Category Archives: Short Stories

In a White Room

[I know this title has the word ‘White’ in it, but it is not a continuation of my novel in progress The White Lady. This is something else that burbled up from somewhere a while ago and I thought I would work on it a bit and blog it]

white room

One minute you’re There.

The next minute you’re Here.

There for Jennifer Bailey—Jen to her family and close friends, J-Bay to her scenester buddies—was in her little blue Honda Civic hatchback, humming along to random tunes from the thousands of stored songs on her Ipod while driving through the quiet dark streets of Clearbrook at 10PM on Saturday, the 10th of October.

Here was a place she did not recognize. At all. Not one bit. There was nothing to recognize.

Here was all white.

Jen wasn’t sure if her eyes were open and she was in a room entirely painted in white, or if the white was the glare of a harsh, impossibly  bright light beaming through shut eyelids. She saw no lines, shapes, or boundaries, so settled for the latter explanation. At first.

She tested her muscles and other senses … one by one.

She could not hear anything. She could not physically feel anything. She could not move anything. She could not smell anything.

She felt rising panic, so maybe she still had a stomach to contain butterflies of fear.

No, that’s just a saying; it’s all a mind-thing.

She was stuck in glue or mired in some horrible white molasses—nothing responded. She cried, she screamed—only in her mind. She could not hear herself, could not tell if there was any corresponding action from her physical self.

Physical self? I … have no … physical self?

Her ascending terror screeched to a halt.

Am I dead?

It fit.

One minute, you’re There—Earth, home, car, street. The next minute, you’re Here—mind, thoughts, nothing, nothingness!  In a white room.

Oh God!

Panic fluttered around her minda bat unexpectedly caught in sunlight.

Is this Heaven?

Hell?

Something else?

What was she any more? Spirit? Energy? Mind? Angel? Soul? Stardust? Plain dust?

Jen believed she was thinking, so … she must be thinking.

I guess!?!

Jen knew she was a … a … she. She knew her name.

Jen!! She screamed it in her mind, as if to be sure, to hogtie it to her … soul.

Soul?

She had a memory—memories. So, she must at least be.

“Cogito Ergo Sum” and all that.

Jennifer put some of those thoughts away … away somewhere else. She tried to rationalize her circumstance: what had she been doing just before she was … Here?

Driving her car.

She remembered that much very well. Radiohead—on the Ipod—mournful yet hopeful in their melancholy-poet-angst kind of way. She—humming along to Thom and thinking about the Big Step coming up tomorrow. Getting on a plane and going to Europe for a year … two, maybe. That was a distracting thought, for sure. Europe for the first time ever. Away for a long time.

The streets were not busy. Sidewalks rolled up like a good Bible-belt town—four-way stops optional.

Okay, so it is possible that I had an accident. That’s actually pretty logical. I’ve heard of that before. Yeah, in movies and magazines, the actual accident is often not remembered. So this is what it would be like—I guess—first I would be driving, then next thing I would know, I would be in a hospital or …

One minute I’m There. The next minute I’m Here.

So which is it, this … Here? Hospital or Heaven?

Jennifer-Jen-J-Bay felt a slight stutter in her identity—a cog slipping in the machinery of her mind. If I am in a hospital, she thought, why can’t I hear hospital noises and see hospital things? Nurses talking, doctors scolding, machines whirring and pinging, phones and call-bells ringing, even patients screaming—all would be welcomed at this juncture.

And if I am dead—I don’t feel dead—then the question is not just where I am, but who and what am I? Back to this again.

Spirit?

Energy?

Mind?

Angel?

Soul?

Stardust?

Plain dust?

Energy? Uh-oh, I already did that sequence.

Another slippage. Typical … I haven’t been Here two minutes—or was it two centuries—and I am already repeating myself. If this is for eternity, then I am definitely in BIG TROUBLE!

Jennifer began to repeat in her mind the three names with which she had identified for most of her twenty-two years:

Jennifer Bailey.

Jen.

J-Bay

She heard echoes in which her name was prominent. She clung to them fiercely with all her concentrated energy and repeated them in her mind over … and over … and over … afraid somehow she might just not BE if she lost the memory or the resonance it held for her.

“Hi! I’m Jennifer Bailey—you can call me Jen. What’s your name?”

“Yo, I’m J-Bay—baby! Ha-ha, no, no … not J-Lo, you jerk. Do I look like a wide-butted Latina Diva to you?”

“Jennifer Bailey—that’s Bailey with one ‘L”, please.”

“Hey girlfriend, it’s Jen. Wanna party tonight? Mojitos are on me-jito, on J-Bay!”

“J-Bay, you are hot, if I do say so myself!”

“Now you get back here right now, Jennifer Bailey, and pick up that mess!”

“Jennifer, Jennifer, Jennifer, how many times have I told you—you are switching the tenses in your story … and you want to go into journalism?”

“Jen, you know your father and I will always love you no matter what you do, but sometimes you’ve got to take responsibility for your own actions. We can’t always bail out Miss Bailey, can we? We won’t always be here, you know, Jen.”

With that particular echo, Jennifer’s mind snapped onto another track like some mad captive mouse leaping between wheel and tunnel, food and water, wall and ceiling.

Oh my God, Mom and Dad!!

What would they think? Where are they? Do they know where I am?

If they do, then they are one step ahead of me, Jen thought and would have smiled if she thought she could smile—and after all maybe she was smiling—how was she to know? How could she tell?

Back to Mom and Dad …

If I am dead, then—Jen was trying to be calm—then what day or time is it … to them?

Was it the day after the accident? A month? A year? Had they already had the funeral? Geez, thought Jen, in all the movies the dead ones get to look down at their funeral. Me—Jen Jennifer J-Bay—I get a white room.

What a gyp! What a joke.

If I am in a hospital, maybe they’re coming to visit me, Jen’s mind pitter-pattered. Maybe they’re here right now? If I’m in a hospital, and I can’t see or hear anything, maybe I am in a …in a … Jennifer ‘s thought process stalled … a bed?

No, no, I didn’t mean to say that, she thought. Not a bed.

