Our 23rd annual writing contest is over, and we have winners!
For the first time ever, you can read our winners' work right here online.
Congratulations to the members of the 2015 shortlist: Tim Antonides for 'Shredding', Keltie Zubko for 'The Sound of the Engine', Rising Into The Sky, Jamie Short for 'Death Gets a New Door', Lily Gontard for 'Simple Division', Christina Myers for 'The Last Time You Say Hello', Shawn Bird for 'Murdering Mr. Edwards', Lynda Pupo for 'Muriel' and Jocelyn Shipley for 'Feeding the Family'. It is our pleasure to announce the Honourable Mentions for this year: Shari Green for 'Sandbagging' and Charlene Kwiatkowski for 'Perfect Symmetry'. And our winner?
Paula Lemke, for 'Stalker'.
For the next month, you can read all three of these wonderful stories below. Enjoy!
by Shari Green
Wading into the sea seems like a melodramatic way to kill myself, but really, I’m just being practical. I’ve always been quite practical. Just one more thing I hate about my life. Anyway, the sea is right there, and the currents are totally nasty, so yeah … it’ll be effective and—bonus!—très convenient.
And yet tonight, instead of surrendering to the waves, I’m here, standing next to Wallace Dubinski, stacking sandbags to save some lady’s home from flooding. The irony’s not lost on me. But whatevs. The river’s gone nuts with all the rain, spilling over its banks and getting all up in everyone’s business, so I’m sandbagging.
It’s Wallace. I heave another bag into place before turning to see what he wants.
“Relief guys are here. We can take a break.”
We sit on the front steps of the house we’re trying to save, sheltered from the relentless downpour by the veranda roof. Water drums above us, gushes from the downspouts, splatters into already-full dips in the ground. It shrouds the whole scene, closing it in so even the people at river’s edge seem barely part of our world.
A faint squeak sounds to my right.
I swipe away the drops my soaked hair re-gifted to my face, and I look down the veranda to the corner of the house. A woman with a walker emerges. Squeak. She slides the walker forward. She doesn’t look that old, but she moves like it.
As she nears us, she says, “I can’t thank you enough for what you’re doing. If my husband were still alive, he would’ve had this place on stilts after the flood of ’07.”
She peers more closely at us. “Good heavens,” she says. “You’re soaked to the bone. Come inside—I’ve got hot chocolate on the stove.”
As I move to follow her, there’s definite squelching from my Chuck Taylors, so I push them off and leave them at the front door before dripping my way across the hardwood in wet socks. Wallace follows suit. The woman hangs our raincoats on hooks before leading us down a hallway, where a mass of family photos decorates the wall. Generations of observers peer from their frames, a thousand eyes watching us pass by—probably judging us for puddling the hardwood.
“Mrs. Franklin? Is this your family?” Wallace has stopped in the hallway to study one of the pictures, which seems a bit rude, like make yourself at home, why don’t you? Except that Mrs. Franklin doesn’t look offended. Instead, her face brightens as she sidles up to Wallace.
“This was taken maybe twenty-five or thirty years ago,” she says. “There was a fire in the apartment complex over on Dunbar Street, and these folks were made homeless for a while. At the time, I worked in the soup kitchen. We fed them every day until they were settled again.”
Nice, but hardly the sort of thing I’d stick on my wall for a few decades. I wonder—does she even have any family, or are all the residents of her hallway gallery strangers?
“So, not family,” Mrs. Franklin says in answer to Wallace’s question, “but they’re part of my story, and in a small way, I’m part of theirs. I like to remember that.”
We step into a bright kitchen, and I’m immediately enveloped by sweet, chocolately steam. I breathe it in, savouring. A vat—not a pot, a vat—of hot chocolate simmers on the front burner. Mrs. Franklin ladles some into mugs for us, and then leaves us at the large wood table to warm up while she goes in search of additional soggy souls to save.
I wrap my reddened hands around the mug, and the warmth burns through my frozen fingers.
A clock ticks on the wall above the sink.
Wallace shifts in his chair.
How did I end up here, of all places, with Wallace, of all people? Wallace Dubinski, who moves through the school hallways like a ghost; who keeps his head down in class; who’s not involved in anything at school, as far as I can tell.
“How’d you get roped into being here?” I ask. “And why’d you call me?”
His hands clamp his mug, raising it so the steam drifts up over his face. He looks at me over the mug.
“My uncle lives two doors down.”
“Oh. But there are loads of others who could volunteer. Why me?”
“I figured you’d want to help.”
My eyebrows lift, and my voice cuts. “I seem like the helpful type to you?”
A blush rises on his neck. “I thought you could be,” he says, lowering the mug to the table. “You know—given the chance.”
Honest, but I still have the urge to smack him. “How’d you even get my number?”
His expression relaxes, and he cocks his head. “See, there’s this thing. A phone book?”
Okay, now he’s just being cheeky. But come to think of it, he did call me on my parents’ landline—which would be listed in the stupid phone book.
“Fine. But it’s not like you even know me. We’ve never talked at school.”
“Which explains the not-knowing-each-other bit.”
I had no idea lone-dog Wallace was so sarcastic. I might almost like that about him.
“I wasn’t wrong, though,” he says. “About you helping, I mean.”
“Yeah, well … It’s not like Mrs. Franklin can lift those sandbags while she’s hanging onto her walker.”
We sip our hot chocolate in silence, until Wallace says, “Is it weird that I’d like to stick my feet into that vat of hot chocolate?”
“Ew! Yes, it’s weird.”
“They’re just so cold.”
I crack a smile. “God, mine too!” And then I picture myself huddled on the stovetop with my bare feet soaking in a luxurious chocolate bath, and I laugh so hard my eyes water. It’s contagious—Wallace is laughing, too. “So disgusting,” I choke out between gasps for breath.
One last chuckle escapes me when Wallace lifts his mug to take a drink. He grimaces.
“Mmm,” he says after swallowing. “Foot chocolate.”
I can’t remember the last time I had such a ridiculous conversation with someone.
“So, why don’t we talk at school?” Wallace says, bringing me back to more serious issues.
“You don’t talk to anyone.”
An image flits through my mind—Wallace hanging out with a few loud-mouth guys in the hallway near the locker rooms. Maybe not talking, exactly.
I shrug. “I don’t know. Different circles, I guess.”
I nod, swirling my cup to mix the cocoa settling on the bottom.
“You’d need other people,” he says, “to make it a circle. Seems to me you have a social dot. A social square foot, if we’re being more precise.”
My eyes shoot daggers at him. He doesn’t flinch.
