tilly and the others: part 6

Tilly frowned, squinted, and finally opened her eyes. The sun was lasering through the holes in the lace sheer curtains she'd hung over her bedroom window. She sat up. Why weren't the drapes pulled?

Then she remembered the helicopter from the night before and decided that perhaps it hadn't been a dream after all.

Her alarm clock told her it was half-past eight, and she had the same moment of panic she'd had her entire adult life — late! —before she remembered she was retired, and had been for three years now.

It was Saturday. She had until Wednesday afternoon to get the Pizza Tela software installed.

"Better do it first thing," she muttered to herself as she climbed out of bed.

Washed and dressed, she made her way to the kitchen and decided that a coffee made more sense this morning than her usual cup of tea. Coffee and toast, instead of tea and cereal. Yes.

She ran through the list of things she should do today. The software installation first, yes. She'd just talked to Owen, so that front should be quiet for at least a few days. She had enough groceries, but it was probably about time she gave the apartment its first dusting...

She chuckled to herself and took a bite of toast. The twenty-three year old woman who had convinced her new husband to emigrate to Vancouver would have been horrified at how banal this life was. Then again, they'd never made it to Vancouver, had they? She'd found out she was pregnant with Owen on the leg of the cross-Canada bus trip between Montreal and Toronto. She'd never even been to Vancouver to visit.

Tilly added milk and sugar to her coffee. Maybe she could fly there with her Pizza Tela money. Just for a mini-vacation. Once she knew more about these Others.

She finished her toast and carried her half-full coffee cup to her computer desk. The expediencies of apartment living had dictated its place should be in the dining area, between the kitchen table and the front door. Tilly turned the computer and monitor on, then remembered the CD was still in her purse.

The computer was displaying its login screen by the time she returned to her desk. She did the necessary typing and read over the piece of paper that had been folded into the case while the computer finished loading.

It was a form to complete a background check. Of course. She'd be taking credit card numbers from customers over the phone. Some of it looked like it would be difficult to fill in since she hadn't really had an "employer" the whole time she'd lived in Canada. She and Marcus had always run their own businesses. Maybe she could give them some old business contacts to vouch for her.

She put the CD in the computer. Windows asked her what she wanted to do with it, and she told it to view the files only. Then she ran the virus scanner on the whole CD, just like Owen's friend from high school had taught her. It found something suspicious almost immediately, but it was in a hidden file that didn't seem to have to do with the installation itself. Tilly clicked the necessary buttons and sipped her coffee. She wondered if there would ever be a way for her to tell Matt Peters that his office computer was giving viruses to all the new order takers.

The installation was a bit crude — it rather looked like the sort of thing Owen's high school friend used to make for fun and show off on the Zondernaams' home computer — but the application itself looked easy enough to use. Just as well, because Tilly couldn't find any on-line help or a user manual on the CD.

She popped out the CD and put it away in a desk drawer. She almost went to log off, but at the last moment opened a new spreadsheet file and quickly made a list of all the mentions and encounters she'd had with the Others so far. She included the helicopter from the night before, even though it didn't fit the rest of the list, just because she couldn't imagine what else it would have to do with anything. Then she saved the file and shut everything down.

She still needed to get a headset and make sure the volume levels were set correctly on the computer. The only place she could think of to buy one was downtown, at the Eaton Centre.

Tilly made a face. The Eaton Centre on a Saturday was bound to be crowded and noisy.

She looked at the clock in the living room and shrugged. "It's only ten," she said out loud. "It won't be too busy yet."

She went to the door and put on her jacket and shoes.

what happened to columbine

The American National Public Radio (NPR) service recently ran a short story contest called Three Minute Fiction. The idea was to write a story that began with that week's sentence prompt. Since you have to be an American resident to enter, I couldn't throw my story into the ring, but I did write one for the eighth and final prompt.

She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.

We know this because the door was left unlocked, and her husband got home last. He is certain that he locked the door after he let himself in. The placing of the book on the table is certain as well: it was found there, and the amount of dust under it is equal to the amount of dust on the rest of the table. The bookmark was probably placed on top of the book, but it was found on the floor, under the table. From this it was deduced that the bookmark fell as she walked through the door.

She left without putting a coat on. All of her overcoats were accounted for when the inventory of her belongings was made. We also learned that she is wearing a pair of low-profile canvas sneakers. She wore them around the house as slippers, but also in the back garden or to pick up the mail from the mailbox at the end of the driveway. They would be insufficient for the cold night temperatures at this time of year, but comfortable enough during the day.

She did not take any items of clothing with her over and above what she was wearing today. She was last seen wearing jeans, a blue t-shirt, and a black cotton cardigan. Her husband says that was her usual after-work outfit.

Her purse is still sitting in the front hall closet, but her wallet is missing. This is a good sign. It may mean that she wanted to have a means with which to pay for things, and points away from suicide.

Her car is still in the driveway, and her set of car keys are still hanging from the rack by the front door.

Her husband says their marriage was sound and they had been happy together. Both of them had decent incomes, and they hadn't had any major disagreements for about a year. The last disagreement was when she bought herself a new car. She wanted a compact because she had to drive downtown for work, and he wanted her to get an SUV for safety. In the end she bought the compact, and the husband says he dropped the issue after she made the final decision. Since the car was left behind it seems insignificant.

There is no suspicion of foul play at this time.

She didn't leave a note, and her husband didn't hear her say anything about leaving. He vaguely remembers hearing the front door open and shut, probably around six-thirty. He didn't draw any conclusions from this; it was normal for her to check the mailbox while dinner was cooking. When he went to check on the food himself it occurred to him that he'd heard the door about half an hour before he got up, and it didn't feel like she'd returned to the house. He searched the house for her, then checked the front and back yards.

Then he checked for her purse, and saw the wallet was missing, so he figured she'd gone to run an errand at the convenience store on the corner. He started to get worried when he'd finished dinner and she still hadn't returned.

By the way, the book on the table is a paperback copy of The Mysterious Mr. Quin by Agatha Christie. The husband says that it was her favourite book, and that she had read it several times over the course of their marriage. He has never read the book himself.

tilly and the others: part 5

Marcus ducked his head under the door frame and knocked on the open door to get her attention. "My one o'clock meeting cancelled. Do you want to go get lunch together?"

Tilly shot him a look. "I spent half an hour packing lunch for us this morning."

"I know, but..." He shrugged and took two steps towards her desk.

At first she wondered what he was up to, but then she caught the glint in his eye. "They signed the contract."

The smile he'd been holding back broke through. "They did."

"Well," said Tilly, pretending to do something busy and important on her computer, "we shouldn't use up the profits just on signing the deal."

Marcus stuck his hands in his pockets and sauntered a little closer to her desk. "No, but we could go somewhere that wasn't too expensive, and still have a nice sit-down lunch. It is Friday. What do you feel like?"

He was standing right by her desk now, and Tilly had to crane her neck to look up at him. His blue eyes were just starting to get crinkles at the corners. His blonde hair had faded to grey at the front, but it suited him. Even after all these years, it bewildered her how her hippy boyfriend-turned-husband could be so comfortable wearing suits day after day, but there he was, twenty-five years on, and...

"You know what I would really like," she said. "Pizza. A Hawaiian with hot peppers."

Tilly sat up with a start. She was in a darkened bedroom. She was in her darkened bedroom. But it was too small, and the furniture was in the wrong places. Her hand reached for where Marcus's shoulder was supposed to be, but it fell through empty air until it hit the mattress.

"Marcus!" she called out once, craning towards the doorway to see if the bathroom light was on.

Then she remembered that Marcus wasn't there. This wasn't their old student flat in Amsterdam, or their first Canadian apartment in Toronto, or the big suburban house they'd had in Brampton. This was her apartment, and hers alone. Marcus had never lived here.

Marcus was dead.

Tilly half-turned in bed towards the night-table and whacked her alarm clock. The face illuminated, briefly, and told her it was half-past three in the morning.

Wonderful, she thought. There's another night's sleep blown. She just hoped that she remembered not to mention the dreams or the insomnia to Owen or Beth. Especially Beth, although if she told Owen he was sure to say something to Beth anyhow.

She tried to remember her dream. It had seemed so vivid. She'd been able to feel the keys on her computer keyboard, the way that old office chair was just a tad understuffed, the mild but distinctly artificial reek from the air freshener they had to keep in the office because the place got musty if they didn't. Marcus's aftershave, too, from the part of the dream where he was just the other side of the desk from her. It seemed like she could still smell it, a little bit.

And something about pizza. That must have been worked in from the job she was applying for. There weren't any pizza places anywhere near the old office. They'd always gone to the little kebab place when they decided to eat out.

She wrapped her arms around her legs and sighed. She thought about getting up and organising the living room bookshelf, but after whacking the alarm clock discovered that she'd been considering it for a full fifteen minutes without making any attempt to leave the bed. She lay down again.

At first the sound was faint and didn't really stand out against the rest of the noise coming up from the street. Toronto could get very still at this hour, but neighbourhoods like the Annex never stopped moving entirely. There was always someone leaving or coming home, going to or leaving from a job that had odd hours.

The sound got louder, and Tilly turned her head towards the bedroom window. After all the years in the suburbs, it took her a moment to recognise the sound. A helicopter. All right, her window faced towards the hospitals that lined that one part of University Avenue to the west, so that made sense. She frowned a little to think a helicopter would be needed so early in the morning, and hoped it meant good news for someone.

The helicopter was getting closer. It occurred to Tilly that if she hadn't been awake before, she would have been woken by the noise now. Really, it was getting very loud. They were going to wake up this entire side of her building, and all the people in all the flats around the old houses near the Metro supermarket...

She saw movement through the curtains. Without really thinking about it, she got up at last, trying to see the helicopter out the window. The sound of its rotors was uncomfortably loud, and flashing lights were picking out bits of the bedroom in amber and white.

Tilly gasped and jumped back from the window. The helicopter was hovering parallel with her floor, about seventy metres away from the building itself. Surely this was illegal, but there they were. She could even make out the pilot with his helmet and headphones on. He was mostly in silhouette, but she could see that his jumpsuit was pale blue against the flashing lights.

And then, as she watched, he turned his head, gave a thumbs-up signal, and did something with the controls. The helicopter rose into the sky and moved away from her apartment building, heading somewhere to the north and east.

