The Misfortune Cookie

“The Misfortune Cookie”

by Brandon Kidd

 

Kevin Watson sat before the remains of his dim sum developing indigestion. For once, he was grateful he had eaten alone. The faint blue printing on that tiny strip of paper stared back at him brighter than a Las Vegas billboard. He gulped and read them once more: “A new acquaintance will bring you disaster.”

What kind of a fucked up fortune was that!? He expected something banal like, “Your efforts will bring good results” or distinctly Confucian: “Good things come to those who wait.” Not this. Who was this stranger? Where would this fateful meeting take place? What form would this disaster take?

Kevin’s palms started to sweat and then he heard the voice of Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise… in his head. Having grown up on Star Trek The Next Generation reruns, the voice of Kevin’s conscience now sounded remarkably like Patrick Stewart. And why not? Captain Picard rocked! Adventurous, brave, principled, but also diplomatic and philosophical —boldly go where no one has gone before (but never needlessly risk your  crew). And what did Captain Picard say to Chief Engineer Watson about this evil fortune cookie?

“Meaningless! A quaint but antiquated tradition designed to occupy superstitious minds. Pay it no further heed, Mister Watson.”

Aye-aye, sir. But still, Kevin couldn’t help wondering. Could this new acquaintance be Sophie, his blind date from Saturday? He thought things had gone well. He’d made plans to see her again this Saturday. It had been his first date in over a year and he liked her. So far.

“Maybe she’ll turn out to be some crazed psychopath who sends me dead squirrels in the mail. Maybe she had twelve other blind dates that week. Maybe we’ll get married only to have her leave me ten years from now for our nineteen-year-old pool boy.”

Kevin didn’t know. But as he sat there, leaning forward in his chair, loosening his tie with moist hands and staring at a couple half-eaten dumplings, he knew this: that fortune cookie had just cost the waitress her tip.

Kevin was twenty-eight years old. Last year he’d finally landed his first real, permanent full-time job since leaving school. He was now a professional computer programmer. He coded software for libraries. He was good at it. He liked it. He felt it was important work. It paid well enough for him to live on his own and grow a condo down-payment fund. Now who was this new acquaintance who was going to come along and screw it all up for him?

He gasped. Maybe it was his new boss, Mike —excuse me— Mister Hargrove. Kevin didn’t like Mike Hargrove. He was a year younger than Kevin and about one quarter as intelligent. He was certain Hargrove was one of those guys in university who spent his time rewording Coles Notes and copying snippets of code from the internet to complete his assignments, who crammed for every exam then promptly forgot everything from the course by the next semester, who spent his hours outside class “networking” by joining every team, club, society and association on campus, scanning people at social gatherings for who might be useful at some point in the future, collecting email addresses and business cards like a pig sniffing for truffles. No, Kevin didn’t like Mike Hargrove. And now, thanks to this stupid fortune cookie, he was going to worry about getting stabbed in the back by the guy every day this week.

Kevin reached for his wallet and left his fortune on the table. It wouldn’t matter if he took that little slip of paper with him or not, after one reading its words were tattooed on his brain. He counted out enough money to cover his bill and though for a moment before leaving a twoonie for the waitress. It wasn’t her fault fate had decided to play chicken with him.

“Have nice day,” she chimed with an elastic smile as Kevin left.

“Fat chance,” he thought.

Kevin was an unimpressive figure by many measures, certainly in comparison to the parade of other businessmen in Hugo Boss suits and Prada shoes zooming around Downtown Toronto in shiny new sports cars. He walked back to his office in an old pair of running shoes, wearing a wardrobe by Mark’s Work Warehouse, carrying a backpack by Mountain Equipment Co-op. He was of less than average height and built like a scarecrow but nevertheless reckoned himself not bad looking. He had short brown hair which he cut and styled himself, a clear complexion (on good days), and a small nose which made him look several years younger.

Walking down University Avenue on this bright, breezy spring day Kevin should have been enjoying himself, breathing in the clean air off Lake Ontario and wondering whether there was still ice on the lake back home in Winnipeg. He had moved to Toronto for university and stayed there afterward, working a long string of nerve-wracking contracts before finally landing a permanent, full-time job. But Kevin hated Toronto. No, to be accurate, he hated Torontonians —of which there were two distinct types in his opinion.

There was the native Torontonian. They were born here and alternated between attitudes of superiority and entitlement. They also spoke twenty percent faster than non-natives. Generally the native Torontonian was only suspicious when speaking to someone of the second type, the new Torontonian.

The new Torontonian, one who has managed to establish himself in this city despite the myriad obstacles, is assumed by the native to have done so only by screwing over someone else. Native Torontonians believe, if only unconsciously, that honesty is the sacrifice demanded from newcomers by the gods of The Big City. They are, therefore, distrusting of anyone who wasn’t born within the service area of the TTC. This uneasy dynamic existed between Kevin and his boss. Hargrove exemplified the native Torontonian.

Kevin was not jealous of Mike Hargrove. He had no desire to screw him over or possess anything of his —his athletic six-foot-two frame, his extroverted personality, his $40,000 smile or his seemingly endless network of “friends.” What Kevin resented was that Hargrove thought he was jealous of him. Kevin saw this as the absolute pinnacle of arrogance. Hargrove thought so much of himself he automatically assumed that everyone around him wanted exactly what he had. Furthermore he thought so little of everyone else that he assumed they couldn’t possibly be happy and therefore must be deviously plotting to topple him from his castle of self-satisfaction and claim what he had for their own.

As he approached his office, slaloming between sidewalk vendors, Kevin recalled an exchange from earlier in the month. Hargrove had cornered him at the fax machine.

 

“Hey there, Kev!” he said, landing a slap on Kevin’s back.

“Hi,” Kevin replied with no more cheer than professionalism demanded. After his promotion, Mike Hargrove insisted everyone address him as “Mister Hargrove” in order to engender the necessary “aura of authority” required to successfully manage a team. Although he remained on a first name basis with a select few and still called everyone else by nicknames which ranged from flirty to offensive. “Kev” was among the more tolerable ones, so Kevin accepted it but resented the politics of it all. He skirted the drama by simply not using Hargrove’s name at all. The fax machine moved slower than rush-hour traffic down Front Street.

“How’s the new workstation?”

Since his installation as manager, Hargrove had reorganized their office into cubicles of adjoining desks and Kevin, among others, had lost the privacy of an office in order to “facilitate better communication and teamwork.” Kevin had already objected to the new arrangement once saying that it affected his concentration. The objection received no response.

Hargrove didn’t want to hear what Kevin really thought, but nor could Kevin bring himself to lie about this situation and say he was happy with it, so…

“Oh, as well as can be expected,” said Kevin.

The fax machine continued to struggle connecting. Goddamned dial-up! Energize, damn you!

“Good! Glad to hear it.”

Hargrove interpreted everything positively. Kevin reckoned that if he’d said, “No one likes the new arrangement, myself included. It’s the absolute worst idea in the history of the universe.” Hargrove would’ve replied with something like, “Wow! What great feedback! Way to come out of your shell and assert yourself, Kev!” He then would’ve strutted over to his office —yes, he still had an office— and shot out an email saying how proud he was of how well everyone had made the adjustment. Sociopath.

“So, Kev, are you still trying that whole on-line dating thing?”

During the brief time they’d worked on the same team Kevin made the mistake of sharing with Hargrove some details of his personal life; he now paid for that mistake on an almost daily basis. Fortunately, Kevin knew a foolproof method for diverting Hargrove’s attention: give him an opening to brag about his own life.

“Yup. How’re things with you and Cindy?”

“Oh, things couldn’t be better!” Hargrove beamed. “She’s on assignment right now in Milan covering fashion week. But she should be on the runway if you ask me. She’s got a figure on her that could rival any of those models. We’ve got plans to go up to the cottage for four days over this weekend. Oh! That reminds me…”

Hargrove leaned in to Kevin and lowered his voice.

“Here it comes,” thought Kevin. “The ask.”

“I told the director at LCS that we’d have the new module ready to show them as soon as I get back. Can you do it?”

The fax machine was finally transmitting.

“My deadline is still a week away.”

“True, but in these tough economic times we should work extra hard to impress our clients. We wouldn’t want to lose any accounts.”

The fax finally finished transmitting that invoice, having stalled just long enough to allow this oh-so-pleasant conversation to take place.

“Uh…” Kevin mentally weighed his work load and, “Well, since you’ve already told them it’ll be ready I guess it’ll have to be.”

Kevin took up his papers, and turned to his boss with a tight smile stretched across his face.

“Alright! You’re a superstar, Kev!”

Hargrove gave him a shot in the arm as he marched off to his office having successfully ensured both his professional reputation and his long weekend plans. At the expense of Kevin’s. Jerk.

 

Kevin entered his office building and briskly swiped his keycard at the lobby elevator. Those four days that Hargrove spent balling his girlfriend amid the sound of loons in the Muskokas, Kevin spent coding at his desk twelve hours a day for four days straight. At least the office had been empty. The elevator opened and Kevin pushed the button for the sub-basement level. In the recent past Kevin had thought of their basement office as cozy. Now, as he descended into the bowels of The Big City he felt more like he was falling through several circles of Hell on his way to be tormented by Hargrove the Horrible, Lord of the Basement.

Ding!

The elevator opened and Kevin stepped out. It was quiet in the office. Too quiet. And it was Thursday. If Hargrove wanted him to work over the weekend he’d probably approach him about it before the day was through. Kevin began plotting how to get to his desk in a way that was least likely to attract attention when—

“Hey, Kev!” came at him from behind accompanied by the requisite shoulder slap.

“Hi,” said Kevin as he thought of a way to keep moving. “Would you like any coffee? I’m getting some.”

“Nah, I cut out caffeine. Bad for your mojo. Know what I’m saying?”

“No, and the last thing I want to hear about is your mojo,” is what Kevin wanted to say. Instead he grunted a reply and reached for the percolator.

“Say, bring that into my office when you’ve got it fixed up. I want to introduce you to someone.”

Kevin spilled his coffee and blurted out, “Huh? Meet someone? Who?”

“Just come on in. You’ll see.”

Hargrove strutted into his office, arms swinging like a football player leaving the field.

“This is it,” thought Kevin. “This must be the disastrous new acquaintance the fortune cookie spoke of. They’re hiring someone new, I’m going to have to train him, he’ll sabotage my work and this time next year he’ll be the new Hargrove.”

There was no sense putting it off. Kevin shotgunned half his coffee and marched into his boss’s office to meet his destiny.

 

“Kevin Watson, meet Darryl Lambert.”

“You’re giving me a book?” Kevin said quizzically, staring at the dog-eared paperback in his hands.

By “introduce you to someone” Hargrove apparently meant give him a title by this self-help author. And what a title: “Owning Your Power: How to harness ancient wisdom and unleash your inner superhero.”

“I’ve read all of his books,” Hargrove said, leaning over his desk and gesturing with his hands for emphasis. “He’s amazing —he totally transformed my life. I’ve even gone to a few of his seminars —he’s been here in Toronto a couple times now. This book is his best. I really think you could get something out of it.”

“Something like what?” Kevin practically growled, glaring at his boss from beneath a heavy brow. Kevin thought this was it. The fortune cookie was right. The weight of his boss’s pomposity was going to crush what was left of his withering patience; Kevin was going to scream at his boss what he really thought about him, and promptly lose his job.

“This guy is positively un-real!” Kevin said to himself. “Not only does he think he’s the slickest thing since teflon, and that everyone around him wishes they had it as good as him, he also thinks he’s doing the rest of us a favor by throwing self-help tidbits our way! I don’t think I can take this!

Then the Captain spoke up, “Patience, Mister Watson. Knowledge is power. Don’t rush to judgment so swiftly. Hear him out.”

“Alright,” Kevin concluded. “If I start feeling like I wanna knock his block off, I’ll just nod and try to hear music.”