Ha! Now that is funny. I still think in terms of the spoken word! Of course I didn’t say it. But what was that word? Not bed … why can’t I think of it? Try again: Maybe I’m in a … in a … a … room. Maybe I am in a … in a … a …

Jesus Christ! What is wrong with me?

Well that brings us back to the very first question again, doesn’t it, J-Bay old girl? Jen’s felt increasingly morose. Not only could she not connect to her body, her mind was slipping away. Was she dying now? Is this what dying was: a brief period of white—well they always talked about a white light, not a room—then … snick … you’re out?

No!

No!

Jennifer fiercely rejected the idea. If I am dying, where-oh-where were the celestial beings come to guide me through the veil to the other side? They’re listed in just about every recounting of trips to the afterlife and were all the rage in Kübler-Ross studies—no matter what your religious background, Jen thought.

It would be just typical to be expected to make the trip on my own. But I’ve got great-grandparents at least who should be …

Here.

Mind you, Jen mused—all awash in symbolism now—I don’t expect to see the River Styx or a ferryman, but someone, anyone would do: Gabriel, Peter—even Peter Gabriel—Father Christmas, St Christopher, Jupiter, the old guys from the movie Cocoon—who cares!!

I just don’t want to do this alone, Jennifer whimpered.

Again her mind jumped tracks. If I can think, Jen posited, then surely I am alive. Didn’t someone say: “I think therefore I am?” J-Bay had always parodied: “I stink therefore I am”. It wasn’t funny, J-Bay, Jen scolded her cool self. In fact, it had never been funny.

Wait, I already did the think/am—cogito/sum thingHey—track-jump—what if I am supposed to do my repenting right now? Is the time I have in this white, windowless, featureless, distraction-void space meant for reflecting on all my sins and peccadilloes?

Sure, sure I can repent, but what is the point, if the people I sinned against don’t know I am repenting?

I guess the Man knows—The Big Guy—the Head Honcho—the Big Kahuna—the … Shit!

Jen was surprised she could swear in this state, whatever state it was. Thoughts are thoughts, I guess, she metaphorically murmured …

Jump again … Okay if I can swear, this probably isn’t heaven. It may be only purgatory.

Only purgatory!

No, no, NO!

Jen tried to focus—back to the I-think-therefore-I-am thing. I must have a brain in order to think. Jennifer wasn’t quite so sure of this idea, since computers were getting very close to thinking, but …

 … If I have a brain, I must still be alive. Maybe I am alive, but in a … in a … a—almost got it—cubicle.

God damn it! Shit! … Motherfucker!!!

Jen shouted at the top of her imagined voice, hoping to shock The Powers That Be, whoever and wherever they were, into showing themselves and at the very least, admonishing her for such rudeness.

No such luck.

Why—why—why couldn’t she complete that thought?

I’m in a … in a … a …

Her mind suddenly spun back through all the thoughts ideas and phrases she had thought about since she became aware that she was Here and no longer There.

… could not hear … not feel …not move … panic … cry … scream … There Here … Heaven? … Hell? … Something … ?? … Spirit? … Mind? … Angel? … Stardust? … Driving … Radiohead … Ipod … humming … Thom … Europe … streets … 4-way stops optional … accident … movies … hospital or … dead … There … Here … Hospital or Heaven … Jennifer-Jen-J-Bay … identity … not where I am … … Jennifer Bailey … Jen … J-Bay … echoes … past … name … repeated …afraid … not BE … lost … memory … I’m Jennifer Bailey, call me Jen … J-Bay—baby! Ha-ha … Jennifer Bailey … it’s Jen … party … J-Bay … hot … get back here …Jennifer Bailey … mess! … father … love you … responsibility … always bail out Miss Bailey … Mom and Dad!! What … where … one step ahead … if dead, then … Jen … what day … after accident … month … Year … funeral … the dead … look down … a white room … gyp!

Jen felt the curious sensation of floating up and falling down in a spiral all at the same time, as her mind carried on gibbering, apparently of its own volition.

… can’t see, hear … in a … in a … bed? what … word? think … in a … a … room? … Maybe … in a … in a … a … Jesus Christ! No! … where … guide? … Kubler-Ross … No … grandparents … here … River Styx … Peter Gabriel … Christmas … Jupiter … Cocoon … I … alone … am alive … I am … J-Bay … I stink … I am … Jen … repenting … now … in … white … void space … sins … the Man knows … Big Guy … Head Honcho … Big Kahuna … Shit! … if … isn’t heaven … purgatory … No, no, NO!

Jen wasn’t even paying attention to her own thoughts, now. She was a computer algorhythm, burbling along to logical conclusions.

… focus … a brain … to think … close … have a brain … alive … Maybe … alive, but in a … in a … a … cubicle … God damn it! Shit! Motherfucker!!!

…Why—why—why… in a … in a … a …

SNAP!!!!!!!

To Jen, it was unimaginably loud. An audible crack jolting her back to the … Here.

Fuck.

And she knew.

… I’m in a coma.

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Computer Virus

I wrote this story in answer to the Fabulous Chuck Wendig’s (http://terribleminds.com/ramble/blog/) Friday Flash Fiction challenge: “Diseased Horror”. In his words, ‘write 1000 words of flash fiction. It should be horror. It should feature disease as an axis of that horror. That’s it. That’s the mission.’

So I did. I remember when the term computer virus was actually more of a metaphor. When the computer itself had the annoying virus. When your machine would whir, click, and rev up like a crazed mini lawn mower and then … bfzzt!

The blue screen of death.

I’ve lived long enough to observe how words I used to use when I was young now mean different things—cool used to be a temperature, gay was happy, and fag was a cigarette. And now … the meaning of computer virus will be changed forever, for me at least.

 

 ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

You might say I was lucky on that day. One-11 they’re calling it, in dubious honor of binary code.

I had an early morning fight with my wife and stormed out of the house, went for a drive to the nearest overlook with a bottle of rye whiskey. Drank half of it before lunch, just to spite her. Naturally, I didn’t touch a keyboard when I got back. Too smashed to even see the monitor. I just went to bed.

But she did.

My wife, Crissy.

Touch the keyboard, I mean.

So did my kids.

