Saturday Stories: Jessi’s Scarf

2016-08-13 12.57.50Jessi knotted the scarf around her neck, checking it in the mirror before stepping out onto the street. She walked briskly—the morning was cold, and she was running late. It wouldn’t do to be late for work. With unemployment at forty-three percent, her employer could fire her at nine in the morning, and have a replacement for her before ten. She was lucky to have a job, and meant to keep it.

She passed a boarded-up restaurant—Dominique’s—and thought about the last time she’d gone there. It had been her last date, and it had been a disaster. She and Michael had been seeing each other for a month, and things were looking good. They had met at Dominique’s on a Friday after work. Dinner and a few drinks had ended with them walking to her apartment. That’s where it all fell apart. Kissing her, Michael had unwound her scarf from her neck.

“What is that?” he said.

Jessi snatched the scarf back from his hand and wrapped it around her neck again.

“It’s a birthmark.”

Michael left soon afterwards, and hadn’t asked her out again. That’s how most of Jessi’s relationships had ended. She had yet to meet a guy who could overlook the angry red splotch that wrapped its arms around her neck from chin to collar bone. Like her employer, they could always find another girl—one whose neck didn’t look like it had been peeled.

Jessi turned the corner onto Bond Street, leaving the restaurant and her memory of Michael behind.

She walked even more quickly now. The Bond Street Detention Center filled much of the block, and it wasn’t a place she enjoyed passing. The economic crisis had led to all sorts of ridiculous policies aimed at ‘making America great again’, most of which were misguided and based on fear, not facts. The government had gone on a campaign to round up illegal immigrants, homeless people, the disabled…anyone who was even slightly different or who spoke up against government policies or big business. The Bond Street Detention Center had opened less than a year ago, and it was already overcrowded. Most of the detainees had done nothing wrong, and none of them deserved to be housed in such miserable conditions. Detainees lived in tents. They were given scant food rations, foul water, and no legal assistance. On top of that, they were billed for every last expense the government incurred to house them there. When they couldn’t pay, all their assets were confiscated.

Jessi hated the policies that put innocent people behind bars, but what could she do about it? If she spoke up about it, she would end up a detainee herself, or worse. Just two weeks ago, a group of twenty protesters had been gunned down by police officers claiming they threatened national security. The protesters had been completely unarmed, participating in a sit-in against mandatory micro chipping of immigrants.

As she passed the high chain-link fence of the Detention Center, a clamour arose. Arms reached out through the fence, and voices called for her to stop, to help. Above the din, a high voice reached Jessi’s ear.

“Just your scarf, please. I’m cold.” A young girl wearing a flannel shirt much too big for her as a coat, and with no shoes stood gripping the bars, looking at Jessi. Jessi shook her head and carried on.

 

Jessi took the long way home, so she didn’t have to pass the Detention Center. She had been distracted all day at work. She hadn’t made any mistakes, but her boss had noticed.

“Pay attention, Jessi,” he’d said. “If you’ve got other things you’d rather do, someone else would be happy to do your job.”

She had forced herself to focus for the rest of the day, but now that she was home, her mind replayed the morning’s walk.

Just your scarf.

Just her scarf. Jessi hadn’t been out in public without a scarf since she was a baby. Her scarf was part of her. Her scarves, that is—she had dozens. Without a scarf, she felt naked, vulnerable. People stared, pointed. She couldn’t go without her scarf.

Please. I’m cold.

Jessi opened her dresser drawer. She pulled out a scarf—tomato red silk with a blue border—her sister had given it to her four years ago for Christmas. She lay the scarf gently on her bed and pulled out another—fine cashmere dyed deep green—she had bought that one herself, with money from her very first job out of high school. She laid the cashmere scarf on the bed with the silk one. She drew a third scarf from the drawer—sunny and yellow—her mother had worn it when Jessi was a girl, to make her feel like she wasn’t the only one wearing a scarf.

One by one, Jessi pulled every scarf from her drawer. Each had a story. Each brought back memories. She laid them out on her bed, the story of her life, told in scarves.

That night she slept under them.

In the morning, she woke early. She chose her favourite scarf—a soft merino knit in shades of deep pink and purple that her parents had given her for graduation—and tied it around her neck. Then she gathered the rest of her scarves in her arms and stepped out the door.

She walked quickly, for fear of losing her resolution before she got to the Detention Center. She clutched her scarves to her chest, blinking tears out of her eyes.

On Broad Street, the arms reached out through the fence. Jessi stopped and pressed a scarf into the first hand. Then the next and the next. In a minute, her arms were empty.

