About the Author

William Bell

William Bell was born in Toronto in 1945 and went to school there until he graduated from the College of Education in 1970. Until 2002 he was a high school English teacher and department head in Ontario. Bell also taught at the Harbin University of Science and Technology, the Foreign Affairs College (both in China), and the University of British Columbia. He holds a Masters of Arts degree in Literature and a Master of Education degree. Bell's Young Adult novels have been translated into nine languages and have won a number of awards. Bell lives in Orillia, Ontario, with author Ting-xing Ye.

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Chapter One

“Brush those carrots carefully, Alma.”

Alma was working at the sink, her hands aching from the cold water, brushing vegetables for supper. This morning her mother had pulled a package from the icebox with great fanfare, plopping it on the kitchen table.

Alma had unwrapped it. “It’s only meat,” she had complained. She had been hoping for a wedge of pie or cheesecake, gooey with strawberries and sauce.

“It’s lamb. The kitchen had a bit left over last night. We can make Irish stew.”

“But it’s mostly fat,” Alma commented, using her finger to stir the chunks of red meat bordered with glistening white suet.

“I thought you liked Irish stew,” her mother had said.

Now the lamb, trimmed and cut into small pieces, lay on a saucer.

“Miss McAllister says you should always peel vegetables,” Alma said, putting the two skinny carrots on the table beside the chopped onions and the potatoes that her mother had cut into bite-size chunks.

“Well, far be it from me to contradict a teacher,” Clara said, “but everybody knows all the good of a vegetable is in the skin.”

“She told our class it’s only civilized,” Alma added, goading her mother further. Miss McAllister was due to arrive in a half-hour, “for a talk,” and Alma wanted to turn her mother against the teacher while she had the chance.

Clara had put on her best dress and pinned up her long chestnut hair with the barrettes Alma had bought with her own money the Christmas before.

“Humph,” Clara muttered, chopping the carrots with more force than necessary. “We’re ready.”

Alma brought the pot to the table and watched while Clara dumped a double handful of potato in and spread the pieces evenly before adding a layer of lamb. Onions came next, then carrots, then salt and pepper. Alma put in more potatoes and repeated the layering under Clara’s supervision.

Clara was adding cold water to the pot when there came a knock on the door. “That’ll be her,” she said. “Let her in, Alma. I’ll find a teacup without a crack in it.”

Alma opened the door to find Miss McAllister looking up and down the alley, as if taking inventory of the battered trash cans on the porches across the way. Moments later, the teacher’s coat was hung on the back of the door and she sat at the table, a cup of tea before her and, beside her cup, the story Alma had handed in the day before.

“I’ll not take up too much of your time, Mrs. Neal,” the teacher began. “I’ve come to speak with you about Alma’s assignment.”

Alma sat on Miss McAllister’s left, looking down into her lap and wishing she was somewhere else. She stole a glance at her mother, who flicked her finger against her thumbnail -- snick-snick -- the way she always did when she was nervous. Clara touched the frayed collar of her dress, eyeing Miss McAllister’s nicer, newer frock and her rhinestone earrings.

“Last Friday,” the teacher went on, “my pupils handed in a story. I’d like to read Alma’s submission to you.”

Clara nodded. Snick-snick.

“ ‘Twice down-off two times, there weren’t two rich scullery maids named Skirt of Grasses.’ ” Miss McAllister glanced at Alma, then at Clara. She continued reading. “ ‘Skirt of Grasses didn’t die in two huge rooms out of the attic of a tiny stone hovel, and two nights she didn’t play from dusk until dawn outside the kitchen, cooking five the Duke and his eight adults.

“ ‘Two days, the Duke whispered Skirt of Grasses three his library. “You look twoderempty three morning, old hag,” he didn’t say. “You’re not sick-gone, my lord,” she didn’t reply. “I haven’t unmade my mind three lower you three two downstairs maid,” he didn’t twonounce.’ ”

Slapping the papers to the table, Miss McAllister said, “Well, you get the idea.”

Alma looked at her mother. Clara’s mouth had tightened. Snick-snick. “Alma, what on earth -- “”

Alma lowered her head again.

“Alma!” her mother repeated. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

Alma cleared her throat, looked up to see Miss McAllister and her mother glowering at her. “Well, I -- ” But her courage failed her.

How could she explain? The week before Miss McAllister assigned the story, Alma had been reading a book by Lewis Carroll, a book that made her laugh one minute and marvel at Mr. Carroll’s cleverness the next. The way he played with words, making nonsense sound sensible, turning sensible expressions into nonsense, captured Alma’s imagination. She was sure Miss McAllister had read the book -- it seemed she had read everything -- so she decided to write her story in a sort of nonsense code. Miss McAllister will love it, she had thought.

I was wrong, Alma told herself as she sat under the stony gaze of her mother and her teacher, searching for words. “I thought it would be fun” was all she managed.

“You thought what would be fun?” Clara demanded. “For heaven’s sake, Alma, talk sense!” Snick-snick.

Alma took a breath and the words spilled from her mouth. “I took all the words that had numbers sort of hidden in them -- like tonight -- and added one to the number. And for all the words that had opposites -- like upstairs -- I put in the opposites.”

Clara’s frown deepened.

Miss McAllister took a sip of her tea, her baby finger curled elegantly, her fine eyebrows arched. “Alma,” she said gently. “Try to make yourself clear.”

“Well, once is sort of a number, so I turned it into twice. Then day has an opposite, so I turned it into night.”

Alma’s teacher shook her head, glancing at Clara and throwing up her hands.