Beth—the fresh-faced teenager with a quick white smile—constantly online, plugged in, connected. Cyn—the 12-year old jockette—not much for tweeting or LOL-ing, but always checking her soccer and basketball schedules. Little 6-year old Finn—so bright and toothy—who loved playing Power Rangers and Hot Wheels and God knows what else for hours on end, it seemed.

My kids.

I would give anything to watch their fingers fly again. Give anything to watch them waste time. Because then it would mean they had the time to waste.

I would give anything to fight with Crissy one more time. This time I would apologize. I would kiss her. I would make up.

Oh, I was anything but lucky on that day.

I noticed the smell first. In that hypersensitive state only a hangover can imbue, I detected a fetid and putrid odor before my foot hit the top stair. Bonus round to the hangover, I couldn’t figure out what the smell was.

It was unbearably bright in the kitchen. The sunlight knifed through the window and stabbed my eyes. I looked for coffee. The coffeepot wasn’t in its cradle. Blinking a hundred times to adjust to the glare, I finally made out the slim lines of my beautiful wife’s body as she lay unmoving on the tiled floor. Her face and lips were puffy and purple, eyes bulging. A slimy, pink liquid congealed on the floor under her mouth. The glass coffeepot lay shattered a foot away from her outstretched right hand. A dark substance—I realized dimly was dried blood—trailed out from a gash on her palm. I knew then that the odor was death and feces.

I heard coughing from the living room and headed there in a daze, to see Beth draped listlessly on the couch. Even in my stupor, I could see her life force ebbing fast. Gasping for breath, her body shuddered with each spasmodic, bubbling cough. Pinkish fluid frothed from her nose and mouth. Beth’s normally shiny blonde hair hung lank on her face as her head lolled over the edge of the couch. Gouts of blood had flowed from her nose at some point in the night; the carpet directly below her head was soaked red.

Just as I got to her, Beth made a mewling sound and shivered violently for a few seconds that seemed like hours, until a final prolonged coughing fit exploded in sprays of blood and mucous.

Then she lay horribly still. I stared down at her. I was too late.

I turned back towards the kitchen. Too late for Crissy.

I turned back to Beth. Reached down and picked up her head, rolling her over onto her back and stroking away the wet hair from her face. Her lips were blue. Her eyes glistened. Her cheeks were wet. I closed her eyelids, thinking how I must be in a movie or dreaming.

My head pounded. Where were Cyn and Finn?

After a few dull moments, I forced myself back up the stairs.

Cyn was in her bed, almost peaceful. My heart leapt at that, until I saw the telltale pink froth on the pillow … on the sheets … on her nose and mouth.

And Finn … little Finn. I prayed he was alive almost as hard as I prayed he was already gone. I wandered to his room reluctantly and peered around the edge of his bedroom door. His nightlight—a purple conch shell we had brought back from Hawaii—was still on, casting a needless purple pallor to his face. I could not bear to enter.

Too late.

Today, knowing so much more, I find myself sitting at my computer desk—in my small office in my empty house—thinking about how foreign the concept of germs would have been to the millions of people who died puking, shitting and bleeding from every orifice during the Black Death.

It was the vengeance of God or the work of Satan. Or magic.

Today—even in this technologically advanced world—how foreign is the idea of microscopic machines.

Intellectually, we know about them. I suppose some can imagine them, to an extent. Very few can actually describe them and even fewer can build them.

Microscopic machines. Tiny travelers. Venomous vectors.

Sounds like germs to me. Or magic. Or Satan.

The irony is that the group claiming the deed was a splinter cell of the Mother Gaia movement. You know the ones who think mankind is a virus on mother earth that should be exterminated so the earth can live on in peace and harmony until an asteroid takes her out. It’s not ironic that the group virtually (no pun intended) achieved its goal. It’s ironic they used mankind’s technology to accomplish it.

Brilliant, deluded techies recruited or extorted by the Earth Firsters; they did it.

They made the tiniest nanobots that could swim through cables and fibreoptics. In the burgeoning wireless world, I never realized that cables still connect us all in some way.

These nanobots carried two little surprises. The first was a secretion of microbes that inflicted a slightly modified—meaning fast, vicious and antibiotic immune—strain of the Spanish flu. The second was a parasite that caused sterility in anyone who happened, by genetic chance, to survive the flu. I can tell you there were not many of those survivors; the nanobots rejigged the influenza microbes as they traveled, using the viruses’ innate ability to grow stronger and defeat their host’s immunities.

The bastards programmed the nanos to head to computer keyboards.

Me … I survived that day because I got shit-faced and stayed off the Internet, and I didn’t feel like hitting up Facebook when I woke up and stumbled downstairs the next morning. Never touched my keyboard, where the malevolent, disease-covered parasite-ridden little bastards were lurking; waiting to transfer to the skin of anyone who wanted to play Minecraft.

Today is a different day. It’s only a few weeks later and I am alone.

I mean alone.

I sit, foot tapping, gazing at the dark monitor in front of me. A photograph of Crissy stands beside it. We were on our honeymoon. She looks happy in this picture.

“Thanks for sharing everything with me, good and bad, Crissy, my love. Thanks for my wonderful kids,” I whisper to her. “Now it’s my turn.”

My fingers tremble at first, but by the time I tap out the end of the farewell letter that no one will read, they are rock-steady.

Slice

Chuck Wendig’s latest flash fiction challenge ran over two weeks: the first week we were to write an awesome sentence, then this week, we were to pick someone else’s sentence and write a 1000 word story around it. I picked a sentence written by ‘miceala’ on September 26, 2014 at 7:44 PM. I will reveal the sentence at the end of this post as I think to reveal it now gives too much away Miceala’s avatar picture for her blog (http://quillaquiver.com ) follows and is somewhat appropriate:

8fe99ff8da30f4522e61388a489361b9

My face.

I try not to look, but when I must—like every morning before going to work—I force myself to search between the flaming angry ridges, to hone in only on smooth skin, the remaining untouched flesh.

My once beautiful face.

Every time, I fail. My eyes—blue and unmarred—forever stop and focus on each line, tracing the raised intaglio threads until the whole of my visage has been traversed slowly, carefully, painfully, like Blondin tightrope-walking across Niagara falls.

