat and tried to escape the cold, forbidding feeling that had wrapped itself around me.

My brave youngest daughter, who had volunteered to be the MC, introduced the next speaker, her brother.

My son stepped up to the podium and began. He gave a warm, loving, and truthful tribute to his dad. I pushed back the tears scratching the inside of my throat. As he spoke, I tried to see his eyes, to gauge how he was feeling, but I couldn’t. I was too far back.

I was the ex-wife.

It’s been six years since Steve’s funeral, and for a long time I asked myself why I didn’t cry that day. Why I stifled the flow of tears and grief that rose up inside of me. Why on that day, I clutched my emotions so close, and became this stiff version of myself.

These questions often jabbed at me in the quiet stillness between night and early morning. I call them the three a.m. questions.

I had attended funerals in the past, including those of both my parents. So I was familiar with the protocol and routine. I knew my place, and understood my role.

At Steve’s funeral, there was no place or acceptable role for me. I was not the grieving widow, nor dear friend, nor relative. I was the ex-wife. An open-wound reminder to the family of the past, of youthful days gone by before sickness and death.

I was fortunate to have my sister and brother-in-law and a couple of wonderful past neighbours stand by me. I was not alone… and yet I was all alone.

For over 10 years I had been married to Steve. We had shared the joy of parenthood, the thrill and worry of our first home, my father’s death, and the comfortable drudgery of everyday married life. We shared the anger, frustration, ugliness, and pain of the breakdown of a marriage. But we had created three beautiful children together, and that was forever.

At first our separation and divorce was thorny, we were prickly to each other. But as time passed we became a bit gentler and easier on one another. One day, he called and apologized for the nastiness and pain he had caused during our married life together. And in return, I accepted his apology and apologized to him for my part. It was one of the most honest conversations we had ever had, disguised as a pleasant chat.

Steve died eight years after that conversation, and it felt right to attend the funeral to support our children and pay my respects.

But there is no manual, no clear outline for grief and mourning designed for the ex-spouse. It’s a grief no one wants to look at. An invisible grief.

Unfortunately, a little over a year later, one of those wonderful past neighbours who stood by me at Steve’s funeral went through the same thing. She wrote about her own struggle with grief in a touching article that was published in The Globe and Mail in 2010. In it, she wrote “I lost Warren when our marriage ended, and I lost him again when his life ended. With the final loss there is no more chance to clear the air and be joint parents to our kids. Those chances are gone forever.”

When I read that, my thoughts became clearer. This grief was wrapped up in the painful reliving of loss all over again. More than mourning the death of a person you once loved, and shared children with, you are mourning the death of what might have been.

I’m not talking about reconciliation, but the chance that at some time in the future the two of you could have renewed the parental love you shared for your children. The possibility of those joyful conversations rich in pride about your kids were now gone.

When you are the ex-spouse, your decision to attend the funeral is met with different reactions. In my case, the majority of friends and family thought I should go, to be support for my children. But a few shrugged their shoulders, and asked, “Why would you go?”

At the reception after the funeral, I took a sip of the coffee that had gone cold and looked at the turned backs of the “in-laws,” the family I used to belong to, and asked myself the same question. “Why did I come, was this a mistake?”

In Death after Divorce, author and lawyer Lee Bordon tells the story of a divorced woman who attended her ex-husband’s funeral, to support their teenage sons.

“I spotted her at the funeral. She stood awkwardly in one corner of the room, not quite accepted by the family, unable to leave, and uncertain as to what role to play. She felt terrible, but she wasn't allowed to grieve. Her children were clearly part of the family. They belonged. Lucy felt for them and wanted to be there to support them. But yet she wasn't really part of the family herself, so she had to keep her distance. It was a miserable experience.”

The words “but she wasn’t allowed to grieve” hit hard.

I sat on that pew, and listened to all those people speak about Steve. Friends, his family, his wife, and our children. At times, the grief would squeeze my insides so tightly I could only take shallow breaths. On that day, the belief that I was “not allowed to grieve,” was so real and powerful, I could not give myself permission to do so.

According to StatsCan, the divorce rate in Canada is approximately 43.1 percent. A fair percentage of these would be over 50. We can safely assume that a large number of people are trying to cope with the death of an ex-partner.

But we don’t offer the same kindness or support to the ex-spouse that we do to the spouse.

External and internal expectations request that we be brave, show courage for the sake of the children or family, keep our self-intact quietly. And yet there is no public discussion. We are alone in our grief.

Has our arrogance as a society become so all knowing that we now stand behind the green curtain giving orders to vulnerable people on such a private matter as grief?

As I searched the web, I found hundreds of books on how to cope with the loss of wives, husbands, siblings, parents, children, and even pets. Amongst those hundreds, there was only one that dealt with the loss of an ex-spouse.

Society believes that if you are divorced, you have little or no love for your ex. And when a divorce is fresh, or especially messy, sometimes that is true. But the belief that once you are divorced, all memories both good and bad have been erased from the heart—that the years shared as husband and wife no longer count—is not true.

In the Huffington Post article, “How Do You Mourn an Ex-Spouse?” Jill Brook writes sweetly about the difficulties faced by Joan Kennedy at the funeral of her ex-husband Senator Ted Kennedy.

“As her sister Candace McMurrey told ABC News, Joan was trying “not to intrude” at the funeral but to honor the life of her ex-husband and father of her children. Intrude? That is an interesting word. Are you an intruder as the ex? Joan was the mother of his children. And his wife for a significant part of his life.”

What a curious question, in the event of a funeral: “Are you an intruder, as the ex?”

Most funerals are open to the public, announced in the paper or online. With this open invitation to join the family, to pay your respects and say goodbye to the deceased, how then does an ex-spouse (who had since made peace with their partner) become an intruder?

Was I afraid of what people would think? That I would be mocked or stared at? That my sorrow and sadness would be looked at as false? That somehow the hollowness, and deep sense of loss I felt, was a sham? I mulled over these questions, and the answer was yes. I believed that day that my heartfelt mourning would have been looked at as a lie and with malice.

At the front of the chapel, a book created by Steve’s family sat, inviting people to look through the photos and stories of his life.

I did not go up to look through the book. There was no need; I already knew what was in it and what had been erased. But people told me in quiet shaky voices. My brother-in-law said “I don’t know how the hell those three kids got here Peg, because you never existed.”

My sister remained polite, but tight-lipped and asked me how I stood it. I told her a mother had lost her child, a brother had lost his only sibling and a woman had lost her husband, so that kind of grief must kill all the good inside a person. And I meant it, but for a time jumbled in amongst that grief, I felt hurt, insignificant and bruised.

And then about a year later, I met someone who was at that funeral. A colleague of Steve’s who we both knew. In the middle of that small fruit market, between the bananas and potatoes, he looked at me and said “We saw what they had done to you at the funeral, and we were shocked. They should be ashamed of themselves. Absolutely no class.”

