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THE NEXT GENERATION
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- 1ˢᵗ place $200
- 2ⁿᵈ place $100
- 3ʳᵈ place $50
I found this notebook on Dad's workbench when I was looking for the tape measure. It's been sitting there for as long as I can remember but it's empty. So I'm going to start writing in it.
I don't know what to write. Maybe starting a new page will help.
I stole Dad's tape measure so I could make sure the walls in my bedroom aren't moving. It's harder than I thought it would be. I measured one way, and I remembered that number as hard as I could. But I had to move my bookshelf before I could measure the other way, and when I did, it was so close to the first number that when I stood up again I couldn't remember which was which.
It's also hard to concentrate because the house is yelling at me.
There aren’t a lot of noises in the house anymore. Only some footsteps, doors opening and closing, water running behind the walls. Things like that. But they're louder than usual. Angrier than usual. And I know they aren't actually yelling at me but it sounds like they are. Sometimes they take turns. Sometimes they do it all at once. I don't know how to say sorry to sounds. Or what I did wrong.
But the worst noise is the one in my stomach. It doesn't make a sound, but it still feels like noise, because it's loud like a noise. It's heavy, and scratchy, and it won't go away like a noise. I've tried touching it but I can't feel anything in there, so I've been pretending it's not there and trying to stop the walls from moving. One problem at a time. Like Dad says.
Things got easier when I found out I could lock the tape measure after pulling it out. So I measured the first way again and left it on the floor. I thought, if it can keep one way the same, then I can watch the other way and then the walls can’t move anymore because I would know. My stomach got better too. Until I thought about the ceiling.
I think I'm just tall enough to reach it if I stand on my bed. I could hold it there, watch one wall, and let the tape measure hold the other one still. But I'm not going to try. I'd rather look at where I would do it and pretend I'm doing it instead. I don't want to drop the tape measure, because I'm not ready for the noise that would make.
I don’t think Dad knows I stole from his workbench. Or if he does he hasn't said anything. I hope he doesn't need it. If I could spread myself out, touch the ceiling, the floor, and all four walls, and hold them all still then I would give it back. But for now I like it where it is. It doesn't do anything for the noises, but at least I got my walls to stop moving.
The little girl wandering Penny's bedroom was not my daughter. She looked like her, and she was the same height and age, but she sure as hell didn't act like her.
Penny laughed more than her. She danced and played a lot more than her. She listened to music, too. Her favourite band was that one with all the pouting—Dead Car for Cuties or whatever they called themselves—and her bedroom had the posters to prove it. The bookshelf in her room was packed to the edges with kids' books, youth novels, and even a few older books that she'd asked Santa to get her. She'd read some of them twice, but this girl didn't read at all.
Penny had likes and dislikes; she had goals, friends, and good grades, and the uncanny ability to wake up every morning with an impossible smile on her face.
And most importantly, Penny talked to me sometimes. No, a lot of times. On most days I couldn't shut her up. But the ghost haunting her bedroom could only communicate in nods and head-shakes.
And it was all my fault. It was thanks to me that she had turned into this shell of herself. Because I hadn't said the right things to her. As usual.
I hadn't told her things were gonna be okay. That sometimes life just kicks your teeth out and makes you feel like shit for having no teeth, but despite all that, things turn out okay in the end. I couldn't explain how her life was just gonna have to be different now. I didn't have the right.
And what could I say? I wasn't about to lie to my daughter. Not when I was swimming through the same swamp as her.
No, I was Adrian Malone—prideful export of Tucson—and so I did what Adrian would. I avoided her at all costs and cleaned the house instead. Top-to-bottom—seven times in seven days. As if the smell of ammonia would heal the both of us.
But then she took the tape measure, and I found I couldn't stand it anymore. That idiot voice in my brain tried to stop me—telling me she was probably just 'redecorating'. Moving around furniture. Putting up a set of blinds. Like that was something ten-year-old girls did.
But the tape measure wasn't something to do with her hands, like the cleaning was for me. No, it was another turn in a downward spiral. Her home was closing in on her; it had been for a week. The only thing to do was get her out of it.
She went quiet, and the house went with her. A million butterflies woke up in my stomach and took flight, but I pretended they weren't there.
I cracked open the door. She was on the floor at the corner of her bed and one of her pale blue walls. Just under the poster with all the pouting boys. I thought seeing her safe would calm those damn butterflies down. I thought wrong.
She was an hour late for school, but she was in her uniform. A gray jacket overtop a white collared undershirt, with a skirt around her waist made of green-and-red plaid. Her toes wrestled each other underneath her socks. Her hair was tied back in a neat ponytail by a ribbon that matched her skirt. I was glad she knew how to do that—tie her hair up.
She clutched her stuffed animal—a poodle with apricot fur—to her chest with one hand, and rested the other on her stomach. And she patted her stomach instead of the dog. On the floor by her feet was that damn blue notebook that had been sitting on my workbench for years. I didn't feel anything when I saw it, or the uncapped pen next to it, so I didn't mention it. At least she was talking to something.
The door creaked as I opened it, and she cringed—casting her eyes below it instead of at it. When the door went quiet and I slinked in, she looked away, neutral, staring at the wall as if it had a window.
I sat at the opposite corner of the room, on the floor. "You were supposed to go back to school today," I said. Not demanding. Just saying.
I waited for an answer that didn't come. I knew it wouldn't, but I always left some space for her.
"Don't worry about it… I'm sure Mrs. Gladbrooke will drop off your homework again."
She nodded. She placed the poodle on the floor and hugged her knees.
"Tell you what," I suggested. "I'll go back to work if you go back to school. Deal?"
Another nod. It might have just been a reflex. She rested her head on her bed, keeping her eyes locked on nothing in particular. She only focused to check the tape measure splitting the room in half—the two of us on either side.
"How about we go for a drive?" I probed. "Just you and me."
That made her look at me. Her face bunched up in confusion.
I realized at once that I had no idea where we would go. Just that we should go. But in the next moment, the name of a place came to me gently but quickly, like a leaf on a breeze.
"To Caledon," I answered her stare. "Do you know where that is?"
She shook her head.
"I won't lie to you, Sweetheart. It's far. About a 5 hour drive, each way."