Eventually, after applying mascara, I close my untouched eyelids and finish preparing to meet the world, to go to my job. I brush my teeth and hair and apply lipstick blindly. No need for blush or rouge.

Concealer? I can hear him laughing at that thought.

It doesn’t matter; I’ll never be beautiful again. It’s a habitual morning ritual. It’s not for me, anyway; it’s for my co-workers, although I doubt they look at my face either.

These scars are ropes binding my existence, my self-image, to my wounds. I can’t ignore them; they will never disappear. The doctors say plastic surgery will only disfigure me more; there are too many, too close together to fix. Even if my body didn’t reject the transplanted flesh, it would be hard and puffy in so many places I would look like Georges St-Pierre after a losing fight instead of just a Dinka tribeswoman.

But there were so many cuts. So many …

I honestly don’t remember every slice. Just the first ten or so. The knife was cold until it went white hot. Or maybe it was the blood that made it burn. He did it all in front of a mirror at my old apartment. He had to, in order to create his art while holding me from behind. Held my head just so, moving my face gently, tenderly. When it came time to remove the gag and ball he had crammed in my mouth, the better to make his final strokes, I was well past screaming, too far gone to cry for help.

I remember his final words before he slipped out, leaving me sprawled beneath the sink with my face painting the bathroom floor a bright and slippery red.

“Remember always, Dora,” he whispered. “You are my greatest creation. A masterpiece!”

Only my name isn’t Dora. It’s Lily.

Once—in a maudlin drunken fog—I searched the Internet for ‘Dora’ and ‘Masterpiece’. I found Picasso’s portrait: ‘Weeping Woman’ whose subject was his mistress, Dora Maar.

So I guess I get it now, but it still doesn’t help.

If only I hadn’t been feeling … experimental that night. What do I call it? Looking for Mr. Goodbar? A Mosuo sweet night? Exercising my prerogative to enjoy myself?

Everyone says it wasn’t my fault.

Of course, it wasn’t my fault.

Doesn’t matter now, does it?

At first, Van had been fantastic: intelligent, artsy, great sense of humour. I laugh. I take a chance. I take him home.

And he carves me up like an Easter ham.

I told the police who he was. They never found him. Big surprise. They were sympathetic and useless.

But I found him. In a chat room. I know it is Van; he uses some of the same lines and jokes that seemed so attractive to me that night. He uses them on other women. How many masterpieces has Van created, I wonder?

Sometimes I can’t help myself; I must touch the scars. All of them. It’s happening more often, now—almost every day in fact. Before, only my eyes traced the route of each ridge; now my trembling fingers also find the path. Some days, as I do this, it is as if the scars are speaking to me through my fingers, like Braille to Helen Keller.

Lately, though—maybe since last week—as I let my fingers do the walking, I hear the tiniest of whispers. At first, I think it comes from the pads of my fingers sliding along the hard ropey blemishes. Then yesterday the words began to clarify, like the discordant croak of a radio announcer rising up through the static hiss of white noise interference.

It’s coming from my face. It’s my scars.

End it.

This comes through quite clearly. A natural thought for me after what I have endured.

Sl-i-i-ce.

Hissed like Kaa the great snake in the Jungle Book. It makes my face tingle and twitch, as if pricked one last time by the point of the hot knife. Sometimes I weep.

For six days the two phrases repeated.

Today, as I get ready to go to work—listening to my face whispering a sibilant sing-song—I confess to thinking that if I do end it, it would be such a beautiful irony if I managed to do it with a knife—to slice myself. I believe I would finally reveal the masterpiece that Van intended, the final masterstroke, as it were.

Van mus-s-s-t go.

Now … this is a new one. I think it is a clever pun. After all, it is my mind producing the delusion, isn’t it? I think I’m pretty funny … at least I used to be. Then I hear the sequence arranged in a different combination.

Van mus-s-s-st go.

Sl-i-i-ce.

End it.

Last night Van made a date with a woman openly in the chat room. He gave GPS coordinates as if they were some kind of code. I know where he will be later tonight.

This morning I understand what my scars are telling me.

Van mus-s-s-st go.

I stop touching them and stare in the mirror. Eyes open, looking at my face.

Sl-i-i-ce.

All of my face.

Sl-i-i-ce.

All of my beautiful face.

Van mus-s-s-st go.

His masterpiece.

End it.

Perhaps I would be able to move on. Court closure. Carry on, if not healed and whole, at least sated and revenged. I would be every bit as tender as Van was. Then finally, the scars would stop whispering.

The sentence is, of course: “Then finally, the scars would stop whispering”.

weeping-womanPicasso’s Weeping Woman

Lancelot

Young Jennie; so named because her mother was dubbed “Old” Jennie—although no one ever said it to her mother’s face—and also because she was only twelve years old, sat at the kitchen nook, toying with her after-school snack. Her mother had placed a plate full of cubes of watermelon and celery sticks spread with Cheese Whiz in front of her as soon as she had come in. Young Jennie was not hungry, so she slowly flipped the fruit cubes end on end, and made teepees with the celery sticks.

Old Jennie eyed her sideways as she dried the lunch dishes. Her daughter had tended to the melancholy since her great grandfather had passed away a short four months previous, so she chose to ignore her food-play and said, “By the way, Rusty pulled another of his disappearing acts this morning.”

Young Jennie stopped fiddling with her food and looked up. “What?”

“Yep,” Old Jennie nodded. “Let him out just before you went off to school, he waltzes back around one this afternoon.” She could not help adding, “Maybe you should pay more attention to the poor dog. Who knows what kind of trouble he can get into.”

This change in canine behaviour had begun around the time Young Jennie’s great grandfather—affectionately called ‘Gee-Gee Onion’—had first taken seriously ill. The onion part of ‘Gee-Gee Onion’ was a corruption of his surname Runyon, coined by a three-year old Jennie. It had stuck with everyone in the family from then on. Seamus Runyon had liked it best of all, Old Jennie remembered fondly.

