THE WRETCHED REMINDER

It used to be a loving reminder. Now, it’s only perverted purpose is torment. It’s mahogany surface, currently laden in Sharpie graffiti, threatens its hopeful guests with scar-level splinters. Each panel used to create its weak limbs has begun rotting, giving off a vile odor that makes sitting seem like the lesser luxury between it and hours of standing. The seat, meant for two, does not want to be greeted, no matter a stranger’s intent. The only objects that dare remain near are half-lit cigarettes and crushed, empty cans of Budweiser tossed recklessly in its direction. Regardless, the greenery surrounding the bench grows with conviction, with a fierce intent for life. Perhaps, in a sick way, the plants seek to bring attention to the small silver plaque at the very top of the abandoned memorial. The engraved words, “In loving memory of Joan Welsh, a wife, mother, and ray of light,” were the cruelest details displayed on the torture device. I’d asked, no begged, God or whoever else was listening to destroy it somehow. Sitting where she’d once loved, near the stream that made hush sounds as the water fell south over snakes and stones, was like willingly signing a contract to starve everyday, while being teased with hot plates of melty macaroni. I could leave this place, yes, that would likely be the most sane decision. But, sanity wasn’t an ingredient included in this bitter recipe of unrelenting grief. Losing her meant I’d choose to go somewhere else, holding on desperately, in my head, to the life, the luxury I’d once had or remain near where she lingered, swallowing the pain that her nonexistence and this wretched bench caused. It’s true, it’s only perverted purpose is torment, but for a while, the agony has become a cruel companion. And in its company, I wonder many days when I’ll be blessed with release and with it, my own sorrowful seat.

THE LAST SLICE HE'D EVER HAVE

Just last night, Isla never thought of herself as a murderer. But as the dawn broke and Dominic's rage became unbearable, the urge to adopt a new, more sinister identity grew stronger.

"Stay here," Dominic said. "You'll never leave me. Do you understand?"

She nodded, scanning the four corners of the door as she did everyday, for a way out.

"I can't believe it's come to this... It wasn't supposed to be like this," he went on.

To be fair, he was right. Best friends don't usually find themselves millions of dollars in debt over the course of a couple of years. Even more, they don't normally owe that kind of money to the mafia.

"Don't move," he said. "I'm going to take a look outside."

Isla listened to his instructions before finally making the fateful choice she'd been so reluctant to. He'd done enough, she thought. Dom was the one who put them in this position. He made the horrible deal with the Five Families in the first place and kept her hidden from everyone she loved, telling her morning and night just how much he needed her help, while tormenting her at the same time. He'd repeatedly say, "As long as you're at arms length, I'm safe." And at first, it made her smile. But now, each time he'd finish speaking those words her starving stomach would turn and images of her worried mother would do the same, in her head. It was after one of those nights, months ago, that she'd first considered the risky plan for her freedom: she'd kill him herself.

At first, a gun made the most sense to complete the scheme. It was quick, easy, and probably painless. But at the thought of the sickening mess, she changed her mind and considered using one of his feather-filled pillows instead. He'd be sleeping before she leapt over him, so it wouldn't be so bad, right? No, she decided. That was too much for her good little heart to handle. After all, she wasn't actually a killer, she assured herself. The only option left that maintained enough distance, but would still be effective, was poison.

For a moment, Isla reconsidered. But before she let herself rationalize the longstanding torture he'd inflicted, she caught a glimpse of the place where her left thumb used to be. Two weeks ago was the last time she used it, until Dom's blinding madness took it away in one swoop. At that infuriating memory, she mustered the strength to pull her weak body toward the broken rat trap that had been sitting near the kitchen door, collecting dust. She took the poison out of it and hurried straight to the fridge, in case he'd come back soon. There, she found fresh eggs and milk. The choice was clear, she'd use her mother's triple-layer chocolate cake recipe for his demise. She'd made the dessert before and Dom's gluttony led him to finish the whole thing in two days. She was sure he'd never suspect it, or even give himself a chance to, before he indulged in a slice.