She clutched her knees tighter, shrinking inside herself.
"It's near Toronto. Maybe we can visit Uncle Shane afterwards."
Uncle Shane. I felt a budding headache at the mere thought of him.
She closed her eyes. Her deadpan face turned into a frown.
"You know, if that's what you want," I added.
Penny looked back through the imaginary window. She shrugged her shoulders. That was a new gesture.
I stood up. "C'mon. It'll be good for you to get out of the house. Hell, it'll be nice to get out of Ottawa for a day."
She didn't nod. But she didn't shake her head either. She just opened my notebook—her notebook—and started writing something inside. So I answered for her the way a father would. I went to grab her coat.
I caught Dad praying last night.
I think ‘caught’ is the right word for it because I’ve never heard him do it before.
I heard him from the hallway behind his door. I didn't mean to. But there was something about hearing him pray, when he didn't know I could, that made it hard to stop listening.
I want to say sorry, but he doesn't know I heard anything, so I don't think it matters. I didn't listen very long anyways. I only heard two things.
The first thing he said was something about "a great big voice in the sky". He kinda laughed after he said it, so maybe it was a joke. But I didn't get it. I’ve never heard a great big voice in the sky before. But maybe he has. I wonder what it sounds like. What kinds of things it says. I wonder if it's the kind of voice that makes you feel warm inside, or if it's scratchy and angry, like the noises.
The second thing he said was that he had to go to Caledon. Something about "seeing her smile again". I think he meant me. I haven't smiled for a while now.
But that wasn't the last thing I heard. He said something else. Something that I can't stop thinking about, like a scratch or a bruise that's not going away because nobody will kiss it better. Something that made the noise in my stomach ten times worse.
Right after he said he "wanted to see her smile again," he waited a few seconds, and then he said, "one last time."
one last time.
one last time.
I went to my room after that. I crawled into bed and stayed there all night with my eyes closing only to blink. I tried to figure out if 'one last time' could mean anything else.
But it couldn't. It didn't.
He's getting rid of me.
We're going to Caledon. I think I was right.
But it's okay. I figured out his plan.
He's going to take me to Caledon, make me smile, and then he's going to leave me with Uncle Shane and go back to Arizona.
And I've decided that Caledon isn't going to make me smile no matter how hard it tries. No matter what's there that he thinks is so great. I'm not going to smile ever again.
As soon as I decided not to smile it got really hard not to. And I promised I wouldn't only write sad stuff in here, so I'm going to write about why not smiling is hard right now.
Everything got better when we left the house. The maple trees are all red, orange, and yellow now, and they barely move. They look like pictures of fire. I guess I haven't looked out any windows for the last few days.
And when they do move, I like the way they rustle. They get in each other's way without any of them getting hurt. And the best part is they don't sound like they're yelling at me. They're just saying "hi".
We're taking Dad's truck, and it's trying to make me smile, too.
With how noisy it is, I thought it was a bad idea. The engine is very loud, but it doesn't sound angry, just strong. Like it's saying "don't worry" over and over. And I know it's stupid, but I believe it, and I feel like nothing can hurt me in here.
Dad asked me if I was ready when we first got in. But I wanted to ask him that. I don't think he's showered for a few days. I don't think he knows either, but he keeps sniffing, so maybe he does. He's lucky he's so skinny, or he'd probably smell like fish that also haven't showered in a few days.
I almost smiled there. This is really hard.
His hair is a mess too. It's bunched together and falling over the sides of his head like banana peels. And his grey t-shirt and sweat pants have gross stains on them. The worst ones are under his armpits. I think that's where the smells are coming from.
At least he has his nice jacket on. It covers all the stains, as well as the tattoos on his arms. I hope he keeps it on.
I remembered something about Caledon. But it doesn't make any sense.
I feel like my grandma lives in Caledon. But she couldn't. Because Grandma Mal lives in Arizona, and I never met my other Grandma, but all I know about her is that she and my grandpa got on a plane one day before I was born, and that the plane didn't ever come back. And I'm pretty sure you only get two grandmas. I wish I could have more, but I don't think that's allowed.
And if we were going to see her, why didn't Dad say so?
I can see the sky a lot better from the highway.
It's blue. Light on the sides and dark above us.
There are lots of clouds, too. They're white, and they're all sorts of different shapes. Great big puffy ones, thin ones that are barely even there, and two skinny ones that maybe a plane left behind.
I don't know all the different types of clouds, but I think they're all there.
I wonder if that’s what Mrs. Gladbrooke is teaching in class today.
I miss school.
I jumped. I shot Penny a look. She was in the seat next to me, and after over a week without saying anything, that was the comeback word she chose. What a great conversation starter.
"Excuse me?" I said. "Also, hi, by the way. Nice to hear from you again."
Penny closed her notebook and put her pen in her pocket. She pointed straight ahead—at the car in front of us. A dirty black pickup truck, like mine, which I realized I was following too close. I eased up on the gas, and I read the license plate.
I let out a discreet sigh. "Oh. Right… Darkness. Good one."
I stared hard at the letters on the license plate, interrogating them. "Tough one," I noted.
Penny said, "Barking." Her mouth moved towards a smile, but it didn't get all the way there.
"Show-off." I ran my tongue along my teeth. "Okay, how about… ark…angel?"
Penny turned up her nose. "What?"
"It's, um… a kind of super angel, I guess. Or something like that."
"You can't use words I don't know."
"Fine, fine… I think it's A-R-C-H, anyways… Archangel."
"Then it's wrong."
I sighed. I asked her, with my eyes, to give me a break. She wasn't about to give me one.
I wondered, after all the million thoughts she must have been sparring with, how on earth playing this game was at the top of her to-do list.
But my mind went back to the letters, answering my own question for me.
"Hankering," I suggested. "You know that one, right?"
Penny leaned forward, squinting. "Out of order."
She pointed at the license plate with her finger, bouncing it in place. "The R is before the K."
I scratched my head. "I was never very good at this."
"There's lots," she said. "At least it doesn't have a Q. I hate Q's. And J's. If it ends in a J then you can just give up."
"Alright, alright… I'll think of something."
"And the numbers don't matter."
"Yeah… I figured that much out, thanks."