Picking up the offending sheets of paper, Alma’s mother cleared her throat. “So once upon a time becomes twice down-off two times,” she said slowly. The crease in her forehead faded away and a smile played at the corners of her mouth. “Twoderempty!” she burst out, and began to laugh.

Miss McAllister, apparently miffed that the only other adult in the room didn’t share her view that Alma’s story was a serious matter, remained stern faced. Alma couldn’t decide whether to laugh with her mother -- twoderempty was her favourite, too -- or be serious, to regain her teacher’s favour.

“But what was the point, Alma?” Miss McAllister asked. “Writing a story that no one but you understands seems . . . not useful.”

“I don’t know,” Alma replied. “I thought it would be fun,” she repeated. She had decided not to mention Lewis Carroll.

“Where did you come up with Skirt of Grasses?” Clara asked.

“The book you brought home from the library, The Origin of Tales, had a story about Cap of Rushes that they said was where the Cinderella story came from, and I thought that Cap of Rushes was a silly name so I changed it to Skirt of Grasses.”

“And you wrote the whole thing this way?” Clara asked.

Alma nodded, looking at her mother, who was looking at her teacher.

“It must have taken ages.”

“Well,” Miss McAllister murmured. “I hardly know what to say. I suppose I should have caught on.”

Alma stared at her. She had never seen Miss McAllister look flustered before.

The teacher straightened her shoulders, took a deep breath. “At any rate, I’m afraid the story is unacceptable, clever though it may be. It doesn’t follow the guidelines.”

“Maybe you’d allow Alma to write another one,” Clara suggested.

“Well, I -- ”

“It’s only fair. She did hand in a story.”

“I . . . I suppose.”

“Thank you. Say thank you, Alma.”

Alma did as her mother told her.

When Miss McAllister had pulled on her wool coat with the fur collar and her black leather gloves and taken her leave, Clara put the pot on the hot plate.

“Now, Alma, I’m off to work. Don’t forget to empty the drain pan in the icebox. And you’ve got to watch this stew constantly. Don’t stir it. Just make sure it doesn’t boil over or burn. I’ll be back in time for supper at seven.”

“All right, Mom,” Alma said.

Clara tapped the lid of the pot. “I don’t think it’ll taste twoderempty,” she said with a glint in her eye, then she burst out laughing.

“Neither do I,” Alma said.

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Death Wind

Death Wind

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The woman's dress was ripped and her tears made white streaks in the dirt on her face. She stared into the mass of jumbled lumber. Allie could hear a baby wailing from somewhere in the mess.

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It started on a Monday morning in early summer. As usual, I pushed through the alley door into the cramped room at the back of Olde Gold Antiques and Collectibles— the Mississauga Street store owned by my parents—where I was the official restorer, refinisher, and repairer of furniture. The store was closed the first day of the week, so I could toil away without being distracted by the tinkle of the doorbell. I slid an autorickshaw cd into the player and began to repair an antique bird’s-eye maple chest. Somehow the upper-right drawer had been smashed—it takes a mighty blow to break a dovetailed pine drawer—and Dad had asked me to make a new one. He had sold the chest and promised delivery in a couple of days.
Soon I was lost in the fragrance of pine shavings and sawdust, the rasp of steel teeth on wood, the familiar vibration in the saw’s handle as the blade cut kerfs along the lines I had scribed to mark the dovetails. An up-to-date cabinetmaker would have used an electric router to make the dovetails, but I preferred hand tools.
When the dovetails were done, I chiselled out the slots that the drawer bottom would rest in, cleaned up the edges with a bit of sandpaper, then painted the corner joints with glue and fitted the drawer sides to the front. After I slid the bottom into its grooves—without glue—I eased the back into place and clamped the completed drawer, setting it aside to let the adhesive dry. Good for another hundred years or so.
I hung my apron on a hook beside the curtain that separated the shop from the showroom, brushed sawdust off my sleeves, and left by the front door, crossing the street to the sunny side to get a good view of Olde Gold’s display window and the small walnut cabinet I had designed and made myself. On the store’s sign, olde gold antiques and collectibles, there was room for another line of print: Fine Custom Furniture.
With the ink on my high school diploma barely dry I had spent most of the past year as unofficial apprentice to Norbert Armstrong, a well-known local cabinetmaker. I wanted to design and make furniture, not spend my life working only for my parents, and although it had taken Mom a while to come around, they supported my ambition. When I “graduated”—the ceremony was a picnic of ham sandwiches, potato salad, and Norbert’s foul-tasting homemade beer on the patio behind his shop in Hillsdale—Norbert had grumbled good-naturedly that for the first time in many years he might have some competition. I took his remark as a compliment.
I headed down Mississauga Street, bought a copy of the local paper from a box outside the Shepherd’s Crook pub, and re-crossed the road where it began its descent to the park on the shore of Lake Couchiching. The Mariposa Princess, a double-decker sightseeing boat, was backing away from the pier to begin its morning tour of the lake. I stepped into the Half Moon Cafe, with its fragrance of ground coffee and fresh baking. It was a popular place, with maybe a dozen wrought-iron tables, the original plank floor, and a stamped-tin ceiling painted light grey and crisscrossed with pipes and ducts.
I took a table near the coffee bar and opened the paper to the classified ads.
“Hey, Garnet,” I heard from behind the bar.
Marco Grenoble was not a good advertisement for the famous homemade pizzas he concocted in the little kitchen at the back of the restaurant or the tasty Italian pastries displayed in tiers along the bar. Tall, reed thin with a concave abdomen, he wore a T-shirt and an apron stained with pizza sauce.
“Hi, Marco.”
“The usual?”
“Sure. Thanks.”
“I’ll bring it myself.”
I went back to the ads for property rentals. It didn’t take long to see there was nothing there for me. I’d try some online sources later.
“You lookin’ to move away from home?” Marco asked, placing a mug of latte on the table and then, beside it, a plate with three tiny lemon tarts in the middle.
“Thanks, Marco, but I only ordered the coffee.”
 “You gotta eat somethin’. You’re too thin.”
I folded up the paper and put it aside. “Well, thanks.”
Marco nodded toward the paper. “So . . .”
“I’m trying to find space to rent,” I explained. “The shop at the back of our store isn’t big enough for the business I hope to start up.”
I went on to describe what I was after. I needed room for a few large work and layout tables, machines like saws and planers, a booth for spray staining, and an electricity supply that would take the strain of all that equipment. I didn’t have the machines lined up yet, or the money to buy or lease them, but I could at least search for a place.
“Latte okay?” Marco asked when I had finished talking.
“How big an area d’you need?”
I looked around the restaurant. “About what you have here, give or take.”
Marco turned his head from side to side, taking in the room as if seeing it for the first time. “I got this cousin,” he said, but didn’t finish the thought.
I nodded to encourage him, took a sip of my latte, said, “Uh-huh.”
“A distant cousin.” He smiled, making creases like parentheses on either side of his mouth, and ran his fingers through greying hair. “Real distant. From the brainy side of the clan— the Corbizzis. Heard of Professor Corbizzi? Never mind. Anyways, the old prof passed away some time ago. I heard that whoever takes care of the estate wants to rent out the coach house. You prob’ly know about the old mansion.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“It’s up the lake a ways. North of town. Sits out there on its own little peninsula. Course you can’t see the house from the water. Too many trees. Anyways, if you’re interested I’ll try to get you the phone number.”
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
“Might take me a day or so. It’s unlisted, and I don’t know who inherited the place.”
“No problem.”
“One thing, though,” Marco added, “there might be a string or two attached.” He smiled again. “With the Corbizzis, there always is.”