Tilly staggered backward and fell into a sitting position as the back of her knees found the bed. She realised that she was very cold, and forced herself to lie down again under the covers.

She'd have to check the news tomorrow. There had to be some significance.

She fell into a fitful sleep half an hour before the sun came up, hugging the pillow that Marcus used to use.

#fridayflash: light

In truth he'd been sketching a still life in his cottage all that evening, but the sheriff declared that he had been seen stealing the saddle, so he was thrown in prison until he had served his time and paid back the debt. He had no family to back him, and no source of income in prison. Effectively he was locked away for life.

He had no money to buy candles from the prison warden, and his cell had no windows. He was in darkness all the time. Once a day (he hoped it was once a day; it is hard to tell when one is hungry and thirsty all the time), the flap at the bottom of his cell's door would slide open, and a guard would push a bowl of gruel forward through the dim shaft of light. The flap would be closed as soon as the bowl was within the cell, and he learned to run towards the light as soon as he heard the flap being slid back, because he had to compete with the rats for the gruel. He had to eat the gruel in about ten minutes and place the bowl against the door-flap for collection. If he failed to do so, there would be no bowl the following day.

He discovered within an hour of his incarceration that he was not really alone with the rats in the cell. The wall opposite his cot had iron manacles bolted to it, and the dessicated body of the cell's last human inhabitant still hung from them. He decided it was a blessing that the walls were too smooth for even the rats to climb up, and the corpse was too dry to stink. Much.

He decided to name the dead prisoner Richard.

When he wasn't busy collecting gruel-bowls or trying to avoid bumping into Richard as he paced his cell, he would lay on his cot with the fleas and the lice and think of light.

He remembered sketching a poppy field in the vivid autumn gold of a late afternoon.

He remembered running with his box of artist's tools to the pasture, just before dawn, so he could draw the sheep grazing as the sun rose.

He remembered moving his chair until the highlights and shadows from the hearth-fire were just right. That was for the still life he was working on the night before he was arrested. He remembered he was especially proud of how he had captured the reflections on the pewter tankard.

In a dream he walked through the local apple-orchard at midday. He found a ripe apple, picked it, and bit into it. When he awoke, the after-taste in his mouth was that of gruel, and that was when he realised he had been locked away for a very long time.

He sat on the edge of his cot and concentrated on feeling where the other objects in the room were, rather than trying to see in the eternal dark. The wall opposite the cell door was easy; it was colder in that direction. The wall with the door in it was not only warmer, but had a different echo, because some of the stone wall was replaced by wooden door. The wall with Richard on it was different again. He practised, and eventually he could rise from his cot and know exactly where Richard was without touching him.

Richard gave a sudden lurch about half an hour after bowl-collection one day. He gingerly inspected his cell-mate and discovered that the flesh on his forearms had come away, causing Richard's arms to slide down in the manacles until the wider and still-intact collection of hand-bones caught him. He felt the rats under his feet and deduced from their movements that they were feeding on the fallen Richard-jerky.

"I hope you make them ill," he said aloud to his friend. It was the first time he had spoken aloud since he had been imprisoned, and his voice came out somewhere between a croak and a whisper.

After that he decided to tell Richard stories, both to help keep his voice and to pass the time. The poor man had been in prison longer than he had — surely even out-of-date news would amuse him.

The village gossip got re-told so many times even he got sick of it, so he began to tell Richard about drawing. He started by apologising for being a bore, but Richard said nothing about stopping, so that encouraged him.

"My old master explained it very well," he said. "People think it's about drawing what's in front of you, but that's not true. What you really want to aim for is to represent the light. I was known for my natural-light landscapes, but lately I'd been practising working with firelight. It's a bit harder, because it's not steady. It moves around. You see this lovely gleam or shadow, and you grab your chalks and start to represent it, and the fire dies down or someone puts another log on, and the light changes entirely again. It's the same thing with candles or lamps. My old master used to keep several candles handy and burn them down a finger-width at a time to keep things consistent."

Richard didn't comment, but he seemed to enjoy listening.

He was asleep on his cot when the running and shouting came close enough to hear. He started — it was strange to hear a voice that wasn't his own — but the voices came closer and he could make out what they were saying.

"Down with the tyrants! Free all the prisoners! Liberate our brothers!"

He rose from his cot and approached the door, wondering what on earth they were going on about.

"Don't worry," he told Richard. "I'll get it sorted."

Someone pounded on his door, and he started back, crying out. "Brace yourself, Richard," he said. "I think we're in for a brawl."

"Is anyone in there?" someone shouted on the other side of the door. "Can anyone hear me?"

"We mean no harm!" he called back. "Please, we are not your enemy!"

"There's some in this one!" he heard, and then cracking, creaking sounds, as if they were applying crowbars to the door.

He saw a vivid gold rectangle outline where the door was supposed to be, and realised they were breaking into his home. He thought of hiding under the cot, but it was too low to the ground for that.

With a crash the door gave way and fell to the floor. He sank to the ground, blinded by the lamps in the corridor and the glaring torches held by the men standing without.

"We're here to rescue you," one said, walking over the door, torch in hand.

But he covered his face with his hands and screamed.

"Put me back in the dark!"

#tuesdayserial: tilly with the others part 4

It took longer to get home from the Pizza Tela offices than to get there. Tilly got to the strip mall's bus stop just in time to watch the bus pull away. She finished her coffee and doughnut, but there wasn't any trash can to put the coffee cup in. The next bus didn't arrive for thirty minutes —twice as long as the posted interval. The driver frowned at her coffee cup.

"It's empty," said Tilly, shaking it a little to prove it.

The driver rolled his eyes. "Just don't leave it on the bus."

"Of course! I hate it when people do that."

The driver didn't look convinced.

The next bus was late too, and there was a subway delay that sounded like someone had tried to commit suicide by jumping in front of a train. Not that the Toronto transit authorities ever told riders that. Tilly was so grateful to finally make it back to the Annex that she didn't even get annoyed the exit escalator at Spadina station still wasn't fixed.

On her walk home she decided that she would worry about the Pizza Tela CD tomorrow. She didn't trust them to give her an install disc that was free of viruses, and she was too tired to deal with it properly right now. She thought about getting some bubble bath from the health food and organic shop on the corner, but decided it was less fuss just to have a nap.

She always glanced at the answering machine as soon as she put her house keys away — a habit she'd picked up running the office for Marcus that had never gone away. The machine said that there were three messages waiting for her, which surprised her. The landlord had said something about a monthly inspection. Maybe that was it.

The first message was from Owen, asking if she was settled into her new place. Tilly flopped into the armchair by the machine and sighed. Beth must be not telling him about messages again.

The second message was from Owen too. This time he sounded worried, and asked her to call him back.

The third message was also from Owen, and was basically a repeat of the second message.

Tilly sat up. She reached for the phone and dialled his number. She hoped Mercedes and Emily were all right.

Beth answered the phone. "Hallo, Beth? It's Tilly. How are you?"

"Owen's been trying to reach you all day."

"Yes, I just got home and heard the messages. Is something wrong?"

But Beth wasn't listening. From the sounds of it, she wasn't anywhere near the phone. "It's your mother," Tilly heard her calling. "Caller ID says she's at her home number."

Tilly heard a heavy tread thumping closer. From the rhythm she guessed he was coming up the stairs from the basement. "Which phone?" said Owen's voice, far away.

"In the kitchen! I left it on the counter. Don't bother the kids."

Half a dozen thumps. The phone made banging and crackling sounds. "Ma? Are you okay?"

"Yes, of course I am. Is everything all right there?"

"Where were you? I've been calling for hours."

"I had an errand to run up north. Transit was bad."

"Ma, it's seven o'clock at night. I called you at three in the afternoon."

"Yes, and it took me three hours to get home and I haven't had supper yet, so will you please tell me what this is about, Owen?"

"I wanted to know how your new place was working out." He had that little-boy sound in his voice. Tilly grimaced to herself and tried to sound more cheerful.

"It's lovely. I have a few more boxes to go, but it's turning out very well. You and Beth should bring the children."

"Yeah, yeah, we should.... Beth hates driving downtown though."

"Leave the car at Yorkdale and take the subway. Mercedes and Emily would love it."

"Yeah, there's an idea. I'll check with Beth." Tilly could hear Beth shouting something in the background. "Um, I gotta go. Glad you're okay."

"Kiss the girls for me."

"Yeah. Yeah, I will."

Tilly heard Owen hang up, but instead of a single click and silence, there were a series of clicks and some odd fizzing noises. The fizzing got louder. She pressed the phone against her ear.

"...so if we get a Hawaiian, but with hot peppers, for sure..." said a woman's voice.

The phone spat out a burst of static. Then a man's voice said, "....it's from us, it has to be from us. It's the only way to tell..." There were some more clicks, and then the line went dead. Tilly listened for a few more seconds, but was only rewarded with a dial tone.

She put the phone back on its base, leaned back in the chair, and closed her eyes. She hoped the phone acting up was a one-time quirk and not something wrong with her line. She needed the phone line for her internet connection, and she had the second interview with Pizza Tela on Wednesday. That was five days away, but if she had to convince the phone company to check her line because she'd heard half a conversation about a pizza and another half about how to confirm...

Tilly sat up straight again. A Hawaiian with hot peppers. It's the only way to tell it's from us. You need to be on the phone a lot, so that they have a chance to use the communication network easily...

She blinked and looked around the living room. The sun had been going down as she was getting home, and now the only illumination came from the streetglow outside. She tried to remember where the nearest light switch was, then gave up and walked down the hallway to her bedroom in the dark.

#fridayflash: the purple mantle

I'm taking an on-line writing workshop right now, where we write to random prompts provided by the facilitator (Cary Tennis). Two weeks ago the prompt he chose had already been used recently, so he chose a second one. I managed to work both of them into this H.P. Lovecraft-type story.

I learned from writing this that there's a reason why people often write to formula — it's easy to do!

Prompts: I wish to tell the truth but am afraid. OR We had drinks and then went up to her room.



I wish to tell the truth but am afraid no-one will believe me. In this modern age of science and reason, it is very difficult for all but the most open-minded and liberal philosophers to admit there are still secrets in this world that man was not meant to know. Still, I will put these words to paper and entrust them to my lawyer, Mr. Gibbs, in the hopes that, should this terror ever make itself or herself known again, there will be at least one other voice corroborating the experience of the next poor soul to encounter her.

