THE BUILDING BLOCK BOY (Joe Davies)

Verity La Lies to Live By

The room was large, high-ceilinged and poorly lit. There was a lamp on the desk and another beside the mattress in the corner, both were on, but the light they gave off was unequal to the volume of the room. There was a fixture in the ceiling, but the bulb was burnt out and no one had replaced it. In daytime the room presented itself as more than adequately bright. Two big windows facing the street flooded the room and its dirty white walls. At the moment though, with night almost descended, darkness had settled into most corners.

Ian sat at his desk, which faced one of the room’s two windows. Books and scraps of paper were scattered about the desk’s surface and were fanned out on the floor to one side, though at the moment Ian seemed unconcerned by them and stared blankly into the street. His computer was acting up, refusing to start up fully. He’d tried several times without success and was now giving it a few minutes before trying again.

The light in the corner by the mattress flickered, adding a tentative feeling, as if the room itself was on uncertain footing.

Why, oh why, had he come back? Ian wondered. Nothing in his life had ever felt as ill-starred as coming back to this town. The very idea of going through with credentialing himself, of completing his degree, felt like a capitulation. Life was a bully. 

 Already he was letting things slide. He was behind in his reading and slow getting started on assignments. Money, he could see, was also going to be a problem. It wasn’t supposed to be. His mother, a complicated woman, had asked him what he needed to finish, how much, because she would finance the year. He’d reluctantly accepted her offer, it was part of a greater pattern, but now, here he was, five weeks into the first term, and he could see he hadn’t asked for nearly enough and wasn’t about to ask for more. He’d been in touch with the hotel restaurant where he used to work washing dishes and had already filled in on a couple of nights. It wasn’t much, but it would help, and at least there he ate for free.

And now this, his computer. He didn’t usually have this kind of trouble. Things usually worked for him. He’d heard the horror stories of others over the years, knowing, feeling in his gut, that these kinds of things didn’t happen to him. Now here he was.

He tried the computer again and watched the screen flicker to life as it had in his other attempts, the room about him temporarily bathed in a wash of thin grey light, but like before, the screen went black and a short series of bewildering numbers and letters appeared in the upper left corner of the screen. The fan was working, he could hear it quietly whirring somewhere inside the tower, but it was one of the only things in the whole room doing its job, so it seemed.

Ian sat there a while in the growing dark. It might have been minutes or half an hour before the stillness was broken by the sound of his phone. He stood, stepping carefully around the books and papers arranged on the floor and went over to the door where his coat lay in a heap, pulling his phone from an inside pocket.

‘Hello,’ he said.

It was the hotel restaurant. They’d had a late booking for a large party, could he come in? Reluctantly he declined, saying he had an essay he needed to work on, though otherwise he would have been glad to. Not to worry, they said, there’d be other opportunities.

Ian lifted his coat from the floor, slipped the phone back into its pocket, and without thinking much about what he was doing, began putting his arms into the sleeves. With a glance over his shoulder at the unyielding computer, he opened the door to his room and stepped out into the upstairs hall.

There were noises downstairs, people coming in the front door. These would be his landlady and her son. No one else lived in the house at the moment, though there were two other rooms for rent. His landlady, Cassandra Ross, was an obese woman, grossly overweight, but with a bright and agreeable disposition. Just before Ian had taken the room, her husband, or partner, the father of her son, had left her. He’d taken off with the one tenant they’d had at the time, who, according to Cassandra Ross, was barely of legal age. This left Cassandra holding the lease in one hand and her son by the other. To look at her it seemed as if she was carrying it well, but Ian noticed there wasn’t much food other than his in the shared kitchen. There’d been a few times already where she’d asked to ‘borrow’ some bread or a little milk, and Ian sensed it was best not to bother keeping track.

By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs they’d just managed to get the door closed behind them.

‘Well, hello,’said Cassandra, ‘On your way out?’

‘Apparently I am,’ said Ian, sounding almost unsure about it.

Standing to one side of the hall was Cecil, six, maybe seven years old. There was something about him that made him seem impossibly, luminously bright. Eye-catchingly difficult not to notice. He wore a constant smirk, his upper lip, ever since Ian had moved in, perpetually glistening from a runny nose. He had prominent cheekbones and longish blond hair which was thick and straight and framed his face, and bore all the traces of having been cut recently by his mother. His expression was simple, and for someone so young, conveyed a needless optimism.

His mother was helping him out of his raincoat, talking at the same time, saying how there was a wind picking up, the weather was changing, and all the while Cecil’s eyes were fixed on Ian’s, his smirk seeming to suggest simultaneously that there was something funny, and didn’t they both know it, and if they didn’t, oughtn’t they? And another something, something undefinable, as if he, Ian, was being looked at by this small boy not without judgement, and yet strangely as if he, Ian, was not there either, or perhaps just not important enough to be there.

‘And where are you going?’ asked Cassandra, adding quickly, ‘Not that it’s any of my business.’

‘Just for a walk,’ said Ian. ‘Clear my head.’

‘Yes,’ said Cassandra, ‘Must be lots of thinking going on in that room of yours. Lots of big thoughts.’

‘Not hardly,’ said Ian. ‘Certainly not enough, and ‘big’ probably isn’t the right word. Can I just get past you there?’

Cassandra squeezed to one side and Ian edged round her.

Next it was Cecil who was in the way and didn’t seem to understand that he needed to move.

‘Cece, honey,’ said his mother, ‘Come over here.’

As Ian pulled the door closed he heard his landlady say quickly, ‘See you in a bit. Have a nice walk.’

 

Pike’s was the downtown bar that seemed to draw the greatest number of students. Ian had avoided it until half-way through his abortive fourth year, when he began frequenting the place because of the woman he was seeing, who worked the bar sometimes. Her name was Teresa. At Pike’s she was called Tess, since it was easier to shout over the noise of the place.

Things had not ended smoothly between them. When Ian had told her he was quitting school and moving back to the city she immediately started seeing someone else. There was something coldly pragmatic about it, pre-emptive, calculated.  Ian simply walked away, but whenever he thought about it he found it impossible to avoid the feeling of being stung. He had quite liked her.

Without slowing any, he glanced through the window of Pike’s as he went past. As usual, it was busy. He recognized no one. More than three years had gone by since his last time inside.

He kept walking, stopping briefly in front of the window of a place that might be able to help him the next day with his computer, and then he turned and suddenly there she was, Teresa, coming towards him on the sidewalk. She wasn’t alone. She was with a woman Ian didn’t recognise. He called out her name. It came out ‘Tess,’ and she glanced at him with a dismissive look and smiled with what might have been mild annoyance. He said her name again, only this time he managed to say ‘Teresa,’ and she stopped right there beside him with a puzzled, not entirely disappointed look about her.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘you.’