“I don’t mean it in a bad way,” he says. “I’m the same—social dot. Which you’ve probably noticed. A circle would be nice sometimes, though, don’t you think?”
I could argue this whole idiotic point of discussion, but the guy’s right. My social circle is seriously lacking in circleness.
“I don’t need anybody,” I say.
“We all need somebody.”
“Like you’re an expert.”
“In what? Being needy?”
His answer punches me in the gut.
Wallace’s voice is quiet. “It sucks.”
Rain lashes the window above the kitchen sink and batters the roof, the yard, the whole world beyond.
I search for words. “People … those guys … they’re mean to you, aren’t they? At school.”
He looks straight at me, eyes narrowing. “Faggot,” he says. “Jerkoff. Dumbass. Worthless Piece of Shit.” He shakes his head, jaw tight. “The list goes on. And it’s up to me to keep finding new ways to tell myself they’re wrong, they’re liars, they don’t know me.”
I imagine Wallace’s social dot drifting around the outskirts of our school, sticking to the quieter hallways, minding his own business, and the loud-mouth dots appearing, swarming him—not a social circle, but a social firing squad.
Wallace’s voice breaks into my thoughts. “What about you? You avoid your old friends.”
“How would you know?”
“I’m a noticer. I notice things. So, what happened?”
“You didn’t notice?”
He stays quiet. He’s waiting. And waiting.
I sigh. “I don’t know.”
“A fight? A falling out? Some great trauma, the pain of which is only manageable by distancing yourself from everyone around you?”
“Wallace! Fuck. I don’t know, all right?”
I need some space.
“I’m gonna find the bathroom,” I say, leaving him in the kitchen and escaping into the hall. I pass a bedroom and pause to scan the room. My eyes land on a faded patchwork quilt draped over the foot of the bed. It reminds me of my grandmother, and for a moment I’m small again, wrapped in Nana’s quilt, watching her gnarled hands turn pages as we share book after book together.
I find the bathroom and disappear inside.
After I pee and wash up, I’m still not ready for more of Wallace and his social dot theories. I straighten the hand towel on the rack. Take a tissue from the box on the counter, moisten the corner, and wipe at the black mascara smudges under my eyes. Thanks for letting me know I looked like a raccoon all this time, Wallace.
Tossing the crumpled tissue in the waste basket, I scan the room for another way to pass a minute or two. My gaze lands on the mirrored medicine cabinet above the sink. I pull it open.
Good lord, that woman has a veritable pharmacy in here. I shift the pill bottles, turning them this way and that so the labels all line up facing out. What do we have? A few pain killers would be nice. Given the array of options, she certainly won’t miss a pill or two.
I glance at the bathroom door, as if Wallace or Mrs. Franklin might’ve suddenly materialized on this side of it. There’s just a door. A locked door. I turn back to Drugs R Us and pick up one of the plastic pill bottles.
Metoprolol. Don’t know what that is.
I try another.
Hydrochloro-something. Too long a name to bother reading.
Another one I’ve never heard of. Where are your Percocet, woman? Your Vicodin?
I pick up a bottle of blue pills. Imovane. Okay, these I know. Mom takes these when she can’t sleep.
I check a few more bottles, but don’t find anything I recognize as a painkiller. I may be a risk-taker, but I don’t have a whole lot of desire to lower my cholesterol or replace my Estrogen or whatever all these myriad pharmaceuticals offer. But Imovane? There’s a full bottle of it behind the nearly empty one I picked up first. With another glance at the door, I pocket the full bottle. She won’t miss it. She’ll figure she forgot to renew her prescription, is all. And me? I’ll have sleep. A long, long sleep.
A rap on the door. Shit! I slam the cabinet closed. Pat my hoodie pocket. Feel the pill container, safely stowed.
“Deena?” It’s Wallace.
“It’s rude to interrupt a girl in the bathroom.”
“Sorry. I just need a tissue.” A pause, then, “You okay?”
I flip the lock and yank open the door.
“Fine,” I say as I push past him into the hall. My hoodie catches on the bathroom doorknob, shaking up the precious blue tablets with a distinct rattle. I slap a hand over my pocket and stride down the hall to the kitchen without another word.
I’m standing at the sink, staring out the window into the darkness, when Wallace speaks behind me.
“I’ve heard people’s brains tell lies when they’re depressed.”
“Lies?” I say.
“You know. Like, you’re not good enough. No one loves you. Nobody will miss you. It’s not going to get better.”
“They’re lies, Deena. All lies. Just like the ones those guys at school are always telling me.”
“Wallace, I’m not depressed.”
“How do you know? It could be another lie. Brains can do that.”
“So we’ve established.”
“I just think you should be aware.”
I spin around to face him. “I’m not depressed!”
From the hallway comes the sound of the front door opening, someone manoeuvring themselves awkwardly inside, then a heavy slam as the door is pushed closed. I’m acutely aware of the contents of my pocket.
“Hello?” Mrs. Franklin’s voice calls.
Wallace steps into the hall, and I sink onto a chair at the table, my hoodie pocket hidden from view.
“I don’t want to take off these gumboots,” Mrs. Franklin says to Wallace. “Be a dear and get the flashlight from the bottom drawer next to the dishwasher?”
Wallace crosses the kitchen and retrieves a hefty black flashlight. He takes it to Mrs. Franklin and the two of them chat for a minute. Their voices seem far away. My elbows slide forward on the table, and I let my head drop, forehead to folded arms. God, I’m such a screw-up.
Soft footsteps approach.
The rain drips.
“We should go back outside,” Wallace says. “Give the others a break.”
I don’t move. Let the rain fall, the river rise, the water wash over the world.
“When I phoned you tonight,” he says, “I asked how you were. You said fine.”
“I always say fine.” My words land on the table. “Everyone always says fine.”
“That’s not very helpful. Or honest.”
I lift my head, hair hanging in front of my eyes. “The thing is, I should be fine.” I lean back in my chair, raking my fingers through my hair. “My parents—they’re the regular brand of crazy. Nothing too terrible. And my little sister adores me. And school? Well, it’s school. It’s okay.”
“Your sister would miss you.”
My gaze flicks to his face.
“If you went away,” he says.
I stand, snatch my empty mug from the table and set it in the sink. “Actually, she probably wouldn’t. I ignore her all the time, and when I’m not ignoring her, I’m teasing her. I’ve no idea why she still follows me around like a puppy.”
A memory shoots through me. Mom at work, my sister and me on the couch past her bedtime, the fifth Harry Potter book on my lap, and me reading to my sister like Nana used to read to me.
I blink the thought away.