“Kev,” Hargrove said, hands tented in front of him, eyebrows knit in concern, “I care about you. I see how hard you work, and you do good work, but dude… I can tell you’re not happy. And I was like you once. I worried about everything and refused to let myself feel good no matter what happened. I mean, last month for example, you rawked that new release for LCS, man! And you did it early! But… were you happy about it? No. I tried to high five you on that and you left me hangin’ until I wouldn’t let you leave the room. That kind of thing worries me.

“And another thing —not that I wanna get too personal— but…” Here he leaned forward a little more and lowered his voice, “It’s been forever since you got laid hasn’t it? I mean, you don’t have to say anything, but I can tell —everyone can. And I know how that feels, dude. Like I said, I used to be the same way. Hell, back in school I had dry spells that lasted for months. So I know how much that can affect a guy. I’m worried that you’re not getting what you can out of life —what you deserve out of life. This!” Here he pointed to the book Kevin was holding, “will get you what you deserve out of life. It worked for me. It’ll work for you too. I guarantee it!”

Hargrove leaned back, smiling, and put his hands behind his head, swiveling in his desk chair.

Kevin went through a wide range of emotions as Hargrove delivered his little pep talk, but not the range you might expect and not the range he’d expected either. He looked into Hargrove’s sincere expression, saw the conviction in his eyes along with a bit of —could it be?— genuine concern and… he bought it.

“Huh…” Kevin thought to himself as he sat there with this book in his hand. “Maybe Hargrove isn’t as crazy as I thought. I mean, the idea that he would help me in anyway certainly goes against how I had him pegged. Maybe this whole ‘happy about everything all the time’ thing isn’t just an act to cover his insecurity. And maybe —just maybe— Hargrove wasn’t totally wrong. I mean, I’m not all that happy most of the time. Maybe I could be.”

Kevin sat there for a second, processing, and read the title on the cover once more: “Owning Your Power: How to harness ancient wisdom and unleash your inner superhero.” Then Kevin looked up and took in the picture of his boss. He had to admit, if anyone in the office looked and acted like a superhero, it was Hargrove. He had a job and a salary that a professional ten years his senior would envy. He drove a brand new Porche. He had a trophy girlfriend that could make any red-blooded hetero male sit up and beg. He worked out all the time; the six-pack abs and seventeen inch arms he sported at the company pool party wouldn’t look out of place in a fitness magazine. He never drank any coffee but had endless energy. And he smiled all the bloody time. Kevin just assumed that he was faking the positive attitude —putting on a show— at least some of the time but… what reason would he have to fake anything? Why shouldn’t he be happy? Hargrove had it all.

Kevin resolved to do some more thinking on the subject, to sniff the Kool-Aid before gulping it down.

“Thanks. I’ll start it tonight,” he said in a calm, measured tone.

“Awesome! Let me know how it goes.”

 

Possibly the greatest conundrum of human existence is that we live in a realm of desire, all action is motivated by it, and yet most people fear their desires. It is the fear that holds them back from pursuing their desires with enough energy and perseverance to achieve them. Ask yourself, “Have I ever wasted time and energy second guessing my actions? Have I ever observed the success of others and, instead of celebrating their accomplishments and genuinely inquiring as to their success strategies, reasoned away the causes of their success as luck, inherent ability, or nepotism? Do I ever generate reasons for not pursuing things which I know will improve my happiness?” If you find yourself answering “yes” to any of these questions, then good for you!

Why is this realization a good thing? First of all, you’re being honest with yourself. Second, you’re not alone; most people on the planet fall into the same traps and never even realize it. And third, by admitting to falling into these negative mindsets, you’re already one-third of the way to overcoming them. The next step to overcoming these negative and self-defeating mindsets is learning to identify various delusions as they creep into your thinking, delusions such as the phantoms of luck, inherent ability, and nepotism. Identifying these delusions is the work of the next few chapters…

 

One thing Kevin prided himself on was his ability to learn. And if achieving a happier life was something he could learn, as this book claimed, then he wanted to try. And he had the perfect opportunity: he was seeing Sophie again on Saturday for their second date!

 

Kevin met Sophie through an online dating service and couldn’t believe his good luck. She was a half-Polish, half-Italian gal working in government administration at City Hall —part-time, but she had hopes. She was two years younger than Kevin, read as much as him, loved Asian cuisine as much as him, and she was even a sci-fi fan. Her favorite starship captain was Janeway, but the feminist in Kevin could allow her that. And she was gorgeous!

Well, maybe not gorgeous in that “size two is the new size four” sense. Sophie had hips. But she was Kevin’s height —major plus— with long, straight blond hair, perfect peaches and cream skin, and bright blue eyes. She wore super thick glasses, but still looked great in them. And no body’s perfect. Kevin thought she was a knockout.

Their second date was at a Spring Rolls. Über- post-modern cultural fusion décor surrounded them —think, Buddhas wearing backwards baseball caps, while the sounds of Shakira floated in from the mall. They both ordered the green chicken curry and it was really good. The conversation had gone well. They made each other laugh.

At the end of the meal Kevin sat across from Sophie watching her spear the last of her deep fried banana and got thinking,

“What is my desire with respect to this person? How are my fears preventing me from achieving those desires? What delusions are standing in my way?”

Up to now Kevin had been treating this girl the same way he treated every other girl he’d dated, not that there had been legions of them, and things had gone the same way they always had. On their last date he had asked if she wanted to split their bills, because women should have the option of paying their own way if they want to, right? On their last date he had waited for her to make the first move with respect to any physical contact and didn’t have any expectations, because women like gentlemen who respect them as individuals, right? They didn’t even hold hands. On their last date he hadn’t gone overboard with his own appearance by buying new clothes or anything, because she would want to see “everyday” Kevin, right? And so far this date had been a repeat of the first. Don’t mess with success, right? But… was the last date a success? Did he get everything he truly wanted out of it?

Kevin looked down at his brown dress shirt and blue jeans.

“I dress like a communist,” he said to himself. Then he decided to experiment.

The bill arrived and when they both each reached for their wallets, Kevin objected,

“No. I’ll get this.”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that, I can—”

“No,” Kevin said, firmly while smiling and looking into her eyes. “The pleasure of your company is worth more than any curry dinner. I insist.”

What!?

Kevin shocked himself. He never would’ve said anything like that two weeks ago. His heart betrayed the smooth expression on his face, pounding like a jackhammer, but he remembered the words of Darryl Lambert:

Stepping out of your comfort zone will feel uncomfortable. Welcome these sensations as growing pains and watch for the positive results.

 

Sophie smiled, put away her purse, and looked up at him through those glasses with a gaze of —could it be?— interest. And what was that creeping up the pale flesh of her neck? Was she blushing?

“Have I ever made a girl blush before?” Kevin asked himself. He couldn’t remember. But it felt good. Then Kevin had an answer to the question he’d asked himself earlier. He knew exactly what his desires were with respect to this person. He wanted to get laid!

 

The next morning, as Kevin cooked breakfast in bed for his girlfriend (Could he say that word to himself yet?… Yes, he could) he felt better than he had in years. Last night, for maybe the first time ever, he simply went after what he wanted and he got it! He actually got it! And it wasn’t even that difficult. He had short circuited that part of his brain that would have said, “Well, shouldn’t you wait until the next date?… What if she thinks you’re expecting something after paying for dinner?… You didn’t clean your apartment… Are you sure she’d appreciate you doing that to her nipples?” He just did it. And yes she did appreciate it. Vocally. Kevin had never gotten such beautiful sounds out of a woman before. With every appreciative moan Sophie made, instead of asking himself, “Is this the sound of a woman faking it?” he heard a whole team of self-help gurus cheering him on.

“Good morrrrrning.”

Kevin heard Sophie cooing behind him as she wrapped her arms around his waist.  Kevin twisted his neck around and gave her a kiss.

“It is a very good morning,” Kevin answered.

“Oh, and you can cook!” Sophie beamed. “I love French toast. Thank you so much for this. And for last night. It was amazing.”

Kevin swelled with pride.

“Thank you.”

Then he turned toward her, kissing her again, deeply.

“You look so cute in the morning,” he said, looking her up and down.

Sophie’s arms were around his neck and then… yep. She blushed again. Seeing that rush of blood beneath the skin of her neck sent Kevin in for another kiss. And another. Then Kevin felt a rush of blood himself.

Miraculously, the voice in his head that would’ve been saying, “Are you pushing things too far? Are you overestimating yourself? Do you think she’ll want to?” was completely silent. He turned off the stove and led her back to the bedroom.

 

Their next date went even better. Kevin was more relaxed and Sophie seemed to feel more comfortable with him too. They were no longer on their best behaviour for one another, but were simply enjoying each other’s company. Kevin couldn’t wait to see her again. Every encounter they had ended with them making plans to see each other again.

One night, after attending an anniversary screening of Planet of the Apes together,  they tore back to Kevin’s apartment (it was always Kevin’s apartment, Sophie lived with her parents) and had the most passionate sex Kevin could remember —or imagine. It felt like a dream.

Afterward, Sophie rested on Kevin’s sweaty chest and sighed, “You might be the last man in the city.”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“Oh!” Sophie looked up at him and, smiling, pressed her fingers to her lips. “I… didn’t think I said that out loud.”

“Well… you did,” Kevin laughed. “Now you have to tell me what you mean, because it sounded kind of weird.”

“Well…” Sophie said, resting her head back over Kevin’s heart. “Promise you won’t think I’m weird when I tell you, okay?”

“Okay, I promise.”

“Well… what I mean is… You have your own opinions.”

“And that makes me the last man in the city?”

Sophie laughed, “Well… yeah. Boys don’t know what they want, not really anyway. They follow their urges and what they’re told —by their parents, by other people, by… by television. Men can think for themselves. I see a lot of grown-up males walking around, but I don’t often meet any men.”

“Huh…” Kevin rolled her words around in his mind.

“I’m sorry,” Sophie yawned. “I’m probably not saying it the right way, but that was supposed to be a compliment.”

Kevin fell asleep thinking about that post-coital conversation with Sophie, but unfortunately forgot all about it the next morning.

 

* * *

 

A month later, Kevin caught himself whistling while fixing his afternoon coffee. And why not? He had a good job, a great girlfriend, his own apartment, and money in the bank. That was a hell of a lot more than most people in this city had. He felt great. He even found a way to deal with Hargrove always tightening his deadlines and he owed it all to the Chief Engineer of an earlier Starship Enterprise. Yes, that’s right, Mister Scott —Scotty!

A few weeks ago, while pondering how he could manage Hargrove at work, Kevin had a revelation. He suddenly recalled how Scotty, Chief Engineer to Captain Kirk, would always give Kirk inflated timelines for how long anything would take to get done. Then, whenever Scotty had the dilithium chamber recalibrated “early” he would be hailed as a miracle worker. Kevin had no desire to be known as a miracle worker, he just wanted to avoid working unpaid overtime, especially now that he had a girlfriend. Thank-you, Scotty.

“Girlfriend…”

Kevin quietly rolled the word around on his tongue like a lump of chocolate as he added some sugar to his coffee. He had worked so hard in university that he never had any time for dating. Since university he had excuses instead of girlfriends: “She’s not really into me… I just don’t have time… Maybe when I’m making more money…” But now he had a girlfriend. And not just a girlfriend, a good-looking, smart, funny, girlfriend who loved being around him. Kevin looked at his reflection in the mirror above the kitchenette’s sink. He was smiling. And he looked great. Who knew regular affection make such a difference? Suddenly life seemed easier, more fun. And then—

“Watson!”

Kevin heard his name shot from across the room. He turned around to see Hargrove hanging out the door of his office.

“Put down that sludge and get in here!” Hargrove boomed. “I need to see you. Now!”

Hargrove stalked back into his lair. Kevin wondered what could possibly be wrong. He did a mental rundown of his projects and deadlines. Everything was in order. Ahead of schedule, even. His hands started sweating. He put down his coffee, took two quick steps towards Hargrove’s office, and stopped. Then he squared his shoulders, straightened his back, took a deep breath, and went back for his coffee which he proudly carried into his meeting.

“What’s the worst he can do? Fire me?” Kevin thought. “That lazy ass needs me more than I need him.”

