Category: very short stories

10 minutes with the yellowed man

I didn’t catch his name. He was a yellowed man: sepia skin and rust-coloured teeth in fractured stages of decay. Stained fingers curling like an old photograph. He spoke with a weathered tongue, consonants leathery and tough. Words left out in the sun too long.

But his face could still crack a smile.

He was on an adventure, out on a two-hour leave from the Addiction Centre. On this bus, then onto the subway to another bus to Scarborough to his old house: the house he’s pretty sure he’ll lose someday. There’s nothing in my fridge, he laughed. His son had taken out all the food. And his daughter had been trying to get his status upgraded to a Form 3. Not sure what that was, but it sounded bad.

Then fragments of stories about being locked up, surgeries, broken things: twenty years in a few minutes, aged and ugly and pockmarked.

He stopped and looked at the cardboard cup in my hands, asked about my coffee, how it tasted. It was actually weak and watery, and I had spent the five-minute wait for the bus inwardly whinging about its deficiencies. But I said it was good. And he grinned with a wide stretch of brown teeth.

He said the coffee inside there was terrible. De-caf served all the time: a grey-brown swill with no spark. Awful stuff. And just six cigarettes a day. But, before going in it was two packs per day. So there’s progress. A jubilant ochre finger upwards.

We reached the subway station a few minutes later. He left with my cup and a rusty smile. I left with something else.

Down the stairs

You’d like to think that you’re not scared of what’s down there. You’d like to think that it’s just another set of steps creaking down to just another basement. A bit of damp and dark.

You’d like to think that you’d be just fine starting the descent: foot on each groaning stair: one after another, one creak after another announcing your arrival, despite your soft-shoed efforts, your snapped-shut teeth, and your ever-clenched breath.

You’d like to think that there’s nothing waiting at the bottom. Just beyond the dim glow of the bulb, within the ring that dissolves into dusty darkness.

You’d like to think that you didn’t hear that noise just now. That subtle scratch, that muffled thud.

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Lakeless

There is no lake by Lakeview Avenue. No lake, no watery landmark in sight.

This street, with its stretch of Victorian houses in various states of disrepair. Red brick, yellow brick. Some with paint peeled back, splaying an onion skin of colours. Turquoise, aquamarine, and royal: the blues on this street do not belong to water.

The lake is ten or fifteen blocks away from this pot-holed street and boulevard of tattered grass. The only water collects in a few scattered brown puddles, into wet cracks where the pavement breaks. And then its blocks and blocks of similar streets, houses with suspicious or smug expressions. Some with shifted smiles or drooping eyelids; melancholic, remembering happier times.

Like when there was a lake closer by. Or at least it felt closer: a mad, furious bike ride away, houses blurring into the periphery; a soft, summer evening walk lit beneath pale streetlights.

When the city was quieter. When puddles were bigger and laughs were louder.

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A small sweetness

“Miss, would you buy me a piece of cake?”

The tall, heavy-set man had been ambling between the rows of tables, his gaze moving slowly back and forth, from face to face. He stopped at mine.

I had been typing away at my laptop, half-way through my second coffee. Today the ideas were liquid: a smooth ebb and flow. But they lacked a container, something solid to shape them.

I looked up. His sheer size blocked the light overhead. But I could see his face. Expressionless. Tired. If it wasn’t immediately apparent that he was harmless I may have shook my head.

“Sure, just give me a minute.” I grabbed my wallet. Left my words on the screen. “Let’s go.”

He shuffled to the counter. I followed. His rumpled coat clung to his hulking torso. Long, fat fingers dangled at the end of his sleeves. He didn’t say a word.

And then, after a few moments in line. “What month were you born?” June.

“So you’re a Gemini.” No, a Cancer.

A sweetness spread into the corners of his eyes. The trace of a smile. “I’m March. Aries.” Within seconds the vacant look returned. But there was a softness to it. Like drifting back into a happy moment from childhood. A birthday. Licking icing off the spoon.

“What kind of cake would you like?”

His massive finger raised and pressed against the counter glass. Holiday Gingerbread. A large, moist fingerprint marked his choice, then evaporated.

I ordered and paid. The woman behind the counter slid the cake slice into a paper bag, handed it to him. Said nothing. As the man grabbed it, I caught the warming scent of ginger and nutmeg.

And then he was shuffling to the door. Gone.

Back at the table, my words on the screen were still there. Waiting to take shape.

Like water

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You can hear everything in this house; the sound travels like water.

