Happiness

She arrives unannounced.

She’s wearing her hair shorter now
And seems somewhat subdued
A few more wrinkles ’round the eyes
A little less sparkle.

At first you don’t recognize her; it’s been
So
Long

She perches on the couch, gingerly
Not quite at home
Away for too long now to be part of the family.
At first you look at her, and
She looks back, unspeaking

Where has she been?
Why did she leave?
How long will she stay?
Can she be trusted?

In time you embrace her
Awkward at first.
Stiffly,
But then in time you both relax
And breathe a sigh
And try a smile, even
A laugh.

At first it’s nice and all
And she’s a special guest
At first you tend to her,
Carefully.

But then in time
Too soon it’s easy to forget
What it was like when she was gone,
What you were like without her there.
And soon
When you’re not looking
When but a moment occupied with something else,
You turn to find her and she’s gone.

At first it seems you can’t go on without her,
But then in time you learn
Too soon you numb
And soon you stop
Looking for her face.

Please Don’t Sign the Guestbook

The Airbnb was quaint and quirky and we blew in with the wind, strewing makeup bags and wine coolers across the place like our signature: four best friends, there to whoop it up. None of us noticed that first night that sleep eluded us all. We were pulling an all-nighter anyway—manicures, facials, and midnight confessions of our darkest thoughts.

We rummaged through drawers around dawn looking in vain for a blow-dryer, but all I found was an old guestbook. Every guest that signed had simply written, “Unforgettable.” We’ll do our best to live up to that sentiment, I thought, attributing my sudden coolness to the still-wet hair.

We hit the ski hills hard, then whiled away evening in the hot tub. I didn’t even care that my towel disappeared, just grabbed one from the bathroom cupboard, slamming its door shut against the cold draft that rushed out. The rest of the evening I couldn’t seem to get warm, layering on blankets over fleecy pajamas and woolen socks whilst the girls lolled around in shorts and tees. My goosebumps went unnoticed in a blur of tipsy Truth or Dare and juicy gossip until the last of us succumbed to sleep.

Awoken by a chill in darkest night, I could hear no movement—all was still. Across the shadowed room the wardrobe door stood slightly ajar. I tiptoed across to close it; instead the door swung open and that frigid draft sucked me in. Swallowed by the darkness as the wardrobe slammed around me, something choked out my cries. Locked away, helpless, something that was not me took my place in the bed.

In the morning four girls left. The one that was not me scrawled one line in the guestbook: “Unforgettable.”

In An Instant

He’s going to go through the ice.

Nah, it’s rock solid that close to shore. It’s been plenty cold lately. You worry too much.

It only takes a second.

What does?

It only takes a second for your life to change forever. One weak spot in the ice and –sploosh– it’s all over.

Well that’s an awfully morbid thought.

It’s the truth. Every choice could be the one step towards irreparable damage. That guy’s taking a foolish risk, and for what? He’s probably just doing it for the ’gram.

Okay, first of all, calling it the ’gram actually makes you sound even more geriatric, if that’s even possible. And second, seriously, lighten up. You’re taking years off your life worrying about things that won’t ever happen.

What, now you’re not going to talk to me at all?

You never take anything I say seriously.

You take everything too seriously. It’s a bit of a downer if I’m honest.

Well so-rry for seeing things realistically. Life can change in an instant, you know. Reach over to grab your phone and –blam– an 18-wheeler smears you across the highway.  Or put your password into the wrong site and –tada– some creep in Algiers steals your identity and drains your savings and it takes 7 years to build your credit rating back up. Meanwhile you can’t get a mortgage and you lose your job because your car gets repo’d and your fiancé legs it with his yoga instructor because he’s sick of chauffeuring you around. In an instant, I’m telling you. Everything has repercussions; you have to think things through.

Psh.

You can ‘psh’ me all you like. You know I’m right. Life is full of all these tiny instants that you can’t undo. Any given second can cause life-long consequences.

Must be heavy, having all that gravity weighing on you all the time.

Whatever. Be sarcastic. Live in the moment or whatever. I choose to live deliberately, carefully, for the long term.

That’s all well and good, but what is really scarier—knowing that life can permanently and drastically change at any moment, or feeling like nothing will ever change and this is it?

Well would that really be so bad? What’s wrong with this?

Are you unhappy? You can tell me if you’re unhappy.

Okay fine, don’t talk then.

Oh my God! The ice is cracking! Look—he’s drifting away.

Oh no! See, I told you! Oh this is a disaster. I can’t watch someone die. Oh lord. What do I do? What do I do?

 “This is Felicia Weatherspoon live on location at the shore of Lake Huron where a 21-year-old Toronto man has just been safely rescued from an ice floe that had broken off and drifted nearly a kilometer from shore. I have with me the eyewitness who alerted emergency personnel. Tell me, Ms. Canmore, you’re walking alone along the shore when you see the ice begin to crack—what was going through your mind?”

