│

The face of a blank white page stares back at me.  I am thankful at least for the small mercy that the screen is not black, lest it be my own blank face which fills my vision.  Nowadays it is no small matter to look myself in the eyes.  Only when I must make myself presentable before a run to the store for provisions and the occasional accidental passing glance do I find myself observing my reflection, and even then I never, ever make eye contact with that other.

The text cursor winks back at me, taunting my stagnation.  Like a metaphor for my motivation it flashes on and off, on and off, caught in a never-ending routine that gets old fast.  It stands out, black and bold and strong against the plain white background, but is swallowed up once more before anything of significance can happen.  Oh, and the best part: when I start to type the line disappears completely, only flickering back into its routine when I’ve run out of things to say.

They tell you the first step in overcoming writer’s block is simply to write.  Just write something.  It doesn’t matter what, it doesn’t matter if it’s any good or not, it just doesn’t matter.  As long as you’re writing.  I call bullshit.  Clearly whoever said that never actually had to struggle through sentence after sentence of unrelenting and unforgiving shit writing.  It’s painful to read, far less to write.  No matter what you do the words just don’t seem to want to work together, the sentences sound bland or repetitive, the whole thing feels forced and fake.  It’s like a sweater that fits too tight, or a piece of food lodged in your throat.  You want to take it off and feel the relief of your constraints being lifted, you want to spit it out and sing, but you can’t.  You’re stuck with it.

The house is empty.  It has been for a while now.  I’ve stopped keeping track of the days as they lazily float by, tiny white boxes on a checkered paper, seven-by-five, month after month, year after year.  It’s all just time, and it no longer has any bearing on my life.  It’s curious how quickly the things that once seemed so important, the fundamentals that made up the basis of your life, the structural guidelines society not only built itself around but thrives upon, fall apart and crumble the second you turn your back on them.  It really gives you a sense of how fragile everything is.

The lights are off, have been off since she left.  The blinds are drawn, haven’t been open for just as long.  As a result the house is always dark.  It makes it easier for me to avoid accidental run-ins with that other, and to turn a blind eye to the mess I’ve been living in.  I’ve been sitting in front of this damned white screen, like a moth to a flame, for as long as I can remember.  It’s the last bit of light left in my world.

I want to smother it out with darkness.

I want to coat it in the oil slick of my black words, to fill it with the dark whispers in my head, to corrupt it and corrode it and beat it senseless simply for being light in a dark world.  I love it.  I envy it.  I hate it.

I know that if I don’t do this, it will leave me too.

“I can’t stand to see you like this,” she told me that day, tears in her eyes.  “You can’t ask me to stand by and do nothing.  I won’t do it.”  I said nothing as she packed her things, standing in the bedroom doorway and watching her work, her body shaking.  I did nothing when she kissed me on the cheek, a gentle caress that felt like goodbye because it was, her lips softly brushing against my skin, her tears wiping off onto my face.  I made no move to stop her as she walked out of the apartment, her suitcase trailing behind, head hanging low.  I didn’t wave as she looked back one last time, just before pushing open the front door and vanishing from my life, her scarf blowing in the wind.

When she was gone I proceeded to trash the place, sweeping ornaments off of tables and counters, whipping dishes against the wall and taking feral satisfaction in watching them break apart, shattering against the wall and falling back to earth in pieces.  I kicked the furniture over, punched holes in the walls, drank myself into a state of inebriation so severe that I was unconscious before my rampage could go any further.

She doesn’t get it, you see.  No one gets it.  They all want another bestselling novel, another critically acclaimed masterpiece, but none of them want to wade through the grime and shit to get to it.  They all want the diamond at the end, but none of them want to press that filthy grit into shape, to have to suffer through the suffocating pressure of it all.

What they don’t understand is that what makes it great is that it’s real.  You don’t just make that shit up.  It comes from an ugly hole inside of you, a festering pit of putrid, rotten filth, like a gaping mouth demanding nourishment.  It is my God, my unforgiving, cruel, merciless God, and it demands sacrifice.

Without warning the laptop dies, and I’m left staring into the eyes of the other.

“No, no, no, no.”  I scramble for the cord, but I lean too far in my chair and it falls, taking me with it.  My head hits the table corner on the way down, and I’m out like a light.

When I come to I’m lying on my side, and directly across from my face is the laptop.

“You know what you did,” the other whispers.  I shake my head, tears welling up in my eyes.

“No.  No, I didn’t know.”

“How could you not have known?”

“I didn’t know!”

“Yes you did.”

“It was an accident!” I scream, slamming the laptop closed with such force that the screen breaks, scattering bits of the broken glass across the floor.  There is a moment of silence, in which my heave breathing seems doubled, and then I see him again in the largest of the broken pieces, staring up at me.

“She was only trying to help, and look what you did.”

“Please, stop.”  I’m sobbing now, tears and snot running down my face.

“LOOK AT WHAT YOU DID!” he screams, and I look.  God help me, I look.  In the dark I can just make out the contours of her figure, lying where I left her.

“It was an accident,” I say again, but now the words sound weak even to me.

“You knew what you were doing.”

“I didn’t, I swear I didn’t.”

“You were stuck in a rut, and you took your frustrations out on her.  She was just trying to help, and look at what you did.”

“I only wanted her to stay.  I didn’t want her to leave.”

“I bet now you’re wishing she had left though, aren’t you?  That’s why you tried to convince yourself she had.  Because you couldn’t face what you’d done.”

“I JUST WANTED HER TO STAY!  God, Jesus Christ, I just wanted her to stay.”

“Well she’s certainly not going anywhere now, is she?”

“LEAVE ME ALONE!”  I grab the piece of glass and bury it in my neck, desperate to stop the voice.  And it does stop, at least for a moment.  Then it comes back, one final taunt barely intelligible from the blood welling up in my throat.

“I’m sorry, can I just cut in here for a second?”

“Hm?  Yeah, sure, go ahead.”

“Well, it’s just that… look, I’m not going to sugar coat it, Bill.”

I laugh.  “That’s what you’re here for, Mike.”

“Right, well- the psychotic writer plagued by his own demons, it’s been done before.  A lot.  Honestly by this point is a well-exhausted cliché.  And the story has no flow.  One minute it’s a monologue on writer’s block, the next it’s straight dialogue between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?  I mean, come on.”  He grins, realizes he’s being a dick, and tries again.  “Look, we know- I know, that from someone like you, this is fodder.  Compared to your old stuff?  This is amateur hour, Bill.  It’s good, but…”

“But not from someone of my caliber,” I finish.  He raises his palm in my direction, as if displaying what I’d just said.

“Exactly.  Not from someone of your caliber.  Truth is, you can do better.  I know it, you know it, everyone knows it.”

“So, scrap it?”

“Well… maybe not scrap it, but definitely back shelf it for now.  I’m sure we can work it into a short story anthology or something later on the line.  We’ll see what comes up.  Alright?”

“Alright.  Hey, thanks Mike.  I can always count on you to be honest with me.  Brutally so,” I add, and we laugh.  We talk a little longer, finishing our coffees and discussing other things, and then we say our farewells.

“Oh, Bill?” he asks, just as I’m turning to leave.

“Yeah?”

“What’s with the scarf, man?  It’s like, thirty degrees out there.”

I grin, making a bow.  “Dramatic effect,” I tell him, still bowing as I back out of his office, passing just beneath the mirror on his wall.