Kevin walked into his boss’s office and was about to take a seat when Hargrove said,

“Close the door.”

Kevin closed the door and took his seat. Hargrove tapped away furiously on his keyboard, not looking at him. Kevin waited patiently and sipped his coffee.

“Well,” Hargrove said, staring at Kevin, arms folded across his Abercrombie polo shirt. It was Tuesday, but for Hargrove it was always casual Friday.

“Well… what?” Kevin asked.

“You’ve been holding out on me,” Hargrove said, shaking his finger at Kevin.

“What’re you talking about?” Kevin asked, genuinely confused. There was no way Hargrove had figured out he’d been inflating his deadlines. Even if he had, what was the big deal? Everything was still getting done.

Then Hargrove cracked a smile, and leaned forward.

“I’m talking about a little something called ‘Owning Your Power,’ Mister Watson. You may not want to admit it, but I can tell you’ve obviously read that book and digested every word. Look at you! You smile more, you complain less, you work harder and uh… you have a certain unmistakable swagger.”

Kevin smirked and looked to his side.

“Oh, c’mon, Kev! Who is she? You can tell me. For the next five minutes, I’m not your boss, okay? I’m just one of the guys. C’mon! I’m dying to know. Is it Joan, that new girl in marketing? She’s hot.”

Kevin did a quick mental cost-benefit analysis. Telling Hargrove about Sophie couldn’t possibly cost him anything. And it might prevent rumors of an intra-office romance from spreading. Hargrove sat across from him, smiling from ear to ear and tented his eyebrows in anticipation. Kevin threw up his hands.

“Alright! You caught me. Yes, I’m trying out The Darryl Lambert Method and… yes, I’ve started seeing someone. But she doesn’t work here.”

“I knew it!” Hargrove said triumphantly. “Congrats, Kev! You deserve this.”

“Yeah, I’ve actually read a couple of his books now and I—”

“I don’t want a book report!” Hargrove snapped. “I wanna see pictures! C’mon, I’ll bet she’s a real looker.”

A tiny voice in Kevin’s head told him he shouldn’t indulge in this and start showing off his girlfriend like some new car, but…

“Why shouldn’t I show him her picture! I’m proud of her, dammit! And Hargrove should know that he’s not the only guy who can get a good-looking girl.”

Kevin pulled out his phone and flipped to a photo he snapped of Sophie whispering playfully into a six-foot-tall plastic ear. They went to the Ontario Science Centre together a week ago. He thought she looked particularly cute in this picture.

Hargrove looked at the photo but didn’t say anything.

“Her name’s Sophie,” Kevin said.

“Cool.”

“She’s an admin assistant. Just part-time for now but…”

“Uh huh.”

“She… speaks three languages, too. She’s really smart… And funny.”

“Okay.”

Kevin stopped rolling out his girlfriend’s resume and started wondering what was wrong. Hargrove asked to see her picture and a minute ago he was bouncing around with the excitement of a teenager.

“What?” Kevin asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Well… What do you think?” Kevin asked. “Isn’t she great?”

“Yeah, she’s alright.”

Alright!?!?

Kevin nearly delivered his boss a jab to the face right then and there.

“What do you mean ‘alright’? She’s gorgeous!”

“Good. I’m glad you think so.”

“But… you don’t?”

“Well…” Hargrove demurred, sitting back in his chair.

Kevin knew he was going to regret taking this conversation further, but he really wanted to know what was going through Hargrove’s head. Curiosity got the better of him.

“Well what?” Kevin pushed.

“Well… it’s not her, it’s just that…” here Hargrove leaned forward once more and lowered his voice. He looked directly at Kevin and said, “It’s you.”

“Oh…” Kevin said, deflated. “You mean, I’m not in her league.”

“No no no!” Hargrove shot back, waving his hands between them. “Well… yeah, but not in the way you’re thinking.”

“Huh?”

“I mean… I think you can do better.”

“What!? You’ve never even met her!”

“I don’t need to. You can do better. And if you were honest with yourself, you would think so too. I mean, look how you introduced her to me. All you did was show me her picture and you were all ready to apologize for her —’just part-time but…’ I hadn’t even said anything and you already started listing off qualities to try and impress me. Why should it matter that she speaks three languages or not?”

“Well… I just thought that was—”

“Kev…” Hargrove interrupted and lowered his voice again. “I’m still just one of the guys, right now, right?”

“R…ight.”

“Well, then this is me being honest with you as one of the guys.” He shrugged his shoulders and simply said, “You can do better.”

Kevin looked down at Sophie’s photo. Sure, she wasn’t the woman of his fantasies, but she was a great girl. She was no supermodel, but she was attractive. She wasn’t one of these gym goddesses with no waist, enormous boobs, and ghetto booty but she was healthy and funny. That’s what mattered… Right?”

“The question is,” Hargrove continued as Kevin looked at her picture. “Do you want to do better? Or do you want to continue holding yourself back from your full potential?”

 

You are the greatest obstacle to your own transformation. For every person who becomes the superhero they’ve always wanted to be, there are a thousand others who begin the journey but scare themselves into turning back or reason with themselves into accepting less. Make no mistake, anything less than the best is not good enough. The second you settle for less than what you deserve, you admit failure and acquiesce to defeat —you choosing to remain ordinary and deny the most perfected form of yourself. Everything is impossible until someone does it. That inner critic of yours will never be entirely silent. But don’t let him run your life and deny you what you deserve.

 

* * *

 

Kevin surprised himself. It was Canada Day weekend. He and Sophie had started making plans to go away together for this weekend. But Kevin broke up with her shortly after that meeting with Hargrove. She was upset and confused, but Kevin was convinced it was for the best. He’d been trapped in a “settling pattern” for so long he’d convinced himself that he was happy with Sophie when he wasn’t. And trapping her in that pattern as well wasn’t fair to either of them. It was best to end things early, not to string her along. But the surprise was what Kevin saw in his mirror that morning.

He was in his apartment getting ready to hit the beach. Had had his new two-hundred-dollar swimsuit on and was pulling his jeans on over it when he stopped and looked in the mirror of his closet door. Two months ago Kevin had started exercising. Three weeks ago, he really started enjoying it and bumped his routine up to five days a week. Two weeks ago he started paying for use of the gym’s tanning beds. He’d also started a new diet, the Darryl Lambert Superhero Diet. Last weekend he got his hair cut and highlighted professionally for the first time in many years, at a decent salon too. The results of all this had crept up on him.

He had stomach muscles, stomach muscles that he hadn’t seen since he was a teenager. His skin was clear, golden, and healthy looking. He now jumped out of bed at five-thirty in the morning instead of slamming the snooze button at quarter-to-eight. He’d given up coffee. His new hairstylist had shown him how to apply product to his new do and he thought he was getting the hang of it. Kevin stood for a second admiring himself, his jeans half way up his thighs, and struck a pose, cocking his chin and smirking like a GQ model. He looked great! His chest was filling out and his arms were looking more rounded. He would always be short but—

Focus on the changeable and the achievable. Anything else is a waste of energy and resources and not worth your valuable time.

 

In other words, Kevin was starting to reap the rewards of keeping his eyes on the prize. It was costing him a small fortune, and he hadn’t added anything to his condo down-payment fund in a long time, but it was worth it —he was worth it.

Kevin chuckled and started imagining how good he was going to look and feel six months from now but then,

“No. Time to stay in the moment,” he reminded himself. Hargrove was meeting him downstairs to take them to his cottage for the weekend along with a bunch of other people.

“Cindy’s bringing a bunch of her friends this weekend —all single,” Hargrove promised him across the water cooler earlier that week. “Trust me, you’re gonna be a purebred stud in a pasture of fillies! Bring rubbers, dude! And try to limit yourself to just one or two, okay? Don’t break our guest bed!”

A year ago, hearing praise like that would’ve made Kevin blush. Hell, he wouldn’t have even taken it in, he might have even thought Hargrove was teasing him. But yesterday he purred internally when Hargrove said that to him over coffee, and felt his loins twitch in anticipation.

Once again, Kevin’s life felt different. It felt like he was on his way somewhere, like he had a goal, like he had a purpose, like life was a game and he was a major player. For most of his adult life, and his entire life in Toronto, he’d made fun of the hipsters and the yuppies chasing after some version of consumerist bliss.

“Shouldn’t have knocked it until I tried it,” Kevin thought to himself.

He checked his watch, threw the rest of his clothes on, grabbed his packed duffle bag, and went down to the Starbucks in the lobby of his building where he’d wait for Hargrove —make that Mike— to pull up in his Porche with Cindy riding shotgun.

 

“Kev, you’re an inspiration.”

Kevin and Mike sat in the shade of a beech tree on a pair of Adirondack chairs, sipping vodka coolers and watching the girls toss a frisbee around on the sand.

“Really?” Kevin said, taking a swig. “How so?”

“You’re a superhero! You’re got a new body, you’re getting tons more done at work, and—”

“Look out!”

Kevin sat up and caught the frisbee out of the air as it came swooping toward them.

“Oh, sorry about that!”

Laura, one of Cindy’s single friends came bouncing up toward them in her bikini. Tall and leggy with long, dark hair and a tan, Laura had a southern European or Latin look to her and she’d been all smiles for Kevin ever since she arrived.

“Thanks, Kevin,” she chirped, taking the frisbee back from him. “Are you gonna come and play?”

“Sure thing!” Kevin said. “Just lemme finish my drink.”

Kevin watched her bounce back to the beach. The vodka coolers combined with the hypnotic movements of Laura’s hips and he started to feel tipsy.

“And you’re totally getting laid tonight!” Mike whispered into his ear.

“Yes, I am,” Kevin said with a smile.

 

* * *

 

It was mid-August now and Kevin was living life in a much higher gear, or so it seemed. It was seven-thirty on a Wednesday morning and Kevin was in the office. He’d skipped leg day at the gym so he could get the data for a report that Hargrove needed for a meeting on Friday. The system was compiling and so was Kevin as he starred at the twirling hourglass on his computer screen, sipping an herbal energy drink. He and Laura were seeing each other regularly with no end in sight. Hargrove kept giving him more assignments at work, but instead of feeling put upon Kevin saw them as challenges and evidence that Hargrove valued him. He was spending a lot more time preparing meals and going to the gym, but he saw this as an investment in maintaining the body that he deserved. His new body, he was sure, was also a reason why he was able to keep Laura. He and Laura were seeing each other three or four times a week. And, yes, “seeing each other” included sex. He was also spending a lot more time on the TTC. Laura lived in Mississauga.

Last week his streetcar broke down and Kevin was late for one of their dates. Laura shrugged her shoulders and casually suggested, “Get a car.”

A car? In downtown Toronto? Just to drive to and from Mississauga? On its face the idea seemed crazy.

“Could I even afford one?” Kevin asked himself. “I wouldn’t be saving money anymore. I wouldn’t need the car for work… or shopping… and ninety-percent of the time the TTC is just as fast or faster… and my building doesn’t have parking nearby, but… Laura did make a face the other week when we had to stand on the subway on our way to the restaurant… I could finally make use of that parking space in my building that I’ve been paying for. Maybe I can afford one.”

Then the voice of Darryl Lambert cut in, “Kevin, can you afford not to have one?”

Hummmm…

Hargrove came into the office at nine-thirty and went straight over to Kevin’s desk.

“Hey, Kev! How’s it hangin’?”

“Lower than yours, Mike,” Kevin said with a playful smirk.

Not only was Kevin now solidly in Mike Hargrove’s First Name Club, he’d also gone from cringing at Mike’s penis jokes to trading them with him. “What’s up?”

“Well, I have another challenge for you.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, my meeting was moved up a day and I’m gonna need that report before tomorrow morning. Can you do it?”

“Tomorrow morning? No way, man. I started compiling the data two hours ago, but it’s still got half an hour to go and writing the report would take all day and all night if you needed it before tomorrow morning.”

Hargrove shrugged and said, “Sounds like a plan, Kev. You’re the best.”

He slapped Kevin on the shoulder and retreated to his office.