Was I embarrassed to feel slightly redeemed by that comment? Yes, but for that fleeting moment I didn’t care.

My dreams are vivid and reflect troubled times. For years after my parents died, they would constantly show up in my dreams, telling me to move back to Winnipeg. After Steve died, he often appeared in a dream, usually yelling at me. Thankfully, those have stopped.

There are times when I still feel an ache, wishing he was here to see the lives our three kids have created. To see our eldest daughter get married, or to see how she jumped so easily into the role of mum when her daughter came along. To see our son strive to move forward in a new career, or our youngest go forth on her adventures. But mostly to see how these three wonderful children, the combination of our life together, have grown into tolerant, kind, and good people.

That time we shared together, those years of married life, they have meaning.

They do count.

 

In the Blood

By Stephen Lowe

They stood in the gently swaying boxcar amidst the boxes and crates, their hands raised, as many firearm hammers locked into place. The compartment smelled of smoke, and the sound of the locomotive’s whistle could be heard from ahead. In front of them was a crate labelled, “Property of Her Royal Majesty, Queen Victoria.” The crate had been opened. The iron bar used to pry it was still in Xander’s hand. 

“Keep ‘em raised where I can see them,” said a man behind them, his revolver ready. “And drop the bar. Make one false move and these boys will give you a fatal case of lead poisoning.”

Xander did as he was told and dropped the bar. When it hit the ground he heard the ching of spurs approaching from behind. As the man came into view, revolver in hand, Xander recognized him as Sheriff Wesley Everson.

“Well, well, well,” said the Sheriff. “If it isn’t Wade Alexander, also known as …”

“… The Dingo.”
“Pardon?” asked Sandra Hamway, who sat across the table from where the man in the brown leather duster was standing. She didn’t believe in petticoats and bustles. She was wearing a white, long-sleeved shirt and a black leather vest. In front of her was an empty whisky glass and a silver revolver with an ivory handle. She was in her favourite saloon having a drink when Xander came up and introduced himself. There was always someone trying to pick her up.
“I said, my name is Wade Xander, also known as The Dingo.” He pulled out a chair and sat down.
She raised an eyebrow. “You’re named after a mangy scavenger from the outback?”
“Yeah. Yeah,” he said, nodding his head with a great smile before he realized what she had said. “Wait, no. The Dingo – you know. A cunning scavenger? Cunning, like tricky?”
“Is there any other kind of cunning?” she asked with a slight laugh.
Xander sat there with his mouth hanging open, unused to this kind of attitude.

“Shut your mouth, Mr. Alexander. You’re catching flies,” said the Sheriff.

“Don’t call me that. I hate that name. It’s Xander, now. It’s slick.”

“Looks like today’s my lucky day, Mr. Alexander,” said the Sheriff with a sly grin. 

Xander fumed.

“Caught red-handed with your fingers in the cookie-jar. And who do we have here?” he asked, looking beyond Xander to the others.

“Oh, I’m sorry. How rude of me,” said Xander. “These are my compatriots, Sheriff. The lovely lady to my left is Ms. Hamway, a …”

“… Gunslinger. I need the services of a gunslinger, and word on the street is you’re one of the best.”
“One of the best?” she asked with disbelief. “I am the best. What makes you think you can afford me? And what do you need me for? ”
Photo by Kenn W. Kiser

Photo by Kenn W. Kiser

“Train heist. We’re going to rob a train.”
“You want to rob a train, you’re going to need more help.”
Xander waved his hand, beckoning.
A short, round man wearing a bowler hat, and round, wire-framed specs approached. He wore a big apron covered with pockets filled with tools. Next to him was a thin, tall man in a leather jacket. The tall man carried a tray with a half-filled bottle of whisky and a number of drinking glasses.
“This is my tinkerer and transportation expert, Eiradan Rimmer,” said Xander, gesturing toward the shorter man. “And Doc Stalker, my cryptozoologist.”
The cryptozoologist put the tray down on the table and smiled. The tinkerer tipped his bowler. 
“Another?” asked Stalker, lifting the bottle and nodding at her empty glass.
“Please,” she said with a friendly smile. 
She looked back to Xander. “Anyone else?”
Xander looked to Rimmer. “Where’s Ravenheart?”
“He’s at the bar, paying for the drinks.”
Everyone looked to the bar. They saw a wealthy-looking man in a white suit pointing the head of his cane at a modestly-dressed man with a braided ponytail. They couldn’t hear the conversation that was taking place over the noise of the crowd, but the body language suggested it wasn’t friendly. The man in the white suit held the cane-topper to the other man’s chest. The man with the braid looked down to where the silver wolf’s head rested. He removed it.
At the table, the tinkerer said, “Here we go again. Happens every time.”
The ponytailed man raised his voice and said, “I pay, like everyone else. My money is as good as yours.” He made a sweeping gesture to the others in the saloon.
Back at the table, the tinkerer’s hand went to his gun, but Xander stopped him and shook his head.
“Please tell me,” said Sandra, “that jackass with the cane isn’t your man.”
The man with the ponytail unleashed a flurry of blows against the man in white. The man in white lifted up the other man, and threw him so that he landed on an empty table, which collapsed to the ground. He didn’t get up again. Finally, the man in white brushed himself off and walked over to join his friends. 
Sandra checked him out as he approached. He was a handsome young man who didn’t appear to carry a firearm.
“Besides being skilled in hand-to-hand combat,” said Xander, “He’s also an unparalleled bladesman, specializing in double-handed knife fighting. Ms. Hamway, this is …”

“Nando Ravenheart. This is my lucky day,” said the Sheriff. “There’s a warrant for your arrest, Mr. Ravenheart, for the assault of a gentleman back in York.” 

“I never pegged you for someone who’d change sides,” said Xander to the Sheriff.

“Come again?” he said, his attention snapping back to Xander.

“Since when did you start working for the Redcoats?”

“I haven’t. Property is property, and the law is the law. I’m taking you in, as the laws of the Republic require.”

“You’re not going to bring us in, Sheriff,” said Xander.

“And why is that, Mr. Alexander?”

“Have you checked what’s in the crate?”

“I haven’t. Not my business. I’m just enforcing the law.”

“You better check what’s in the crate then, Sheriff,” said Xander, as he slowly lowered his arms. The sheriff frowned, and motioned with his revolver.

“Everyone, take two steps back,” he ordered.

Xander and his people looked over their shoulders to see where they were stepping. Ravenheart’s eyes swept over the assembled men. Stalker noted that they were all human. Hamway marked the rifles, two double-barrelled shotguns – one sawed-off – and the four revolvers. Xander noted the cut of their clothes, the smell of their cologne, and the style of their haircuts; they were Jacks, working for the ...”

