About the Author

Colleen Nelson

Colleen Nelson is the author of Tori By Design, which won the 2012 McNally Robinson Young Adult Book Award and was nominated for a 2012 Snow Willow Award, as well as one other novel for young readers, The Fall. As a middle years teacher and an avid reader of young adult fiction, Colleen is inspired by her visits to schools and interactions with young people. Born in Winnipeg, she lives there to this day.

Books by this Author
250 Hours

250 Hours

also available: eBook
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Blood Brothers

The sky gets pink close to dawn. Night bleeds away as the sun breathes life into day.
My finger throbs. The tip of it numb and sticky with paint. The street lamps flicker off as I stand back to survey my night’s work.
Huge swoops of colour light up the background, like my tag has landed in a puddle of rainbow slime. “Morf,” my other self, glows in bubble letters meant to look like liquid metal. All graff writers have a handle. Mine means something. To change, to morph. To become something else: a metamorphosis.
With a satisfied sigh, I turn my back on the side of the building and stuff spray cans, my bandana, and black book into my backpack. Hidden in shadows, I scale down the fire escape and drop to the alley, the cans in my pack rattling. In a few hours, people walking to the bus will look up and see my name flash before them. It wasn’t there yesterday. They’d never even noticed that building before. But, now, my name slaps them in the face. They can’t ignore me. My name looms above, stomping on them.
Two guys stumble out of a house party. I watch as they try to open the latch on the chain-link gate. Too many fumbling fingers. They’ll be trapped in the yard till their vision clears, or they pass out.
The rooming house rises up between two empty lots. The city tore down one house a few years ago and the other burned to the ground. Arson, the cops said. I smelled the smoke in my dream. Dad yelled at me to wake up as he tried to scoop me up, like he still had the strength to carry me. We made it out and watched from across the street, huddled in a blanket as flames engulfed the building. Two people died in the fire and I had nightmares for weeks.
There’s two cop cars, their lights flashing, in front of the rooming house. The blue and red orb spins, reflecting off the windows. Shrugging off my backpack, I ditch it in the empty lot next door. I know they aren’t there for me, but my heart pounds anyway. I swear and kick at a stone. If the sirens wake up my dad, he’ll see I’m not asleep on the couch where I’m supposed to be.
Without my backpack, I feel naked, exposed. It’s like battle armour. I eye the cops; a couple of them mill around the front yard, blocking my entrance. No police tape is up yet. That’s a good sign. Means no one is dead. One of them looks at me, doesn’t bother to question why I’m returning home at this time of the night. I was ready with an excuse if he had: I fell asleep at my best friend Lincoln’s house.
I put my head down and brush past them, taking the steps in two strides. Two more cops stand outside 1D. The McLarens. Mr. and Mrs. Domestic Abuse. Should have guessed.
I cried angry tears the first night we moved to this place. When the landlady, Laureen, opened the door to the apartment, Dad and I froze in the hallway; neither one of us wanted to walk inside. It stank. Like piss and body odour. Laureen had promised to have it cleaned before we moved in. But she couldn’t do anything about the stains on the floor or the foam exploding from the couch cushions. Dad explained why we were moving from our two-bedroom apartment to the rooming house. There was no choice. They raised the rent and he couldn’t afford it anymore, not even with a housing subsidy. If we wanted a roof over our heads, this was it.
Laureen gave Dad two keys, held together by a red twist tie. He gulped and stuffed them in his pocket like he didn’t want to admit they belonged to him. I knew what Dad was thinking, what he was always thinking. This wasn’t the life he moved here for. We’d be better off in Poland than living in this shithole. But, he made his choice twenty years ago, promising my mom a life in Canada. They’d escaped under a barbed wire fence and hid in the trunk of a car, then relied on the kindness of strangers. And for what? So my mom could die after giving birth to me and Dad could end up with a mangled leg from his job at the train yard.
He could feel sorry for himself, but he doesn’t. Polish pride, he calls it. There are some things that are non-negotiable: church every Sunday, good grades, and good food. No matter how tight things are, Dad always has a meal ready for me. I come home from school to find him limping between the sink and stove, boiling potatoes or stirring soup. My brain needs food, he says. We won’t have empty stomachs. That was one thing we’ll never have, empty stomachs. He had enough of that in Poland. A boy can’t grow or succeed in school with hunger pains to distract him.
He probably should have been a chef. He hums to himself, old Polish folk tunes, when he cooks, his fingers turning crimson with beet juice. Or love songs, if he’s feeling nostalgic, glancing up at the one photo we have of my mom. Grainy and out of focus, she’s standing in front of the church, the golden spire rising from a white dome, a mosaic of the holy family glinting in the sun. Scrawny legs, made scrawnier by the fullness of her skirt, and bushy curls obscuring most of her face.
Father Dominic stopped by the apartment soon after we moved in. Taking a look around, he skimmed over the books and his eyes came to rest on the crucifix perched above the couch. He nodded at it, like he was greeting a friend. Father Dominic had baptized me and stood over my mother in the hospital as she took her last breath. All in the same week. It was touch and go with me in those early days. No one knew if I’d make it or not. I don’t ask a lot of questions about what happened. Dad doesn’t like to talk about it. Says I’m a blessing from God, no matter what. But then he gets teary and quiet.
The door clicks shut behind me. I half expect Dad to be sitting up waiting for me. But he’s a heavy sleeper. Sirens in the night are so common, we’ve both learned to sleep through them. His snores fill the apartment, a low rumbly wheeze.
I pull back the sheet and blanket on the couch, leaving my jacket on the armrest. Closing my eyes, I picture the newly marked building. Like a baptism, I christened it mine.
I’ll walk past it in the morning, to see how the colours look in daylight. I drift off to sleep content. I accomplished something this night. No one could accuse me of not leaving my mark on the world. It was there, for all to see.