Ian nodded.

‘Come to pay us quaint, small-town folk a visit, have you?’

‘No,’ said Ian.  ‘I’m back finishing my degree.’

‘They took you back?’

‘They did.’              

‘Oh,’ said Teresa, and looked at her friend and then back to Ian. She shifted her bag further onto her shoulder, said ‘Nice bumping into you’ and ‘Good luck with your studies’ and with no more ceremony than that was off again down the sidewalk.  Certainly there was more to be covered than that, but apparently not.

It was more than Ian could make sense of. Did she really care that little or that much about him, that she was either completely indifferent or very much hurt? These seemed the only likely explanations. Either way, Ian was baffled, and the expression ‘ill-starred’ rushed at him once again, completely unasked for.

What was he doing here? There was something desolate happening both inside and out.  The streets were dark and quiet, and he didn’t like them. And they didn’t seem to like him all that much either. He craved lights and the anonymity of hurried streets, and to be surrounded by an atmosphere of purpose and bustle and benign indifference. Here there was little of that, only the indifference, and even that wasn’t so very indifferent.

 

Before he even opened the door to the house he could hear his landlady’s voice. She was angry about something. When he stepped inside she was just hanging up the phone, but he’d caught a few of the tail-end words, something like ‘… and for once why don’t you think of the little people!’  After that she’d slammed the phone down.

It felt uncomfortable in the front hall and Ian was about to slip quietly up to his room when Cassandra appeared and said, ‘I’m sorry. You didn’t hear any of that, did you?’

 ‘I caught a little, I think. Just the last bit.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry. I just find it hard to keep a cap on it sometimes. There wasn’t even anyone on the other end. It was just voicemail.’

Ian nodded and hoped he could extract himself before hearing any more. Kind-hearted as she was, Cassandra could trap a person. The first convenient break to politely slip away didn’t often appear of its own accord and had to be made.

‘It’s poor Kelsey Rae,’ said Cassandra, just as Ian made his move for the stairs. He looked at her. It was a mistake. It was now too late, and he knew it. He raised his eyebrows, questioningly.

‘Who?’

‘The girl who picks up Cecil for me, after school. She’s been hit by a car. I’ve just found out.’

Cassandra smudged away a few tears with her fingers.

‘She’s all right. She’s at the hospital. Her mother called. She’s up there with her right now. And it makes me so angry. So angry! We’ve been trying to get the city to work on the pedestrian signals at the lights, trying to get them so you don’t have to push any buttons to get them to come on. I mean, drivers don’t have to get out of their cars and push any buttons, do they? No. They get a green light every time. But pedestrians don’t, not in this town, and of course they walk anyway. Who wouldn’t? It was bound to happen, someone getting hit. Why do drivers get such preferential treatment? What about the rest of us? Don’t we count?’

‘Mum?’

It was a little voice, an egg-shell voice

‘I’ve left two messages on the city’s voicemail, but will anything ever come of it? I doubt it. Someone’ll have to die first.’

‘Mum?’

Cassandra turned and noticed, finally, her son standing in the doorway.

‘Oh, yes Cecil. I’m sorry. I know. I promised you something to eat.’ Turning to Ian she said, ‘Sorry to vent on you. I need to feed this one. I’ll let you go.’

Ian nodded and started up the stairs.

Ashamed of the relief he felt he stopped partway up and said, ‘Let me know how things turn out.’

Cassandra looked up at him as if she’d already forgotten what they were talking about.

‘With the lights and the… the girl.’

Cassandra smiled and nodded at him, but still looked confused, almost mistrustful, as if to say, what business is it of yours, why do you care.  But she said, ‘Yes. Yes, of course I will,’ and disappeared with her boy into the kitchen.

 

Up in his room, things were just as he’d left them. The blank computer screen. The light in the corner by his mattress, flickering. He closed the door, dropped his coat where he stood and went to his desk. He sat down and found some unused paper and wondered if it was still possible to write anything intelligent by hand.

And then he was smiling. It was all so ridiculous. What did it matter? Any of it? He needn’t let himself be pulled under just because things weren’t perfect. They were what they were, and he was free to make the best of it. He certainly wasn’t about to die or anything, was he?

He stood and went to the corner by his mattress and knelt down. As quickly as possible, so that he didn’t scorch his fingertips, he tightened the bulb in the lamp and the flickering stopped.

There, that was one thing.

He went back to his desk, slid the keyboard to one side and began to jot down an outline for his essay in longhand. It wasn’t so difficult. This, for now, and he would see what was up with his computer tomorrow.

It felt much better just to be doing something, and he could sense once again what it would feel like to be done with all this, to graduate and not hear any more inner whisperings of being incomplete. It mightn’t be heaven, but surely it would be better than where he’d been.

Funny how it always came down to just getting started, and he smiled at the thought.

 

Around ten o’clock there was a knock at his door. It was Cassandra.

‘I hope I’m not disturbing you.’

‘No,’ said Ian. ‘It’s okay.’

‘I’ve… I’ve got a favour to ask, and really, just say no if it’s… if it won’t work.’

Ian nodded.

‘I need someone to pick up Cecil after school…’

‘Oh yes. How’s the girl?’

‘She’s home now. A broken arm and lots of bruises. Her mother says she’s in a bit of a daze.’

 ‘In shock, I bet.’

‘I’ve tried calling a few people but I can’t find anyone for tomorrow. Is there any chance you could…?’

 ‘… Pick up Cecil?’

 ‘Yes.’

 ‘I… I guess I could. What time?’

 ‘They’re out at 3:05. I can make it home for 4:30, so you’d just have to watch him until then. You can stay and let him play at the school or bring him home. Whichever you like.’

‘Right… well…’

Cassandra smiled hopefully.

‘Yes, that’s fine.’

‘Wonderful. Wonderful. I’ll send him to school with a note so they’ll know it’s you picking him up.’

‘Right.’

‘And, I hope you don’t mind, but I borrowed one of your packages of chicken noodle soup and a few crackers. I’ll replace them tomorrow. That all right?’

‘Yeah,’ said Ian. ‘It’s fine.’

Cassandra turned to go but stopped herself.

‘Oh, he’s in the last class at the south end of the school, on the west side. They let them right out of the class, there’s a side door.’

‘Right,’ said Ian. ‘South-west corner. 3:05. Got it.’

‘Thanks,’ said Cassandra, and she reached out and touched his arm. ‘I owe you one.’

‘Don’t worry,’ said Ian. ‘It’s no problem.’