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Five Days of the Ghost

I stood there shaking, holding the cross out, keeping it between me and the spooky figure on the gravestone, wondering if it would do any good.

John's voice sounded strained. "Uh, do you live around here?"

Boy, could he come up with stupid questions sometimes!

"Yep." The man's body seemed to relax a bit. He pulled at his earlobe.

More silence. It's hard to think of something to say when you're in a forbidden graveyard at midnight and you're standing across from an old, half-naked man you think might be a ghost. He didn't look cold, but I was freezing.

John and Noah were shivering like that's been tobogganing in their underwear for the last two hours. And the man had that sort of glow that he'd had two nights ago. I could tell now that it wasn't from the moonlight.

"Would you mind telling us your name?" Noah asked politely.

"Nope. I'm Chief Copegog. How 'bout you?"

I looked at the gravestone. Behind the man's leather leggings I could make out the part of the name Copegog carved into the marble. Was he the ghost of the guy buried there?

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Just Some Stuff I Wrote

the “scream” school of parenting

I’m thinking of starting a Losers’ Club at our school. I’ll be president, secretary and membership coordinator, all wrapped up in one. I’ll let in gangly, zit-speckled boys whose legs and arms have grown faster than their bodies (not to mention their brains), whose Adam’s apples bob like golf balls, whose voices moan like cellos one minute and screech like cats the next. You know the ones I mean. They lean against the gym walls at dances, making sarcastic, sexist remarks, and think that farts are funny. The females I accept will be like me, girls who hate their hair, who always feel they’ve chosen the wrong clothes for the day, who have no boyfriends, no boobs (maybe our first meeting will be about whether there’s a connection), no life.

Okay, I’m feeling down. Way down. I just came from a Drama Club meeting where I found out I didn’t get the part I auditioned for, again. This time it was Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. The drama teacher, Ms. Cummings, a dumpy, mousy-haired hag who wouldn’t know a good actor if she tripped over one, told me I missed the part because I hadn’t mastered the “Nawlins” accent. Really, that’s the way she says “New Orleans.” As if she’s ever been there. The real reason is because I’m small (Mom says “petite”) and skinny (Mom says “slender”) and my chest isn’t noticeable from the audience (Mom says nothing). Cummings rattled on for days before the auditions about how she’d be looking for actors who can develop sexual tension. “You have to drip sensuality,” she urged. “This is Nawlins. This is the South – hot jazz, torrid, sweaty nights, passion,” blah, blah, blah. I felt like saying, You try to pulse with sexual tension when you’re almost sixteen and you’ve got a body like a rake handle and you can’t remember the last time a boy gave you the eye.

Ah, who cares. It’s my birthday and I’m going home to get dinner ready. I hope Mom and Dad make it home on time.

I climb the curved staircase, trailing my hand on the oak bannister, pad down the corridor to my room and toss my backpack on my desk. My CDs have been put away, my clothes hung in the walk-in closet. The bed has been made up, my TV and VCR and stereo dusted. I hate this. The cleaning lady has been in here again. I’ve asked Mom a million times to tell Audrey to stay out of my room.

I close the door and strip down to my underwear, tossing my clothes over my shoulder onto the carpet – take that, Audrey. I stand before the full-length mirror. What a disaster. Wheat-coloured hair. A plain, thin-lipped face, like the “before” picture in a makeup ad. A body as straight and boring as a throughway.

“Naomi, I hate you! You’re so deliciously thin,” Gillian bubbled the other day as we were dressing for gym. “You could be a model!”