I salvaged some pride when I came up with a word that we both agreed on. It came out of nowhere. I guess that's the point of the game—to reach into the dusty nooks and crannies of your mind and pull out what you needed, just to prove that you can.
I got the same look that 'Ark-angel' got me.
"It means to listen," I explained. "To hearken to something is to listen to it. There, now you know it too, so no vetoing."
Penny looked down at her hands. She opened them, as if cradling the word. "Hearken," she repeated. "To hearken."
"It's old," I added. "Real old. Use it at school and you'll get some funny looks."
"…I like it."
"Well, good. I do too."
My phone vibrated in the cup holder, like a thousand angry bees. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel; the butterflies spread up into my chest.
I cast a glance at the phone. I already knew what it would say.
I cringed. Not one piece of me was ready to have that conversation. Not yet. Not before Caledon.
"Do you need to get that?" Penny asked.
"Not while I'm driving. He can leave a message."
The 'darkness' truck switched lanes towards the exit. Penny watched it go. I sped up to catch the next car ahead of us just as my phone chirped to let me know I had a new message. Fantastic.
"I'll bet I can beat you this time," I challenged.
"It's not a race."
The license plate came into view.
Penny's stomach growled. It sounded like a threat, aimed at me.
"Did you eat this morning?" I asked.
She thought about that. She shook her head. "No."
"What the hell, Penny…"
My stomach interrupted me before I could continue. It growled louder, but equally unimpressed.
"Welp," I said. "I guess it's decided then."
I wonder if Dad knows I was mad at him.
Not right now. I mean a month ago. When Mrs. Gladbrooke talked to me after class about my health class assignment. The one where we had to write three paragraphs about our family members and what they liked and disliked.
I wrote that he watched a lot of TV and was on his phone a lot so those must be his likes. And that he must not like talking with me because he didn't do it that much.
I also wrote that I didn't know if he liked me. I wasn't saying he didn't. Or that he did. Just that I didn't know for sure.
And Mrs. Gladbrooke said that she had met him at a parent-teacher conference and that what I had written in my assignment was wrong. She said that he definitely liked me and maybe I should try asking him myself instead of waiting for him to talk to me.
She said that he was just shy and reserved. She said that I would meet a lot of people in my life that spoke a lot more and a lot louder than they needed to, and that being soft-spoken was actually a really nice trait to have.
I told her that's my least favourite thing about him. And I wonder if she called him and told on me.
And now he wants to get rid of me because he thinks I'm mad at him.
Maybe this is all my fault.
We're going to get food now. I like food. It makes me smile. And Dad said I could get anything I want.
So I'm going to order my least favourite thing. And then I'm not even going to finish it.
I ordered waffles. They're my favourite thing. I think it might be because you can't sound angry when you say "waffles". And because they're delicious.
But I'm not going to smile.
The smell of caffeine hit us like a lukewarm wave when we walked in the diner, and something about it made me crave a cigarette for the first time in ten years.
But as I got used to the smell and the warmth of the place, I realized I liked it. It knew what it wanted to be. It didn't have a theme, or a quirk like the wait staff all have to wear roller-blades or some crap like that. It was trying desperately to bring back the 70s, with its checkerboard floors, the bright red stools at the bar, and the jukebox in the corner. And you could say that was a theme, but I thought it was more likely just how the bar looked when it was built, forty-odd years ago.
The waitress caught us just as we sat at the booth, like we were the only ones in the diner, which we weren't. She was young, maybe 32, with her slate black hair up in a ponytail. She may not have been wearing roller blades, but she still managed to glide as she walked.
"Hi!" she shouted before I'd gotten my coat off. "What brings you folks in today?"
"Just a road trip," I responded without looking.
That's right, just a road trip for the three of us. Me, my daughter, and that idiot voice in my brain.
Nice going, Adrian. Your 'Dad of the Year' Award must be in the freaking mail.
You almost let your daughter starve.
Just screw off back to Arizona. It's the least you could do for her.
I could think of a lot of reasons why I was a shit father. But for some reason this minor hiccup—which I'd like the record to show I did rectify—was what made me start thinking about it.
And I went and let her buy the least healthy thing on the menu, as if waffles and ice cream and syrup and chocolate sauce (and strawberries and blueberries and bananas) could magically make it up to her.
The waitress was a sweetheart—crouching down to Penny's level so she could order. And for what it's worth, when those waffles came, Penny did look like she liked them.
With everything but a smile though. Only ravenous enthusiasm, so maybe she was just hungry.
I glanced at a TV on the wall above us. One of ten in the diner playing the news. The colours exploded from the screen, moving and shaking and trying to tell stories with only bright greens and brighter reds. Weather, stocks, traffic, it was all there, whatever I wanted.
There was a man taking up most of the screen. I recognized his name, but not his face. A politician. An American one. He was worked up about something, but I didn't know what. The headline probably had answers, but like everything else on the screen, it didn't look like it belonged with everything else. The TV was working fine, but all I saw was static.
I looked away to stop my eyes from burning so much. Just in time to see Penny peeking at my coat next to me in the booth. She let her hands off the table and sat back down when I turned, so it wasn't exactly discreet.
"What is it?" I asked her.
She went back to her food. She shrugged. "I like your coat."
"Well, it's not for sale," I joked.
No reaction. She continued: "You should put it on."
"…I don't understand."
"Also your hair's messy."
I ran my fingers along my head, and mostly found grease. It was in my beard, too.
And it was only now that I realized how long it'd been since I last showered. I'd cleaned the house so many times, but I'd forgotten to clean myself.
I took a glance around me, and I finally—finally—pictured what this scene looked like to everyone else. A dirty middle-aged man in an old T-shirt and sweat pants, with his arms covered in tattoos, out at a diner with a little girl who looked like she'd just been picked up from school.
At 11 o'clock in the morning.
I tapped Penny on the hand. "Stay here one sec, okay? I'll be right back. Holler if you need me. Okay?"
I stole for the restroom. I avoided every eye, but I noticed the turning heads. And when the washroom door was only few steps away, the waitress appeared, unintentionally in the way.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, gripping a coffee pot in one hand and the corner of the bar with the other. She blocked the way to the restroom.
"S'cuse me," I muttered, and I didn’t push past her fast enough to miss the wrinkle between her eyes and the cocking of her head.