Wallace puts his mug beside mine, then stands there, two feet from me. He seems to be sizing me up, or maybe trying to decide if my brain and I are lying to one another. Or to him. Then a flash of movement—his hand shoots toward me, thrusts into my pocket, snags the bottle of pills. I grab at them, but he’s too fast. He yanks his arm back, holding the bottle out of my reach. I settle back on my heels, scowling.
After a few seconds, he sets the Imovane on the counter. Neither of us speaks. I stare at the bottle, and then glance at Wallace’s face. Serious. So serious.
Finally, he says, ““Does anyone know? That you’re not fine.”
I look at him a moment, then turn away. “No.” I jam my hands in my now-empty pocket.
He picks up the bottle. “I’m going to put these back,” he says, and he strides across the kitchen.
Good. Maybe I don’t want Imovane to be the thing binding Mrs. Franklin’s story to mine, anyway. It doesn’t quite seem fair to her. And maybe it’s not fair to me, either. Maybe I should have the chance to put strangers’ pictures on my wall and stare at them for a decade or two, if I want to.
When Wallace returns, he stands in the kitchen doorway.
“Don’t do anything, okay?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He studies the linoleum in front of his sock feet. Doesn’t meet my eye.
“Just … call someone. You know, if you’re tempted.”
“I won’t be. I’m fine.”
He glares at me, but then his expression softens. “But if you hear the lies,” he says. “If you feel yourself listening to them. Call someone.”
God, he’s persistent.
“Call someone? Right. Someone from my social circle, maybe?”
A sound erupts from Wallace’s mouth—an exasperated sort of growl. He stomps over to me, sticks his hand out like he’s waiting for something. Low five?
“Your phone,” he says. “Give it.”
For some reason, I do, then I watch as he taps away on my phone, head bent, thumbs dancing.
“My friends didn’t ditch me,” I say. “You know—when I stopped being fine. They texted. Invited me to hang out, go to movies, hit the mall. But you can only say no so many times before they stop asking. It’s not their fault.”
He hands back my phone. “You can call me.”
I glance down at the still-lit screen, see his name and number in my contacts, and something changes. Something in this otherworldly night of dampness and strangers and foot chocolate becomes more real. Something clicks into place—a link formed, a story shared.
I look at Wallace just as he puts up the hood of his sweatshirt.
“Ready?” he says.
I follow him out into the rain anyway and get back to work beside the raging river, beating back the water one sandbag at a time.
by Charlene Kwiatkowski
Mr. Broughton would have invested in a good pair of trainers had he known how sore his feet would be by the end of the day. Being a 41 in his left foot and a 42 in his right foot made shoe shopping a miserable experience, but it would have been worth it for today. On this sunny June morning, he was walking the streets of Bath in his favourite yachting shoes with faded brown laces. He wasn’t so feeble that he needed Velcro (God forbid), although his daughter kept telling him there are worse things to dread about aging than having to buy Velcro shoes. He was sure she was right, he just didn’t want to find out what those things were—at least not yet, and not by himself. His worn-out shoes were usually fine for the amount of walking he did in London, which, for the past month, had been next to none.
“It’ll be good for you to get out of London,” Katie had said over their three-way Skype call. “You’ve barely left your flat since the accident. Besides, it’s only a 90 minute train ride, so you can be back in your bed by evening.”
Her brother nodded. “The best part is you don’t even have to drive, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Ben!” Katie scowled at him.
“What? It was supposed to encourage him.”
Mr. Broughton looked at his image on the computer screen. His sorrow had shrunk his already thin frame and carved lines onto his sagging face that seemed resigned to fall.
“Never mind him, Dad,” Katie continued. We’re covering the costs—our treat. Please take this trip.”
“But why Bath?”
Katie tucked her hair behind her ear. “Because I found a Groupon for a walking tour there, and I thought it would be perfect for you, given your love of architecture and all.”
“You know I’ve been many times, right? I wrote my thesis on the Royal Crescent.”
Katie smiled. “I know, Dad. But you haven’t been there as a tourist. This trip is not to research. It’s to relax.”
“What am I going to see?”
Katie waved her fingers in front of the screen, ready to list off each point on the itinerary. “First, they take you to Pulteney Bridge, the Guildhall Market, then to the Roman Baths and Pump Room, Bath Abbey, the Jane Austen Centre—and don’t pretend you don’t want to see it because I know you’re a secret fan—and then it ends with The Circus and Royal Crescent—your favourite.” She held up eight fingers triumphantly.
Mr. Broughton mulled over each item with the same determination he wore when chewing a piece of steak, despite the dentist’s recommendation to eat softer foods. A glimmer crept into his eyes at the thought of revisiting the site that contained so much of himself—his hours of research trips tracing the curve of the Crescent, calculating its measurements, falling in love with perfect proportions that would influence his thirty-seven year practice as an architect.
Mr. Broughton counted sheep out his window as he rode from London to Bath. “Sixty-two!” He looked at the empty seat beside him. He had no one to tell his tally to this time. No Anne, no bump she rested her book on as the train whistled its way through the Cotswolds four years after their wedding. Anne always loved the country, but Mr. Broughton’s work in the city barely let them leave. It was important to do this trip before the baby came, all their friends had said. Mr. Broughton was scared at how much their lives would change. He was looking forward to a week of just the two of them—maybe their last in a long while. Anne’s curves were written into every verdant hill they passed. Each night in their cottage, Mr. Broughton would stand behind his wife, resting his hands around her middle. In and out. In and out. He was tuning his breath to hers. Anne put her hands on his and they stood like that in perfect symmetry, facing the dark. Now Ben and Katie were all he had left.
He squinted as he sat on a bench in Queen Square, reading the signs pointing the way to different parts of Bath. Bath. Another four-letter word. All the words in the English language that mattered to him lately were simple, four-letter words like Anne and loss and love. Damn it! The canvas of his shoe was pressing hard against his left toe. He bent down to inspect. The first layer of a blister was forming—a white pocket cresting his wrinkly toes.
“Are you coming, Mr. Broughton?” The high-pitched voice belonged to their teenaged tour guide named Sandi. It was a gentler version of the recurring voice in his nightmares: Hurry up, you old fool! Can’t you move any faster?
“Do you want us to wait a little longer?” Sandi asked, skipping towards him. The other eight people in the group were back from lunch and had reconvened on Gay Street, ready to begin the last half of their tour. Their faces were so young, even the McCreadys who were the other seniors.
“No, I’m coming. Just had to retie my shoe.” Mr. Broughton managed a smile and pointed to his feet.
