Monday, July 21, 2008

The Red Car by Linda Roan

At 8:20 a.m. Ellen reversed her black Escort out of the driveway, hoping to avoid the red car. Dark clouds, swollen with rain, threatened the June day as she drove toward the school.
“You need glasses,” her husband had said the week before when she’d complained about the red car.
“I don’t need glasses to know it’s the same car that follows me every day.”
“If it bothers you so much, why don’t you make a complaint to the police?”
“It never gets near enough for me to read the license plate.”
She could tell that he was about to say something unpleasant. She watched his mouth form familiar words of abuse. Instead, he said aloud, “The counselor said we should stop fighting in front of the boy.”
They never discussed the red car again.
Now, as she stopped at the light she glanced over at her son Darren slumped in the front passenger seat in his usual position of resentment. Strands of long brown hair covered his eyes as he peered out the window. She worried. Would he run away from summer camp like he had last year? Her parents had made her go. She’d learned to tolerate the bullies. It was his father’s fault that he couldn’t stand up to them.
“Last day of school,” said Ellen in a cheerful tone which even to her sounded false. She wove the Escort through the lines of parents’ cars jockeying for position nearest to the main entrance of the school. Darren grunted in reply, slammed the car door behind him and, shoulders hunched, walked away without a backward glance.
Ellen waited behind a grimy Sunbird while her neighbour, a short, plump woman, who lived with her loud family across the street, hugged her daughter and son. Their faces shone with love, and when the daughter ran back to give her mother another hug Ellen pressed her car horn. The mother gave an apologetic smile and gently pushed her daughter away, climbed into the Sunbird and drove off with a sunny wave of her hand.
What did that mother with her big smiley face know about stress? Had strangers ever questioned her parenting skills? Did she ever need to force her son to take assertiveness training? Had she a clue how much that cost?
A black van pulled in front of Ellen, and she wondered why drivers were so inconsiderate. Didn’t they realize other people had to get to work? And there was the damned red car. If she could get to the highway in the next five minutes, she was sure it wouldn’t be able to find her.
At the exit from the school grounds, most cars turned south. Ellen drove north and increased speed as she neared the crosswalk. She breezed though, narrowly avoiding a woman holding hands with her toddler and a crossing guard attempting to stop traffic. Angry shouts followed her. Screw ’em. She was in a hurry, and it wasn’t like she’d hit anybody.
She turned right on to Upper Middle, without checking the traffic on her left and barely skimmed past a gold SUV, unaware of the panicked look on the driver’s face.
The heavy humidity of the low clouds felt smothering in spite of her open windows. She didn’t dare turn on the air conditioner because it would use up her gas too quickly and her husband would bring up his habitual argument about the costs of her job outweighing her income.
Moving from lane to lane she quickly reached Ford Drive and turned right. Still no sign of the red car. By this part of the journey, it was usually either behind her or beside her. Perhaps something had happened to the driver. Perhaps she’d only imagined the red car had been following her. The muscles in her neck and shoulders relaxed. She’d worry about Darren and her husband tonight.
Then as she drove up the on-ramp from Ford Drive to the QEW, she saw the red car behind her. Where had it come from? Ellen’s face tightened in frustration, her fine-boned hands clenched the steering wheel, and her stomach knotted. She had never even been able to tell whether the driver was a man or a woman. It didn’t matter which way she twisted her rearview mirror or how she turned her head to stare, all she could ever see was the outline of a figure huddled low over the steering wheel. That she didn’t know the sex of the driver made the car seem even more menacing.
A fleet of mountainous trucks blocked her entrance to the highway. Ellen felt her Escort jolt forward. Her neck muscles spasmed and her head jerked backward, as fragile as a flower on its stem. She had to get away.
Shaking, she spun her steering wheel sharply to the left and tailgated a Lexus onto the highway. Tires screeching, the red car pursued her. The sky darkened and heavy rain fell, pounding against the windows, obscuring Ellen’s windshield. She couldn’t see worth a damn. Then her world exploded: glass shattered, metal crumpled.
She heard a soft voice nearby.
“Are you all right?”
With great effort, Ellen opened her eyes. Her vision was blurred and she felt as if a top were spinning in her head but she could just make out the fuzzy pink blouse of a woman leaning over her. Blood oozed from a large cut on Ellen’s head, but the warm soft flow soothed her. The stranger took Ellen’s hand and stroked it. It had been so long since Ellen had felt this peaceful. “Thank you,” she whispered.
The woman pressed toward her. Her words were low but harsh as she put her lips to Ellen’s ear. “You killed my cat when you raced through the crosswalk two weeks ago. How’s it feel, bitch?”
“Thank you,” Ellen repeated, letting all the tension finally drain out of her. “Thank you.”