In Kevin’s mind Captain Picard battled it out with Darryl Lambert…

“Examine the evidence of this relationship objectively, Mister Watson. This is the fourth time Hargrove has done this since the start of the summer. You know he does this so that he can have long weekends; if he isn’t doing it to you, he’s doing it to someone else in the office. You don’t get overtime pay and you know that he’ll keep all the bonus money for himself at the end of the year. Tell him ‘no.'”

Then Darryl Lambert chimed in, “Kevin, why are you indulging in this kind of thinking? You’ve already got a solution to the challenge as presented and now you’re doubting whether you should use it? Don’t be negative. Don’t complain. Be a team player. Just do it.”

Kevin took a deep breath and called to leave Laura a message. They had plans to see a movie tonight and then go back to his place, but he’d have to cancel it he was going to be writing this report until midnight. To his surprise Laura picked up.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Laura. It’s me.”

“Hi!”

“Listen, I’m gonna have to cancel tonight. Some stuff changed at work and I need to write a report that’s needed for tomorrow morning.”

He could hear her exhale through the phone.

“Why?” she asked.

“Why what?”

“Why should we have to sacrifice our plans because something changed at work?”

“I… I told you, there’s a report that’s needed for tomorrow morning and—”

“That’s not what I mean. This isn’t the first time you’ve done this, you know.”

“Yeah, I know, but—”

“So this is the start of a destructive pattern, Kevin. You may not see it yet, but I do. You need to nip this in the bud before it gets worse. That’s the best thing to do —that’s the professional thing to do and…” another loud exhale, “I don’t know if I’m willing to put up with this again. I was looking forward to our time together.”

“Yeah… so was I but—”

“So do something about it. Be assertive. Get what you want. Call me back later, okay?”

“Well…”

She hung up.

This time Kevin’s own voice reacted, “What a bitch! So she’s had to reschedule plans a few times. So what? That’s life. And what she was ‘looking forward to’ was another dinner out and a show that she didn’t have to pay for. She may be able to call herself ‘a model’ but she’s broke. She’s in front of a camera for a couple days a month and the rest of the time she steams lattes at Starbucks. You’ve seen her apartment, it’s a shoebox and she shares it with two gay guys. This girl is obviously leading you around by your penis. Dump her!”

“Yeah, but at least she’s interested in your penis,” he thought, weighing the other side of the situation. “This time last year, you wouldn’t have considered this girl to be in your league and now you’re thinking about dumping her!? That’s self-sabotage and you know it! And what does it matter what her job is? She just said that she enjoys being with you and now you’re judging her. You want this girl. Now do what you have to in order to keep her.”

Kevin took a deep breath and marched over the Hargrove’s office. The door was open and Kevin heard snippets of the conversation as he approached:

“Yeah… yeah this weekend is set. I moved the meeting to tomorrow morning… Yeah, sure I’ll have the report before then.”

Kevin paused then knocked. Hargrove spun around to face him.

“Got a minute?” Kevin asked.

Hargrove held up his finger and said into the phone, “Yep… Yep… For sure. I gotta go, okay? Yeah, see ya.”

He hung up and asked, “What’s up?”

“I can’t do it. I can’t finish the report before tomorrow morning.”

“Why not?”

“Okay, now what?” Kevin thought to himself. “What would work?”

Then he had the answer. Kevin smiled and leaned over Hargrove’s —Mike’s— desk.

“I just got off the phone with Laura, man. She’s pissed that I’m gonna have to cancel plans again. Look, I was given a deadline of Friday. I can get it to you Friday morning. Just don’t make me choose between my work and my girl, man.”

The buddy angle. Kevin expected a slam dunk.  He expected Hargrove to live up to The Bro Code that he was so fond of quoting. He expected “wink-wink, nudge-nudge,” backslapping and a friendly, “You owe me, pal.” Instead Hargrove folded his arms, leaned back, and looked over at Kevin in the manner of a Dragon’s Den judge.

“This doesn’t work for me, Kevin.”

Kevin straightened up and asked, “What doesn’t work?”

“These excuses. Deadlines change. That’s a reality. We all have to balance work and our personal lives. The report is now due at midnight tonight. Anything standing in the way is your problem, not mine. Man up, Kev. This is what it’s like when you want to have it all.”

Hargrove turned to his computer and Kevin left, retreating to his cubicle with Mike’s —Hargrove’s— last words ringing in his ears:

This is what it’s like when you want to have it all…

He sat down and looked around his desk. The countdown on his computer was nearly finished; the data he needed for the report had nearly compiled. On his desk was a stack of well-thumbed Darryl Lambert paperbacks. He realized, suddenly, that those books were all he’d read since the spring. How did that happen? The new Terry Pratchett hit the shelves over a month ago and Kevin still hadn’t placed a request for it at his library. He reached for his Lambert library, planning to flip through the pages and land on something to help him work through this challenge, but his hand froze. Instead he reached for his phone for inspiration and began flipping through photos.

There were plenty of him and Laura to choose from. Laura was a real shutterbug and needed a constant stream of photos for her Instagram feed (even though she only had a couple hundred followers). Here was the picture he took of her on Toronto Island Beach. Here was the one of her posing in front of that mural on Bloor Street. He kept swiping and suddenly realized that he wasn’t in any of these photos.

“Well… of course you’re not,” he said to himself, “you took them.”

One time when Kevin tried to take a photo of both of them, Laura said, “Oh, I don’t like those squishy arms-length selfies. I can’t use them on my IG feed. Not professional-looking enough.”

There were a couple photos of the group from Canada Day weekend where everyone was pictured, but other than that there was zero photographic evidence that Kevin and Laura even knew each other.

This is what it’s like when you want to have it all…

Kevin kept swiping on his phone and stopped when one of him and Sophie appeared. Posed in one of those “squishy arms-length selfies” they were grinning like idiots on the glass floor of the CN Tower together. A cheesy date, maybe, but he felt on top of the world that night. Kevin smiled. Swipe. He and Sophie on the subway after a date. Swipe. Sophie with pasta sauce all down her chin at The Spaghetti Factory. Laura didn’t eat pasta. Neither did Kevin anymore. Too many carbs.

“So, this is what it’s like when you want to have it all…” Kevin thought to himself. “Except pasta… And coffee… A savings… And… when did I decide I wanted to have it all?”

None of Lambert’s books said that. Hargrove never put it in that language before today. But that’s what was underneath all of it. Kevin could see it now. That was the unspoken, unwritten phrase before every bit of advice that he’d been cramming into his brain these past several months.

If you want to have it all, think this.

If you want to have it all, eat that.

If you want to have it all, say these things.

But Kevin never wanted to have it all. “I wanted to be happier,” he thought.

By wanting to have it all, Kevin had beaten into silence that voice that told him what he wanted for himself.

He opened his desk drawer and reached for another herbal energy drink, but put it back. He hated those things. They tasted like cough syrup mixed with salad dressing. He’d been drinking them for months now but for the first time he wondered,

“How did I ever swallow this shit in the first place?”

Kevin felt something tugging at him, like a fishhook was caught in his solar plexus. He closed his eyes and drew a breath that filled him to his toes. Then he thought about heading for the coffeemaker for the cup of java he’d been craving for months, but when he opened his eyes he found something that would make him feel even better.

The countdown on that data compilation was nearly finished and the dialogue box on his screen presented an option to him: CANCEL?

“Sounds good to me,” said Kevin quietly.

He clicked the button, dumping the data for Hargrove’s report. Then he cleared his desk, dumping Darryl Lambert into the recycling bin. Then he pressed redial on his phone, and dumped Laura, who sounded more disappointed than upset.

Kevin flipped back through the photos of him and Sophie when his computer beeped at him and presented another good suggestion: RESET?

“Time to warp out of here,” he said to himself. “Set coordinates for reality.”

He smiled, clicked the button and left the office.

Engage!

“Clean Sweep” by Aaron Freeman

An original piece of short fiction with a nostalgic shade to it –written and submitted by a workshop student I had last year. Enjoy!

“You promised them… you promised them…”

He repeated this mantra for most of the drive over. Putting the car in park, he started to think about how many times his mom had bugged him to come by and help out. Both of his parents could drive him nuts sometimes. He stepped out into the hot yellow sun, and then looked both ways before strolling across the road. He was happy to be seeing his parents today, as it had been a few months, but helping out at their garage sale wasn’t exactly the way he was hoping to spend one of the few days off that he had, especially since he was in the middle of a big project at work.

“I don’t know how parents do this,” he mumbled, thinking out loud. “I’m by myself and can barely keep calm or in control. I can’t figure out what to do with my team at work, by boss doesn’t notice me and the bills are starting to pile up.”

Looking around the handful of customers in their driveway, he located his Mom standing by the box of money. He made his way over and gave her a hello and a big hug, accidently knocking some books off the table in the process. As they both bent down to pick them up, he cocked his head a little.

“Where’s Dad at?” he questioned.

As she placed a handful of books back on the table, she rolled her eyes and chuckled a little bit. “He’s in the basement, reorganizing some boxes. You know what he’s like: ‘It has to get done now. That way it’s out of the way. There’s no time for sitting!’”

They both laughed. He could picture his father. That middle-aged, partially balding man in the dark, damp basement with sweat pouring off of his face, busting his hump to finish a task that didn’t have to be done in the first place. But that was his Dad, and even though it drove him nuts, he wouldn’t change him if he could. And he was sure his Mom felt the same way about his Dad too. She was also middle-aged, her hair beginning to grey, but always with a youthful spirit that her husband lacked.

That’s when his Mom chimed in. “Well, now that you’re here, I think I am going to make the three of us some lunch. I was wondering if you might take over running the sale while I’m inside?”

“Sure”, he replied, wondering what tasty treats might be in store for him.

As his Mom wandered into the house, a customer walked up to him with a blender in hand. As the buyer reached into his wallet, he asked “How much for this?”

Looking at the blender, he remembered it as the one that would wake him every Monday morning before school, whenever his Mom would be testing out a new diet trend. Looking up at the customer, he said “Five bucks should do it”. After receiving the money, shaking hands and parting ways, he began to have a closer look at all of the items that were on the table being offered for sale. At one end, there was an old, stained end table with a hefty collection of trinkets and dust collectors on it. On the large bureau beside that sat a giant Tupperware container of music cds and vinyl. Allowing his fingers to glide over them, he came across musical offerings from Springsteen, Lightfoot & Joplin, among others. He had to pause a chuckle for a moment when he came across Garth Brooks’ The Chase album, remembering how many hours and days he had spent in his younger days listening to it over and over non-stop, belting out the lyrics:

‘I’m gonna smile my best smile, and I’m gonna laugh like it’s going out of style. Look into her eyes and pray that she don’t see, this learning to live again is killing me’.

It wasn’t until he thought about his job troubles again that the words finally resonated with him.

As his eyes continued their trek onward across the counters, he noticed lots of antique china, a collection of hand-sewn throw pillows, and a vacuum from the eighties, but it wasn’t until he spotted a young woman about twenty feet away that he was completely stopped in his tracks. She was holding some sort of cloth in her hands that had some rounded edges and one or two small stains, but it wasn’t until she turned around that the memories came flooding back to him.

That was his yellow blanket! He didn’t know what to think, he didn’t know what to feel. He hadn’t thought about that blanket since Family Ties was on the air, but now all of the pictures from the past were swirling in his mind. He began to get dizzy, and needed to lean on the table for support. To have something that used to be a huge part of your life and then left in the past, suddenly be thrown back at you with such force that it was like a bolt of lightning. He grabbed one of the chairs for sale and sat down, taking time to just think.

The first memory to come back was from a quiet afternoon as a child, where he took two corners of that old yellow cloth and tying them around his neck, quickly changing a boy with a blanket into a superhero on a grand adventure. The mission started by saving a teddy bear damsel from being drowned in the bottomless pit of toys. She was lucky he was there to rescue her. Next was to super-speed around the room, arms outstretched, until he reached his destination at the base of Mount Couch-opolous. It was a tough climb getting those small feet to the peak, but going up wasn’t the hardest part. Jumping was the only way to test whether he could fly or not. One…..two……three! The last thing he remembered was the breeze in his face before he wound up in the bathroom, crying as Mom kissed him better. A few band-aids and bruises later, he had his answer. It might hurt, but he CAN fly. All he needed was the help of his trusty cape by his side.