Sandi gave him a pat on the back and began to lead the group up Gay Street. The street was one of Mr. Broughton’s favourites with its creamy limestone complexion, three-storey houses (now converted into offices), and delicate but strong Ionic columns. The incline of the street didn’t bother him when he was a young master’s student, eager and undaunted in his pursuit of elegance, symmetry, and order. Those were the same features that drew him to Anne—Anne with her swan neck, careful balance of strength and grace, and uncanny ability to bring order to a cluttered space. Now his feet felt the pull of gravity with each step, the great willpower it took to lift heel and toe, plant it on the ground ahead of his body, and repeat the process ad infinitum. It didn’t help that the blister made walking immeasurably worse—its presence like a mosquito intent on puncturing skin. But Mr. Broughton wasn’t going to let something so small ruin this day that Katie and Ben had so thoughtfully planned.
“We’re approaching the Jane Austen Centre on the right—number 40,” Sandi shouted to the group with a quick toss of her head.
“Albert, have you heard of Jane Austen?” asked Mrs. McCready. “Wasn’t she the woman who got burnt at the stake?”
Mr. Broughton winced again, though he couldn’t tell if it was from his blister or Mrs. McCready’s painful question that utterly shattered the mood of Gay Street. He didn’t know how Mr. McCready put up with his wife who was always asking embarrassing questions or something that was none of her business. At least she held the group up too, although not for the same reason.
“Oh Albert, I want to look in this store quickly! Tell the group I’ll just be a second!”
“Oh Albert, just let me ask this woman where she got her purse. I’ve been looking for one like this for months!”
“Oh Albert, I’m going to run back into the store and buy a pair of earrings to match this necklace for Rebecca. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“Yes, Greta, that would be nice.”
“Look Mr. Broughton, isn’t this a beautiful necklace I bought my granddaughter?”
Mr. Broughton adopted her husband’s robotic response. “Yes, Mrs. McCready, that’s a beautiful necklace.”
She smiled the satisfied smile of a Cheshire cat and pulled up the tops of her pantyhose that were entirely unnecessary under her linen trousers on such a warm day. She turned to her husband whenever she had something to comment on, which was all the time. American tourists—they were always talking, and always about the most inane things. Like earlier, when Mrs. McCready had spotted a field in the distance.
“Look at those sheep, Albert! Have you ever seen so many sheep in your life?”
“We are in England, Greta.”
“Aren’t they cute, Albert?”
“Yes, Greta, they’re very cute.”
“Mr. Broughton, are there sheep like this everywhere in England?”
Mr. Broughton didn’t know how to answer stupid questions. The easiest answer for women like Mrs. McCready was yes, even if it wasn’t true. There were too many McCreadys in life, people who meant well but didn’t know when to keep their mouths shut. Like the teller in London he had talked to before leaving.
“I see you’ve combined you and your wife’s accounts. We’ll need to get her signature to go through with the change.” The young man had a squeaky clean voice that matched his clean-shaven face.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” Mr. Broughton said, trying to contain the warble in his voice.
The teller stacked some papers on his desk and stapled them in a neat diagonal across the corner. “I’m sorry sir, but it’s policy. Unless she died.”
Just three words, and Mr. Broughton’s heart crumpled. The teller put down his papers and said in the same businesslike tone, “Did she die?”
A pen stuck out from the pocket of the teller’s pinstripe shirt. Mr. Broughton felt the urge to pick up the boy by his collar, grab the pen, and draw obscenities all over that pretty, perfect face. Instead, he stayed on his side of the counter and said, “Yes.”
Mr. Broughton couldn’t get through a single day without having to explain what happened. There was always somebody who still hadn’t heard—distant family, acquaintances, strangers. He rarely left his flat except for necessities like doctor’s appointments and grocery trips, but technology was changing that too. Just last weekend, Ben had shown him how to order groceries online. From his purple grapes to his packages of oatmeal, everything was just as he ordered, delivered to his door. It was so easy. He didn’t have to talk to anyone. Better yet, he didn’t have to face the angry honks and glares of impatient drivers. Hurry up, the light’s green! Go or get off the road! It was enough having to fight the voices in his own head that cursed his old, slow bones, making him relive Anne’s death a thousand times over.
Sandi had asked each person on the tour their reason for coming when they began at Pulteney Bridge. Greta and Albert McCready were celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary, Jasper and Alice their first. A pair of sisters in their mid-forties was enjoying a “ladies trip without their men” and Alex, a twenty-something, was backpacking Europe after finishing uni. Mr. Broughton told the group he was taking a little holiday—a gift from his kids. It wasn’t a lie, but he swallowed a lump in his throat when he said it.
Sandi stopped the group on Gay Street in front of the life-sized replica of Jane Austen wearing a purple dress and bonnet.
“We’ll have time for photos afterwards,” she said to Alice who was draping her arm around the fake Jane.
“Fun fact number twelve,” Sandi continued, flashing her stainless smile that could be featured on a toothpaste commercial, “Jane Austen never lived in this townhouse. She actually lived across the street at number 25, but that one it isn’t open to the public.” She waved her arms like a flight attendant, ushering the group inside. “I’ll see you back here in forty-five minutes!”
Mr. Broughton was the last in the group to step through the narrow doorframe. The townhouse had low ceilings and antique desks decorated with enlarged eighteenth century reproductions of handwritten letters, manuscripts, and old photos. This space could use some better organization, Mr. Broughton thought. It could use Anne. A middle-aged woman dressed in Regency-style clothing gave a fifteen minute introduction about how one of England’s most beloved authors dealt with the superficial world of Bath.
“Jane set two novels here—Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. The first one depicts a young girl in love with the city, and the second one depicts a mature girl tired of it. Jane lived here for five troubled years, much like her character Anne Elliot in Persuasion.”
“Why did Jane dislike Bath so much?” Alice asked at the end of the talk. She gestured to the front door and all that lay behind it. “How could one be unhappy surrounded by all this beauty?”
The woman smiled. “You sound like the optimistic Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey.”
Alice beamed. Mr. Broughton leaned over to Alex and whispered, “Optimistic or naïve?” Alex stifled a chuckle.
The woman turned to the rest of the group. “Any ideas?”
Mr. McCready was the first to answer. “Because it’s too noisy. Too many tourists.”
Everyone laughed except for Mrs. McCready, who indiscreetly nudged her husband in the arm.
“Albert, it’s a lovely town.” She put on her biggest smile. “We think it’s a lovely town,” she repeated to the rest of the group, followed by an unsuccessful whisper, “Albert, sometimes I wish your hearing aids didn’t work so well.”