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Road Trips and Meteorites by Patti Drab

Every year we would drive there – to the place that is a piece of my soul, where everything is always relaxed, happiness rules and all is forever right with the world. Every year it was the same: on the second Saturday in August, my mom would come through the door of our bedroom at 2:30 am, waking us up with the gentle voice of a drill sergeant, and the mad rush to get out the door would begin.
It was a long 10-hour road trip to get from Montreal to Wildwood N.J., my oceanside paradise of bodysurfing and boardwalk amusement parks. If we were lucky, we would make it past the 20-minute mark of no return on the very first try. After 20 minutes on the road, my dad would be able to win the argument that we’d gone too far to turn the car around to check for unplugged kettles, unlocked front doors, or bathroom faucets left running.
The first thing my mom would do after settling us into the car was to distribute juice and pills. My sister would get a whole Gravol, because she always got car sick, and this would knock her out within about 10 minutes, and she would sleep the rest of the trip. I would get a half of a Gravol, because I rarely got car sick (unless I tried to read), but instead of getting groggy, I would end up with a bit of a buzz, bouncing off the car seat and talking a mile a minute if there was anyone awake and not too preoccupied with driving to listen.
We went to Wildwood the same week every year because it made sense for my dad’s work schedule. Every year we left at 2:30 in the morning because it got us to Wildwood in time to enjoy a late afternoon swim. And every year around 4:00 am, just as we were winding our way up the Adirondack mountains, my dad would invite me to come and sit by his side on the front bench seat, between him and my sleeping mother in the passenger seat.
Back in those days there were only lap buckles in the back seats, and no one was obliged to use them. We certainly didn’t. My sister would lay there, sprawled over her half of the back seat, fast asleep. I would unceremoniously climb over to the front seat, doing my best not to wake my sister or mom with a misplaced foot or elbow to the face.
It was one of the very few moments in the year when I had time alone with my dad, unshared with anyone else. About the only other times were when we had a family gathering at my Auntie Mamie’s lake house, where I got to “help” my dad barbeque and, as long as I promised not to tell mom, would get to sip from his stubby bottle of beer.
I always knew not to take moments alone with my dad for granted, and I will never forget how it felt to sit there in the car as we came up over the Adirondacks, resting my head on his shoulder, talking about who knows what and staring up at the sky.
Over the years I had learnt the hard way that there were certain questions that I could pose only to my parents. For example, when I wanted her to explain, if Adam and Eve were the first two people on earth, why we weren’t all somehow related, my second grade teacher asked the entire class, “Now isn’t that a really silly question, boys and girls?” and encouraged my classmates to laugh uproariously along with her. (I noticed, by the way, that her evasive technique worked: she never did answer my question.)
I never asked my sister the interesting questions either, unless I was in the mood to put up with her rolling her eyes and saying, “Why are you so dumb?” or, “You can’t possibly be related to me.”
I was always able to ask my mother and father, though, and I would get honest, uncomplicated answers in return. That was one of the best gifts my parents gave me, and I do my best to pass this on to the young ones in my own adult life. I loved the subtle ways my mom and dad would work together to ensure that they were getting to the essence of everything I needed to know, even if the question was at once as simple and loaded as, “Why is Archie Bunker so mean to the Candy Man?” (The Candy Man was Sammy Davis Jr, guest starring on a very controversial episode of All In the Family, and thank you, Mom and Dad, for never thinking I was too young to watch those ground breaking shows).
But there was something truly special about those moments alone, just my dad and me. We would have the radio on, and we would listen to whatever horrible music the A.M. radio stations of Vermont or upstate New York would see fit to give airtime in the dark of the morning. My mind would meander and then it would occur to me to ask my dad what music was made from. He patiently explained musical notes and how they are played, using many sorts of instruments to make the sounds required for a song. As we listened to the radio, he helped me single out and identify the different noises.
“Dad,” I asked, a little bit sorrowfully, afraid of what the answer might be, “if there are only seven musical notes, how long will it take for us to run out of new songs?”
Then my father provided my first basic intro to the topic of Combinations and Permutations. But far more importantly, I got to see how deeply interested he was in the working of his young daughter’s mind. I could literally witness, in his eyes and his responses to me, just how proud he was of my curiosity.
Eventually, the conversation would run its course and we would just peacefully stare, my dad at the road and me at the sky.
The sky was truly amazing. The colour of the clouds and mountaintops at that particular time of the day are impossible to put into words, but I’ll try. A hint of violet, fuchsia and peachy-gold, all blended together but separate, a bit like the rainbow sheen you get to see on the bubbles from a child’s wand, or the bizarre bit of beauty you can see in gasoline floating on rain water as it gushes to the street gutters. The trees would glow with those magic hues, as if trying to reach out and define themselves from the blank, black pages of an empty book.
And now comes the best, the very best – every year, except the rather scary year of the big rainstorm, my father and I would witness the very best of fireworks not made by man. As we drove the highest peaks of the Adirondacks, where the air is thin and clear, the Perseid meteorite showers would arrive, an awesome and breathtaking gift just for me. We never spoke during the showers; we just sat back and absorbed them.
I figured something out all on my own during those car rides: who needs to wait for one single shooting star in order to make a wish? Out there in space, something huge is always happening.