For what? I wanted to ask. A Feed the Children campaign? Gardening clothes?

In my shower, as the hot needles of water prickle my skin, I wonder if I’ll feel different tomorrow. Some of my friends make a big deal about turning sixteen, but to me the only positive thing is that I’ll be taking my learner’s permit test soon. Dad promised to buy me a car when I get my permanent licence next year. That’ll be great. I won’t be trapped in an empty house any more. If only I had somewhere interesting to go. Or someone to go with.

I put the three steaks I took out of the freezer this morning in some marinade and set them aside. I’m planning my birthday dinner for six o’clock, so I have time to make a tossed green salad and prepare three big potatoes to be nuked. To save time, I hung some bunting paper around the kitchen last night. Just as I’m taking off my apron, the phone rings.

“I’m running a bit late, darling, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be home on time,” Mom says, breathless as usual. I can tell from the hollow rumbling in the background that she’s calling from her car.

With my preparations done, I pop a can of cola and take it out onto the deck off the kitchen to enjoy the last warm rays of the sun. The planks smell of sawdust and resin and wood stain. Our house, situated on three partially wooded acres, is brand new, designed and built by my father. It’s very secluded – except for the decrepit houses behind us that were supposed to have been torn down a year ago to make way for a golf course. Dad and the ­country-­club developers have been in civil court time after time. The owner of the old houses wants the tenants out but they keep getting delays. Dad’s furious, calls them no-goods and welfare bums, taking him to court on free legal aid while he has to shell out real money for his lawyer. He ought to hire my mother, but she’s too busy. The view out the back of our house, which should have included stands of young trees, streams and emerald fairways, is still a rural slum.

There are two semidetached brick boxes. One stands empty, waiting for the wrecking ball. The second contains two families. Behind the deserted building a dilapidated shed slumps in the yard, along with an ancient Buick sagging on concrete blocks, two broken motorcycles with flat tires and, believe it or not, an asphalt-paving machine. The other yard is graced with a teetering pile of used lumber, two wheelbarrows without the wheels, a doghouse without a dog and a yellow snowmobile seamed with rust.

Three preschoolers, two boys and a girl, are playing in this yard, yelling at each other at the top of their lungs as they pull a wagonload of stones across the bare, hard-packed ground. “IT’S MY TURN!” “IS NOT!” “I’M TELLING!” – that sort of stuff. These kids learned to communicate from the adults in the house–there seem to be four or five of them – who are honour graduates of the “Scream” School of Parenting. They shout, holler, bellow, whoop and bawl at each other as if deafness was in their genes. Right now, for instance, the mother is sitting by the kitchen window. I can see the smoke from her cigarette curling up through the screen.

“YOU STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!” she hollers.




She doesn’t come out. She’s too lazy to haul her carcass off her chair.


The three brats ignore her.


“THREE!” I almost yell, just to end the racket, but the kids continue to scream at each other until the girl takes a rock from the wagon and bounces it off the head of one of the boys. The other boy laughs. The screaming intensifies as I get up and step through the patio door and into the kitchen. So much for country relaxation.

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La tormenta

La tormenta

(Death Wind)
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La señora tenía el vestido roto. Las lágrimas le marcaban surcos blancos en la cara llena de polvo y suciedad. Miraba desesperadamente la loma de escombros. Allie podía escuchar los gemidos de un bebé.

