#fridayflash: swimming, not drowning

Normally I'm against using non-fiction for Friday Flash, since "flash" is short for "flash fiction", after all. But Larry Kollar forced my hand a little bit, in the comment he wrote on this week's instalment of my Tuesday Serial. This flash happened when I was three, and is told exactly how I remember it. Perhaps it's not what happened; but what I remember.

Once upon a time when I was three years old, my parents bundled my little brother and I into my father's dark green Ford pickup truck and we drove all the way to Wasaga Beach. My brother was one and a half, so even though he could walk and play with a pail and sand shovel he was still a baby. I was a big girl.

Usually it was just the four of us when we went to Wasaga Beach, but this time we met one of my father's friends. My father's friend wanted to go out on the lake, but he didn't own a boat, and neither did we. So he rented a rowboat and he and my father planned to row out into the lake, and I got to go with them! My brother stayed on the shore with my mother, wandering around with his pail and sand shovel, wet sand sticking to his diapers.

I was wearing my red and blue two-piece swim suit with the white pleated skirt attached to the bottoms. I was glad I didn't have to wear diapers at the beach.

My father got into the rowboat first and sat in the bow. Then my father's friend picked me up from the dock and handed me to my father. I didn't like that part because I wanted to climb in by myself. The boat wobbled every time someone moved. My father told me to sit still in the centre of the boat.

My father's friend got into the stern of the boat and cast us off from the dock. My father started to row.

My father's friend — I have no idea what his name was, so let's say Peter — tried talking to me in Croatian, but I didn't know what he was saying because my parents had only taught me English. Peter was surprised I couldn't understand him, and asked my father about it. My father answered him back in Croatian, and their conversation went back and forth over my head as I watched the shoreline get farther and farther away. I'd been taught it was rude to interrupt grown-ups, especially when they were speaking other languages, so I just watched the waves and the shore and the people in their swimsuits getting smaller and smaller.

Every once in a while Peter would cup his hands and scoop water out of the boat. My father leaned forward and told me to help him. I tried, but my little hands couldn't scoop much water. Peter and my father kept discussing something in Croatian.

Eventually, Peter looked at me, then at my father and said, "She swim?" in English.

"No," my father said.

There was more discussion in Croatian. Peter turned backwards in the boat to look at the shore a lot. I didn't like that because it made the boat wobble. The water in the bottom of the boat was up to my ankles.

Then the boat wobbled a lot, because my father went over the side into the water. He swam up to where I was sitting, and explained the boat had a bad leak. He was going to swim back to shore with me, and Peter was going to swim back with the boat and get his money refunded from the man who rented the rowboats.

My father explained that I would need to hold on to his back so he could swim with me, but I couldn't hold tight around his neck, because if I did that he couldn't swim. I should hold onto his shoulders instead.

Peter said, "Ready?" to my father, and my father nodded. Then Peter said "Ready?" to me and I held my arms up so he could pick me up and hand me to my father. My father held me above water while I climbed around to his back.

I held on around his neck like he told me not to, so he told me to remember what he'd said. He wasn't yelling, but he was sharp, so I changed what I was doing right away. Then he started swimming.

Peter shifted around and started trying to row the leaky boat back to shore. The boat was slow, and before long we were far away from him.

My father swam with his head out of the water, and that kept my head out of the water too. It was nice to be in the lake because the sun was very hot. Every once in a while he would stop and tell me to not hold him around the neck, and then he would start swimming again.

As we got closer to shore I noticed there was a bunch of people watching us swim in. One woman was yelling and waving an arm, while she held a baby with the other arm. When we got close enough I recognised the woman and the baby were my mother and brother. My brother was crying, but that was no big deal because he did that all the time.

I didn't know why my mother was yelling. I didn't understand a lot of it, and anyhow she was yelling at my father. My father swam until we got to shallow enough water that he could stand up, then he had me slip around so he was carrying me and walking through the water. When the water was below his knees he asked me if I wanted down, and I said yes because I could walk through the lake by myself. It was shallow enough and I was a big girl.

My mother was shouting and crying I could have drowned. My father shrugged and said they hadn't deliberately rented a leaky rowboat, and since everyone kept calm and both the adults knew how to swim, everything had gone all right.

"So where's Peter?" said my mother, not as upset but still unconvinced.

My father turned around and pointed out the half-sunken rowboat, still about a hundred metres from shore. He frowned. "I should go out and help him tow it in."

"Don't you dare!" said my mother, and by the time they were done arguing about it, Peter was back at the dock.

I learned how to swim when I was five, and probably by the time I was ten or twelve I appreciated how much trouble we'd actually been in that day. It hasn't changed the memory, thoughthe day I almost drowned is still one of my most peaceful early recollections.

tilly with the others: part 16

The elevator took forever to arrive at her floor, and when it did the polite young man with the tattoos was in it. Tilly had met him the day she moved in; he had watched some of her furniture for her when the movers accidentally trapped her in the elevator with the couch. Now he nodded hello to her and Tilly smiled back, desperately wanting to tell him that her eldest grand-daughter had e-mailed to say there were doors floating in the sky above her old house in the suburbs.

The young man was busy thumbing something into his phone. The elevator churned its way to the lobby and the man gestured for her to leave the elevator first. Tilly smiled and thanked him, then pretended to check for something in her purse as he went through the back doors.

She decided to go to Kensington Market and sit in the park if she needed thinking time. By the time she reached Harbord Street the noise and busyness on Spadina Avenue was getting on her nerves, so she cut across to Robert Street and walked along the quiet houses instead. Emily saw a door in the sky, and two men who were really looking for her, not Emily, had been there and pointed it out to her... Tilly stepped around a little boy on a tricycle. It felt like a thought was waiting to burst just behind her eyes.

She made it all the way to the market without the thought showing any more than its existence. For once the Moonbean Café had empty tables, so she treated herself to a chai and grabbed some serviettes to write on, just because it felt like she was going to want to write something down.

There was a little girl in a yellow sundress at the counter, holding onto her father's hand as he ordered them both drinks. Tilly watched him lean down and point to the bakery case. The little girl pointed at the oatmeal cookies, and the father straightened up and ordered a cookie. Tilly looked away. She knew it was irrational, but girls in yellow dresses always irritated her.

Her first new dress had been yellow. That had been... 1950? It sounded right. Before that every stitch she owned had been hand-me-downs from her older cousins. Her mother had knitted her the dress, and had embroidered purple pansies across the bodice. Tilly had liked the pansies, which made up for the yellow a little bit.

The second or third time she wore the dress, it was a Saturday, and her father had gone out with some friends. Her mother was happy to stay at home and read, but the teenage daughter of the lady next door rang the bell and said her grandmother was ill, no-one else was home and she didn't know what to do. The old woman was already partly paralysed from a stroke. Tilly's mother feared the worst, so she told Tilly to be good, play with her toys or read a book, and not answer the door until she got back from helping the neighbours.

As it turned out, the grandmother had had another stroke, and Tilly's mother was away for some time calling an ambulance and generally trying to help the neighbours. Tilly finished the book she was reading, built some pyramids with her blocks, and changed the clothes on her dolls a few times. She wished she was better at telling the time, so she could figure out how long her mother had been away. She thought about going to the neighbours to see what was going on.

Then she heard a knock on the door, and heard a man's voice calling her name. She knew her mother had told her to not answer the door to strangers, but surely if they knew her name this must be her father? The voice had been muffled, so she wasn't sure. Maybe he had forgotten his keys.

She gave a little screech when she opened the door. There were two men standing there, and neither of them were her father. They were dressed in identical grey boiler suits, and wore grey flat caps on their heads and black bow ties at their throats.

The man on the left raised his eyebrows. "You sure about this?" he said. "She's awfully small."

"You have to take the total lifespan into account," the man on the right said. He smiled. "It's all right, Tilly. We just wanted to make sure we knew where you lived. For when you're all grown up."

"Is she afraid?" the man on the left said. "You're afraid, aren't you?"

"We're outside the extended family unit," the man on the right said. "She's been trained not to move beyond the circle of trust. It's all right," he said, smiling again, "we won't come in. It was nice to meet you, Tilly."

The man on the left frowned, then shrugged his shoulders. "Er, certainly," he said. "Nice. Good-bye."

"Good-bye!" the man on the right said, tipping his hat and smiling one last time. Then they turned around simultaneously and left.

Tilly waited until she couldn't see them or hear them anymore. Then she ran to the door, bolted and locked it, and went up to her room.

Her mother found her asleep on her bed, with all the stuffed animals handed down from her cousins gathered around her.

In the Moonbean Café, the sixty-seven year old Tilly shook her head and sipped at her chai. "Lifespan." "Extended family unit." She had had no idea what those words were when she had heard them at age six, and she'd completely blocked the incident from her mind until now. Although, she reflected, taking another sip, now that she knew the words and had managed to remember them, she still had no idea who the men were or what they were gabbling about.

She'd better find out fast, though, because she had to figure out whether or not they were dangerous to Emily.

#fridayflash: gold

In the morning he said that next time it would be with a knife. She just acted as if he had mentioned the weather — there was no confronting him if he was in one of those moods — and walked to the washroom. There weren't any bruises, but her nose felt crunchy if she pressed it on the damaged side.

In this space it was damp and grey and too cold for regular indoor clothes, which meant the furnace was acting up again. Inside her head, every time she closed her eyes, she could see gold, see it and hear it as this amazing piece of French horn music that Philip Glass had never written. She wished she knew how to write it down, or sing it. She concocted a scene in her head where she sang what she was hearing into an MP3 file and sent it to Philip Glass, and while of course the piece he did compose sounded nothing like the fantastic French horn in her mind's ear right now, it would prove that she had been on the right track. She was right that the music in her head was beautiful, even if she didn't know how to write it down or sing or play anything.

She went to the living room and started tidying up. There were no further sounds from the bedroom, no further evidence of the abundance of tin and lead in the grey air. She cautiously sang a few notes, realised they didn't match what she was hearing in her head, and tried the same phrase again. It was closer. She would have to be louder to match the tones exactly, and that wasn't a good idea.