The restroom was empty, and it smelled like sin. If I'd had a pack of cigarettes, I might have smoked them all where I stood.
The mirror was filthy, but it looked just dynamite as soon as my ugly mug got in front of it. It was even worse than I thought. I looked like a serial killer. My face was red; it cracked all over, as if the sickly grayness under my eyes was trying to get out, and succeeding. I washed my face and parted my hair, which didn't help the serial killer vibes any.
I put my hair back where it was and gave up. Keeping my head up, smiling, and being polite were my only options. I decided I'd start with the waitress, who had a nice tip coming her way.
I stood up tall as I walked out. The good news was that the waitress was easy to find. The bad news was that she was crouching down at our booth, with her hand on Penny's shoulder.
And the butterflies took over every part of my body.
Penny's face was redder than mine. Her eyes were puffy. Her arms trembled. Tears stuck her eyelashes together as she blinked.
And that damn waitress kept rubbing her shoulder.
"Hey!" I barked, jogging over. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
The waitress stood up like it was the first time she'd ever done it, supporting herself on the table.
"Get away from my daughter," I warned her.
"Huh!" she scoffed, like I was joking.
Penny closed her eyes and breathed loudly through her nose. The waitress stepped in front of her.
"Penny?" I whispered. Penny, say something. "What did you do to her?" I demanded.
"I just asked her a question." She put her chin down and glared at me over her glasses. I didn't know how people could make having shitty eyesight look so condescending.
"What question?" The venom in my voice wasn't helping, but I couldn't stop it.
Taking a step forward, she crossed her arms. "Where…"
She swallowed grimly.
"…is her mother?"
My fists unclenched. My shoulders dropped. I rubbed my face in my hands and sighed, deflating.
"Well?" the waitress pressed. "Can you answer that?"
I read her nametag.
"…Kelsey, is it?"
She covered her name up. "What?"
I reached out to touch her shoulder but thought better of it. I gestured behind me instead.
"Can I… talk to you a second? Alone… please."
I walked away from the table, and this time I couldn't avoid the eye contact. Every single patron and staff member watched the scene unfold. A few had their phones out, their fingers hovering over what I could only assumed was the number "9".
To Kelsey's credit, she followed, folding her arms. She looked back at Penny, who was holding her pen to her notebook, but not moving it. She had calmed down, but she hadn't stopped watching us.
"Alright, Kelsey," I exhaled. "Here goes."
I wish Dad hadn't made the waitress cry. I know he had to. She wasn't going to let me go with him. But she just wanted to help. And I still felt bad for her when she hugged me and made my shoulder all wet from crying and told me everything was going to be okay. She told me to keep my chin up. Maybe that's why she was hugging me so hard. So that her shoulder would press my chin up whether I wanted it there or not.
Maybe that's why everyone does it.
When me and Dad got in the car he didn't start it right away. I wanted to hear the engine again but he just sat there for a little bit, looking straight ahead, like he was having a staring contest with the parking lot.
He said "sometimes you do all the right things and it still ends up all wrong".
He left a twenty dollar bill on the table before we left. That feels like a lot for waffles and two glasses of water.
The noise in my stomach is the worst it's ever been right now. Mrs. Gladbrooke once did a science experiment with us where we all joined hands and made a circle. And two of us held on to little pieces of a machine. Then she ran a really small electric current through us. It tingled our hands and made us giggle. Then she asked me to let go and nobody felt it anymore. She said that was because we made a circuit but when I let go we broke it.
The noise is like that tingling, only angrier, so I guess there's a circuit in my stomach that keeps turning and turning. I wish I could let it go.
Maybe I should leave.
Maybe Dad is too stressed out with me around. Uncle Shane is rich so maybe life is easier for him and he wouldn't have such a hard time with me around. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad.
I think if it meant that Dad would be happier, then I would live with Uncle Shane. No, I know I would.
Uncle Shane called again. I tried to answer it but Dad threw his phone in the little pocket in the door. He said that wasn't a good idea. I just wanted to ask him how we were going to get my stuff from Ottawa to Toronto. And what kind of school I would go to.
sometimes I do all the right things
and it still ends up all wrong
but sometimes it ends up all wrong
because I did all the wrong things.
I remembered something about Caledon. About my grandma, who may not even exist because I already have two.
This grandma that lives in Caledon.
She's a nurse.
We made it.
Pulling into the triple-lane driveway, I breathed a sigh of relief and turned the car off. It felt like dropping a pair of weights.
The rest of the trip had been a lot quieter. Penny's notebook got a lot fuller, but there were a few times where she opened it up and just held her pen to the page, letting the ink spread there like it would write down her words for her. I asked if she was okay, every so often, or if she wanted anything, just to make sure the little event at the diner didn't restart her vow of silence.
'The Cliffords,' declared the mailbox out front. It was bent inwards, rusted, and split down the middle. The flag was up, but the damn thing was overflowing. Unpaid bills and newsletters from the local grocery store. You'd think the mailman would have gotten the message.
The house looked a lot better off. It was two storeys high, shaped like a barn, and painted red like one, too. The porch on the ground floor and the bedroom balconies on the second floor stuck out like a mouth and two eyes. It must have been a hundred years old by its construction, but it didn't look like it. The only signs of wear were some peeling paint and chipped wood.
Something gripped me when I read the mailbox and saw the house. Something sinking, like all the butterflies had been electrocuted and died, yet the electricity was still there. It wasn't fear; I had nothing to be afraid of in there.
I wondered if this was how she felt.
"Hey, Penny," I started. She looked at the house with eyes half-closed, like it was a sunset at the end of a long day.
"I need to tell you something. Okay?"
It was subtle, but I noticed Penny's eyes unfocus. "…Okay…"
"Back home, I… I told you it would be good for you to get out of the house. I made it sound like I was doing this for you."
She turned towards me, staring at my chest.
"But the truth is that this is for me. This trip to Caledon." I nodded. "This was all for me."
She met my eyes. "Oh."
"I just wanted you to know." I blew out a breath through tight lips. "That said, though, I still think you should come in there with me."
She nodded. "Okay." She took out her notebook, wrote something to herself, and we went inside.
This is it.