Each crash, each gasp rushes into rooms in small torrents, bursts through hallways, and down stairs. Creaks seep beneath shut doors, bleed into the carpets and drip, down down. Voices find the gouges in the floorboards; words muffle their way along the floor, find the cracks in the wall. And even a whisper can find its way to an open ear.

I heard what happened. Listened as each scratch and rattle and groan gave way to water and traveled to my door, leaked in. Let its tributaries paint my walls as the paper bubbled and unstuck seams gave way. And I listened even when I didn’t want to listen anymore.

You can hear everything in this house; the sound travels like water.

It isn’t this place

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The email said to meet her at a small Caribbean place in the west end. “It’s been years since I’ve been there, but it’s a decent place. Discrete.”

The wind is cold, and I didn’t wear a warm enough coat. Wished I had worn that red scarf. But that may have been too much. Too bright. Trying too hard.

Shaking. Could be the cold or the anticipation. Or both.

I’m early. The missive indicated 12:30. For days I planned the bus route, checking timetables on my phone, planning fifteen minutes’ buffer time in case of delays or missed transfers. But the trip moved precisely, each connection clicking into place. And I’m here at 12:15. Ready.

What isn’t perfect is the location. The pages and pages of newsprint covering the inside of the window is browned and losing its stick, revealing a dark dusty gloom within. I don’t bother trying to find dates or read the stories. It’s obviously been closed for a long time.

Until now I hadn’t questioned why she wanted to meet me, what made her finally change her mind after all of these months. But being chosen at last was delicious enough. Was the best thing that could ever happen.

But now, the questions come. Why this day? Why me? Why this place, papered-up and abandoned?

I don’t even know what she looks like. Not really. But I have pictured her a thousand times: dark hair, dark eyes, a scare smile tugging the right corner of her mouth upward.

The plan was for me to arrive first and wait for her text message. “Instructions to follow.”

It’s 12:35. Panic sits in my throat. I have no way to contact her: just an anonymous email address. No phone number. And she has my everything.

I’m leaning against the grimy window, hand clenched around my phone. 12:40. 12:45.

And then, the vibration shakes my fingers loose.

I can’t wrench the phone out of my pocket fast enough. And it drops to the sidewalk. My cold fingers scape the pavement in a mad fumble to bring the screen to my face to read her message.

“I’m here. Where are you?”

‘Tell everyone there is hope in your heart’

When you and I spend Christmas in London, it will be perfect. The realest holiday experience. Not the shiny, tinseltastic, calendar cut-out kind of Christmas. It will mean something.

Wet backstreets quiet, a few flakes threatening to make it intact to the pavement. Windowglow and warm light beating back the chill, but not quite. Through the windows, so many people packed into front rooms around card tables and on couches, flashing tree lights competing with the glow of flatscreens.

In the outside silence, the street feels familiar, but isn’t. Ice fog clings to the outline of houses, breathes along ice-slicked trees. But your hand is warm in mine. And for a moment we allow the thought maybe today everyone can all just get along and begin to be better people to flash and hold for a moment, suspended, then fade. That childish hope returning. Like waiting for white-bearded men who deliver presents.

But we shake free of the glitter, and suck in deep lungfuls of damp, chilled air. And hear the raucous chatter of the pub and want to go outside but don’t. Instead, we head toward the Thames. Keeping our mouths open so we can taste it and smell it at the same time. Wide, lonely, unfrozen river.
There is a melancholy to it: but it feels like home. Like hope.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=644U-jMpDUw&w=560&h=315]

When writing was violence

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They feel foreign beneath my fingers: smooth and hard. The cool indentations cradle my fingertips. And I pause a few moments before before pushing downward.

But I don’t press hard enough, and the lever barely lifts. Falls quickly backward in failure.

The next press is sheer violence. The lever whips upward with vicious ferocity, and the type hammer strikes the ribbon with brute force: the blood of it left in the lines of the “t” now scarred onto the face of the white page.

Many letters followed, heartbeat racing with the staccato smack of hard metal against the soft surface. Pounding the words into the paper.

Superhero

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Usually she moves along the street unnoticed. Gradients of grey and ghostliness. Along the pavement, square by square, her soft-soled shoes are soundless.

You won’t hear her coming. You won’t see her going.  A murmur unheard.

But she is there. Watching the cars line up at traffic lights, curls of smoke dissolving upward into the cold air. Watching the bright-coloured bikes rush past, watching strollers roll along with fat laughing children. Watching the flicker of black-coated shoppers in and out of the coffee shop. Frame by frame.

She has her own movie planned. Sometimes all you need is a red cape.