In Which Cake Becomes a Metaphor

There comes a time when you’re decorating a cake where you have to stand back, put the spatula and piping bag down and your hands up and say, “That’s enough.”

You can smooth and shape and adorn and smooth again, but with every “just one more” swipe of the spatula you chance creating a new groove that needs to be repaired. Every carefully placed rosette or ruffle, sprinkle or swirl runs the risk of being just one too many.

So how do you know when to stop? It could become a game of “chase the flaw,” smoothing over one perceived imperfection just to create another deeper one. It could become a case of “can’t see the cake for the butter cream roses,” embellishing and adorning until the original simple beauty is lost and the flavour is unidentifiable.

There is a trend in the cake world these days: The Naked Cake. A cake where nothing is hidden behind cloying layers of thick frosting or impervious facades of fondant. A cake where the beauty is in the cake itself, exposed and unabashed, adorned by only the most carefully chosen elements that add to, rather than superseding, its flavour and appeal. A cake with depth and a message that it’s not afraid to share. It says, “Here I am, beautiful and bold. Dig in.” With the naked cake, less is more.

That’s not to say that the baker does not agonize over this cake, painstakingly crafting, selecting and discarding, refining. But with this cake, the baker knows when done is done.

Now by this point I have no doubt that my savvy readers have surmised that this cake is a metaphor. To be sure, I am speaking from a place of experience, having decorated hundreds of cakes for all occasions during my tenure as a baker. But the true subject of my musings today is writing, specifically in the form of flash fiction. It is a new passion of mine, and one in which I will be endlessly striving to improve my skills.

I recently took a course in this art, Beginner’s Guide to Flash, created by the brilliant minds over at WritersHQ. One of the outstanding takeaways of this course was that often more can be said by what is not said. Let the blank spaces speak, let the reader find meaning in the white space between the carefully chosen words. Let every word earn its place on the page.

“With every line, ask: is this necessary? Is it doing what I want it to? Or does it just look pretty or sound clever? That imagery may be beautiful but is it actually adding anything? Did I use twelve words when six will do? Be honest now.”

Beginner’s Guide to Flash, WritersHQ

As a chronic over-writer, this advice will become my mantra. As a cake decorator, well, let’s be honest—sometimes I’m still going to go a little overboard with the sprinkles. It is for a party, after all.

Angelina Suarez Has a Stalker

Angelina’s been getting creepy letters. She never knows when the next one will arrive. She always feels like she’s being watched, and she dreads opening the mailbox.

Angelina’s stalker watches the front of her house through a telephoto lens from a van parked up the street. He can’t believe she has a gentleman caller. He clicks off thirty shots of the man’s face and car, seething in a jealous rage.

Angelina’s not worried about the letters anymore. She’s floating in the swimming pool leaking crimson ribbons that swirl like steeping tea.

Angelina’s murderer is standing in the kitchen looking at the mess. He scratches the back of his head with a leather-gloved hand as he debates what to do. Two tiny hairs glance off his collar, floating gently to the floor. But that’s not what gets him caught.

Angelina’s diamond tennis bracelet has a tiny fussy clasp. One leather glove comes off to get it undone. Bracing himself on the counter to get up, he leaves a perfect set of whorls on the granite slab. But that’s not what gets him caught.

Angelina’s Chihuahua with a rhinestone collar and a vicious case of Small Dog Syndrome darts from under the table in a sneak attack. The intruder leaves half a right shoe print in the middle of a scarlet streak in his haste to get away. But that’s not what gets him caught.

Angelina’s favourite restaurant has an open dumpster in the alley out back. It will get emptied on Tuesday, but for now it contains a tight little bundle of blood-spattered khakis. A busboy sneaks out the back door for a smoke and watches a man walk away, maybe a little too fast. But that’s not what gets him caught.

Angelina’s case is closed. The police can’t believe their luck when an anonymous source mails in a manilla envelope with thirty 8x10s of a man in khakis leaving her house.

8 Steps to Miss the Sunrise

Set the alarm for 2:30 am. Calculate how many hours of sleep you’ll get if you fall asleep Right. Now. Toss and turn, reliving that one time you got sick on your teacher’s shoes in sixth grade and that time you told the insurance broker ‘K, love you, bye’. Finally fall asleep at 11:00 pm.

Sleep through your alarm and jolt awake half an hour later. Pour coffee on your cereal and decide to skip breakfast. Put the milk away in the cupboard. Splash water on your face in lieu of a shower, pull on two mismatched socks, and put your shirt on inside out. Drive to work in the dark in a stupor, miraculously arriving only slightly late for your 4:00 am start.

Burn your arm on the inside of the oven door when you’re pulling the raisin bread out. Drop the whole pan on the floor, destroying three beautiful loaves who didn’t deserve that kind of treatment.