I call her female, because that is how she identified herself. I do not know if these creatures have differences between the sexes as humans do.

I met her on a cloudy and moonless night on the road that leads from Arkham to Boston. She was wearing a mantle of dark purple stuff that hid her figure and her features from the carriage lamp. We were far from any human habitation. It looked like rain. Basic courtesy prompted me to halt my pony and trap and enquire if she would like a lift to the next town. She nodded acquiescence and gave me a gloved hand with which to help her climb into the trap beside me.

She settled deeper into her mantle as I lifted the reins and called to the pony. The usual innocent enquiries into her name and home town were greeted only with shrugs and nods. I received a grunt when I asked her opinion of the weather.

Finally, in exasperation as much as in a hope for a proper response, I asked her if she was mute.

“No,” she replied, in a curious rasping voice, “but I have been very ill lately. I hope my silence is not interpreted as rudeness to you.”

“Not at all,” I replied, and ceased making any attempts at conversation.

By the time we reached Bright's Peak the gusts of wind were blowing sheets of rain in our faces. I decided to stop at the inn there for the night, and when I mentioned this to my mysterious companion she agreed she would like to do the same.

The inn's kitchen was already closed, but after seeing to my pony and arranging rooms for us the innkeeper offered us some of the local ale.

We sat together in front of the fire in the sitting room. My companion removed neither her mantle nor her gloves, and sipped her ale in silence.

“May I ask, madam,” I said, “were you the victim of a smallpox epidemic? I had not heard of one passing through Arkham, but I have not been there in a long time.”

The lady shrugged and barked out “no.”

Then she said that if I wanted to know why she hid, I was welcome to follow her and find out for myself. We finished our drinks and went up to her room.

“Shut the door behind you,” she rasped when we reached her quarters. I hesitated, then closed the door until it was resting against the frame, but not latched.

I thought that she would just lift her hood, but she turned away from me with her face and head still covered. I heard the squeak of leather gripping leather, and saw her toss her gloves on the bed.

She raised her arms and tucked her hands into her hood on either side of her face. Bowing her head, she turned to face me again.

Then she straightened up, which had the effect of pushing the hood back and revealing her head and hands. She brought her arms to her sides just as I opened my mouth to scream.

My senses failed me as well as my voice. The hand-like things were greenish-grey and had a moist sheen to them, as if slimy. The fingers were more like tentacles, and writhed on their own as if they were separate organisms, captured and anchored captive.

The soft-looking, somewhat bulbous head was covered with the same greenish-grey skin. And the face... I suppose I have no choice to but call it a face, but how can one call it that if it lacks eyes, ears, or a nose, and indeed appears to have two mouths, one above the other? Even so, I had the impression...

It was smiling at me.

She took half a step forward, and with that movement some part of my brain finally discovered the will to act. I threw open the unlatched door, sprang into the corridor, and ran down the hall to the staircase. I didn't stop running until I reached the stable and harnessed my pony. The poor beast rattled out of the inn-yard as fast as his exhausted legs could carry us. I urged him on until we reached the crest of the next hill. The road curved there, and although the night sky was still pitch-black, I let the pony halt and looked behind us to check if we were being followed.

I saw and heard no-one. No shadows interrupted the glow of the lights from the inn.

After that I let the pony walk more leisurely, glad he was holding up and gladder still the rain seemed to be easing. We reached the next town a little after midnight, and I roused the landlord of the first inn I could find. He was in a rough mood after having his slumbers so interrupted, but I believe he noticed something in my face and manner which led him to take pity on me.

In the morning I wrote Bright's Peak, explaining I had urgent business in the next town and realised I could not stay the night as I had planned. I requested they let me know how much I owed for the room, since the landlord had agreed to let it to me for the night. I provided my Boston address for the reply.

The letter that eventually arrived explained that no money was owing. The lady, the inn-keeper wrote, had settled both our accounts. He winkingly indicated I had caught the lady's fancy and may expect to be called upon by her in the future.

That was two years ago. Since then I have moved six times and changed my name thrice. Somehow I believe that when the lady chooses to make my acquaintance again, it will not matter.

#tuesdayserial: tilly with the others part 3

Tilly squirmed a little in the waiting room chair. The Pizza Tela offices were located on the upper level of a strip mall. It had taken a subway ride and two buses to get to the location. Then Tilly had had to quiz three different shopkeepers about where the stairs were to get to the upper level. She'd made it to the office with only five minutes to spare before her interview. She reviewed the main details of her resume in her head, more to drown out Marcus's voice saying that he would never hire anyone who didn't show up at least fifteen minutes early for the interview than because she thought anything on her resume would count.

They would want a pleasant phone manner, that was certain. They'd want a good command of English. She definitely had that, although her accent did tend to pop out if she was upset or speaking too quickly. She had to show that she could use their computer software for entering the orders, and assure them that she was comfortable with upselling people over the phone.

Come to think of it, it would be like interviewing for the work she'd done with Marcus.

She didn't really have an interview outfit anymore, so she'd just worn her funeral ensemble and added her pearl necklace and earrings to it. She hadn't been able to find her lipstick yet and hoped that since she was applying for a work-from-home job it wouldn't matter.

Everyone else in the waiting room either looked like a student or fresh off the boat. Tilly suppressed a smile. Owen always got so upset when she used the term. "Ma, they're 'new Canadians,' don't say stuff like that!" Why shouldn't she? She'd been FOB herself. It was just something one had to get through.

The boy with the greasy hair was called into the office. He was the only one who had been waiting longer than Tilly. She hoped that was a sign she would be next.

Matilde (Tilly) Zondernaam. Completed bachelor's degree in European History 1965; married 1966; emigrated 1967; citizenship 1970; responsible for book-keeping, reception, and secretarial duties 1967-2005; taken several night school courses to learn computers and Canadian tax regulations; never committed a crime for which a pardon had not been granted...

She wondered how much of this these Others already knew about her.

"Mrs. Zon.... der... um, name?"

Tilly gave her brightest smile and looked directly into the young woman's eyes. "That's me."

"This way please."

The receptionist led her into an office that looked shockingly nice after the strip mall and the waiting room. Here the walls weren't scuffed, the furniture was not too obviously from a fire sale, and the computer wasn't that old.

If I were that receptionist, I'd be furious, thought Tilly, but she smiled and held out her hand to the very large man behind the desk.

He touched her hand more than shook it, not bothering to stand up. "Matt Peters," he said, giving her no more than a cursory glance before turning his attention back to his computer monitor. "Just a second here."

"Of course," said Tilly, easing into the seat on the visitor's side of the desk.

"There's a spelling mistake on your resume," said Peters, still looking at the computer monitor.

"Really? Where?"

"You spelled your last name with two As."

"No, that's correct. Two As in 'naam'." Tilly tried to remember if there'd ever been a month in Canada where someone didn't ask her about that.

"Huh. Weird." Peters gave the computer mouse one last slap, and finally looked like he was going to start the actual job interview.

"So why do you want to work for us?"

"I enjoy phone work, and working from home is appealing."

"This is part-time hours. And they'll take it off your pension, so you won't be making any extra money."

"Part-time hours would be perfect, and most of my income comes from investments my husband and I made."

"Your husband okay with you working 'til midnight once a week?"

Tilly was fairly sure that was an illegal question, but she smiled to smooth over her surprise and said her husband had passed away recently.

"Sorry to hear." Peters turned away, slapped the mouse a few times, then pounded at the keyboard with his index fingers for a few minutes. Tilly made sure her hands were in the palms-up, relaxed-and-confident position.

"You got high-speed Internet at home?"

"Yes." Her response was rewarded with a mouse-slap. Tilly was starting to feel sorry for it.

"How old's your computer?"

"Two years old."

"Runs Windows XP?"

"Windows 7 now."

"That should be okay." Slap, slap.

"You know how to install software on the thing?"

"Yes, I was always in charge of the computers at my husband's office."

"I just need to know if you're in charge of this one." Slap.

"Yes."

"No-one else uses the computer?"

"No," she said, biting her tongue before she added that she lived alone.

The Enter key was given a three-finger punch, then Matt Peters pulled open a desk drawer and handed Tilly a CD in a clear plastic case. There was a piece of paper folded into the case cover.

"Install this on your home computer," said Peters. "You're going to need a headset, because we do everything over the computer. No phone lines necessary. Make sure your phone is either in another room or the ringer's turned off when you're working. That's important."

"I understand."

"You have to pass a phone interview. We'll call you next Wednesday at.... three PM, via the software. Make sure you're logged in as a test account at that time. The phone test lasts about fifteen minutes."

"Sounds good."

"If you pass that, you fill in that" — he tapped the paper inside the case — "and fax it back to us. You live near a copy shop or something?"

"Yes. Is the fax number on the form?"

"No. I'm giving you a business card."

"Thank you."

Peters threw a business card on the CD case. "Talk to you Wednesday."

"Thank you." Tilly gathered the disc and business card from the desk and did her best to leave gracefully.

She waited until she was down the stairs and in the main corridor of the strip mall before she put the disc away in her purse. The business card went into her wallet.

She could smell that the food court was nearby, and decided to treat herself to a coffee and doughnut for the long trip home.

#fridayflash: the haunted atheist

Mark Leslie Lefebvre's "Spirits" short story inspired me to write down this true(ish) tale that happened about twenty years ago. His fictional tale of a not-quite-a-ghost is a great example of "single serving" e-reading — I read it over lunch at work and got a nice break all in one go. The e-book version also contains a worthwhile afterword.

the haunted atheist


Once upon a time there was a woman who was an arts major, who read the newspaper horoscopes every day for fun, and who hated doing math in her head. When asked if she was religious, she would always say she was an agnostic, but that she felt it was important to study world mythologies since they informed so much modern literature.

The woman was dating a man who was a physicist, who declared that fiction was an inferior art form, and who could do rather complex math in his head. He was an atheist, and very proud of it.

Perhaps this makes it odder that he was the one who wound up haunted. Perhaps it is only poetic justice.

One day the man's place of work was burned down by an arsonist, and the business owner made the then-radical request that the employees work from home until he could find another suitable office space.

The atheist agreed, and set up a workspace in the living room of his small apartment. He spent all his daylight hours working in his living room. He spent all his evening hours as he always had, relaxing in his living room. He spent all his meal-times eating on the living room couch, because although there was a kitchen table in his small apartment, it was used as storage space and never had enough room to set a plate of food down on it.