As that snapshot faded, another came into focus. He could see himself as a boy again, running into the house and heading straight for his bedroom. But it wasn’t the boundless, joyful energy he was feeling before. This time he sat down, right in the middle of his floor, and tears began to well up in his eyes. His best friend had just moved away, and he didn’t know what to do about it. There were so many emotions built up inside that he couldn’t control. He grabbed a pillow and screamed into it, but that wasn’t helping. From there, he chucked the pillow across the room, but that only knocked his lamp over, making him more frustrated. Kids at school had told him that boys weren’t supposed to cry. He was sniffling, sneezing, drooling, coughing, choking. Anything to hold back the tears. That’s when he spotted his blanket on the bed. Instantly, he grabbed it down and squeezed it tight, slowly curling himself into a ball in the process. With a softness and warmth there to comfort him, he allowed the tear drops to carefully travel down his face and the pain to, bit by bit, fade away. He had no idea what would happen to his friendship, where he would get another friend like that, or even what the next day at school would be like. All he knew was that, in that moment, he began to feel a little bit better, and it was thanks to that simple yellow blanket.

As he was visualizing himself lying on the floor, that’s when, once again, the memory faded away and a third recollection came to the forefront of his mind. He could see himself being tucked into bed as the lamp was shut off. He watched as Mom blew him a kiss, Dad waved to him, and they shut the door behind them. Except he was too excited to sleep; he had another idea in mind. Reaching under his pillow, he quietly slipped out a book called ‘The Giver’ and a flashlight. He had just read about Jonas becoming the receiver of memory, and he had to figure out what that meant. He knew that all of his stuffed animals and bedtime toys were good at keeping secrets, but he wanted to be sure. He grabbed his most loyal, yellow companion and threw it over top of himself. Inside this handmade, bedroom teepee, he was invisible. Flicking on the flashlight, he flipped to the first page and began to read. Unfortunately, he had some trouble staying focused on the story as every little noise made him jump out of his skin. Every creak, every hiss and every clang gave goosebumps all over his arms and legs. Staying up past bedtime was a serious crime, so stealth was of the utmost importance. That’s when he heard it, the familiar clomping of adult feet making their way down the hall. Slowly, he lifted the blanket up and peered out just in time to witness a looming shadow coming from outside his door. He shut off the flashlight, threw it and the book on the floor, tossed the quilts over top of himself and began to faintly snore. Hearing the clomping fade away again, a confident smile stretched across his face, knowing that he had outsmarted the adults thanks to himself and his blanket friend.

He finally snapped back to reality, looking around rapidly to see if anyone at the garage sale had noticed his cerebral time travel. That’s when he saw the young woman once again and started to wonder when his prized possession had slipped away from him. That’s when he recalled that, not wanting to be made fun of by friends, he had packed it away in a box in the attic before heading off the college. As time passed, so did the memories of the blanket. It pained him to watch the lady pull a five dollar bill out of her purse. It pained him so much that he hadn’t even noticed his Mom had returned and was taking that five dollars in exchange for his childhood.

Is this knife in his back what is meant by ‘growing pains’? He had to stop her in some way, shape or form. He stood up and tried to walk, but his feet were frozen in shock. He tried to yell, but his throat was dry. The only sound he could muster was a light cough. The young woman was making her way down the driveway, with a piece of his heart draped over her shoulder, and there was nothing he could do about it. As she arrived at her mini-van, he couldn’t blink. He couldn’t take his eyes off of her. He just stared, trying to hold back that first tear from coming down his cheek. But as she slid open the side door, he noticed something. He saw a yellow car seat holding a small baby boy in place, who was taking a nap. As the young woman was tucking the baby in with this treasured blanket and he saw those little hands grip the yellow fabric for comfort, he began to feel himself breathe.

Although he was still sad and confused about how this all came about, he could feel himself slowly calming down. Knowing it was not his anymore, he closed his eyes and hoped that the little boy would feel safety with that simple cloth. And as that boy grew up, he hoped that it would not just be a toy. He wished that the boy would come to see this blanket as a friend, as a playmate. Someone he could play a game with, pretend with, tell secrets to or anything else he needed during his youth. He prayed this child and blanket could be a superhero team together, laugh together, cry together and maybe even trick an adult once or twice together. And, lastly, he prayed that this child would not take that treasure for granted. His youth will go by faster than he knows, and he needs to hang on to every second of it.

Opening his eyes, he watched the young lady shut the door to the mini-van and climb in the driver’s seat. That’s when his Mom walked up behind him and put a hand on his shoulder.

“You do know that if there’s anything you want, you can just take it with you when you head back to your place, right?” she asked.

Author: Aaron Freeman. All rights remain with the author.

“The Easiest Thing in the World”

Maria was nervous. Having been a single mother from the age of twenty, it was a condition she was well acquainted with. After she landed a good administrative job at the local university, things became blessedly easier for her and Nora, her only child. But in this country in this day and age, every step forward meant an additional worry of falling back. And Nora was about to take one of those steps.

Alone in the office lunchroom, Maria sat twirling her long, black hair around one finger, picking at the boxed salad she brought from home with the other hand, moving croutons around. A typical Thunder Bay winter roared just outside the window and Maria sipped thoughtfully at her hot cocoa. Nora was on her mind —or, more specifically, Nora’s new boyfriend.

Nora had been seeing him for a few months now, but Maria had yet to exchange as much as a “Hello” with the young man. She’d seen him pick Nora up from the house a few times, but she always ran out to meet him, he never came inside.

The glimpses she’d stolen of him, from between cracks in curtains, all suggested that Cory was the average sixteen-year-old. That is to say, lanky and long-haired with a blank expression on his face, an expression that seemed to encapsulate everything about him; Cory was a mystery every bit as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa’s smile. Without the smile. And can you trust a boy who doesn’t smile?

Maria stabbed a cherry tomato and stopped chewing her lower lip just long enough to eat it. Of course she had asked Nora about him, about where they went, what they did, and so on, feigning idle curiosity. But under the placid expression on her face Maria was as ravenous for answers and details as a starving dog before dinner time.

Weeks ago Maria recalled asking over dinner, “So what do his parents do?”

“Um… I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? But you’ve been seeing him for weeks now. Haven’t you asked?”

“No.”

“Well, don’t you want to know?”

“Why? I’m not dating his parents, I’m dating him.”

Maria regrouped, chagrined at being a bit superficial, and tried again: “Does he have any brothers or sisters?”

“One older brother.”

“And… what’s he like?”

“I don’t know. He doesn’t live at home. I’ve never met him.”

And so it went. Every time Maria tried initiating a conversation about the boy, it never got off the ground. As the weeks and months rolled by, Maria couldn’t help painting different pictures of Cory in her mind. And with very little in the way of facts to go on, her imagination had been working overtime. The top three contestants on “Who is Cory?” looked like this:

—a wrist-slashing punk rocker with an eating disorder, absentee parents, a drug addiction, two dozen ghastly tattoos and piercings, and the head of the missing high school basketball team captain in a bowling bag under his bed.

—an over-achieving robot of a boy being driven by helicopter parents to get straight As and enroll in every club, association, and council that his school had to offer ahead of becoming pre-med at the country’s top university.

—a quiet, sensitive, haiku-writing vegan who hates meat, doesn’t eat anything that casts a shadow, and has plans to become a journalist after high school but will end up a starving artist working part-time in a bookstore.

Maria knew which one she preferred, of course, but also that not one of these guesses was likely to be accurate. She sighed and finished her salad. Soon enough her imagination could rest. Cory was coming over for dinner next week.

“Hey, Maria!”

Maria looked up. Sandy from accounting came in, smiling as always, and took the seat across from her.

“Hi, Sandy.”

“How’s it going?”

“Oh… alright, I suppose.”

“Why just alright?” Sandy asked, unpacking the panini and latte she’d brought from the cafeteria two floors down.

Maria had previously shared her musings about Cory with Sandy. She leaned forward, looked up through her lashes and said, “Well, The Boyfriend is coming over for dinner next week.”

Sandy froze with her sandwich halfway to her mouth.

“Really? Finally?”

“Yup.”

“Well, that’s great! You can finally put all your worrying to rest.”

“Or have it confirmed.”

“Will worrying make a difference either way?”

“No, I… I suppose not. You know, I really don’t care what he’s like. If Nora is dating him, then he must be a decent boy —I do have some faith in my daughter’s choices.”

“You should tell her that,” Sandy interjected as she swigged her Starbucks.

“I just wish… Well, I know there’s no way to guarantee this, but I wish there was something I could do to make sure he treats her properly.”

“Oh, is that all,” Sandy said. “That’s the easiest thing in the world. I know how you can do that.”

Maria looked up in surprise.

“You do?”

“Sure, it’s simple. And I know it works. I do the same thing every time my daughter brings home a new boyfriend. All you need is a gun.”

“A what!?” Maria squeaked, her head jerking back.

“A gun,” Sandy said simply.

“I’m not going to shoot him!”

Maria knew that blonde, blue-eyed, pony-tailed Sandy hailed from rural Alberta, but this was the very first hint of red she’d ever glimpsed on her colleague’s neck.

“Of course you’re not going to shoot him.”

“Then what do I need to buy a gun for?”

“You don’t need to buy one. I’ll loan you mine.”

More red. Maria’s eyebrows knit and her mouth hung open as she watched her friend munching with incongruous calm at her lunch. She couldn’t make out whether or not Sandy was pulling her leg. Maria folded her arms, relaxed her forehead and said,

“Explain.”

“Okay,” Sandy said, putting her sandwich down and leaning over the table toward Maria, “here’s what you do. Before Cory comes over, you borrow my shotgun and mount it on the wall of your living room. And don’t worry about the legalities. I never bought ammunition for this shotgun and it doesn’t even work. It just looks big and old —that’s all you need.

“Then, when Cory comes over, you wait until it’s just you and him in the living room. You look over at the shotgun and Cory will, of course, ask about it. When he does, you point to it, stare at it, and with your best poker face you say,

“‘That gun belonged to my grandmother, Cory. Back in 1925 on the plains of Alberta she used it to bring down a rabid buffalo charging at her two young sons. She killed that beast with one shot from hundred yards. The very next thing she did was chop off that buffalo’s testicles with her butcher knife and throw them into her woodstove. Had she not done as she did, I wouldn’t be here today. After the close encounter with the buffalo she insisted that all her children know how to shoot that gun. I admire my grandmother, Cory. She was a kind and gentle woman every single day of her life, but the second something threatened her family she didn’t hesitate to pick up a gun and pull the trigger.’

“Then you channel a little Clint Eastwood, look Boyfriend in the eyes and say, ‘Know what I mean, Cory? Understand?’

“And then after little Cory is done acid washing his own skinny jeans, you’ll never have anything to worry about.”

Sandy returned to her lunch. Maria’s mouth hung open once again.

“You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Dead serious.”

“But… But Nora will tell him I lied, that the story wasn’t true.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Sandy shrugged, her mouth half full of panini. “He’ll still think you’re bat shit crazy and that achieves the same effect.”

“But… What if he is a decent boy and I scare him off?”

“So what? If you do scare him off, then you know one of two things: he wasn’t going to treat Nora well or he didn’t feel strongly enough about her to tolerate her having a slightly eccentric mother. Do you really want someone like that hanging around?”

“Well… No, I guess I don’t.”

“And if he does hang around, you automatically know two things: he genuinely cares for Nora and he isn’t going to mistreat her. Bingo!”

Maria’s eyebrows shot up like roller blinds.

“See what I mean?” Sandy said. Then with a smile she added: “Easiest thing in the world.”

Maria sat back and considered for a few moments before asking,

“So… when can I see this gun?”

“Sweetest Night”

“The Sweetest Night”

by Brandon Kidd

 

I knew I shouldn’t have swallowed that pill. I didn’t even know exactly what it was. But I had no choice.