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Memoir into Madness / Ashes

Memoir into Madness / Ashes

She’s the girl you see in lecture hall, the one at the far end of the room with whom you make brief eye contact once and whose eyes haunt you night after night as you lie awake in bed staring up into the darkness. She’s the girl you pass by as you make your way down the airplane’s rows, looking for your seat, and who occupies your thoughts the entire flight though you never see her again. She’s the girl you pass in a crowd, whose face seems to draw your gaze like a moth to a flame just before it is blown out by the wind, as much gone from sight as it isn’t from mind.

You pass her and you find yourself thinking, I could love you. I could be there for you, I could know you, I could hold you in the night and stand by you in the day. You imagine a life together, you construct a personality for her and a situation in which you happen to start up a conversation, and your eyes meet and you fall in love. The flame is gone, but the fire’s only just started.

It hits you one day, but you only recognize it later if at all, like the delayed development of a bruise from a punch inflicted during a drunken bar fight several nights before. The faces have piled up, the stories lie atop one another like slides on a projector, each word and letter blurred and unidentifiable from the next, until all that is projected is a mess, a shapeless blob of dark figures faceless in the crowd. You forget where fiction ends and reality begins, and some days you can’t distinguish memories from imaginations, fantasies from realities. But the faces keep coming, the stories keep rolling out. I could love you. You fall for face after face, and some of the old ones make reappearances, surely a sign that they are significant, a sign that you are meant to be. Coincidence is a foreign concept, fate is all you know, blind to the irony of your own ignorance, the tragic flaw in your beliefs ever evasive beneath your nose.

You’re convinced in the existence of true love, of destiny, and yet the impossibility of this is reflected in each face you fall for. But you ignore it, so preoccupied with falling in love that you don’t realize that you’re not. And the fire rages on.

You no longer sleep at night, spending the time vainly sorting through the stories, trying  to organize and sort them in order of likelihood and appeal. Your days are no better, and you lose your grip on life as you trade it for something that doesn’t exist. You feel alienated from the world, which inexplicably remains stagnantly contradictory to the fantasies you entertain, as though it has betrayed you.

You stop making eye contact with the people you pass by, afraid you’ll feel that all-too familiar click again, that brief cry which echoes on inside your skull for an eternity afterwards, adding to the already deafening screams of those who have already contributed. I could love you. You fear your head will split open at the seams if you fall another time, and whether through your own imaginings developing a placebo effect or simply a symptom of the sleep deprivation, you suffer raging migraines on a regular basis. Your appearance acts as a reflection of your descent: your eyes are permanently shadowed, the sockets hollowed; your skin pale and at times clammy; and your hands shake so violently that you have developed a habit of firmly gripping onto whatever is in reach to still them, lest they betray your weakness.

The fire consumes you. Soon you stop going out in public altogether, only making runs for food and other necessities before scurrying back to your room like a rat fearing capture. You imagine you can feel them staring at you, their eyes boring holes into the back of your skull, cracking open the bone and exposing the stories hidden beneath, pouring through the holes and flowing out into the air like black ink in water. Your secrets, exposed. Vulnerable. You start imagining that you can hear their thoughts, their cruel whispers behind your back as you pass, hissing their contempt for you. They can see it, they know you are pathetic, you are unlovable, you are unfaithful. They see you for what you are and they laugh and sneer.

You sit on the edge of your bed and pick through your stories, broken and incomplete, feebly lifting them like dead things, half expecting them to come to life in your hands. But when you loosen your grip they drift downwards like fragile, crumpled ashes, as lifeless as they were from the start. They litter the ground, empty husks and hollow duplicates of something living and beautiful. They offer you no consolation. You stare down at the fragments of lives you have never lived and will never live, and you whisper five words, your voice hoarse and broken, scarcely more than an exhale, the sound of a dying flame, the final snuff of a fire as it is forever extinguished.

I could have loved you.

Cheshire

Cheshire

My brother used to have a mug; one of the ones with a picture on the side that changes when it heats up.  The picture on this particular mug was of Cheshire Cat (the original, mind you; not the Disney one), sitting up on a branch, staring down at a young and rather startled Alice.  In one corner of the mug there was the quote “Well, I’ve often seen a cat without a grin, but a grin without a cat!  It’s the most curious thing!”  And, of course, in accordance with the words of Alice, when the cup was filled with the hot beverage of choice (in Alphie’s case it was always straight dark roast) dear old Cheshire would disappear, leaving only his grin, floating in the air.

Looking back now, I see with equal amounts of surprise and understanding that I had never really questioned its presence, or more specifically its origin.  Understandable under normal circumstances, I suppose; after all, it was a mug.  As far as I know people don’t usually keep track of their sibling’s dishes.  But in this case it was more than that.  It had been a constant in my life, something that was always there, always in the background.  For as long as I could remember he had had it, even as far back as when we were kids.  With every memory I recall the mug makes another appearance, and I can’t help but think how blind I had been, not to have noticed it for so long.  And yet I know why I’d never acknowledged it, or more accurately never allowed myself to acknowledge it.  Hence the equal amounts of surprise and understanding.  To make use of an old cliché, it all makes sense now.  The mug had always been there, lurking in the background, but like a lot of things in my life, I’d simply never brought it up.  At least, not until about a month ago.

I had spent the night, a drunken mess afraid to go home to a girlfriend who had warned of the last straw.  It wasn’t the first time either; Alphie and I had reached a sort of unspoken agreement that I could always count on him to cover my ass, especially my drunken ass, and that his door was always open to me, no matter the time of day (which more often than not was sometime around two in the morning.

Immediately after waking, sprawled out over the couch in his living room, I was overcome by that incomparable sensation of a right powerful hangover, the kind that washes away all other thoughts as though wiping the slate clean of the night before.  It was just a feeling, so intense and foreign (yet uncomfortably familiar) that my mind could not cope.  If I had to compare it to anything, I would say it was probably how a computer might feel when being reset.  For the briefest of moments nothing else existed, not even a concept of pain.  Everything else was gone.  There was no sense of who I was, where I was, what I was feeling.  It was like my mind was so overwhelmed that it couldn’t even decide what it was feeling, and was so preoccupied with sorting through the sudden rush of incoming data that it couldn’t be bothered with even the most basic of functions.  I was nothing but a series of reddish blurs in the darkness, an indescribable sensation in a series of nerves.  I was nothing.

It was a release.

Then it was over , just as soon as it had begun, and like a druggie coming down from a high the real world rushed back in with painful vengeance.  Suddenly the feelings were being processed, categorised, and the overall consensus was discomfort.  Intense discomfort.  The sensations were so powerful I felt as though my body would be incapable of containing them all, that I would expand or explode.  Unfortunately neither of these things happened, and instead my mind adjusted accordingly to match the almost global proportions of my sensation overload.

I was the Earth.  My mouth had become the desert, my head a volcano on the verge of eruption, and my bladder home to all the ocean.  I shifted onto my side with a groan of pain, bringing my wrist up in line with my eyes, and squinting through the tears and blurriness to read the time on my watch.  7:00 am.  Fuck.  Thirty-four years, and it still happened every morning.  No matter what time I went to bed, no matter how tired I still was, no matter how much I had had to drink the night before.  Always 7:00.  My arm went limp, swinging back down to my side, and my vision settled on a bottle of Advil and a glass of water set on the coffee table in front of me.  Despite the pain, I managed a grin.  The old bastard never let me down.