 

When Ian watched Cecil shamble out of the class the next day at 3:05 in his tall purple boots and rain coat, it was instantly clear that this was the boy in class, that one boy, who would be singled out as the target of ridicule. That he was luminous, that he radiated a strange and insupportable, self-contained assurance that,was only begging to be knocked down. No one should be that shiny. And someone would make sure. Almost for certain, it would be more than a few someones.

First thing in the morning Ian had taken his computer in to be looked at. They said they’d get back to him in a day or two.

While in the shop Ian thought he saw Teresa again, but what it was, what it would turn out to be, was that now, suddenly, there were a lot of women who looked like Teresa. On the bus out to campus he thought he saw her. On the steps of the Gilmour building, there she was again.  In the student run cafe, she stood both behind the counter and in front of it.

Had seeing her the night before stirred something? he wondered. He momentarily questioned if it had really happened, if he had bumped into her, then laughed at himself. Who else could have snubbed him so succinctly? Of course he’d seen her.

And he was right. In fact it was little short of astounding that he read so easily and so well what young Cecil’s school experience could only be like, since standing right next to him was yet another Teresa. and as Cecil stepped across the threshold of the classroom into the afternoon bevy of waiting parents and surrogates, and Ian gleaned young Cecil’s lot as nothing less than everyone’s victim, it came over Ian that standing beside him was not just another Teresa, it was the real thing.

It was a confusing moment. An overwhelming moment. He turned to Teresa and said ‘Oh’ and ‘Hi’ and in the next instant was saying to the little boy coming towards him, ‘Cecil. Over here,’ just as another boy, the one immediately behind him, shoved poor Cecil roughly and dismissively out of the way before coming up to Teresa and launching himself into her arms.

More confusion, more bewilderment. Ian bending low and saying to Cecil, ‘Did you remember it was me coming for you today?’ while at the same time doing the mental calculation needed to eliminate the possibility that Teresa had given birth to and raised a school-age child in the three years since he’d gone out with her. Yes, it was impossible. Which left the question, who was this child then? And the teacher leaning out of the door, who also looked somehow familiar, a sensation which was by now beginning to feel commonplace, and calling after the boy in Teresa’s arms, saying to him, ‘Hugo. Less pushy next time, please.’

‘Can we stay and play?’ asked Cecil.

‘I… I guess. If that’s what you’d like to do.’

And Cecil dropped the over-sized backpack drooping from his shoulders and ran in his rubber boots round the edge of the fence, off towards the climber and sandbox, and as he ran, Ian shook his head. He ran like someone out of a cartoon, not exaggerated exactly, but awkward and stiff. And before he knew what was coming over him, Ian felt not only sorry for the boy, but protective. It was fleeting, but there was a sense that he must watch out for him.

‘Excuse me,’ said the teacher, coming up beside Ian.

‘Yes?’

‘Can I talk to you a moment?’

‘Sure.’

‘I’m Hestia.’

‘Ian.’

They shook hands.

‘I just needed to tell you about a few things that happened in class today. Maybe you can pass it on to Cecil’s mother.’

‘All right.’

‘First of all, there was a food fight.’

‘Oh, yeah? Anyone hurt?’

‘No. No injuries. But there was a lot of cleaning up.’

‘I see.’

Ian glanced to the side and saw Teresa talking to one of the parents. The boy, Hugo, like the other kids, was gone off somewhere.

‘I wasn’t there when it happened, but from what I’ve been able to put together, it sounds as if Cecil was the instigator.’

‘He threw the first pudding?’

‘So to speak.’

‘Someone put him up to it?’

 ‘Oh,’ Hestia shrugged, ‘I don’t think so. Maybe.’

‘All right. Food fight. Got it.’

‘Then, at recess, and again I didn’t see this myself, apparently there was some inappropriate touching.’

‘Touching?’

‘More like grabbing, from what I understand.’

‘Okay. Grabbing.’

‘We’ve spoken to him before about this…’

‘Cecil was grabbed…?’

‘No. Again, by the sounds of it, from what I was told, it was Cecil doing the grabbing.’

‘Really?’

‘It’s often a phase. Lots of boys go through it.’

Over in the sandbox, Ian could see Cecil sitting on his own, squatting by the edge in his raincoat and rubber boots, launching clumps of wet sand over his shoulder.

‘He’s a good boy. Better on his own than in a group, for the most part. At least at the moment.’

Ian turned and looked at Hestia and it came to him why she seemed familiar. She was the woman who’d been with Teresa the night before when he’d bumped into her. Behind Hestia at this very moment stood Teresa, and, as if she could sense him looking at her, she turned and met his gaze and held it a moment, before turning back to the conversation she was in the middle of.

‘Does he get picked on?’

‘You mean Cecil? Sometimes. He isn’t by any means all innocence himself, though.’

‘I see.’

‘And you’ll pass on all this to his mother? Sandra? Is that right?’

‘Cassandra.’

‘Cassandra.’

‘I will.’

‘Tell her she can call me if she wants.’

 

For the next forty-five minutes Ian watched Cecil roam about the playground. First it was the sandbox. Next it was the swings. In the end he was on the climber. There was some kind of a game going on, but Cecil was no part of it. Hugo seemed to be at the centre, something like tag but with a lot more pushing. It was all very foreign to Ian, very ancient. If parenthood meant standing around over-seeing much of this kind of thing he was almost certain he’d wait before having any of his own. There were ghosts here he was not overly eager to re-encounter.

Teresa stood by the fence with three or four parents. If she’d been on her own he’d have gone to her, though what he’d have said he didn’t know. Perhaps, for a start, he’d have asked who this Hugo was, but this soon became clearer, or even more curious.

Hestia stepped out of the school with her coat on, carrying a box, apparently done for the day. She went to the climber, called out Hugo’s name and said, ‘We’re on our way.’ Then, without waiting for him, she began walking towards the parking lot, the belt of her coat trailing on the ground. As she passed through the gap in the fence, Teresa separated herself from the clutch of parents she was talking to and hurried along to catch up with Hestia, and when she did, she leaned down and picked up the trailing belt, and slipped it through the coat’s belt loop before putting an arm around Hestia’s shoulder and squeezing, then she took the box from her. Neither woman looked back to see if Hugo was coming, but just when it seemed he maybe wasn’t, he slid down the climber’s pole and ran off after the two women.

 

The walk home was uncomfortable. Ian realized he had no idea what to say to a child. He rarely had much to say to anyone, but this was awkward. The inanity of anything he could think of was beyond the effort of opening his mouth.

Cecil said little, and when he did speak it was difficult to understand, something about a TV show or a game. Ian couldn’t follow, and what was worse, he found himself feeling a growing sense of annoyance.