She listened. Maybe there was more than one French horn playing at once. There wasn't any harmony, but she wasn't sure what successions of notes were physically possible. She wasn't even sure it was a French horn, but from what she could remember from music class in elementary school, that seemed like the best fit. Inside her head it was playing at a loud but pleasant volume.

The cleaning supplies were under the sink in the kitchen. She went down the hall to get them.

Sounds that resolved to "Make me a coffee, would you?" floated out of the bedroom. She froze in mid-step. The French horns vanished.

"Regular or espresso?" she said. Her nose had started hurting again.

"Espresso would be nice. Since it's the weekend."

The espresso maker was one of those tiny Italian coffee-pots that were too little to fit in the centre of the burner. She filled it with coffee and water, almost putting the coffee in the water reservoir, but catching herself just in time. She screwed the reservoir onto the bottom of the pot and set it on the stove, double-checking that she set the right burner on.

Still no movement from the bedroom. The doorway was dull and dripping.

She'd been going to the kitchen for something else before she made the espresso... something to do with the sink. The sink was full of dirty dishes, but she couldn't run any hot water until he decided whether or not he wanted to take a shower first thing, and he wasn't out of bed yet.

She realised she was staring at the cupboards under the sink, so she gingerly opened one of the doors, making as little noise as possible. There was nothing under there but the garbage can and cleaning supplies. Dusting was a quiet thing to do, so she took the dusting spray and a rag out and checked the espresso maker once before padding to the living room.

The coffee table's knick-knacks were all sitting on the couch, and she realised that she must have been planning to dust earlier. It was a lucky break she'd made the same decision over again. She shook the dusting spray cannister and gave the coffee table a light coating of cleaning chemicals. He didn't like it when the smell was too strong, but he liked it to be there.

The dusting spray smelled like orange oil, and as she wiped down the table she thought of Spanish oranges in her Christmas stocking, and of very bright sunlight on a very cold winter's day. French horns. She'd heard French horns in her head when she woke up this morning. They were astonishing, calm and pure and golden like sunlight itself. She could imagine one still playing, far away, directly under the sun, like a coda. She started putting the knick-knacks back on the table.

From the kitchen came the smell of cooking coffee. It precipitated to the taste of old blood on her tongue, and her abdominal muscles cramped, once. Right, her period would come in a day or two on top of everything else. She put the rag and the can of dusting spray on the bookshelf and went back to the kitchen to check on the coffee.

The coffee-pot sounded like the water reservoir was almost boiled dry. She took the pot off the stove and poured the coffee into a cup, making sure that she had turned the burner off. He hadn't got up yet, so she grabbed a cloth napkin and brought the coffee into the bedrooom. She set it on the nightstand without looking at him, using the napkin as a coaster.

"Stay away from me today," he said.

"I'm going to go grocery shopping." She got some clean clothes out of her side of the closet and pulled them on.

"The coffee's good," he said. "Did you clean out the espresso pot?"

"It's still too hot," she said. She headed to the front door and slipped her shoes on.

"Could you do it when you get back?" he said, but she was dragging the bundle buggy down the stairs and checking she had her money and keys on her at the same time, so she didn't hear.

Outside it was a sunny day, and much warmer than she expected. By the time she had walked one block she had her jacket open. By the time she got to the market she had taken her jacket off and put it in the bottom of the bundle buggy.

She ran into a friend of theirs and the two of them chatted about the weather. "It's wonderful out today," she said. "The air is positively golden."

tilly with the others: part 15

Tilly floated her mouse over Emily's e-mail, then stopped before double-clicking. She made herself tidy up the computer desk, use the washroom, and make a cup of tea first. Once the tea was steeped, she very deliberately set a shortbread cookie on the edge of the saucer and returned to the computer.

Hi Oma:
I am good. Mercedes always bugs me when I'm on the computer, so I check my e-mail at my friend Tiffany's house. Sorry I took so long.
My friend Caitlin moved. Now she lives next door to where you and Opa used to live. Mum drove me there for a playdate two weeks ago, and Caitlin's mum told us to get off the computer and go play outside. So we were sitting on the back deck, and it felt weird because I could see your back yard but the new people have been taking out the gardens, and there were two men there dressed in coveralls, like they were mechanics at Dad's work. Caitlin said they looked like the guys who delivered her parent's new appliances when they moved, except it wasn't them.
I don't know why they were in the back yard, but the lady who owns the house now was there and was yelling at them. They had to speak up when they talked to her because she wouldn't stop yelling when they were trying to talk to her.
The men were asking for you. They kept saying they wanted to talk to Mrs. Matilde Zondernaam, and I remembered that's the long form of your first name. The lady said she didn't know who that was, and she was getting really mad, but then her husband came outside and said that was the name of the person they bought the house from. They were still talking about it when Mum and Caitlin's mum came outside. I think they could hear the shouting in the house.
Mum went to the fence and said that you were her mother-in-law and asked if she could help. The men said no, if they had the wrong address there was nothing to do. They said they would like to know your new address, but they said Mum wouldn't give it to them, and Mum said they were right.
 Mum and Caitlin's mum went back in the house, and the men said since there was nothing to do they would leave, so the new people went back into your old house. The men were walking by the fence, and I ran up to them and told them you were my grandmother. The fence is taller than I am, and you have to use a gate to get into Caitlin's back yard. It wasn't dangerous.
I told them you moved to an apartment in the Annex, but I didn't know the address. I told them I would tell you I saw them, and I asked if they were delivering something.
One of the men pointed up. I looked where he pointed, and way up in the sky, high up like your apartment, was this door. I could just barely see it was a door. It was floating over your back yard. The door was brown and wooden and looked old-fashioned, like it was from the 1960s maybe. It was the plain kind of old-fashioned, not the decorated kind from the 1800s.
Caitlin asked me what I was looking at. I went back to the deck and you couldn't really see the door from that angle. I told her to try to see it from the fence, but she said it was gone, so I tried again, and it was definitely gone. The men went away while we were on the deck.
I liked visiting you at your apartment. The house started feeling sad when Opa was in the hospital. I liked the Spaghetti Factory too.
Do you know about the delivery men and the door?
Emily
Tilly leaned back in her chair and picked up her cup of tea. She finished the cup while she read the e-mail over several times more. Something wasn't... right about it.

She rinsed out the cup and saucer in the kitchen, then returned to the computer to read what Emily had written one more time.

The door. That was it. Tilly could imagine Emily talking to strangers despite Beth's constant warnings — she had never been a shy girl, and after all, she was ten, not two  — but she was far too matter-of-fact about the door. Surely Caitlin would have questioned her about seeing something in the sky, or made fun of her, but if she had, Emily didn't mention it in the e-mail.

Tilly bit her lower lip. The mind-numbing Pizza Tela shift had worn her out.

She opened up her spreadsheet about the Others, and made some notes from Emily's e-mail. Then she shut down the computer and went out for a walk.

Implications loomed like monsters hiding in shadowed corners. Tilly couldn't quite make them out, but she knew she wasn't yet willing to face them.

#fridayflash: story-maker's faire

I had the honour of hearing Ray Bradbury speak at a writer's conference I attended some years ago. This story isn't based on what happened. But then again, it is, because he gave us magic and a much-needed reality check, all in one well-chosen speech.



Pens, quills, styluses for sale at the Story-Maker's Faire. Typewriters, telexes, telegram-forms, and these are just the midway stalls. Paper, parchment, pretty little pixels glittering in the sunset.

Inspiration? Buck a throw, mac, a buck a throw, try your luck, send the pretty lady on your arm home with something she can show off to Mother.

The noises and colours and lights and the smell, that reek of sugar and used toner cartridges. The hawkers shill like hawkers always do, claiming publishing is just a case of money on the table and a straightforward game of skill and chance. The hipster rubes pretend they don't care, then blow the whole night's entertainment budget on one crap shoot, just when they think none of their friends are looking.

There's more to the Faire than the bric-a-brac, though. Past the midway, under the big top, there's a trio of stages with speakers pronouncing on Writing of the Future.

The first stage is made of unpainted steel, welding seams blackened like torture scars at the corners. The stage is lit with a tangle of fluorescent tubes hanging above it, all wrapped up with various colours of rubber-insulated wires. It's impossible to make out which wires are for support and which supply the electricity.

The stage is set with two objects. The larger one is an apparatus made of the same steel as the stage. It might be a giant mobile. It might be a time machine. It might be a feat of engineering impossible to categorise within the bounds of known history. It might be, come to think of it, from outer space. In the blue-white glow of the fluorescent tubes, there are gears and levers, buttons and handles, the screw of Archimedes and the engine of Babbage, all fabulated together into a skeletal thing.

The smaller object is human in form and male in gender. He has curly hair that bounces from his head in flaxen coiled springs. He has round, wire-rimmed glasses, and a grey bow-tie pinned to his white shirt. He stands next to the apparatus where the largest set of levers are clustered.

A crowd forms. The man begins to speak. He explains that the apparatus is a Story Machine, and that it will tell a story however the reader wants it to be told. The machine can make the story happy or sad. It can let the reader read it from the male protagonist's point of view or the female protagonist's point of view. The reader can decide how quickly the action goes, and how the characters will react to each plot point.

Some teenage boys at the back of the hall call for a demonstration, and the man on the stage gets flustered. As it turns out, the machine is not finished. Not all of the parts are installed yet. Without the parts, no content can be uploaded.

"I'm really sorry," he stammers. "There's been a lot of bugs."

Robbed of their grand finale, the crowd dissolves. Some people wander back to the midway. Others make for the second stage.

The second stage is made of wood that looks like it spent a very long time in the sea. Grey and softened, weathered and warped, it's held together with rusty nails and old baling wire. The performance area is lit with hundreds of thick white candles held in dozens of tall iron candelabras.

In the centre of it all is a large red velvet armchair. A woman in black pajamas with very short-cropped hair sits upon the chair, legs wrapped in the lotus position.