I sat up and the volcano erupted, and the searing white burst of pain was almost enough to knock me back down, but I held fast, gritting my teeth and squeezing my eyes shut, one hand pressed to my forehead and the other reaching blindly for the Advil.  I took three, washing them down with the water, and then took three more after a brief reconsideration.  I sat there for a while, completely still with my eyes closed, waiting for the drugs to do their thing, taking the time to think about what I would say to my girlfriend.  I stayed like that for what felt like an hour, just sitting there thinking, waiting, until eventually the bladder urgency outweighed the pain of moving and I was forced to go to the washroom.

The ocean successfully drained, I spent some time at the sink, washing my face in cold water and combing my fingers through my hair in a rather futile attempt to make myself more presentable.  It really didn’t matter, after all Al had seen me a hundred times worse, and it wasn’t like I cared.  But I did it anyways, and I knew Alphie would approve, even if he didn’t really care.  It didn’t make sense, but it was what it was. We were a strange pair, my brother and I.  Such dedication to appearances. It’s strange that I only see these things now.

He was out on the back porch when I came out of the bathroom; I could see him through the window wall in the kitchen that overlooked the entire backyard.  He was sitting at the table with his back to me, facing the sunrise over the forest at the edge of his property line.  I stood there for a moment, watching him, wondering what he was thinking as I so often did.  The coffee maker’s click startled me back into the real world, and I noticed he had set out a plate for me for breakfast, with scrambled eggs and bacon.  I grabbed cutlery from the drawer and a mug from the cupboard, and in accordance with one of our many unspoken agreements, grabbed the coffee pot and brought it out with me.

“About time,” he said, without turning his head from the sunrise.  “I’d been beginning to think you may have finally cracked it.  Come on then; I’ve been dying for that coffee.”

I smiled, making my way over.  “Good morning to you too brother, it’s always so good to see you.”

“Oh, dispense with the socially compulsory pleasantries, why don’t we.  Why do we always have to say things that other people already know?  I think conversations should be about saying things that the other person doesn’t already know, and about avoiding the sharing of mutually known information as best we can.  Now, bring over that coffee.”  I obeyed, revelling in his presence.  It may have been childish of me, but even then I had looked up to my brother, had practically worshipped the ground he walked upon.  Not to say that there was an imbalance in our relationship as adults, but sometimes I would just find myself marvelling him.

“Thanks for breakfast.”

“Again, with the mutually known information.  I know you appreciate the breakfast, and you know you appreciate the breakfast, so why say it out loud?”

“Because it’s only right to show other people your appreciation.  Don’t you feel good when I thank you?  Doesn’t it make you feel good?”

He shifted in his chair.  “How I feel is inconsequential.”

“Ah. You’re in a mood.”

“Shut up and eat your breakfast.”  We were both grinning now, and again I obeyed, shovelling the scrambled eggs into my mouth and thinking that nothing had ever tasted so good.  He poured the coffee, first in my mug, and then his own.  “Sleep well?” he asked, filling the mug to the brim before levelling out the flow.  I opened my mouth to answer him, my eyes briefly catching on the picture on his mug, and suddenly the words dried up in my gaping mouth.  Cheshire had begun to fade away in front of my eyes and Alice’s, and soon only his grin was left, hovering in the air between a suspiciously cat-shaped space in the tree’s leaves.  “Hello?”

“Huh?”

“You okay?”

“What?”

“Are you okay?  You just… zoned out for a minute there.”

I blinked, still staring at the mug.  “…Yeah.  Yeah, no, I’m good.  Listen; where did you get that mug?”

“What?”

“That mug,”  I said, pointing.  “The one with Cheshire.”

He frowned, clearly perplexed by my question, but after a moment he just shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I can’t remember; I’ve had it so long.  Why are you freaking out?  I mean, it’s not like this is the first time you’ve seen it.  Not that freaking out would be an acceptable reaction upon seeing it the first time either.  I mean, it’s not exactly a ground-breaking advancement; it’s a mug that changes colour with temperature change.  Whoop-de-doo.”

“I’m not freaking out.  And yes, I know I’ve seen it before, but that’s just it.  It’s only just occurred to me that I have no idea where it came from.”

“So?  It’s my mug, and I’ve had it for a long time, and even I don’t know where it came from, so it’d be weird if you did and I didn’t.  I assume I bought it one day, just like every other piece of dishware I own, as is hopefully the case with you and everyone else.  I mean, do you know anyone who keeps a detailed account of every dish they buy?  Do you have any idea where that mug came from?”  He gestured to my own mug, a rather plain if not bright orange one in comparison.  “And before you respond, I have to say, it’d be rather strange if you did.”

No, I don’t know where this mug came from, but it’s different.  For as far back as I can remember, you’ve had that mug, and yet neither of us can remember where it came from.  I don’t know, it just struck me as odd for some reason.  Forget it.”  I took a sip of coffee, ignoring his gaze as he studied my face, presumably looking for a glowing neon sign that said ‘losing my mind’.

“You okay?”  he asked eventually, as I had known he would.  “Is everything… okay with Cheryl?”

I sighed, resting the mug back down on the tabletop.  “If by okay you mean same as usual…”

“Don’t I always,” he quipped.

“…then yes.  Everything is more or less the same.  But the same gets exhausting, doesn’t it?  After a while, you start hoping for some change.  Any change.  Good, bad, ugly, anything.”

“Then why didn’t you go home last night?”

I scoffed.  “Because man was made a coward, and because I don’t intend on facing change of any kind when I’m drunk.”

He laughed, raising his strange, omnipresent mug in my direction.  “I’ll drink to that.”

“I think that saying only applies to alcoholic drinks.”

“Says who?  The act of drinking is the same regardless of what you’re drinking.”

“I’m not disagreeing with you, I just think that’s the way it is.”

“Fuck the way it is.”  We chuckled together, under the light of the morning sun in the brisk chill of the morning air.  That was the last good memory I had of us together, just the two of us, happy.

He killed himself two weeks later.

His neighbour found him, quite by chance, when he went over to return some household appliance of one kind or another.  I don’t remember what it was.  A lawnmower, maybe. Al’s car had been parked in the driveway, so after a few minutes of waiting, the neighbour started to get worried.  Later on he claimed he had ‘had a bad feeling from the start’ otherwise he wouldn’t have thought that much of it.  In other words he would have just assumed my brother had been on the shitter, rather than lying in a bathtub filled to the brim with a mixture of water and the blood that had flowed from his own slit wrists.

He ended up calling Al a few times, both on his cell and on the house phone, and when that didn’t work he called the cops.  The knock on my door came about four hours later.  My girlfriend held me in the doorway where I collapsed, held me as I cried like a child, cried with no regard, no thought for the two policemen awkwardly standing before us.

At the funeral, I kept hearing the same phrases muttered under heavy breaths over and over again, numb and disbelieving.

“…he was such a happy man…”

“…how could this have happened…”

“…always had a smile on his face…”

“…didn’t see it coming…”

The realisation hit me halfway through my eulogy, and it hit me hard.  My speech cut off, and I began to choke up, staggering backwards as though hit by a physical blow.  I imagine the crowd’s reactions would have been interesting, but I can’t remember any of it.  Suddenly all I could see was that mug, that damned mug being filled with darkness, Cheshire fading away, his smile fixed in place with nothing to support it.  Other visions began to flash through my mind, visions of an approaching shadow outside a bedroom door left ajar, visions of thin, pale hands buttoning the top buttons of white collared dress shirts, visions of two young boys standing side by side in a church pew, hair combed neatly to one side, visions of red lips pursed tight in a grim, ominous smile.  And then they were gone, and I was back in my childhood, to a memory I hadn’t even known was there.