At the intersection he just missed pushing the button to get a walk signal and was about to walk anyway when the onus of responsibility loomed in front of him in the form of a Dodge Caravan cutting the corner he was about to step into. This was not good. You couldn’t just walk whenever you liked, not with a child. Why was everyone so impatient? And for the full cycle of the traffic light, Ian stood with this thought, and realized he was impatient himself.

‘Do you cross here everyday?’ he asked.

Cecil squinted up at Ian and nodded.

‘Crossing guard smells like bacon.’

‘There’s usually a crossing guard here?’

To this, Cecil said nothing.

When the light changed and the walk signal came on, Ian held out his hand and said, ‘Here, you better take mine.’

 

Cassandra was not home until almost 5:30 and was all apologies. Her boss at the Co-op was usually understanding, but for some reason was under a cloud this one day and wouldn’t let her go early.

Ian, who had almost fallen asleep sitting in the living room while watching Cecil build towers out of small wooden blocks, excused himself to his room, where he intended to shut his eyes for a half hour or so, but when he finally flopped onto his mattress, genuine sleep would not come. It was there, he could feel it. His body wanted it. But his mind kept going back to the schoolyard. To the moment when the kids were spilling out of the classroom, and later, when the teacher came out of the building and went off with Teresa. Were they a couple? he wondered, but immediately elided the thought.

An image of Cecil swam before him. Cecil in his purple boots and raincoat, squatting in a puddle and swishing the water with his hands to get the sand off them. The expression, the look he wore, the self-satisfied, almost smug purposelessness. If anyone was going to wear a look like that, it would have to be a child. Who else could pull it off? Contentment. Absorbed by a moment.

Then Ian had it. He knew what Cecil reminded him of. A domestic cat. Beguiling and kickable. But no, that wasn’t it at all.

He sat up and brought his hands to his face and rubbed them over his eyes. Out loud he said, ‘What a horrible day.’

The sun was down by now, the room grown dark.

Ian got to his feet and went to his desk. He switched on the lamp and looked down at the notes he’d written out the night before. God, how he hated the look of his own handwriting. He’d no patience to look at any of it just now.

Why? Why was everything wrong? And why wouldn’t this feeling stop resurfacing?

A minute later the phone was ringing. It was work again, would he come in?

‘Gladly,’ said Ian, and with that he was off.

He was almost out the door before he remembered the message Cecil’s teacher had given him.

He found Cassandra in the kitchen cooking something that looked like porridge, and when he told her what the teacher had said the look on her face dropped. He couldn’t tell if it was saying, ‘You’re just telling me now?’ or ‘Oh no, not this.’ Perhaps it was both.

‘I’m… I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier. I kind of…’

‘That’s okay,’ said Cassandra, who turned away from him to stir what was in the pot.

‘She said you could call her if you wanted.’

Cassandra didn’t look at him. She stood by the stove, looking at what was presumably to be their dinner and said nothing.

A moment later Ian left, mumbling something about ‘sorry’ once again.

 

‘Winnipegmanitoba?’

It was a question.

‘Yes,’ said Ian.

‘Calgaryedmonton?’

‘No. Calgary, Alberta.’

‘Yes yes. Calgaryalberta. I meant it. Good good.’

The last of the dishes had come through and Ian and Singham were finishing up. Ian was running the machine, sliding the trays through, while Singham divided his time between mopping the floor and putting things away. They’d be finished soon.

‘I like it, Saintlawrenceseaway. I like it.’

In three weeks Singham was going for his citizenship test. Ian had been hearing about it all night long, and there was something infectious about Singham’s enthusiasm, that he could believe so thoroughly in something, that it was good, that what he was doing was good, or that he’d bought into it so completely that he believed it.

As for Ian, he’d spent much of the shift looking around the kitchen, thinking he could be happy if all he ever had to do was wash dishes. It was simplicity itself. Once you’d mastered it, all you had to do was keep up and no one ever bothered you again. Several times he’d been offered the job of cook, but he’d watched them, the line cooks, and had seen how they became entwined in the politics and strain of getting along with each other. There was the erratic pace as well. No, he preferred the dishes. Even if the pay wasn’t as good, it was more predictable. And he still ate well.

This evening it had been pasta with blackened chicken and fresh vegetables. Sitting on his own in the corner, with the bowl in his lap, he’d thought back to the contents of the pot Cassandra had been stirring just as he was leaving, and felt almost guilty. Grateful, too, yes, but privileged in a way that felt a little unfair.

And he thought back to how he’d been feeling just before he had the call to come into work. How bleak everything had seemed. He felt all right just now. Pretty good, in fact. But there was a see-saw playing about inside him. Back and forth, up and down. And he hoped it would soon be unnecessary, that there would be a levelling out. There seemed no reason for it. No real reason.

Heading out of the kitchen at the end of his shift, he saw one of the servers sitting at the bar and it was Teresa. Only it wasn’t Teresa. He’d been fooled again.

 

Just after eight the next morning there was a knock at his door. It was Cassandra, saying sorry, she hoped she hadn’t woken him. Half asleep, Ian said not to worry.

‘I just had a call from Kelsey Rae’s mother. I spoke to Kelsey Rae last night and she was going to pick up Cecil today, but her mother thinks it’s too soon. She ought to keep still a while longer. I’m sorry, you came to mind right away. I hope you don’t mind.’

‘That’s all right.’

‘Do you think you could? Pick him up?’

‘Uh, let me think…Yeah, I guess I could.’

‘That’s great. Oh, that’s great. I’ll send Cece with another note this morning. Thanks.’

‘Don’t mention it.’

‘Actually, I’ll call his teacher right now, before we head out.’

‘Sounds good.’

Ian was nearly asleep again a few minutes later when he heard Cassandra’s voice rumbling through the house.

‘He doesn’t do things like that,’ she was saying. ‘He’s a good boy and knows how to behave. I think you’re getting the stories wrong or someone’s twisting things around. Please, get it straight before you start pointing the finger. He doesn’t need any of that. He needs people who care about him.’

After that she lowered her voice and he couldn’t hear what was said.

The next thing he knew he was being jarred awake once again, this time by his own phone. He scrambled off the mattress and retrieved it from his coat pocket. It was the computer shop. They recommended a new computer. It would be cheaper than repairing the old one, they said.

 

For a short while that day he found his groove. He was lucid, his thoughts on the essay were clear, even if his handwriting wasn’t. He managed to get his head around a full two-thirds of it, or so he thought. The light from the two windows pouring into his poor mis-proportioned room, like living inside a smudged white box.