The door was locked, but I had the key. I stumbled on it the night before the road trip, just as I was going to bed. It was in her nightstand—top drawer. I knew exactly where it would fit, and without me really knowing, the idea of going to Caledon with Penny had stewed in my brain from the moment I got that key, right next to that idiot voice.
I made a big show of pulling it out of my coat and sticking it in the door, in case the neighbours were watching. After the diner, I didn't want anyone assuming I was using a crowbar to get in.
The door opened in silence, and we stepped inside.
The house had more windows than I remembered—most of them on the rear side of the building. The west side. The sun was coming down, and rectangular beams of light fell in. It might have even fooled someone into thinking the lights were working. That was, unless the floating pieces of dust caught in the sunbeams were a dead giveaway.
We entered into a small foyer; a staircase split upwards and downwards in front of us. Red floral wallpaper lined the top half of every wall, while the bottom half was painted white. The walls glowed—the only things in the house lucky enough to avoid the dust.
"Have a look around," I suggested to Penny, gesturing loosely, but on purpose, to the stairs. "I shouldn't be too long."
She frowned at me in confusion. But she went up the stairs to one of the bedrooms, gripping her notebook and pen in opposite hands.
I'd been in this house once before. Exactly once. I saw phantoms meandering around me—people carrying food between rooms and catching up on the year with one another, with their favourite drinks in their hands. They were faceless—I guess I remembered their fancy suits and dresses more than who they were.
And then there was me, standing alone by the door. That was part of the memories too. "Christmas", I thought out loud, adding: "Eight years now."
The phantoms turned to me and vanished. I heard a bed squeak upstairs. I went where I needed to go. Where I knew she would be.
It wasn't far. Six steps. Around the banister leading downstairs, and it would be on my left. A single room with one double doorway. The living room.
Everything was neat and tidy—every knickknack and book and magazine put away in its rightful place. A burgundy carpet lined the whole room. All three walls surrounding the door were adorned with at least twenty portraits of people—some of the phantoms—at various ages. I took two steps in. I thrust my hands in my pockets and scanned the walls like I was in a clothing store, pretending I wasn't interested so that the portraits didn't try to help me find something.
And there she was. Sitting alone, on her burlap chair, elbows resting on the arms. Her half-moon glasses were perched on her nose and tied around her neck by a beady string. Wrinkles folded half of her face out of sight. She stared out the window as if it was just a wall.
"Dorothy," I whispered.
She turned her head. Her brow furrowed noticeably. "Adrian," she said, her voice as scratchy and old as the chair. "Adrian, right? From Arizona. Helen's husband."
"That's right," I replied, waving limply. "I wanted to ask you a question. You free to chat?"
Dorothy's face loosened. She smiled, and her wrinkles lessened—a decade lifting off her face. "Of course," she said. "What's on your mind, dear?"
I shoved my hands deeper into my pockets and rocked back in forth. "I just wanted to know… What was it like… being a nurse?"
The corner of her mouth shot out to the side. "Did you just ask an old woman her life story? How long are you gonna be around for?"
I laughed. I shook my head. "Not too long."
After two taps on her nose, she pointed at me. "I'll give you the executive summary, then. How does that sound?"
"That sounds great, Dorothy."
With a sigh, Dorothy readjusted her shoulders in her chair. She looked back through the window—not just at it anymore. "It was wonderful, Adrian. The most fulfilling career anyone can have. I might be a bit biased, mind you."
"But it was stressful."
"Oh… Oh-ho-ho-ho, was it ever."
"How did you handle it? The days, the hours, the…"
I waved my hands in the air.
"…all of it."
She turned back to me, her face blank. "This is about Helen, isn't it?"
I looked down at my shoes.
Dorothy continued, "She's not with us today… am I right?"
I shook my head. My jaw trembled. "No, not today."
"It gets tough for her," Dorothy admitted, clasping her hands on her lap. "More than most."
"So how did you handle it?" I pressed.
Dorothy sat back, her eyes tracing lines in the ceiling. "Some days… it got hard. Very hard. But it wasn't the work that made it so difficult. It wasn't the beeping monitors and pagers and the rushing of trolleys down corridors. We could get so lost in that work. You can't think about what you're doing when your entire body's yelling at you not to screw it up."
I'd heard this all before. But I kept listening.
"It was when things got quiet." Dorothy tapped the airborne dust with her finger. Her eyelids softened until they shut. "When we had to walk into that waiting room… and break the silence."
"Helen's told me," I said. "All this same stuff. It sounds awful." I listened for the next part, which I knew was coming.
"Sometimes… I wished we could just direct all the families and friends of the patients outside. Tell them… your answers are out there. And when they got through the sliding doors and into the fresh air, out of the sterile stink of the hospital, they would look up… and they'd hear this great big voice in the sky."
Dorothy inhaled deeply; another decade disappeared.
"And that voice'd say everything that we couldn't say. Everything that just wasn't up to us to say, because it was much bigger than all of us, you see. Things like… Your son's never gonna walk again. Or… your father didn't make it, or…" Her lips turned up into a poignant smile. "It's a girl…"
My memory ended at this point. But I pressed on. I needed to know more. "Helen told me that, too," I recalled, my voice cracking. "Maybe she got it from you."
Dorothy couldn't be stopped now: "And maybe that voice could tell 'em what to do next. Let them know how their lives are gonna be different. Advise them on what the hell to do now. Because Lord knows a nurse could never tell someone that. We didn't know how, let alone have the right."
Her voice became distant, like she was whispering down a tunnel. "But I'd get home, and Arthur would be there, and he'd see that awful look on my face. And no matter what happened… he always knew what to say to make it all better."
"What did he say?" My fists clenched in my pockets. My head couldn't sink any lower. "What… did he say to make everything better?"
"Arthur, oh… Arthur could make it all better."
"Dorothy, please. What was I supposed to say…?"
Penny's voice broke through to me, like she'd just reached through a hole in the ice and hauled me out of the water. I whipped my head towards her. She stepped back.
"…Why are you staring at that picture?" she asked, her eyes welling up at the sight of me.
I looked back at the impassive old woman in the picture, staring at the window. I tried to respond, wave it all away, but all that came out was a sob.
I threw my arm over my face and rubbed everything off. The dirt, the grease, the thoughts, and the tears. "Shit," I blurted. "Shit, Penny. I thought I told you to look around."