“A scarf for me?” It was the young girl who had asked for a scarf yesterday. She hadn’t gotten one.

“I’ve given them all away,” said Jessi, opening her hands to show they were empty. “I’m sorry.”

“That one?” the girl asked, pointing at the one wrapped around Jessi’s neck.

“But I need this scarf,” said Jessi.

The girl looked stricken, and Jessi imagined how unfair her words must have seemed to this girl who didn’t even have shoes or a coat. The girl turned to leave.

“Wait!”

As the girl returned to the fence, Jessi unwound the scarf from her neck. She was ashamed to find her fingers trembling. She bent down to push the scarf through the fence for the girl.

The girl looked up at Jessi and smiled. Then her smile froze, and Jessi shut her eyes, waiting for the exclamation of horror she knew was coming. Instead she felt little cold fingers on her neck.

The girl gasped. “You have a flower. A beautiful flower on your neck!” Then she was gone in the crowd.

 

Jessi arrived at work, still dazed. As she stepped into the office, her boss looked up.

“Morning.” Then he did a double-take. “What the hell happened to your neck?”

Jessi blinked at him, as though she’d only just noticed he was there.

“It’s a flower. A beautiful flower.”

The Dog Ate My Homework

2016-05-31 13.41.32First, there was a pair of pants to be made. Zip-offs. A bit tricky. Time consuming.

Then, there were animals to feed. An ornery goat to convince to take her medicine.

Two loads of laundry followed.

Next was a trip to the airport to drop off my husband. And while I was out, a stop at the store to pick up some hardware for the stilts my daughter is making.

When I got home, there was helping to make those stilts.

Next thing I knew, it was time to give the goat her medicine again.

And by the time I finished that, it was time to make dinner.

After dinner, there was a movie to watch.

In the middle of the movie, a dog leaped in through the living room window (which was, unfortunately, closed).

The dog was followed closely by the elephant, who didn’t exactly fit through the window. The elephant sort of took out the wall.

Which naturally let the herd of wapiti in. That was okay. They just wanted to watch the movie. It was the elephant who caused trouble.

She wanted a bath, so I had to pause the movie and go fill the tub for her.

But she needed bubbles, so there was the quick trip to the store for bubble bath.

By the time I got back, she had flooded the bathroom floor.

Which of course, meant the dining room got flooded, too.

When the water started spilling into the living room I got worried, but thankfully it was able to drain out the hole in the wall.

But it’s a cold night, and what, with the hole in the wall, it got chilly indoors. All that water froze, and the wapiti decided to have an ice skating party.

Well, partying wapiti are nothing but trouble. They got into the wine, and next thing you know, the police were knocking on the door—something about a bunch of animals doing burnouts on the road outside?

That took a while to sort out. I had to take the car keys from the wapiti. They were pretty annoyed by that, but by that point, they were all drunk. I drove them all home, including the elephant.

When I got back and assessed the mess, I found that the elephant had not only flooded the house and used an entire bottle of bubble bath, but she had used every single bath towel in the house to dry herself off. There’s a mountain of laundry to do tomorrow.

I did get the hole in the wall boarded up, sort of—the wapiti had broken the kitchen table anyway, so I figured, why not use it?

I’d just hammered the last nail in, when the dog came into the room with a sheaf of papers in his mouth.

It was the story I was writing for today’s Saturday Story! I tried to snatch it from him, but he ran off. I tried to follow, but slipped on what was left of the ice. I fell and broke my arm on an empty wine bottle the wapiti left behind.

Getting the cast on didn’t take too long, I suppose, but by the time I got home three hours later, there was nothing left of my story but a mass of soggy pulp the dog had vomited back up. Guess it wasn’t a very good story.

And now it’s terribly late and I’m struggling to keep my eyes open.

That’s why I’ve got no Saturday Story for you today.

Sorry. It really wasn’t my fault.

The dog ate it.

 

Saturday Stories: The Catch

“He’s quite a catch, you know,” said Marlene.

“Yes, but…”

“He’s kind, considerate. I mean, look what he did for that little old lady the other day.”

“Yes, but…”

“He’s smart. He’s funny. You can’t underestimate that.”

“Yes, but…”

“He’s got a good job, great career prospects—you’d never want for money.”

“Yes, but…”

“He cooks, he cleans. For God’s sake, the man even does windows!”

“Yes, but…”

“And hot? Oh, baby! That guy is smoking!”

“Yes, but…”

“And your parents like him, I know that. They told me just yesterday.”

“Yes, but…”

“And…”

Marlene!”

“Huh?”

“He’s gay.”