So it went for months, and still the man's employer had not found a suitable office space.

One evening, when the woman had come over to have dinner with the man, he shakily asked if she believed in ghosts. She said she believed that ghosts were simply a natural phenomenon not yet scientifically explained.

The man swallowed. "Well, I think I've seen a ghost." He pointed towards the living room entrance that led to the hallway. "It was walking along there."

"When?" said the woman.

"Two nights ago."

"Ah." And she changed the subject.

The woman stayed over that night. About halfway between midnight and dawn, she was woken up by the man, who was sitting up in bed and trembling.

"It's here! It's back! Can't you hear it?"

The woman listened carefully. "No," she said. "I don't hear anything."

"Maybe it's a burglar, and now that he's heard us he's stopped moving."

"Maybe, but if it is, he's either going to leave or attack us, and if he's going to leave he's going to have to leave by the door, because none of the windows open far enough to let a person get out."

"Good point," said the man, and he gingerly got out of bed and picked up a baseball bat he'd got to threaten intruders with. "Follow me."

"But I don't have anything to defend myself against —" the woman started, and then realised that she already knew there was no burglar there. She got up and followed the man down the hall.

"Can you hear it?" the man whispered when they were halfway down the hall.

"No, nothing."

"There it is! It just went by, this white light..."

"I didn't see anything."

They reached the entrance to the living room. "It's moving around the room, very fast," the man said.

"I still can't see anything," the woman said.

The man stuck his hand into the living room. "The air is colder here," he said. "That's one sign of a ghost, right? Cold spots?"

"Yes," the woman said, "but on the other hand, we're standing close together in a narrow hallway, reaching into an open room. The air is bound to be colder in the room than it is in this part of the hallway."

The man was upset that the woman had come up with an analysis of the local heat sources and exchanges when he was the one who was good at physics. "That makes sense," he said with as much authority as he could muster.

He watched the ghost whiz around the room for another minute or two while the woman waited with him. "It's fading now," he announced.

"Tell you what," said the woman. "I'm falling asleep on my feet."

"How can you be, when we just saw a ghost?"

"You saw the ghost, not me. As I was saying, tell you what — let's go to the kitchen and have a nightcap, then try to get back to sleep. The ghost or whatever it is doesn't seem to be in a hurry to harm anyone."

She took one step back to reach the kitchen entrance and flicked on the light. "Let me pour the drinks," she said. "You're still all shaking and freaked out."

The man agreed and followed her into the kitchen. The woman was getting the bottle of whisky down from the top shelf when the man cried out.

"Is it back?" said the woman.

"That's what it looked like!" said the man, pointing at the uncurtained kitchen window.

The woman turned and saw the man's reflection in the glass. She thought it over while she got the drinks ready. Meanwhile the man decided that "what it meant" was that he was actually dead. Obviously all of this was taking place in his dying brain. Really he had died at some point, probably recently, although it was hard to tell because all of his observations were being interpreted by his dead or dying brain.

"That means you're not real," he said, turning to the woman. The woman gave him one of the drinks and clinked his glass with hers.

"I think you've made an echo," she said, taking a sip. "The path you said the ghost was taking — it was moving from the stereo to the computer desk to the couch, then back to the stereo again, right?"

"Very quickly," said the man, gulping at his drink. "It was almost a blur."

The woman nodded. "But that's what you do every day," she said. "You work at the desk, you relax and eat on the couch, and you play music constantly."

"An echo," the man said.

"That's the way I see it. Much more logical than telling me I'm dead or nonexistent."

"It's one explanation," the man said. He stared into his drink and didn't seem very happy with the implications.

The woman shrugged, finished her drink, and went back to bed. The atheist did as well.

He never mentioned this or any other ghost ever again.

#tuesdayserial: tilly with the others part 2

Tilly pushed the bureau drawer shut and contemplated the boxes still left on top of the bed. The sun was shining through the open window, and to her surprise she even heard a bird chirping — impressive considering her new apartment was twelve stories up.

She squirmed past the pile of un-tidied clothing to the hallway, then inched sideways past all the boxes there until she reached the living room. That, the kitchen, and the bathroom were all more or less settled. The clock on living room radio told her it was four in the afternoon already. Sleeping on the couch tonight was starting to look like a good idea.

"To heck with it," Tilly said out loud. She found her purse and her keys, grabbed her bundle buggy, and headed outside.

The Annex, she decided as she walked along Bloor Street, had changed completely and yet hadn't changed at all. It still had lots of locally-owned shops and cafes, and it still felt neighbourly. The house in Brampton had never felt like that. Tilly had tried to introduce herself to some of the neighbours when they had moved in, and had never got more than first names and chit-chat about the weather from them. She would get to know people around here. She could tell.

One thing was definitely different from when she and Marcus had lived here, back when she was pregnant with Owen — there were more panhandlers on the streets. The one three metres away from her had a sign that was polite and correctly spelled, and she decided that was reason enough to give him some money when she passed by. She opened her purse and managed to retrieve a loony just in time to drop it in the baseball cap he had set on the ground in front of him.

"They said you were coming back," said the homeless man.

Tilly froze. "Sorry?"

"The Others. They said you'd come back here. It's been a long time, hasn't it? Something like forty years?"

Some homeless people were on the streets because they'd been released from mental hospitals as "outpatients" and then never came back for their medication, Tilly reminded herself. That had been.... three provincial governments ago, maybe four now. It was just a coincidence this poor man's babble was relevant to herself.

"My condolences," the man said. "The Others said your husband passed away recently."

"How can you possibly know about that?" Maybe her building supervisor had gossiped. She'd thought he was overly nosy about her.

"The Others told me," the man said. His tone was calm and pleasant, like they were discussing the highlights of a hockey game. "They asked me to pass along a message from them."

Tilly couldn't help herself. "What message?"

"They want to talk to you. You need to be on the phone a lot, so that they have a chance to use the communication network easily... and you'll need an antennae. One-use antennas are the best." He nodded in the direction of Honest Ed's, sitting at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst as always like a permanent circus sideshow. "I saw there's a sale on this morning."

"Thank you," said Tilly, not sure what else would be appropriate to say.

"Thank you for the donation," said the man, indicating his collection cap.

Honest Ed's was a multi-storied rabbit's warren of linked buildings full of bargain goods. Its famous sign was decorated with hundreds of yellow incandescent bulbs, and it was one of the few shops in the city that still used hand-lettered signs to announce sales and special offers. Tilly entered the first available entrance only to be instantly reminded that one had to visit at least weekly to keep track of where everything was in the place. After a forty-year absence she was completely lost. She pulled her bundle buggy through every level she could find. Most of the household goods and clothing she could ignore, although she couldn't resist getting a new pair of house slippers and some t-shirts. She smiled at the photos on the walls showing Honest Ed with various celebrities, and wondered how many stars the hipsters wandering around on the street outside could recognise.

Tilly reached the kitchen goods section and found the sale that the homeless man had told her about. She filled up her bundle buggy and got some other dry goods she was short on. At the last minute she decided to grab a box of cake mix too. It would be nice to have cake with tea instead of the usual biscuits.

Honest Ed's cashiers are notoriously jaded, but the woman who rang up Tilly's purchases couldn't help herself.

"All this tinfoil and just one box of cake mix?" she said, raising an eyebrow as she replaced the purchased items in Tilly's bundle buggy.

"The tinfoil is on sale," said Tilly, making a point to look the woman in the eye. "Besides, there's a bake sale coming up at my church and I always contribute several dozen cookies."

"Good for you," said the cashier, handing over the change.

When was the last time she had donated to a bake sale, anyhow? It wouldn't have been for a church, that was for sure. She and Marcus hadn't been in a church since the day they got married... well, for the funeral. But that had been Beth's doing, because she took care of all the funeral arrangements while Owen helped her with the legal and banking matters. Tilly smiled to herself, remembering how mortified Beth had been when Tilly thanked the minister for all his help, but explained that she had been an atheist since long before Owen was born. Come to think of it, the minister had taken it far better than Beth had. He said he encountered family situations like theirs all the time.

She looked for the homeless man when she reached the block she had met him on, but there was no sign of him.

Tilly fumbled with her electronic key card at her apartment building's entrance. Another thing she'd have to get used to.

She let herself into the mail room and scanned the bulletin board. It had just been here yesterday when the supervisor was showing her the common areas, it should still be posted... there.

Work at Home
Good Pay, Reasonable Hours
Be a Pizza Tela Order Taker!

Tilly tore off one of the phone number flaps at the bottom of the notice.

It would keep her busy. It couldn't hurt.

Besides, she was stocked up on tinfoil now.

#tuesdayserial: tilly with the others part 1

"Ma?"

"I think I should stay, Owen," said Tilly. She felt guilty wearing a beige trench coat. It should have been black, but the one time Beth had dragged her out to shop for a funeral ensemble they had only found beige. At least her dress and stockings were black.

"The funeral director says you're supposed to go before they replace the soil."

Tilly stared down into the open grave, at the extra-long casket that held Marcus. Even Canadian graves looked different and wrong to her, and she wondered why after forty years of life in North America she still compared everything to home. Marcus had always corrected her and said Canada was home now. There was, she now realised, not going to be anyone around anymore to correct her.

"Depression! I told you!" was hissed behind her, and Tilly turned to see that Beth was standing at Owen's elbow.

"Owen's lost his father," said Tilly, drawing herself up to her full height and resenting that it meant she was still a good four inches shorter than Beth. "He's allowed to be depressed."

"I meant you, Mrs. Zondernaam."

Tilly tilted her head and looked down her nose at Beth. "I had almost forty-five years with Marcus. He was a wonderful man. There is nothing to be sad about here." And I'm your mother-in-law, so call me by my first name already.

"He shouldn't have smoked."

"It was normal for salesmen to smoke when he started in business."

"Let's not have a fight now." Owen stepped between his wife and his mother. "Ma, please. The caterers are expecting us for the wake."

Wake. More rituals to go through. Tilly turned her back on them, facing the grave again, but when she felt Owen's hand on her shoulder she knew she would have to give in and go with them. She walked back to the funeral home's limousine with Owen's arm around her. If she looked away, it almost felt like walking with Marcus again.