"No, that's… It's fine, Sweetheart. I'm sorry."
She glanced up at the picture of Dorothy and tugged lightly on my shirt. "It's okay, Dad," she murmured.
I scoffed, still rubbing my eyes. "Yeah, Penny. I know. I just—"
"Sometimes you do all the right things and it still ends up all wrong."
Hearing that made me breathe in. Deep. I shuddered as I exhaled, and I patted her on the head. "Thanks, Penny. You're right."
Penny kept staring up at Dorothy. Her face barely contorted, and she started slightly rotating back and forth in place.
"Know who this is?" I asked her.
She shook her head, but guessed anyways. "My grandma?"
"No… That's Dorothy Clifford. She's your great grandma. Your mother's grandma."
"Ohhhh," she responded. "Okay…"
I exhaled again. Suddenly my lungs were overflowing. "She passed away… just a couple months ago."
"Oh… Why didn't I ever see her?"
"You did, when you were young. But for the last few years or so, she… well, she wasn't herself, Penny. Your mother never wanted you to see her like that."
Penny responded by tugging harder on my shirt and leaning into my leg. Her tears were gone—maybe because mine were too. I reached down and grabbed her hand.
"She was your mother's favourite person in the whole world," I explained. "I could never compete. She took in your mom and Uncle Shane after the plane crash."
I used to mince these kinds of words with her. But something in me wasn't letting me do it anymore.
"She sounds nice," Penny said.
"She sure was. She's the reason your mom became a nurse. The stories this lady could tell… She could turn a tale of death into a tale of joy."
I turned away, to the rest of the photos in the room. There were way more than twenty, I realized, now that I could see the smaller ones all over the mantles and cabinets. Not to mention all the recent-looking ones lined up in rows next to the fireplace. Single portraits, group shots, black-and-white vignettes of remembered weddings and people.
A set of three photos across the room snared Penny's attention. Three solo photos in big black frames. A child, a girl, and a woman.
"There she is," I quietly blurted. Penny and I walked up to her, hand-in-hand.
The rightmost photo jumped out at me. I could recognize it from a hundred miles away. She was 26. She was in her wedding gown—a bouquet of white flowers arcing across her chestnut hair. Her makeup made her freckles pop. She was looking pensively at the camera, as if asking the photographer what exactly she was about to do.
I couldn't stand it, so I coaxed us over to the left. In the next photo, she was in a graduation gown. She looked serious, and I reckoned that the photographer told her she couldn't smile, because she was holding it back.
And then the last photo. From when she was Penny's age. She wore her hair in a ponytail, and her teeth were covered in these awful 80's-era braces. But she sure wasn't afraid to show them off in a bright, beaming smile. The photo was in black and white, but she looked intensely full of colour.
"There she is," I said again. My voice didn't falter or crack. "That's your mother."
"She looks so happy," Penny noted.
"She looks like you."
And I wished that was true. That Penny smiled like her mother in the photo. But she didn't. She hadn't in a long time. She just rubbed her stomach with one hand and clutched her notebook and pen with her other. And she ate waffles without saying she enjoyed them. And she shook and cried when some poor waitress mentioned her mother. Maybe the rest of her life would just be little periods of half-lived joy in between spells of falling apart.
But just as I thought this, she turned to me and smiled, her eyes sparkling with tears. "Thanks for showing me, Dad," she said. "Thanks for taking me to Caledon."
I saw right through her. That smile was a wall holding back something else. A wall made of glass. If being with Helen for just over a decade had taught me anything, it was how to spot a fake smile. If only it had taught me what to do about it.
I turned back to the photo, running away again. That idiot voice in my brain, sick of the usual strategy, started talking some sense.
Say something, asshole.
Nothing quite came to mind. Except that it was time to go.
"We can head home now, Penny. I just… wanted to see this photo," I explained. "I just wanted to see her smile… one last time. That's all."
I never would have guessed that this was the right thing to say. I suppose the world decided I needed a freebie.
Penny's notebook and pen dropped to the floor. The next thing I knew, she was hitting me. She kicked at my shins and pounded her fists against my stomach, unsettling the butterflies. She bawled like never before, filling the whole house with her anger, or sadness, or whatever the hell this was. There was no pre-amble, no nothing. From a pensive little girl to a blubbering mess in the span of a second.
"Penny? What in the—?!"
"Stupid!" she declared. "Stupid, stupid… STUPID!"
She pressed her whole body into me and pounded, and pounded, and grabbed my shirt, and tugged it towards her.
"Penny, what's wrong?!"
She fell to her knees. I dropped down with her. She thrust her head into my chest and stopped her assault.
"I thought…!" she yelled. "I thought…!"
I drew her out from me and shook her lightly. She nearly went limp.
"What are you trying to say?" I asked.
She drew her hands to her eyes and wiped away her tears. She threw down her fists.
"I THOUGHT YOU WERE GETTING RID OF ME!" she screamed, echoing through the house.
I crouched there, at her level, with my mouth hanging open. What the hell do you even say to a thing like that? I pulled her into a hug and let her sob there for a few seconds.
"Penny... Where did you get that idea?"
She calmed a little, eventually hugging me back. Her voice squeaked out, and said the least favourite sentence I'd ever heard in my life.
"I thought… you were gonna go back to Arizona and leave me with Uncle Shane…"
There was that name again, butting in where it didn't belong. Bludgeoning me in the brain.
I pulled her away and caressed her shoulders. "Why would I ever do that?" I saw a glimmer of happiness in her eyes, and I knew how to make it grow. By telling her the truth.
"Penny, your Uncle Shane is a prick!"
She laughed, barely, blowing her nose on the sleeve of her uniform. "Really…?" she said, like that was a relief.
I sighed. I thought about pulling out my phone and playing her the messages he'd left over the course of the day. But there was probably a lot of F-punctuations in there, not to mention threats against my well-being, that she didn't need to hear.
Every part of me screamed to leave it at that. Telling me that I would regret telling her more. But every part of me also wanted to make sure she never for a second thought that I would abandon her, so every part of me was gonna have to shut the hell up.
I clasped my hands together as if in prayer. "Penny, when your great grandma Dorothy passed away, she left everything to your mother. Her savings, her investments, and even," I drew circles above my head with my fingers, "this house you're standing in."