“He’s quite right, though,” the woman said, trying to refocus the conversation. “Jane found Bath gloomy, noisy, and depressing. She was also dealing with her father’s death at this time, which may have had something to do with her dislike.”
The last sentence rang in Mr. Broughton’s ears. He stared at the penciled portrait of Jane sitting on the table beside him. Her determined eyes reminded him of Katie’s. She had read all the Austen novels before she was twelve, and even convinced him to read them too. They were British classics—part of his heritage, he reminded himself when he stayed up until midnight on a weeknight with his nose deep in Sense and Sensibility. Anne shifted under the covers and threatened to turn off the lights for the third time. “Just one more chapter,” he said without taking his eyes off the page.
She later told this story with pride to her book club that met at their flat on Tuesday nights. Mr. Broughton was walking from the bedroom to the toilet when he overhead Anne saying in a low voice, “He even turned down his weekly cribbage game to discover the hand that fate dealt to poor Marianne!” A chorus of squeals filled the sitting room as if they came from thirteen-year old girls at a slumber party. Mr. Broughton couldn’t tell if Anne was more delighted with his interest in Jane Austen or with her clever play on words. He could hear Betsy’s voice break through the gaggle into something intelligible: “Next book club, you should invite your husband to join us—or should I say, Jane us!” More laughter ensued and a faint smile appeared at the corners of Mr. Broughton’s mouth as he walked down the hallway.
Back outside the house, Sandi asked if they enjoyed the tour. The women gushed about it while the men said it was all right.
“Well, it must not have been that bad because even Mr. Broughton is smiling!”
Mr. Broughton was indeed smiling and had forgotten he was doing so. Now that everyone was looking at him, he found it disingenuous to continue. He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m just happy to be back in the fresh air.” The men nodded but Alice and Sandi exchanged glances as though they knew otherwise.
Sandi took her lead at the front of the group and announced their last stops—The Circus and the Royal Crescent, two crowning triumphs of Georgian architecture built by John Wood the Elder and his son, John Wood the Younger. Mr. Broughton had walked the route leading to The Circus countless times during graduate school, but it didn’t matter how many times he had done it—each time it arrested him. The long cobblestone street featured a circle of houses at one end with a tree planted in the centre. From an aerial view, it made a Masonic key shape, but the architecture conveyed so much more to Mr. Broughton—something so much more sensual. It was the walk of Anne coming down the aisle in white, bordered by family and friends with him in the middle, ready to take her trembling hands. It was the crawl of his fingers along Anne’s fourth finger where a ring sat at its base, a 1-carat diamond gathering and refracting all corners of the light. It was the trace of his hands on Anne’s torso sculpted like an Ionic column, bending around the scroll-shaped curve of her breast and stopping to play with her nipple. The memories pulsated through Mr. Broughton’s body, a mixture of pain and desire that heightened the friction on his blister.
Jasper and Alice broke away from the group and ran into the centre of the ring. They were testing out Sandi’s fun fact number thirteen that if you stood in the middle and clapped, the sound would echo three times around.
All Mr. Broughton could hear was Alice’s schoolgirl giggle. She and Jasper sounded like a younger version of Anne and himself.
“Aren’t they something, those two?” Mrs. McCready leaned towards Mr. Broughton, the smell of tuna sandwich so close that Mr. Broughton had to think twice if it was on his breath or hers.
He nodded and looked down.
Mrs. McCready followed his gaze to the ring on his left hand. She continued in a voice fishing to catch information. “Ah, to be young and in love. Do you remember what that’s like?”
Mr. Broughton glanced at her, wary of where the conversation was going.
More giggles from Alice ricocheted off the townhouses.
Mrs. McCready inched closer. Mr. Broughton took a step back. He winced as his blister rubbed against his shoe.
“Where are you from again?” she asked.
“And how old are you?”
“This is quite the trip at your age! And to come alone, too!”
Mr. Broughton rotated the gold band around his finger. “I like travelling alone sometimes,” he said, trying to sound as convincing as possible.
Mrs. McCready raised her eyebrows. “Where is she, your wife?”
Her eyes widened. “She didn’t want to come?”
The grating sensation on Mr. Broughton’s toe was becoming increasingly unbearable. He felt he was talking to the bank teller again, only this time he couldn’t maintain his British civility.
“She couldn’t. She’s dead,” he hissed. He looked directly into Mrs. McCready’s eyes with a stare that scared himself when he saw his reflection in her pupils. Her eyes ballooned and she stepped back.
“Car accident,” he said after a long pause.
Mrs. McCready was silent for a while. “I’m sorry.” Her voice was so soft when she finally spoke that Mr. Broughton had to strain to hear her. It seemed she was searching for more words but none came out. She straightened her blouse and resumed a perky pitch. “But it’s hard to be sad on such a perfect day, isn’t it?”
Mr. Broughton sighed. It wasn’t hard at all, but Mrs. McCready wouldn’t understand.
“I’m sorry but I need to sit down. My foot is hurting me.”
“We’ve done a lot of walking today, haven’t we?”
“Yes, Mrs. McCready.”
Much to his relief, she left him and joined her husband who was doing laps of The Circus. Mr. McCready looked like he was enjoying himself—walking alone, without a destination. Mr. Broughton found a bench nearby and examined his left toe. The bulge had grown to the size of a penny, swimming in a puddle of puss. He wished he had a plaster to help with the rubbing and prevent it from popping. He looked at his watch. 3 pm. Only the Royal Crescent left on the itinerary, and then the day would be over. He was looking forward to a warm bath and bed. This was enough walking to last the rest of his life.
Sandi appeared in front of Mr. Broughton with a plaster. He could only assume how she found out so fast. He was too tired to give more thought to Mrs. McCready and her big mouth. At least it got him what he needed right now.
“Will you be all right to walk another 300 metres or so?” Sandi asked.
“Yes, I’ll be all right.”
A patch of dark clouds had started gathering in a corner of the sky, preparing to seize the summer day.
“Looks like it might rain,” said Mr. Broughton.
Sandi followed his gaze upward. “Yeah, you’re right. Those clouds are moving in fast. Hopefully it will hold off until the end of the tour!”
She offered Mr. Broughton her hand and helped him up. They walked behind the group and let Alex take the lead. Sandi shouted directions from behind.
“Turn left on Brock Street and then you’ll see a huge plain with a crescent of houses on it. Lead us down to the grassy area so we can stand back a bit from the building to admire it.”
Each sentence was louder and higher. Mr. Broughton closed his eyes, hoping his lack of sight might somehow block out Sandi’s voice. Or maybe he wanted to see it like he was seeing it for the first time. After what seemed much longer than five minutes, Sandi’s voice lowered to a reasonable pitch.