“… Redcoats. Bloody Redcoats.”
“Why do you hate them so much?” asked Hamway as she sat by the fire, cleaning her guns.
Xander looked up at the moon.
“They took her from me. My lovely Emma, and they killed her. Not quickly either. They experimented on her first, and when they were done with that they exsanguinated her. All in the name of securing the colonies.”
“It’s not right,” said Stalker, “it’s not right, at all.”
“What’s your role in this escapade, Doc?”asked Hamway. 
“I’m here in case stuff gets paranormal. You never know when something strange is gonna turn up. The first time I met Xander here, I was breaking into this warehouse with another group of miscreants, and this werewolf …”
“Doc, this is not the time for one of your stories.”
“Oh, yeah. Sure.”
“I’m sorry,” said Hamway to Xander. “You were saying, they exsanguinated her? You mean they actually drained her…”

“Blood. It’s blood,” said Xander to the sheriff, who was now holding a bottle he’d retrieved from the cooling box in the crate. He held it up to a ray of light that streamed in from between the slats of the boxcar.

“Must be destined for the front. Medical supplies, most likely.”

“No. It’s not,” said Xander.

 “What do you know? You have no idea what its purpose is,” said the Sheriff.

“Oh, I know very well what it is. It’s a weapon.”

A look of horror washed across the Sheriff’s face.

“Scarlet fever, like they used on the blankets?” asked the Sheriff.

 “No. It’s worse than that,” said Doc.

“What is it?” hissed Sheriff Everson.

The interior of the boxcar suddenly fell into shadow and everyone looked up.

“What is it?” asked Hamway and noticed Xander was looking at his open watch.

“It’s Rimmer – our ride. Time to go,” he said. The sheriff’s attention turned back to Xander. 

Original Image by Sogni Hal Edited by Stephen Lowe

Original Image by Sogni Hal Edited by Stephen Lowe

The gunmen behind them stood with mouths agape. “It’s an airship,” one said.

The distraction was all they needed. Hamway turned, pulled her guns, and began shooting the Jacks behind her. Ravenheart sprung among a group of them with two knives drawn, and performed a spiralling dance of death, painting the walls red. Doc rushed forward and snatched the bottle of blood out of the air before it could hit the ground. It had slipped from Sheriff Everson’s grasp as he drew his revolver. Xander flew back, taking two bullets to the chest. The compartment was thick with smoke, the concussions of firing weapons, screams and the smell of gunpowder and blood.

“In answer to your question,” Xander groaned with pain, “It’s the Redcoats’ attempt to create super-soldiers.”

“What they fail to realize is they’ll create monsters,” Doc added.

Xander struggled to his feet as he clutched his wound. Doc continued, “The blood …”

“It’s my wife’s,” interrupted Xander, in a voice that was growing more gravelly each minute. “She was a werewolf of many years, and learned to control her transformations, blood thirst, and rage.”

Sheriff Everson’s face shifted into horror, and his body recoiled as much from the revelation as from the sight before him.

Xander growled, “And so did I.”

Satin Wedding Dress

By Ashley O'Neil

Her satin wedding dress was smooth against her soft thigh. It slid against her as she paced within the confines of her room.

The material swished around her ankles. It was always touching her in some way. When she sat down, the beautiful thing enclosed her. The fabric constrained her, even when she shifted from foot to foot, or when she uncrossed and crossed her legs. The satin tightened and tightened around her, making it hard to breath.

She lifted herself back to her feet. She shook her body and twisted her arms to grab the ties of her bodice. She pulled and tugged at them with jerky motions. When the strings wouldn’t unfasten, she began to hyperventilate. The strings knotted even tighter against her pulls, almost mockingly.

When her small, useless hands began to tremble, she brought one hand to her mouth and the other to her stomach. She tried to take shallow breaths.

“Lady Amelia?”

Amelia choked, her hand jerking away from her stomach. She turned to face her lady’s maid, who was standing in the doorway. She straightened and kept breathing shallowly.

“What is wrong, Francesca?” Amelia asked.

“Your mother requests you.” Francesca answered hastily, her concern obvious.

“My mother? Is she not visiting my fiancé and wishing him a good trip? I would be quite surprised if she decided not to see him. She was interested in being one of the first on the street to see an automobile after all.” Amelia said, her voice hushed.

“She returned early.”

“Well then…shouldn't keep her waiting, should we?” Amelia said. She looked away to calm herself, and didn’t notice as Francesca moved from the doorway. It was only brought to her attention when the young girl reached for her waist.

Amelia jumped away. “F-Francesca! What are you doing?”

“Just fixing your bow, my lady,” Francesca said, her voice high-pitched with nerves. Her hands were hesitant when she reached out again.

Amelia looked behind her. She sighed at the sight of the crooked red bow resting on her backside instead of her waist. The red sash had slackened in Amelia’s fit, and rested just below her hipbones.

Amelia continued to take deep breaths.

Francesca patted Amelia’s side as she retightened the sash. “It will be all right.”

“No…it will not.”

***

The cook looked up from her stove to watch Amelia enter her kitchen. The girl was pale and green, like the dress she now wore. “Martina, may I have some ginger tea?” she asked.

“Of course ma’am,” the soft-mannered woman said.

“Thank you.”

Martina began to work.

She was filling the bronze kettle with basin water when the lady of the house entered the room. Her body was poised and stiffened unbecomingly when she noticed her daughter.

“Good morning Martina. What did my daughter ask for this time?” Mary asked.

“A cup of ginger tea, my lady,” she answered.

 “I see…Not feeling well Amelia?” Mary tilted her head to the side. She stared at her daughter like an animal observing its prey. Amelia looked like she was prepared to flee.

“Pardon?”

“Ginger tea is for stomach upset. Would you say that your stomach is upset?”

“Well,” Amelia’s eyes shifted around the room, “No.”

“No? Good. You may have your ginger tea at teatime. Your aunt is joining us, so be sure to attend.” Mary said shortly.

Her daughter’s hands clenched, “Mother—

“You cannot try to avoid this with excuses. You are coming.”

Amelia opened her mouth, but before she could say anything her lady’s maid came to the doorway.

“Lady Amelia and Lady Mary, Mr. Harmon is present.” She said, fidgeting as she stood between them.

“Mr. Harmon? Is he not supposed to be working with my husband?”

“I do not know. He is requesting to go into Mr. Daughtry’s study.”

Mary did not look happy, and motioned for Francesca to let Mr. Harmon in. She then turned to Amelia, who was watching the maid leave.

Amelia, please treat me with courtesy. Now, pardon yourself to your room and lie down until Francesca escorts you to tea. Are we understood?”

Amelia looked at her mother and nodded. She gave a small "excuse me" before she turned and slowly climbed the steps. The lady of the house smirked in the girl’s direction before she turned and walked towards the entryway.

“Thank you,” Mr. Harmon said as he stepped into the house.