Once the crowd has settled, she begins to tell them of a Future of Writing where the reader will choose to engage directly with the text and guide it. The reader's choices will shape the text, and the reader will choose what the outcome of the characters' predicaments will be.

"Doesn't that just mean the reader is the writer?" calls out someone.

"How's this all going to work?" calls out someone else.

The woman rolls her eyes skyward and shrugs. "That's not down to me," she demurs. "I'm a creative. The technologists will determine the process."

"Surely the writing process for something like that —" a third someone starts, but the woman rises from the chair and starts wandering the stage, blowing out all the candles.

Yet more crowd members head back to the midway. Those that remain shuffle towards the third stage, unsure if they'll be bigger rubes for staying inside.

The third stage is dark, but the afterglow from the young man's fluorescent tube display reveals the silhouette of a man standing alone upon it. He is tall, not just tall but large, and the observant notice a glint from his eyeglasses just before he flicks the switch and... turns on a backdrop of flashing incandescent lights! The stage turns out to be wooden but sturdy, and the lights that blink in sequence in the background make the running effect known to anyone who has seen a marquee.

The man tells a story involving no more technology than a bicycle, a film projector, and a ball-point pen. The crowd roars at the punch-line that ends it. He tells the one about the circus, the one about the typewriter, the one about the wallpaper, and the one about the apples. The entire audience laughs, cries, wonders together. They have known these stories all their lives. They have never heard them told before.

Finally and too soon, it is time for the man to wind up. "This stuff," he says, gesturing at the other two stages, "this is fascinating stuff, really thought-provoking. But remember: no matter how the story gets told, in the end what matters is that it is a good story." Before the crowd has a chance to burst into applause, he flicks off his incandescent marquee lights and quickly slips down the stage's back stairs, gone before anyone had a chance to even ask for his autograph.

Five minutes later, out in the parking lot, all that can be heard are ballpoints scratching in notepads and fingers tapping laptop keys.

A good story. It's all there ever was to be had.

tilly with the others: part 14

Tilly dragged the bundle buggy into her apartment and locked the door behind her. She glanced at the computer as she took the first load of groceries from the buggy to the kitchen. Emily still hadn't replied to her e-mail. Then again, she reminded herself as she opened a cupboard to put away tins, neither Beth nor Owen had contacted her either. So while Emily's statement that she had "something important" to tell her over e-mail was suspect, at least there hadn't been any negative repercussions to writing her.

On her second trip into the kitchen, she checked the clock on the oven. It was only 3PM, so she had an hour before her first Pizza Tela shift started. Rainia, her supervisor, had told her to be logged in and ready at least ten minutes before her shift started, but Tilly wanted to get on the computer well before that. First, she wanted to check her e-mail and see if Emily had replied this morning. Second, she had some additional details to her work environment that she would need to figure out. Tilly appreciated that Rainia had given her a Monday afternoon two-hour shift to start on.

She put the last of the groceries away and tucked the shopping bags back into the bundle buggy before shoving the lot into her front hall closet. She started to head for the kitchen, then stopped herself and went to her bedroom instead. It was just as well to start to use up the roll that Owen had spotted during the visit last weekend.

Tilly brought the roll of tinfoil back to the living room and laid it on the computer desk. She filled a pitcher with water from the kitchen tap and set it and a drinking glass on the computer desk too. She almost sat down before she noticed the living room curtains were still open. She walked over to the window and closed them firmly, making a point of not checking if anyone was trying to look in. If you were self-conscious about it, that was cause for gossip in itself. Besides, she was eight stories up; this was just being careful.

She returned to her computer chair and poured herself a glass of water while she waited for the machine to boot.

Tilly checked the drapes were well and truly closed, then turned her attention to the tinfoil. She pulled off a length she was certain was longer than she needed, in order to ensure there was sufficient overlap, then carefully wound it around her head. She used her left hand to hold the overlap in place, then used her right hand to twist the top until it formed a point and kept the makeshift cap on her head. The faint reflection of herself in the computer's monitor looked like a very shiny version of the elves which used to populate the fairytale books she read as a child.

She placed the VoIP headset over the cap gingerly, hoping it would help keep the tinfoil in place, but worried that the whole assemblage would fall off if she wasn't careful. She let go of the headset, and was please to feel it staying put. The cap rustled a little bit if she moved her head a lot, but otherwise it was quiet and comfortable. There. Hopefully that would work as the antenna the homeless man had advised her she'd need to hear the Others better.

Tilly opened her e-mail application. There were a few e-mails from friends, but nothing from Emily. She checked the clock and decided she didn't  have time to write back anyone before her shift started, so she closed the application and logged in to the Pizza Tela application.

She still had twenty minutes to go, so she decided to pass the time by playing a little solitaire until it was time to make herself available to take calls.

At ten minutes to the start of the shift she marked herself as available and sent Rainia a message as  "time card punch-in".

For the first forty-five minutes there were no calls. Tilly played several games of solitaire, and was considering switching to mah-jongg when she finally received a call. It was someone asking about the hours for pick-up at a location in Scarborough. Tilly looked up the information for them on the web site and completed the call.

She went back to playing computer games, and when she had beat the mah-jongg game for the fifth time she checked the clock. Since this was a training shift, it was only three hours long. There was only half an hour left, and so far she hadn't received any orders. The tinfoil was making the top of her head hot.

Fifteen minutes before her shift ended, someone finally called with an order. The man had an accent Tilly couldn't place and had a hard time understanding, but she was able to ask for clarification without making the customer irate. He didn't order a Hawaiian with hot peppers, and Tilly couldn't make out anything in the conversation which would indicate it included a message from the Others.

She marked herself as unavailable five minutes after her shift ended, just like she had been told during the training sessions. There was a message from Rainia, saying that even for a Monday afternoon things had been quiet, but praising her for the two calls she did take.

Tilly closed the pizza application and pulled the headset and tinfoil cap from her head. She rain her fingers through her hair and sighed. It had been an easy first shift, but a very boring one. She would have to make sure she had a book handy so she didn't get googly-eyed from playing solitaire when it was slow.

She decided to check her e-mail one more time, if only because at this point she knew she wouldn't feel like turning on the computer again for the rest of the day.

And there it was. An e-mail from Emily. Tilly double-clicked it and began to read.

#fridayflash: place

Gerald got into it for historical reasons. Back before the Baby Bust, back when the suburbs were swarming with climate-altering automobiles, there used to be this thing called "urban exploring". People would find buildings, infrastructure tunnels, all sorts of locations that were abandoned. They would sneak in, photograph them, and research their history.

Gerald did that now, except with the abandoned suburbs. He joked that the advantage of his variation on the hobby was that if anyone scary were around, you could spot them and bike away long before they had a chance to get close to you. Once you cleared the gate in the Etobicoke or East York walls, you could see for kilometres and kilometres.

To the southwest he found a cairn, telling the story of a town that had once stood where now there were only hectares of rotting asphalt. The town had been split in two when the highway had been built, and had died like any other large organism would when it was bisected. Now the highway and the giant carpool parking lot had been abandoned too.

Gerald turned in a slow circle, straining to pick up any signs of currently-used civilisation. Nothing. He saw something move by a clump of bushes on the other side of the old highway, but figured it was just a bird or a raccoon.

Once winter came he stuck within the city walls; the coyote and wolf populations had somehow bounced back more quickly than the deer, and it wasn't safe to venture out that far with so little sunlight in a given day. Besides, even the winter treads on his bike tires would skid badly if he hit a patch of black ice.

There was plenty to explore even within the city limits, though. Like the dead carpool lot and highway that were paved over the dead town, Toronto had layers of abandonment within it. There were the high-rise condo towers with the top ten or fifteen stories closed off. If you could figure a way in, you could see how people lived in the early decades of the century. Some of the units still had their major appliances in them, and many of the floors still had electricity running. It was proof of how big the Bust had been that Gerald had discovered so little evidence of squatting.

There was a spit of land out on the lake. In pre-Bust times it had been created by dumping all the soil dug out of skyscraper foundations. Far from being the industrial wasteland it should have been, the city had declared it a bird sanctuary and paved cycling paths through it. At the very end of the spit was a small, still-operating automated lighthouse.

Gerald liked riding his bike out there. On a still day the only sounds would be the hum of his tires on the pavement and the calls of the birds as they settled into the trees. Often building debris would get mixed in with the dirt and the gravel. He had found everything from late twentieth-century beer advertisements to bricks with dates from the late eighteenth century imprinted on them. The city was older than that, he knew, but before most things had been made out of wood, so the evidence was scarce and hard to recognise.

It was a very cold, dry, bright day when he found the stairs. They were just sitting there, in a wide flat part of the spit that hadn't grown in with grass and trees yet. He liked how they looked in the harsh midday light, and got off his bike to take a photo.

When he got closer he discovered that there were footprints on the three stairtreads, fresh and sharp in the cement dust. He took photos until he was satisfied he had the shot he wanted, then cycled home.

It was only when he got home and saw the photo on his larger video screen that he noticed that there was only one set of footprints, going up, with no pair at the top of the stairs to indicate the person had stood there. Whoever had made them had ascended, and then, by all evidence, simply climbed into the air.


tilly with the others: part 13

From the introduction of We Came from Outer Space: A Study of the Human Extraterrestrial (© 1968) by Franklin J. Gibbs:

In the past hundred years, civilization has advanced by larger leaps, and at greater speeds, than in all of the centuries preceding. Consider the experience of an 80-year-old man living today. His childhood coincides with Edison's work at Menlo Park. Every few months something new is being invented and made a standard feature in American homes: the phonograph, the light bulb, the telephone.

In 1903, when our hypothetical octogenarian is 15, the Wright brothers make their first flight. During the First World War, of which our 80-year-old man is likely a veteran, airplanes are used in combat for the first time. 1927 sees Charles Lindbergh make his historical transatlantic flight. Commercial air travel grows in popularity throughout the 1930s.

By the 1940s, when our common-man octogenarian is in his fifties, aircraft technology is improved rapidly by both the Axis and the Allied powers during the war. Jet aircraft are developed and flown for the first time, and before the close of the decade, man breaks the sound barrier.