The clearness lasted from about noon until almost 3:00pm when he happened to glance at his watch. At first his promise to pick up Cecil was forgotten, but it nagged at him from some opaque corner until it came at him sideways and suddenly there it was, and he rushed out of the house. He had time to get there if he ran, which he did, passing on the way through the intersection with the crossing guard. If there was a smell of bacon Ian missed it. He was moving too quickly to notice.

He arrived at the south end of the school just as the kids were pressing through the classroom door, virtually the identical scene to the day before. Behind Cecil in his purple boots and raincoat, came Hugo, once again pushing his way past, Hestia once more calling after him not to be so rough. Ian turned to his side to see Hugo launch himself into Teresa’s arms but here is where the days diverged. It was not Teresa. It was a man. Nothing the least familiar about him. Well-dressed, this was Ian’s impression, gathered in the hurry before turning back to face Cecil. ‘Hello. Me again,’ he said, kneeling down, and immediately saw the runny nose. It took a moment, but eventually Ian searched his pockets for something for Cecil to use; he came up empty handed but saw in the same instant that it was unnecessary, as Cecil drew a sleeve across his face.

‘Can we please stay?’ asked Cecil, as if he expected the answer to be ‘no’, and not for the first time either.

‘Sure,’ said Ian, whereupon Cecil let his backpack slide from his shoulders to the ground and took off towards the climber.

Ian stood where he was, watching the boy. Behind him, he could hear a few parents talking. Some horror story about a child who’d been abducted in the American Mid-West and kept in a basement. It had been in the news. Ian listened as he watched Cecil standing at the top of the climber, his blond hair raked across his forehead to one side. The story was serving its purpose, capturing and enlarging their worst fears, while at the same time offering some small reassurance that at least it was not happening here.

‘Hello again,’ said Hestia, coming alongside Ian.

‘Hello.’

‘Ready for today’s report?’

‘Today’s report?’

‘Yes.’

‘Uh-oh.’

‘Oh, it’s not so bad. An accident really. During gym they were dancing and apparently Cecil and one of the girls, Monique, were holding hands and spinning and somehow the two of them let go and Monique went into the wall and hit her head. Cecil landed on the floor and cracked an elbow. That’s all. It doesn’t seem to be slowing him down just now,’ said Hestia, spying him on the climber.

‘No. I guess not. Is the girl okay?’

‘She went home early, but I’m sure she’s fine. Probably have a lump on her head for a few days. She’ll be okay.’

‘I hope so.’

‘And another thing. I’ve talked to Cecil about this before, and his mother too, but he keeps putting things in his mouth. Maybe just keep an eye on him. Mention something if you see it happen. It’d be a good habit to lose.’

‘All right. That it?’

‘That’s it. Thanks. It’s Ian? Is that right?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Well, we’ll see you tomorrow.’

Hestia walked off to talk to another parent and Ian turned his attention back to Cecil. He wasn’t on the climber, the swings or in the sandbox, but a moment’s looking found him over against the fence beneath the branches of a tree. He stood with two other boys. One of them was Hugo. They seemed to have something going on, some game.

Ian glanced towards Hestia. It didn’t register until this moment, but she had quite an intriguing appearance. Comfortable in herself, buoyant. He remembered her walking off the day before with Hugo running after her and he wondered if she was his mother. If it happened she was, she seemed too young. And was this man the father? Ian turned to look for him but suddenly couldn’t remember which man it was and then there was shouting. Someone was crying. It was Hugo, stumbling across the grass and away from where they’d been beneath the tree, shouting, ‘He bit me! He bit me!’ And there, further along the fence a little way, was Cecil, squatting in the dust with his back to the chain-link. From that distance it wasn’t possible to see what expression he wore, but his body seemed to say, ‘Take that!’

 

‘You should take that out of your mouth,’ said Ian, yawning. They were in Cassandra’s living room, Ian on the couch, Cecil on the floor, again playing with his blocks. He’d just put one in his mouth.

‘It’s not good. You shouldn’t do that.’

Cecil extracted the block from his mouth and looked at it. It was all wet. His nose was running again, and his lip glistened as well.

‘Here. Use this,’ said Ian. There was a box of Kleenex on an end table and Ian pulled one from it. It was the last one, and when the Kleenex came out, the box fell to the floor.

‘Wipe that under your nose,’ he said as he handed the Kleenex to Cecil.

On the way home they’d been pretty quiet. Once again, Ian had no idea what to say to the boy. He knew he should probably ask about what happened with Hugo, but he thought he’d wait and see if Cecil brought it up himself. He didn’t. As they neared the house Ian said, ‘So what happened back there?’

Cecil looked him as if to say, ‘Back where?’

‘Why’d you bite that boy?’

At first all Cecil did was shrug his shoulders and smile up at Ian as if to say really, didn’t they both already know, and wasn’t it just as well not to bother going to any trouble about it?

‘How come?’ persisted Ian.

‘He bothers me,’ said Cecil, with the hint of a frown. He squinted one eye, and that was it. Nothing more was said.

And now, sitting low on the couch, its springs broken, here was Ian, so drowsy he could barely keep his eyes open, and Cecil on the floor with his blocks. In the end, the weight of his lids was more than he could bear, and Ian closed his eyes.

‘Don’t put any more of those your mouth,’ he mumbled. ‘Okay?’

‘Any more what?’

‘And why’s it so warm in here? How come your mother keeps the place so warm? Let me know if you need more Kleenex. We’ll go get some together. We’ll find some.’

And they did need to. They wandered off through the first floor looking for Kleenex. There was the kitchen, the shelves mostly empty except for Ian’s food. A closet which held a broom and a bucket and a folding stool, and the closet seemed to go much deeper than a closet needed to.

Then there was another living room, much like the first. The furniture sagging, the walls bare and in the corner was a door leading to the basement, and they went to look down there.  The stairs were shallow and smooth. The basement floor, when they reached it, was gritty, and the basement itself seemed to go on into the dark for quite a while. Everything was jumbled. There was little order. No shelf holding anything anyone might need. Only useless things.  Empty jars. Boxes full of the undesired, the worthless, things with meanings no longer attached, the broken, and all of it consigned to this place where it was certain never to be sought after.

In a corner was a tumbled-down stack of empty boxes. In the middle of them, stretched out, lay Teresa, as if she’d somehow fallen there. When Ian drew near she reached out a hand towards him, and he, Ian, reached out towards her.

‘So soft,’ said a voice, not Teresa’s.

And there he was, still on the living room couch, Cassandra leaning over him, holding his hand, and Cecil still on the floor but now watching TV.

‘How’d you get such soft hands?’

Ian blinked.