“May I take your coat, sir?”

“No. I am visiting only briefly.” He smiled at Francesca. Her only response was scurrying away.

“What do you require, Mr. Harmon?” Mary asked as she came forward.

“Some patient files, my lady. Your husband was too preoccupied to retrieve them himself, so I offered to do it in his stead.”

Her mouth curled with distaste. “How kind of you. Shall we?”

“Yes, of course.” He nodded and followed Mary as she began to walk down the hall. Amelia watched from the staircase as they passed her.

Mr. Harmon seemed to notice, and slowed to a stop. He watched Mary carefully as he reached up through the bars of the stairs. Amelia looked at him and the strong hand that was reaching for her. She stood still when he finally moved closer and gripped her hand. He smiled at her.

Her stomach fluttered and she gave a wide smile. Mr. Harmon looked pleased, and squeezed her hand before letting go. When he did, something fell into her open palm. She went to look at him with a furrowed brow, but he was already gone.

***

Photo by dragonflysky  

Photo by dragonflysky
 

Tea was a quiet affair. Amelia’s mother and aunt sat on the sitting-room sofas and spoke. Amelia only pretended to listen. Instead, her mind was on the content of the paper. She had just enough time to read it before tea, and she felt ill. The tea relieved her stomach somewhat.

“Did you hear of Leslie and her daughter?” Aunt Emma asked. Her eyes danced with mischief and her mouth twitched. Needing a distraction, Amelia looked to her.

“Do not keep me on the edge of my seat dearest.” Mary said, smiling.

“Leslie has thrown herself down the staircase. Again.”

Her mother gasped and her aunt nodded frantically.

“You mean, she…?”

“Yes…well, she was anyway.”

“What is going on?” Amelia asked. The two startled and looked at her, before they turned to each other again.

“She is a child herself. We cannot tell her!” Emma argued.

“Amelia is practically a married woman. She is old enough to handle this subject matter.”

Her aunt sighed.

Mary began to explain, “Leslie threw herself down the stairs because…she was with child.”

Amelia’s eyes widened.

“Since women are no longer permitted to rid themselves of the children in their wombs, some have acted drastically to avoid the law. This includes throwing themselves down staircases.”

“How do you know it was not an accident?” Amelia asked.

 “Because this is the fourth time it has happened,” Emma answered.

 “And do remember, your father is Leslie’s doctor. He knows a great many things.” Her mother’s eyes twinkled.

“Oh,” Amelia whispered, her white teacup clenched in her hands.

“Indeed. Leslie’s mother is absolutely beside herself. She knows of the rumours that are circulating, and has become a hermit in the hope that it will pass over.” Her Aunt Emma laughed.

“That is absolutely terrible. And that poor child.” Mary tsk'ed.

“What about Leslie?” Amelia couldn’t help but ask, her tea sitting forgotten on her lap.

The two women looked at her, baffled expressions on their faces. “What do you mean?”

“She must be injured.” Amelia said.

Her aunt’s eyes widened and her mother’s lips pursed. She looked faintly disappointed. “It does not matter darling.” She remarked uninterestedly, looking away.

“But Mother—

“Perhaps you are too juvenile to speak of this. Leave us.” Mary said shortly, her hard eyes finding Amelia’s.

Amelia nodded and rose from her seat.

***

Amelia stood at her window and looked at her family’s garden. In the dusk, she could barely recognize the willow trees that lined the fence. The grass was tall from the lack of care it was given. Her mother and father always seemed to forget to order someone to take care of it.

In her hands was Mr. Harmon’s scrap of paper. She played with it, her mind torn between the note and the yard. Amelia had read the thing over and over again through the night. By now, she knew the message by heart.

My Beloved. Your wedding is in a month and I cannot bear to see it. Please, do not do this. You know you don’t want to. Come away with me. We shall leave here and never come back. When the moon is high, meet me in the courtyard. We shall climb the fence and flee. Your Love, Matthew

The courtyard was the best hiding place. The grass was long enough and the leaves were low enough to hide the worlds’ secrets between them. At least, they used to be able to.

“My lady? Are you prepared for bed?” Francesca asked from Amelia’s bedside.

“Yes.” Amelia nodded, and moved towards her bed. She sat down gingerly.

“Is that a letter from Mr. Harmon?” Francesca whispered, taking advantage of their close proximity.

“Yes…He wants us to run away together.” Amelia whispered back, not looking at her.

The maid’s eyes widened.  “Will you do it?”

“I…I do not know. I am already promised to someone else. My mother…” Her voice stuttered and drifted off. She turned back towards the window.

“Matthew loves you, my lady. I cannot say the same about the stranger you’re marrying—”

 “I no longer wish to speak about this Francesca.” Amelia crumpled the note.

Photo by Shakespearesmonkey  

Photo by Shakespearesmonkey
 

“Of course…my-my lady, do you remember playing among those trees as children? How I did enjoy those times,” she whispered softly, with a small, cautious smile.

Amelia took pity. “I did as well.”

“I especially enjoyed dressing up as a lady. It is one of my most fond memories.”

“I remember. You would dress up like a lady, and I would dress up in father’s robes.” Amelia’s voice was faint.

“That you did. We dreamt up such silly things, didn’t we?” Francesca’s eyes were sparkling in the candlelight.

Amelia’s smile dropped. “Yes, we did.” After a moment of silence, she said, “I would like to go to bed now.”

Francesca nodded, and began to blow out all the candles around the room. Her maid left the candle near the doorway burning, and turned to take her leave.

 “Sleep well,” Amelia bid, her voice trembling in the dark.

“You too, My lady.” Francesca said before closing the door.

After she left, Amelia tossed and turned. When she finally settled, she looked over towards her satin wedding dress, hanging beside the window. The moon was slowly starting to rise on the horizon. Both the dress and the moon shone in the night. If she reached out, they could both be in her grasp. If she wanted to, one could be hers. But could she reach high enough to even touch the moon?

She did not know. And she wasn’t brave enough to try.

***

When the moon was at its peak, Amelia left her bed.

She moved delicately down the hallway like a ghost. She tiptoed past her mother and father’s room, her father’s study, and her old nursery. She didn’t dwell.

She walked to the top of the stairs. They were steep and a deep, dark red. She clenched her fists at her sides and bit her lip. She looked down with dry eyes.

Then, she fell.

Everything and Nothing

By Conor Rochon

Sam was a pharmacy. He drank, ate multi-coloured pills, stuffed white powder into his nose, and punctured his skin with needles— “filled with salvation” as he would say. His face was shrivelled flesh, beaten and abused, hiding behind a messy beard. He had a toothy smile that would creep to his lips at unexpected moments, cutting through the haze of smoke that so often hung around his head. He was a junkie. He was my friend.