We were at the zoo, the three of us walking side by side.  I was young, somewhere around six, my brother no older than ten.  Our mother, a prim and proper character who seemed to tower over our world, could have had the entirety of her essence summed up in one word: stick.  Her figure was as thin as one, her patience just as quick to snap, her lashes just as severe, and she lived like she had one lodged firmly up her ass.  The Stick. Had we been more creative (or rather more daring) as children we might have called her that behind her back, in hushed tones and giggles beneath bedsheets at night, the security of our small world illuminated by a tiny flashlight.  But we had been raised better than that.

The zoo was one of many regular family outings we would partake in throughout the week, none of which were for the benefit of the family itself, ironically enough.  We all knew what they were really about, even at that young age.  We knew, but never spoke of it.  That was one of the great rules of our family: certain things were never spoken of.

Despite the rather unfortunate underlying intent of our outings my brother and I still managed to enjoy ourselves, or at the very least as best we could.  After all, we were young boys, and such matters held little sway over our perceptions of the world.  And the zoo had always been one of our favourites.  Even then, I like to think that we had felt more than just the usual fascination for the creatures, that somewhere in our subconscious minds there was an awareness of a kindred relation between us and those poor creatures, both locked away behind bars which everyone saw yet no one acknowledged.

We were in the felidae section of the zoo that evening, walking between the cages of magnificent beasts, docile and submissive behind their bars.  We did not stop to watch each one in turn, did not pause a moment to read the signs hung over the cage doors containing little tidbits on the creature hidden in the shadows before us.  We walked forwards, my mother possessive of a purposeful stride poorly disguised as a leisurely stroll.  We had learnt long before that straying behind (or ‘lollygagging’ as our mother called it) was unacceptable to the highest degree, and as such out of the question.  So we kept pace, our eyes quickly darting from side to side in an attempt to gain their fill of each creature we passed before they were gone again, passed by with no chance of returning for a second look. That was how things were with us.  We passed things by and never looked back.

You see, we didn’t go to the zoo to see the beasts.  We went to the zoo so the beasts could see us.

It was on that particular day that a wrinkle arose in our mother’s plans, the plans she so meticulously ironed.  My brother tripped and fell on a crag in the concrete walkway.  I saw it happen, because I happened to be looking in his direction to the creatures there.  His body fell forwards, and his bare knees scraped against the ground, his hands opening up before him, the skin on his palms grating.  He shot up almost as fast as he had fallen, looking startled and rather dazed, as though unsure of what had just transpired.  I watched him, my mouth agape, and then simultaneously, like trained dogs, we both looked to my mother for an indication of what would happen next.  She was staring at him, and while I couldn’t see her face from where I stood I knew she was pursing her lips.

“I- I’m sorry, mother-” poor Alphie began, stuttering as he so often did when talking to our mother.  Tears welled up in his eyes as he fought to come up with an adequate apology, stammering through unrecognisable words and phrases.  I realised he was going to cry, and a feeling of dread formed in the pit of my stomach.  Suddenly she crouched over, grabbing him by the shoulders.  Passersby would have seen nothing more than a mother comforting her son, making sure he was okay.  Only I could see the indents in my brother’s shirt sleeves where the fingers dug in hard and deep.  Only the three of us heard my mother’s tone, her voice low and dark, like a cat crouching in the shadows of the undergrowth as it crept up upon its prey, the eerie and ominous calm before the explosion.

“Don’t you dare cry,” she had said that day, looking right into my brother’s eyes.  “I don’t care how much it hurts.  Don’t you dare cry.  I want you to smile.”  She spoke through gritted teeth, bared in a menacingly fake smile.  “I want you to smile, even if it hurts.  Especially if it hurts.  I want you to smile and I want you to never stop smiling.  Even when there’s nothing behind it, I want you to smile until the day you die.  Do you understand me?”  Alphie looked up to her, the tears drying in his eyes, and he nodded.  And then he smiled.

Later that day we found ourselves in the zoo’s gift shop, and my mother bought Alphie a gift, “for being such a brave little man.”  It was a mug, the kind with a picture on the side that changes when it heats up.

They put me in the mental-health clinic almost immediately after the funeral, under suicide watch.  I’ve been here since, wasting away in a bed that can move up or down whenever I want.  It’s been a month now, 31 days since my brother killed himself, 45 days since I noticed the mug and brought it up.  I spend my days going over that moment again and again, wondering what I had done wrong, wondering if I could have stopped him, wondering if it was my fault somehow, for noticing the mug and bringing it up.  I know the answer, but it’s easier to pretend I don’t and to keep dwelling on it than it would be to accept the truth.  I’m not ready for that.  I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for that.

People come and go, visiting me for a little while every few days just to make sure I’m still alive, just to say that they made the effort.  It’s all about appearances, darling.  There are no repeat guests; once is enough, and they never stay longer than is required to realize they’re not getting anywhere.  My girlfriend is the only one who comes more than once, and even she has stopped coming as often, the days between visits growing exponentially since the first time.

“They’re thinking of letting you go,” she said earlier today, sitting on the bedside, idly picking at her fingernails to avoid having to make eye contact.  “They say you’ve been okay, but they want to make sure it’s okay with you.  They just need some sign that you’re going to be alright.”  I didn’t respond.  I was staring directly ahead, at the wall, at something that wasn’t there.  She started to cry, sniffling quietly.  “You’re breaking my heart, Chester.”  She turned to me, eyes red, looking for a reaction, a sign that I cared, a sign that I was still alive.  At least we had that much in common: looking for things that weren’t there.

She cried for a bit longer, her stifled sobs echoing through the dead room, but eventually she stood up to go.

“Oh, I’d almost forgotten.”  She reached into her purse, looking for something.  “They found this at your brother’s house.  There was a note beside it.  He said- it said it was yours now.  I thought, you know, you might like to have it here.  To remind you of him.”  She finally retrieved the item, holding it up to show me.  I didn’t look, didn’t have to look, didn’t want to look, because I already knew what it was.  My eyes started tearing up, but I blinked them away, refusing to avert my gaze from the wall.  She held it up a moment longer before giving up, placing it on the windowsill with a sigh.  Then she left.

I could feel his eyes on me, boring into my soul, could feel his smile, the teeth grinning back at me from the darkness, waiting for me there.  I resisted for as long as I could, but he was strong.  I sat up, pushing the bed sheets aside and turning to my side, my legs sliding off the side of the bed.  For a moment I stayed like that, hesitating one last time, then I stood, walking over to the window, to the mug.  His eyes followed me as I approached, his smile never wavering.  There was no kettle in the room, but there was the knife I had kept hidden beneath my mattress after sneaking it back from dinner several nights before.  I dragged the edge clean across my wrist, watching as the hot blood flowed down my arm, pouring into the mug’s gaping, thirsty mouth.  I watched as the mug was filled to the brim, watched as the surface of the dark liquid caught the reflection of the moon and seemed to glow in the moonlight.  I watched, and I waited.  And, in accordance with the words of Alice, dear old Cheshire disappeared, leaving only his grin, floating in the air.