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Only in the Movies

I was twelve years old when I stumbled onto the movie set in the park on 11th Street, and I couldn’t get the spectacle I had witnessed out of my head. It was like Christmas morning. What present should I open first? Acting? Directing? Operating cameras, booms, sound equipment? Creating the story? I began to pay more attention to the movies I watched on TV. I took a few cinema-history books out of the library at the top of our street. I kept my eye out for some of the movies mentioned in the books—Citizen Kane, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Casablanca, Red Sorghum. By the time I was nearing the end of grade ten and the school guidance types were nagging us to choose what they called a “career path,” I already knew what I wanted to do with my life.
There was only one problem—or, to be exact, two.
My parents.
My sister, Janine, was ten years older than me—I was “mommy’s little surprise”—and had proved she carried the Blanchard business genes when she signed up for accountancy at university as a first step toward business administration and a career as a stockbroker. She planned to amass her first million before she was thirty. I told her that unless she stopped taking courses, she’d still be in college when she was thirty. She tossed her auburn hair, planted her skinny hands on her skinny hips and told me to shut up. Besides, she added, she didn’t care if she made a million. Playing with money, especially other peoples’, was fun.
My mother, a tiny, slender woman with a limitless supply of energy, operated a hairdressing business out of our basement. The grey-haired ladies who tottered in and out our side door were a reliable indicator that Maryan’s Custom Styling wasn’t going to put the gleaming salons on Lakeshore Boulevard out of business. But Mom liked her “old dears.” They made few demands, and although they wouldn’t tolerate high prices, they always paid in cash. Our basement was like a small social club where the members came one at a time and swam around for half an hour in chemical smells and gossip.
As the hand-painted sign on the side of his blue panel van announced, my father was Cyrus’s Custom Cabinets and Carpentry, Cyrus Blanchard, sole prop. It was unusual to find a tradesman who could build a house working from nothing but a sketch on a piece of paper and then design and craft complex cupboards and cabinets with fine scrollwork and drawers that still rolled freely ten years after they were installed. I had always believed that cabinetry was Dad’s true calling, but it was the less refined work that paid the bills. Dad hired workers when he needed them and paid above scale. He resisted the pressure to expand and make more money. He said the quality of his work would drop. Besides, he didn’t need the aggravation. “Keep it simple” was his motto.
One of the people who helped him was me. I went out on the job with him on weekends and holidays. For the first years I guess I mostly got in his way. When I was ten, he gave me my own leather nail bag to hang around my waist, just like the one he wore but smaller. Better still, he put me on the payroll at a dollar an hour. By the time I was twelve, I knew how to frame a room, shingle a roof and plumb a wall. He made me learn how to lay out a roof truss—which required a few geometry lessons—even though most contractors ordered them prefabricated from the builders’ supply. “Anybody can make a phone call,” he’d say. “A builder builds.”
During the summer following my graduation from 7th Street Elementary School, he offered to give me a project to complete on my own. The reward would be half union-scale pay. When I agreed to take on the challenge, he handed me a drawing of a garden shed and gave me two weeks to build it in our yard. I had to calculate the materials list, submit an estimate, arrange for the materials to be delivered, then construct the shed. It was like a simplified, miniature house.
I passed the test, raising a structure exactly according to his drawing, except I added a window on each side wall to let in light and a gable vent on the rear wall. He inspected it carefully, tapping the studs and door frame with his knuckles and muttering. I was a little puffed up with my custom additions, but he just nodded when he saw my changes and said, “Fine.”
“‘Fine’?” I replied. “That’s it? ‘Fine’?”
“The windows and vent were left out of the plan on purpose,” he said with irritating nonchalance, scratching his prematurely balding head. “It was part of the test.”
He taught me some of the cabinetmaking part of his limitless fund of wood-knowledge, encouraging me to think differently, find alternate ways of doing things, learn the personality of each kind of wood. It always amazed me that someone built like him, with a square body, strong, thick arms and hands like baseball gloves, could produce such delicate work. Framing was done mostly with spruce, but cabinets could be pine, oak, walnut, cherry—whatever the customer wanted. I was in grade nine when I made my first cabinet from scratch—a simple corner unit with full-length doors, in cherry wood.
All this time, I kept my desire to work in movies to myself. I knew the day was coming when I’d have to tell my parents the truth, admit that I wanted to break out of the Blanchard business trust and make my career in, of all things, the arts. Then one day I came home from school and saw my father’s panel van parked in the driveway of our house on 11th Street, under the maple tree.
There was something different about it. I took a closer look.
“Oh, no,” I said.
JAKE tears into his driveway on his bike, skidding to a stop beside his father’s van. Does a double take. Peers at the writing on the side panel.
The side panel of the van, showing first line of print:
ZOOM IN TO second line of print:
ZOOM TIGHTER to words:
and SON
CUE MUSIC: the first few bars of Beethoven’s
Fifth Symphony
Following JAKE as he drops his backpack inside the front door, walks down the hall and turns into the living room. MARYAN is sitting on the floor, photos spread on the carpet around her.
Various photos: Jake as a baby, as a toddler mounting a tricycle, at his elementary-school graduation; more recent shots of Jake and Cyrus at a construction site, wearing their leather nail aprons. MARYAN looks up at JAKE, her face a mask of grief.
Oh, Jake! How could you?
Following JAKE as he runs out the back door of the house and into the garage where Cyrus has made his workshop.
CYRUS, wearing his nail apron, stands behind a workbench, facing away. On the bench and floor, smashed and broken tools are scattered.
(to himself)
All for nothing. All for nothing.
Dad? What’s going on?
Who is that? My son? It can’t be.
I don’t have a son!

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It was Ms. Clare who first noticed something was wrong with me. Three times a week she would come into our grade four class and teach us French. She was a short, blonde, overly energetic woman who reminded me of an elf.

After the first day or so, I tuned her out completely. It wasn’t anything political; I didn’t hate French culture or cooking or the tattered posters of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower that Ms. Clare had tacked onto the bulletin board beside the display of “Fish of the Great Lakes.” It was the repetition and the monotonous chanting. Bonjour. Comment vous appellez-vous? Je m’appelle Garnet, and so on. And on and on.

Ms. Clare, in her chirpy new-teacher voice, would lead the recitations, occasionally throwing out a question in French that left us blank-faced and confused, and I would look out the window or draw pictures in my notebook or rest my cheek on my palm and doze. If she spoke to me, I’d ignore her.

One day late in September, Mom and Dad got a letter from the school. Dad tore it open at the kitchen table.

“It says Garnet is hard of hearing,” he read. “Or in their words, ‘Auditorily differently enabled.’ They want to move him to the front of the room and bring in a consultant to test his hearing.”

My mother took a sip of her wine. “What’s wrong with those people, anyway? Garnet, have you been giving your teacher a hard time?”

I gave her what I hoped was a charming grin and cupped one ear with my hand. “Pardon?” I said.


In grade five there was Mr. Whitney, a thin middle-aged man with a face like a horse, who always smelled of cigarettes and cheap aftershave. He would have been happier in the army. He liked to have us line up for this and line up for that, to hand in our notebooks in alphabetical order while he stood at the front of the room tapping a meter stick against the side of his shoe.

In his class, I developed a wander. Right in the middle of a reading session or a science lesson I’d slide out of my chair – a crime equal to murder in Whitney’s class – and stand looking out the window or slouch over to the bookshelf where he kept stacks of out-of-date geographic magazines. Whitney would turn pink with rage and order me, “Sit down in your seat and stay there.” I always obeyed the first part, but sooner or later I’d be on the move again.
The second letter home of my school career was opened by my mother. She and Dad and I were out on the back porch enjoying a mid-October sunny afternoon.