Old Jennie had speculated that, because of all the commotion surrounding Gee-Gee Onion’s death and funeral, Rusty had felt left out, and was looking for a mate—or at least company—elsewhere.

Young Jennie fidgeted on the bench. The part of her legs not covered by her shorts was sticking uncomfortably to the bright red vinyl covering. She looked to where Rusty now lay sleeping in his spot: a thick brown shag rug in the corner of the kitchen nearest the door. His long red coat naturally splayed around him in even silky strands, as if someone had combed it out.

“He doesn’t look like he is hurt; he’s not dirty or anything.” she said tentatively.

“No, but still … ” Her mother turned and leaned against the counter, folding her arms with the terrycloth towel still in her hand, and stared pointedly at Jennie. “ … you barely walk him or even feed him anymore, and you don’t even play with him nearly as much as before … ” She trailed off.

“I do too walk him!” Jennie was as indignant as a twelve year old can be, focusing on just one accusation in the litany.

“Really? When?” countered Old Jennie.

“Every … every … well, once a week at least!” Now her thighs were sweating on the vinyl, which made Young Jennie even more uncomfortable. Exasperated, she unstuck herself with a grimace and rose up to leave the table. “I have homework to do.”

“I’m sure you do,” said her mother tartly.

Young Jennie’s routine since school had started last month was to spend two hours after school, then another hour after supper on homework. Old Jennie hadn’t complained at first; it was such a welcome change from the year previous, when Jennie had been more likely to play chess or checkers with her great grandfather, or listen raptly to the generally fabricated stories of his life in pre-war Ireland. Schoolwork had never been a focus for Young Jennie then. Now it seemed like it was all she ever did.

Young Jennie paused, then picked up her plate, rounded the table and handed it to her mother, and as if to forestall any further inquiries, said quietly, “I’ll check it out tomorrow, Mum. I promise.”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday. He doesn’t do it when you’re home.” Old Jennie said shortly.

“Oh.” Young Jennie had lost track of the week. “OK, Monday then, before school. I’ll let him out and watch where he goes.”

“As long as you make it to school on time.” Old Jennie bit her tongue as soon as she said it; she saw Young Jennie’s face cloud.

“Don’t worry, Mother. I’m never late.”

Old Jennie sighed as Young Jennie stalked past her and up the stairs to her bedroom. Rusty groaned in his bed and rolled over onto his back, wagging his whiskbroom tail on the rug, proudly displaying his maleness to the world, and airing out his red-furred tummy.

Old Jennie—and at this moment she felt old—shook her head in frustration, deliberately ignored Rusty, and returned to drying the dishes.

***

Jennie cupped her hands to her mouth and yelled hoarsely: “Rusty! Come here boy! Rusty!” It was the fourth or fifth time she had shouted.

“He is going to make me late for school! Darn dumb dog!” She muttered to herself, remembering her promise to Old Jennie. She stomped down the long gravel driveway to the main street of her subdivision, the better to scan the neighbourhood for her errant pooch. Perhaps he had gone to visit the little female Pomeranian down the street. Jennie believed that Rusty didn’t like other dogs much, contrary to what Old Jennie thought. Young Jennie lived in faint hope that the tiny Pommie could be a perfect girlfriend for Rusty.

She reached the end of the driveway and peered to her left towards the Pommie’s house. There was no sign of Rusty’s lute-shaped red tail or fox-like ears. To the right she looked, and … yes, there he was! The whisk of Rusty’s tail flagged the end of a driveway about six houses away.

“Rusty!” Jennie called again as the tail with Rusty attached disappeared in a feathery flourish.

“I swear I’m gonna kill that dog!” She exclaimed to the misty October air as she marched towards the house. She did not know who lived there, or remembered seeing anyone around whenever she had walked by it. Certainly, no pets lived there. She would have noticed them; Jennie was still of the opinion that animals were much more interesting than the people who owned them.

The gravel driveway for the sixth house was short. The home came quickly into view: a neat-as-a-pin rancher with a small veranda by the front door, clean turquoise siding with white trim overlooked a well-manicured lawn and flower garden.

Probably an old lady’s house. Jennie thought as she came closer to the end of the white picket fence that rimmed the front garden. Why would Rusty come here? She heard a voice and halted just at the edge of the driveway.

“Here you go—scraps,” was what she thought she heard the reedy high-pitched voice say.

“That’s it, Scraps, you just eat that all down right now, there’s a good boy. My, you must be starving, look how you gobble it up!”

Oh, thought Jennie, bemused. She actually is calling Rusty ‘Scraps’.

Intrigued, Jennie hid behind the fence and peeked around the end picket down the driveway. There, sitting on a side-door stoop was a white-haired elderly lady—as Jennie had predicted—dressed in a 1960’s style blue floral-patterned dress. She ruffled Rusty’s fox-ears and petted his head, as Rusty happily wolfed down the contents of a large aluminum bowl the lady had set in front of him.

Jennie was about to make her presence known, but instead she stepped back, school forgotten for the moment, and pondered. Someone else was feeding her dog with obvious familiarity, and he seemed to like it!

Maybe he just wants to be independent! 

She had contemplated independence often herself lately; she recently had decided she would leave home the minute she completed high school.

If I work extra hard at school and my homework, I can skip a grade …

Meanwhile, the lady continued talking to Rusty: “Well you look healthy enough Scraps, so I guess you must belong to someone, but it does make me wonder; you sure put it away every time you visit! Maybe your owners don’t feed you enough, poor baby.”

Jennie’s jaw dropped on the ‘every time you visit’ part. Was this a regular thing? She felt offended; she fed Rusty every single day!

She inched further back the way she had come, her indignation quickly replaced by the excitement of a sleuth who had stumbled on to a mystery. She decided then to follow her wandering dog and see exactly what he did, where he went and whom he visited, until he went home. She would suffer whatever consequences came from being late to school—for the first time ever. This was much more interesting than ‘times and guhzinters’, as her late great grandfather had derisively called mathematics.

When people looked askance, Gee-Gee Onion would gleefully cackle: “Y’know … six guhzinter twelve … two times!” Few thought it as funny as Gee-Gee himself did. Jennie had always laughed with him.