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Saturday, July 5, 2008


I’ve started this blog so that I can publish more stories each month without making the Quick Brown Fox email ridiculously long.  You can go directly to any story posted this month by clicking on the story title, just to the right, under “Blog Archive.”  Or you can scroll down on this page till you get to the story.

Growing Up Greek Without A Bike, by Athena Taddei

My dad called earlier that afternoon to say he was bringing home a surprise after work. He rarely telephoned, unless to say he was bringing home fresh lamb or smelt for dinner. Sometimes he’d call for me specifically to say he was bringing home a bag of live snails, which I got to play with in the sink before they turned into escargot dinner.

“What kind of surprise?” I squealed.

“You’ll see when I get home,” he said.

I knew it was something bigger than ever; Dad was never that secretive unless he was lying to us, and that only happened when you asked him a pointed question; he never volunteered a lie.

“Is it a puppy?” I always wanted a puppy. “Is it a toy?” I didn’t get many of those, which explained why I played with snails. I never did get an answer from Dad. I paraded through the house for the rest of the afternoon announcing to my brother that Dad was bringing me surprise. I could only imagine it would be for me; after all, he never asked to speak to anyone else. My brother didn’t seem to be as excited as I was. I wondered if he was just pretending not to care.

It was the start of summer vacation. During hot afternoons, Mom wouldn’t let us play outside, something about a stroke. Even when my friend Theresa, three doors down had her plastic pool out, I still wasn’t allowed out of the house. I later learned that it wasn’t because of possible heat stroke, but because of pool germs.

“Please Mom … Oh please can I go to Theresa’s pool?” I jumped up and down with my fists held close to my chest, hoping she’d say yes. I needed something to keep me occupied for the afternoon while I impatiently waited for Dad to get home.

“No. What if the other kids pee in the pool?” said Mom as she raised her hand, threatening to hit me, which she never did, then or any other time.

It wasn’t a question I was supposed to answer, but I did anyway. “They won’t pee in the pool. My friends aren’t babies!”

Mom shot me a glare that I could not reciprocate. I didn’t understand why she would let me drink out of the same cup at church, but wouldn’t let me share the same pool water. Nonetheless, the answer was a firm no.