I remember when I first met Sam. I hadn’t gone out in weeks, still reeling from loss. When I was eventually coaxed out of the house it resulted in a bender. I was staggering around drunk at a party, toying with the idea that I wasn’t living but haunting, that I had died and was little more than a lost spectre. Then I found Sam, sitting there, smiling at me. He said nothing, but handed me a bottle of whisky. As I drank, he said, “Ever think, maybe we just don’t exist at all?”

It was a novel idea and it was the first time I considered my unreality, but it made as much sense as anything I had come up with. I sat down on the step and handed back the liquor. “Then what is real?” I asked. Sam made no response save to pull long and hard from his bottle and come up smiling.

This was the basis of our friendship: questioning the world around us. Reality had once made sense for Sam, as it had for me. He had a wife and daughter, family man Sam, and he would talk about them often. He didn’t often talk about how the wall came down, but he hinted at an old tragedy. Some event in his past that took away the ones he loved. I suspected the drugs. If nothing else, Sam believed in the drugs.

His reaction to the chemicals he put into his body was the opposite of what you would expect. The drugs held him, they guided his mind through a world he no longer understood. Sober Sam was angry and confused, but he always spoke in glowing terms about the high. This was his stability. Each drug altered his state in a way that was repeatable time and time again. Sam believed in drugs. I didn’t. But in time I came to believe in Sam. 

***

“How are you feeling?” Sam asked. He himself looked blissful. I felt pretty good too.

“I’m all right. Good, actually.” I wasn’t clear on the laundry list of chemicals we had ingested to get to our current state. I left those details to Sam. What I did know was the high had taken hold as a kind of transcendent calm. Right then, I was liquid consciousness adrift in my own body. I was aware of the world but not quite a part of it, as if my personal reality was vibrating at a higher frequency than the world around it. Sam fought to focus his eyes on me, gave up, and stared into the corner of the wall over my shoulder.

“Just wait, this one gets better,” he said.

“Better?” I was worried. Sam had a funny interpretation of what "better" actually was. It could be anything from nightmarish hallucinations to hours of ceaseless high octane energy. He liked to experiment with different concoctions, to find unexplored mental states. For him, drugs weren’t about feeling good so much as they were about feeling something.

Sam must have noticed my panic because he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You’re going to be fine Ray. I’m not going anywhere. Stay close and you’ll be all right.” His words did calm me. He was my guide through this strange new world of heightened reality, and after knowing each other for more than a year he had never let me down. You could level him with criticism about most aspects of his character, but loyalty is one virtue Sam had in spades.

At some point we started walking. Sam liked to do things while he was high. He tried to pack as much experience into each trip as possible, crashing the world into his warped mindscape. I remember little from the walk. The noise of cars was like thunder as they blurred together in an endless stream along the road. It may have been snowing; soft motes of light floated through yellow beams cast by the streetlights. I had the distinct impression that I should be cold, but wasn’t. At times, especially when we were going downhill, I felt like I was skating, my body gliding along effortlessly a few inches above the ground.

Sam led the way, a few steps ahead of me. He stood tall and walked straight, showing no sign of his inebriation. He was an old pro. Every so often he would turn to me and make a quick visual appraisal of my state, then chuckle and re-focus his energy on walking. He must have been feeling something.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

Sam answered without looking up. “Party. I know a guy who lives near here, should be fun.” He reached out and stopped me by putting his hand on my shoulder. He searched my face, trying to make eye contact. I tried to give it to him but my vision had gone a little swimmy. “You cool Ray?”

If I had said no, the night would have ended there and then. We would have gone back to the apartment to ride out the high in relative safety. I was feeling loopy and I just wanted to go sit in a quiet room but, while standing in the ambient street light with Sam staring into my eyes, I was overcome by a vision of him pulling me into a big wet kiss. I laughed, which Sam took as a signal that I was all good, and we continued our march. That is how I came to the house on Gunwater Drive.

 The house was a smallish split-level that gave a keen impression of perfect normality. A vision, pulled straight from the American dream, dropped into the middle of a neighbourhood that was trying hard to forget the dream existed. The house’s tidy beige siding and neat lawn were in stark contrast to the neighbour’s bare cinder block and messy overgrowth. A light accumulation of snow sat on top of a low hedge that ran the perimeter of the lot. It looked like a house, but to me it was the curtain drawn across a stage behind which stood both everything and nothing.

Looking back, the house was benign. A short entry hall with scuffed hardwood floors was the main hub of the building. In the kitchen, stainless steel appliances clashed with 20-year-old linoleum. There was a sitting room with uncomfortable decorative chairs and simple but practical bookshelves. The basement was little more than a threadbare room, unfinished. One of its walls was dominated by a massive television and a single leather loveseat. The backyard featured a prominent oak tree with an old wooden swing, pulled straight from an idyllic country garden. An upstairs hallway was adorned with framed photos of smiling people and provided access to the bathroom and bedrooms.

The party was low-key. Fifteen or 20 people milled about in various states of intoxication. Music was playing, but it wasn’t driving the blood. It was mellow and spherical. The kind of sound that could sit comfortably in the back of your mind. I remember some of the other guests. Two raven-haired girls were watching an old movie in the basement, laughing vacantly and chatting quietly with each other. In the kitchen, a couple of guys were tossing a football back and forth across the room. Every so often they would drop it and I would hear the bounce echo through the house.

Somewhere in the back of my mind it occurred to me that the other guests were much younger than I was. Maybe I should be ashamed to be so far gone. I was definitely failing to present a model of maturity, but soon Sam’s chemicals took over and the pinnacle of my high washed all thoughts of social responsibility from my head.      

It passed over me in a sudden flurry of lights and sound, and transformed into a vivid sequence of lucid hallucinations. To this day, I’m still partly convinced that the things I saw didn’t come from my subconscious but rather slipped into the house through hairline cracks in reality. They were beings of perfect potential. They seemed real even while the air around them was thick with otherworldly energy. They sprang fully formed from the river of ideas that flows beneath the skin of the world, infinite in variety. They were everything.

I went to the backyard and was greeted by a clear summer’s day. Blue skies and the warmth of the sun reached down to touch a garden in full bloom. I watched for awhile from the porch as Aquarius watered the garden, pouring sparkling water from her clay pitcher onto a clump of daylilies. Later, I opened the pantry to find a caged service elevator manned by a pale bellhop named Charon who offered to “take me to the other side.” I had the impression that everything was in the house if I cared to look for it, and as I watched giant spiders crawling backwards across the ceiling, some old words came to me: “anything is possible.”

***

I was in love once. Married young to a young woman, who would leave me and the world far too early. Leukemia claimed her life in two years, leaving me alone and broken at the height of my career. It may sound strange, but the condolences I received in the wake of her death confused me. There was this emphasis on pain. Platitudes like: “We know how painful this must be for you,” and, “we share your pain,” made it seem as if her death was a wound that could heal. Maybe the “pain” metaphor works for many who grieve. Maybe the idea of equating loss with hurt makes a kind of primal sense, but for me it wasn’t as simple as pain, or as complex as grief. For me, Shauna’s death was a line drawn in history, before which the world had a purpose, and after which it didn’t.