They settled into the limousine, and Beth pulled out her cell phone. She entered a speed dial code, muttering about checking up on the babysitter.

"Leslie babysits the girls all the time," Owen said. "If anything was going wrong, she'd call us."

Beth ignored him. "Hello? Hello? Mercedes, put Leslie on the phone. She's doing what to Emily? Oh." She held the receiver away from her mouth and stage-whispered to Owen, "Leslie's washing Emily's hands. What would Emily's hands need washing for?"

Owen shrugged.

"What honey? I'm in the funeral car with Daddy and your Oma. It's.... no honey, Oma's sad right now, you can't talk to her."

"I'm fine. I'd love to talk to her," said Tilly, holding her hand out for the phone, but Beth twisted away towards the car window. Owen patted his mother's knee, trying to comfort and apologise without saying anything in front of Beth.

"I'm glad you're having fun, sweetie, but I need to talk to Leslie now. I need to talk to Leslie... Hello? Oh hi Leslie. Is everything all right? Yes? Yes?"

Tilly watched the highway signs going by outside the window on Owen's side of the car. Owen tried to have small talk with the driver about the limousine, explaining that he sold luxury cars for a living. Tilly let the discussion of performance and suspension types wash over her.

The next thing she knew Owen was nudging her to get out of the car. Beth was already standing outside. Tilly heard her say "catatonic" and wondered if Beth knew what the word really meant.

Owen led Tilly to the church hall, found her a drink and a plate of cheese and vegetable sticks, and seated her at one of the tables. Tilly thought he would settle Beth next, but to her surprise, Owen sat down with her. He leaned forward, elbows on knees, and Tilly realised he was trying to get his head to the same level as hers. She almost felt like laughing, wanted to remind him that men looked ridiculous sitting like that when they were wearing neckties, but she saw he wanted to say something serious.

"Dad worked hard all his life to make sure you would have a comfortable retirement, Ma."

"I know, Owen, I kept the accounting books, remember?"

Owen squirmed in the short-legged plastic chair. "I just don't see why you wouldn't want to be taken care of."

"I've taken care of myself all my life. Oh don't say it, don't," she said, seeing Owen start to protest, "I know you think your father did everything, but accounting and housework counts as work too. Your father always understood that."

"And the times when I'd come home from school and you were staring out the window with your morning cup of tea untouched in front of you, and you wouldn't move or talk or show any sign anyone else was even there until Dad came home, how was that taking care of yourself?"

Tilly blinked, surprised at the frustration in her son's voice. "I just got to daydreaming, that's all."

Owen grunted. "Beth and I worry about you, Ma."

"If it's so wonderful, you and Beth can move to the retirement home. I have other plans."

"Like what?"

"Diane says she can sell the house in a week in this market. And the car's already sold, you took care of that for me."

"And where are you going to live?"

Tilly took a moment to brace herself. "I'm moving back to the old neighbourhood."

Owen sat up straight. "What old neighbourhood?"

"The Annex."

Owen rolled his eyes. "Ma, that neighbourhood's for young people."

"It is not. Lots of seniors live there so they can shop at Honest Ed's."

"I thought you were going to say you were going back to Holland. I guess it's better than that."

"Oh Owen, don't be stupid. When would I get to see the grandchildren?"

"When are you moving?"

Tilly braced herself. "Tomorrow."

#fridayflash: she is, she really is

"Thomas! Good to see you again. Have you decided to sell the house at last?"

Thomas shook the old real estate lawyer's hand. "Not yet, Mr. Sachen. But there is a legal document I was hoping you could help me with."

Sachen raised his eyebrows.

"I need an eviction notice. A proper one, one that would be hard to contest."

Sachen frowned. "I hadn't realised you'd become a landlord."

"I rented out a room in my parent's house. After they.... passed away last summer, I thought I could live there and just find a room-mate, use the rent to cover the utilities while I finished my MA, and save a bit besides."

"And it isn't working out."

"No." Thomas took a deep breath. "Anne came with great references, passed the credit check with flying colours. And she's pleasant enough to live with, personality-wise. But...."

"Yes?"

"When she moved in, she asked if she could repaint her room. I said all right, so long as it was a light colour that could be painted over if need be when I finally sold the house. She painted the entire room, I mean not just the walls, but the ceiling and all the furniture as well. Everything in this beige colour. Then a week later she went over everything again and did it all in a pale blue-green."

Sachen grimaced. "You might be able to claim damages for the furniture when she finally moves out, but unless you had a very watertight landlord-tenant agreement, you're going to need more than that to evict her. What's this Anne's last name?"

"Tropy, like 'trophy' but without the H in it. She has this odd little joke about how it used to be trophy but degenerated."

Sachen pulled over a legal pad from one edge of his desk and started making notes. "And is this Anne a student as well?"

"No... at first I thought she was a grad student or professor since I did meet her at the university, but she says she 'is given losses', whatever that means, whenever an event involving the Second Law of Thermodynamics takes place. I've seen her mail — she gets cheques from all over the world. What is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, anyhow?"

"Not up on patent law myself," said Sachen. "All right, so you want to evict this woman because she repainted more of her room than was reasonably expected when she received your permission..."

"It's more than that!" said Thomas. "Way more! Mr. Sachen, every single appliance in the house has broken since she moved in! And the furnace, and the water heater, and the hardwood floor has warped in the dining room, and last night I came home and the porch awning had half fallen away from its anchors.... The whole place is falling apart, and it was in perfect condition before she moved in!"

Sachen made some more notes. "I helped your parents close the deal on that house thirty years ago. Sometimes new home owners feel like their property is falling down around their ears because they're not used to being responsible for repairs."

"But it's her, I know it is! She always acts so contrite when she tells me something else is broken, but it always feels like she's secretly laughing at me. It's hard to explain, but she really is a bitch. Everything else is just a veneer."

Sachen sighed and put down his pen. "I can't just write 'Anne Tropy's a bitch' in the Description field on an eviction notice, Thomas."

Thomas clenched his fists and started to say something, but caught himself and took several deep breaths. "I know," he said at last. "I just don't know what else to do. I charged her market rent and budgeted for some repairs, but it's gotten way out of control. And..."

"Yes?"

"She says that even if I sell the house and use the proceeds to pay rent on an apartment, she'll always be with me."

"Interesting. Any other signs of stalking?"

"No."

"Pity, we could have had something there, but you need to show it's a pattern for it to stick legally. Would you take some advice, Thomas?"

"That's why I'm here, if you think an eviction notice is out of the question."

"I suggest," said Mr. Sachen, "that instead of fighting this Anne Tropy, you work with her. Encourage her to let you know when something is starting to break, rather than waiting until it's broken."

"I have to work with a destructive tenant?"

"A destructive tenant, or a tenant whose rent was seriously in arrears, that you could do something about. but you can't fight Anne Tropy."

#fridayflash: but it's a lifestyle


The thing that makes noises in the morning is... making noises. I don't like it. It sounds like a very big and angry squirrel barking.

The thing won't stop making noises until she wakes up and forces it to stop, so unfortunately I have to work with the thing instead of destroying it, at least for now. I sound the alert, right in her ear, and she tries to hit me (but she misses, because we do this most mornings and I'm ready for it), then she rolls over and makes the thing quiet.

Some days she falls back asleep after we go through this, then she wakes up later and runs around in a panic before heading out the door. I don't like that either, so I jostle the bed to make her finish waking up.

She says what she always says when she's angry at me. I get out of striking distance. Then she looks at the now-silenced thing and gets up on her own. She heads to the washroom. I didn't actually feel like waking up myself yet, so I find the warm spot on the bed and settle in for a late-morning nap. I hear the toilet flushing.

I do not like the thing, because it makes loud angry noises. She doesn't seem to like the thing either, for all that she allows it in the room. Today I will try to knock the thing to the floor again. It's harder to do than it sounds, because it's tethered to the wall.

The shower is running. She won't come back in here for at least another ten minutes. Bliss.

She made the angry sound from inside the shower! I'm not even in that room! The shower sound stops, so I lift my head to listen and watch for what will happen next.

She appears in the doorway with a towel wrapped around her, dripping water everywhere. I lift my head to get a better look, because she's got the angry face on, and notice one of my mouse dolls in her hand. It's completely drenched in water. She squeezes it and a puddle forms on the hardwood.

Oh. Oh right. Mouse dolls aren't supposed to go in the shower. This has happened before.

She takes a step into the room. I leap off the bed and run under it, making for the spot in the exact middle, under the headboard, that I know from past experience she can't reach.

I hear the angry sound again, and then ridicule noises. I do not like being ridiculed, but it means I will not get hauled out from under the bed.

She leaves, and then I hear the shower again. I come out from under the bed carefully, in case the shower is a trick. Sometimes she runs water to hide the sound of food being released from the metal traps.

No, she really doesn't seem to be around. But there is water all over the floor! I take a running leap over it, and just get a little bit on one foot. Ick. I eat some food and drink some water in case I need to hide under the bed for the rest of the day. The mornings the thing makes noises she usually leaves for the whole day, but it's good to be safe.

The shower stops, and she sees me by my food and water. She makes good mood noises. I signal the food and water are getting low, just in case. Sometimes she leaves with more bags than usual and doesn't come back for two mornings.

She cleans out the water holder and refills it, then does the same with the food holder. I should be good for another two days. I check the food and water while she goes back to the bedroom.

She comes out wearing the clothes that mean she's going to leave. She picks me up and strokes my head. I let my chest rumble to show I mean no harm, and she's still making good-mood noises, so I must be communicating effectively. Then she lets me down, and I notice that there is a sunbeam on the couch in the living room, so I go sit in that.

She's about to leave when she goes to the living room, picks up the little window in the black case from the table, and taps at it for a few moments. I look after she leaves, and the glyphs are:
SheHasACat: I wish I had my cat's lifestyle. [tweeted at 7:30am from Twitter]
I tap the window a few times, but all that happens is that the glyphs vanish, and a creature who looks like me appears. It's not moving, so I don't get concerned.

I figure it's time to go back to my sunbeam.

#fridayflash: picture tour

This is another description exercise, along the lines of prose sestina but using different methods. I wanted to play around with showing versus non-showing, action versus stillness.