As Isla broke open the ingredients, mixing the wet with the wet and the dry with the dry, she kept a steady breath. Two counts breathing in and two counts breathing out. She maintained this until it was time to include the poison. This would be the trickiest part, but she needed to get it done quickly, grinding the granules to a smooth powder and throwing it in with the dry. As she blended the mix at a steady pace, to her surprise and relief, the poison disappeared from sight. And as it faded into the flour, she had the heavy realization that there was no going back.

Isla had expected Dom to return around the time the batter-filled mold was popped into the oven, but he didn't. He came in right as she placed the last of the buttercream icing over the cooled cake. She flattened the top with a wooden spatula and stood there, staring stiffly at the finished product, while he spoke.

"Cake? What are we celebrating?"

"Nothing," she trembled. "I thought you might like it."

And just as she predicted, before he could even drop his coat and the gun slinging from his waist, he served himself a fat slice. His fingers got covered in icing as he transferred it onto the plate and he licked off every bit of it. In what felt like three bites, he finished the whole piece and went right for another. The second he swallowed the first bite, Isla's sweaty fingers clenched and she began stepping away, backward, in slow-motion toward the door.

"Want some?" He asked with an eerie grin and a beady-eyed stare.

She shook her head no and waited for him to suffer. As she noticed herself doing this, she felt bad. Isla knew this was her only way out, but it still felt intrinsically wrong and she was sure that from that day forward, guilt would become a daily companion.

 

"Did you put anything new in this? My stomach feels strange," he grabbed his abdomen and knelt forward in pain. "Seriously Isla, what the hell?"

She did not respond and kept walking in reverse, with her eyes locked on him.

"What is happen-"

Before he could finish speaking, he coughed up blood and his body went limp. His corpse looked like it belonged there, on the cold and dirty floor.

"Please, please, please," Isla whispered to herself. She was begging for him not to wake up again. After fifteen minutes of "pleases" she finally let out a sigh. It was done. And with this bittersweet reality, she continued stepping backward, never looking away from his eyes, until she was free.

KISSING JACOB JONES

It was the evening before the big night and I found myself in there again.The barn, quite cold this late in the evening, was almost ready for the annual Dolesdale Dance. Popcorn streamers, flickering lanterns, and the half-hidden smell of manure filled the wooden space. The empty barrels used for feed were cleared out to make room for the band and finger foods were set to be served at the back corner, where the dogs couldn't reach. And though I'd been inside preparing for hours, I couldn't wait to return the following day at 6:15 p.m. sharp to welcome the whole town myself.

It was midnight by the time I'd finished setting up. The hem of my ragged gingham skirt was drenched in mud and in the distance, I could hear a familiar voice yelling.

"Oh, I swear Marjorie, you're going to get sick! Come home, now."

"It's almost ready!" I screeched, as I hung the last handpicked daisy over one of the cedar brackets. This was where we'd kiss, I planned. Jacob Jones would take me by the waist, dip me backward, and plant one on me—like Glenn Ford in Gilda.

"Marjorie, you better get in here. Don't make me get your father!"

I took in the satisfying sight one more time and rushed back before I got a beating. Daddy always became angry when I was fooling around past sunset, especially once the whiskey level in his bedside bottle fell below the wraparound label. And you knew it was real bad when he'd rip the sticker right off, so no one could guess how long he'd been at it. I said a prayer, begging to still see the words Jack Daniels stuck to the glass, before running out the gate.

"Oh hush, don't wake him," my mother said, breaking a sweat as she snuck me into the house through the back door past my father, who was sleeping on the couch.

I held my breath until I got both feet under the covers of my bed and heard nothing but silence coming from downstairs. Once settled, I turned off the reality switch in my mind and slipped back into the fantasy of festivities that I hoped would carry out soon. And before I could dream of another kiss, sleep gave me one big smooch instead.

Huffing and singing were all I could do leading up to the event, which was now just one hour away. I'd styled every curl on my head just like I'd seen in Mademoiselle Magazine and pinched my cheeks every hour since, to make sure I'd blush just enough for him to notice. After all, that's what page 5 said to do.