The Arboretum

The Arboretum

“I can’t stop thinking about her. I mean, we hardly know each other, but… it’s like I’ve known her all my life. I know it sounds stupid, but it’s true. I just… I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you just ask her out then?” His eyes flick up to meet the therapist’s, intense and irritated.

“You’re joking, right?”

“You never know-”

“Oh, don’t give me that ‘you never know until you try’ bullshit. I mean, shit, I already know you’re a therapist; you don’t have to keep throwing out cliché’s like that, especially stupid ones. You and I both know why I can’t ‘just ask her out’. You of all people know that best.”

“If that’s what you think. Personally I disagree, but…” he shrugs. “I just think you shouldn’t give up so easily. Who knows? She might surprise you.”

“Even if… look, even if by some miracle she did feel the same way, I’m not… ready for a relationship. I can’t… I wouldn’t be able to handle that kind of emotional stress.” His speech is littered with sighs and huffs, like the breaks in an old record that just keeps playing the same song over and over, desperate to be turned.

“Fair enough. So what do you plan on doing then?”

“I don’t know, doc,” he says, glaring. “That’s kind of why I’m talking to you, isn’t it? So you can tell me what to do?”

“Actually, no. I’m just here to listen, and to offer up suggestions where I see fit. But I already gave you my suggestion for this particular problem.”

“Alright, well give me another, why don’t you?”

“You’re certain you don’t want to be in a relationship with her?”

“Of course I want to be in a relationship with her, but I also want to commit suicide, remember? Sometimes what we want isn’t what we need. Or don’t need, in this case. I just… I want to stop having feelings for her. For anyone, really. I can’t take it anymore, alright? At this point I’d rather feel nothing than feel anything at all.”

“That’s certainly a bold statement to make. Are you sure that’s how you feel?”

“No!” he shouts, pounding his fist on the desk and making the therapist’s pens shake in their mug. The therapist, having seen it all before and worse, does not so much as blink. The boy takes in a shaky breath, slumping back in his seat once more with an air of defeat. “No,” he says again, this time whispering the word. The expression on his face is indicative of hopelessness and exhaustion, as though the outburst has drained him. “Don’t you get it? I’m not sure how I feel. I’m not sure of anything. That’s why I don’t want to feel anything; then I would know. Then I wouldn’t have to be sure.” The therapist is silent for a moment.

“Have you been to The Arboretum yet?” he says eventually, picking up one of his pens and idly, casually fondling it.

“The what?”

“The Arboretum. It’s a lovely park east of campus. Beautiful this time of year. Late enough into autumn that the trees are all colourful, but early enough that they haven’t fallen yet. Not to mention it’s still fairly warm out. It’s a wonderful place to spend some time alone, to reflect on things and whatnot. I’d highly recommend it.”

That was how he found himself standing at the entrance, looking down the path to the other end. Almost as if the therapist’s words had been prophetic, it had turned out to be a beautiful day: the air was still, the sun was out, and there was only the faintest hint of a chill in the air, the promise of the coming winter. He looked out over what he could see of the park, and decided, somewhat begrudgingly, that the trees did indeed look beautiful.

It was the fifth week of university, and things had started off surprisingly well. His old therapist had warned of the dangers of a change in surroundings, of experiences, of his life as a whole, but he had also mentioned that the change might do him some good. The problem was that with such a drastic adjustment things would either go one way or the other, and for people suffering from depression things hardly ever went in the up direction.

“Call me whenever you need to talk,” his therapist had told him on the day of their last session. “You still have my number, right?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Good.” He had clasped the boy by his shoulders, giving him a quick once-over, trying to hide the worry in his eyes. “You’ll do good. You hear me? You’ll do good. You’re a good student, as long as you apply yourself, and the change in scenery might very well do you some good. Just keep your head up, and remember to call me the moment you feel it creeping in. Don’t try to be brave; you’re already brave as it is and you don’t need to prove it to anyone. The second you feel it creeping in you call me. Do not wait it out. Okay?”

“Okay,” he had said, fighting back the sob waiting in his throat, eager to be heard.

“Good boy. You’ll do fine.” He had hugged him then, which might have been a little unprofessional, but as his therapist of all of four years he doubted anyone could have blamed him. And now the tears did come, and he gave a little sniffle, his face buried in the shoulder of his therapist’s coat. He had felt safe, protected. And then they had separated, and he saw that the therapist’s eyes were misty too. He gave him an apologetic smile, and they shared one last laugh. “Be good to your new therapist, you hear? We went to university together; he’s really quite a good guy. Give him some time. Let him in. Don’t make him go through the entire painstaking process of prying you open that I had to go through. You hear me?”

“Yes,” he had said, his head nodding. “Yes.”

Yes. But he’d been unable to keep his word. His new therapist had turned out to be nothing like his old one. He wasn’t funny, or sympathetic, or amiable. He was detached, distant, cold, calculating. And even if he had been better, the boy didn’t think he would have been able to see past the feelings of resentment he harboured for him, simply for not being his old therapist.

But even after the bad first impression with the therapist, things had still been good. Better than they had been in years, in fact. He had made new friends, settled in to his residence comfortably, enjoyed his classes. Most of the time he was so busy that he would completely forget that he suffered from depression, that he had a mental disorder, that he was different. For the first time in his life, he felt like he belonged.

Then he had met her. They were in the same residence, and had several classes together. He had seen her around several times before, and something about her had made an impression on him. It was inevitable, really. Eventually, quite by chance, they struck up a conversation. It was on the way back to their residence after a class that they found themselves walking beside one another. And before he even realized what had happened, he was in love. The revelation came to him two days later, lying in bed at night and staring up at the ceiling, which one of the previous residents of his room had covered in dozens of those sticky glow-in-the-dark stars you could buy at the dollar store.

It was when he realized that he was in love that the real trouble began. Suddenly he couldn’t stop thinking about her, couldn’t think about anything else. When he was with her things were great, better than great, but like a lantern in the night when she was gone the darkness would descend upon him and swallow him up, making him feel more alone and lost than ever before. It was as though he had finally gotten used to living in the dark, and then suddenly she had come into his life and changed all of that, reintroduced him to happiness, to the light. And when she was gone he was all the more aware of the darkness, once more susceptible to its effects, the effects he had just gotten used to, had begun to learn to cope with.

And then suddenly things weren’t so good anymore.

The wind picked up, scattering several yellow and red leaves across his path. He shivered, an unconscious reaction that had nothing to do with the temperature, and stirred from his thoughts. Okay, he told himself, don’t think about any of that. You’re here to distract yourself from your problems, not rub them in. He started to walk without knowing where he was going, simply allowing his feet to take him down what appeared to be the main path. The road broke off into smaller trails in front of him, but he kept on going forward, deciding he would make it to the end first and then see about exploring the smaller ones later.

He passed by people walking their dogs, couples walking hand in hand or arm in arm, with eyes for nothing but one another, old people bundled up tight in weathered coats and jackets that you could tell had seen them through many winters, their faces obscured by oversized sunglasses, joggers whose hot and heavy breaths stained the air like miniature clouds that dissipated into the world they were born into only seconds after their creation. Some of the people he passed would give him a smile, and before long he was returning those smiles, sincerely if not consciously.

He stopped for a moment to watch the antics of three squirrels, chasing one another up and down trees, back and forth in the grass. He knew chances were they were probably fighting over food or territory or something, but he told himself that they were just playing.