 

Saturday Stories: Glint

GlintCoverNEWI’m afraid I’m too tired and jet-lagged to muster a blog post today. So, here’s an excerpt from the beginning of A Glint of Exoskeleton for today’s Saturday Stories.

The Girl Who Talked to Insects

Four

Crick peered into her dollhouse, though she didn’t much like dolls. She was looking for something.

“Oh, there you are!” she exclaimed in her sing-song, four-year-old voice. “You don’t have to hide. I won’t hurt you.”

The object of her attention crept cautiously out from under the loose carpet in what Crick called the yellow bedroom. Its antennae waved busily in Crick’s direction. Crick cocked her head to one side and furrowed her brow.

“Are you some sort of beetle?”

“Not a beetle. I’m a cockroach. An American cockroach.” The animal had a raspy voice like an old transistor radio with bad reception, but the scratchy sound was cheerful and friendly.

“Hi Mister Cockroach! My name’s Crick. That’s short for Cricket, and that’s short for Christina Marie Stolzfus, which is my real name. But you can call me Crick. What’s your name?”

“Pleased to meet you, Crick. I’m Periplaneta americana. I suppose you could call that a nickname, too.”

“What’s your real name?”

“It’s hard to say. Cockroach names are actually smells.”

“Smells?” Crick laughed. “That’s weird!”

“Not for us. We have very sensitive noses, and not so good ears. Smell is easier for us.”

“Oh! Well, I think I’ll call you Peri.”

Peri chuckled. “That would be fine.”

“Do you like my dollhouse?” Crick asked. “I saw you in it yesterday.”

“Yes, it’s quite nice, particularly this loose yellow carpet.”

Crick frowned. “I don’t really like it. I’d rather have a hamster, but mom says I’m not allowed. She says they stink and remind her of rats. Gramma gave it to me for my birthday. That’s when I turned four!” she continued proudly. “How old are you?”

“Well, I’m a lot older than four!” chuckled Peri. “I’ve been alive since 1943. That makes me…let’s see…fifty-three years old.”

“Whoa! That’s old,” replied Crick gravely. Then her brow furrowed. “I didn’t know insects lived that long.”

“Most of us don’t, but I’m…special.”

“How?”

“I’m a leader for my species—something called an über. It’s a bit like a…like a president.”

“Are presidents really old, too?”

“Compared to most insects they are. But insect leaders don’t get old like other insects. We just keep on living.”

“You won’t ever die?”

“I can be killed—I’m not invincible. But I won’t die of old age.”

Just then, Crick’s bedroom door opened and her mother poked her head in.

“Who are you talking to, dear?” she asked. “Oh! You’re playing with your dollhouse! That’s nice.”

“Well, not really. I was talking to my new friend, Peri. He’s going to live forever,” she said brightly, “unless he’s killed. He lives in the dollhouse. He likes the yellow room ‘specially.”

“That’s nice,” responded her mother, a little uncertainly. “Which one of your dolls is Peri?”

“Oh, he’s not a doll. He’s a cockroach.”

Within minutes, Crick’s mother had hauled the dollhouse out onto the lawn and sprayed it with fly spray. Crick kicked up such as fuss about it, screaming and crying, that her mother had to lock her in her room until the deed was done. Crick was screaming and pounding on her door so loudly, it was several minutes before she heard Peri’s voice.

“Crick! Crick! Don’t worry. No harm done. I’m over here.”

“B…b…but you were in the dollhouse,” she sniffed, tears streaking her face.

“I scuttled out as soon as you mentioned I was a cockroach.”

“Why?”

“I’ve been around long enough to know that when most people hear the word cockroach, they don’t react well.”

 

The dollhouse was returned to Crick’s bedroom a few days later, but Peri didn’t return to the yellow room. Crick made a house for him from an empty cereal box and hid it under her bed. Peri declared it to be the nicest house a cockroach could want.

Saturday Stories: How the Albatross Got its Wings

Photo: Peter Weiss

Photo: Peter Weiss

“Grandma! I dreamt last night that I could fly!”

“Yes, child. Of course you did. All those born of our ancestors do.”

“Why is that, Grandma?”

The old woman sighed. “Because once, we could fly.”

“Fly? How could we fly?”

“Many, many years ago, before I was born, before my grandma was born, before even my grandma’s grandma was born, the People had wings. We spent all day in the sky.”

The girl gazed upward while the old woman continued. “We soared with the kettles of broad-winged hawks in the autumn and kept the arctic tern company on her long migrations. We flitted with the chickadee amidst the winter-bare branches, and swooped silently with the owls in the night.”