The bottom frame of the window sits level with the sidewalk outside. The window is unusually large for a basement apartment, and passers-by could easily look in if it weren’t for the lace curtains that Helen has hung up inside. She’s proud of those curtains; they were sewn from her wedding veil, but she did a good job when she made them over to fit in the window.

The door to the apartment is four concrete steps below the sidewalk. The door has some small panel windows in it, but they’re frosted and so otherwise unadorned.

The pine coat rack almost stands in the doorway. It supports Helen’s beige winter coat, her brown felt hat, and the old black umbrella that probably used to be Gene’s. The hook furthest from the door has tomorrow’s dress hanging from it so the wrinkles will have a chance to fall out.

Today’s dress is white cotton with a small print of violets, washed so many times it’s as soft as old bedsheets. Helen likes it because it’s comfortable, especially now that she’s thinner, but the full skirt keeps getting caught under the legs of her chair when she changes position.

Helen sits at her old hall desk that stands next to the coat rack, right under the lace-curtained windows. She’s writing a letter and looking at photos. That is, she looks at the photos she’s arranged on the little ledge at the back of the desk for several minutes at a time, then out the curtains for several minutes more, the lace printing shadows of roses and ferns across her face. The sunlight that steals past the curtains makes her white hair glow. Every once in a while she seems startled to discover the pen in her hand, notices the letter-paper as if it just fell from the ceiling, reads what she has written so far, and adds another paragraph, or maybe just a half-paragraph, because the photos distract her and start the cycle all over again.

The corner between the desk and the night-table is piled with books. Some of them were definitely always hers. Others may have been Gene’s. She’s put the books that make her happy near the top. The ones on the bottom are mostly bait to lure the mice and the mildew away from anything important.

The night-table is adorned with a china lamp in the shape of a poodle and an old wedding photo in a brass frame. The groom is tall and handsome and wears his blonde hair in a crew cut. The bride is a brunette, and her long lacy veil with its pattern of roses and ferns has been wrapped around the happy couple’s feet.

The coverlet on the white-painted twin bedframe was originally sized for a double bed. Helen cut the excess width of fabric off and hemmed the raw edges by hand, using green thread to match the background leaf pattern. Her favourite cabbage rose fell right on the cut line. Some things just can’t be helped.

A three-tiered chest of drawers sits opposite the hall-desk on the other side of the bed. Helen’s clothes are hidden in it. On top are more secrets – photos of the man and woman from the wedding picture laughing in a Hawaiian-themed nightclub, at a backyard barbecue, in front of a living room Christmas tree. The barbecue and Christmas photos are in colour, but they’re faded.

The chest of drawers shares the wall with an upside-down milk crate that keeps the pantry items and dishes off the floor.

Helen hung the excess strip of fabric from the bed coverlet over the door to the shared bathroom. Mr. Braemar, her neighbour, does not always remember to close and lock both bathroom doors before he does his business, and Helen would rather not fight with him about something so stupid.

The wall opposite the foot of the bed has a bar fridge plugged into it, and a hot plate sitting on top of another upturned milk crate. There’s also a small sink, which is nice so Helen doesn’t have to do her dishes in the shared bathroom. She’s hung a little mirror above the sink. That way she can get dressed and brush her teeth in the morning without having to wait for Mr. Braemar to finish and leave for work.

The gap between the bar fridge and the door is empty, so the door has somewhere to swing when Helen opens it. The door is open now, and an extra sunbeam is hitting the vinyl-covered dining room chair that Helen sat in until she finished her letter. The bits of glitter embedded in the vinyl sparkle in the sun.

The photos are still on the back ledge of the desk. The shaft of sunlight narrows and vanishes as Helen closes and locks the door. She pauses to check how much change she has in her pocketbook before she heads to the post office to send her letter.

#fridayflash: from

On Mars the daytime sky is pink — it’s the sunsets that are pale blue.

After over two years of not being on a planet at all, Audrey didn’t care what colour the sky was, so long as she had one over her. She paused for a moment as she stepped off the spaceliner and onto the walkway that led to the Martian welcome centre. It was strange to walk without feeling engine vibrations coming up through the floor. She tilted her head back and gaped at the huge glass dome. Fred Peters, her job contact here, had told her that eventually people stopped thinking of the domes as “being inside” and identified anywhere without an opaque wall as “outside”. Audrey shook herself and continued to the welcome centre. It was going to take a while to get used to this.

She scanned the crowd for someone looking like the photo of Fred Peters that was on the employee intranet, then noticed a teenaged girl holding a sign that said “Audrey” on it. The girl made eye contact with her and smiled.

“Are you Audrey Fremantle? I’m Sarah Peters, Fred’s daughter. My dad got called into work at the last minute, so I said that I would come and meet you.” Sarah put away the sign. “It doesn’t happen that often.”

"Nice to meet you, Sarah.” Audrey guessed the girl was about sixteen. “Thank you for stepping in.”

"No problem — I’ve never met someone who was actually from Earth before. You know the government will move your things to your residence, right?”

Audrey nodded. “Right.” She paused as Sarah’s words sank in. “Never? Both your parents were born here?”

Sarah nodded. “I’m third gen. All my grandparents were part of the construction crews that built the first domes, but they had all died before I was born. My older brothers can remember them a little. Want to have a tour of the colony, or do you want to go straight to your residence?”

"A tour would be great.”

Sarah led Audrey out of the welcome centre to a trio of glass tunnels. They stepped onto a movator, sort of like the ones at Earth airports, except this one had chairs. The two women sat down, and Sarah started pointing out things.

"I picked this tunnel because it gives you a good view of the dome layout, and it’s nice and long so we can talk about what you want to look at. The government area is over there — that’s where we live, and where your residence is too. I used to go to school there, but now I take the tunnel to the university area. The senior high schools are in the same location.”

Audrey compared the two dome clusters, but from this distance they looked identical. She supposed there would be better identifying landmarks once they were actually inside the domes.

"We’re going to go through the agricultural district now,” said Sarah. “This is my favourite place in the colony.” The movator slid past a field of tall plants. “Those are sunflowers. You can eat the kernels, and you can cook with their oil.”

"My mother used to grow sunflowers in her garden on Earth,” said Audrey.

Sarah looked surprised. “Really? I didn’t know they’d been exported to Earth.”

"They’re not, they were exported from...” Audrey started to say, but Sarah was pointing out a field of spelt, carefully explaining to Audrey what spelt was and proudly announcing it was a Martian staple.

Yeah, on Earth too, thought Audrey. She peered at the spelt. Maybe it was a Mars-specific strain invented to be grown under glass domes, but to Audrey it just looked like plain old spelt.

They trundled along more domes filled with fields of beans and strawberries. Each time, Sarah’s explanation indicated that she believed the plants were native to Mars, and that Audrey would never have seen them before.

“Ooh, the botanical gardens!” Sarah jumped off the movator. “Let’s walk around!”

Audrey followed Sarah into a walkway that led to a dome set out as a formal garden. There were plaques in front of each kind of plant stating what its common and scientific names were, but not mentioning that all of them, down to the last shrub, were transplants from Earth.

Sarah had stopped explaining what everything was when Audrey started reading the plaques out loud, but Audrey was still troubled by the misconception. After all, the reason why she was on this three-year research stint with the government was to ensure Earth-Martian links remained strong.

She decided to take her stand by a clump of rose bushes. “These are lovely,” she said. “I used to grow the exact same variety outside my townhouse on Earth. This kind’s from England originally, as I recall.”

Sarah smiled, but Audrey could see it was forced. “Those are Martian roses. Everyone in my family volunteers here. I planted that bush myself.”

"The plant is Martian, sure, but as a variety —”

"They’re Martian! It’s true, everything they say about Earthers is true! You’re all in total denial that Mars is Mars, you think this is all just Earth under a bunch of domes!”

Audrey tried to recall everything she had ever learned about staying calm. “The colony’s been here a long time,” she began. “Certainly long enough to have its own identity and culture.”

"I know,” said Sarah.

Audrey tried again. “On Earth, roses grow all over the world, but they’re from Asia, mostly.”

“These are from Mars.”

Audrey pointed to the emergency hatch at the end of the garden path. “If these are Martian roses, open that hatch and see how long they last without the dome’s seal protecting them.”

Sarah muttered something under her breath and stomped back towards the movator. Audrey caught only a few swear words and decided not to push it. She was here as a researcher, not a teacher.

The roses were lovely, though. She envied the Martians' ability to control the climate so precisely, thanks to the domes.

She heard Sarah shouting something, but couldn’t make out what it was.

Then she noticed the abrupt temperature drop, and how the wind started blowing.

#fridayflash: waiting

Matthew crossed the threshold to the drawing room. Both his grandparents glanced up to see who it was. The effect was immediate — his grandfather stood and cried out, while his grandmother shrieked and burst out weeping into her handkerchief.

Bloody hell, thought Matthew, it’s only been three years since I last saw them, and Mum and Dad said they were sending photographs.

His grandfather made a visible effort to calm himself. “Matthew, my dear boy, we thought you’d be arriving with your father. Come have a drink with me in my office.” As they strode out of the room together, his grandfather rang the bell and whispered, “Mrs. MacFadyen will take care of Nan.”

Matthew followed his grandfather across the cavernous main hall and up the central staircase, wishing that he’d just shown up for the pheasant shooting with his father instead of agreeing to start his visit a week earlier.

They reached the office, insulated as ever from the world in thick layers of mahogany and red velvet.

“How do you like your whisky, Mattie?”

“Just with soda,” Matthew said, biting his lip. “I’m Matthew, Granddad.”

“Eh?”

“I’m Matthew.”

“Of course you are,” said his grandfather, fixing the second drink. “What did I say?”

“You said Mattie.”

His grandfather tried to put the stopper on the whisky bottle, but his hands were shaking too much to get it into the bottle’s neck. Matthew gently took it and replaced it for him.

“You sit down. I’ll carry the drinks.”

His grandfather sank into the wing-chair on one side of the fireplace. “You’re the same age now that he was when....”

“I know.”

Matthew spent the rest of the evening listening to his grandfather ramble on about Uncle Mattie. How he’d adored his much-older brother, Matthew’s father. How he’d been top of his class, an excellent athlete, a friend to everyone. How he’d been one of the first to sign up when the Great War started. How his letters had shown that he’d written home regularly, even if their delivery was less so.

And now whatever’s left of him is under some Belgian farmer’s field, thought Matthew.