"Why in the world would you wear your Sunday best on a night like this?" my mother asked. "Don't you know that'll cost me a week's worth of mending?"

Her nonsensical nags became meaningless as Jacob Jones made an early appearance. As he approached the barn, accompanied by his younger sister Stevie, I began making out his features. His droopy eyes were not sparkling or mysterious, but I liked them. His barely-there beard was messy and uneven, but I was taken. And his crooked teeth were almost comical, but I couldn't get enough.

"Oh, hell0 Marjorie," he said. "Looking lovely."

He took my hand, shoo'd little Stevie away, and led me straight to the empty dance floor, where we swayed to the sound of guests coming in. Hours passed and we remained. Swaying, swaying, swaying.

"Would you like to accompany me to get some punch?" He finally broke the loop.

I was 17, but I knew what this meant. I shyly agreed and we headed to the freshly topped-up bowl on the bar. On the way, I peeked at my reflection in a forgotten flat shovel from the corner of my eye. I was ready, I thought with certainty, for the kiss.

"Here ya go," he said, handing me a full glass. I chugged the punch in no time and prepared my now berry-flavoured lips for their perfect match. I could feel his breath as he came closer and waited until it was mine too. And before I knew it...

X

"Grandma! Oh my God, there you are. Are you okay?"

Sobbing surrounded me, along with three people I didn't know. It felt like I had just woken up, but I was still standing in the same spot, where the punch was.

"Hello? Who are you? Why are you in my barn?" I asked.

A young woman with bright blonde hair wiped the wetness off of her puffy face and wrapped herself around me. I almost fell over at her weight, barely able to keep my back straight.

"I am so glad you're okay. We were looking everywhere for you," she said.

"What is this? Who are you?"

"Grandma, you got lost. You walked all the way here from the hospital," the girl said. "Where are we anyway?"

The two men who came with her paced around, looking for answers. Finally, the tall one paused and squinted as he directed his gaze toward an old wooden post.

"It says, J+M," he said. "Grandma, is this where you and grandpa met?"

I still couldn't make out who these intruders were and what was happening. They felt familiar, but grandchildren? I'd just had my first kiss, surely they were mistaken.

"Where is Jacob Jones?" I asked. I lost my balance for a moment and leaned on the post he's just looked at, for support. As I regained my posture, I saw my hand. The skin over top it was thin and marked with wrinkles that looked like roots from a tree. Each finger was trembling and the ring I had on my third was tarnished, as though years of hectic living had taken its shine.

"Um... He's gone grandma," he said. "Grandpa's gone."

For a second, it made sense. I'd kissed Jacob Jones, that's for sure, but more than half a century had passed since. And before this unnerving news could completely set in, I resistantly faded back into the dreamy bliss of the life-changing lip-lock I'd shared in the very same barn back in 1962.

VEXED

Only two limbs remained on his now, unrecognizable body.

His sweet blood was no doubt like heroin to desperate Vexers, who, hunting alone were pretty powerless, but as a swarm, could kill in seconds.

I decided to lay next to him, just as I had for so many years before. Our domestic bliss was just a distant memory at this point, one filled with teasing and tenderness. As I nuzzled my heavy head into his hollowed chest and kissed each inch of skin my mouth grazed, accidentally or otherwise, I felt cold metal on my lips. The surprising sensation brought me enough energy to promptly pull my face away and search for its source. Once my hazy vision settled, I saw what was previously just another anniversary gift. A silver, heart-shaped locket that I’d given to him long ago was hanging eerily from his neck as a symbol of the love we, and many, shared before the earth became like this. And contrary to long-held traditions of residents at King’s Cove, an image was not at the pendant’s core. Instead, strands of hair from our daughter Dana looped within its secure shell, serving as a reminder that those who seek blood have no mercy for anyone. Even two-year-olds.