The space frontier opens with the launch of Sputnik by the Soviets in 1958. Technology development accelerates both behind the Iron Curtain and in the free world. In 1961 President Kennedy commits the nation to land a man on the moon before the decade is out, and now, as I write these words, we look certain to succeed in reaching that goal.

If our 80-year-old everyman ever gets a chance to stop and think, the pace of change that has happened within his lifetime must surely astonish him. However, our everyman is reasonable and educated, and he knows that the great technological leap forward of the past century arose from a confluence of previous developments, each of which enabled the inventions that followed them.

What is not so clear is how the civilization that is advancing so rapidly now came to be in the first place. Archaeologists all agree that civilization started around 10,000 years ago. They cannot agree, however, on what caused civilization to blossom forth around the world, near-simultaneously, at this time. The peoples of the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, of Asia, and the native peoples of the Americas all made tremendous strides forward at more or less the same time. Furthermore, they all tended to make the same strides forward in areas such as architecture. Consider the similarity in shape the ziggaraut has to the pagoda, and to the stepped pyramids built in Central America. Consider also the early and immediate focus on astronomy: in ancient Egypt, in the Far East, in Great Britain by the builders of Stonehenge, and in the Americas.

A cynical man might argue that some of the accomplishments I have just listed occurred thousands of years apart. Perhaps he has a point, but as a counter-point I request that the cynical man remember he is looking at history from the vantage point of the present day, from a society that is so used to accelerated change that it sees it as the norm.

How did mankind, living in isolated communities separated by oceans, develop such similar markers of civilization without the benefit of global communication? This book aims to explore how this came to be through the markers themselves: the desire to build tall buildings reaching to the sky, the desire to study the stars, the desire to fly in the heavens. Startling new archaeological discoveries provide evidence that these global markers of mankind's advances are not coincidences.

I believe that one day, it will be accepted as self-evident that we are not alone in this universe. It is my fervent hope that this book will help guide us to a deeper understanding of where we truly came from, the better to allow us to return there.

Franklin J. Gibbs, Chicago, November 1968

#fridayflash: knowing

It's like noticing that the light has turned greenish and realising that it will probably rain. It's like... it's like putting your hand on the hood of a car, and knowing from the temperature that the engine was turned off only recently.

But it's more than that. It's like hearing your boyfriend say "I love you" on the phone and knowing that the next time you meet in person, you'll be talking about breaking up. Or watching your five-year-old run up to you after swimming lessons and just knowing that she finally learned how to float today.

It's like none of those things. And the frustrating part is, it's uncontrollable. It comes and goes.

Usually the only hint that a bout of it is coming on is music in my head. I'll wake up in the morning with a song I never liked and haven't heard in years buzzing around my skull. Last Monday I woke up with "One on One" by Hall & Oates on the old cerebral jukebox.

The first thing I thought was, "Gah! Punch up the Black Flag playlist on the phone now now NOW!"

The second thing was, "Shit. It's happening again."

Nothing happened on the drive in to work, but as soon as I walked in and saw Kevin's back, I knew. He was leaning against the kitchenette wall, talking to some other people. I couldn't see their faces, but then Bernadette leaned around the entrance and said, "Hi Sheila!". I said, "So Gina said yes then, Kevin?"

And Kevin turned around and grinned and held up the hand with his engagement ring on it. "Yes on Friday, got the rings on Saturday," he said.

"Congratulations!" I said, and listened to the usual chatter about the date and the plans and booking the banquet hall and the honeymoon.

That's how they work, usually. It just seems like a regular, banal, communication thing, right?

Except Kevin came up to my desk at lunchtime, and  quietly asked how I knew his girlfriend's name was Gina. It's a good question. Hardly anyone knew for certain that he had a girlfriend, never mind her name. He's a pretty private person.

I didn't have an answer for him, so I just frowned and said he must have mentioned it at some point. Believe me, I've gotten pretty good at that frown over the years.

Kevin looked like he was going to start arguing with me, but then Tom from accounting came up to ask him something, and he sort of shook it off.

So I'm safe again, at least unless someone really notices that no-one actually said "marriage" or "engagement" or "congratulations" while I was within earshot.

It's like... it's like walking into a room that's empty, and you didn't see or hear anyone leave, but you know a huge argument just happened right before you got there.

Usually it's changes to relationships that I pick up on, even when I don't know the relationship exists. Marriages, divorces, deaths, pregnancies. The worst time was probably when I asked my next-door neighbour if she was feeling okay, two hours before she had a miscarriage. She was only three months along, wasn't showing yet, and her and her husband had decided they weren't going to tell anyone for as long as possible. They'd been trying to conceive for a long time. She met me on the sidewalk when she got out of the hospital and started screaming at me that I caused the miscarriage by suggesting it to her. Her husband accused me of reading their mail. I can understand why they got upset, but it was still scary.

It's like your spouse covering your eyes and saying, "Guess what I got you for your birthday?" and you guess right on the first try. It's like guessing exactly the right number of jellybeans in the jar.

I've been accused of stalking a few times. That's scary too, but mostly because I can't imagine half the stuff I pick up on being available even to a very dedicated stalker. The few times I've tried to explain it to people, they've told me that it's just déjà vu and I'm imagining things. That doesn't explain things like knowing Kevin's girlfriend's name, though.

There's a bookshop I like to go to on Fridays after work. They sell new and used, have a small but very cool selection, and they have a café at the front with the best gelato in the whole city.

There's this cute guy who works the café counter most Fridays. The afternoon I bought Punk is a Four Letter Word, I got some vanilla gelato and a coffee and tried pouring a little of the coffee over the gelato, like I saw in a French movie a long time ago. I sat there and ate my ice cream and read my book, and it turns out the cute guy is a huge Screeching Weasel fan, same as me, so we got talking about music and books and all sorts of stuff. Now we always talk for at least half an hour every Friday.

I'd never ask him out, because I know people who work retail can wind up getting hit on more than a Mexican piñata, but I always thought I'd love it if he asked me.

It's like walking into your apartment and realising you've been robbed before it registers which things are missing.

The cute guy wasn't there today, for the first Friday in eons. The woman behind the counter was completely friendly and polite, and everyone else in the shop acted fine, but I just know he's not coming back, and I just know it's not because he quit or got fired. I can never put my finger on the specifics before the news actually arrives. The mood in the shop... it's entirely possible that they don't have the news themselves yet.

It's like getting punched in the stomach by a ghost.

tilly with the others: part 12

Tilly read Emily's note over again, then marched down the hall and placed it under her VOIP headset on the computer desk. She used the washroom, returned to the living room, and stood, thinking.

Emily was ten. All the e-mail web sites like Kmail always asked you to confirm that you were over thirteen before opening an account — otherwise you had to link it to a parent's account. Tilly couldn't remember if that was an American law, a Canadian one, or an American law the Canadian government had decided to go along with, but she knew it was very unlikely either Beth or Owen knew Emily had her own e-mail address. Most likely her little sister didn't know about it either, even though Emily had asked if Tilly had an e-mail address while Mercedes was within earshot.

On the other hand, e-mail addresses had a way of getting found. Ten-year-olds might not know how to clean up their browser history after themselves — or they might leave it so clean that Beth or Owen might get suspicious.

Tilly shook her head and walked over to her computer desk. She powered on the machine and sat down.

I have something important to tell you.

Just because it was important to a ten-year-old didn't mean it was actually important, Tilly thought to herself. Or maybe Emily just put that in the message to ensure that Tilly wrote her.

Or maybe something was wrong.

Tilly opened her e-mail, added Emily to her contacts list, and composed a message:

Hallo Emily:

It was lovely to see you and Mercedes again. I hope you had a good time at the Spaghetti Factory.

I found your note with your e-mail address on it. Now you have my e-mail. Maybe you can tell me how school is going.

Love,

Oma

There, now if Owen or Beth found it, it was just a nice note from grandmother, but if Emily really did have something important to tell her Oma in private, she could.

A thousand stories from the grocery-checkout tabloid headlines flashed through Tilly's head. She shut the computer down, grabbed the book she had chosen to re-read, and sank into the nearest armchair.

She glanced at her clock radio/CD player. Owen and the girls wouldn't even be at Yorkdale station yet to pick up the car.

Nothing to do but read the book.

The title was We Came from Outer Space: A Study of the Human Extraterrestrial, and Tilly had bought it at a bookshop on Queen St. in... 1968, if the copyright was a good guide. It sounded right. She couldn't distinctly remember buying it, but she did remember being annoyed with a shop clerk while she was heavily pregnant. It had been difficult to waddle out of the shop and try to maintain a dignified air.

The weather, she reflected, had probably been a lot like today's. You could feel the heat rising from the asphalt and concrete as you walked along outside in the sunshine. But if you could catch the breeze coming off the lake, you could feel the coolness, the water.

She flipped the pages until she reached the preface, and read.

#fridayflash: do you remember me?

Have you forgotten me? I was your downstairs neighbour about ten years ago. Remember?

We both lived in that old house on that little cul-de-sac. Most of the road maps showed it as a through street, and cabbies were always getting lost on the way to pick one or the other of us up.

Ah, you remember the street. I knew you would!

I had that gorgeous Doberman pinscher you used to check up on when I left him in the back yard. Do you know my next landlord made me get rid of him? Just because he knocked over and bit a three-year-old who lived on the street. Poor doggie.

Wasn't the landlady awful? I mean the one who owned the house we used to share. What, you liked her? Oh, right, you always took her side about things. I remember you called her and ratted on me when I knocked down the wall between the dining room and the living room. It's okay, I'm not bitter. You two always insisted that renters couldn't make renovations, which is crazy, because, you know, it's a domicile, and you can decorate where you live.

I went by the house once after I moved out and saw the landlady tore down the detached garage. Wait, she actually told you the back entrance I put in it made it structurally unsound? That's complete and utter garbage, I never... look, it wasn't me who told the raccoon family to go live in the garage. I'm not exactly a wild animal wrangler.