I remember sitting with Shauna, waiting for a doctor. When she came, she gave us bad news. She gave us bad news with the kind of direct professionalism that could only spawn from a lifetime of giving bad news. She wasn’t cold or loveless, but she was detached. Before we left the office, the doctor said, “Anything is possible.” She said it without conviction. Ours was a sad story and she already knew how it ended, but I took the words to heart. The words became my mantra as I tried to be the best ally that I could while my wife fought and suffered. Even after she passed, they stuck with me: Anything is possible. But they took on a new meaning. If anything is possible, nothing is important. 

I was with Shauna when she stopped breathing, but I didn’t watch her die. I thought I did. In the years that followed her passing I told myself that I had watched my wife die. That by being there when it happened I had somehow shared the experience with her. That I had helped in some small way to bridge her soul into the afterlife. I was wrong. That night, when I found Sam face down on the tile of the bathroom floor, I realized I hadn’t actually seen Shauna die.

***

I hadn’t been looking for Sam, in fact I wasn’t even aware he had disappeared. I was caught up in the idea of everything. Revelling in the fact that that I could confront any horror I found with rugged indifference. I used the infinity of the visions as a shield to sap them of their weight. A thing must be unique to have meaning. My bleak worldview led to a feeling of superiority. I was as inconsequential as everything else, but at least I knew it.

This feeling came crashing down when I found Sam. His right arm was propped up on the seat of the toilet, a medical band tied tight around it. The rest of his body was in a limp heap on the ground. He wasn’t moving and I knew right away what I was seeing. His head had rolled in the small pool of vomit that spread out under his face, and his hair was matted with sick. I looked for a pulse but knew I wouldn’t find one.     

I spent the next few minutes sitting on the floor of the bathroom next to my friend, letting the feeling of everything gradually crumble away. Eventually someone found us and sorted things out; called an ambulance, or maybe the morgue. But finding Sam had died, and in such a small way, stole my will, and I scarcely noticed.  I floated on somewhere to sleep off the drugs in my system. I woke sobered by the difference between everything and nothing. 

Her Little Man

By Andrea Irvine

I held my mom’s hand tightly as we waited in the pale grey office. A tall man with a denim vest walked in and closed the door behind him.

“How are you two today?” I turned to my mom and repeated the question in Spanish.

“I’m doing quite well,” my mom whispered to me.

“We're doing well,” I said to the tall man. My mom gave me a smile and rubbed the back of my hand with her thumb.

“That’s good to hear son,” said the tall man. “Now to get down to business. How’s her job search going?” He gestured his pencil towards my mom, but kept his gaze on me.

I repeated the man’s question to mom in Spanish, and she answered me. “She… she still hasn't found anything.” I looked at my mom and continued, “She almost got to work at that big market downtown, but they needed someone who could talk to people in English.”

“Has she considered taking a beginner’s English course?”

Without even looking back at my mom, I had an answer. “I don't wanna ask her again. It just makes her angry at me.”

“I see. Still just the two of you?”

“Yes sir.”

“Ok then. It will be the normal allowance: $150 for groceries, and $100 for household goods. You know where to find everything. We'll see you again in two weeks. It would be in your best interests to make sure she finds work soon. Be sure she understands.” He gestured towards my mom, and left the room.

I looked back to my mom and she smiled.

***

The next morning I woke up to my mom sitting on the edge of my bed.

“Good morning my little man," she said in the sweet, comforting tone she always used with me. “Time to get ready for school.”

“Ok mom. Did you clean my baseball clothes? Tryouts are at lunch today.”

“Yes. I already folded them and put them in your backpack.”

“Awesome! I can't wait. Maybe I'll actually get to be the pitcher.”

“Maybe you will, little man. Now come on. Let’s get you dressed. Breakfast is already on the table.”

I jumped out of bed and grabbed the clothes my mom had already set out on my chair the night before. It was my favourite yellow shirt, with a green dinosaur on it, and my jean shorts.

I ran into the kitchen, sat down on the rickety wooden chair, and rested my arms on the kitchen table. Our kitchen was small; the plastic table took up most of the space. There was a small fridge in the corner and a tiny counter and stove next to it. The walls were covered in mismatched frames. Most of them were empty, since that day mom got mad and took the pictures away. I saved one and hid it under my bed. The pictures that were left were mostly of mom and me. One from when I lost my first tooth. One from Christmas last year. Another from the day I was born.

“Here you go. Eat up quickly. We have to get you to school.”

I put the first couple of bites into my mouth. “Mmm. We actually have jam for the rolls this morning?”

“I thought you could use a treat on your big day, little man. And don’t talk with your mouth full.”

I quickly ate my roll and put my plate in the sink. I ran to the door and swung my backpack over my arm.

“Come on mom. We gotta get to school.”

***

“All right class. Take out your math workbooks. We're covering fractions today.”

The fat man at the front of the class kept talking but I wasn't listening.

“Philip? Philip. Philip!” I looked up to see the fat man standing over my desk.

“Philip, were you listening to my lesson?”

 “Umm... no sir. I’m sorry. Just excited for lunch.”

“Well, that’s going to have to wait. You're needed in the principal’s office. Grab your stuff.”

My classmates all went "ooooo" and then started giggling. It’s not like this was the first time this had happened. I picked up my backpack and left the classroom. The fat man closed the door behind me.

 I got close to the principal’s office and saw my mom. When she saw me, her smile lit up. She waved me over. “Hi little man. How was your day at school?”

“It was ok. I don’t like math. But I want to stay. Please don’t tell me we’re leaving.”

She bent down to her knee and put her hand on my shoulder. “I’m afraid so. I have a meeting at the bank that I forgot about. I need you to translate.”

“Mom, not again. Please. Baseball tryouts are starting…”

“I’m sorry. But you’re going to have to be my strong little man today.”

“I don’t want to go to the bank! I want to play baseball! Why can’t you just take the English class that the tall man keeps telling you about?”

“Not this again. Come on. We are going. You can play some other time.” She grabbed my hand and led me to the car. I complained the whole way there. The rest of the kids in class got to play baseball. None of them had to spend the day in some dumb, old bank.

I strapped myself into the seat. I crossed my arms over the seat belt and pouted. I loved my mom, but I wanted to stay at school and play with my friends. Why couldn't I stay?

Mom stayed quiet in the car. She must have been angry with me. She always got quiet when she was angry with me. But it was better than when she was angry with other people.

***

My mom and I sat in the uncomfortable chairs outside the bank man’s office. I slouched back in my chair and played drums on the arms of the chair.

“Please don't slouch. You'll hurt your back.”