Eventually he came to a pond in a small sectioned-off area of the park, hosting several signs that warned of the dangers of stepping on the stones, which were allegedly unstable. He made his way over to the bench in the middle of the area, sitting down and closing his eyes. He sat like that for a moment, each deep breath of cold air like a cleansing wave that swept over his mind, erasing all his thoughts until his head was clear. When it felt right he opened his eyes, looking around as though expecting some sort of visible change to the world, but finding nothing. He stayed a moment longer before standing, the joints in his legs complaining from the cold.

Further along he found a fountain, hidden behind a wall of hedges that ran alongside its border. The pumps were still running, but he decided they would probably shut them off once the temperatures dropped low enough for the water to freeze. There were four statues standing at each corner of the fountain, and it seemed to him that they were watching over it, cold sentinels indifferent to the water’s antics. He looked at each of them in turn, and then took his place among them at the head of the fountain. He watched as the water shot upwards into the air, breaking off into individual droplets but still a part of something greater, never wholly separated from the water as a whole, always readily accepted back into the masses once their flight ended, cascading back down through the air and getting lost in the sea of thousands of droplets just like them, inescapable from the masses.

He walked down the smaller paths, among hedges and flowerbeds and modern art and benches dedicated to people long gone. He wondered what they thought of that, that their legacy was summed up in a plaque on a bench in a park, a name that might be ignored by those who sat there or read by others but almost always forgotten, always lost in a sea of names, all indistinguishable from one another without a face, a hand, an identity to nail it too, and he wondered if they thought anything of that at all, or if there was nothing to think.

He walked under the trees, under the beautiful canopy of colours, the light filtering through and colouring the world around him in a sea of hues, all warm colours despite the chill in the air, in his bones. He wondered about the irony of that, and decided that if he had been a writer he could have found a good metaphor in there somewhere, but as it was decided not to look too deep into it, and left it for some other poor sap to find, to ponder.

He marvelled at the beauty around him, of the tiny snapshots of life, and suddenly it occurred to him that he wanted to share it with someone. And of course he thought of all the couples he had seen pass by, and he thought of her. He reached into his pocket for his phone, what he would say already taking shape in his head.

And then he stopped.

And then his grip loosened, then released entirely, and he let the phone slip from his hand back into his pocket.

And he continued to explore the park, alone.

Six days later he found himself sitting in his therapist’s office, staring at a painting hung on the wall directly above and behind the psychologist’s head. The painting is abstract, but sometimes we don’t need to understand something to know what it means.

They’ve been sitting in silence since he came in, the boy staring absently at the painting and the therapist staring intently at the boy.

“You knew,” the boy says eventually, his voice soft.

“Yes.”

“You knew it would… change me.”

“Yes.”

“…How?” The therapist shifts in his chair, and the resulting sound of leather rubbing against leather is reminiscent of an awkward childhood that no one will ever talk about, that no one will ever acknowledge, will ever make eye contact with. Sometimes it’s just too late for a wound to be bandaged. Sometimes when it heals it becomes a callus, and nothing more ever comes of it.

“It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t know what I wanted,” the boy says, his voice quiet and submissive and indifferent. “I didn’t know.”

Eventually, maybe in another week or two or even three, The Arboretum will grow cold, and people will stop coming, and it will be empty. And even when spring rolls around again, something will have changed, something that the returning warmth will never be able to thaw.

The Cashier

The Cashier

The cashier sits behind the desk and watches the world go by. Every now and then someone buys a Twinkie or comes in to pay for gas or asks for the keys to the washroom, and the cashier will smile and nod and say yes of course and thank you very much and the transaction completed the person leaves, and the semblance of life behind that dead-eyed glaze fades away. It wouldn’t take much to see past the mask; just a second of eye contact and it would be clear to anyone who cared to notice that the cashier is dead inside, has been dead inside for longer than they can remember. And yet somehow, due to the miracle of life, the cashier keeps on living, keeps on breathing, keeps on walking. Every day the cashier wakes up at 9:00AM, takes a shower, has cereal for breakfast, goes to work for 10:30AM, has a lunch break at 12:30PM and gets back to work at 1:00PM, completes the shift at 6:00PM and heads home, sticks a frozen dinner package in the microwave for the appropriate time, stirs it in a counter-clockwise motion with the fork when it’s done, sits in front of the television eating, then goes to bed. Like a body set to rest in a coffin one size too small, the cashier’s existence has been forced into a day-by-day routine which, while extremely uncomfortable, would take nothing short of a miracle to be freed from.

The cashier is not broken-hearted, has not recently lost a loved one, has never been diagnosed with depression or any other major medical disorder. There is no real reason for the cashier’s state, nothing the coroners or the newspapers will be able to point to and say “there: there it is, that’s why.” The closest anyone will ever come to the reason is when one of the cashier’s co-workers shrugs and says “life” in response to the rhetorical “how could this have happened” posed by another co-worker.

Life. Life is what has happened to the cashier. Things simply never fell into place for them. They never found something that interested them to the point of wanting to do it for the rest of their life, they never found someone they loved, or someone who loved them back. They never had a serious hobby, they never found that one thing that makes them feel alive. Things just didn’t fall into place. They fell apart.

There was never anything to distract the cashier from life, from the everyday toil of living. There was never any real reason not to enjoy life, except for the fact that life itself is not enjoyable. It is only when we find things to enjoy that we are content; everything else is just convincing yourself not to think about the unthinkable until you move on to the next distraction.

The cashier sits behind the desk and thinks about what they have decided to do once they get home. It’s the first real major decision they’ve committed to in a long time. The decision has no overall effect on the cashier’s behaviour or attitudes; it’s always been there, lurking just beyond the darkness in the cashier’s mind, waiting patiently for the day when the light would come on and reveal it, accept it. It’s always been there. It’s there in all of us. The cashier still smiles when customers come in, still makes the same lighthearted remarks when customers purchase something out of the ordinary worth acknowledging, still wishes people a good day and a good afternoon and a good night as they leave. The only difference is that now there is a sense of relief, of finality, of closure. Everything is on the table now. There’s nothing to hide, nothing to deny. The light is on, and what was once in the shadows, ignored and denied, is now welcomed inside and greeted like an old friend.

The cashier goes home, and sticks a frozen dinner package in the microwave for the appropriate time, stirs it in a counter-clockwise motion with the fork when it’s done, sits in front of the television eating, then goes to bed. There is a bottle of pills on the bedside table. It is empty.

Sandman

Sandman

My feet sink into the surface of the shore, the sensation of thousands of grains shifting beneath my weight strangely relaxing.  I wiggle my toes, massaging the cold, damp sand around and further disturbing the perfection of its smooth surface.  The water rushes up with a sound akin to that of a mother’s call, familiar and comforting in its embrace, and as it washes up over my ankles soaking the cuffs of my rolled-up jeans, the earth beneath me shifts and I sink deeper into the ground.  The wave withdraws back to the safety of the ocean and in its wake all the imperfections I’ve dug into the sand disappear, mended by the gentle caress of the water.  The sun dips down into the horizon, the first of its body disappearing beneath the waves far off in the distance, and what remains is like a drop of food colouring in a glass of water, the dyes spreading out across the sky as the light is soaked up by the mass of clouds, reflecting into a beautiful blend of purple and yellow and orange shades.  The water is cold, not so much that it is uncomfortable to stand in, but enough that the beach is almost empty, even more so now that the sun is setting.