“We’re here, Mr. Broughton.”
She let go of his arm and he opened his eyes, almost stumbling backward. For there she was again, written into the landscape, filling up his senses with her perfect symmetry. He breathed in quickly, putting his hands into the air as if by instinct. In and out. In and out. There was the gentle curve of her stomach when she was beginning to show with Katie. There were her hips that maneuvered around the tight corners of their first flat, holding a crying Katie on one side and a laughing Ben on the other. There was every smile she gave him and even her frowns when they fought, before they dissolved into softness and reconciliation. There was her body that arched inwards when he put his hands on the small of her back as she washed the dishes, elbow-high in soapsuds. There was the curve of the telephone he fell asleep with the first week she was gone, listening to signs of life on the answering machine, the receiver cradled in the crook of his neck where her head used to rest. But of course it wasn’t the same. Her head was soft. Mr. Broughton remembered holding her and suddenly felt hungry—hungry for all the four-letter words dangling from the edge of his tongue.
He stood looking at the Royal Crescent in the fading afternoon light. The building had just enough curve to resist the monotony of going on forever. “This could have been us,” he whispered into the pregnant June air.
Mr. Broughton felt raindrops on his head. The sky had almost completely shed its summer sweater and was slipping into a grey coat. As a low rumble started in the distance, a jolt of pain tore through the soles of his left foot. The blister had popped. Mr. Broughton gave a low howl, releasing all the pent-up pain he had been stowing inside. He bent down and yanked off his shoes without bothering to untie the laces. The plaster had come off, exposing the blister that matched the colour of raw meat. There was no way he would put his shoes back on now, even though the rain was falling harder.
“Albert, take a picture of me with the building behind! Quick, before it rains more! And don’t get the camera wet!”
Mr. McCready either didn’t hear or chose not to respond to his wife. He pointed to his earbuds and mumbled something about them not working. Mrs. McCready kept repeating her request, her pitch growing shriller the longer she had to wait.
The rain made no sign of letting up. A chorus of percussion pounded the cobblestone streets, accompanied by the low bass of thunder. This city is true to its name, Mr. Broughton thought. He didn’t mind it though. The rain smelled of tenderness and generosity, for it was rain like this that he and Anne got caught in after a matinee show at The Old Vic. It was their third date. An elderly man walking by had seen Mr. Broughton’s plight—the look of young love and end-of-the-world desperation in his eyes if he didn’t shelter her somehow—and had given him his umbrella. This selfless gesture returned to Mr. Broughton many times throughout his life. He and Anne used the umbrella as a prop in their wedding photos. Now he took it with him whenever he visited her grave, even if it wasn’t raining.
No strangers with umbrellas were walking through the swampy grass in Bath where Mr. Broughton was standing, the grass tickling his weathered feet. Sandi beckoned the group to gather under a gazebo across the field. Mr. McCready was running away from his wife like she was a schoolgirl with the lurgy. Jasper and Alice bolted across the plain while Alice complained that her paper-straight hair would be forever ruined if lightening electrocuted her. Alex assisted the two older sisters who were struggling to run with their oversized hiking backpacks.
The Royal Crescent stood in perfect stillness to the drumming of the rain and the squeals of the running women. Mr. Broughton’s breath slowed down. He tried to match the unhurried rhythm of the architecture that brought him back to the past. In and out. In and out. He mouthed an “I love you” to the Crescent and turned to make his way to the gazebo. The only other person who wasn’t there yet was Mrs. McCready who was standing about twenty metres away. She cut a tragic figure with rain-drenched hair and her left hand dangling in the air like a statue people hang wreaths on for their loved ones. She was still holding out her camera, waiting for her husband to come back and take a picture of her. Mr. Broughton took a step towards her but didn’t get far before his right foot landed in something brown and slimy. He looked down and gave an ironic laugh. When it rains, it shits.
He was wiping his foot on the grass when he heard a thud followed by a cry of horror and despair. It sounded familiar. Mrs. McCready lay sprawled on the soggy ground like shredded wheat left overnight in a bowl of milk.
“Bloody hell,” Mr. Broughton mumbled as he made his way over the wet grass, trying to suppress the beginning of a smile. He carried his shoes in one hand, stepping carefully so as not to lose his balance and join her in the mud.
“My trousers are ruined! My trousers are ruined!” Mr. Broughton could hear Mrs. McCready whimpering this phrase on repeat long before he reached her. Indeed, mud had caked her trousers so thoroughly that the situation didn’t look promising. Mr. Broughton responded with a heavy sigh to match hers. “Yes, Mrs. McCready, your trousers are ruined.” He couldn’t tell how much of her face was tears and how much of it was rain. The camera she had been holding lay at her knees. It didn’t look waterproof so he rescued it first and placed it in her purse.
Mrs. McCready stopped whimpering to see who was offering her a hand. Her eyes widened when she realized who it was. She grabbed Mr. Broughton’s hand and he pulled her up on the second try.
“Thank you,” she said in that soft voice she had used at The Circus.
Mr. Broughton couldn’t restrain a smile. “Do you still want a picture?” Mrs. McCready looked at him incredulously, her lips trembling with the uncertainty of whether to laugh or cry. He showed her his soiled foot and tipped her towards laughter. They linked arms and made their way to the shelter, slowly, neither of them saying a word.
by Paula Lemke
I’ve been seeing him three times a week for a couple hours at a time. He’s a cyclist, Olympic calibre I hear, and has that lean, tight, almost gaunt look, like a whippet. You would never know to look at him that he has muscles like iron. Like iron. He rides his bike to work every day. Changes out of his spandex into baggy khakis, running shoes and a polo shirt, nothing GQ, more like WM, disguising his legs of steel and arms of iron. He doesn’t come across as particularly attractive per se—he is tall and gangly, almost dorky looking even, with lank, graying hair that is cut any old way—and yet there is something about him I can’t shake. And strong? Like you wouldn’t believe.
So I tore my left ACL playing tennis. It was bad, needed surgical repair and then it was off to rehab and now I’m in love with my physiotherapist, which is ridiculous, I know. It was certainly unexpected, I’ll admit, both the injury and the crush. A logical person might suggest that what I am experiencing is not love but merely erotic transference. I accept that it looks like it’s only a one-way street and his awareness of my feelings is probably negligible, at this point. And of course there’s a wife and a couple kids apparently—I asked—but there’s no denying the intimacy we share. That he also shares it with others, I find irrelevant, because surely it’s not the same.