Of course his father had named his eldest child and first son after his beloved brother. It was just awkward that Matthew would so strongly resemble his namesake.

He fixed his grandfather yet another drink, carefully adding just a little more soda than last time, and a little less whisky. The stories would just get more depressing if the old man got drunk.

He handed the tumbler to his grandfather, who took a sip, made a face, but didn’t say anything. Matthew sat down. At some point the butler had been called to light the fireplace, and it was relaxing to stare into the flames.

We see him around the house, you know,” said his grandfather suddenly.

Who?”

Mattie. But always outside. That’s why it startled us earlier — we thought you were him and that he’d found a way in.”

Matthew forced himself not to roll his eyes. “It’s probably just someone looking for work, Granddad.”

“We’ve been seeing him for twenty years,” said his grandfather. “Both your Nan and I. At first we didn’t want to tell each other because we each thought we were going mad, but then we both saw him at the same time. The MacFadyens have seen him too, and they never knew him when he was alive. He’s always wearing a long tan coat and brown trousers, just like you did today. And he never ages. He’s always a lad of twenty-one.”

“I’m sure there’s a rational explanation,” said Matthew, making a mental note to never wear the tan coat around his grandparents.

The mantlepiece clock chimed. “Look at that,” said his grandfather. “I’m sure your grandmother has gone to bed already. We should turn in. Fresh start in the morning.”

“Good night then.” Matthew finished his drink. “Which room did my bags get put in, do you know?”

His grandfather opened his mouth to speak, then hesitated.

Matthew nodded. “Uncle Mattie’s room. Do you mind if I borrow a book to read?”

“Anything you like, my boy. Good night.” His grandfather waved a hand at the bookshelves, got up and left.

Matthew scanned the bookshelves. He settled on a Dickens that looked like it could have been a first edition, then headed down the hall to the wing the bedrooms were in. There weren’t any lights on, but he knew the way well. Nothing had changed in the three years he had been abroad studying.

He reached automatically for a light switch by the door, then remembered that his grandparents still used gas. He cursed softly under his breath, and stretched out a hand. Sure enough, there was a little table near the door with a candle set in a brass holder and a box of matches.

Matthew set down the book, lit the candle, and shut the door. Now that he had made it to the bedroom he realised he didn’t feel sleepy at all. As much as his grandfather had promised him a fresh start to the visit in the morning, he had a bad feeling about being here alone with them.

He put the candle on the bedside table nearest the window and parted the curtains. It was so overcast that he couldn’t see anything but his own reflection staring back at him in the window. He studied his face, wondering what he could do to make his grandparents more likely to remember he was their living grandson. He glanced down at his clothes with reproach. He should learn what colours Mattie wore and try to avoid them. It would be difficult since, of course, what had suited Mattie now suited him.

He looked at the window again without lifting his head, and was surprised to notice that his hair was parted in the middle. He always wore it parted over his right eye. He raised a hand to part it the usual way and then gasped. The reflection in the window still had both hands at its sides, and its expression hadn’t changed when Matthew had gasped.

Then the reflection raised its own hand and reached through the window...

#fridayflash: the timeline

  • 2039: Scientists working at the University of Melbourne successfully teleport a coffee cup from a dedicated departure pad to a dedicated arrival pad. Later that same year, they work with another team in Wellington, New Zealand to teleport another coffee cup, this time with a note in it laying bets on which team will win the Rugby World Cup. The New Zealand team confirms the coffee cup and note arrived safely, and in their original states. This proves that a) long distance teleporting is possible and b) teleporting two things at once will not "blend" them or stick them together. The Australians win the Nobel Prize for physics that year, but lose their bet.
  • 2040-2045: Development of the technology continues. Pads may now be built large enough to accommodate a shipping container.
  • 2047: The first commercial teleportation pads are rolled out around the world. Ship's captains, seamen, and freight airline pilots demonstrate in New York, Hong Kong, London, Mumbai, and elsewhere, claiming the technology will destroy their industries.
  • 2048-2053: Shipping via teleport becomes the norm for anything but very large items. Several industries are transformed as shipping costs flatten — the Australian corporation founded by the scientists uses a global flat fee, scaled only by the size of the item to be shipped, rather than weight or distance.
  • 2053: a dock worker in Hamburg shows up for work drunk, gets sacked, screams he's going to kill himself, and runs into a departure pad just as a shipper hits the teleport button. Much to everyone's complete shock, he arrives in Johannesburg with the shipping container alive and unharmed. The teleportation company owners hold an emergency meeting to discuss human and animal transport on a large scale. The South Africans arrest the dock worker for entering the country illegally, and decide the least expensive thing to do is deport him back to Germany the same way he arrived.
  • 2053-2055: Countries around the world start using teleportation as a method of deporting illegal refugees en masse. Human rights groups complain that often people are deported to countries they did not come from, without being able to speak the local language and with no means to either return to their home country or find a new safe haven.
  • 2056: the teleportation company applies a global firmware upgrade that checks the DNA of any organic matter on the destination pad. If more than two kilos of it belongs to any single human, the pad will not operate until it is removed. Shipping companies complain this slows transmission speeds to unacceptable levels — one tenth of a second instead of one hundredth.
  • 2057: the first "parallel" teleport networks are set up using discarded and reverse-engineered components. After two fatal accidents, one involving a political leader who encouraged the alternative network, the Australian company decides to allow licensing and franchising of the pad centres. They insist, however, that there be one global network, pointing to the problems caused with the Internet when countries tried to split off and form their own.
  • 2058: the first public transportation pads are rolled out. No more than four people are allowed on a pad at once, and destination keycards have to be paid for in advance. Most pads are for only one person to use at a time. 
  • 2060: Suburban areas around the world get retrofitted so that their residents can walk to the nearest pad centre in a reasonable amount of time. The average fitness levels of North Americans and Western Europeans improve for the first time in decades.
  • 2062: The automobile and train industries run a smear campaign against teleportation, resurrecting the old twentieth-century slogan "Getting There is Half the Fun" and claiming teleportation uses more energy and is more polluting than internal combustion vehicles. Unfortunately for them, the scientists who own the teleportation company have been studying energy consumption and the total carbon footprint of their technology almost from the start, and have hard numbers (and a good ad agency) to refute this. They start a counter-campaign aimed at families: "Never have anyone ask 'are we there yet?'".
  • 2065: teleportation leads car driving in terms of kilometres travelled. More and more neighbourhoods are becoming "car free zones".
  • 2070: most countries have laws banishing the few remaining cars to rural areas. No one notices much.

#fridayflash: freedom

Here's this week's #fridayflash. Please leave comments/critiques!

John glanced at the clock on the microwave. He still had fifteen minutes to get to work. No problem; it was only 7:30, and the queues wouldn’t be that long this time of the morning.

He yawned, slugged back the remains of his coffee, and stuffed the last bite of toast into his mouth. Fortunately he’d had the wherewithal to leave his overcoat, hat, and briefcase by the door; it was a habit he was trying to keep, but some nights he forgot. He pulled his work keycard from the outside pocket of his briefcase and stuffed it in his overcoat pocket — the people behind always hated it when someone fumbled for their destination ID. On the way out the door he grabbed his house keycard from the row of hooks by the door and tapped it against the scanner in the hall to lock up.

On the street there were a fair number of people at the cafés and fast food outlets getting breakfast, but the commuter queues were only three or four people deep on the boulevards. A streetcar grumbled by with commuters who had less than the minimum transport length of ten kilometres to travel. John checked his pocket watch, which told him it was 7:40. He supposed he had enough time to get a coffee to go; the stuff at the office was awful, and there weren’t any cafés handy nearby.

There was a long queue at his favourite café, maybe a dozen people, but it moved quickly. John waited for another streetcar to pass so he could cross the road to the transport boulevard. He paused to admire the street. In some neighbourhoods they had just built right on top of the old parking lanes, but where John lived the old lanes had been resurfaced with paving stones — nicer for people to walk on than plain old asphalt. They’d added some trees in cement planters too. It looked good. You’d hardly know that ten years ago cars used to run on the same streets.

John picked a queue that looked like it was shorter than the others, then waited his turn. The commute was moving well this morning. A woman in a blue suit and a grey fedora was directly in front of him. John met her often, but didn’t know her name. He nodded hello when she noticed someone was behind her and glanced back. She smiled at him, and John smiled in return. Maybe in a few more weeks he would get a chance to ask her name.

It was the woman’s turn to commute. She stepped through the turnstile doors onto the pad, made a quarter-turn to the left, and reached back to tap her work keycard against the scanner. John always had fun watching how people used the transporter. Some people positioned themselves to suit the location of the departure pad. Some people planned how they would look when they arrived. The woman vanished in a burst of white light.

The turnstile doors hummed and the indicator light turned green, telling John the woman had transported to her destination and it was now his turn. He pushed his way through the doors, letting two fingers hook through his briefcase handle while the other three held his cup of coffee in the same hand.

Through the glass walls that surrounded the transport pad on three sides, John could see a young couple struggling with a beat-up couch on one of the oversized cartage pads. He rolled his eyes and wondered why they didn’t just rent a furniture cart like normal human beings. “Always has to be someone doing it the hard way,” he muttered to himself.

He reached into his coat pocket and tapped his work keycard against the scanner.

He was never sure if he actually did blink, but it felt like he had. One moment he was standing on the boulevard in front of his condo building; the next he was in the lobby of the office tower he worked in.

John stepped out the exit doors of the arrival pad and glanced at his watch. 7:45. He was doing well. He still had fifteen minutes before the morning status meeting.

He walked to the elevator bays and tapped his keycard against the elevator scanner. The elevator ascended to his office’s floor and he got out. As he reached his desk, he could hear Mike from Accounting complaining about his commute again.

“Twenty minutes today,” said Mike to Agnes, who was doing her best to pretend she was interested. “Twenty minutes, at seven in the morning! Don’t you think that’s insane?”

“You have to learn to keep calm about it, though,” said Agnes. “The cops are starting to crack down on queue rage.”

“People should be ready,” said Mike. “If they’re in the god-damned queue, they should be ready. Otherwise they’re just part of the traffic problem.”

John started his computer and sat down, leaning back and taking his first sip of coffee. It was still too hot to drink, so he hung his coat and hat up and made sure he was ready for the morning meeting while he waited for it to cool down.