Before we get carried away with that, there is one thing I wanted to ask you about. It's why I stopped you. I see you own a car now, right? This one is yours? So if you're not as anti-car as you made yourself out to be when you lived there... I mean, don't you feel like a hypocrite for reporting me to the city when I left the car battery on the front lawn? Seriously. I suppose you thought I should leave it in my living room or something.

Wait! Don't go! There's one other thing I never understood. You used to go to lots of concerts, right? You like music? I remember one time when we were discussing the baby gate I put across the front entrance I saw that you had two big bookshelves, one with LPs and one with CDs. So how come you were always getting at me to turn down my music? No. No, I do not believe that. If “MacArthur Park” sounds bad when you can hear it over your vacuum cleaner, then it's you who need to get a new vacuum cleaner. That's a classic song, right there. You need to turn it up so you can hear all the sounds.

I said, I'm not bitter. There are just things I need to know, come to terms with things, you know? It seems to me that you're a very harsh person. You should learn a little tolerance, you know, learn that not everyone has the same values as you. We all have to live together in this world.

Fine. Leave then. I don't think you realise how nasty you are. I'm not bitter, not at all, just trying to integrate the past with the present, and here you are, giving me attitude. You haven't grown at all.

Good-bye and have a good life. I mean that.

tilly with the others: part 11

"Huh," said Owen, tapping his cell phone. "Beth called when we were just getting to your apartment, Ma. Must have been in the elevator when it happened."

"Are you going to call her back now?" said Tilly. They were walking with Emily and Mercedes along the Esplanade, heading back to the subway after lunch.

Owen shrugged. "If it was important she would have called again. She probably just wanted to say hi to you."

"Say hi for me when you get home."

"Always do." Owen automatically reached for Mercedes's hand as they crossed the street.

"Are we going to go back to Oma's now?" said Emily.

"I think we should go straight home," said Owen. "It'll cost extra to get off the subway and on again."

"No it won't," said Emily. "You got a day pass. Besides, I have to go to the washroom."

"Why didn't you go at the restaurant?"

"I didn't feel it until we started walking."

"Emily! You're ten."

"Sorry. I shouldn't have had the second glass of Coke."

Owen scanned the street. "Oma and I could buy coffees at that café and you could go there."

"I don't like public washrooms. They're icky."

Mercedes chimed in. "Sometimes she holds it all day at school if the Benton girls have been giving Ginny Siggorski swirlies in the girl's room."

"Do not!"

"Girls giving swirlies," said Owen under his breath. "Okay, we'll make a pit stop at Oma's. Okay, Ma?"

"Fine by me. We can have tea and cookies if you like."

"Cookies! The ones with windmills on them?" That was Mercedes. Tilly caught Emily looking embarrassed.

"I only have shortbread, sorry."

"We just had dessert at the restaurant," said Owen. "Ma, we ought to be getting back."

Tilly shrugged and reached for Emily's hand at the next street crossing. Just as their fingers touched she realised that Emily was too old to have her hand held while crossing the street, but Emily took her hand anyhow and gave it a light squeeze.

"Emily, are you sure you're going to be able to hold it until we get to Oma's?" said Owen. "It's still a long walk, and then we have to take the subway."

Emily looked down and bit her lip. "Yeah," she said. "I just don't think I'll be able to last more subway plus the drive home."

At the subway, Tilly and Owen had a brief debate about which train to use. He wanted to go north and then transfer onto the Bloor line to get to Spadina; she wanted to go south one stop and then head north on the Yonge-University line without transferring. Tilly won out.

Back at the apartment, Emily ran so quickly to the washroom that she didn't bother to take off her shoes or the little Hello Kitty purse she had insisted on toting around all day, even though it only had a tube of lip balm in it.

Mercedes flopped into one of the armchairs and said her feet hurt from the walking. Tilly sat beside her in the other armchair, and Owen stood for a few moments before self-consciously sitting on the couch, legs half-turned to avoid bumping his shins on the coffee table.

"Wow," Mercedes announced. "Emily's bladder must have been ready to burst. She's still peeing."

"Mercedes!" Owen glanced around the living room. "This really is a nice place, Ma."

Tilly smiled. "I like it."

"I guess it's less work to take care of than the house."

"It's plenty of room for one person."

Owen started to say something and then shook his head, giving Mercedes a quick glance.

"What?" said Tilly.

"Is the kitchen too small? I saw a box of tinfoil poking out from underneath the bed."

"Oh that! I did that right after I moved in. Honest Ed's had a sale on, and I bought too much. I forgot that I don't have a basement to put it in anymore. But it's not like it goes bad."

Owen shrugged. "I guess."

"Why, does aluminum on cars get rusty?" They could hear the toilet flushing in the washroom.

"It can. But are you just going to keep it under the bed?"

"Oh no," said Tilly. "I'll just keep moving rolls into the kitchen as I use up the old ones. It will be a good excuse to get some baking done."

Owen wagged a finger at her. "Don't forget you've only got the freezer in the fridge now."

Tilly smiled. "I'll just have to stop getting store-bought cookies for a while."

Emily walked into the living room. "Do you have to go too?" she said to Mercedes.

Mercedes cocked her head to one side. "No," she said. "I can hold it."

"In that case," said Owen, "we should leave." He stood up the same time as Tilly and gave her a peck on the cheek. "Good to see you again, Ma."

Emily and Mercedes gave their good-bye kisses at the door, and they were gone.

Tilly put the chain on the door with a sigh. The apartment seemed quieter now than before the visit. And after all that work Owen had spotted the damn tinfoil anyhow. She couldn't win for trying.

It was tempting to imitate Mercedes and flop into an armchair with one of her old books, but now that Emily had made such a production of it, it occurred to Tilly her own bladder could use emptying.

In the washroom she noticed that the little wooden bird carving she kept on top of the toilet tank was turned the wrong way. Emily must have picked it up to look at it. Tilly repositioned it and noticed a folded piece of paper underneath.

Not recognising it, she pulled it from under the carving's base and was about to throw it out when she saw there was writing on the side hidden by the fold.

She opened the paper and read. Oma: here's my e-mail address. Write me when you find this. I have something important to tell you. EmilyKZ@kmail.com

#fridayflash: newsmagazine story v2

This is the "happy" version of the same story I wrote for #fridayflash last week. It's more like what I originally had in mind when I got the idea, but overall I think it wound up being a good exercise doing the two different versions.

May 2068: small-town life in the late 21st century

HORNPAYNE, ON — Jane Fenton wags her finger at me. "It won't be the first time there were no physical roads into this town," she says.

The first road was built in 1958, over a hundred years ago. Before that, the only way in or out of Hornpayne was by rail. Rail was why the town was built to begin with — the town marks the farthest point between the major rail stations to the west and south that a diesel engine can go before it has to be refuelled. By the turn of the century, Hornpayne boasted not only rail and road access, but an airport as well. More people worked for the local logging company than the railway that founded the town.

The rail, the road, and eventually the airport will all be phased out, because as of tomorrow Hornpayne is officially switching from being a railway division point to a teleportation service hub.

"That was one of the perks of moving here," adds Roger Fenton, Jane's husband. "This town had the highest teaching salaries in the province. Basically it was isolation pay." He grins.

We're sitting around their kitchen table, drinking coffee. Roger and Jane have lived in this town for their entire marriage — fifty-two years next month. Jane worked for CN Rail, and Roger was an English and History teacher at the local high school. They are Hornpayne's oldest residents.

Tomorrow, Jane will come out of retirement for one day to help officially shut down the railway and start up the teleportation maintenance office. "There's a comment field on all of the rolling stock maintenance logs," she laughs. "I'm half-curious and half-dreading what people are going to enter for the last time they have to fill them in!"

I ask if there's going to be any kind of "last train" ceremony, similar to the "last spike" events that marked the building of the railway in the nineteenth century.

"We're having a waffle breakfast," says Roger. "It's a working day, but the community thought it would be a nice way for the crew to start the new work. Then Jane will give that speech she's been working on, she'll collect the old logs and hand out the new task lists, and people will start heading out to do their jobs." He sips his coffee. "Then the retired stiffs like me will help clean up from the breakfast."

"Once you're done making your video," says Jane. Since retiring from teaching, Roger has become the town's archivist, and got special permission from Teleport Inc. to record the first-day events for posterity.

Aren't they worried about the town being so dependent on employment from a foreign company? Teleport Inc. is based in Australia.

Roger shrugs. "The whole idea of 'foreign' has been radically redefined in the last hundred years," he says. "Besides, thanks to the Americans in the last century, Canadians are used to having a branch plant economy and making it work."

The Hornpayne maintenance division will be responsible for the maintenance of all of the pad hubs on the North American continent. "We're in a great location," says Jane. "We're in the Eastern time zone, but just barely. So people can work regular day hours and cover the whole territory without getting too much pad lag." The geographical advantage is extra-appropriate, she points out, since it was for the Canadian rail system that time zones were invented.

Do they think other businesses will be promoted by the pad maintenance hub being here?

"Definitely," says Roger. "Anyone who likes the great outdoors would love to come here as a tourist, winter or summer. People love to fish and swim here in the summer, and ski or snowmobile in the winter."

"There's the commuter aspect too," says Jane. "Pads mean you can live anywhere. People who like the salaries of big-city jobs but not the lifestyle can live here and commute easily." She pours herself more coffee and shakes her head in wonder. "Everyone who lives near a pad has a commute time of less than twenty minutes. Even if they're going to the other side of the world. Who'd have thought we'd see the day?"

"I'll sort of miss it, though," says Roger. "Travelling."

"What do you mean?" says Jane. "We're going to Berlin next month."

"Oh visiting, sure, but travelling... you know, like the time we took the train from here to Vancouver... those days are gone," says Roger. "You know — watching the world go by while you sit at a window and drink your cocktail. And air travel — people are going to miss that, you watch."