Not so long ago, “vex" was nothing but an abstract feeling that came when trivialities felt like betrayals. But, in 2205, the meaning of the word changed the moment a single man adopted it as his own, to represent his clan and newfound desire for bloodletting. That desire quickly expanded among other fraught people, who had heard of the alleged immortal power each drop could bring, once consumed in a particularly sinister way. Only one flask was what the initiator said was needed to create the vile potion. But, to work, it had to be taken by force. And those who wanted it, didn’t care much for measurements. They sought a lifetime supply that could keep their ageing bodies at a young enough state to function with perpetual strength, and still have some left to showcase dominance among their clan.

The myth of Vexers was oddly funny at first to us, who lived comfortably in the well-know and safe downtown core of King’s Cove. Our opulent lifestyles felt normal and we spent everyday melting into it. Leather-lined cars, vintage wines, and expensive dinner parties filled with lush guests who held large accounts at Blooming Hall Bank, all made welcomed appearances in my family’s weekly schedule. When he’d notice us spoiling ourselves too much, James would sometimes say, “If we don’t eat all of it, we’ll soon become caviar ourselves.” His sense of humour was a tier below mine, I’d often remind him, jokingly. But, he’d persist, making silly remarks that brought a welcomed pain in my cheeks from how much I’d smile. And as my eyes would roll, mid-grin, he’d quickly make his way closer to kiss the teeth exposed from his amusing words. But, the day we found out laughter was no longer an appropriate response to the Vexers, we opted for flight, as fear became the only thing left. Running away was not usually a solution we’d choose, but our baby girl was just a toddler. With such young blood, she’d surely be taken to the Elder Vexers if one of their kind got hold of her. And to the people who began this whole thing, sympathy wouldn’t be a priority.

“Take her through the back while I pack more food,” James said, the night we saw our home for the very last time.

“What about you?"

“Don’t worry, I’ll make it before they get here. Trust me. I’ll meet you behind Krip Bridge,” he said, sternly. “Go.”

I quickly wrapped Dana in a tight package of fabric and hid her body close to mine, in hopes of misleading any potentially threatening onlookers. She tried speaking half-words through my clutch, but I hushed her gently under my breath. With a muslin backpack filled with supplies, tightly fitted on my shoulders, I headed out the back door toward our settled-on spot. As soon as I stepped foot onto the charcoal-coloured road, covered in ashes, I could smell it. Blood and rot were all that was left to the senses and gave confirmation that danger was near. With my head down, I treaded through the seemingly, nearly empty path. On my way, I passed a number of mutilated, middle-aged men who were sprawled on the road, bleeding to death. In my world, that demographic had always been most-powerful, but here, their blood was among the least desirable. Still, Vexers showed no compassion and would remove their unwanted limbs to store for possible future use.

Upon arrival at my destination, I finally released tears. They were quicker than expected, travelling from my lids to the bottom of my jaw in seconds. And they felt warm, which was new to my shivering body. Before they could evaporate, I used them to heat the target I’d been holding. Each finger that I could free from my grip of her, became a temporary host to the drops that I hoped would provide a brief sense of comfort to Dana’s skin. As she felt my wet, tepid hand lay down my grief on her face, she smiled. Her smile, like mine, was one that often came with resistance. Though we'd often try not to let one out, we couldn’t help it, which James adored. And as promised, soon after I arrived, there he was making his way to greet us behind the bridge. That was the last time we were all together, before she was taken.

I struggled to open the locket for a final feel of Dana’s locks. We’d survived nearly 10 years since she’d been captured, but we’d never had the heart to open it until mine begged me to, just then. Trembling, I took a go at it. And as soon as it popped open, dark and curly memories of my dear girl fell out. Short hairs were scattered across my face and her smell came with it. At the sound of the cry I let out because of them, James’ mostly-gone body twitched. We’d been able to live for so long, incognito, but earlier this month some of the last Vexers got him. A few years ago, a rebel group took over and successfully eliminated the bloodletting practice and all those who revelled in it. But, the remaining few who still took pride in this torture were out for revenge and would stop at nothing to get it. One day was all it took for us. One day of letting our guard down just a bit, in the hope of a new life, led us here. Here, I decided, would not be tainted by the despair of death. Here, would be where the love I have held for my husband and our lost girl, would plant into the soil to create new life someday. Like seeds, we’d be buried overtime in dirt, but would extend our roots so far that each of those who survived would live above them. Their homes would be built on what we fertilize and their families would grow to become stronger than all those who walked before.