“The price of admission,” said Michael, holding up the little yellow dot between us on his fingertip.

He had just downed one of the mysterious pills himself so I was reasonably sure it wouldn’t kill me. Besides, what else could I do? If I wanted to know Toby was alright, I had to do whatever this guy said. I certainly wasn’t going to leave my best friend here. So I leaned forward, took the pill into my mouth and swallowed.

He smiled at me with crooked teeth and said, “One more thing.”

“What?”

“Every time you enter a room, you have to remove a piece of clothing.”

He slipped on his shoes and kicked them to the side of the hall where a few other pairs were sitting.

I did the same.

“There. Now where’s Toby?”

Looking around the dead-end hallway, I didn’t see any option but for him to lead us back the way we came.

He leaned against the wall and a cold blue light bled through a crack that appeared. A piece of woodwork had been concealing the seam of a door. The crack in the wall widened as he put more weight on the wall, revealing the top of a staircase.

“Let’s go.”

He grabbed my hand and led me through the wall.

Descending the staircase I could already feel the mysterious drug kicking in.

“How did I end up in this mess?” I asked myself.

 

It was supposed to have been the sweetest night of my life, a Friday night in late April. The air was warm for the first time that year and mere hours earlier I had written my last exam of university. I knew I’d aced it even then. Finally, after four years of lectures that may as well have been given by Charlie Brown’s mother, it was time to begin my twelve step recovery by killing some brain cells.

Step one: vodka. Step two: tequila. And so forth.

Step twelve, of course, was getting laid. However, having had no previous success in that area, I was prepared not to reach that step. I was going out with Toby, so the night was bound to be a fun whether I got laid or not.

Toby and I had been friends since high school when he transferred to the soul-crushing St. Luke’s C.H.S. for just his final year. Not two months after he got there Principal Becker had good reason to regret accepting him: he was caught giving Paul Longfellow a blowjob in the boy’s bathroom. He didn’t make any friends after that. Except me. I knew then that I was gay too. Hell, so did the rest of the school, I figure. But I hadn’t accepted it or been public about it. Maybe I started hanging out with Toby hoping that some courage would rub off on me. I waited until my first year of university before coming out. If changing schools didn’t kill off all my friendships, coming out sure did, family included.

Then there was Toby. He stuck with me. He even threw me a coming out party. He and I had planned to go to the University of Toronto together since almost right after we met. We even entered the same literature program.

After our first year we were both sick of artfully regurgitating lecture material, but we had very different ways of dealing. I switched into the pre-law program. After the parents cut me off I figured I should be getting a degree which I was reasonably certain would lead to a good job one day. Toby dropped out entirely and became an actor.

We came to these separate decisions on the same day, sitting together in Tim Horton’s.

“Toby, you can’t leave school,” I remembered saying. “Your parents may support you now, but that won’t last forever. Do you know how many people become actors only to starve?”

“But I loved being in that musical. I had so much fun. Anything that feels that right can’t be wrong.”

“Well, sometimes you have to sacrifice what you like for what you need to survive.”

“Oh, for godsake, Toby! We don’t live in the jungle.”

“Don’t we?”

And so it went. But I never could change Toby’s mind once he’d made it up. And I never worried. He was the guy in my life who could listen to his heart, trust himself, follow his bliss, and always be better off for it. But he wasn’t careless either. When it came to sex, for instance, Toby was mister safety. He always used protection and as much as he fooled around, he never cheated on anyone.

“I believe in serial monogamy,” he once said to me, “just the express version.”

He had done pretty well for himself. We were even roommates for a couple years before he wanted his own place. I wanted him to have his own place too. The endless parade of heart-breakingly attractive men he brought home was distracting. He would always kiss them good-bye at the door and then have breakfast with me, talking about how he’d just found his future husband. Of course, as long as I was the only other guy at the breakfast table, I knew he was exaggerating. The day that Toby cracked a few eggs and brewed some coffee for a guy I’d know he was serious.

Tonight Toby was taking me to a new nightclub. Well, new to me anyway. There isn’t a nightclub in Toronto where Toby isn’t on a first name basis with the bouncers. I needed to be ready before he came to pick me up. Whatever else Toby was he was also extremely punctual.

I looked in the mirror after my shower, pondering my tattoo, reminding myself that it was there. When my parents cut me loose, the first thing I bought for myself was a tattoo, a pair of wings across my shoulder blades. It was quite an investment for someone wondering how to make next semester’s tuition payments, but it was worth it. It was important.

I would always be able to bear myself up and my wings were there to remind me of that —drawn into my flesh, permanent.

I’m not a bad looking guy from the front either. I’d managed to keep a small nose throughout puberty, my skin was clear from head to toe, and running on the school’s indoor track had helped compensate for the endless hours spent on my ass in the library. My blond hair was short and spiky and, on that particular night, laced with a little glitter. In the right light I even had a row or two of abs.

I left for my room and got dressed.

On my dresser sat my cup of coffee that had been cooling while I was in the shower. I love cold coffee. No sugar, no cream, but really good cold coffee —so good that it’s sweet enough without sugar. I closed me eyes and drank in a long sip. Yummmmm…

With my other hand I grabbed my St. Christopher’s medal, the only remnant of my Catholic past. The only physical remnant. It was a gift from my grandmother, the only relative who still spoke to me. I had also added a small rainbow coin to the chain. St. Chris didn’t mind sharing the space. I put it on and downed the rest of my coffee.

Then I reached to the back of one drawer for my lucky underwear. Every gay boy has at least one pair. You know —the ones you paid a whole shift’s salary for over two years ago and only wear when you really hope someone else sees them before the end of the night.

My jeans were brand new, a present to myself for graduation. They hung low enough, and hugged my hips tight enough, to flash the designer waistband of my undies when I danced.

The t-shirt came from my collection. Some people collect sports cards, some people collect jewelry, I collect funny t-shirts. This one I bought vintage from Kensington Market. It was tight even on me, black with white lettering that said, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful. Hate me because your boyfriend thinks I am.”

Then there was my jacket, black leather but light weight, an artifact from high school, bought with my first real pay cheque. I had taken very good care of it and it looked like new.

The final thing I reached for was my watch. It was cheap, but looked like real gold. I bought it after I had to sell the one my dad gave me for graduating high school. I needed rent money. That one was real gold: “To my son on his graduation day.”

My new one had no inscription, but putting it on always made me think of the one my dad bought me. In way it was like I never really lost it.

Just then I heard a door open and a voice from the kitchen. It was Toby. He had a key to my place and had let himself in. I still hadn’t seen his new apartment.

“Shake a leg, princess, the party’s starting!”

I pulled on a pair of socks and shouted back,

“Just a sec!”

 

The entrance to the club was a long, wide spiral staircase.

“You’re gonna love this place,” Toby began. “It’s completely different from the big, open dancehall concept. It’s all underground and it’s a series of smaller rooms. There’s gotta be more than a dozen of them in total. I don’t think I’ve been in all of them and I’ve been here a few times already. There might even be a room where you can finally lose that cherry of yours.”

Toby never missed a chance to take a shot at my virginity. I didn’t consider myself a virgin. I’d fooled around with half a dozen guys or so, even given and received a few blowjobs since coming out. But none of this counted in Toby’s book. I was offended, but decided not to bite this time.

“Is your new beau joining us tonight?” I asked. Toby had been seeing someone pretty steadily for months now in what he insisted was an open relationship, but I hadn’t met the guy.

“Nah, he’s gotta work. You’ll meet him soon.”

“So what’s this club called?”

“The Underground.”

“Kinda obvious, no?”

“It’s from the David Bowie song! From Labyrinth! Remember?”

“A club with a connection to the muppets?” I said skeptically.

“Hey, would I go there if it wasn’t cool?”

I couldn’t argue with that.

The first room we explored had a vampire theme. In the second, where we bought our drinks, it was skulls and skeletons. After this was a room filled with anime drawings and sculptures. Then we entered a room flooded with black light and glow-in-the-dark everything. It was getting crowded and the rooms were small, a bit too small for me. I felt claustrophobic, but figured I’d get over it after a few drinks.

“This would be a great place to come on Halloween,” I thought to myself. But it wasn’t Halloween.

The music was the standard thumpa-thumpa, grind-into-your-dance-partner house stuff that you can’t really enjoy unless you’re on an illegal substance. And a fair number of the patrons appeared to be enjoying it. I had never done anything more dangerous than hit a bong, but Toby had run through the whole alphabet of drugs since I’d known him —E, K, MDMA, you name it. He would always wake up the next morning without so much as a mild hangover.

“Isn’t this place great!” he yelled over to me, swaying to the music. Toby was wearing black jeans and a metallic silver top. His jet black hair was cut very close to his head, and he sported a little eye make-up. No one loved to play dress-up more than Toby. I was surprised he didn’t have a full costume on.

“It’s better now that you’re here.”

The voice seemed to come out of the walls. We’d been lounging on a couch in a corner, surveying the scene, and didn’t even realize that another guy, dressed in black from head to toe, was sitting on a tall box to our right, watching us.

He jumped down and came over to join us on the couch. He was about our age, taller, maybe a bit older, with incredibly sinuous arms, a spiked collar around his neck, and glowing, amber cat’s-eye contact lenses.

“Mind if I join you guys?” he asked, as he sat down.

“Not at all,” Toby replied, looking the guy over from head to toe. The guy was so lean he looked otherworldly. He, however, didn’t seem interested in Toby. He’d planted himself down between us and turned himself to face me.

“I’m Michael,” he said, extending his hand toward me.

I took it. He had a very strong grip. Soon the three of us started dancing, Michael making it very evident that he was into me, Toby making it equally evident that he was into Michael. I was just curious to see how all this would turn out.

Two drinks later, Michael slid his hand down the back of my pants while we were grinding on the dance floor. I balked and left the room. I don’t know why. He was hot. I wanted to get laid. But some reflex mechanism in my brain, unphased by the tequila in my system, kicked in and said “no”.

Michael immediately turned his attentions to Toby and I felt somewhat justified in my reaction. He wasn’t really into me anyway. Or was he? He would dance with Toby and feel him up, but all the while he kept throwing glances at me. I went to the bar to get another drink. When I got back, I couldn’t find either of them.

“That’s weird,” I said to myself. Toby would never leave without saying good-bye. Even at his most inebriated, he had always managed to let me know he was leaving. I checked the washrooms. Nothing. After searching some more, I decided to return to the couch in the black light room. Maybe he would find me.

“Looking for someone?”

It was Michael. Once again he seemed to come out of the walls. Suddenly he was at my ear then sitting down beside me, smiling like a cat.

“Hey,” I said. “Where’s Toby? I thought maybe he left with you.”

“Oh, he wanted to,” Michael purred. “But I didn’t want to leave with him.”

“So… where is he?”

“He’s alright. He and I took a trip to the lower level.”

“There’s a lower level?”

He nodded. “Special admission only.”

“Well, how do you get there? I wanna go home. I’ve gotta tell him I’m leaving.”

“They won’t let you in.” Michael reached out and grabbed my thigh. “Not by yourself.”

I got angry and threw his hand away.

“What the fuck are you playing at!? Where’s my friend!?”

“I told you. I can take you to him if you want.”

“Maybe I’ll just wait until he comes out.”

“He’s not going to come out. Not on his own, anyway.”

“What?”

Now I was scared.

“What’s going on? What’ve you done to him?”

“I told you, he’s alright. For now.”

“I’m gonna get the manager.”

“And say what? They know me here, much better than they know you. I could leave right now and you’d never find me again. Maybe never find Toby either.”

I stood up.

“Fine. Take me to him.”

Michael stood up and rose to his full height, just inches away from my face, smiling down at me.

“Sure.”

He took my hand and led me through the labyrinth of crowded rooms, down a narrow hallway which looked to be a dead end. But wasn’t.

 

The air in the blue staircase was cold and damp. The drying perspiration on my arms felt like tiny firecrackers going off. The effects of that strange yellow pill got stronger with each step downward. The sounds of the club faded with each step. I felt the air change as the secret door closed behind us.