We’ve been meeting for about twelve weeks now at this Sports Physio clinic in a mall near where I live, me and all the other walking wounded who are rehabbing off injuries or surgery. That’s thirty six times he sat with me, touched my leg, talked gently to me, encouraged me, laughed at my jokes, told me his own stories, acted like he was invested in me and truly cared. I know, it goes with the job and all his clients are equal. So it is said.
His name is fabulous. Eugenio Della Robbia. He goes by Gene but he lets me call him Eugenio in my best fake Italian accent. Every day when I arrive, limping , he sidles up to me
and quietly says Buon Giorno bella. He is so damn charming I can’t help myself. The first time I saw him as someone other than just my physiotherapist it was like this.....I’d been going in for a few weeks by that point. I’d check in at the front desk. I’ll tell Gene you’re here, the office woman would say leading me back. She’d put me on a bed and I’d ask for ice to begin while I waited for Gene. A routine developed. Icing first and then hit one of the machines to work the leg while Gene flitted amongst his appointments, all of us his, all of us with our unique problems, our own routine.
On this day he asked me to meet him at the last bed over in the corner after I was done
with the bicycle. I went there. He arrived with a warm smile and pulled the curtains around the bed closed. He sat next to me and picked up my leg and began to sweet talk me. In an almost whisper he asked if I’d seen such and such a movie, if I liked the actor, what did I do last weekend, or we talked about books all the while he was manipulating my leg, feeling all around with his deft, strong fingers. His fingers knew how to seriously press into flesh I’ll tell you and it wasn’t pretty. And yet......
I told him, I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to distract me. He laughed and asked am I that transparent? Yes, I said, but we talked anyway. He told me marvelous stories about his grandparents in Italy, their ancient stone house in the countryside, growing tomatoes, pressing their own olives, and about the local priest drinking too much vino rosso. And then he held the lower part of my leg under his arm and began to bend the knee and press it forward. It started to hurt like hell, he was forcing it. He began talking seriously to me, no distracting banter now, he told me, bend your knee bella, more, more, bend it and we were both focused on this effort and it was hurting more and then there was a new hurt, an incidental one. It was on the side of the shin which was being pummelled under his arm by his bicep. I almost shrieked with the pain. He was counting down 3, 2, 1, very slowly and then he released and I felt a flood of relief wash through me, a warm, delicious lavage. And I said, wow, that really hurt, what is in that arm of yours? A rod of steel? He blushed. It was adorable. He said, what? I said, I’m not kidding, that bicep of yours, is it made of iron? He chuckled, he was a little embarrassed. Are you trying to flatter me, he asked? And with that I was suddenly, wham, aware of him in a whole different light. Yes, I guess I was trying to flatter him, trying to win him over.
Now he put a thick, white towel around his upper arm to protect me I guess, and he picked up my leg again, like a lover would, like he owned it, and began to talk softly, almost whispering. He said something and then I said something and then it was too intense for banal talk. I winced as he began to exert pressure to get the bend he was looking for. Holy crap, I said—conscious that I should probably not say fuck—holy crap! That bicep of yours, I said, my God. He looked at me and said come on, bend it, bend it, more, more. The veins on his temples were bulging for God’s sake. He was straining, practically gritting his teeth with the effort. I was holding my breath. Breathe, he said. I could feel my face, I think I had my orgasm face going on, not pretty but I couldn’t help it. 3, 2, 1, slight release. I unclenched. That was good, he said softly, quietly, conspiratorially. Did he speak like that to everyone? I seriously doubted it.
When’s your follow-up with the surgeon, he asked perfunctorily. Next Wednesday. He won’t be happy with this bend. Whatever, I said. One more time, he said and started squeezing. Come on, he urged me, that voice, a lover’s voice. No, I said moaning, he had my leg in a vise, I was groaning out loud I think, groaning and moaning and clutching at the bed sheet and thinking I wonder if you can die from pain and then it was over. He whipped a measuring device out of his pocket to measure the angle of my knee bend. 95 degrees. We were happy. It was a huge victory. 86 degrees a week ago, he said beaming, and now it’s 95. He looked positively proud. Still, the doc won’t be happy, he said, we’ll have to get more out of it, but for today I’m very happy. And your extension is great. He got up. Let’s get some ice on that, he said heading off. No, don’t go! Let’s celebrate, I was thinking, let’s get undressed and open a bottle of Italian red. You know you want to. After all that we’ve shared?
He came back with ice packs and strapped them on my knee. He patted my forearm fatherly and said, we did good today. I liked that he said ‘we’. We had become a ‘we’. That’s the way it works. There’s you and there’s me and then there’s we. He tossed his hair out of his face , said Ciao bella, and left. Come back, come back Eugenio.
* * *
Four months and he’s calling it quits. He says I’m done. I don’t want to be done. This is as good as it gets, he said at the end of our last session. He was grinning like crazy. I’m signing off on you today. He looked so happy, so proud of me. Let’s have a hug, he said, drawing me towards him. Our first full-on embrace. Why look so glum? he asked. I told him I didn’t think I was done. He said I was and he was already signing his report to email to the surgeon. I didn’t know what to say but the words “good bye” eluded me. But good bye it was, as he walked me to the reception desk for me to pay my bill, and, patting my shoulder, said, remember to email me the title of that book we were talking about and he was gone, back to his other clients I guess.
I bought a coffee at the cafe in the mall and sat facing the physio lab. I felt so suddenly cut off. I finished my coffee and went back into the clinic and asked at the front desk for one of Gene’s business cards. It only had a business email address but better than nothing. I took a chance and asked the receptionist all sweet as pie if Gene had another email address, telling her that he had meant to give it to me. She said she didn’t know. Just use the one on his card, that’ll do the trick, she said.
The next week it was Valentine’s Day. I made cupcakes, each with pink icing and one of those little candy hearts that say things like Hi Cutie, Good Boy, Too Late, So Hot, and put them on a platter that I’d have to return to pick up and dropped them off at the physio place with a card on top. ‘To Gene and Staff—thanks for the memories!’ Me, being funny. No Gene in sight. I inquired. His day off today, but how super nice of you, the lady said. I’ll be sure to leave one for him. You do that lady, you make damn sure.
I do have a boyfriend. Nice guy. He’s smart, pays attention to clothes. He makes decent money and makes me laugh. And I was really into him until my strong Italian cyclist came along. Sometimes you get all tied up with someone that you think is the right one and then the real right one comes along later and you know. Happens all the time. It’s out of your control. So I went and bought a bike and rode to the physio place to retrieve my cupcake plate a few days later. I was on some kind of automatic pilot, just obeying the urge. Gene was on that day but very busy, I was told. How late does he work today? I asked Miss Guard Dog. I just wanted to say hi. She gave me a look that said should I or shouldn’t I tell her. I think his last appointment is at 5:30, she said, and by the way he thanks you for the cupcakes. She thrust the empty platter at me, so I put it in my backpack and left.