The old woman chuckled. “We challenged the peregrine falcon to races—and always lost. We danced with the woodcocks in the air. We explored every bit of this land, from mountain to sea. We followed the Great River to its source in a small trickle welling up from the ground, and then to its wide mouth at the sea.”

The ancient eyes no longer looked at her granddaughter—their vision was focused far away.

“Then the Flightless came, with their treasures from the earth—gold, silver, precious gems. They worshipped these treasures, and taught the People their value. The Flightless showed us how to dig and mine, how to extract these treasures for ourselves. We forgot the sky. The silver ribbon of a river glinting in the sun was replaced by silver chains. The glitter of the northern lakes was lost to the glitter of polished stones. The golden rays of sunset gave way to the gold sheen of metal.

“We fashioned jewellery from these treasures. Bird-shaped earrings, necklaces of delicate feathers, pendants showing our own forms with wings outstretched. But we forgot what those wings were for. The tern flew alone, and the falcon raced only the wind. We dug and we delved into the dark earth, forgoing the sky.

“We began to crave the bright treasures. Those who found more than their share hoarded them jealously. Those who found less, stole.”

“When Albatross came to ask for our wings, we gladly cut them off our own backs. Wings were in the way in the underground mines. We could dig much easier without them.”

“Albatross took our wings and put them on his own back. He flew off, never to return to land again. He soars forever now over the sea, exploring the world, and landing only when he must. He lives with ease and dies with a sigh of contentment, for he has seen the wonders of the earth. Meanwhile, we live in toil, and die with our bodies and spirits spent. Rarely do we even look to the skies. We have forgotten the wind and the sun, the pull of stars, the sight of all the world spread out below us.”

Grandma smiled wistfully and sighed. “I suppose it is just a legend…a legend of flight.”

“But, Grandma…I know I flew last night! I went up and up until our house was just a speck, and the fields were wrapped around it like the quilt on my bed. And the forest was so dark and cool-looking, and I could even see the sea off in the distance, and the sun sparkled off the waves, and…Oh Grandma, it was so beautiful!”

“Yes, child. Don’t ever forget it.”

Saturday Stories: Killers for Hire

“Now, would that be who I pledge to, or whom I pledge to?” muttered Jane chewing on the end of her pen. “Or should it be to whom I pledge?” She sighed and threw the pen down. “This is never going to work.”

“What’s not going to work?” Jane’s colleague, Babs appeared around the corner of her cubicle, munching an apple. She sat on the corner of Jane’s desk and looked down at the paperwork spread out on it.

“You still working on that wedding?”

Jane nodded.

“I don’t get why it’s so hard to stop a wedding. Just pop off the bride or the groom. I mean, that’s what we’re trained for. It’s what being an assassin is all about.”

Jane sighed. “But I’m supposed to be killing love, not the people involved in it.”

“What kind of stupid job is that?” Babs spoke with her mouth full, and droplets of apple juice splattered across Jane’s desk.

“Well, how many real assassination jobs have we had in the past six months?”

“Um…”

“Exactly. Assassination isn’t stylish anymore. It isn’t the trendy thing to do like it was a couple of years ago. Have you seen the ad the boss ran in the paper last week?”

“Nah, I don’t bother with the paper.”

Jane picked a folded newspaper out of her recycling bin and paged through it to the classified section.

“Here,” she said, handing the paper to Babs and tapping at a quarter-page ad.

“Assassinations Incorporated—more than just bodies,” read Babs. “You’ve trusted us to eliminate your enemies and loved ones for over 35 years. Now Assassinations Inc. has expanded our services to meet all your killing needs. Sick of the cat? We can take care of that! Got roaches? No problem. Tired of undying love? We’ve got you covered. We can kill the lights, the fatted calf, the goose that lays the golden egg, and even two birds with one stone. Need to dress to kill? Let our sartorial staff help. Want to kill with kindness? We have gifts for all occasions. Trying to kill the clock? Let our sports team step in. We’ll even kill time for you, if that’s what you need.” She threw the paper down in disgust. “What is this shit?”

“It’s the brave new world, I suppose,” said Jane, shaking her head. “Anyway, the King of Baumgarte has hired us to stop his daughter marrying that poet guy—Julius what’s-his-name.”

“Julius VonStrueben? I love his stuff!”

“Yeah, well, apparently so does Princess Kalla. But the king can’t stand the guy. Being a thoroughly modern monarch, he doesn’t want to tell Kalla she can’t marry him, but he wants to make sure she doesn’t.”

“So, why not just kill the guy?”