Jennie checked for hiding places close enough for her to observe Rusty’s next movements but far enough down the road that he couldn’t smell her. It was a dilemma; she didn’t know which way he might go.

The puzzle solved itself as she heard the lady say, “G’bye Scraps! Away you go again, silly old wanderer. You know you really should stay with me, shouldn’t you, but no, off you go through my yard again, just like you owned the place anyway.”

The lady clucked happily to herself as she entered her house. Jennie waited a beat before scrambling back to the driveway and staring down it to see where Rusty had gone. Directly in line with the gravel path was a gap under the fence that lined the perimeter of the neat green backyard. Surmising Rusty had ducked through that gap, Jennie calculated to which house on the parallel street it would lead her wayward pet.

Cripes, that’s all the way around the block! Thought Jennie.

She bolted along the sidewalk to the corner, spraying gravel onto the white fence from her sneakers as she took off, turned right and right again, then counted down the houses until she got to the one that backed out into the home that she¾and her foxy dog¾had just left.

This house was a white stucco rancher trimmed in faded brown fascia. In contrast to the neat abode Rusty had just visited, this home was unkempt. A low concrete wall crumbled in front of the residence and bordered a lawn overgrown with weeds and wild grass going to seed. Jennie stopped at the asphalt entranceway, slipping on the smooth surface and leaving dusty skid marks on the blacktop. She could not see Rusty, and was just beginning to think she had calculated incorrectly, when she heard another voice—this time that of man.

“Hey there, it’s Red, right on schedule! Here you go, fetch!” Jennie heard a low grunt and a large white Dent-a-bone, the kind that her family couldn’t afford to buy from the pet store, flew out from behind the rear corner of the house, clunked against the paint-peeled wall of the carport and landed below in the weed-filled flowerbed border.

Rusty came into view, trotting over¾rather casually she thought¾to find the huge bone and, after wrestling with it briefly, heaved it up in his mouth. He marched—stiff-legged and struggling, but triumphantly—back behind the house and out of sight. Jennie clapped a hand to her mouth to stop herself from laughing aloud—just in time—as the man came around the house, looking back over his shoulder and calling, “Come on Red, time for your walk.”

The man was also gray-haired, but tall, very thin and gangly. He belted his beige dress pants high up on his midriff, and sported a red plaid felt shirt under a thick black cable-knit sweater. His attire seemed to be a case of overkill given the mild October weather. After all, Jennie was still comfortable in shorts and a thin blouse.

She ran for cover behind a large black car parked on the opposite side of the road, her mind whirling.

Your walk? she thought, more affronted than ever. Just what kind of dog owner do these people think I am? I walk him every day after school!

As she crouched breathless and bewildered behind the car, however, she soon had to admit that these people couldn’t know what she did with Rusty-Red-Scraps when they weren’t with him, just as she hadn’t been aware of Rusty’s itinerary with them.

Jennie fretted that Rusty might catch her scent as the pair left, but she had no time to move before they both came into sight. She held her breath.

The man limped slightly; Rusty kept apace beside him, still clenching the monstrous bone in his jaws, occasionally turning his snout—with some difficulty—to look up to the man. They headed slowly down the road away from Jennie, and she let her breath out slowly in relief.

She gazed after the duo. They look like they belong together—they’re so cute! Jennie was both amused and disturbed.

The man reminded her of Gee-Gee Onion, just before he had gone away. Gee-Gee Onion had been very thin then; so thin, that any clothes he wore looked like sheets hanging from a clothesline, if the clothesline were made of bones. He had been so thin that Jennie could not bear to visit him during his last two months in the hospital. According to Old Jennie, he had asked after her many times …

Jennie blinked away a sudden wetness in her eyes, and looked back down the road after her delinquent dog. Rusty was holding himself back to keep abreast of the old man, weaving and casting figure eights, something he never did during any walks she took with him. She could see the man was talking to Rusty, but the widening distance prevented her hearing his words.

Jennie followed them, using parked vehicles, trees, shrubs and mailboxes for concealment.

They reached a park—the same park in which Jennie herself often walked her dog—where Rusty indulged the old gentleman in a game of fetch, this time with a weathered red ‘Kong’ toy.

Jennie strolled the perimeter, keeping one eye on the pair while trying to be invisible. Even from this far away she thought she heard an Irish lilt to the old man’s voice.

Maybe he’s from the same village as Gee-Gee Onion.

She figured it was now after nine o’clock. She was late for school for sure.

Well, it was Mum’s idea to follow the little bugger, anyway.  Jennie felt the little thrill she always got when she used one of Gee-Gee Onion’s almost-swear words. He had had a million of them; she remembered a lot of them too, but rarely took the chance to say them aloud where her disapproving mother or her scoffing schoolmates could hear. It’s weird, she reflected. One side thinks they’re just rude, and the other thinks they’re corny and old. Either way nobody wants to hear them.

She sat down on a knoll overlooking the field where the man and her dog were still playing. She picked blades of grass, stripping the leaves and sucking and chewing on the remaining succulent shoots. Old Jennie would have lectured her on the danger of pesticides and other diseases lurking on the lovely green lawn. Gee-Gee Onion would have cackled, poked Old Jennie in the side and said: “Young folk don’t know what age is, an’ old people forget what their yout’ was, eh Old Jennie?”

Jennie stared down at the lush park scene that spread out before her, but did not really see it. Not long ago, she and Gee-Gee Onion had come to this same park, sat in almost the same spot, and done exactly the same thing she was doing. They had played a game of chess at home, and her mother had wanted her to go out to see some of her school friends, but she had chosen to take a walk with her great grandfather instead, which delighted Gee-Gee to no end.

They had not talked much during the walk; it had been a lazy and unusually warm April day; one of those days where all was right with the world. They had come to this place, with its panoramic view, and sat down with a sigh—and a groan from her Gee-Gee.

“Young Jennie,” Seamus Runyon had begun suddenly.

“Yes, Gee-Gee?” Jennie had answered, somewhat startled at his abrupt tone.

“Have I e’er told yez about yer name?” Gee-Gee’s accent broadened when he was about to tell a tale.