On snow days, rain days and hot, ‘stroke’ days, my brother and I remained inside. Sometimes we would play dinky cars and other times, games shows. That day was ‘game show’ day. We spent hours watching televisions, playing along with the ‘Newlywed’ game, laughing, pretending to know what they were talking about. But it was the ‘Price Is Right’ that helped refine our negotiating skills, and the candy on the coffee table that was the coveted prize.

Dad was usually home by four, so from three o’clock on I waited by the front window, restlessly moving across from one pane to the next, pressing my cheek up against the glass as safely as I could without breaking it. It was the only way I could see down the street to the right, the direction from which my Dad came home every day.

“Noulie (my Mom’s nickname for me), stop pressing on the window. You’re going to break it.”

It didn’t matter because I finally saw Dad come around the corner.

“Daddy’s home, he’s home!”

I ran out side and eagerly waved in my Dad, in case he forgot which drive was ours, while my brother followed, finally showing some interest.

Dad was barely out of the car when I ran into his arms to get closer look at the open trunk behind him.

“Hi Chupeche,” he said with a big smile on his face.

“What did you bring Dad?” I asked, running to the back of the car, and without introduction, Dad unloaded a brand new 3-speed, 2-wheeler bike.

My brother moved closer to the shiny blue bicycle; his face lit up. There was a silent conversation that took place between my father and brother that I did not understand, and after sharing several glances with one another, my brother swiftly mounted the bike to take it for it first spin down the driveway. I was very happy for him, but couldn’t wait any longer for my surprise.

“Where’s my surprise Dad?”

“This is the surprise,” Dad replied, preoccupied with watching my brother. “Get off, so that I can adjust the seat,” Dad said to my brother.

“Let me try too!” I cried. I circled the bike from all sides, trying to get close enough to place my tiny hands on it, but Dad shooed me aside.

“Dad,” I said. “Dad, that’s too high for me,” I continued even though the height hardly mattered, since I didn’t know how to ride a two-wheeler.

“When you get bigger you can use it,” replied Dad, with his, proud gaze still fixed on my brother.

Even at the age of five, I knew the bicycle was never intended for me and it would be years before I would grow into it.

I cried a lot that summer. All of my friends had tricycles of their very own, making it hard for me to keep up with any of their adventures. Theresa, Cindy, Sandy and Kenneth all had tricycles while Johnny had a small two-wheeler with a banana seat and monkey bars. I would have been happy with a three-wheeler. I looked at it as a communal pool of bikes, 5 kids to 4 bikes. I didn’t have a problem with sharing.

“Let’s have a bike parade!” proclaimed Theresa one day. “We can decorate our bikes with streamers, and noise makers and ride up and down the street.”

With everyone in agreement, I was left to join the parade on foot asking every so often if I could have a try.

One ordinary day that summer, Dad called again to say he was bringing home a surprise after work.

“What kind of surprise?”

“You’ll see when I get home,”

This time I waited on the front porch steps alone.

“Hi Chupeche!” Dad said taking me into his arms. “I have something for you.”

I closed my eyes, held my breath and stretched out my hand, expecting some kind of food treat, but instead, Dad picked me up from under my arms, swung me around and placed me on the seat of a rusty, red and white tricycle. Without excuse for its used, broken and abused condition, Dad explained how he was going to make it brand new again. At the time, Dad worked at a paint company in product development and was working on a new rust covering paint that he couldn’t wait to try out on the dilapidated bike.

Dad was definitely hard working and a real fixer-up kind of guy. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. He put extra holes in our belts, glued the soles back on our shoes, changed the light bulbs in the kitchen and could make a skating rink in our back yard. I couldn’t wait to ride my new bike.

It took Dad the whole weekend to restore the antique. In the meantime I knocked on Theresa’s, Cindy’s, Sandy’s, and Kenneth’s doors to ask them if they wanted to go bike riding later that day. I even suggested a bike parade, but that moment had already passed.

The rest of the time I hung out by Dad’s side, watching curiously how he was going to attach a seat and peddles to this freshly painted red frame. The wheels were disks and had no spokes to add noisemakers to, but that was fine, I had a bell. The bell didn’t ring as sharply as Theresa’s bell did, but so long as I called out loud while ringing my bell, those in line of my path would move. Dad had to add an extra connector to attach the broken seat, which made it quite high. The handlebars however could not be made higher, so when I rode, I had to spread my legs with my knees facing almost sideways to avoid bruising my knee caps. The bike had no peddles at all, but of course, Dad being the handyman that he was, made them out of old chunks of two by four that somehow he fixed on so tight, they wouldn’t even spin.