Jane shrugs and sips her coffee. "Can't stop progress," she says. "Maybe if you're lucky, you can nudge it a little so it doesn't run you over, but that's about it."

tilly with the others: part 10

Interlude 1: Beth

"Oooooooohhhh." Cherie dunked her feet into the bath. "I've been dy-ing for this."

"This is heaven." Alison leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes.

Beth bit her lip and pulled off the other trouser sock. "It's a pedicure."

"That was harsh," said Alison, opening her eyes and turning her head. "You still all wound up about your mother-in-law?"

"No. Yes. I guess so," said Beth, easing herself onto her chair and slipping her feet into the bath.

The pedicurist stuck her head in the doorway. "All set, ladies? I'll let you have a good soak for fifteen minutes and let the water jets give you a massage to start, m'kaaaay?"

"Perfect," said Cherie, giving the pedicurist a recently-whitened smile.

"Did you figure out how she spent the house money and her pension already?"

Beth frowned. "She says she didn't. She says  she just wants the job to keep her busy."

"That's the thing about old age homes," said Alison. "They have lots of... you know, activities and things."

"She say she's too young for a home. And Owen thinks so too. All the people in his mum's side of the family live to be in their nineties or something. If I remember right, one of his grandparents that lived through both the wars made it to a hundred and two or something."

"Wow," said Cherie. "Tough people."

"What did you say the job was again?" said Alison. "Tech support or something?"

"Order taker for a pizza chain."

Cherie giggled. "That would be so weird. Order a pizza and it's Beth's mother-in-law."

"It's only in Toronto!" Beth shrugged. "Maybe it's a good idea. Owen always said his mum acted weird before his dad's secretary quit to have a baby and his mum took over the job."

"Oh right, you told us about that," said Alison. "She'd get him ready for school and be normal about that, Owen's dad would go to work, and then Owen would get home and she'd be spaced out with her breakfast not eaten?"

"Valium," said Cherie. "My mum used to do stuff like that when she was on it. It was before I was born, but my brothers remember her being like that."

"But Owen says his parents never did any drugs. Ever."

"Oh please. Pot's legal there."

"Not when they lived there, I'm pretty sure." Beth adjusted her feet to let the water jets hit her in new places. "Nah, never mind drugs. What creeps me out is the story Owen told me about his mum saying she was too busy socialising to have breakfast."

"Ew, like she was cheating on his dad or something?"

"No... but he says that the time she told him that, she was still wearing her housecoat and pink fuzzy slippers from the morning."

"Oh please!" That was Alison. "The neighbourhood I grew up in was like that too. I used to see my best friend from Grade 4's mother in her bra and panties practically every morning. The families knew each other so well she wouldn't bother closing the curtains when she got dressed if she knew my dad was already out of the house."

"Owen's mum's not like that," said Beth. "She's really easygoing about some things, but she wouldn't be caught dead so much as taking out the garbage in anything but an outfit you could at least go to the mall in."

"I think you're making too big a deal out of it," said Alison.

"Yeah," said Cherie. "It was so long ago. And it does make it sound like Owen's mum has the right idea getting a job. Maybe she's just one of those people who needs to be busy."

"You'd think she'd find somewhere better to hang out than a call centre, though."

"She'll be working from home."

"Ooooh, smart!" said Cherie. "That's good. Call centre people can work some weird hours. She'll be safe that way."

"Cherie's right," said Alison. "Stop worrying Beth. Don't let your mother-in-law spoil your pedicure."

"When is Owen going to talk to her, anyhow?"

Beth leaned over and plucked her cell phone out of her purse to check what time it was. "They should be getting there around now."

"He took the girls?"

"Aren't you, you know, worried about them being around your mother-in-law? If she's unstable like that..."

Beth frowned. "I don't worry about them if they're with Owen..." She dropped the cell phone in her lap instead of putting it back in her purse. "I'll call them in half an hour and see how things are going."

#fridayflash: newsmagazine story

The #fridayflash after this, I wrote the "happy" version of this story as I had originally intended. It was a good exercise to do both versions.

May 2068: Is small-town Canada disappearing?

HORNPAYNE, ON — "This is nothing," Jane Fenton tells me. "You should hear the stories about living here before they built the road."

The road was built in 1980, almost ninety years ago. Before that, the only way in or out of Hornpayne was by rail. Rail was why the town was built to begin with — the town marks the farthest point between the major rail stations to the west and south that a diesel engine can go before it has to be refuelled. At its height at the turn of the century, Hornpayne boasted not only rail and road access, but an airport as well.

"We used to have over twelve hundred people living here," adds Roger Fenton, Jane's husband. We're sitting around their kitchen table, drinking coffee. Roger and Jane have lived in this town for their entire marriage — fifty-two years next month. They are Hornpayne's oldest residents. Tomorrow, they will be the first family to be teleported out as the town officially shuts down and quietly wipes itself off the map.

They are philosophical about the changes. "This place was founded as a railway division point," says Roger. "Sure, other industries grew up here, like the logging, but now that there's no more rail..." He trails off and sips at his coffee.

Jane tries to fill in the silence. "Back in the early 1900s, when the town was founded, it was to support a relatively new technology — rail — in a relatively new country. Canada was only forty years old when Hornpayne was established. Now we're living through another major period of technological change. Vat-grown lumber means the logging industry has been killed off, and teleportation means no more rail or air travel."

"This is a wonderful place in the summer," Roger says. "Lots of boating, swimming, fishing... and in the winter, people ski and snowmobile all over. Great place for winter sports."

"But it does get cold," says Jane.

Roger shrugs. "It's Canada," he says. "It gets cold."

It's the cold that ultimately drove the decision to abandon Hornpayne. Teleportation pads don't work in weather colder than -12 Celsius, and even since global warming took effect the town has seen weeks each winter with temperatures colder than -20. The population is too small to justify having more than one indoor pad hub, but its layout makes walking to a hub in the depths of winter impractical. It's too small, too closely structured around the now-obsolete petroleum lifestyle.

Tomorrow, Roger's and Jane's neighbours will help them load the belongings they haven't already packed onto transport skids. First, their possessions will go into the specially-equipped, petrol-burning transport truck sitting in their driveway. The truck will be driven to the pad hub by a member of the relocation crew. Roger and Jane were offered a lift in a friend's car, but have decided they will walk the short distance to the hub instead.

"It's a way of saying good-bye," says Jane. "You know, see everything properly one last time."

When the truck gets to the hub, its cargo will be off-loaded onto the transport pad and sent to Sault Ste. Marie, where the Fentons have chosen to re-locate. They were married there, and have adult children who live in the area.

Roger and Jane will use the people-departure pad to follow their belongings to the Sault. Meanwhile, the transport truck will be pulling into their next-door neighbour's driveway to be loaded with another household's worth of belongings.

Jane starts to take a sip of coffee, then sets the mug down and says, "Oh! I almost forgot. I have cookies to use up. Please have some with us."

She rises and pulls a bag of cookies out of an otherwise-empty kitchen cupboard.

"It's always hard with moving," says Roger. "I remember the night we moved in here, we got into town after all the stores had closed and we couldn't get groceries until the next morning."

There are six chocolate chip cookies left in the bag. Jane puts two in front of each of us. "What about breakfast for tomorrow?" I ask. "By the time you get your things to your new house, it'll be almost lunchtime."

Jane smiles. "The community is putting on a waffle breakfast at the hub," she says. "I guess we'll get something to eat before we step on the pads. The relocation people said they'd do the cleaning up for us."

The pad hub will remain in place only long enough to secure the buildings and ensure nothing hazardous to the local environment has been left out in the open. The last load the petrol-burning transport truck will carry in Hornpayne will be the dismantled pad hub. Its driver will use the soon-to-be decommissioned highway to return to the relocation base in Thunder Bay.

I ask the Fentons what they think will happen to the town in the future.

"People still might come up here in the summer," says Jane.

Roger grunts and shakes his head. "Nobody uses cars anymore," he says. "Hardly anybody uses snowmobiles anymore, and they don't have the range of a car anyhow. Air travel is gone, even if the landing strip at the airport was maintained, which it won't be..." He sips his coffee, shakes his head again. "Nope," he says. "No-one will come here anymore."

"It's a pity," says Jane. "It's such a beautiful town."

tilly with the others: part 9

Tilly was about two-thirds of the way through putting away her books when the phone rang. She'd been sitting on the floor for so long that her knees didn't want to work when she started to get up, and she swore under her breath at herself. The swearing came out in Dutch, which made her shake her head; whoever was on the phone, she'd probably need to use English with them. Sometimes she didn't switch over to the required language right away if she was already thinking in the other one.

She reached the phone halfway through the third ring. "Ma, my friends aren't bilingual!" she said in an imitation of Owen-aged-twelve that was accurate enough he would have cringed to hear it. She picked up the phone.

"Hallo?"

"Ma! It's me. I'm glad I caught you at home."

Tilly decided to ignore the last part. "I was just thinking of you," she said. There, she'd gotten her own back and he'd never even know. "How are you? How are the girls?"

"We're all fine... listen, I'm going to come down and visit you with the girls two Saturdays from today. The twelfth. I thought we could see your new place and take them to the Old Spaghetti Factory for lunch. Does that sound good?"

"That's the restaurant we used to go to for your birthday, isn't it? Is it still there?"

"Yeah, a guy at work just took his kids there... so that's good? We'll get there around, I don't know, say ten, and then we can walk around a bit and then get on the subway?"

Tilly thought. "That should be good. Even if I'm working by then, if I have a shift it won't start until four."

"Where are you working?" Owen said the question quietly, and it sounded like he had cupped his hand over the receiver, but still Tilly could hear Beth in the background saying, "Work? What does she need to work for? Ask her what happened to the house money!"

"If I get the job, I'll be working from home. I still have to go through the second interview."

"So, like, what, data entry, or doing somebody's accounting..."

Tilly held the phone away from her mouth long enough to take a deep breath. "Taking phone orders for pizza delivery."

"Ma!" In the background, Beth was asking Owen if rent was a problem.

"It's just to keep myself occupied. For pity's sakes, Owen! Please tell Beth to stop panicking. I don't need the money. It's just for fun."