Eventually the blue faded. At the bottom of the stairs I blacked out for a second, stumbled, and fell into Michael’s arms.

My eyes refocused. The lighting at the bottom of the stairs was dim, like candlelight, but I didn’t see any candles. A mirror ball spun slowly in the centre of the ceiling, throwing dancing dots on the walls. All around the room were pairs of simple wooden chairs facing each other. People sat motionless on these chairs, in various states of undress, looking at each other. Not all the pairs of chairs were occupied. They were all, apparently unaware of our entrance.

“Can they hear us, Michael?” I asked. My voice sounded like I was speaking into a coffee can.

“Don’t call me that. My name is Mal,” he said.

By brow furrowed. My head spun like a pinwheel that he had just blown on.

“But… didn’t you say—”

“Of course they can hear us. They’re just looking into each other’s eyes. They have to stay this way until the mirror ball stops spinning. Then another group comes in and sits.”

Mal led me through, around the pairs of living statues. I looked into their faces as we went. Some of them were crying. Some looked bored. Some had their brows furrowed as though they were searching, looking for something in the gaze of the other person. The drugs had met the alcohol in my bloodstream and started square dancing.

On the opposite side of the room we stood before a thick curtain of black beads. Mal turned to me with a joker’s grin smeared across his face.

“Time to pay the cover again.”

He crossed his hands over his stomach and in one smooth motion removed his black t-shirt, throwing it on a pile of others. His broad, pale torso practically glowed and he didn’t look to have an ounce of fat on him. His jet black jeans hung very low, clinging to his slim hips just above his groin. I still had my high school jacket to shed. I took it off and folded it carefully, stuffing it behind a cushion out of sight.

Mal grabbed my hand. In a rush of sound that felt like soda pop in my ears, we pushed through the beaded curtain.

The next room was covered, floor to ceiling in whiteboards, the kind in the front of newer lecture halls. White noise poured into the room through speakers that hung from the ceiling. The walls were covered with words written in different colours of erasable marker. Tin cans containing the markers were scattered around the concrete floor. There were half a dozen people at various locations, most of them naked, some of them in their underwear, writing on the walls. There was one woman, dressed all in white, in one corner with a bucket of water slowly erasing the words and working her way around the room.

“Fears and wishes.”

“What?” I asked.

“That’s what they’re writing. People come in here to write their fears and their wishes on the walls. Then they’re washed away.”

I read as I followed Mal slowly across the room. Once again, no one seemed to notice that most of the people in this room were naked. An Asian woman was crouched down in a corner, wearing only her bra and panties, continuing to write a list that began near the ceiling:

Cancer…

Poverty…

Someone to love me…

A better apartment…

The man who lives next door…

Children…

Spiders…

Dying alone…

Chocolate cake…

And the list went on.

The woman stopped and looked up at me. Her face looked frozen, like a mask. Mal tugged on my arm and I turned away.

At the other end of this room was a simple, pressboard door. We approached and Mal whipped around to face me, his lips twisted wickedly as he put his hands on his hips and pulled his jeans down his legs. Stepping out of them, he stood in front of me, hands on hips, totally naked. Evidently, Mal didn’t believe in underwear.

I stared, drinking in his naked form, long enough for Mal to feel satisfied with my reaction. Then he started smacking his considerable penis back and forth by swinging his hips.

“Your turn,” he said, penis still whacking comically from side to side in front of me.

I looked back. None of the others in the room had turned as much as an eyeball to this display. I debated between my St. Christopher’s medal, my watch and my shirt for just a few seconds before taking my shirt off and throwing it on the ground with Mal’s pants. I looked up at him somewhat defiantly. I knew I looked good too. The damp subterranean air felt good. My skin was hot and flushed.

“Nice,” said Mal as he grabbed my hand and led me through the next door.

“You’re crazy.”

“We’re all crazy,” he tossed back over his shoulder.

In the next room, Mal and I were alone. It was a long hall with a mural on one side and mirrors on the other. There was a golden line painted on the black floor. It weaved from side to side as it stretched across the room. Mal said we had to walk along it exactly. He took us through slowly and I looked into each mirror as I passed.

I saw myself standing in a circle of demons, among giant blades of summer grass, out in the stars of the Milky Way, standing in front of a Chinese tank, alone in a desert, inside a woman’s womb, in the yard of a Nazi concentration camp. The final mirror faced another of the exact same dimensions. I stood equidistant between them, looking at myself reflected into infinity. I saw the wings on my back, reflected over and over again in continually diminishing reflections, like they were flying away. I didn’t notice that Mal had let go of my hand.

I looked over and saw him, standing with his legs shoulder-width apart, arms folded across his bare chest, that ever-morphing smile still on his face. He tossed his head to his left in a gesture that said, “This way. C’mon.”

I followed. The lines all around me started blurring. If I moved too quickly everything looked painted in watercolours.

The next door was a heavy, satin curtain. Mal turned to face me and once again I had a debate on my hands: my pants or my jewelry. I reached down and undid my jeans, letting them slide to the floor. Mal looked just a little disappointed that I hadn’t chosen to go commando that day as well. He turned around and flung the curtain behind him. I followed, hoping that Toby would be on the other side. He wasn’t.

After going down another long, dark hallway, we entered another room this one drowning in red light. It was scattered with plush, vinyl furniture and looked like the inside of an organ. On the couches, several people were naked and exploring each other’s bodies. There were about a dozen men in the room and half a dozen women, paired up and joined in various combinations. All of them were wearing black blindfolds around their eyes, seeing and moving with only their skin. The sounds of moaning and sighing floated in the air like heavy perfume.

“They have to wear those,” Mal explained, indicating his eyes. If you’re in here for too long without them the red light messes with your vision.

I must have looked a bit shocked, because he immediately replied,

“Don’t worry. We’re not staying. Unless…”

He stepped toward me, grinding his naked form against me.

“Unless you want to.”

The debating voices in my head, so loud and insistent when I first began this journey, had been silenced by the drugs in my system. I felt my penis stir in my underwear as Mal held himself against me and caressed my back. My body knew what it wanted. But so did my mind. I wanted to find Toby.

“No,” I said, pushing him away. “Take me to Toby.”

He grabbed my hand once more in a vice-like grip and led me through the vinyl islands of marbled flesh to the opposite side of the room where we stood before an empty door frame. There was no door at the other side of this room, only darkness and another hallway. Mal let go of my hand as we stood before it. I hesitated, but then took off both my grandmother’s St. Christopher’s medal and my watch, carefully tucking them between the cushions of an empty couch. I wanted to make sure I could find them on the way back.

“Jewelry doesn’t count,” said Mal, arms folded in front of me.

“What?”

“Jewelry. Doesn’t. Count.”

He glanced down at my underwear.

“Fuck him!” I thought, and stripped out of it throwing the skimpy black briefs onto the red vinyl couch.

Now I was as naked as him. The smile melted from his face, revealing a look of pure hunger.

He looked me up and down, then grabbed my hand for the last time and led me into the dark.

The light faded quickly as we walked. I expected it to be replaced by the light of the approaching room. It wasn’t. We turned to enter the next room and all that greeted me on the other side was more darkness, and cool, damp air. I felt a pair of hands on my skin. And then another.

Mal led me blindly up a staircase which seemed to go on forever. I stumbled often, my shins would be black and blue tomorrow, but Mal always caught me before I fell. How in the hell could he see so well in this?

It dawned on me when we reached the top of the stairs. Toby wasn’t here. He had left the club without telling me and I had allowed this guy to trick me. I should have felt scared to death. But I wasn’t. I was excited. I knew on some level even then that it was the drugs. They had chipped away at the walls of my inhibitions. But I also didn’t care.

Someone kissed me on the lips and I felt a rush of blood all through my body. Occasionally a light flashed, just every once in a while, allowing me to catch brief black and white glimpses of what was happening. We continued to move through the room. A pair of hands rested flat against my chest, and then pushed me backwards. I fell onto a soft mattress. My penis was fully erect by now. I felt another male body come to rest of top of me, our penises grinding between our stomachs.

A few minutes later I lost that cherry Toby had so teased me about.

 

A warm ray of sunlight pushed its way through my eyelids. It was daytime. But that was all I was certain of at that point. My senses slowly returned and began to compute my surroundings. I was in a bed. Not my bed. I was naked. I was sticky. I was sore. I had definitely had sex last night. I was overheated. Someone had put a thick comforter over me. I looked around. Did I know this place?

I heard voices coming from the other room. I swung my legs out of bed and sat up, immediately wishing I had done so more slowly. My head ached. I was dehydrated. I spotted my clothes, folded neatly on a chair, my watch and necklace resting on top, my old jacket over the back of the chair. I pulled my jeans, leaving the rest. I heard laughter. I left to explore who was in the other room.

I stumbled down the hallway and turned a corner into the kitchen.

“Morning, Sunshine.”

It was Toby. This was his new apartment. He was sitting at his kitchen table with some other guy. Without the creepy contacts, I didn’t recognize him right away. It was Mal. His real eyes were soft and brown.

“What?… What?…”

“Awwwwwe…” Toby crooned.

He got up, put his arm around my shoulder and sat me down at the table with them.

“It’s okay. Allow me to fill in the blanks for you, Jess.”

Mal (whose real name actually was Michael) was Toby’s new boyfriend. He worked at The Underground and they had both planned tonight as a sort of gift for me.

“Think of us as agents of karma, Jess,” said Toby.

“Huh?”

“After all that studious, responsible work, after all those sacrifices you made, you had this coming in one way or another —from someone or other. I figured it would be best coming from a friend.”

“Surprise,” said Michael, sipping his coffee.

I didn’t know what to think. Exactly half of me was enraged and indignant. The other half was purring. Toby and Michael had set a place for me at the table as well, complete with a steaming cup of coffee, waiting patiently to see if I would pick it up.

I sat there for almost a full minute, frozen, shoulders slumped forward, mouth hanging open, eyes staring down into that dark, brown liquid. I kept waiting for something to tell me how to feel.

“Sugar?”

“Huh?”

I looked up and Michael was smiling at me, holding up a ceramic sugar bowl shaped like a chicken.

“Do you take sugar?” he said.

I continued to stare. Eventually the roulette wheel of my emotions came to a stop.

“No. I take it black.”

“Wrestling With Angels”

“Wrestling With Angels”

By Brandon Kidd

 

jacobI was raised by an evangelical atheist. My father’s Bible was the newspaper, his morning cup of coffee his sacrament. Before they removed The Lord’s Prayer from public schools —about bloody time in my father’s opinion— he would ensure that I missed it each and every day by dropping me off at school fifteen minutes late.

My father wasn’t born an atheist or even raised as one. He came by his “religion” the same way as many of his fellow atheists, by accident. And by accident I don’t mean happenstance, I mean the beast of twisted metal and broken glass that claimed the life of my mother before I turned two years old. After that day my father posted the timeless question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” to the big man upstairs. When it came back marked “Return to Sender” my father unceremoniously flipped the bird to all things religious and has never though twice about it.

I am my father’s only child and, as he sees it, all he has left of the great love of his life, my mother. A photo of her sits on our mantle in a large, golden frame, never collecting a speck of dust. My father dusts it each and every day at five o’clock on the dot. I only wish he was that meticulous about the rest of the house.

My name is David Allgood and I am seventeen years old. Unlike my father, my picture of my mother is far less crystallized. Occasionally memories of her float to the surface of my mind like old pieces of driftwood —a certain smell, the sound of someone’s voice— but I am unable to put any words to them. Maybe one day I will, but not today. Today I have other things on my mind. Today my father is finally meeting my girlfriend.

Her name is Carissa. Do you know what that means? It’s Greek for “the beloved one.” I looked it up. What an awesome name. She didn’t even know what it meant when I asked her. I thought it was kind of cool that I was the one who got to tell her. It was almost like I was giving her that name myself.