I was back by 7:00 and I waited outside the back in the parking lot. At 7:15 I wondered if he would have gone out the front. I re-positioned myself so that I could see through the atrium to the front door. At 8:15 I saw him walking his bicycle out the front door. He sure took a long time with that last client. What was with that? He had changed into lycra bike shorts, special shoes and was strapping on his helmet as he took off like a comet up the main street. Did I think I was going to be able to keep up to this guy? I hadn’t thought that out. I struggled to follow in his direction but he lost me almost immediately.
It took a month for me to get into reasonable enough condition to be able to keep him in sight, but always gradually losing him on the hills, until the day I managed to stay with him, barely, and watched him far ahead of me pulling into the driveway of a modest house surrounded by cedar trees. I rode by the house and collapsed around the corner, my lungs burning, legs cramping, the knee rebelling. But now that I knew where he lived, I knew where he lived, so I could back off on the rigorous bike training.
I began to spot him occasionally, at first—at the farmer’s market, down by the beach, one time at the library with his daughter, but usually he was alone. I don’t think he ever saw me. Then I swear he was everywhere. Our lives were so in synch that almost everywhere I went, there he was. It was incredible. Proof that we were simpatico, yes?
I kept my weekly emails to him upbeat and casual, not wanting to sound all crazy lady, but he didn’t respond to any of them. I stopped by the clinic and dropped off a copy of one of the books we’d talked about with a note asking him to email me when he was done so we could discuss it, but he never did. I had no choice but to make an appointment and I bicycled to the clinic on a Friday for his last booking of the day, of the week. It was October, a sun-lit, brisk day. The receptionist was surprised to see me. Oh, she said, I’d thought you were all finished here. A bit of a setback, I said. Come on through, I’ll tell Gene you’re here, again. Do you need ice? I told her I did. She showed me through to one of the beds and brought a bag of ice and a towel. I laid back with the knee elevated and the ice bags strapped to it and thumbed through a Bon Appetit magazine imagining what I was going to tell Gene. He was yakking with some young guy while he put him through his paces, every so often glancing in my direction.
Finally, eye contact. And then that smile of his where his whole face got involved, and a slight nod of his head, saying I acknowledge that you’re here and I’ll be there soon cara mia. The last time I got that smile I was bicycling by his house. He was outside in the driveway with a girl around ten washing a red car all playful and laughing. I rode by as slow as I could without falling over and they looked up. I stopped, waited a heartbeat and then the recognition. Hey, ciao bella! he said with enthusiasm, smiling his smile. Well Gene! I said. How have you been? Good. Nice day, huh? This is my daughter Nicola. So how’s the knee? I had to think quick. Could be better, I said. I still seem to have some issues. Good, I thought, keep the door open. You know where to find me if you need me, he said. His daughter sprayed the hose on him. He laughed and grabbed at her. He was like a big old galumpy happy dog all smiles and tail wagging. More endearing qualities.
The place was clearing out and then there was one. He came to me. Now, he said quietly, gently putting his hands on my knee, what’s this all about a setback? I felt shy, coy, not cheerful and jokey like we had been before. Something was different. He was quiet, maybe tired, end of the week. I’ll be leaving, Gene, the front desk woman called. Have a good weekend, he said. Guess I’ll be locking up, he said looking at me as he fondled my knee. He sat down on the edge of the bed nudging me over with his hip and sighed. His hair was hanging over one side of his face. Something appealing about that. He tossed it back and began to manipulate my leg, bending it this way and that. So finally, he said looking intently at my leg, we’re alone. Yes, I said trying to be jocular, alone at last. His smile was gone. He looked up at me without it, it didn’t look right, him without his smile. He looked earnest, intense, smoldering maybe. What?
I got your emails you know, he said. He was massaging all around the knee, pressing, kneading. I laughed. You did? How come you never answered? Not professional, he said quietly. Does this hurt? he asked pressing down with both thumbs. I shook my head. He moved his thumbs. How about now? I said no. And here? I let out a small yelp. He looked deeply concerned, his brow slightly furrowed. I think we’ll do some ultra sound to loosen some of that soft tissue. I’ll be right back.
So there really had been a setback? His voice rang out from an equipment room, did you happen to find some flowers by your front door one day? I thought back. Yeah, I guess so, I said remembering a little pile of daisies one day. What? Him? Alarm, alarm. Why would you ask that, how would you know? I asked him. He was noisily rattling around and emerged with a monitor and some kind of keyboard on a cart. State of the art, he said.
He was setting the machine up, getting things ready for doing ultrasound, he was not looking at me. He said, because I put them there. A shock jolted through my body, I could have fallen off the table. You put them there? You put daisies by my door? How did you know where I.....(what?)....lived? He knew where I lived? He sat on the bed and he looked at me. We know where all our clients live. We have files you know. He was smirking. Oh that’s right, I said, of course. So, I murmured, daisies. He asked me if I like daisies. He said they were from his yard. Nicola told me to bring you some, he said. His daughter. I felt light-headed, kind of reeling, thought maybe I was going to faint. Lay back and relax, he said. I was anything but relaxed.
He started moving the probe around my knee and said after a moment, almost whispering, I sent you some emails too. I was looking at the ceiling, at the curtains, out the window, anywhere but at him. You did? I asked him. I don’t recall seeing any. It was getting dark outside. I was suddenly aware of the hour. He said, probably went into your spam. He was speaking so quietly, I could barely hear him. And those cupcakes....that was really sweet of you. I propped myself up on my elbows. So you got those? He nodded. Did they save you one? He reached into one of his pockets and produced a yellow candy heart that said Be Mine. He held it up between his thumb and forefinger and showed it to me. Why was I not thrilled? I should be thrilled. This was what I’d longed for, imagined. Him, with a candy heart he kept in his pocket. Him, leaving flowers at my door. Him, calling me cara mia and touching my leg.
Okay, that’s enough for today, he said, his voice returning to normal. Remember to do those exercises I showed you religiously. You hear me? He asked. Yeah, I said slowly, I hear you. He stood up and looked down at me. But will you do them? Yes. Promise me? I promise. Why don’t you come back in a week for another session, he said, and that should about do it. Say, same time next Friday? He let me out the back door, and stood watching as I mounted my bike. Remember what I said, he called out to me. Don’t make me come after you. I know where you live. He was grinning.
I took off into the dark, pedaling hard.