Breadcrumb #514

MARJORIE TESSER

Up on deck there’s a saline breeze and milky stars and endless ocean, shiny and black and moving like synchronized seals under the moon.

The cruise had been booked by my husband, though I’d barely gotten used to thinking of him as that. We’d gone from our first meeting at the conference to messaging to weekends to wedding, and from wedding to ship, friends and family seeing us off with bubbles instead of rice, which is said to harm the birds. How had I agreed to this?

The ship is our home away from home, our haven, our womb, our first-world vehicle for an arms-length tour of the third. Several days out of port, several more till the next, and then again to be herded down the gangplank to lie, flaccid and pinking, on gravelly beaches, or drift mindlessly in and out of overpriced shops to dicker over tourist trinkets. On board we are scheduled like children; steered, managed, and cajoled to participate in games, lessons, sports, and amateur theatrics. There are plenty of nap times—around the pool, on deck, where the ever-present thrum of engine lulls me to a drowsy stupor.

Everywhere, at all times, there are people. And, of course, my new husband ever at my side. The cabin is tight quarters. If I say I’ll take a walk or go work out or sit on deck and read, he jumps up and comes with. I book a massage; he says great and changes it to a couples one. I’d thought I’d known it would be different but hadn’t counted on this constant togetherness. Yet worse, he keeps trying to draw others into our ambit—at dinner, full of bonhomie, he invites all and sundry to sit with us, at the pool, he hectors me off my solitary float to join in a game of water volleyball, in the lounge, he badgers me to join in the singing, while he plays old show tunes on the piano for a jolly throng. After much too much alcohol and rich, heavy, yet somehow unsatisfying foods that leave me logy and overly full, I find myself again in our small cabin, enclosed in his embrace. He’s currently crashed out in the stateroom, satiated after yet another round of our marital intimacies. I slither from under the heavy arm, dress, slip out.

Outside there’s a night breeze that’s cool but hints of heat, like the breaths you sneak when you’re close to a person you crave, but can’t show it; little sips. I wander until I find the one uninhabited area of the ship, just deck, stars, and a lifeboat hulking under its tarp. A corner of the tarp is loose. “Not a bad place to hide,” I think, and then hear approaching steps. My husband? Not that awful woman from the lounge? I quickly climb, rubber soles gaining purchase on its side. I lift the loosened tarp and lower myself into the lifeboat. Like Alice going down the rabbit hole, or the children in books who, by fluke, luck, or happenstance, enter a mysterious portal to a magic world of novelty, adventure, and danger, without a look back I jump into the lifeboat. The same way Jack climbed the miraculous beanstalk, quickly, without much thought, mainly because it has appeared.

On board we are scheduled like children; steered, managed, and cajoled to participate in games, lessons, sports, and amateur theatrics.

Inside is dark, with just the lifted corner of the tarp admitting a pale haze, the clouded solution of night and deck lights, moon and stars. I sink to the floor of the boat, lean back and slowly let out breath. There’s a spark the second before I hear a striking match and then an orange glow of cigarette end, the sharp tang of smoke.

“Sorry,” I mutter, and make for the opening in the tarp.

“Don’t leave,” a voice. Another match flickers; he holds it before his face—a young man. The flame burns down, nearly to his pale fingertips. I lean and blow it out, conscious of my breath on his skin.

I don’t like cigarette smoke, but his is somehow nostalgic of high school, shared illicit smokes in the bathroom, in the dark corners of the playground. He was pale as a rabbit with hair black as crow. Hiding or holing up, here in the dark alone.

I am polite. “I’ll go if you hoped to be alone.”

“I wasn’t.” He drags; exhales. “Hoping.”

Something of the unworldly about him. Pale and slender, but strong underneath, sinewy. Luminous. Hair black as the night ocean. Faint violet sleepless half-circles under deep-set eyes. His voice a light tenor, hypnotic.

“Then why...”

“This is the safest place. From the bores, the authorities. From pirates, Ninjas, aliens, love. Disaster.”

“Have you been...imbibing?” I ask delicately.

He barks a quick laugh. “Did you know where the Coast Guard has its Lifeboat Training School? It’s called Cape Disappointment.” I think I understand.

Glints of moonlight spark the centers of his eyes with little flames. The lifeboat is a satellite, suspended, its own world.

There’s a dankness in the air and I shiver. I remember the warm, bright lounge, my husband’s cozy bed. “Maybe I should go.” Footsteps outside, close.

A moment—freeze frame, a still second.