“Chupeche, your bike is ready!” Dad announced proudly admiring his handiwork.

My friends had already arrived to witness the unveiling and none of them noticed the idiosyncrasies of my new wheels.

“Come on, lets go riding!” Theresa said authoritatively.

Obediently, all of my friends hopped on their bikes and I too was happy to submit.

The gang got a head start and I trailed behind. It was difficult for me to peddle full circle with the fixed blocks of wood; my ankles didn’t rotate like that. I pushed as far as I could with each foot before having to step off the fixed peddles one at a time. The secret was to lift my knees and legs out to the side completely, so that the peddles wouldn’t hit my shins on the way back around. I learned that by the time we got to the end of the street. By then my friends already turned the corner, but I could still hear them say, “Hurry up!”

I cried even more that summer and was happy for snow to arrive and my shins to heal.

The Spooky Art of Psychic Development, by Sue Shipley

Is there life after death? There are of course, some people who believe unquestionably in a continuation of the spirit, some who dispel such nonsense with impatient disdain, and some who profess to have the ability to indeed, “talk to the dead.”

I have to admit in the past to being a skeptic about the supernatural. I was more interested in science and was the first to dismiss anything that could not be researched and proven in a laboratory. After the death of a dearly loved grandmother, however, some questions surfaced in my mind about the possibility of the continuation of life.

With timing that could only be manipulated by some higher source, into my life came Steve, a trainee nurse who worked as a psychic in his spare time. He belonged to a religion known as Spiritualism, (or “Spuggies” as they affectionately refer to themselves) and from my first encounter with this very interesting young man, I was mesmerized. Watching him give messages from the spirit world to those on this earthly plane was fascinating.

When I was invited to join his psychic development class one evening, I was as excited as a child with a new toy and couldn’t wait to see how quickly I would be chatting with the living spirits of all those who’ve gone before me.

The evening of the class was surprisingly sunny and warm. I expected thunderclouds and flashes of lightning to be hurled from a threatening sky as a cosmic deterrent to the spooky encounter, but the air was peaceful as I arrived at his little house in a rural Northumbrian town. In response to my nervous rap on the door, he ushered me into a tiny hallway. Once inside I heard a low buzz of conversations punctuated with sporadic bursts of laughter from the living room. It was all so normal. For me, raised on Hammer House of Horror movies, it all seemed a little too normal!

“Ready for this?” Steve asked as I stood beside him. I managed to nod through my growing anxiety at the surreal event about to unfold. “Come on then, I’ll introduce everyone.”

As I entered the living room, all faces turned from their animated discussions to send me warm smiles and welcoming exchanges. In all, there would be five of us. Sheila and Laura sat on the couch, their bright print dresses and milky white pearls a colourful, floral display on the chocolate brown velour. Beside them, a rotund, ruddy-faced gentleman, John, held out his hand and gave mine a firm shake.

“Welcome to the Spuggies night out.” He laughed, a twinkle of mischief in his slate blue eyes. “Don’t look so worried lassie we won’t eat you, you know!”

I reassured him that I wasn’t in the least bit nervous, although I reminded myself that these people were psychic; they could have a direct link to my inner most thoughts. Hiding anything from them would be futile!

Music from The Pipes of Pan played softly in the background and heavy velvet curtains covered the window and darkened the room. This gave the room a cozy but haunting air and I wondered how seriously my new friends’ believed in this process.

Steve sat in an armchair and I perched nervously beside him, the straight back of the dining chair hard against my spine. He settled into the softness of the cushions and relaxed. Taking his cue, the others hushed quickly and leaned back in their seats. Eyes closed and faces relaxed, they breathed deeply and evenly. The air was warm and still and the only light from a single candle in a large domed holder flickered gently, and threw long shadows onto the walls. Steve gave a prayer to God that all those present be protected in his light and our little group was ready to receive any spirit visitors that may wish to drop by.