Drive yourself to the hospital and wait four hours to be seen. Blush cherry tomato red when the hunky doctor finally comes in to see you. Sit there praying that he doesn’t notice you shiver every time his fingers brush your arm. Wince when he bandages the vicious blisters, and turn your head so he can’t see your eyes tearing up.

Go home alone to an empty apartment, wondering if you’ll still get paid for your full shift because the rent is five days past due and the cupboard’s offerings for dinner consist of a lonely tin of sardines and the now-sour milk. Oops. Take a long afternoon nap.

Wake up at six, stomach rumbling so loud you peek out the window to see if a train is going by. Call and order a pizza. Flip the TV on to a cheesy rom com and imagine yourself as the heroine and the hunky doctor as the sheepish lover knocking on your door to declare that he loves you ‘just the way you are.’

Open the door, for Pete’s sake, because this is real life and it’s the pizza delivery you ordered, not your Prince Charming. Stand there praying for the ground to open up and swallow you up alive when all seven cards in your wallet get declined in rapid succession. Literally die of actual mortification when the pizza delivery guy whips out his own credit card and pays for your pizza.

Fumble and stutter your thanks and, on a whim, invite your pizza savior to come in and dine with you. Kick yourself when he replies that he can’t because he’s working till eight — of course he can’t, you fool. Feel your heart skip a beat when he scrawls his number on the pizza box. Stay up half the night exchanging flirty texts. Fall asleep with a smile on your face.

Sleep in till noon.

Ella Minnow Pea (Mark Dunn)

Carrying on with the theme of books that I am over a decade late in discovering (see HERE), this one knocked my socks off. Ella Minnow Pea (A Novel in Letters) by Mark Dunn is a cleverly written, light-hearted, yet strangely moving story of a girl’s fight for freedom of expression on a fictional island where letters are slowly being banned as they drop off a statue.

“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

Like vocabulary crack for a linguistic junkie, I defy you to read this book and not learn a new word or several, not to mention the delicious challenge of trying to best Nollop’s own pangram along with the cast of characters. Dunn’s invented words are perhaps my favourite part of the book—such delights as:

  • Illicitabetical
  • Vocabu-lazy
  • Delishmerelle
  • Heavipendence
  • Pureplicity

“I am so fearful, Ella, as to where this all may lead. A silly little letter, to be sure, but I believe its theft represents something quite large and oh so frighteningly ominous. For it stands to rob us of the freedom to communicate without any manner of fetter or harness.”

With humour that belies the depth of the underlying warning message of this novel, Dunn weaves a clever and thought-provoking commentary on censorship, freedom of expression, and tyranny. His ingenuity as letters are stricken from the alphabet is astounding. The resulting novel is a tribute to the English language.

“In the disquieting quiet, we wonder and worry, yet try to carry on some semblance of normal life. You were right about the fallout from this most absurd law. Not only does it cripple communication between islanders, it builds rock walls between hearts.”

Ella Minnow Pea is, at its core, a cautionary tale of the atrocities perpetrated when lines become blurred between government and dictatorship fueled by religious fervour, the absurd becomes law, and logic is drowned out by misguided zeal.

“Today we queried, questioned, and inquired. Promise me that come tomorrow, we will not stop asking why.”

I thoroughly and wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone with a love of words.

The Molted Skin of Childhood

 “You’re going to regret it. Maybe not right now, maybe not tomorrow, but you will—and for the rest of your life.”

The words echoed in Miranda’s ears as she marched away from the house that day. Away from her birthplace, away from her mother, away from the screaming and the fighting and the guilt. She never looked back, her feet kicking up whorls of dust with every step taking her further and further away. Away—that was all Miranda thought about, not toward. She had no idea what she was marching toward; all that mattered was getting away.

The duffel hung heavy across her body, its strap digging in on the right side of her neck and the body of the bag thumping against her left thigh with each step. All her worldly goods in one ratty bag that still smelled faintly of her older brother’s gym clothes. He had gone away years before. Away, as in not there, not where Miranda was, not around when she needed him—or someone, anyone—to be in her corner.

The duffel wasn’t the only thing she carried. She thought it was at first. The bag weighed 20 pounds at most, and she kept switching it from one side to the other to even out the load. It seemed to get heavier with every step, but she wasn’t going to let the weight slow her down. Dumping cargo to lighten her escape, she pulled a thick sweater her mother had knitted from the bag and dropped it on the road. It slumped in the dust and she marched on.

Next to go were the shoes that were last year’s Christmas and birthday rolled into one. They felt too heavy now, filled with the tears and tension of that nasty night. Miranda marched on, dropping more and more along the roadside as she went, but as the bag got lighter the load on her shoulders only worsened. The last to land in the dirt was her only dress, a red one that had not grown as she did, the hem now only hitting midway down her gangly sprouting legs. She let herself feel no attachment as she let it go and carried on.