The ocean is a chameleon—pearl grey in the morning, bottle green when frosted with foam in the afternoon, shiny black at night. The ocean is a dissembler. It seems as if solely water but underneath teems with creatures bizarre, alien, dangerous, like the seemingly kind neighbor who turns out to have a secret life. There are some who find the ocean peaceful, but others accuse it of being deceptive, passive aggressive. The ocean connects home with the places we go. It is answerable to only the moon.

Once activated, the mechanism begins to lift the tarp and to lower the lifeboat, which after a few moments dips, then buoys in the inky sea, bobbing gently in the wake of the big ship gliding steadily on, lights moving on its tiers of increasingly distant decks.

• • •

Breadcrumb #513

CHLOE CRAWFORD LA VADA

I never think of you these days, down in the Beneath
where the sun cannot remind me – where the only light
that shines dazzles mistily from a disco-ball moon. 

Here, I wear the shadows like silk. I skinny-dip in the
River Lethe, the dead bumping against me like buoys,
forgetting you more and more with each lick of the waves. 

My midnight metropolis glows like a deep-sea fish,
nestled in the lowest dark of the Great Downstairs, where
everyone sees my true face, where I am proudly known as Queen. 

But, spring ruptures through winter’s rime and ruins
the oblivion of a peaceful, perpetual neon-night; it knows
that life must move on in its slaughter of cycles and seasons. 

In your world Above, beauty melts from my face like frost;
my real self withers, a bone-flower blooming in reverse,
unsewn from hearing the whispers of a name dead as dust. 

There, all I have buried returns to haunt me; even your mirrors
show a stranger with only the vaguest trace of me. I dream
of the day when the daffodils die and autumn claws ever closer.

 I wait for the leaves to wilt like lies, wait for the earth
to quiver and crack apart. I wait for the black, toothless mouth
of the ground to split wide and swallow me whole.

 Every roadmap of scars brings me back to a city, a cemetery,
where we lay in our graves - where everyone died long ago
in the eyes of our parents, our families, our friends.

• • •

Breadcrumb #512

JENNA KNORR

“Whose is this?”

The shouting broke the silence that had been hanging over the MacArthur household on that Saturday morning in June. Everyone else was still asleep, but Julia was up, and she was furious. She stormed from room to room, slamming doors and cupboards in her wake, ensuring that everyone in the house would know that she was pissed.

    “Whose is this?” she screamed again. “Huh? Are none of you pathetic cowards awake yet, or are you hiding from me?”

    She banged on her parents’ bedroom door with her left hand. Her right was wrapped around the stubby barrel of a handgun that she had found moments before in a shoebox in the basement.

     Julia wasn’t sleeping much. A nasty battle with depression and suicidal tendencies ensured that she was constantly tired, but also perpetually unable to sleep; one of the many cruel paradoxes that sometimes comes with being mentally ill. Instead, she spent most nights digging: digging around the internet for British TV shows she hadn’t watched yet, digging around the house for treasures left behind by the other occupants during the day, and sometimes literally digging in the backyard, in the depression garden that her therapist suggested she start. Some new-agey sounding bullshit about the transformative effects of having a hobby. Julia argued that watching TV was a hobby. Her therapist argued that watching TV was a crutch.

     Julia was right in the middle of loudly accusing her brother of gun ownership through his closed bedroom door when the baby started crying. A groan emanated from Julia’s parents’ room.

Some new-agey sounding bullshit about the transformative effects of having a hobby.

    “Why, Julia,” her mom said plainly as she emerged, eyes bloodshot and still wearing the t-shirt and sweatpants she had worn the day before. “Why is now the time that we need to have this conversation?”

    “Because I’m awake, and now you’re awake, and there’s a gun in our house. For some reason. Even though my therapist made you all promise. No weapons. Remember? Remember the no weapons promise?” Julia was right on her mother’s heels as she crossed the hallway to the nursery.

    “Okay, Julia. Okay. Fine. Just let me take care of Grace, alright? Though really I should make you do it. You’re the one who woke her up.”

    Julia’s mother bent down into the crib, yawning as she raised the crying baby, resting her on her hip. She froze. The previously fractured image of Julia, angry and wielding a gun, had finally come together in her mind like a jigsaw puzzle.

    “Julia, that thing’s not loaded, right?”

    “What? God, no. I’m not a crazy person. Well, not that kind of crazy person. I looked up how to empty the clip online but there were no bullets in there anyway, and the safety is definitely on. I checked three times to make sure I had done it right.”

    “Even so,” Julia’s mother said, cradling Grace protectively. “I don’t like you walking around the house with that thing. And certainly not here, in the nursery. Go set it down on the kitchen table and we’ll talk, alright? I’ll get dad and your brother up.”