“Of course, Gee-Gee, I’m young Jennie because Mum is … ”

”Nah, nah, not that. I mean what yer name means.”

Jennie had shaken her head solemnly. “No, sir.”

Gee-Gee had snorted, “Oh Ser is it, now? Go on wit’ yez then, mebbe yer too good for the tellin’.” He had folded his arms and scowled at her, although he still kept a hint of a smirk on his lips.

Jennie had begged loudly for both forgiveness and the tale. Finally Gee-Gee had relented.

“Well, alright then … y’know the tale of King Arthur and the Round Table?”

Jennie did, it was a favourite.

“But did y’know that they got it wrong?”

Jennie did not.

“Aah, well … Arthur was an Irish King, truth be told. Yes, Irish.” He had nodded satisfactorily at Jennie’s appropriately astonished expression. “And who d’ye think his most beautiful Queen was?”

Jennie had hesitated for a second; she had been more interested in Merlin when she had read the stories. Then it had popped into her head.

“Guenivere?”

“That is correct, Young Jennie! Guenivere. Now, e’en though her parents were Welsh … ” And here Gee-Gee Onion had spit into the grass off to one side; Jennie hadn’t been sure why. “ … they had the good sense to betroth her to … y’know the word, betrothed?”

Jennie had nodded, captivated.

“Alright then, they had the good sense to betroth her to the Irish King so’s it would allow them all to have bigger lands and more money and power and such and so on. Ooh and Guinevere was fair—meaning very pretty—and her skin was very white, very smooth. S’trooth, they told tales for centuries about how beautiful she was—enough to lose a kingdom over—if the bards and mummers can be trusted. Ye’ve read some of the tales, though—which are mostly true except they left out the Irish part—so yez know the rest. Anyways, when yer Mum were born, she herself was so white, so smooth, and e’en though she was no bigger than a minute, y’could see she was going to be fair, so I … uh … suggested to your grandparents that they call her after Guenivere … what?” Gee-Gee had stopped when he saw Jennie’s puzzled frown.

“So, Mum’s name … and mine … is actually  … Guenivere??” Jennie had asked slowly. That had made Gee-Gee cackle until he spluttered.

“Nah, nah, Young Jennie. Oho, ‘course not! What kinda fool name d’ye think that would be to gi’ a body nowadays? Nah, nah, but Jennifer, well y’see now Jennifer comes from Guinevere, bastardized by the Limey’s, ‘course. Jennifer became Jennie, and the no-bigger-than-a-minute Jennie became Old Jennie, and then along comes you … ” Gee-Gee waited expectantly, white eyebrow raised.

“ … me, who became Young Jennie!” Jennie had laughed with Gee-Gee Onion, who had been much pleased with himself, as usual.

Young Jennie smiled as she recalled that moment, then frowned just as quickly as something occurred to her then that hadn’t on that remembered day.

She had never really considered that her mother, Old Jennie had also been a young Jennie at one time. She had been a baby, in fact, no bigger than a minute, as Gee-Gee Onion had said. Moreover, losing Gee-Gee Onion meant Old Jennie had lost her grandfather at the same time Young Jennie lost her great grandfather. She had not thought about his death from her mother’s perspective before.

Then why is she so crusty and tough, always in a black mood nowadays? Jennie thought morosely. She should be sad with me, cry when I cry. She’s nothing like a Guinevere who is supposed to be fair and smooth and white!

A flash of red moving just outside of her peripheral vision caught her attention, and she realized that Rusty and his partner in crime were heading home, in fact were already almost out of the park.

Hells bells and buckets of blood! Jennie muttered another favourite Onion-ism under her breath.

She scrambled to her feet and followed the two figures again. They ended up back at the old man’s ramshackle house, where he gave Rusty a last biscuit. Rusty gobbled that down in short order and trotted out the driveway. The old gent watched the dog leaving for what seemed a long time, as though he was expecting something or someone else to arrive, and then disappeared into his back yard.

The rest of the morning followed the same pattern around the entire block. Jennie had never known there were so many seniors living in her area. Everyone had a different name for Rusty, except for one couple that had coincidentally stumbled upon his real one, and a very large woman with no imagination who simply called him “Doggie”. Rusty responded equally the same to every moniker.

Call me anyt’ing just don’t call me late for dinner! Gee-Gee Onion used to say that too—almost every day without fail.

The dog became progressively more polite at each feeding, and by the end barely nibbled on the biscuit that an extremely stooped-over blue-haired lady offered him.

When she knew Rusty was finally going home, Jennie trotted up beside her little red rascal and fell into step with him. Rusty’s tail whipped signals of joy like a whiskered semaphore flag, without any sign of guilt.

Dogs! Jennie thought. You could stand on your head and spit rubber balls at them, and the reaction would always be the same. It was one reason she preferred animals to humans; they were completely predictable.

Jennie bent down and hugged Rusty; he wiggled and squirmed under her fierce embrace. Finally, she let him go, wiped a tear away and stood up.

“Rusty … are you hungry?” she asked knowingly.

Rusty wagged his tail vehemently, his front legs danced, his eyes looking up at her with a spark of excitement and, Jennie imagined, cunning.

That would be a big ol’ ‘Yes’ in dog language, Jennie thought.

“Rusty,” Jennie admonished, “You are the biggest poser, the biggest liar, and the biggest faker I have ever met, human or animal … and I do love you to death.”

As Young Jennie triumphantly burst through the mud-room door with Rusty in tow, Old Jennie looked up in surprise from the kitchen table where she was reading a recent issue of Cosmopolitan. She glanced at the clock, and glared at Young Jennie.

“Jennie! You’re missing school!” She accused in wild understatement considering the morning was almost over.

“Yes, I know, Mum, b-but I did what you told me to do: I followed Rusty, and I know what he does when he disappears!”

Old Jennie did not quite remember their conversation the same way Young Jennie did. She never recalled saying Young Jennie could skip an entire school day to uncover Rusty’s hidden agenda. She was about to take her daughter to task on the issue, but when she saw Jennie’s enthusiastic expression and shining face—something she had not seen for a while—she relented and simply smiled.

“Well then, what did you find out?”