"But Ma...."

"Do it now. I'll wait."

Tilly heard the phone get set down on something. In the background she could hear the TV set, playing what sounded like a cartoon. Owen's and Beth's voices drifted away from the phone.

She rolled her eyes. She had been there when they had bought their house phones, minding the girls while Beth and Owen debated price versus features in the big box electronic store. Both of them had insisted on having a hold/mute button.

The phone made clunking noises. "Oma?"

"Emily! Is that you?"

"Yeah. Mercedes is with me. Are we still coming to visit you?"

"Ya, on the twelfth your dad says! We're going to go have lunch at the Italian place we used to take him to when he was your age."

"Yeah, he keeps saying."

"Do they really have a streetcar inside the building?" That was Mercedes.

"An old one. They have lots of things in there. You'll have to wait and see."

"Oma," said Emily, "do you have an e-mail address?"

"The same one I've had for a while now. Why?"

But Emily set the phone down with a clatter. Tilly could hear her telling Mercedes to pretend they'd been watching TV the whole time.

"You still there, Ma?"

"I'm still here. I've been trying to figure out what's on TV."

"Oh, I dunno, the girls are watching it. So, ten o'clock, your place... what's the buzz code?"

Tilly closed her eyes. "It's on a slip of paper, I have it in my purse, hang on..." She tried to step around the box of books to get to the front hall.

"Never mind. I'll just call you on my cell phone and you can tell us then. See you on the twelfth."

"See you. Bye-bye." She heard the phone click and returned hers to its cradle.

A visit to look forward to, two weeks to get things ready, and it didn't even sound like Beth was coming. Interesting. All in all, it could be a pleasant visit. Besides, after this box of books was done with, she'd be entirely unpacked and...

Two weeks was a long time, really. Long enough for Beth to change her mind, if she was actually not going to visit in the first place, which was hardly guaranteed.

Tilly frowned at the bookcase. If it were just Owen and the girls she wouldn't worry, but Beth would have something to say about the old books being out. Especially since over half the ones in English were classics of the sixties counterculture.

She turned her head to the kitchen. And if Beth did come, she'd have to do something about the stash of tinfoil, too. Owen would never dream of going through her cupboards — not unless she asked him to get her something from a top shelf while he was there, and all the tinfoil was in the cupboards under the counter. But Beth would find an excuse to see how she had organised things.

This was going to take some planning.

#fridayflash: speed

I started my career as an emergency room doctor, and during my tenure at St. Jude's General, I learned something interesting: it's not whether or not you killed someone, it's how quickly you do it that decides what the police charge you with, if indeed they charge you with anything at all.

Take this example: a group of young men get into a fight, and one stomps on another's head. The victim is taken to an emergency room, some sawbones like me does triage, nothing's broken, just a concussion. Hooray, right? Not really. We could miss slow-moving damage that will worsen and eventually kill. It might take years. It might not even get linked to the original injury.

On the other hand, if the victim gets, say, a brain haemorrhage the same night, the poor youth who did the stomping could be looking at doing time for aggravated assault. Or manslaughter. Or even murder.

It all depends on how quickly the one who got stomped dies, you see.

St. Jude's was within spitting distance of some rough neighbourhoods, and so I had plenty of cases with which to come up with this observation. The police — and the hoods — got to know me by name. There was one year where I was spending almost as much time in suits as witness for the Crown as I was in scrubs trying to stitch patients back together.

Now that I've explained that, it will be easier for you to understand my more recent accomplishments.

I freelance, and like most freelancers in my current line of work I have a moniker, a title which both helps explain to potential clients what they can expect, and which explains to the competition whether I am an actual threat or not. Truth be told, I don't really have any competition. I work in a rather specialised sub-section of the field. Most of the competition go by monikers like The Ice Man and The Cleaner. I am known as The Artist.

There are only two services I offer: straight consulting or work for hire. The latter is more lucrative, but I prefer the former. It's less risky for me, and although the fee is quite a lot less I can get through several consultancies in a single day. With work for hire, on the other hand, I almost always wind up getting slightly underpaid. It's my own fault. I spend more time planning and doing post-project cleanup than I estimate and charge for.

You see, if a client hires me, it's not necessarily that they want someone dead. The Ice Man, The Cleaner, and a whole host of other common-garden-variety assassins will take care of that for them. They'll be a lot cheaper than I am, too, and they'll also assume a lot more of the risk. Killing someone outright, quickly, is a very risky enterprise, even for a seasoned professional.

No, if it's my name being uttered during the handshake contract, it means that the client desires to make someone physically suffer. Usually it's part of the job to ensure they will die of their injuries, eventually, but there are a lot of variables to consider for each project. How much suffering. How long. Whether or not they will retain the capability to communicate. How disfigured they will be. How much medical science can help them.

It may sound formulaic, but every single time it's something fresh. Sometimes the client doesn't wish their main victim to be the contract target — often my job is to focus on a spouse or child so that someone else can watch them helplessly while they endure whatever's been agreed to. Jobs like that take a certain type of delicacy. It helps immensely to know triage and diagnosis procedures, so that the individuals involved can ride the roller coaster of rising hope followed by crushing despair.

It's not all about other people, though. This job has been an immense benefit to my education and self-study. Back when I worked shifts at the hospital, keeping up with the medical journals was a chore that invaded my days off. Now I can often bill for it as research.

Now, by this time I'm sure you're wondering why I'm telling you all this. Confidentiality, after all, is an even more important aspect of my work than it was back when I had to honour my doctor-patient relationships.

Let's just pause the conversation for a moment, shall we? Beautiful architecture here. They don't make public buildings like they used to.

Have you ever had a chance to take a close look at that stairway? Come, let's walk over... ever seen that cherub up there? It's the only mythical creature that sculptor ever carved. He specialised in statues and busts of historical figures. Politicians, business leaders, and so on. No doctors though.

I love the details on the apple the cherub's holding, see it? Lean over... no, a little more...

Can you hear me? Can you tell me your name? Here, I'm going to get out a penlight I brought with me... try and follow the beam of light with your eyes.

Hrm. You can. You're supposed to collapse into a persistent vegetative state. At worst, you should be dead outright. I'll get less money for that, but the risk will be greatly reduced.

Good job I brought my walking stick with me tonight.

tilly with the others: part 8

Tilly gave the microphone volume setting one last tweak, then shut down the computer. She sighed. Enough fretting over getting ready for the job interview already. Time for tea.

She filled the kettle, turned it on, put a biscuit on the saucer beside the teacup, and frowned at her living room while she waited for the water to boil.

The living room furniture had been easy enough to arrange. The apartment was reasonably close in layout to the first place she and Marcus had rented in Canada, although that building had been about ten years older than the one she lived in now. The couch sat under the big picture window, near the doorway to the kitchen. She'd divided the dining room area from the living room by making a "wall" of the armchair and the two end-tables. The radio/CD player Owen had bought her for her old kitchen a few birthdays ago sat on one end-table. She'd sold the big TV set, and had only kept the little one she'd had in the kitchen, but in the apartment that had gone in the bedroom. She liked to get ready for bed early and watch the news while sipping on cocoa.

Her books weren't out of their box yet. Her books weren't out of their box and this time, there would be no work contacts or new Canadian friends coming over who might see them, no basement to hide them in, no worrying Owen might start to read one when he was too young to understand.

Tilly smiled. The books had been packed for over forty years. It would be like Yule presents.

She dropped a teabag into the cup and poured the boiling water over it, then got out the kitchen shears. May as well just open it and see what hasn't gone moldy.

It turned out she didn't need the shears after all. The packing tape cracked off as soon as she picked at one end. The box had always had about a centimetre gap at the top, and years of having other heavy boxes piled on top of it in the basement back at the top had squashed it, leaving it slightly mushroom-topped.

Old cardboard always smelled the same, like it was already most of the way to returning to the soil it had come from. Tilly always thought it smelled like oak too, although she doubted anything as nice as oak was used for a cardboard box.

She paused to read the label on the top. Bea's writing. She had kept the box for Tilly until there was a fixed address in Canada to send it to. Tilly shook her head, remembering the small fortune it had cost to ship such a heavy box through the post back then.

She could e-mail Bea after she finished putting away the books. They would both get a kick out of rediscovering the books. Bea had been there when Tilly had acquired many of them.

The box flaps had stuck together. Tilly prised them apart and pushed them down, away from the opening.

There was a layer of newspaper on top — she couldn't remember, but probably it had enough volume to fill the box to the top once — and there was one book lying on top of it.

Tilly pressed a hand to her mouth. She'd thought she'd lost it years ago, but apparently the box had been opened once, just once. Owen would have been just turning three when she'd got it. He'd helped her hide it.

She'd been walking up University Avenue with Owen in his stroller, and some students had blocked her way. Owen was asleep and she wanted to get home before he woke up again. When she'd tried to get by, one man had started to lecture her about how she was part of the Establishment. She couldn't remember exactly what she had said, but she did remember he was surprised she even knew who Abbie Hoffman was. The man had waved a copy of Steal This Book in her face, and she had just said, "All right," snatched it from him, and tucked it under Owen's head before he could do anything. The other students started laughing at their blowhard friend, who was apparently not so anti-Establishment that he would touch someone else's sleeping baby.

Owen had always liked the granola recipe from that book. She wondered if he had any idea where it had come from.

The rest of the books were from her own university days, mostly in Dutch, but many in English. Textbooks, but also books on transcendental meditation, the influence of space aliens on ancient cultures... a little bit of science fiction too. She couldn't really remember The Man in the High Castle, but she and Marcus had read it together and both liked it. That had been another odd discovery. It might have been one of the books those American tourists they befriended had left behind.

Tilly wondered what the local second-hand shops would make of her box. Even back in the day about half her collection had been hard-to-find books. She'd bought a few in lucky finds in markets, but other ones had been given to her. Many of the ones that would have been the coolest to be seen with around 1967 she had stolen during house parties. She wondered if their old owners still missed them.