    Julia went out to the dining room and flicked the light on over the table. There was a small Lazy Susan in the middle for condiments. Julia sat the gun on it instead and pushed gently, hypnotized by the sight of it spinning around slowly. Julia turned at the sound of her brother walking in, scratching his crotch through baggy pajama pants.

    “You finally gonna shoot us up?” he asked, taking his usual seat at the table.

    “Cut the shit, Nicholas,” Julia said.

    “Oh, what, using my full name? Am I in trouble?”

    “Course you’re in trouble. You brought a fucking gun into the house even though I personally watched you promise my therapist that you would never bring weapons under this roof as long as I live here. Remember that?”

    “Oh, I remember,” he replied, yawning. “Thing is, that’s not my gun.”

    “I don’t understand.”

    “Yeah. Never seen that before in my life. Besides, I wouldn’t want you to get ahold of it, you fucking lunatic.”

    “Not funny, Nick.”

    “Is it loaded?” he asked, motioning to the gun.

    “Of course not,” Julia replied. “I’m depressed. Not stupid.”

Julia stared once again at the gun, reaching out to give the Lazy Susan another weak push. Grace was still crying somewhere in the house, and Julia was trying to tune out the sound when her father’s heavy footsteps came down the stairs and rounded the corner into the dining room. Julia watched his eyes go straight for the gun.

“Good God Julia, what is it this time?” He ducked into the kitchen and re-emerged a second later with a banana which he was already peeling.

“I could ask you the same thing, traitor,” Julia said.

“Hey, relax Jules,” he said, biting into the banana and sitting down. “Clearly you’re going through something with this gun thing. We’re here to help. It’s not loaded, right?”

“No, it’s not fucking loaded!” Julia said impatiently. “Why is everyone asking me that today?”

“I think probably because we want to know if we’re about to get shot,” Nick said.

“No one is getting shot today or any day,” Julia said.

  Nick sat at the table as their dad joined him and slowly ate his way through the banana. Grace was still crying and Julia could hear her mother trying to console her.

    “So, what’s with the gun, Jules?” her dad asked curiously.

    “I dunno. Besides, this isn’t my interrogation. I came here to ask you that. What’s with the gun, dad?”

    “No clue.”

    “You mean it’s not yours?”

    “Nah.”

    If it didn’t belong to anyone in the room, and it certainly couldn’t belong to Grace, and they didn’t have any other siblings…

    Julia’s mother appeared in the doorway, holding Grace and bouncing her against her hip.

     “Sorry guys,” she said, standing behind her usual chair. “Every time I tried to put her back down she’d just start crying again, so I brought her with me.”

     Julia, Nick, and their dad were all staring at her.

    “Mom…” Nick began, but Julia cut him off.

    “Mom, is this your fucking gun?” Julia asked, jabbing her finger at the gun on the table.

    Mom said nothing. She sighed deeply, and began pacing from one end of the dining room to the other.

    “Mom, is this your gun?” Julia asked again, arms crossed.

    “It’s, uh. Yeah. Yeah Julia, it’s my gun.”

    “Can I ask why you have a fucking gun in this house, mom? This house which has a strict weapons ban put in place by my goddamn therapist to keep me alive? Can I ask you that, mom?”

    Mom sighed impatiently, still rocking Grace on her hip. Grace babbled happily, her cheerful baby talk acting as the moment’s jarring and unpleasant backing track.

    “I bought that years ago, Julia. Many years ago, when you were Grace’s age. We were living in our old house, the one down on Staples, you remember the one? That neighbourhood was awful. Robberies up and down the street, cars being broken into every night, your father even got mugged a few times walking the dog at night, you remember that, honey?”

     Dad nodded.

     “Anyway, I never felt safe there, and with a new baby in the house - you - and another one on the way - Nicholas - I had to do something, anything, to feel like I had control. So, I bought a gun. It was for safety, Julia. Your safety. Our safety. I need you to understand that. Do you understand?”

    “Why does everyone always think that more guns will make us safe?” Julia exclaimed, reaching out and grabbing the gun from the Lazy Susan. Everyone else recoiled and mom turned her back on the room, putting herself between Grace and the weapon.

    “Goddamnit Julia, put that thing down!” dad yelled, throwing his hands in the air over his head, Nick doing the same.

    “Why do you still have it, mom? Why is this still here? You talked to my therapist, you know why this is important to me. Why did you keep it?” Julia was crying now, waving the gun wildly through the air.

    Mom was crying now, too, which made Grace’s screaming start up again.