At James’ slight shift, I weakened more. Life was escaping us both, as though it was never ours to begin with. But, at its final fading, we managed to look at each other one last time. He couldn’t speak through the frailty, but I knew what he was saying. His deep, brown eyes told me everything. I loved him too. And as one last gift of love, I smiled. Each visible tooth gave him peace, I could tell. And with peace, painlessness took over, accompanied by death. Mine was near too, I knew it. But, I had one more thought before it could take me. It was silly, but fitting. And it was all about him and caviar.

WRITING ABOUT WRITING

It wasn’t the chilly air or endless snow falling outside that made me cold. It was the knowing that for however long, I’d be stuck alone once again in this room, in this bed. Though my circumstance was more than most were blessed with, I selfishly wanted out. Regardless, over the last year and a half I'd been told remaining here would keep me safe, inside. But as time slowly went on, I began to doubt which was worse: isolation or infection.

The uncomfortable frigidity in that room eventually became an expected part of the loop of lonely days that began following the province-wide shutdown, which by then, was the longest the world had seen to date. The global virus had taken more than Canada, and I, could handle. And in a hopeless haze on one of those freezing nights, I decided to finally do something about it.

In a way, the change wasn’t really a choice at all, but more of a push—one triggered by what I can now guess was a form of depression and desperation. And the combination of those perfectly matched drivers resulted in a daring double-spaced document containing thirty-thousand words, written over just seven days. The unplanned novella, that came as a result, was messy. At that point, the typo-filled pages of fiction were nowhere near ready to be consumed, or even grazed, by anyone else. But to me, each one represented newness. Though, to be fair, there was nothing really new about writing for me. As an editor, who has worked in various industries for years, I'd become quite used to putting words to paper. But, not like this. This time, it wasn't about "work" or the desire for fake external validation, that usually only lasted a moment. The sentences I'd built during that week were written just for me. Little me. The version of myself I'd forgotten much too often. A young, innocent and impassioned girl cutting and glueing construction paper together to create a binding of her own to tell stories she'd felt connected to. A young, innocent and impassioned girl spending nights thinking up wondrous worlds she'd then pen, in a rush. A young, innocent and impassioned girl who didn't care what people thought of her art, because it was hers.

As I wrote during those blurred days, I knew the characters who came alive would become friends to present day and little me. The hours I'd spent craving physical connection throughout the dreary Ontario, pandemic-ridden winter would be redeemed through them. Maya, the time-travelling protagonist, Mr. Macy, the one-night love from another world, and Harry, the man who made the mistake that would change everything, felt like fun roommates I'd gotten close with over wine and cheese. And though they came from my head, they'd remain in my heart, tugging away.

While I realize that writing about writing is quite unoriginal, it's big for me. Because without it, I'd have lost myself. Not just during those unsettling days that COVID-19 ruthlessly brought, but right now, as I type. At this very moment, my city is almost fully free. Toronto has thankfully done the work and many have healed, both physically and mentally, in order to get here. And I am grateful and proud. That said, I am also lost. I don't recognize the woman I'd once been to the world just two years ago. I walk the same streets I used to, talk to the same people I've always loved, and even like a lot of the same things as I did before, but I am so different. I don't know how to navigate the unfamiliar familiarities I'm presented with and figure out who I am among them. Each day is a disconcerting battle filled with blessings. Because, how do I justify the anxiousness I feel when all I was given is good? I ache at the thought of those who truly suffer, while I sit here, thinking this is hard. Shame often comes when people act badly or recklessly, but for me, it is showing itself in times most would consider joyful, as I fail to feel how I should. Though the consistent coldness is gone, there is still pain in the process of melting away, drip by drip. And I pray everyday, thanking God that He gave me the simple gift of writing down words, to help thaw them out.