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After three years of living in Winnipeg, the cold of a February morning still shocked me. My teeth ached from it as I shuffle-walked from Dad’s car to the front doors of Laura Secord High School.
I got to my locker as Nazreen, my best friend, and the rest of the kids who took the bus stampeded through the front entrance. I was about to call out to her, but something in the way she darted past me — head down, feet moving quickly, as if she didn’t want to be seen — made me stop. Weird, I thought. We’d been texting each other all weekend. Why would she ignore me? “Hi, Sadia,” Carmina said as she breezed past me. She didn’t stop to talk, but headed toward the washroom, lugging her backpack. With a resigned sigh, I realized where Nazreen had been going and why she wanted to escape notice. My notice.
My fingertips were still numb with cold as I opened my locker and grabbed books for my morning classes. First stop: homeroom. Only grade nine students at LS High School have homeroom. I guess they thought we needed the extra attention. It didn’t bother me. I liked my homeroom and I really liked my teacher, Mr. Letner, who taught our Global Issues and English classes.
When I walked into Class 9B, he was already at his desk typing on his computer. Mr. Letner was tall and skinny and had a beard, but was bald, which seemed kind of funny. Like, if he could grow hair on his face, why not his head? I’d been intimidated by him the first day of high school. He had a deep voice and towered over me. But I came to discover that he never yelled; he didn’t have to. He was one of those teachers kids were quiet for because most of the time we wanted to hear what he had to say. “Morning, Sadia! Have a good weekend?” I gave him a weak nod as I sat down at my desk, preoccupied about Nazreen. I knew why she’d gone to the washroom. It was to take off her hijab before class started.
“Everything okay?” he asked, zeroing in on me.
“Yeah,” I answered, but anyone could tell things weren’t okay. I have one of those faces that you can read even if you don’t know the alphabet. Big, brown eyes, long lashes, and wide lips that I can squeeze and squish into a hundred different positions. Rubber lips, Dad calls them. I sunk lower in my seat and kept my eyes fixed on the desk ahead of me, corners of my lips turned down. I might even have sighed.
There was no point in talking about it to Mr. Letner; there was nothing he could do. Nazreen had mentioned de-jabbing a while ago. I’d assumed it was just talk, but then one day before winter break, she’d gone to the washroom with Carmina and come back without her head scarf. I’d stared at her long hair and uncovered head. She looked so bare. The hijab was distracting, she’d told me, and she needed to concentrate for the test we were having that morning. A hundred warnings rang in my head.
Since that day, she’d been taking the head scarf off more and more often. Egyptian, Nazreen had large, green eyes, wide cheekbones, and skin a shade darker than mine. She complained about her nose, saying it was too big and she wished it were straight and narrow like mine, but she was just being dramatic. Her nose was fine. Without her hijab, she’d toss her hair over her shoulder and throw looks at me that said I should ditch my hijab, too. I’d thought about it — how could I not? We went to a school where only a handful of girls wore hijab. It would be easy to look like everyone else.
But that wasn’t how I’d been raised, and neither had Nazreen. Islam was clear: females, once they were old enough, should dress modestly. And for our families, that meant keeping everything but our faces, hands, and feet covered. I hoped de-jabbing was just a phase for her, something she was testing out.