    “I don’t know, Julia.”

    “Yes you do, mom. Tell me.”

    “I don’t know!”

    “Tell me!

    “Because I wanted to kill myself, Julia! You’re not the only one who’s fucked up in this family!”

    Julia was stunned, so stunned that her tears and sobs came to a halt. Grace was still screaming, and mom was crying even harder now, too. Dad reached over and took the baby before leaving the room. Nick slipped out with him and they both went back upstairs.

    Julia sat the gun back down in the centre of the table and crossed the room to where her mother was standing, sobbing. Julia wrapped her arms around her mother; her mother was a few inches shorter than her, so Julia tucked her head down into the crook of her neck and held her until the crying stopped. Neither of them said anything for a long time. Julia could feel her mother’s tears soaking through her pajama shirt.

    “Why didn’t you tell me, mom?” Julia asked, breaking the silence.

    “I had to be strong for you, Julia, and for Nick. I thought about telling you once before, awhile ago, before you were diagnosed. But around then was when your father and I started talking about having another kid while we still could, and it just… It wasn’t the right time.”

“You don’t have to hide it, mom. Lots of people, all kinds of people, are going through stuff like this all the time. Did you ever talk to anyone about it? A therapist, or anyone?”

“No, never.”

“Well, as someone who’s been there - I guess, someone who is there - trust me: you gotta talk to someone, mom, okay? For dad, and for me and Nick, and for Grace. And especially for you. Okay?”

Mom smiled.

“Okay.”

“Okay,” Julia said. “Thankfully for you, I know a therapist.”

The next time Julia went to therapy, her mom went along too and made an appointment for herself. Julia and her mom talked about what to do with the gun, which Nick had locked away in a safe in his room for the time being. The therapist suggested that they contact the RCMP and have it decommissioned, which they did. When the officer handling their account asked what they would like to have done with the gun, Julia’s mother asked if they could keep it. When they got home, they took the gun into the backyard, wrapped it up in the old shoebox that Julia had found it in, the same box that it had lived in for many years, and they buried it deep, six feet deep, in Julia’s depression garden. On the ground up above, they marked its place with a wide, smooth rock upon which Julia had painted an epitaph.

This is a monument to the strength of my mother. I’d rather bury this than her.

• • •

Breadcrumb #511

SUSAN CLARKSON MOORHEAD

I heard my mother's voice. Whatever she was saying sounded important but I could not figure out the words. I couldn't see her either, the light coming and going the way it does in our house during a bad storm. I smelled the wool of Dad's jacket, the good way his shoulders smell when I hug him. My mother's voice joined the other noise, muffled in the background, and I tried to follow her. In front of my eyes were slow moving shapes like clouds in an overcast sky, gray and white, thinning out as I pushed towards the sound of my mother. It sounded like crying and I tried to call out her name, but I had no voice. I saw a car far below me driving on the icy blacktop of a parking lot and I flailed my arms frantically until I realized I wasn't falling any farther than where I was. Where I was, somewhere between the car and the clouds, I couldn't understand. Below me was my Mom's old green Subaru. Dad was driving. I saw his face through the windshield looking crushed and old. I saw my mother next to him bent over crying. I saw my big sister Karen's face at the window as they pulled out of the parking lot I was floating above. She was crying like Mom. The red blinker of my Dad's car flashed a left turn, snow on the roof of his car glinting like spilled diamonds beneath the shine of streetlights just coming on. Gray clouds feathered the edges of a sky the color of iron. There was a thin layer of new snow on the ground but I was not cold.  I was so scared.

Dad was driving. I saw his face through the windshield looking crushed and old.

   A white van passed Mom's car and I remembered. The feel of the road beneath my feet, how careful I was not to step on the yellow slashes of the crosswalk, bad luck, like stepping on a sidewalk crack. You could get eaten by bears or break your mother's back, some horror if you failed to pay attention, but I couldn't remember which it was.  I was leaning towards bears, the picture in my head more Goldilocks picture book than savaging threats. I imagined a family of three cute bears, the Papa, the Mama, and the Baby Bear outside a cute white cottage with blue shutters. Window boxes full of red petunias. I smiled at my own silliness. I knew I was too old for these kind of thoughts but as long as the kids in school didn't know I still felt more fairy tale than cutting edge, I'd be okay. I heard a sound, something outside of my thoughts, outside of myself. I heard something coming like how a leaf must sense the approaching wind. My hair static, my skin meeting the push of air, and I looked up.

   The immediateness of it, a block of white and silver, and a face blurred behind the windshield just kissed with the first snowflakes. There was a noise like thunder, a wet like rain, and the wind stopped.