“Why is this taking so long?”

“It will just be a few more minutes.” She took my hand and rubbed the back of it with her thumb. She looked up when a blonde woman started waving at us. “Okay, time to go in, little man.”

We walked into the office and sat in chairs that were even more uncomfortable than the other ones. One of the walls had a poster with a funny cartoon cat.

“Thank you for meeting me today,” said the bald man behind the desk. He wasn't the man we usually talked to. He was scarier. I translated what he said to mom.

“I'm sorry, what’s going on here?” asked the bald man.

I sighed. I hated having to explain things to adults. “My mom doesn't speak English. I have to translate for her. That’s why I'm here and not playing baseball.”

“Then how did you learn English?”

“My mom tells me that my dad taught me when I was really little. He knew both, but he only talked to my mom in Spanish. She didn't like him teaching me English. I don't remember him much.”

My mother tapped me on the shoulder. “What is he asking?”

“I’m just telling him that you don’t speak English.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Are you sure that your mother wouldn't prefer a professional translation?” asked the bald man. "This is a complicated issue." I translated the question back to mom.

“It’s ok. She’s more comfortable with me doing it.”

“Well then.” The bald man went through his papers and laid them out on his desk. “I do have some serious business to discuss today. I've been reviewing your loans and it appears that you owe the bank a few thousand dollars.”

I translated.

“And you missed the last few payments. I’m sorry, but if you don't pay at least 12 percent of the total loan by the end of the month, we are going to have to foreclose on your home.”

 I had no idea what most of the words I was saying meant, but they didn't sound good.

“But I'm not working right now,” said my mom. “How will I get that much money together?”

I translated back to the bald man.

“I can't help you there. Now, I have another appointment coming in. If you have any more questions, please feel free to give me a call.”  He handed me a white card. I gave it to my mom, and told her what he said.

“No. I want my questions answered now.” Her face was growing red.

“Please mom. Can we just go? Please?” I pulled at her arm. I didn't like it when mom got angry. Last time she got angry like this, she took away the pictures in the kitchen.

“Fine.” She stormed out, leaving the bald man with a confused look on his face. I didn't know what to say, so I left in silence, and followed mom to the car.

“Mom, why were you so angry?”

“Oh, don't worry about it, little man. You shouldn't have to worry about that. Come on. Let’s just go home. I’ll make you some gazpacho when we get there.”

We rode home in silence. I wasn't even thinking about baseball, or the fact that mom didn't seem to care about it. All I cared about was the tear on mom’s cheek that I could see in the mirror.

***

“I’m going to start dinner. Why don't you put your backpack in your room and get started on your homework.”

I did exactly what she said. I knew what mom was like when she had just gotten angry. I knew not to question her. I went into my bedroom and dropped my bag. Something was on my bed. It was wrapped in blue paper with a big red bow on it. I sat on my bed and pushed the present to the side. I didn't want it. I wanted to play baseball.

I got up to take my homework out of my bag. Then I looked back at the bed. I really did like presents, even if I didn't get them very often. I grabbed the package. I opened it and found an old baseball glove. There was a note on it that read, “To my little pitcher.” I smiled. Mom must have put this on my bed after I left for school.

I thought I had seen it somewhere before, then remembered it from the picture under my bed. It was a photo of my family at the baseball field. My dad had taken us to a game and he caught me a home-run ball with that glove. It must have been his.

I ran out of my room and hugged mom tight. She rubbed my back gently and kissed me on the forehead.

***

The next two weeks were weird. I went to school all day, every day. My mom never showed up to take me to the bank, or the grocery store, or the car place. I only saw my mom for a few hours every night. We would sit and have dinner. She would ask about my day. I would do my homework. I would go to sleep. I never thought I would miss my mom, even though I was seeing her every day.

Two weeks later, we were back in the pale grey office. I held my mother’s hand tightly. A tall man with a corduroy vest walked in and closed the door behind him.

“How are you two today?”

As I was about to answer the question, I heard a small squeak from my mother:

“I’m… good.”

In English.

Vasily of the Saints

By Eleanor Fogolin

It is so late that the halls of Kiyevskaya station yawn. The chandeliers, the white-and-gold plaster mouldings, and the gilded arches watch the people hurrying for the trains that will spirit them away into the bitterly cold night.

Ah, my heart! The old man’s smell reaches the platform before he does. His skin is pockmarked as old paper, his thick hanks of hair unwashed and his mustache grizzled. On his back is a steep pack, rising from his shoulders like a crag of rock. His knuckles and joints are swollen red chestnuts, and between his grimy fingers are thick knitting needles. He looks like the very dust, but as he steps this way or that, his knees cry out, “We never really bend!” and his back is a line that reads, “I rode beside the prince of men!”

My little lapochka, have you ever seen such an old man leering out from an alley while his knitting needles click away? Young people going home will sometimes spot a pair of eyes, blue and carbuncle-bright, looking out from a doorway. He has knit enough coats now to outfit an army—and then twice that—10 times—a hundred!

***

As his hands clack-clack-clack away, he keeps his ears attuned for the high, ringing tones of a girl calling in the sweet voice he knows she can use:

“Vasily, Vasily, the time is at hand!”

Vasily stumbles through the stations on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya line, where the halls were built to be nuclear bunkers. Knit one, purl two. Knit one, purl two. He asks a couple for their spare change. The girl turns away, but the young man offers Vasily a swig of something cheap from the bottle in his pocket. Vasily takes more than a swig before he is shoved away. Elated, he begins to shout on the crowded station platform:

“Nothing was more splendid than the armies of Prince Ivan as the oprichniki marched towards Novgorod! One-two, one-two went the ranks, and their coats shone in the sun. The ground beneath us wasn't white—it was a pounded sheet of blue shadows and grey, and that was the face of a real Russian winter, not the clean purity of snow!”  

“The hell’s the matter with him?” says somebody.

“It’s only Vasily, he’s harmless,” says somebody else. “When he drinks—which is always—he thinks he’s been alive since the beginning of time.”

“When Prince Ivan gave orders, he did it with the banner of his father’s two-headed eagle in sight—one head looking east, one head looking west,” says Vasily, gesticulating wildly. “When he called me before him, at the start of the new year, he had that banner behind him; it looked like he had a bird coming out of each ear.”

He began acting out both parts on the platform as people edged around him: “Where’s Vasily Vodyanov?

“Here, grand prince!”

“Vasily, if you'll seize all the monasteries hereabouts, there'll be a place for you in my household guard. In three days I’ll stand with you in Novgorod, with the city at our feet.”

“Yes, grand prince!”

The train for Izmaylovsky Park arrives, and there is a rush for the doors.

***

Knit one, purl one. Knit one, purl one.

Some cad in the street jeers him. “What’s that you're making, there?”