“Kill the national poet of his own country?” Jane shook her head. “Every woman in Baumgarte is in love with the guy—the king would have a popular revolt on his hands if he did that.”

“That’s what our Confidentiality Prime service is for—to guarantee no one ever knows who ordered the job. Surely a king can afford the extra for that?”

Jane shrugged. “Maybe, but like I said, assassination just isn’t fashionable anymore. He’s only asked for us to kill the love, not the lover.”

“And so how are you planning on doing that?” asked Babs as she picked up one of the papers off Jane’s desk.

Jane snatched the paper back, but not before Babs had gotten a good look.

“You’re writing poetry?” She sniggered.

“Well, he’s a poet. I figured that if she happened to find some poems he wrote to other women…”

“And you think you can write poetry like Julius VonStrueben?”

Jane sighed. “I suppose it was a bad idea. But how else would a poet express himself to a lover? How else can I convince Princess Kalla that VonStrueben’s a two-timing jerk?”

The women were silent for a moment. Then Babs’ thoughtful expression turned to a smile.

“There’s more than one way to skin a cat. What if you convinced her that VonStrueben was, in fact, completely besotted with her?”

“How would that help?”

“What if VonStrueben were to write poetry for Kalla? Really bad poetry.”

“Huh?”

“Think about it. How would you feel if your boyfriend—”

“I don’t have one.”

Babs dismissed the technicality with a wave.

“Assuming you did, how would you feel if your boyfriend smothered you with really awful love poems?”

Jane wrinkled her nose.

“You see?”

“Yeah, but I’m not a princess. Aren’t princesses supposed to like that sort of thing?”

“Maybe if they’re good poems, but what if Kalla began to think that VonStrueben hadn’t actually written all those poems he’s famous for? What if she thought she was in danger of marrying a guy who not only couldn’t write, but who had become famous by claiming someone else’s writing as his own?”

Jane considered the idea for a moment.

“Not quite as sure as the philanderer tactic.”

Babs picked up a paper off Jane’s desk and read it aloud.

How many ways do I love thee?

I love thee like a tree.

I love thee like a bee.

I love thee like a well-ripened brie.

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Poetry this bad addressed to someone else? She’ll dismiss it for what it is—a ploy to make her ditch VonStrueben. But I’m sure he writes poetry to her—all you’d have to do is exchange the good poetry for your bad stuff, and she’d begin to look for a way out. Half a dozen poems like this, and she’ll be running for the door.”

“You think so?”

“I’m sure of it.”

“And if it doesn’t work?”

Babs shrugged. “You’re an assassin. You’ll figure something out.” She patted Jane on the shoulder and left.

Jane sighed and picked up the poem Babs had read aloud, reading it again to herself.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have included the brie,” she muttered. She tossed the paper aside, pulled out a clean sheet, and got to work.

 

Saturday Stories: Sledding

IMG_2918I trudged up the hill behind Haley. The sled she pulled behind her was hardly recognisable as the twenty-dollar plastic toboggan it had once been.

“And you really think this is going to work?” I asked.

“I’m sure it will. As long as you pack the snow first, so I can build up enough speed by the time I hit the ramp.”

I sighed. My little sister had been in the garage for days—no, weeks—modifying her sled, only leaving off to go to school and eat meals. The floor was strewn with papers—fiendish-looking equations, diagrams, and sketches.

Mom and Dad humored her—let her use all the power tools, bought her sheet metal, wire, and who knows what else.

“We don’t want to squash her creativity,” said Mom.

It was creative, all right. The cheap plastic sled now looked like a silver bullet, with a sleek shell over the top. A small Perspex window gave the rider some visibility out the front. Fins and wings stuck out along the sides and back.

We reached the top of the hill and I handed Haley her bike helmet.

“Mom says you have to wear this.” Haley rolled her eyes but snapped the helmet on.

“If this ruins my weight calculations…”

“Better than ruining your head,” I said.

“Help me in.”

I lifted Haley and lowered her gently through the sled’s hatch. She grinned and gave me a thumbs-up before closing the hatch behind her.

Plopping my sled down at the top of the slope, I started down the hill. I hit the ramp at a good clip and soared into the air before landing with a thud in the snow beyond.

I had only just stopped and turned when Haley began her descent. God, she was moving fast! What had she done to her sled to make it go like that? I could see her face through the window, tense and full of excitement.

She hit the ramp and seemed to go straight up. And up. And up.

Then she was gone.

I blinked at the overcast sky and waited.

A few flakes of snow spiralled lazily down.

A crow cawed from a nearby tree.

Then I went home.