Prior to this session, I had little advance knowledge of what to expect. I was told it was better for me to have no preconceived notion of the nature of such an exercise, for too much information may alter my experience of psychic development. Mustering all the confidence I could and not wanting to be left out, I copied the others and finally relaxed. As the minutes passed, the musical flutes swelled and ebbed mimicking the rhythmic breathing of all who sat in the room.

Fully expecting to see a host of grinning deceased relatives’ parade in front of me, I was nervous as I felt myself descending into meditation. The feeling of losing a little control spread through my mind and as my heart quickened its beat. I was scared. My eyes flew open in self-preservation and I looked around the room. The solid objects and the people present grounded me once again and I took a slow, deep breath. Mesmerized by the serene expressions of my companions, I watched them intently as I tried to slow my galloping heart. Shadows thrown by the rapidly dancing candlelight flitted across their pale faces. Despite the absence of draughts, the candle flame was now six inches high, and as it licked the top of the glass dome, it split into two halves like the forked tongue of a snake.

I watched the performing candle in awe for a few minutes, until I became aware of a change in the temperature of the room. Warm and stuffy, not ten minutes earlier, I began to feel a little chilled; the temperature appeared to have dropped by several degrees. As the beads of sweat cooled quickly on my neck, I shivered involuntarily and half expected to see breath clouds in front of me. I squeezed my palms together and felt them wet with fear. It seemed pointless to rationalize things I did not understand and I was determined to experience my first sighting – either real or imaginary – of the spirits in their world, or mine.

Allowing my mind to descend once again into meditation, I pushed aside all useless chatter from my brain, including my Hollywood ideas of ghosts and spirits and what they might do to me if I let them. The vision of the possessed character in the Exorcist as her head spun 360 degrees was a tough one to release, but finally it was done and I was free-falling into nothingness; my mind no longer controlled by rational thought and aware only of “Ave Maria” swelling from the speakers.

Suddenly, as if through an extra eye in the centre of my forehead, I saw a vision. Not a person made of gauzy shifting wisps of mist as I would have expected, but there before me lay a field of daffodils. Just as Wordsworth described in his famous poem, nodding gently in the breeze, their pretty golden trumpets raised skyward to celebrate the sunshine. My invisible eye drank in the beauty before me and I found I was reciting Wordsworth’s poem word for word but with a strong Northumberland dialect that was definitely not my own. When the poem was over, one name was left imprinted in my mind - Sheila.

From far away I heard Steve’s voice, gentle and coaxing, bringing us back to his house and our physical selves. As I opened my eyes, I felt a mixture of delight at being privy to such serenity but also very disgruntled that I hadn’t picked up any ghostly sightings. Nor had I received any life-changing advice. I watched everyone return from their meditations and immediately noticed that the temperature in the room had returned to its original cozy heat. The candle was back to an inch high, the flame glowing to a perfect point with barely a sideways flicker.

Once we had returned to reality, Steve invited us to tell what we had experienced. I faltered in my retelling of my vision of daffodils and believed it to be nothing more than a pleasant memory from my past. However, encouraged by Steve, I told Sheila that I’d seen a field of daffodils and heard her name and Wordsworth’s poem.

Sheila’s eyes filled with tears and she shared with us that she had read the poem at school over forty years ago. She had received a prize for her reading and her mother had been so proud that she had hung a copy of the poem on the wall in their house. I didn’t need a degree in psychic ability to impress upon me that my vision was indeed significant.

There it was. So easy! In that tiny living room in rural Northumberland, I had my first interaction with the spirit world. Sheila’s mother had visited. There was no fanfare, no misty visions, just a simple picture – a snap shot of life to let Sheila know that her mother was there.

If we all have this ability to tap into our psychic selves as the Spiritualists’ suggest, then it is not the Hollywood vision of ghosts that we need to look for. It is the simple illustrations, symbols and new ideas that pop unbidden into our minds; such is the real evidence that we are not alone in our physical journeys.


Note: For information about Brian Henry’s upcoming writing workshops and classes see here.