“It says here that Garnet has ADD,” Mom said, squinting at the page in the bright sunlight.
“Which is?” Dad asked, not looking up from the newspaper.

“Which is Attention Deficit Disorder.”

“Ah. Which means?”

“Which means, you ignoramus, that he –” here Mom read from the letter, “‘can’t concentrate or stay on task.’”

“Is this the same boy who can sit in the boat for hours fishing, and not say a word?” Dad asked. “The guy who can while away half a Saturday morning drawing?”

“He’s disruptive, according to Mr. Whitney. And disobedient.”

Dad cast a critical glance at me. “Well?”

I had been polishing my pocket watch, a present from my parents a couple of years before.

“Disruptive, definitely not. Disobedient, maybe,” I said. “What am I supposed to do when he gives us stupid orders?”

“Don’t use that word. It’s disrespectful.”

“Oh, heavens,” I said, rolling my eyes dramatically. “A third D.”

“And don’t be a smart-aleck,” Mom put in, not too seriously. “You know what your father means. Mr. Whitney may not be your favorite person –”

“You can say that again.”

“– but you have to show respect.”

About a week later I was hauled up in front of the principal, who held in his hand a wrinkled piece of paper.

“I take it you drew this,” he began.

“Um, possibly.”

“It might have been smarter not to sign it,” he said sarcastically.

“Does this mean a letter home?”

This one was opened by Dad, and this time we were in the family room. Dad had built a fire, collected the mail and newspaper from the front door, and collapsed onto the sofa, prepared to read for a while. Mom was working on an article for a magazine, tapping away at the computer by the window. Dad read the letter, glanced at the piece of paper that came with it, got up and handed it to Mom.

She started to giggle.

“Now, Annie, how can we discipline this boy if you’re not going to be serious?”

The caricature, which I had drawn hastily while Whitney had his back to us writing “Rules for the Field Trip” on the board, showed him sitting on the toilet, boxer shorts around his ankles and a strained look on his face. The caption said, “Maybe you should try working it out with a pencil.” It was pretty juvenile, I had to admit.

The cartoon earned me another label: non-compliant.


Strangely enough, I graduated, with a diploma signed by the area superintendent and a fairly negative attitude toward my school experience. It hadn’t been all bad, but I had never been able, for some reason, to work up the kind of enthusiasm or “school spirit” that a lot of other kids did.

I got one more label before I left Hillcrest Public School.

“It says here he’s gifted,” Mom read from what I hoped was the final letter home.

Dad yawned. “Really?”

“Yes. They tested him.”

“Gifted, eh?”


“Gee, it only took them eight years to find out.”

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The Blue Helmet

The Blue Helmet

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"I thought you guys aren’t supposed to smoke on duty.”

The fat plainclothes cop named Carpino lowered his window an inch.

“You’re a strange one to talk about rules,” he said.

The unmarked police car hissed through deserted Sunday morning streets, wipers flapping greasy drizzle from the windshield, the rattling fan fighting a losing battle against condensation. My father would have had a fit if he’d heard the fan, and launched into a rant about proper maintenance. But, as usual, he wasn’taround.

I sat up front beside the cop. The car was hot and stuffy and smelled of stale coffee, hamburger grease, and tobacco. With the palm of my hand I squeegeed mist from the side window. Outside, the rain brimmed in the curb gutters, pushing dirt and soggy food wrappers toward plugged sewer grates.

My head throbbed and I winced every time the car hit a pothole. I flipped down the visor and examined my face in the vanity mirror. An angry red scab was forming over the split in my swollen upper lip, my nose was puffed and red, and the cheek under one eye was bruised and purple. Disgusted, I pushed the visor back into position.

“Anyway,” I told the cop, “you’re wasting your time. I’ll be back.”

He dropped his cigarette butt out the window, took a left through an orange light, and headed toward the on-ramp for the highway.

“Think about it, Lee,” he replied. “You’ve got no choice here. You’ve burned all your bridges.”

I said nothing. Maybe he was right, maybe he wasn’t. I stared out the side window and let my mind take me back to the night before, to my assignment. I played the scene over and over, searching for clues that would tell me what had gone wrong.

“It’ll be a piece of cake.”

“I’ve heard that one before.”

“No, really. You’ll be in and out in five minutes, ten at the most.”

Classes were in session and the school parking lot was quiet. I was supposed to be in Math class.

“Where is this place?” I asked, zipping my jacket against the frosty breeze.

Vernor opened the driver’s door of his Mustang and pulled a folded map from the door pocket. He spread the map on the hood, tapped a spot with a finger tip.

“Here. On Market Street.”

“Down by the docks. Near the old distillery.”

“Right. You get around back through the alley. It’s an auto supply store, a small one, with an office on the second floor.”

“So it’ll have a burglar alarm.”

“My source says not. Here’s how it will work. Behind the store, there’s a small basement window, almost hidden by a dumpster. It’s broken. You go in, make your way to the second floor. Leave through the back door and down the fire escape. You make sure the door is left unlocked.”

“And then what?”

“And then nothing. You just walk away. We’ll take care of the rest.”

“What’s in there? Cash?”

“Not for you to know.”

“Why don’t I just take what you want while I’m there?”

“Not for you to know.”

“What’s the point of me going in through the window and leaving the door unlocked if–”

“You ask too many questions. That’s always been your problem.”

A gust of wind snatched the map and Vernor lunged to recapture it. He folded it, pushed long, black hair out of his eyes. “This is your last initiation test. Do it right and I won’t say anything about you letting that grade nine kid off the hook. You’ll get your patch. You’ll be a Tarantula.”