The nearest of my neighbours are to my left, close enough that I can see them but far enough that they are out of reach, a memory in passing as I look over my shoulder.  It is a young couple, lying on a beach towel, in one another’s arms as they stare out over the sunset.  They are quiet, the kind of quiet that takes years of being together to master, the kind of quiet that resides in comfort rather than awkward pauses, the kind of quiet that is not passed with the panicked attempts at an attempt to revive a dying conversation but rather which calmly buries it in passing and moves on to the next one, hand in hand and heads touching, silent in their understanding of one another.  I look back at them and smile, my eyes welling with tears.  A single drop escapes, rolling down my cheek and hanging briefly on the ridge of my chin.  I bow my head in a kind of nod, and the drop falls, caught up in a rising wave and carried back to sea, lost among the millions of other stories like it, becoming part of something more, something greater than itself.

I turn my head to my right, where a single mother and her two young children, a boy and a girl, play at the water’s edge.  They are well away from where I stand, their figures little more than blurs of movement in the distance.  Even so, their delighted laughter carries across the beach as they skip in and out of the waves in the shallows, the water just above their ankles.  The mother chases her children playfully, their shrieks of joy punctuating a symphony of seagull cries and the soft roar of the ocean meeting the land.

She looks up suddenly in my direction, standing up straight and tall.  Her children pay no mind, continuing their game with one another as they run circles around her still figure.  Though I know she cannot see me, I still feel my heart flutter as a chill runs through my body.  I smile, and now the tears flow freely, and I know what must be done.  I stare a moment longer, the wind tugging at my clothes, picking up particles of sand that sting against my skin.  And then I raise my arm, and I wave.  She stares a moment longer, and then, though I cannot see it, she raises her arm too.

The wind is picking up now, and I feel my body break down, becoming a part of the whole.  I bring my hand up in front of my face, and watch as it turns to sand, falling through the air and scattering in the wind, lost among the dunes.  No, not lost.

Found.

I look back behind me, at the footprints I’ve left behind, and I smile.  But the last thing I see is what lies ahead, the footprints that will go on without me.  She has returned her attention to the children, their voices reaching me in more ways than one.  Though it feels like they are miles away, I still feel as though I am right there with them.  My smile is the last thing to go, suspended in the air for a moment, and then whisked away with all the rest, carried far and long over the horizon.

Webs

Webs

When I was a boy, no older than my son is now, I had a fascination with bugs.  Our property was a decent five acres, so you can imagine the fun I had with all that land.  I would embark on safari expeditions, mapping the harsh wilderness with my faithful partner Bono as accomplice.  We would admire the graceful art of the water gliders from the safety of our dock, watching them skate across the pond’s surface with such fluid and serene movements that I would often have to remind myself to release the breath I had been holding.  We played audience to the antics of the dragonflies as they chased one another through the reeds, like tiny fighter planes in a secret war, and we followed the progress of armies of ants as they carried their hard-earned bounty back to their queen.  Bono was ever patient, although not so much observant.  But when I glimpsed through the keyhole into that world of wonders, it didn’t matter.  I wasn’t with dear Bono anymore; I was with the ants, the pill bugs, the centipedes, the butterflies.  Gone was the big world, the world of big decisions and big problems and big arguments and big pain.  I was free.

Back when things were better and we still had visitors, our relatives and family friends would stop by to visit my parents, and they would sit on the back porch and sip their iced drinks and laugh as they swore up and down that I would grow up to be an entomologist. Just you wait and see, they would tell my parents. The kid has it in him. And they would smile good-naturedly and nod along politely, sharing secret glances with one another whenever the guest wasn’t looking. But they were all wrong. What they failed to realize was that my fascination, my obsession even, wasn’t fuelled by a love of science or learning. It was never about that for me. The love stopped at the creatures themselves and went no further.  I admired them, respected them, was even a little jealous of them. But I never wanted to study them.

Of all the creatures in our garden, I had two favourites.  The first was a spider.  He (or she; I never could tell) was set up in the lower branches of one of the trees on our property, perfectly placed in my line of sight.  At sunset after a rainy day I would race outside to see the web, partly out of concern for the spider in the wake of the storm, but mostly for what always came next.  The web would always be intact, a wonder in itself, but what stole my breath away every time was far more abstract in its appeal.  The web would have collected water droplets from the rain, still sturdy as ever under their weight, and as the sun began to set it would align perfectly with the web.  The droplets would catch the light and reflect it, like tiny ornamental lightbulbs, decorating the strands of silver with flecks of gold.  It was one of the most beautiful images I remember from my childhood, indeed even after all these years there are few sights I’ve seen that rival it.  The spider, who I had never had a reason or right to name, would sit in the centre of the web, completely still, as far as I could tell indifferent to my presence.  Sometimes I liked to imagine that he too was admiring the sunset.

On some days I would catch crickets or grasshoppers, a fly if I was lucky.  I would run as fast as I could to the web, and upon arrival quickly confirm the spider was still there (it always was) before carefully releasing the captured insect straight into the trap and watching the show unfold.  The bug would immediately start to struggle, effectively entangling itself more and more in the web.  With hungry eyes I would follow the strands up to the centre, where the spider sat, immobile, unreadable.  I watched as he registered the movement, the disturbance.  Even before he moved, even before he gave any indication that he had noticed, I would know when he had.  And then he was off, dancing from strand to strand, completely unaffected by his own lethal trap.  He would ensnare the insect, turning it on the spot and covering it in more and more of his webbing until the prey was completely mummified.  I can’t remember where I first heard it, but whenever I participated in this ritual a quote would always come to mind: “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.”  I’d always found comfort in that thought, and it became my mantra.  Whenever I found myself trying too hard to understand the motives behind other people’s actions, I would simply repeat the quote in my head until I felt better.

I found my second favourite quite by chance one hot summer day.  I had been laying on the dock in my usual spot, trailing my fingers just beneath the water’s surface and watching the water skaters as they darted out of the way.  They would never stray too far though, out of what I liked to think was curiosity.  I had been moping around for the majority of the day, the heat too intense for expeditions, or demanding physical activities of any kind.  I might have been inside, but there was a different kind of heat going on in there, and the house had thin walls.  I decided to go and visit my spider (who of course was not “mine” in any possessive form of the word, as much as I might have liked to think otherwise), so I got to my feet, ignoring the pins and needles from being immobile for so long.  I started down the dock back to land, and that was when I saw it.  Sleek, graceful, quiet, dangerous.  I had never seen its kind before but I could immediately tell it was dangerous.  I had seen a stinger before, and this creature definitely had one of the most impressive stingers I had ever seen, not to mention a size only paralleled by a handful of the insects inhabiting the garden, my spider among them.  With a dark red exoskeleton, long, powerful wings, and an abdomen striped with orange, the creature was like the insect world’s equivalent of a stealth jet.  It flew by without a sound, seeming to part the air around it.  My breath literally caught in my throat. It flew over water and made its way to land.  I watched it fade into the distance, and then, just as it had almost completely disappeared from view, I snapped from my reverie and chased after it, keeping a safe distance.  The creature did not subscribe to any of the antics that flies often incorporate into their flight paths, zigzagging through the air as though afraid they were being followed.  It was more like a dragonfly, but even they could be playful when they wanted.  This thing was all business. I could almost feel the seriousness radiating off of it.