  Thickness, strands of pulled cotton, slow and sleepy like waking on a summer morning until I saw myself below on a long bed. I was not moving, my hands were half open, my fingers curled like flower petals just before they feel the sun. I was crooked and swollen, bruised and broken. I was wearing one sneaker only. There was dirt in my hair.

  A nurse stood beside me, not much older than my big sister, dipping a sponge into a plastic bowl of water. She touched the sponge to my face and sound returned, buzzing of electric lights, the wall clock's slight tick, the sound of water wrung from the sponge, a voice on an intercom calling a doctor to the ER, the squeak of the nurse's white sneakers on the checkered floor as she turned to the sink and put fresh water in the bowl.

   Her fingertips persuaded my eyelids to close over my staring eyes. She washed my eyelids and brows, my scraped cheeks, my bruised forehead, cleaned the blood from my mouth.

   A tired looking woman, older than my mother, leaned in the doorway and shook her head. "You don't need to do that, you know, you're off shift. Now that the family said their goodbyes, the next crew will bring her downstairs." I saw her glance towards an enormous gray duffle bag resting on the floor.

   The young nurse gave a half smile. "I know. I want to do this. Don't worry, I clocked off shift twenty minutes ago. I'm on my own time."

   The other woman shrugged. "Up to you. A tip, sweetie - it's better not to get involved." She watched as the young nurse ran the sponge over my hair and smoothed it back. "Newbies," she muttered as she stepped away.

   The nurse removed the purple shirt I had just gotten two weeks ago on my birthday. She cut my favorite jeans off with scissors. I watched her wash me down. I could not feel the water on my skin but I saw her hands careful and gentle as she washed the dirt and the blood off what had been me. As I watched her I began to understand I that I would no longer be returning to the home of my body.

   I didn't know what I was going to be if not myself. I wanted to cry or even scream but I had no voice so I listened to the song she hummed. She brushed dirt from my hair. I was already starting to change into something else, something I am still learning, when she called in people to help lift me into the bag.

   After they left the room, she pulled up the zipper until it reached the crest of my chin. She kissed her fingertips and touched them to my forehead. "Goodbye, sweet girl," she said.

   I watched her drive out of the parking lot, the red blinker of her car flashing a left turn beneath a sky the color of iron. Already I was something else, going somewhere else. I watched the lights of her car down the road until I couldn't see her anymore. I was not cold and I was not afraid.

• • •

Breadcrumb #510

J. BRADLEY

I saw Tim running around the corner, his father’s Glock in hand, the one he showed me the one and only time I went to his house for his birthday and I just stood there. I knew he was looking for Madison because Tim asked her to our end-of-class dance last week in front of a bunch of people and she said there was no fucking way I’d go out with you if you were the last boy on earth loud enough for her to get three days of detention (punishment doesn’t stop just because the school year is ending). I tried yelling he has a gun but I stood there, knowing what was going to happen: it’s not your life he wants, my brain said. After I saw Tim turn at the end of the hall, I hid in the janitor’s closet, crying after the first shot came, then the second, and then nothing. I didn’t leave the janitor’s closet until someone found me, the school resource officer, the one who’s too fat to do anything except keep our school not very safe. Steve, he said, surprised that the star lacrosse player was crying. Is…, I tried asking if everyone was fine and it came out as snot and more crying. I almost thought to ask if Madison was OK but then that would let the school resource officer know that I knew what Tim was doing and then I didn’t stop him when I could off. The school resource officer pulled down one of those giant rolls of toilet paper used in the school bathrooms and handed it to me. Get yourself cleaned up and then come out when you’re ready. No one needs to see you like this. I unrolled some of the thin toilet paper and blew my nose and pocketed the wad. I did it again and again, the roll never getting smaller. I waited 15 more minutes before coming back out. The hallway was empty. When I was asked where I was, I said I hid in the janitor’s closet when I heard the first shot; no one questioned me. I saw Madison across the parking lot, sitting on the back of the ambulance, soaked in Matt’s blood. You need to stay where you are, the school resource officer said. But I’m her boyfriend, I said. I don’t think it’s a good idea to see her right now, he said. I wondered whether he knew I knew what Tim was going to do when I saw him run down the hallway. I wondered whether he knew how I froze when Tim ran past, his father’s Glock in hand, the one he showed me the one and only time I went to his house for his birthday and I wondered whether I should have gone to more of his birthdays, talked to him with my mouth more than my hands, talked him out of asking Madison out since we were together, since no one deserves to have their feelings publicly executed.

• • •