‘Huh,’ he said. ‘Uh… dishwashing,’ and he withdrew his hand from Cassandra’s.

‘I wash dishes,’ said Cassandra, ‘and my hands never feel anything like that.’

‘Just lucky I guess.’

‘And how’d everything go today? At the school? Do you know if everything got smoothed over from yesterday?’

 

It all looked wrong. His room was all wrong. It was sad and funny and sinister what the absence of a computer could mean. The modern equivalent of a hearth. Remove the hearth and the purpose, the very meaning, vanishes. In the absence of a computer which direction does a person face? Without a computer what was there to do? It sounded ridiculous, but until he figured out what to do about his computer this room was going to be just a space, an unpleasant, unwelcoming space. And his time here would be wasted.

He had both lights on but it was no good. He looked at his notes, he looked out the black window into the night, and he was certain he’d have to throw out everything he’d done until now. It was all wrong and even a fresh start would never be fresh enough.

Why didn’t work call? He needed to get away, do something to take his mind from where he was. He needed to feel anything but the margins of this directionless hole.

He picked up his coat and went downstairs and was almost at the door when he caught sight of Cassandra from the corner of his eye and turned to her. He expected her to say something, but she was stone-faced, quiet. She’d been visibly affected when he’d told her about Cecil, but had said nothing. Evidently, she was still carrying it.

He nodded to her and was about to leave when she said in a deep voice ‘School is a bully.’

He looked her in the eye, waited a moment and said, ‘You’re right. It is.’

‘What did you say?’

‘I said, you’re right. School is a bully.’

‘But…,’ and here Cassandra looked puzzled, ‘I didn’t say that. You said that.’

‘I said what?’

‘You said, “School is a bully”.’

Ian opened his mouth and closed it. ‘I…’

Cecil came up behind her. He was eating from a box of crackers. Ian’s crackers.

‘I suppose… I suppose I…’

Cassandra looked at him with hurt in her eyes. He wished there was someone here for her, someone to help her.

‘I need to get some air,’ he said. ‘I’ll see you later,’ and he stepped out into the night.

 

It was warmer out than it looked, warmer than it had been during the day, and as Ian roamed aimlessly through the back streets of town he opened his coat and let the air coil around his body. He was unsuccessful at diverting his mood but at least managed to lose some sense of where he was. He hardly knew the neighbourhood. The streets, though generically familiar, were new to him, and the wind, as he could hear, was shaking the tops of the trees above him and gusting about. It felt like a storm coming on.

Up ahead were bright lights, a playing field of some sort. When he got there it was empty, as if the stage had been set and was waiting for something to happen. There was something about the feel of the night, the wind, the warmth, the misgivings he was holding down, it reminded him of a fair he went to when he was a child, the rides set up in the parking lot of the local mall, except there was a problem, there was lightning along the horizon. They’d arrived just as everything was being shut down and Ian was secretly relieved. Going had been his mother’s idea and he’d went along with it because he knew it was easier than saying he didn’t want to. He remembered circling around the outside of the grounds, staying close to the fence as the first big drops began to spatter on the hard pavement, and the sweet acidic smell of the rain coming on. He could picture the raincoat and boots he’d have been wearing, but why he’d have had these on when they’d driven over for the rides didn’t make sense. Something didn’t fit.

The lights in the park illuminated a baseball diamond, and Ian found himself a space on one of the benches near the home plate and lost himself to the night. He sat and listened to the wind, stared at the brightly lit ball field. It was exactly what he needed; a sparseness. Light. An exemption from pathos.

At one point a woman walked across the middle of the field and at first Ian felt it was a good sign that she didn’t look like Teresa at all, but suddenly it came to him who she did look like. She looked like Cecil’s teacher. She looked like Hestia. And the world came rushing back to him with an intensity he would have heartily disliked only a few minutes before, but here, all at once, the weight, the gloom, it felt honest. It might have been all wrong, but it felt good to feel as low as he did, and to have a good wallow.

When the woman reached the other side of the field, the lights suddenly went out.

A moment later the rain began.

 

His shoes grew wet, as did the knees of his pants. Part of the attraction of walking in the rain was that at some point he would not be walking in the rain. It would stop, or he would, and he would dry off, and there’d be something to be thankful for.

He was hatless, and his hair grew soaking wet. The rain dripped inside the collar of his coat, and he could feel his shoulders become two wet patches.

Without being all that conscious of where he was going, he’d wandered downtown and was looking into the window of the computer shop, weighing what to do. Repair his old computer? Get something new? Either way he was going to have to shell out. It couldn’t be put off. Cheap as they’d become, it was still more than he could part with. Anything was.

Leaning forward, staring beyond the display in the front window and into the shop, he saw the counter at the back, the place he’d brought his tower. Was there someone there? It was dark, certainly, but he was almost sure he could make out somebody leaning on the counter as if waiting for service. It was hard to see.

A few doors down was Pike’s, and a glance further along the sidewalk revealed nothing.  No one was venturing out in this rain, and the street was empty except for the odd passing car.  Through the window of Pike’s he saw it was completely empty except for the bartender who stood with her back to one of the fridges looking at a TV mounted on the wall. It was Teresa, and Ian stepped in.

He stood dripping just inside the door. Tess looked at him without moving, as if she wasn’t sure it was worth it, then she un-leaned herself and sidled to the counter.

‘And what can I get you?’ she said, as if it didn’t matter.

She looked quite ordinary tonight, and for an instant Ian wondered what he’d been remembering when he’d thought of her. What had been so special?

‘I don’t know,’ said Ian. ‘A beer. Surprise me.’

‘A surprise, huh? It could be expensive.’

‘All right. A cheap surprise.’

‘Ah, your speciality.’

Tess bent down and reached inside one of the fridges and Ian approached the bar and took one of the stools.

‘There you are,’ she said, putting a bottle on the counter in front of him. ‘Five seventy-five, please.’

Ian dug into one of his pockets and spread his money out on the counter. It was wet, and it took him a moment to sort out what to give her, and in the end, he handed her a wet twenty.

‘Lovely,’ she said, holding it pinched in her fingers like a dead thing.

He took a sip. Tess leaned on the bar, glanced up at the TV, and without looking at Ian, asked with as little interest possible, ‘So? How are things?’

Ian said nothing. Something inside was broken and there were no words to get between where he was and what was troubling him. It was beyond him.

After a moment even Tess apparently felt his silence and turned to look at him, at first with little or no concern, but then this changed.

‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.

‘It’s… I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on it…’

Tess’s expression fell neutral.

‘Oh. This.’

‘I’d tell you, but there’s nothing to tell. I… I can’t explain.’