I looked up as Nazreen walked into the class with Carmina. Today, not only had she taken off her hijab, she’d also changed out of the long tunic top she usually wore and put on a tight T-shirt. I recognized it as one of Carmina’s; Hollister was splashed across the front in curvy writing. I kept my eyes down, trying to ignore her outfit. I could almost feel her waiting for me to say something, but I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction. If she was de-jabbing for attention, she’d have to get it from someone else.
“Hey!” Carmina said, drawing the word out and flashing me a glossy-lipped smile. Carmina is Filipino and has dark hair that hangs straight and shiny; she’s a shampoo commercial come to life. Even though she was aiding and abetting the de-jabbing, I wasn’t mad at her; she didn’t get why Nazreen changing out of her normal clothes was a big deal. But Nazreen did.
Mom had warned me about things like this. She’d sat me down before I started high school and told me that I might want to do things like Nazreen was doing now. But she said it was up to me to make the right choice. I’d nodded. She’d also said it can be hard living in a place like Canada where so many people have different beliefs, but that was why they had picked it as our new home — because Canada was a place that accepted differences.
We’d left Syria just before things went haywire. Most of our relatives had already moved to the U.K., so we’d gone there first and stayed with family while we waited for our Canadian visas to come through. The position Dad had accepted at the University of Manitoba meant we’d be moving to a place we knew nothing about.
When I thought back to those first months in Canada, it made me cringe. I didn’t know anything compared to now. After the first day of school, my older brother, Aazim, had picked me up from school and held my hand on the walk home even though I was twelve and he was fifteen. I complained about missing my friends and living in a place where I couldn’t understand what people said. His first day of school had probably been just as awkward as mine, but instead of complaining, he comforted me, reassuring me things would get better. He was right, of course, but there had been some difficult days at the beginning.
The transition for Dad had been easier. He’d learned English in the U.K. as a university student and spoke with a British accent that he was slowly losing the longer we lived in Canada. Mom’s English wasn’t as good as Dad’s, but she worked at it every day, going to classes at the language centre and joining conversational English groups. She took it as a challenge to master a language that had nothing in common with Arabic. I knew it was her dream to work again.
In Syria, she’d been the head librarian at Damascus University. She and Dad would walk to work together after they saw us off to school. But in Canada, things changed. She became a stay-at-home mom, taking the bus to do her shopping and looking after our house. She called her parents and sisters often, FaceTiming them at their flats in England. When we went to the public library, she gazed longingly at the shelves of books, watching the librarians go about their work with hawkish interest.
Since we’d left Syria, I’d become more Canadian than I would have thought possible. With barely a trace of an accent, I was a top student. My memories of Syria were tucked in a shoebox under my bed, the connection to my home country fading year by year. I cast a quick glance at Nazreen. Carmina passed her a tube of pink lip gloss, which she smeared across her lips. She turned to me, her lips shining like they’d been lacquered. “What?” she asked. It was a challenge; I could see it in the arch of her eyebrow.
“Nothing,” I replied, frowning at the thought of what her parents would do if they found out how she was dressing at school.


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