When she reached the bridge across the river that marked the edge of town, for the first time she stopped and turned around. She dropped the empty duffel but the heaviness remained even as she looked back at the molted skin of her childhood strewn along the roadway in the dust. In the middle of the bridge she stared down into the murky swirling eddies and thought of only one more thing she could leave behind. She had to make a choice—save herself and have a future, or stay behind and feed the past. With a long, cleansing sigh she dropped her guilt in the muddy river and crossed the bridge toward the bus that would finally take her Away.

Still I Stood

I knew the flashlight was going to go out. I knew it for a good twenty minutes, picking my way over the boulders and tree roots, trying desperately to get back to the trailhead before the dimming bulb flickered its last beam of sight. Why did I set out so late? Why did I stay so long? I knew better, and now there I was deep in the untamed woods of the escarpment, alone and suddenly cold—not afraid. No, I was not going to be afraid. I got myself into this mess, and I would get myself out. I just needed to think it through.

When the light dimmed for the last time the darkness swallowed me up. It was so complete, so solid, it took my breath away. A gulp. Two gulps. Three gulps to swallow the lump in my throat and start my breathing again. I did a test shuffle forward, scarcely taking my feet off the ground. I knew that one false move would snag my foot in a root and crumple me over to raw egg crack my head open on the rocks that jutted at intervals out of the ancient glacier-scraped ground. Arms extended straight out both sides, I felt for the foliage that should mark where the trail stopped and the forest began. One rough tree trunk felt just like the next and my feet couldn’t interpret the difference between forest floor and trail. Failing to read the Braille of the woods I realized I was well and truly stranded.

If I pushed forward I ran the risk of wandering off the edge of the escarpment, plummeting who knows how far to watermelon burst on the jagged rocks and pines below. Failing that, a crevasse hiding in the impenetrable dark would grab my feet, dry chicken bone snapping legs that wouldn’t walk again.

So there I stood. My stillness made the forest noises louder. Every rustle loomed threateningly out of the darkness, most certainly vicious sharp-toothed beasts closing in to tear me limb from limb. Squeaks and screeches and haunting calls of “who-hoo-oooo” spoke amongst themselves in the language of the night, exclusive food chain negotiations I had no desire to be party to.

Still I stood. My eyelids kept on blinking their moistening Morse code, not that I could any more distinguish their opening from closing. Waiting for my wretched pupils to widen enough to eke some sort of light from where none shone was getting me nowhere. A sudden crunch behind me sent my heart tap-dancing through my chest and I was forced to admit I might just be a little bit frightened.

I stood and tried to breathe. I stood and clutched at fleeing calmness. I stood and closed my eyes, entombed in obscurity, my one-time favourite place now the blackest darkest void. I stood and said goodbye. When my eyes again blinked open, gasping for light like a drowning man gasps for air, stripy lines of shadow faltered, sharpening and clearing. Far above my head a sliver of moon peeked out at me from behind the thick and heavy clouds. Before my ragged breaths were straightened, before my pounding heart was calmed, before my racing mind caught up, instinct moved my feet forward, forward, forward until I burst out of my inky almost tomb.

It Comes With a Pickle

He likes the club sandwich at the Good Eats Diner. They toast it just right, and put on so much mayo it oozes out and he licks it off his fingers. Just the right ratio of meat to veggies to bread, all stacked up and held with a toothpick. And it comes with a pickle. Too bad he won’t come back here; he never eats in the same diner twice.

Nothing left on the plate but crumbs. He tucks a ten under the water glass—not a glass, but that cheap plastic tumbler you find in every diner. The rest of the bills go folded back in his left jacket pocket. The right pocket is full.

He takes his time walking back to his truck, not in a hurry to be on the road again. It’s so boring, those miles on miles on miles of interstate. He gets so tired of the billboards and the traffic and the lines on the asphalt whizzing by. He gets so sick of those people with their happy lives and their normal jobs on solid ground. He gets so angry when he’s seen by no one, moving state to state leaving no trace, Mr. Inconsequential mattering to nobody nowhere.

When darkness falls, he pulls off at a truck stop, miles on miles on miles of road between him and the Good Eats Diner. He’s still thinking about the salty crunch of that pickle. Settling into his bunk, he pulls the .22 out of his pocket, and tucks it under his pillow, then switches on the portable TV.

“Good evening, I’m Kenneth Becker with KTV News. Breaking News this hour: Police are looking for information in the death of a 23-year-old store clerk who was shot in the back of the head this afternoon while stocking shelves in a small gift store just off the I-65. The victim’s name was Christie Bernard, the latest in a recent string of shootings in small towns throughout Indiana and Kentucky. Similar to previous crimes, a number of small bills were missing from the cash register. Police are now treating these killings as connected as the similarities stack up.”