‘Ian. I hate to say this, but I know you. And I know you don’t ever let go of anxiety if you can help it.’

‘I… I think… I think I’m incapable of feeling love. Real love.’

‘Oh really? Is that it? You’re worried you can’t love?’

‘No, I…’

‘Well, I’ve a story for you. A quick story. A friend of mine was raped a few years ago by her boyfriend. She became pregnant. She was going to give the kid up for adoption but changed her mind, and she kept him. At times it’s been impossible for her. Difficulty after difficulty, but she has this guilty love, this shame-filled love for her boy, and all I ever see in it, all I can make out, is that love is a bully.’

‘A bully,’ said Ian, his eyes glancing past Tess towards the bottles lining the wall behind the bar. At a whisper, as if a revelation, he repeated, ‘Love is a bully.’

Tess leaned on the bar, breathing heavily, staring into Ian’s eyes, then broke her gaze and searched around on the counter for something. She found the remote for the TV and switched it off, then said, ‘Excuse me,’ and pushed through the swinging door at back of the bar.

‘Who? Who was it?’ Ian quietly called after her, but she was gone.

In a minute he stood and went to the bathroom and must have stayed in there longer than he thought. When he came out again the bar had begun to fill. Someone had taken his seat. He went to the counter. Another bartender had come on, and Ian gestured to him and he came over and leaned on the bar, breathing heavily as he stared into Ian’s eyes.

‘Where’s Tess?’ Ian asked, raising his voice over the music.

The bartender shrugged and mouthed the words, ‘Not here.’

 

He slept poorly that night, his body refusing to yield to the exhaustion he felt. It churned from side to side, trying to find a place to drop beneath the oppressive volume of his hated room. Trying to disappear.

Somewhere in the middle of the night there were noises. Quiet at first, then louder.  Someone dragging something up the steps out in the hall, something metallic. A minute later the noise stopped outside his door and he heard a key slide into his lock. His eyes opened a crack at this and he watched as his door swung open, and there, silhouetted against the space of the open door, stood Cassandra Ross wearing nothing and dragging a folding ladder behind her. Ian watched through half-closed eyes as she pulled the ladder into the middle of the room, opened it, then pausing on each rung as it groaned, made her way to the ceiling where she unscrewed the bulb, removed it and replaced it with another.

When she reached the floor again she turned and faced the mattress in the corner. Ian fully closed his eyes at once. He heard her, sensed her, come towards him, felt her hand hover over his head as she leaned over him. He could smell her cookie-dough breath, could feel it on his cheek. And then she was gone, taking her ladder and closing the door behind her.

In the morning Ian felt too unwell to get out of bed and stayed huddled beneath his blankets until well into the afternoon, and when he tried to open his eyes he found they were sealed shut with sleep.

Around four o’clock he was in the kitchen making himself chicken noodle soup from a pouch when he heard the front door open and heard Cecil’s little voice and another he didn’t recognize, a young girl’s. He leaned out into the hallway and saw Cecil standing there in his rubber boots and raincoat, and behind him a very plain girl with stringy hair and glasses, wearing a hoody, her arm in a sling. She spied Ian and immediately started talking.

‘Oh good. You’re home. Cecil said you might be. Listen, I’m not feeling too good. Sort of a headache. Do you think it’d be okay, could I sort of drop Cece off with you and go home?’

Behind Ian the kettle began to whistle and he heard himself say, ‘Sure. Yeah. That’s fine. You can leave him with me.’

‘That’s great. Thanks. I wouldn’t usually do this, just I’m not a hundred per cent yet, you know?’

‘That’s fine. I’ll watch him.’

The girl, presumably it was Kelsey Rae, was about to leave when she poked her head back through the door.

‘Oh, I should tell you. There was a little trouble at the school today.’ She looked down at Cecil. ‘One of the other boys hit Cecil in the neck with a ruler. Sort of chopped him with it. There’s a bit of a line, but Cece says he’s okay. The teacher said for Cassandra to call if she wanted to. She has her home number already. All right?’

Ian raised his hand to show he understood and Kelsey Rae backed out of the house and closed the door.

The whistle of the kettle was still shrilling away and Ian told Cecil to get his things off, that he’d be there in a minute.

‘Would you like some soup?’ he asked. But Cecil stood where he was, not removing his coat, not budging.

‘I’ll be there in a minute,’ said Ian. He poured the boiling water into the mug with the soup mix in it and carried it back out into the hall. Cecil in the meantime had divested himself of coat and backpack but was still in his rubber boots when Ian found him sitting cross-legged on the floor of the living room, sorting through his blocks.

Ian settled himself into the sagging couch and began to blow on the liquid in his mug. He was still tired, he realised. How was that possible? A little faint even. And it was then that it occurred to him that he’d missed his chance to sort out what to do about his computer. The day was mostly gone, and it would be too late to do anything about it by the time Cassandra got home. He considered calling the shop when he was done with his soup, but still wasn’t sure what to tell them.

As he spooned the soup into himself, he watched Cecil build a wall with his blocks, then watched as he took them down and rearranged them, spaced evenly, in a circle all around where he sat. Ian felt his eyelids grow heavy and fought the urge to close them. What was it about this place that had such a soporific effect?

He closed his eyes and opened them, and when he did it was just in time to see Cecil pick up one of the blocks and take a bite from it, as if it was nothing more than a brownie or a cube of coffee cake. Ian held the empty mug in his hand and stared, mesmerised by the boy and his infernal smirk, his perpetually runny nose and strangely captivating eyes. Ian watched as one by one the blocks were eaten until all of them disappeared. When the boy was done, Ian reached over to the box of Kleenex on the end table and pulled one out for the boy, but when he turned back, the boy was gone.

Ian was so stupid. What had he done? He’d sat and watched while a small boy swallowed a whole set of building blocks. And where was he now? Where had he gone? Ian stood and hurried about the room looking for him. He wasn’t there. Ian rushed into the hall, then through all the rooms on the first floor until he came to the door leading down into the basement. It was open, and Ian knew at once this was where the boy had gone. He was down there with all the unused things, the unloved things. He’d be in a box or sitting on a shelf, waiting for the improbable day when someone wanted him.

Ian slunk down the steps, not really wanting to but knowing he must.

And it was as he feared. Worse. The room, the whole basement, was full of boxes stacked to the ceiling, and in each box, an unwanted boy. How could he ever find the one he was looking for? He was just feeling grateful that at least no one was there to see him in this terrible moment when he heard footsteps on the floor above him. Someone was upstairs standing at the top of the basement steps. A moment later the basement light was switched off, followed by the sound of the door closing.