Young Jennie related all that had occurred and all the people Rusty had gone to see. Old Jennie laughed at some of her daughter’s descriptions. She’s learned from Grampa Runyon, Old Jennie thought.

“Mum,” Jennie finished. “I think Rusty is helping these old folks! He’s like their playmate. He’s letting them love him and giving them love and company back, he’s really, really cool! He’s genius!”

Old Jennie didn’t want to dampen her daughter’s eagerness to paint Rusty as a modern-day Lassie, but …

“I don’t know, hon,” Old Jennie heard herself saying. “Maybe Rusty is just getting attention for himself. You know  the whole time Gee-Gee was sick, and since he … um … has gone, we’ve been a bit neglectful of the little guy. He’s probably just filling in the gaps we’ve left.”

Young Jennie frowned at her mother.

“What about the gap Gee-Gee Onion left? How are you filling that one in, Mum?”

The unexpected question cut Old Jennie to the bone. A memory came unbidden about what Gee-Gee had said on one of his better last days, when told of Young Jennie’s deep despair at his condition, and why she would not come to see him.

He had raised his head up with great effort, smiled his old mischievous smile at her, and said, “Do not bother yerself, Jennifer, I unnerstand what bothers Young Jennie. I just wish you would give ‘er some more rope to run wit’, cuz I see the soul of a wanderer in her, I do. I’m t’inkin’ she would benefit by your apron strings growing a tiny wee bit longer. Remember …” He had bolstered himself up on one elbow at that juncture, and fixed her with a stern pointed look offset with his patented wink. “ … your son is your son until he marries, but your daughter is your daughter until you die.”

Young Jennie burst into tears. Old Jennie, startled out of her own momentary funk, rushed to her and took her by the shoulders. “Jennie, what is it? What’s wrong?”

Jennie kept her eyes screwed shut as she cried, sobbing so deeply it tore at Old Jennie’s heart.

Old Jennie simply held her daughter to her breast while she waited for the tears to subside.

Subside they did, eventually sputtering out into sniffles ending with Young Jennie heaving a long and deep sigh. Seeing her chance, Old Jennie asked her once again what was wrong.

“I … uh … I g-guess I’m just really sad I never got to say good bye to Gee-Gee Onion.” Jennie sniffed. “I  ‘member one of his sayings was: ‘When God made time, he made plenty of it’, but that just isn’t true, is it, Mum? We don’t have plenty of time, do we? Gee-Gee Onion was way over ninety, wasn’t he? And he still … went away … too soon, well too soon for me, anyway.”

Old Jennie nodded into her daughter’s hair. “Yes, Jennie, it’s always way, way too soon.”

Then she had an idea.

“Jennie, why don’t you take Rusty around the block on Saturday, and introduce yourself to all of his friends? Seems to me they deserve to know their stray dog actually has an owner, and a good one at that!”

Jennie brightened, but then clouded over again, pulling away from Old Jennie.

”I dunno, Mum. Wouldn’t that kinda destroy the magic?”

“The  … the magic?” Old Jennie was nonplussed.

“Yeah magic—well sorta. I mean here they are, all thinking this dog comes to see each of them only, like a miracle gift or something, and then disappears to who knows where. Don’t you think if they knew where he comes from, and who he belongs to, that would take away the mystery of it all?”

Old Jennie chuckled, delighting in her twelve-year old’s view of the world.

I think maybe it would create a different kind of magic.” She said seriously. “Like the kind your Gee-Gee Onion would have made himself. You know what I mean?”

Young Jennie thought she knew exactly what her mother meant.

****

Jennie walked out with Rusty on Saturday morning into a colder day than they had on the previous Monday. Jennie thought she would go in reverse direction from the way Rusty always did, so they started off by turning left towards the house where the cute Pommie lived.

Jennie took measured steps, with Rusty tugging at the lead.

How are these folks going to take it, I wonder? Maybe they’ll feel cheated.

It had been a thought that had been building inside her since Old Jennie had proposed the idea, and she had pondered on it all week until it festered into a full-fledged stressful worry.

But she soon forgot about it, because for each stop she made, the old folks—small and large, blue haired and white haired, stooped and straight—were first astonished that Rusty had an owner. Then they were chagrined that the dog was called Rusty (except for the lady who had it right—she was very excited by her own shrewdness), and finally happy that he was not actually a stray, but had still chosen to visit them.

Young Jennie had been especially looking forward to talking to the old Irish gent who reminded her of Gee-Gee Onion. It was in truth the reason she had started in reverse: so she could save him for near the end.

However, when she approached the weathered little home with Rusty in tow, she knew something was not quite right. There was a large green van parked on the asphalt driveway. A woman her mother’s age was carrying a box out from the house, leaving the screen door hinged wide open.

Jennie caught the women’s eye. The woman quickly looked her up and down.

“Hello, can I help you?” The women asked brusquely.

“Uh  … I’m looking for the … ” She almost said old man “ … fellow who lives here. He and my dog …”

“Oh, yes. Walter has mentioned a dog. Red, is it? In fact he left something for it, I think.”

“Left something … ?”

“Yes, oh God … I guess you don’t know. Walter—that’s my husbands father—has been admitted to hospital. I’m sorry to say he won’t be coming back, so we are taking care of some things for him.” The woman set down the box on the deck of the van, and brushed her hands off on her jeans. “Right, well I’m sure it was for your little dog that he left the present, so follow me, it’s just around back.”

Jennie followed, hauling a suddenly reluctant Rusty behind. The woman led them to the back of the house, where Jennie saw an old cedar porch at the back door.

There, on the porch step was a large Dent-a-bone tied up with a ribbon. Walter had taped a little envelope to it.

Jennie stared at the gift, feeling stunned and an inexplicable grief at the loss of a person she had never even known. She fought back tears as she mumbled “Th-thank you”, snatched the bone from the step and hurried out of the driveway. Rusty looked up at her expectantly as they trudged back towards the last house. At the corner, she stopped, separated the bone from the card and let Rusty have it, while she opened the envelope.

In the envelope was a small bone-white card.

Young Jennie slowly smiled through the tears that ran down her face as she read the spidery script: “For Red … and Red’s little girl.”