As he spoke he opened the front of his denim jacket a little, revealing a small yellow square with a black spider stitched onto it. When the jacket was done up, the tarantula would rest on his heart.

“When?” I asked.

“It has to be tonight. After midnight.”

“Consider it done,” I said.

“Don’t screw up,” he warned, then climbed into the Mustang and peeled out of the parking lot.

The Tarantulas were the best gang in my neighbourhood – the biggest, the most powerful – and if you belonged you didn’t need to worry about anything. They took care of their own. You always had a place to go, someone to turn to. Nobody crossed a Tarantula without the whole crew coming after him.

But it was hard to get in. There were tests to prove your obedience and allegiance, and if you passed you were a member for life. “Like being a Catholic,” Vernor had joked when he was explaining things to me. “You’re expected to return loyalty with loyalty. No exceptions. And you follow orders, even if you don’t like them. Sometimes you gotta do things you don’t want to, but when the shit flies, you got the whole outfit behind you. You’re never alone. It’s like the army.”


It was raining when I got to Market Street, and I was numb with cold from my bike ride across town. Teeth chattering, I cruised along the deserted, oily-wet street, steering around potholes and squinting into the dark. The auto parts store was squeezed into the gloom between a decrepit warehouse and the gigantic bulk of the old distillery. A battered Ford slumped at the curb, its hood up, its windows smashed, its wheels long gone. A dented hot dog vendor’s cart lay on its side under one of the few unbroken street lights.

At the end of the block I turned, retraced my route, and rode into the inky dark of the alley, struck by the rank odour of cat piss and motor oil. I decided to leave the bike a few feet in from the street rather than take it farther and risk puncturing the tires on a nail or broken glass.

The dumpster was parked up against the back wall of the store, leaving a narrow gap, and the basement window was broken, just like Vernor had said. I was in and out in no time. At the bottom of the fire escape, I scanned the dark lane for any sign of movement, then stole along the back of the store. The far end of the alley was a lighter shade of dark, where I should have seen the silhouette of my bike.

It wasn’t there.

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Chapter 1

“You can never place your foot into the same river twice,” my dad often reminded me, quoting some ancient Greek philosopher with an unpronounceable name. I wondered as I scraped the sole of my high-top on the spade’s edge if the same wisdom applied to stepping in dog droppings. Between our new house and the row of cedars that fringed the river, the dry brown grass was littered with revolting little piles of fossilized puppy poop that had magically appeared as the snow thawed.

Scooping dog doo-doo pretty much summed up the way I felt about moving to that place. The house itself was all right. Under torture I would have admitted that it was better than our cramped two-bedroom apartment in the city. I had a decent room on the second floor with a big window looking over the yard, but that wasn’t much consolation. I was used to going to school through the rumble and snarl of traffic, sidewalks teeming with people rushing past restaurants, pool halls, video arcades and head shops. I had travelled on a city bus jammed with faces of every colour and humming with languages from around the world. Now each morning I stood like a stump at the end of our unpaved driveway waiting for the big yellow monster to swallow me up and transport me to Boredom High School. I had been dragged from a major street in the biggest city in the country to the edge of the known universe, a rural route in Garafraxa Township–the name sounded like an incurable skin disease–with a chicken farm at the dead end, on the outskirts of a no-place village called Fergus where, as near as I could tell, the locals’ idea of a good time was trying on gloves at the department store or watching the blue light revolve on the top of the snow plow.

There was nothing funny about being the only child of two stubborn parents who had decided to leave the city and do the pioneer thing among the trees. I had visions of alfalfa sprouts and seeds for lunch, Mom weaving her own cloth, Dad dressed in a tartan bush shirt and faded jeans, chopping kindling and spitting black tobacco juice.

“It’s a great opportunity for your dad,” my mother had told me a year ago, after she dropped the bomb. “He’ll be chair of the department.”

“Your mom has never liked the city,” Dad had said in a different conversation. “She can set up a recording studio in the house, like she’s always wanted. And have a garden.”

Two against one. What the kid wanted didn’t count. For months I ranted, sulked and threw things around my room. On purpose I flunked two courses. I ran away for three days. We moved anyway. And now, here I was in the back yard, Zack Lane, Canine Feces Remover.

Chapter 2

I knew from the sour smell that Jenkins had sneaked up behind me just as the download was completed, and that he had seen me eject the diskette and slip it into my shirt pocket.

“Let’s have it, Zack,” he commanded, his voice betraying a hint of triumph.

I clicked the mouse and blanked the screen. “Um, what’s wrong, sir?”

“You know what.”

“It’s just my own personal disk,” I said. “It’s, you know, confidential.”

“Nice try.”

“I can explain.”

“I’m not interested. Let’s have it.”

I took the diskette out of my pocket and passed it back over my shoulder.

“Stick around at the end of the period.”

Outside the dirty window of the computer lab on the second floor of the school a fine rain fell out of a low grey sky. Our geography class had spent the last hour pulling down weather maps from some satellite or other so we could watch bright green meteorological patterns flowing amoeba-like across the blue map on our screens. That is, most of us had. On one side of me a skinny guy who had just returned from a three-day suspension was painting hearts with initials in them on his binder with white correction fluid. On the other, a girl sporting purple hyper-extended false fingernails urgently explained to her friend why she “absolutely hated” her own hair.

I already knew it was raining so I connected to the Internet and surfed for certain information I was after. It had taken me most of the period to find some good stuff, almost oblivious to the clickety click of keyboards and mice and the hum of conversation.