Inside, Ian shrivelled to nothing.

 

He was by a riverbank, his head leaning back in a woman’s lap. He couldn’t see who it was, but her thighs were smooth and soft. It was a good place to be. An easy place. The sun was bright and the wind gentle and warm. Above him the willow leaves shook and danced. Here was the anticipation, the expectation, of good things. Not now, but soon. For now it was pleasant merely to wait.  

And who was this woman? Was it Teresa? It didn’t seem to be. No, it wouldn’t have been. It didn’t have to be and it didn’t matter. He was… He was… He…

 

There was a noise, an urgent noise, insistent, and Ian sat up and scuttled quickly across the floor of his room to his coat and withdrew his phone. It was work. Could he come in? Ian was completely disoriented. It was dark out and he had no idea what time it was, so he asked and was told it was already almost seven-thirty. Could he be there for eight? Without thinking, Ian said yes, and hanging up, realised at once that he should have declined. He was not up for it. He felt weak and morbidly disoriented. But he’d already said he would and so he groped about in the dark for his bedside lamp and found it, then began pulling on the clothes he’d worn the day before. A shower would have been good, a shave as well, but there wasn’t time. He felt sticky and weak, and before leaving he cast his eyes over the hand-written pages he’d left scattered on his desk and felt himself little better than a fraud. He was never going to finish this paper or his degree. How could he?

Out in the hall he heard voices, and coming down the steps he saw Cassandra talking to someone at the front door but couldn’t see who. As he edged past her, saying ‘hello’ and ‘excuse me,’ he found Hestia, Cecil’s teacher, on the front step. With her was Hugo.

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Hi. I’ve got to run.’

Cassandra called after him.

‘Ian. I’d like a word with you when you get back.’

Ian stopped when he heard this.

‘A word?’

Cassandra seemed put out about something. She seemed angry. Ian was uncomfortable imagining what she might want to talk about, but left it for the moment.

‘I have to go to work. I probably won’t be home till late.’

‘We’ll talk,’ said Cassandra.

‘Sure,’ he said, and with that he took off into the night.

The driver of the car that clipped him at the fourth intersection didn’t see him at all. He was dressed in dark clothes and was running, and though the light was still green there was no walk signal. He had no right of way. The impact sent him flying. He did a full cartwheel, maybe more, and landed partway down the road on his back, completely unharmed.

He got up, dusted himself off, and kept moving, despite the car coming alongside him and the driver calling out to him through the window, saying, ‘Hey buddy… Hey buddy,’ over and over again, before eventually driving away into the night.

 

‘I have it now,’ said Singham. ‘I have it. Canadianshield. Northwestmountedpolice. Klondikegoldrush. Anneofgreengables.’

‘Yes,’ said Ian, smiling thinly. ‘Not that they’d ever ask you about any of that. At least I don’t think they would. But those are all iconic.’

‘Iconic. I like it. Big word. Big idea.’

In the end they hadn’t really needed to call in Ian. There was barely half the volume they’d expected, but this was good. It was good for Ian, who felt vague and kept losing track of what he’d meant to do next. His shoulder was hurting as well from where he’d hit the pavement. When he found the opportunity to look, he expected he’d find quite a bruise.

For a staff meal there was a sort of West Indian Shepherd’s Pie, curried lamb topped with mashed sweet potatoes and served with a cucumber salad in a dill and mustard seed dressing. Again, there was a feeling of guilt. That he should eat so well.

He’d just emptied his plate, it was nearly impossible not to, when Singham put his closed fist under Ian’s nose.

‘Open it,’ said Singham.

Ian looked at the hand then up at Singham’s face. There was a sparkle in it and Singham nodded.

Ian unfolded the fingers one by one, and there, in the middle, was a shiny red gem.

‘Is that…?’

‘Ruby,’ said Singham. ‘For you. You take it.’ And he patted his chest to show he meant it.

‘I…’

‘You take it, smart boy. Take it. Okay?’

 

The house was dark when he arrived home. The thickness of the air swallowed him as he walked through the front door. Why was it so hot?

He swung the door closed and the light from a street lamp cut a faint patch of light on the worn carpet.

He stood there a moment not wanting to go upstairs. But there was no reason to go back out either. No reason to go anywhere. He was tired and sore but didn’t want to sleep. What was there for him? Where else could he go but to his room?

He was about to head up when a light in the living room switched on and there on the sagging couch sat Cassandra and her son, both awake and both looking at him.

‘Hello,’ said Ian, surprised and yet, at the same time, not surprised at all. ‘What are you two doing up?’

Cassandra and Cecil said nothing. In front of them on the floor he could see his box of breakfast cereal. It was empty and lay on its side. Ian looked up the darkened stairs leading towards his room but turned and walked into the living room.

His hands were in his pockets and in the bottom of one his fingers touched something small, and he drew it out and put it in the palm of his hand. It looked almost black in the available light, and sat nestled in the crook between his two middle fingers. Ian knelt in front of Cecil and held out his hand, so the boy could see. ‘Look,’ said Ian, but Cecil didn’t look at the hand, he looked into Ian’s eyes and smirked just a little, as if trying not to, then with an almost unhurried exactness, Cecil slapped the bottom of Ian’s hand, sending the ruby only the heavens knew where.

‘I…’ said Ian. ‘I was going…’ But what he was about to say he never did. 

Ian remained a moment on his knees, searching the boy’s eyes for something, anything, that would prevent him from just hitting the boy outright. And there it was. The skeleton of a reason. Not an argument of any great moral depth, but yes, a reason. It just isn’t done. And besides, the indirect blow Cecil was about to receive would likely be even worse though the boy would probably never make the connection.

Ian stood and dusted his knees, which had crumbs of breakfast cereal imbedded in them.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘I suppose that would be “Easy come, easy go”. And with that, I’m going to go.’

Ian left the muted shadows of the front room and climbed the stairs and took himself into the bathroom, where he removed his coat and peeled down his shirt to look at his shoulder. It was now hurting a fair bit. He aimed it towards the mirror and could see where there was indeed a bruise. Quite a big one. It wasn’t exactly in the shape of a lightbulb, but close enough.

In his room, Ian tried the switch. The ceiling light came on immediately, filling the corners and illuminating all the cobwebs. Moments later, Ian began to pack.

 


Joe Davies’ short fiction has appeared mostly in Canada, but also in England, Ireland, Wales, India and the US, in such magazines and journals as Planet: The Welsh Internationalist, Descant, Rampike, Grain, eFiction India, The Manchester Review, Queen’s Quarterly, Crannog, The Moth, Prism International and The New Quarterly.  He lives in Peterborough, Ontario.