“Hey John,” Mike called from across the office floor. “Got lunch plans today?”

“Just going home.”

“You always go home.”

“It’s cheaper and the food’s better.”

“Even with paying for transport four times a day instead of two? Are you sure?”

John grinned and headed back to his desk.

He checked his e-mail, dashed off a few quick replies, then locked his computer to go to the conference room for the status meeting. As he got up, he took a quick glance at his desktop wallpaper.

It was a photo of his father with his first car — a petroleum-burner that had constantly needed repairs. Whenever he took a good look at the photo, John remembered what his father had said when John was growing up: “You’ll never know. You’re never going to know what it feels like, to get that kind of freedom from owning a car.”

No, no he wouldn’t.

#fridayflash: what's in the name


This is my first foray into #fridayflash. Just something light this time — let me know what you think!

Ellen locked her apartment door behind her and sighed. It had been a rotten Friday rounding off a rotten week at work, and she was looking forward to a night of TV-watching. As she prised the high-heeled shoes off her feet, she tried to figure out if she would be better off making herself dinner, or using the last of her patience to wait for pizza delivery.

The phone started ringing as she hung her coat up. She was expecting a friend of hers to call about seeing a movie Saturday, so she picked it up without checking caller ID.

"Yes, am I speaking to Mrs. Stilzkind?" said a voice that sounded like it was coming from far away, over cheap equipment and a bad line.

Ellen hobbled to the couch, wishing her toes wouldn't take so long to straighten out after she took her shoes off. "Mrs. Stilzkind is my grandmother," she said, "but just skip to your sales pitch."

"Sorry, ma'am?"

Ellen rolled onto the couch and gingerly pressed her toes into the cushions, wincing. "What are you trying to sell me?"

"Oh no Mrs. Stilzkind, I only wish to inform you of an excellent offer to have your home re-insulated with straw. High-tech straw insulation is a wonderful way to invest in an environmentally-friendly product that will put money in your pocket through reduced heating bills—"

"I live in an apartment," said Ellen.

"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Stilzkind?"

"I live in an apartment, and Stilzkind is my father's name, not mine. Also, I'm not interested. Good-bye!"

She pressed the disconnect button and dropped the phone on the floor, letting her arm hang off the edge of the couch. Supper, she decided, would have to wait until she could bear the thought of standing up again.

The phone rang.

Before she could stop herself, Ellen picked up the phone, pressed the answer button, and said, "Hello?"

"Good evening, Mrs. Rumpole," said a smooth, confident voice. "I'm calling to remind you that it's time to put your garden to bed for the winter. Castle Greenhouse has a great selection of straw mulches that can be delivered right to your back door—"

"Mrs. Rumpole is my mother's name, not mine, I live in an apartment, and I'm not interested. Good-bye!"

She hit the disconnect button so hard she had to press it a few more times to make it pop up again. Then she dropped the phone on the floor and stared up at the ceiling, and decided that ordering pizza wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Ellen waved her hand over the floor, trying to find the phone, but it had bounced and rolled away when she dropped it. She made herself roll onto her side so she could see where it went. At first she thought it had vanished, but then she spotted it halfway under the couch.

She picked up the phone, and was just getting into a position where she could comfortably dial with her other hand when...

The phone rang.

Ellen considered answering and then immediately hanging up, but she didn't want to put the caller on hold by accident and wind up talking to them after she'd ordered her pizza.

She jabbed the answer button and said, "Hello?"

"Good evening!" said a voice with far too much energy in it. "Have I reached Mrs. Romila Stilzkind?"

"There is no such person," said Ellen, wishing she didn't have such good phone manners.

"Ah!" said the voice. "I was wondering if you'd say that. Please, I am a floor supervisor at the sales centre that both Enviro Insulation and Castle Greenhouse outsource to. We don't usually do this, but I couldn't help but notice that you were contacted by two of our staff tonight, but under two different names. You told us that Stilzkind is your father's name but not your own, and Rumpole is your mother's name, but not your own. Please ma'am, if only so we can correct our records, what is your name?"

"Rumpole-Stilzkind!" said Ellen. And she turned off the phone, unplugged its base unit, took the battery out of her cell phone, and turned off her wireless router. Which is to say, for all intents and purposes, she disappeared from the world without a trace.

fiction from fiction

A short story of mine was accepted for publication in Descant magazine! It won't be published until Spring 2011, but it's my first publication and only my third submission, so I'm very pleased.

It's a ghost story, and it's based on a small cemetery near where I lived when I was in high school. I only ever had the guts to go in it once or twice — even in broad daylight, even though it has good sightlines and is on a major intersection, the place is creepy. The earth directly over each grave has sunk an inch or two lower than the rest of the ground, and is always of a squishy texture if the weather is above freezing, while the ground between the graves is always firm. It's a very disconcerting place to walk.

There was one headstone I vividly remembered from my high school years. It was white limestone, cut with block lettering, and dedicated to a woman who had died 1919-1920. She was the mother of several children who were all also listed on the tombstone. They had all died within months of each other.

At the time I thought it was odd that this had happened, since 1919 is relatively modern times. Then I learned about the Spanish flu pandemic and thought, "Aha! That's what happened!".

So yeah, my ghost story has to do with a farmer's graveyard and the Spanish flu pandemic.

Recently I made the drive back to Brampton to get some photos of the graveyard. Since I lived there, they've put up strip plazas both behind the graveyard and across 15 Sideroad  from it. The one behind the graveyard has a much lower elevation than the cemetery itself — there's a retaining wall about five feet high at the northern edge of the parking lot. Which means, yes, the most southerly graves are right beside a parking lot retaining wall (and some do go right to the southern edge of the cemetery)... and the tops of the coffins are slightly higher than the top of the parking lot pavement, assuming those sunken areas I mentioned earlier indicate the total amount of settling.

I lucked out with the light for the photos I took — it was about an hour before sunset. The sky was clear, so everything was washed in a warm gold colour. Take a look at the slide show below if you're interested.

The big surprise was.... my Spanish flu tombstone didn't exist. In its place (or at least, where I remember it being placed) was the red granite Campbell stone. It records a woman and two men, but as you can see from the ages, they weren't mother and children. Apparently my brain invented those. It was a good lesson about getting inspiration from real life sources — since the trip out there, I'm a lot less worried about "copying" things than I used to be.

Do you have any super-vivid memories of things that never existed (or existed, but not at all the way you remember them)?

five-dimensional polyhedron, maybe?

Once upon a time, back when radio stations would play "MacArthur Park" because it was actually on the charts, there were three malls that could be traveled to easily from Erin, Ontario. Mall shopping was one of those things that needed to be done when the local Zellers in Georgetown didn't quite have what you wanted.

The closest one was Shopper's World in Brampton. Back then it was a single long corridor with major shops at either end, plus one short corridor marked with a geometric wall mural. We went there for clothes, to pick up cold cuts and rye bread at the German delicatessen, and so my parents could get their drivers' licences renewed, back when the entire driving population of Ontario had to get that done during the same time period, instead of by birthdays.

The second closest mall was Bramalea City Centre. This was a dark rabbit warren, two floors of walkways lit by the illuminated shop signs. We would deliberately stand in front of Japan Camera to read something on a piece of paper because they had the brightest sign. The ceiling was covered in huge, tinfoil-coated tubes held in place by yellow rope. My parents said that this was to reflect the light. It didn't work very well. It was more like someone couldn't decide whether to build a market or a disco until they were almost finished.

The third mall was hollow in the middle, and it was our (the kids, that is) favourite, because there was a playground in the outdoor centre area. This mall had two levels and burnt orange tile flooring like City Centre, plus lots of backless stairs that I was afraid of, because I was always afraid I would fall down the backless part of backless stairs. Somewhere in its bowels was a lower level with a cinema. We once waited over an hour to see the first Superman movie before my mum gave us many admonitions not to talk to any strangers, walked to the front of the queue, and came back to tell us we were going home because the next two shows were already sold out. There was also a very dark food court (again, only lit by the signs from the food vendor stalls) with white chairs that had curlicues on the back. It was always very busy whenever we went.

We would almost always exit the mall by the Woolco. This discount department store had two levels, and you could take your shopping buggy between levels because instead of escalators they had movators on ramps, and special wheels on the shopping buggies that locked when they were on a slope. We often got some broken chocolate bars from the little candy booth on the second floor before heading for the parking lot.

This third mall was possibly even bigger than City Centre, and I had got lost in the smaller Shopper's World when I was three, but my mum pointed out that you couldn't get lost in the third mall because it was a giant two level square. That's why they called it Square One.

If you live in the Greater Toronto area, you probably know what has happened to Square One and the City of Mississauga that surrounds it. First they filled in that outdoor playground area, so the mall was less a square and more a sort of windowpane shape. Then they put in additions, and more additions, and "big box" outbuildings that are still being built and added as I write this. The City of Mississauga has mushroomed into one of the worst cases of suburban sprawl ever seen on the continent, and Square One reflects that. Instead of being the mall you could never get lost in, it now has street-style signage along its many corridors so you can pick your way through and, with some luck, find everything you went there for.

The Woolco is now a Wal-Mart. The old cinema has been replaced by two new ones. Except for The Bay, Sears, and maybe Zellers, I don't know of any shops that have been there from when it opened.

Square One is an odd place. Some of the department stores have hardware departments, but there is not a single dedicated hardware store amongst all those shops, nor a lot of other shops and services you would expect to see in a central shopping zone. Even though the complex is surrounded by high-rise condominium towers, the nearest supermarket is just over three kilometres away. I believe there's at least one pharmacy in it, but as I write this post I can't think of where it is.

What it does have are tons of clothing shops, costume jewelry/trinket shops, music/movie/video game shops. There are also lots of places to get cheap fast food, including what I believe is a reinvented version of that dark food court we used to go to. None of the stalls have the same vendors, and the layout is completely different, but I think it's still the place.

The reason why I think it's the same place, even though it now has a skylight just beyond it and bright artificial lighting within, is that I still sometimes automatically take a shortcut to it. I can't describe where it is, because I always seem to find it by feel, but if you duck past some utility doors, go past the public washrooms (rather hidden now), and go down a flight of stairs past where some of the fast-food joints cache their extra inventory of burger buns, you'll wind up right beside the Dairy Queen.

The floor tiles in that little corridor are still burnt orange. It has to have been there all along.