She nodded, still heaving a little. But getting there. "Okay…" she managed.
"And your Uncle Shane didn't take kindly to that. There was this whole legal battle over what her will actually said," I continued, complete with air quotes, "and how present she was when she…"
Penny squinted real slow. I was losing her. I felt the need to hold her, suddenly, so I reached over and picked her up. For a ten-year-old, she was light. But she was still a ten-year old. I let out an exaggerated, but authentic, effort noise. She giggled.
"Anyway… Your mother didn't know what to do with the inheritance. Or her brother, for that matter. And… now that she…"
I let that sentence die before it could escape.
"Well, let's just say that, once again, Shane's ended up with nothing."
"Oh…" Penny lamented, genuinely disappointed.
What I wouldn't give to be young and unassuming again.
"Did she give it to you?" she asked, staring at her smiling mother again.
"Most of it, yeah," I said. I let out a smirk. "But not this house."
"…Who got the house?"
I tapped her on the nose. "Take a guess."
Penny's eyes threatened to squint again, but in the nick of time they opened wide. She looked behind me, above me and at all the portraits. "…You mean…?"
I shrugged. "Yeah, Penny, I mean. I'm looking after it until you're 18, but… the will was very clear. Your mother made sure of it."
My phone buzzed again in my pocket. I put Penny back on the floor and picked it out with two fingers, like it had just fallen in the muck. Without looking, I showed her the name on the front.
"Wonder what he wants?" I joked, tossing the damn thing across the room and letting it thrash on the floor. I pointed to it, and finished, "That's your Uncle Shane, Penny. And I would... never..."
She wasn't paying attention. She meandered around the room, spinning in a circle and observing it all from top to bottom, as if this were the only room in the house. "This… is mine?"
"Sure is, Sweetheart. I didn't want to tell you… well, because it's not even settled yet thanks to Shane. But you'll get it. I'll make sure of it."
She stopped spinning and looked down at the carpet. Her fists clenched and unclenched. She stayed quiet for a minute, before very carefully strolling back to her notebook and pen, picking them up, and slinking out of the room.
Without warning, she was gone. She sprinted upstairs—her breath louder than her feet—and slammed a bedroom door shut.
I didn't call after her. I hated yelling, after all. I simply turned back to my wife in her wedding gown, not sure what to make of everything.
"You're gonna make me explain it to her. Aren't you?"
I don't want this house.
I don't want this stupid house.
I want mom back.
I don't want this stupid house.
I DON'T WANT IT
I DON'T WANT THIS STUPID HOUSE
I WANT MY MOM
I opened the door just as the pen flew out of her hand and left a nasty mark on the wall. She screamed, pulling her knees onto the bed with her and falling over on her side.
She hadn't done this a week ago, I thought. Nowhere close.
"Penny…?" I whispered. "Can we talk?"
The notebook flew out of the room, glancing me on the shoulder. I pretended it didn't hurt.
She leapt off the bed and ran into an empty closet at the other end of the room. I heard a hinge snap loose as she slammed that door shut too.
"GO AWAY!" she screamed from inside. "THIS IS MY HOUSE AND I DON'T WANT YOU IN IT!"
I put my hands on my hips and kicked an imaginary rock. I slinked over to the bed and sat down. The only sounds in the room were the buzzing of a phone from downstairs, and the sobbing of a girl in a closet.
In that moment, I realized the butterflies were gone. Tired of me, I suppose.
I glanced around the small, white bedroom—pristine, if a little dusty. A car passed by outside. The street was blanketed in the shadow of the house. I realized we would probably have to stay the night.
Yet another portrait was on the wall, above an ancient white cabinet. It was tattered and brown and had a corner missing. A young Dorothy and Arthur, together at their wedding, laughing hysterically. A falling bouquet was halfway to the ground.
"Your mother loved this house," I said.
She sniffed in defiance. "So what?"
"This was her favourite place in the whole world. Nothing could beat it."
"I don't wanna grow up here," Penny retorted.
"You don't have to."
"I don't know what to do with it."
"It's not about that."
I heard her exhale in pure frustration. The door shook but didn't open. "I don't get it," she murmured. "I don't understand."
"Well… maybe you just need to look at it from a different angle."
I sighed, long and unsure. There was one more butterfly, it seemed, just on its way out.
"Your mother was a troubled woman," I admitted. "Nothing's ever gonna change that."
I gave Penny the space to respond, even if she didn't use it.
"She went through a lot, growing up without her parents. But she loved it here. That picture down there? That was taken years after the plane crash. Her life in this house… it turned her into that smiling kid on the wall. Things got better."
Only silence. But at least the sobbing had stopped.
"And she wanted you to have it. I think she knew it wouldn't make up for things, but… she gave it to you for a reason. And not because she wanted you to live here or look after it for her."
A minute passed. The only sound was my phone, buzzing again downstairs. But this vibration was longer. Singular. I hummed in satisfaction.
It had died.
I got up and grabbed the notebook from the hallway. A page had been torn out—it was scratched up and creased all over. The ink screamed out, I want my mom. I did too. I thought about crumpling it up and throwing it away, but I stuck it inside instead. It was part of the story, after all.
I wandered back to the bed. "Mind if I read this?" I asked.
She didn't say yes, but she didn't say no, either.
So I read it. There wasn't as much as I thought, but it still took me about twenty minutes. I had to stop and swear every once in a while, after all. Sometimes to the air. Sometimes to myself.
"I didn't know if he liked me," I read to myself, about halfway through. I wished I had a notebook she could read too.
When I got back to the torn out page, I shut the book with a tiny thud. "I'm sorry you went through all this," I said.
The closet door opened.
And you know, the one good thing about being able to spot a fake smile is that you can tell when they're real, too. And no matter how small they are, they can shine through the darkness like nothing else.
I'm going to leave this notebook here. There's a lot more pages left but I don't think I need it anymore. And if my Great Grandma and my Mom have their pictures in this house, then I want to leave something behind too. So I'm leaving this here before we go back home.
Where I live. With my Dad.
My Dad, who tries his best even though that doesn't mean everything is going to go right. My Dad who isn't good at talking but he's good at other things and not everybody can be everything.
