Authors: Alissa York
Tags: #General Fiction
“Let’s see what you’ve got.”
He stands at the other end of the table with his arms folded, and for a moment Lily feels like she’s in school—that same sick dread. Only Billy’s here with her, not chained up waiting at home. Not nosing for crumbs around the kitchen counter like any other dog, either, but right beside her, leaned up against her leg. She sets the box down and fishes out the Tim Hortons bag. See to the living first.
The little bird lies motionless in her palm, but she can feel
the quickened beat of its breathing, the faint sensation of warmth.
“Another ovenbird,” Guy says.
“Yeah.” At the shadowy foot of the tower, she could be certain of little beyond general colouring and size. Here in Guy’s kitchen, she can make out the speckled belly and pinkish legs, the Mohawk stripe at its crown, the white rings around its tightly closed eyes.
“He’s a beauty,” Guy says quietly. “Needs a little longer, I guess.”
She slides the ovenbird back into papery darkness. Laying it carefully on the newspaper, she reaches into the box again.
Edal can feel something crawling on her—one of the leggy millions that feed and multiply and die in the foxtail grass. Whatever it is, it’s making a pilgrimage up her calf. An ant, maybe, or a spider. A tick. She reaches down without looking to brush it away.
She’s only partly hidden by the plywood sign, one half of her face pressed to the cool chain-link. It was no mean trick, hanging back while keeping the girl in sight. Upon arriving, she heard a distorted screeching that seemed to originate from the far corner of the yard—some kind of pulley or rusted hinge. She listened for it to come again as she laid her bike down in the weeds. Nothing. Then the girl rounded the corner in the company of a red-haired man—him leading, holding open the screen door, her following with bent head, canine shadow and banana box.
Edal doesn’t ask herself why she followed the girl and her massive dog back to Howell Auto Wreckers—or why she lingers after they’ve gone inside. Instead, she wonders about the girl. There are people who comb the business district during migration season, many of them members of FLAP, an organization formed to draw attention to the deadly lure of the tower lights—but the girl doesn’t look the type to be a member of anything.
And what about the man? Presumably a Howell or an employee of one, but who is he to the girl? A boyfriend? Unlikely. Edal saw no hint of the loaded current that runs between lovers’ bodies. In any case, he’s Edal’s age, or near enough—late twenties at least—and the girl can’t be more than sixteen. Older brother? If so, there’s no resemblance. The girl is rail-thin, fine-featured, her skin watery, a shade of whey. Her hacked-off hair could be any colour under the dye, but Edal doubts it was ever a match for his.
She’s never seen that shade of red on a human, dark as an old penny with new-penny flashes when he moved. Only slightly shorter than her own hair, it feathers back from his broad-boned face—a style common where Edal comes from. He wears a green and black Mack shirt, a relic of sorts in the city. She had a red one when she was growing up. Sometimes she slept in it—soft as a chamois, smelling of herself.
Definitely not a brother. A friend, then. Edal can only guess at what they’re up to, now that they’ve gone inside. Still, there’s plenty to observe.
The wrecking yard sits on a deep lot that butts up against the Dundas Street on-ramp. Three-metre-high fencing lined with banks of crushed cars. Just inside the gate, a flat black pickup stands beside a baby blue tow truck long past its prime.
In fact, none of the equipment looks anywhere near new: a front-end loader scabbed with rust, a limbed thing like a digger with a grapple in place of a scoop. A third corroded machine sits amid a field of broken glass. Composed of an open-jawed block mounted on a long metal bed, it resembles a child’s cereal-box construction more than an assembly capable of crushing cars. Because that’s what it must be; something flattened all those stacked-up wrecks.
Besides a small tool shed, there’s only one building: a cinder-block bunker trailing a long clapboard extension. The yard’s a mess, hard soil deadened by chemical runoff, mud healed into ruts, puddles showing rainbows of gas. Here and there a shock of grass perseveres. It’s the kind of place that makes Edal uneasy, a place where things collect. To be fair, though, the longer she looks, the more a rough species of order becomes clear. Steel-mesh baskets brim with seemingly sorted parts. Tires in a tidy mountain. Engine blocks like a cache of pirate chests.
“Looking for something?”
Edal jumps, jamming the bridge of her nose against the mesh. The pain is brilliant, fierce. She holds a hand to it and turns.
The voice was a man’s, but the tall, muscular creature before her is still part boy. Twenty, maybe twenty-one. Jetblack hair hanging down over dark, lashy eyes, cheekbones that look almost rouged. He’s holding something in his hand. A brick? No, an innocent carton of half-and-half.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
She feels it then, the warm, wet trickle snaking down her upper lip. Bunching her sweatshirt sleeve up at the wrist, she
holds it to her nostrils while she pinches the tender bridge.
Why won’t he do the decent thing and look away? As long as he keeps staring like that, she can’t help but see herself through his eyes. If she were in uniform, it would be called surveillance, but she’s not; she’s somebody with nothing better to do.
“I’m fine.” The thickness in her throat alarms her. She can’t possibly be about to cry.
“You want me to get you some ice?”
“No, I’m fine.” She checks her sleeve to find a sizable splotch of blood. Stooping for the bike, she becomes aware of a trembling weakness in her legs.