“A coat—for such and such a child, of such and such a height,” says Vasily, voice wobbling. “What do the dimensions matter when it’s the warmth that counts?”

He outlasts the Times of Trouble in this way, a carcass pulling itself to its feet each day while thousands of others drop in harness. Poles out, Romanovs in—Vasily keeps his head down, determined not to be interested in politics. Instead he is an inky finger-mark in the margins of a history book, a cartoonish pair of eyes looking over his needles—looking up.

He begs for drink or money—the latter he spends on wool—and knits through Salt Riots, Copper Riots, and uprisings. Peter pulls the centre of the world from Moscow to the city whose name he shares, and Catherine holds Crimea in an open palm. While the Empress’s lovers revolve through the Winter Palace like pinwheels, Vasily sits with old men at their fires, and they talk as only old men by a fire can talk: about soldiers, about hunger, about vodka they have drunk, about women they have known, all dimly lit by the fires they have sat by in the past.

But for Vasily all women are one woman.

“Who was she, Vasily? What was she like, that woman who ruined the sex for you?”

Vasily’s eyes are far away. “In the Cathedral of Saint Sofia, they peeled away to either side as I came through in my big boots, all the mothers and children. Mothers in those days told tales of the oprichniki to scare their brats into being good: “If you don't behave, the Tsar’s Dogs will come and steal you away to Moscow in—one—big—step!

“But there was a woman in the sacristy who was slim as a knife. The fingers of winter skinned her face bare, and her lips were cracked…but there was a light behind her head, and I tell you truly, she’s burned into the backs of my eyeballs.”

The men listen, hungry as wolves.

“I was a mountain of a man in those days, I could have put her in my pocket. But a single glance from her turned a prince into a boy with a pot lid on his head, an infant going to war with his soldiers made of tin. How I waned by her!”

“Vasily, Vasily, let these people be. The nights are cold, and they have no coats. Show mercy.”

Vasily twists his hands together. “But I was Prince Ivan’s man, and my orders were to strip that church to its bones before three days passed and he arrived in the city. And that’s what I did.”

“Vasily, Vasily, they are weeping from cold.”

 After all these years, the mothers and babes are still clamouring in his ears as though he could do anything for them over the gulf of time.

“Vasily, I fear you’ll be damned for this.”

***

Then there’s another war; there’s always another war. Vasily has been under the hooves of so many Russian horses! When the French reach the capital he indulges a truly hilarious joke: Standing before the armies that are now threadbare, freezing, and hungry as hell, he announces that he is the delegation sent to meet the Emperor. “Welcome to Moscow,” he says, kowtowing—and then he falls on the ground, laughing fit to choke himself. The city is charred as coal, set on fire by its own governor, and Vasily recalls how the flames that laid Novgorod low stung his senses. He waits in joyous expectation for Napoleon to put a bayonet through his head.

It never comes. The French trudge out the same way they came, and a chorus of saints sings in an empty cow stall: “No, no, Vasily, it’s not time yet. Keep on knitting, we’ll let you know.”

Vasily lies on his face in the street.

In April 1870, oh my sweet child, an earthquake radiates outward from Simbursk, and the saints tremble as they peek over the guardrails of Heaven.

***

“Please, please, go away.”

“Be not afraid! In three days time, you shall wear a crown of light with me in Heaven!”

“I was only following orders, I had no choice, you couldn't have refused Ivan the Formidable—”

“Be not afraid! In two days time, you shall wear a glorious coat with me in Heaven!”

“It was so long ago, who cares about it anymore? Nobody remembers what happened, so why can't you leave me alone?”

The voice rings out in Vasily’s dreams—he hasn't slept in a decade.

“Be not afraid,” it cries, “For in a day’s time you shall be saints with me in Heaven!”

***

He rallies, eventually. She'll show mercy, beg him his token to get through the gates of Saint Peter. The crew on the Potemkin mutinies; Vasily jumps and drops a stitch, startled out of his reverie. Spend enough time looking into the teeth of armies, and after awhile you can't tell the difference between one jaw and another, until you're inside—and then, who cares?

He doesn't talk much after Oktyabr'skaya: the Kremlin forbids miracles, and Moscow won’t suffer the saintly ilk. They would be out of place if they were here, with their kokoshniks of stars, unless they too learned to covet sneakers, cassette tapes, televisions, chocolate bars. When saints become cosmonauts, when they wield sickles like a reaper in the field, when they walk on the silver floor of the moon, then they'll find favour again.

Vasily weaves in and out of the crowds in Mayakovskaya, his face flushed and his sight full of saints. Rub as he might, he can't get them out of his eyes, and like an old married couple he and the spectre of Novgorod are always gnawing at the same old bone.

“Vasily, I promised them a coat and crown in heaven. Will you make a liar of me?”

“For God’s sake, if you'd only gone when I told you to go—”

“Vasily, if you would help me keep my promise, if you would make coats for my poor dead children, then I would come for you, and all the saints of Heaven too.”

Vasily runs into a baluster, throwing his arms about it to keep from sagging to his knees. A mother with her child skirts around him, toddler in one hand, string bag full of shopping in the other. “Let me be done,” he weeps. “Four centuries of penance, it should be enough for the bean counters of Heaven.”

The balusters change into saints—columns of goodness, wreathed in flame—and back again, like a sleight of hand, or a magician pulling a coin from your nose. Vasily falls to the ground.

“Wait for me in Moscow, Vasily. You visited my city, and in time I shall return the favor—until then, make coats to cover my children. Death will never come while I have blessed you.”

 ***

One evening, not long after Gorbachev resigns, Vasily stands in Kiyevskaya a moment before midnight, and throws down his work.

The silence in the station is so profound that even the chandeliers are feeling anxious. He walks, with feet that wore boots, and spurs, and sneakers, and now go bare, towards a platform, with the look of someone enlightened: His hands are expressions of charity at his sides, and his mouth hangs open. There are tears in his eyes.

“Who’s that?”

“Ah, some old drunk.”

Vasily is struck by the hot wind racing down the black and endless tunnel. The air shivers, the earth recoils, and Vasily’s eardrums are blown by the first notes sung by a heavenly host.

Billowing maelstrom clouds descend in the station. Wheels of fire open a thousand unfathomable eyes, and Vasily feels his skin blazing as they find him cowering with trousers soaked in urine.

The thing about saints, my myshka, my little one, is that you can never quite see where they keep all their holiness. There’s a spot at the back of their head, no bigger than a coin—but when the spot catches the glare of grace, it’s magnified a thousand times, and it blinds.

Borne on the whirlwind, the saint appears. She wears a font of blood and gold. Behind her head is a light that could burn the world to dust.

“Vasily, Vasily, I am here for you at last!”

And spilling down from the gates of Heaven, shining coats in formation march, an army of saints in militant crowns—

Vasily gives a shriek as the train for Baumanskaya appears in the tunnel.