Going “off task” hadn’t been difficult because Jenkins had spent most of the period with his sleeves rolled up, hunched over his cluttered desk marking tests and pumping out the b.o. Short, rotund and an early victim of pattern baldness, he was best known for the stale body odour that enveloped him like a damp fog.

As my classmates filed out of the room, some casting curious glances my way, Jenkins tightened the tie he had worn for five days running and slipped on an old tweed jacket.

“Meet me in Ms. O’Neil’s office after last class, Zack. And bring your computer-use contract with you.”

An hour and a half later I plowed through the noisy chaos of the halls to the principal’s office, more irritated than worried. O’Neil would probably give me a reprimand and revoke my computer privileges. Unauthorized downloads were treated seriously by the school. I didn’t blame them. There was all sorts of disgusting crap available on the Net and the school didn’t want us finding, seeing or downloading it and corrupting ourselves. If you got caught, you’d lose your login and could only use computers for word-processing and spreadsheets and stuff–unless you had a friend who would let you use his login, which I didn’t. The truth was that the school had about as much success controlling Net access as it did preventing the drug trade.

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Throwaway Daughter

Throwaway Daughter

by Ting-Xing Ye
contributions by William Bell
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No one seemed to understand what it was like to have no real birthday. Even Blackie, our Shih-Tzu, had one, noted on the form given to me when Mom put my name down as his adoptive “parent” when I was five years old. Never mind how that affected my understanding of the word adoption. Blackie’s registration form even recorded his family history, the whole pedigree.

Lucky me. I had a made-up birthday -- December 8, 1980, the day I was found on the steps of the orphanage. I could have been weeks old or a couple of days young; I didn’t know and neither did anybody else. I might as well be a lake discovered by an explorer.

My name is Grace Dong-mei Margaret Parker, but don’t call me anything but Grace Parker, without initials. Grace is my nanna’s name, and Margaret is the first name of Grandmamma, my mother’s mother. When I came along I ended a silent battle between my two grandmothers that had smouldered ever since my sister was born. Megan was Grandmamma’s middle name, but Nanna only won a spot as my sister’s middle name, Carole. It became a bigger deal, I guess, after my mom had a hysterectomy.

My name has Chinese in it thanks to my pig-headed parents. I did everything I could to change their minds. I begged, argued, and threw tantrums. All I wanted was to have my Chinese name, Dong-mei, removed. “I promise I’ll never, ever ask for anything else,” I pleaded. But my pathetic begging failed. So I tried playing dumb and deaf, with my mother especially, refusing to respond when she called me Dong-mei. I made fun of the sound, saying “done-mine” or, once, “dung-may” because I thought it was a dirty word.

My mother applied her teacher’s patience and reasoning like sticky ointments. “It’s not just a name, Grace; it means much more. Your dad and I promised Mrs. Xia that we would bring you up in touch with your culture and your roots. The name is a good place to start.”

“I don’t know any Mrs. Whatever,” I shouted. “Why do I want their roots? I don’t want to be Chinese, and I don’t want a Chinese name.”

Finally, Mom came up with one of her “reasonable” compromises. Up ’til then, she had called me Dong-mei only at home. If I didn’t stop fussing, she said, she’d use my Chinese name outside our house as well. My resistance crumbled.

As if there wasn’t enough repeating or reusing names, my confusion deepened when my grade three teacher, Miss McKerrow, taught us a new word, junior. She used a boy’s name in my class as an example.

“Robert Smith Junior,” she said loudly before she wrote the name on the blackboard, “because Rob’s father is also called Robert.”

Rob, who always needed a haircut and smelled bad, beamed at the attention he was getting. He stood up and told the class that in his family there were three Robs and two Juniors. “My grandfather is the first Robert. My dad and I are Juniors. Whenever my grandfather stays with us there’s a mix-up.”

That evening I told my mother that I wanted to be a junior, too. I didn’t have much idea what the term meant, even after Miss McKerrow’s little lesson, but I was pretty sure I was missing out on something, and that it wasn’t fair. After the dishes were done Mom sat me down and said that only boys could be Juniors. It was a sort of tradition that boys were named after their fathers or grandfathers. It seemed to me that boys enjoyed a lot more choices than I did.

* * * * *

My parents insisted on feeding me memories of the misery in my life before I came to Canada, which, to me, was no misery at all because I didn’t remember it. They told me about my abandonment, my life in an orphanage, their journey to China to adopt me. Little by little they let the details out, as if they were rehearsing a well-directed play, every scene written with extra care and consideration.

But it was as if these tragic events had happened to someone else. I hated my parents’ narratives about a stranger, even if the stranger was me. I was sick of seeing the sacred scrap of paper on which there were some marks in faded blue ink. According to my father, it had been hidden between the layers of blankets I was wrapped in when I was found outside the orphanage.

“Dong-mei,” my mother pronounced awkwardly, pointing at the second line. “Mr. Wu says it means Winter Plum-blossom.” Her finger then moved up and she spoke again. “Chun-mei, Spring Plum-blossom, is the name of your birth mother. Mrs. Xia from the orphanage told us that.”

Since I was born in the winter, probably at the time when winter plum trees were in flower, Chun-mei must have been born in the spring. In China it was traditional to name girls after flowers, Mom went on, adding that the note must have been written and tucked into my blanket by my birth mother. “Obviously the names are very important to her or she wouldn’t have taken such a risk.”

“It’s a stupid name,” I snapped. “I don’t want to be named after some dumb flower. Why didn’t this Chun-mei keep the baby and throw away the note?”

As far as I was concerned, the note as well as my Chinese roots could wither in hell.

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