And now that the noise in my stomach is gone, maybe the house won't be so angry at me anymore when I get home.
But I'll come back here someday because apparently this house belongs to me. I've never owned a house before. I'll be sure to take good care of it. And when I come back I'll read this again.
But that won't be for a long time. So maybe someone else will read this first. Maybe it's Uncle Shane. Maybe it's Mom or my great grandma. Maybe somebody broke in and is reading it.
I hope not but maybe.
Whoever is reading this, I thought this might be a disappointing way to end it. Just saying goodbye. So instead I'll leave you with one of my favourite puzzle games.
It's simple. Just try and find a word that uses all the letters in the license plate. In order. And no proper nouns. So the license plate ARKN could be 'heARKeN.' Which means to listen.
This is my Dad's license plate and he doesn't know I'm writing it down in here, so promise me you won't do anything bad with it.
I've never been able solve this one. Maybe you can.
And maybe when I come back I'll know the answer too.
This one made me sad, and a lil happy, after. Reminded me of Kkat's short talk about sad and grimdark; I was worried, for a while, that you were jumping on Nietzsche's bandwagon. I'm a sucker for happy endings, sorry.
I'll try to think of more to say, but there's so many more to read and I don't want to simply blab without thinking too much. It's tidy, though. Neat, and wrapped up like a gift. Maybe that empty box your brother gave you, that was filled with newspaper and nothing else, until he told you to look closer and you found a heartfelt letter taped to the underside of the lid.
That said, little girls with voices scare me, and I'm not the greatest horror movie fan for this. Maybe that took a little bit away. Ugh. How do I critique things? Someone, please help.
Best kind of ending, maybe. I still have 18 more to read.
And what actually happened to the mom? You tease and skirt around the idea, but you never actually answer it. I'm assuming she died, but... how? Was it suicide? Something else? What could have happened that would traumatize these characters to this extent?
It took me a bit to get a grasp on how old Penny was supposed to be. She seems fairly sophisticated at first, but more childish later on. I think the seriousness of her psychosis with 'the walls are closing in' makes her seems older, maybe?
These huge whitespaces are a bit annoying.
I mean, on the whole, this is quite good. I do think the amount of trauma the characters are facing is a bit inordinate for what's presented. It also maybe trends a bit much in the puzzle-box story direction for my tastes, and a lot of the tension is based on a blatant mis-understanding... well, it doesn't quite verge into idiot-ball, though, because the reaction, although silly, is believable in a traumatized child. There's some real emotion here, and even a laugh or two, and that's pretty great.
Good work, thanks for writing.
Telling it in two distinct voices was an interesting decision, and it really worked. Sometimes that gets confusing to read, but not here.
I agree that the whitespaces were annoying, but I imagined that they were different pages in a book. Like if you were actually publishing it on paper, you'd read a little snippet and then have to turn to the next page and you can't really do that on a computer so you had to settle for the next best thing. And that helped give it the sort of disconnected, snapshot look and feel of her diary.
I think that there was also a good balance of humor to seriousness, and I loved the line "he'd probably smell like fish that also haven't showered in a few days."
That said, as the story kept going, I got my feet under me, and got a better understanding of what was really going on, and a better idea of the characters’ voices.
Once this story picked up, it felt pretty solid overall, if a little melodramatic. The father-daughter tension was kind of one-sided, though, because I knew both sides as a reader, and thus this rather defused the daughter’s side of things because I knew what was up. And while I could tell that the dad was scared for his daughter, I couldn’t ultimately feel the adult fear there, because I knew what was wrong and knew that it would be alright.
But as noted, I did think it was solid on the whole, and I thought that the characters’ concerns, both big and small, as well as the car letter game, worked out alright (and I liked the ARKN resulting in darkness and hearken, both solidly relevant words, which was quite clever).
There Is No God had one of the best conflicts in the contest, between Penny and Adrian and their inability to come to terms with each other or the loss of Penny’s mother. It also had one of the most satisfying resolutions, though we all agreed the author added an unnecessary twist after the revelation about the photograph, Penny’s understanding of what Adrian meant by “her smile,” and Penny’s subsequent catharsis -- followed abruptly by another bout of anger. It turned the resolution into a bit of a muddle.
We also all agreed that the additional whitespace was an unnecessary annoyance. The whole subplot with Uncle Shane was needless -- if you’re going to leave that in, author, make it matter more to the outcome of the story.
But despite those criticisms, There Is No God did more things right than wrong, and it took us along for a thoughtful ride on the way. We agreed it was the (close) second place.
>>Cold in Gardez
Wow! I'm blown away that I placed as well as I did. The quality on display this contest was really top-notch, so this means a lot to me. Thanks everyone for reading, and for your insightful comments!
I'm shocked nobody guessed this was me. I was really, really close to writing a fake review that started with: "Hey! They drove right by my house! What a coincidence!" but I realized that would give it away more than hide it. If Pascoite had been guessing he'd've nailed me in an instant. That guy has me pegged. I even used the word 'colour'. And 'neighbour'!
Shoutout to my friend who, the day before Christmas Eve, invited me to visit her in Caledon while she house-sat for her friend. She may not have known it at the time, but the tour she gave me of the family photos in the living room were the starting point for this story. That, as well as my love of nurses and everything that they do.
Caledon is such a quaint and nice little stretch of farmlands and tiny suburbs. Though I'll admit the only reason to go there is to visit relatives. It's not exactly overflowing with theme parks and nightclubs.
Thanks again, everyone, for all of your comments. I'm going to revisit this story and improve it, and everything said above will be super helpful. The main change will be the opening. I've just recently been introduced the the concept of "killing your darlings", and that opening is absolutely my darling. I liked it so much that I bumped up Penny's age just to make the language more believable. Naughty, naughty Miller. No more darlings for me, which apparently includes all the whitespaces too.
Now, I have to ask. Did anyone solve the last license plate? No, it isn't Agrobiodiversity. You can't use words I don't know. It's really, really sneaky, but there is an answer. I'll admit, there's a typo up there that makes it the slightest bit tougher, and telling you what the typo is would give it away, so I won't. But it's there somewhere and it was kind of the point of the story. Perhaps I'll simply take it to my grave.
Ciao for now!