She wondered if they could picture the little blonde woman from those parties unpacking them now, with her tea steeping on the kitchen counter.

In the end, she left out one of the books on space aliens and intradimensional beings and one of the science fiction novels to re-read. At this point they would be something new instead of something from the past.

They might even help with the Others.

#fridayflash: amazons vs. aliens

"OHMIGOD! Fifty per cent off everything! We have to check it out!" Cyndy pulled on Margaret's sleeve.

Margaret sighed. "Le Citadel never has anything in my size."

"Oh please, you are so not fat. You need to get a better body image." Cyndy pushed open the shop door and half-led, half-pulled Margaret inside.

"Just because I'm not fat doesn't mean they have anything in my size," Margaret muttered. She ducked under a sale sign hanging from the ceiling, and saw a shop clerk roll her eyes and pointedly turn away from her.

"SO CUTE!!!!" Cyndy flipped through a rack of white mini-skirts with little pink flowers appliqued on them. "You've got a point about the sizes. All the 0s and 2s are gone." She took a skirt off the rack and held it up to her hips. "The 4 looks small, though." She scampered off towards the changerooms, randomly stopping at clothing racks to choose more items.

Margaret caught the eye of a clerk who was not quick enough to turn away. "So what is the biggest size you carry here?"

"Ten," said the clerk. "We have a men's section over there," she added, pointing.

"Thanks," said Margaret. "I'll keep that in mind if I'm ever shopping with a guy."

"So you don't ever dress like.... you know...." the shop clerk trailed off and bit her lip.

Margaret sighed. "I'm cis," she said. "I'm just a tall woman. Born this way and everything."

"Ew," said the clerk, then covered her mouth. "Sorry."

"Happens all the time. Is there anywhere to sit in here?"

"By the changerooms."

Always by the bloody changerooms, thought Margaret.
 

 


"I don't see what you're so bitchy about," said Cyndy while they waited in line at the cash.

"You took an hour and a half by the clock, and every time I said I'd meet you at the bookshop you said not to go because you were almost done."

"I kept finding stuff."

"Uh huh."

"You know, you can't get mad at people for thinking you're a guy if you keep acting like one."

"Maybe in this particular scenario guys don't act like this because they're guys."

Cyndy huffed and caught the eye of a clerk at a free checkout counter. Margaret went to wait for her by the exit. She knew from experience that Cyndy would need to be herded out before she found more bargains between the checkout and the door.

She noticed that the street had emptied of people and cars since they'd gone in the store. It had got dark out too. Maybe a thunderstorm was about to start.

Cyndy squealed behind her. "The jewelry is on sale too! And it doesn't come in sizes! You should get yourself a treat."

"We've got reservations at the restaurant, Cyndy."

"It doesn't take ten minutes to get there!"

"It's going to rain any second now."

Cyndy pouted and set the jewelry down on the bottom of the jewelry stand.

Outside, it became obvious that it wasn't just the threat of rain keeping people off the street. Margaret looked up at the sky, then stopped and pointed. "That's not a thundercloud. That's —"

Two red, glowing circles appeared above their heads, and Margaret found herself being pulled up into the air. A couple of metres away she could see Cyndy being pulled up in her own red beam of light. Cyndy was waving her arms and kicking her legs, and, judging from the look on her face, probably screaming too. The tips of Cyndy's fingers touched the edge of the red light and got... stuck somehow on the outside of the beam. The rest of Cyndy kept floating up, parallel with Margaret's own ascent. Margaret saw Cyndy hold up the hand with the missing fingertips and scream even more.

Margaret had kept still since the red beam had engulfed her and started pulling her towards the dark grey whatever-it-was. All those years of never having enough room to stretch out or move the way she wanted to had made her self-conscious about excessive motion.

The red beams pulled them through the round holes in the grey whatever-it-was. Margaret was dropped onto a metal floor, a wall between her and Cyndy. She bent her knees as the pull of the red beam vanished and gravity took hold of her again, and managed to land in a semi-crouch. To her left she heard a muffled clang and imagined that was Cyndy falling onto the floor.

Something made a groaning sound behind her. Margaret whipped around, and saw that the hatch of the portal she had been pulled through was starting to close.

The portal's hatch had a bar attached to it, not so much a handle as something that resembled a towel rack. Margaret squatted her broad hips, supported by legs with muscles built up from years on the girl's intramural rugby team. She sprang for the bar just as the hatch became horizontal.

She looked down, and was surprised to see that the ship (if that's what it was) was closer to the ground than when she had been caught in the beam, and was still lowering. It's bracing itself to take off, just like I just did, she thought. She hung from the hatch until the angle was so steep she worried she might get caught between it and the edge of the portal, then let go.

She still had to fall about five metres, but that was much less than the original distance from the ground to the ship. She landed on the street, and let her knees buckle to absorb the impact, grateful that she was wearing her usual flat shoes. Still, she fell forward with the momentum and skinned her hands and forearms badly on the asphalt. She looked up at the ship just in time to see the hatches crunch shut.

Margaret ran for the nearest shelter, back into the Le Citadel shop. In the same moment that she pulled the door shut behind her, the pavement outside rippled like water on a pond caught in a gust of wind. The ship rose into the air and vanished.

"Are you all right?" said someone behind her.

"For all intents and purposes," said Margaret, holding out her scraped hands. "Got a first aid kit?"

"In the back." The clerk left.

"What about your friend?" It was one of the women who had been standing in the checkout line behind Cyndy. Her face and hair were different, but in body shape and size they could have been twins.

Margaret turned to look into the street, now slowly filling with people. Somewhere in the distance there were sirens wailing. "I guess for once there was an advantage to being a big girl."

 

tilly and the others: part 7

Tilly shifted the shopping bag handle so that it sat more comfortably on her shoulder. She made a valiant attempt to put herself in a better mood as she trudged through the crowds in the Eaton Centre, but she couldn't help silently wishing the Best Buy clerks the same treatment they had just given her when they got grey hair. Did she know what a USB port was... how dare they? And then the little pimply nit had tried to sell her regular headphones with no microphone attached.

Enough, she told herself. She stepped onto the up escalator. She'd make a quick trip to Shopper's Drug Mart and buy herself some lipstick, since her old make-up seemed to be permanently lost.

As she reached ground level, she took a quick glance at the evangelists outside. Once the corner at Yonge & Dundas had been mostly street artists with only a few soap box prosletytisers pushing religion, politics, philosophy, or some strange brew of all three. Now Tilly spotted the silver Elvis living statue, but everyone else seemed to be handing out either Bibles or Korans. It almost made her miss the Hare Krishnas.

A homeless man was leaning against the glass near the doors to outside, baseball cap held out for spare change. His head was turned to watch when people were exiting the mall so he could proffer his cap at the right time. He made eye contact with Tilly and flung himself face-first against the glass-walled façade, pounding with his fists. Even the obvious non-tourists turned to stare.

"Hey!" he yelled. "Special lady! Hey!"

Tilly stepped into a still area in the crowd and stared. Now that he'd spoken, she recognised him. It was the homeless man from the Annex who had told her the Others were trying to communicate with her.

Two security guards walked rapidly out of the Sears store and out of the mall. The homeless man spotted them and started stepping away from the windowed wall of his own accord.

"You need the door in the sky! I'm going to the door in the ground! Did you hear me? You need the door in the sky!" He turned and ran north up Yonge Street just as the light turned green. The security guards followed him as far as the intersection before returning to the mall.

Tilly pretended to check her shopping bag, hoping it wasn't obvious to anyone that she was the one he was talking to. She fished out her receipt and put it in her purse, then carefully looked up. No-one seemed to be paying her any attention. She continued on to the pharmacy.

At Shopper's Drug Mart Tilly did the same thing she always did when she went to buy lipstick: she looked at all the samples on all the racks carefully, then chose whatever shade was closest to the coral colour she had started wearing back in the early seventies. There was still a part of her that wasn't sure about this whole lipstick-wearing business, although she had to admit that it was almost mandatory to put on something against Canada's winter-dry air, and the stuff with tint in it seemed to work better than the stuff without.

The Eaton Centre Shopper's Drug Mart was an extra-large one, with special aisles dedicated to souvenir Canadiana for the tourists. Tilly rolled her eyes at the offerings of plastic Mounties and beaver-shaped key chains, then remembered she needed a new tube of toothpaste. That was somewhere at the back in this store, if she remembered right.

She turned a corner and found herself in the baby care and sanitary napkin aisle. Not having needed either for more than a decade, she was about to turn around and try another part of the store when the aisle's only other shopper stopped her.

"Could you reach that for me, please?" said a sad and creaky voice.

The voice belonged to a man who looked old enough to be Tilly's father. If his back had been straight, he might have been able to match her 160cm, which was still pretty short for a man, but age had made him hunch over and lose a bit more height. Tilly could see over the top of his head.

"What is that?" she said.

"The Depends, dear," said the man, pointing.

Right, the adult diapers. Someone had put them all on the top shelf. Tilly walked to where the man was standing and reached, but her hand couldn't quite find purchase on the package nearest to the edge, even when she briefly tried to stand on tiptoe.

Tilly lowered her arm, thought for a moment, then walked to the end of the aisle. "Wait here," she said over her shoulder.

The next aisle over had items for joint injury, like knee braces and wrist guards. Tilly grabbed a walking stick and returned to where the old man was standing. She reached up with the walking stick and knocked a package of adult diapers from the shelf.

"Did you just want the one?" she said.

The old man laughed. "I'll take two if I can try to get the next one myself."

Tilly handed him the cane with a flourish. He knocked down two packages at once.

"What are you doing?" A large man wearing a white lab coat stood at the end of the aisle, hands on hips. "Why didn't you just ask for assistance?"

"Who wants to ask for assistance with incontinence products?" said Tilly. The man in the lab coat glared at her and walked away.

"You're good in a pinch, you are," said the old man, gathering the packages of diapers from the floor. "I hope you find that door in the sky."

"What?" said Tilly, but the old man just winked at her and left the aisle. She rushed to the end of the aisle herself and looked left and right, but he was gone.