Hammarskjold High is your typical big, institutional, suburban Canadian high school surrounded by enormous sports fields which, for half the year, must be content as hockey rinks. Carissa and I met in English class one September. Carissa, unlike a lot of the other girls at school, wore plain old blue jeans and sweaters most of the time. Her make-up was chap-stick and her wardrobe was not by Donna Karen New York (more like Value Village). She was —and is— only five-foot-two but seemed a lot taller somehow. Also unlike a lot of the other girls, she smiled —a lot, all of the time for any reason at all. And her smile was perfect.

That’s how I saw her. What she saw in me, however, remains a mystery. I’m not overly down on myself or anything, but I’m aware of the fact that I’m nothing special, just a six-foot-three pasty-white bag of skin and bones with a thick head of poofy black hair. Poofy, that is, until I discovered the miracle of hair gel one summer. Hair gel did, without a doubt, improve my self-image more than any of the hyperactive motivational speakers I’d been subjected to over the years.

And that’s me. But today I’m writing about my dad. Last week he discovered via the parental grapevine that I had a girlfriend. Cari and I had been dating for months. And that’s not to say that the parental grapevine in Thunder Bay is particularly inefficient, it’s to say that dad’s connection to it is dial-up speed at best. Since he found out, dad has been arming and firing his considerable stock pile of reasons why dating is a bad idea for me: “You’re too young! — It’s just your hormones! — Why bother, you’ve only got a year of high school left! — She’ll get pregnant!”

That last one made me laugh. If Cari was pregnant it would have had to happen via saliva exchange. And if that was possible we would have already had triplets.

Dad has used these arguments since my cootie days and I’m ashamed to say that, for the most part, they’ve succeeded in keeping me single for a number of years. What can I say, he’s a lawyer and he’s good at it.

Dad hasn’t so much as held another woman’s hand since mom died. And I’m sure it’s because he doesn’t want to dishonour her memory or something like that. We’ve never talked about it, but I’m pretty sure mom would not want dad to be miserable and single for the rest of his life. Dad’s always been kind of grumpy for as long as I can remember.

“I’m not a pessimist, I’m a realist!” he often says in defense of his take on life. Should anyone ask “How are you?” the answer is always “Fine” with a clear, unspoken understanding that you shouldn’t press any further. And that’s my old man. But I suppose after mom died instead of reaching for the coffee pot he could’ve picked up a whiskey bottle. My life has been far from perfect, but I’m also grateful (and slightly amazed) that I haven’t turned out to be way more fucked up.

When I agreed to introduce Cari to my dad, I had reservations, but I was convinced that once he met her he’d change his mind, and not just about me. Part of the reason why I wanted dad to meet Cari, was so that he could see me happy with someone and maybe get a bit closer to seeing himself like that one day.

 

The night arrived. I was chopping chives when Dad came into the kitchen.

“When’s she coming?” he asked.

“I said six o’clock, but she’s usually a little late.”

My father grumbled like a grizzly bear.

“You need any help?” he asked.

“No. I’m fine,” I said over my shoulder with a smile.

Dad grumbled again and stalked off to his den where he picked up a paper (one of three that arrived daily) and started reading. Then at six-twenty the doorbell rang. I sprang from the kitchen but dad sprang faster. I got there just as he opened the door.

“Hi! Mister Allgood? I’m Carissa.”

She stood there in the snow with a smile on her face and her hand outstretched.

A strange look spread over my father’s face. The hard line of his mouth relaxed, his eyes widened and he looked at her hand as one might contemplate a potentially live electrical wire. He said nothing.

“Carissa,” I said tentatively, “this is my dad —”

“Josh,” my dad interrupted. “You can call me Josh.”

Dad seemed to remember his manners and took Carissa’s hand. I could tell she was a little thrown off, but she was still smiling.

“C’mon in,” I said. “Dinner’s ready.”

“Yes, please,” said Dad. “Come in.”

Dinner was the opposite of fun. Dad barely said a thing. Most of the conversation consisted of me stating facts about Cari and I while dad grunted vague sounds of acknowledgement.

Cari kept throwing me looks that asked, “What did I do wrong?”

I didn’t know. I expected Dad to be grumpy but never, not in a million years, would I have expected him to be rude. He barely uttered a complete sentence for the entire meal and he started at Cari almost constantly. I was getting madder by the second, mentally rehearsing a thousand different ways to lay in to him the moment Cari was out the door.

After what felt like twelve hours of slow torture, dinner was over. For dessert I had bought some Persians from the bakery, but decided to keep them a secret instead. I gave Cari an out as soon as I could.

“Well, Cari, thanks for coming over, but you probably want to get a good night’s sleep. You’ve got that meeting before school tomorrow, right?”
“Oh… yes. I probably should get going. I was nice to meet you, Josh.”

Dad just nodded and couldn’t even manage a smile.

As I saw Cari out the door, dad was behind me in the living room. I mouthed to her the words “I’m so sorry” before she turned to go.

I shut the door and inhaled three sharp breaths, giving Cari time to get out of earshot, giving myself plenty of oxygen for what I was about to say. I whipped around. Dad was sitting on the sofa, his head in his hands. I didn’t care what came out of my mouth. His behavior justified anything I might say.

“What the fuck’s the matter with you?!” I shouted, my voice cracking, tears forced to the edges of my eyes. “Just because you want to be miserable doesn’t give you the right to —”

“Jesus Christ, David! Couldn’t you see!?” said Dad, rising to his feet. He had tears in his eyes as well. My train of thought had been completely derailed. I had no idea what he was talking about.

“What?” I asked perplexed.

“She looks exactly like your mother!”

Dad’s gaze never left my face, but the index finger of his right hand was thrust toward the mantle. I followed it. I looked at the photo of my mother. He was right. Subtract the wrinkles and make-up, add in a second-hand t-shirt, and it could have been Carissa’s angelic face in that golden frame.

I sat down. My mouth was slack, my eyes never leaving the photo.

“Oh, my god,” I said quietly.

 

The happenings of that night took much longer to digest than our meal. What did this mean? Was there somehow a part of me hanging on to my mother as hard as Dad was? If there was, was there anything wrong with that? From what I’d been told about my mother, although she may have looked a lot like Cari, she was a very different kind of person. After a few days of soul searching I was able to continue seeing Cari until we broke up six months later. I never told her about why my father was so strange that night. I wanted to, but I never figured out how.

If I had been in my dad’s shoes that night, if I had opened the door to see a sixteen-year-old girl, the spiting image of my dead wife in her youth, I don’t think I would have been able to keep it together at all, never mind sit down and try to have a civilized dinner. I never knew just how strong dad was until that night. And afterwards, my father’s atheism made a new kind of sense to me. Wrestling with your demons is hard, but it’s nothing compared to wrestling with angels.

“The Great Randini”

“The Great Randini”

By Brandon Kidd

 

“I am The Great Randini!” the boy exclaimed, holding his arms over his head.fortune teller

It was the Friday before Halloween at Sir John A. Public School in Millersville, Ontario and Mrs. Martin’s Grade Seven class was having a carnival that afternoon. Several different children had set up games and booths around the class where candies could be gambled at The Wheel of Fortune or traded for a guided tour through the Haunted Cloakroom. But Randy Jacobson, pardon me, The Great Randini, was quickly standing out as the main attraction.

Randy sat behind an upturned cardboard box covered with a black satin cloth wearing a polka-dot, plastic shower curtain over his shoulders and a bath towel wrapped turban-style around his head. He was raking in his classmates’ tootsie rolls and lollipops in exchange for glimpses into their futures. Randy was a short, wiry kid with freckles and curly black hair. Last year Randy was in the school musical and many had said his Dodger had stolen the show from Oliver. Things were going well, but the afternoon hadn’t started perfectly. Randy had forgotten his crystal ball at home. Actually, his mother had hidden it from him. It was a favourite flower vase of hers that she feared would not survive the day’s activities. For a fortune teller of less skill and magnificence this might have been an insurmountable problem. However, The Great Randini simply substituted his Ancient and Mystical Softball of Mystery and never missed a beat.

“Who dares to be next!?” Randy asked, pointing around the classroom. “Who dares to look into what their future holds?”

Mrs. Martin, playing the part of a clown on this occasion, was surprised that Randy could talk so well with his mouth half-full of candies.

Randy put his hand dramatically to his forehead and closed his eyes.

“Do not tell me!” he said. “I already know who will be the next to step forward —I am The Great Randini!”

Randy slowly swept his hand back and forth across his audience of other twelve-year-olds and suddenly pointed directly at one boy.

“You!” he exclaimed, opening his eyes wide. “You, Mikey Tollman! You will be the next brave soul to gaze into his future. I have forseen it!”

Mikey was game. He stepped forward and sat down at the black box across from Randy.

“I was right! He sits! Behold the power of The Great Randini!”

Randy sat down.

“Give me your hand, brave one,” said Randy as he grabbed a hold of Mikey’s hand across the box, placing his other hand to his forehead.

“Now, Mikey, place your offering on the Black Alter of Fate!”

“Whaddaya want?” asked Mikey.

“Today the sprits are demanding peanut M&Ms.”

“I only have plain ones.”

“I have consulted the spirits and they will also accept plain M&Ms.”

Mikey put his candies on the black box and Randy closed his eyes.

“Oh yes! Oh yes! I am beginning to see something now. The spirits are giving me a vision. They are showing me… a face! The face of… of… of your best friend!”

“Carl?” asked Mikey.

“No!” Randy corrected. “That is not the face the spirits have shown me.”

Carl was standing in the audience watching. He’d been Mikey’s best friend since kindergarten. Carl’s full name was Carlos. His parents were from Peru and had emigrated to Southern Ontario when Carl was very young. Carl was quite a bit shorter than Mikey, but they looked remarkably similar with the same pale, grey eyes and thick dark hair, Mikey’s was long and Carl’s buzzed almost military-style. Carl and Mikey did everything together.

“Well… if it isn’t Carl, who is it then?” Mikey asked. This was getting good.

“I see… I see a bright smile. But the picture is very faint. Perhaps if the spirits were given an additional offering…”

Mikey put down another package of M&Ms.

“Oh yes! I can see it more clearly now. This smiling face is moving toward you. Closer… closer… and… Oh! Oh no!”

“What!?”

Randy threw his head back and forth. “It is too awful, Mikey. I do not have the words.”

“I’ll give ya my Oh Henry! bar.”

“Oh yes! The words are coming to me now.”

Now not only Mikey was listening, but half the class was watching the performance as well, Carl more closely than anyone.

“The face of your best friend is moving toward you. Closer… and closer… and closer! And your best friend is… is… is…”

“What!?”

“Your best friend is kissing you!”

“Huh!?”

The audience started laughing and twittering.

“Is it a girl?” Mikey asked. “Who is it?”

“Yeah! — Who is it? — Who?” asked the other students in the class.

Other boys might have been embarrassed at this point, but not Mikey. If Randy was the school’s perfect Dodger, Mikey was definitely the Casanova. Having hit puberty a bit early, Mikey was the tallest kid in the class and when Gym class rolled around, Mikey was the one everyone wanted on their team. When there was a dance, Mikey never needed prodding to get him on the dance floor. He’d outgrown his cutie stage long ago and was already enjoying the attention of several girls in the class, each of them now turning their heads to give this performance their undivided attention as well.

“The spirits are not revealing a name to me,” said Randy. “But! She is very beautiful. And! I can see the colour of her hair!”

“Yeah?”

“Her hair is… is… is…”

“What!?”

“Orange!”

Orange? Mikey looked over his shoulder at the girls who were all looking around at each other. Not a one of them had orange coloured hair.

“C’mon, Randini,” said Mikey. “Who is it really?”

“Oh!” Randy breathed, letting go of Mikey’s hand and pressing both his own hands to the sides of his head, “I can tell you no more! The spirits have exhausted me. I will accept these delicious offerings on their behalf and replenish my strength. The Great Randini must now ask for the bathroom pass.”

Exit The Great Randini, stage left.

“What didja make of that?” Mikey asked Carl. “Do you think Randy actually knows something I don’t, or was he just pretending?”

Carl shrugged his shoulders.

“Beats me, Mikey. I may not have orange hair, but I am your best friend and I know this for sure: there’s no kissing in our future.”