“Hey, are you—”
She hears the shrillness and knows there’s only one conclusion he can draw. She’s unbalanced. Unwell. She lifts the bike with difficulty, as though unearthing it. He gives her room.
“Was there something you wanted?” He says it quietly, perhaps even kindly, but Edal can only think of getting away. She doesn’t dare swing up onto the bike; no choice but to push it beside her in a pathetic retreat.
“Hey,” he calls after her.
She doesn’t answer, doesn’t look round. By the end of the block, she’s steady enough to ride. Climbing on, she hazards a backward glance. He’s still standing there. Still refusing to look away.
Back in his bedroom, Stephen stands by the window, looking out. His day is off to a shaky start. First the woman with the bloody nose, and now this: Lily down on her knees in the back
garden, burying her birds. Her grubby vest and narrow, rounded back. Whoever decided it was a good idea to make bodies so fragile? Bones so close to the surface you can see them. Blood threading just beneath the skin.
It helps a little when Billy, sitting solemnly alongside the shallow graves, looks up and returns his gaze.
“You get the cream?”
He turns to find Guy framed in the doorway. “Yeah, sorry.” He points to where the litre carton lies on its side on his bed. It’s a high four-poster—the kind that ought to be draped with a handmade quilt, not made up tight with a single camp blanket. Drilled-in habits die hard.
Guy leans up against the jamb. “You all right?”
Stephen nods, his mind going to the four chubby little raccoons asleep in their dog-carrier den beneath his bed. They’d be dead if it wasn’t for him.
. Starved or eaten or both, plucked out of hiding and picked clean—a crow, maybe, or a feral cat.
“There was this woman,” he hears himself say.
“I don’t know, I never saw her before. She was looking in at the gate when I got back.”
Guy cocks his head. “Did she say what she wanted?”
“Huh. What did she look like?”
Stephen thinks. “Pretty. Kind of short. Around your age, maybe a little older.” He pauses. “She had a nosebleed.”
“She hit her nose when I came up behind her. I startled her, I guess.”
Guy steps into the room and reaches for the half-and-half. Doesn’t leave with it, though. Instead, he sits down on the bed and balances the carton on his lap, lifting his gaze to the collection of framed photographs on the opposite wall. Stephen can’t see them from where he stands; no matter, he has the images by heart.
The largest shows a sixties bride and groom in black-and-white. They’re nowhere near hippies—his hair is pomaded back, hers rises in a modest hive—but there’s something of the time in her racy hemline, the way he’s pulled her in close against his side. Guy’s Uncle Ernie and Aunt Jan.
Then there are the true parents, the ones Guy lost first. The second wedding portrait is a vivid colour shot. The groom’s purple cummerbund matches the clutch of artificial flowers behind the bride’s ear. Her dark red hair is huge, like one of those branching fans they snap off coral reefs. Her eyes, ringed with more purple, are fixed on the man she loves. Stephen knows Guy’s dad was around his own age when the photo was taken, but the broad-shouldered tux and clownish cummerbund make him look closer to twelve than twenty-one. Very close, in fact, to the teenage boy in the neighbouring frame.
That one’s Stephen’s favourite: Guy standing in front of a gutted Dodge Dart with an oversized tabby cat draped around his neck. The others are good too—Guy as a toddler, pushing a toy tow truck the same powder blue as the one he would come to drive; Guy as a sturdy boy, standing alongside his uncle, one hand on his fishing pole, the other holding up a sad excuse for a fish—but the cat photo takes the prize.
“You don’t have to leave those up, you know,” Guy says. “We could find another spot for them, let you put up some stuff of your own.”
Stephen flashes on a pair of prints on his parents’ living room wall: an airbrushed man morphing into an eagle, his hazy mate in the process of becoming a wolf. His-and-hers shamans, both plainly Caucasian, though rendered in soothing, earthy tones. If memory serves, there were no actual photos around while he was growing up. Grade after grade, he was the only kid who didn’t order any school portraits—not even the poor-family package of one five-by-eight and four handy wallet-size.
Photos are about holding on to the past
, Mica told him when he asked.
Your father’s right
, Ariel added.
Life happens in the now
“It’s okay,” Stephen says. “I like having them there.”
“Unless you want them in your room.”
“You should have the bigger room anyway. I feel like I’m—”
“Hey, I told you, I’ve been sleeping in that room since my bed had rails around it. I doubt I could sleep anywhere else.” Guy turns the carton upside down as though testing the seal. “Besides, you’ve been here, what, a year and a half now?”
“Just about. Since December 2006.”
“Okay, then, I’d say this is your room.” He stands. “I’ve got Ted Price coming to pick up a load of parts around noon. Maybe you could get started stripping that Vette.”
“Coffee first, though.”
“Yeah.” Stephen turns back to the window. Billy’s leaning up against his mistress where she kneels, patting the earth flat. Stephen feels a tightening sensation in his chest—sometimes it happens like this, no shock or exertion required. He may not be lying flat on his back in St. Mike’s anymore, but his heart is far from the young organ it was.
“She’s found some live ones too,” Guy says behind him.
“Lily. She’s found a few that survived.” He pauses. “Come on, buddy. Come and see.”