I followed it all the way home, which just so happened to be my own.  He (again, assuming) landed on the side of our house next to where our hose was connected and wound up, and then, pausing for just a moment, ducked beneath the siding.  I waited, cautiously, to see if he would return, and when he didn’t I walked over to the spot where he had gone under and peered into the gap.  It was too dark to see anything, but I could feel it.  Looking down at me from in the darkness.  It gave me the chills, but it also gave me a weird sense of exhilaration.  I quickly moved my head, feeling like something (or more than one somethings) would drop down onto my head and commence stinging.  The heat forgotten, I sat down on the ground, crossed my legs, and waited.  Eventually he came out again.  I know it’s possible it was just another one of his kind, considering they all pretty much looked the same to us, but although I can’t explain it, somehow I knew it was him.  The same one I had followed home.  He crawled out of the spot, and then, again with the pause, took off into the air.  I watched him go, but this time I didn’t bother following.  Instead I stayed by the home.  When he finally came back it was with a tiny caterpillar in his mandibles. He took it inside.

Over the next few days of watching their home I counted three individuals.  The first one, who seemed to be the biggest, a second one who had more yellow than the other two, and a third, who was the darkest.  I looked them up in one of the many insect books I had gotten from the distant relatives who were convinced I would be an entomologist when I grew up, and decided they were paper wasps.  They mostly ignored me, but I never forgot what had happened that first day.  Because when the wasp paused just before going into his home, I was sure he had looked right at me.

My mother would often have me water the plants in the flowerbed, a chore I had no problems with.  I actually enjoyed it, to be honest.  It gave me a chance to watch the bees, another one of my favourites.  The honey bees were nice, but I’d always had a soft spot for the big, fuzzy bumble bees.  Even their name was cute.  Bumble.  Like a cute, clumsy little bear.  That’s what they’d always reminded me of.  A cute little bear.  The way they zipped around from flower to flower, so dutifully, was as amusing as it was sad. Busy bees.

The problem, which I only became aware of the next time she asked me to do it, was that to water the plants I had to get to the hose.  And the hose was on the side of the house.  Next to the wasps’ home.  I may not have been an entomologist then but I had known a thing or two about wasps, and I knew they were as aggressive as they were protective.  While I liked them quite a bit, I wasn’t exactly eager to put myself in a position that would end up getting me stung.  My only alternative though was to tell my mother about them, something that would inevitably lead to their deaths.  I would sooner have gotten stung than have them killed.  After all, what were their lives compared to a little pain?  Okay, maybe a lot of pain, but my argument still stood.  So, I risked it.

I made my way over, approaching slowly and cautiously for all the good it would do me.  There was no sign of the trio, but I knew that if they were home it wouldn’t be long before they sensed the disturbance and came pouring out.  I reached the hose and began to unravel it, surprised I hadn’t been visited yet.  Just when I began to think something was wrong, the first dark red head peeked out from beneath the sliding.  This time I knew he was looking at me.  And it might have just been the fear, but at the time I was sure that if he had had eyebrows they would have been bent in the middle.  So I did the only sensible thing.  I started to talk to him.

I told him that it was alright, that I wasn’t there to disturb them.  Then I thought that was pretty stupid, because clearly I was disturbing them, otherwise he wouldn’t have bothered to come out.  So I told him I didn’t mean to disturb them, that I was actually trying very hard not to bother them, admittedly for both of our sakes.  I can’t remember everything I said, but I’m pretty sure at one point I bargained with him, even tried reasoning with him.  I think I said something about how if I got stung my mother would raise hell and we’d both be in for it, although of course only one of us would lose their lives over it.  I’m pretty sure I was adamant on it not being a threat, that I was sincerely warning him for his own good.  And all the while, as my young imaginative brain spouted the most sensible of reasoning to an insect, said insect just sat there, watching me with those dark, emotionless eyes.

I’m sure this is the part where you expect one of two things.  One being the insect flies out and lands on my shoulder and then I grow up to be the wasp-whisperer, touring the world as I teach people about the secret life of wasps, and how intelligent they are and how much we share in common and the bond that unites us all, and it ends with me on my deathbed, my trusty faithful pet wasp laying on my lap, with me until the end.  Enter sap story moral about how animals have souls too etcetera.

The second is the wasp calls its friends out and they all sting me and I grow up to be a cynical old bastard who works for a pest control company. Cue realist’s dream come true.

Neither of those things happened that day.  The wasp just… sat there, watching me, until I had run out of arguments for why it shouldn’t attack me.  And then, when I was done, and I just stood there awaiting its verdict, still nothing happened.  So, wary, still not sure I had convinced him, I took the end of the hose in my hand, turned it on, and left, only taking my eyes off of his own when they were out of sight.  And when I had finished watering the plants and I went to put the hose back, the same thing happened.  He peeked his head out, watched me watch him as I worked to wrap the hose, and did nothing more.

Our relationship, if it can be said we had one, continued on like this for several months.  On some days it would be a different wasp who watched me, and sometimes whoever it was would fly out and hover in the air beside me.  I ran away the first time this happened, but when I looked over my shoulder there was no one following me.  So I returned, knowing if I didn’t water the plants my mother would have my hide.  The wasp flew out again, but this time I didn’t run, and the wasp didn’t chase.  It just stayed there, circling the area, watching me.  I went about my business, stealing the occasional glance back over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t being ambushed, but nothing happened.  Nothing more than that ever happened.

Take what you want from this story; that maybe the wasps really did listen to my arguments and find them within reason, or perhaps that they simply didn’t find me threatening.  Maybe there was something deeper than that, that maybe they sensed something in me that they didn’t sense often.  Or maybe not.  Maybe we don’t live in a world with reasonable wasps, or spiders that enjoy sunsets as much as I do, or bees that work hard for any reason other than it’s in their nature to do so.  Maybe all that is just a product of a child’s imaginative mind.  But I like to think differently.

One final note: one day I went to get the hose, and there was no wasp there standing guard.  And there was none there the next, or the next.  It got to the point where I would spend hours outside their home, waiting, watching, hoping.  Sometimes I like to think that they had grown so accustomed to me that they had deemed me no threat, that I had achieved their approval, and decided they no longer needed to watch me for trouble.  Or maybe they had accepted my presence as just another part of their home.  My alternate favoured fantasy, the one tinged with sadness, was that they came to realize that they couldn’t live there anymore, that it was too great a risk should my mother ever decide to water the garden herself and approach the hose, and upon finding the wasps, proceed to kill them.  I sometimes like to imagine the two smaller wasps with their things in hand, flying off for the last time.  I like to imagine the third one, the bigger one, the first one I saw, staying behind for a while, watching to see if I might come running around the corner one last time, to come and water the plants.  I like to imagine him sitting there, waiting, his brothers calling for him to get a move on, and then, finally, when he can’t wait any longer, flying off to join the others in the clear blue sky, off in search of a new home.  I know that what most likely happened was that one day my mother actually did happen to go to the hose, or in any event found out about the wasps one way or another.  I never did ask her about it though.  Not only because of the trouble I’d have gotten in, but also because I wanted to keep that last shred of hope alive, that last possibility intact.  And in the end, don’t we all lie to ourselves one way or another?

My boy is in the garden now; I can see him through the study’s window.  He’s watching something in the grass, down on his hands and knees, face pressed to the earth.  I think I’ll go join him soon.  Who knows?  Maybe he’s found a descendant of one of my old friends.


You can read the fiction analysis of this story here.