Saturday, October 11, 2008

Taken, Bev Irwin

This piece is an excerpt from a juvenile novel in progress. Enjoy…

The computer-generated photo didn’t really look like him. But then that was a good thing. It had some of his features, but not enough to cause somebody to take a closer look.

Luckily Jeremy resembled his grandfather more than either of his parents. Maybe if his hair wasn’t dyed so dark… He tipped his head and examined the picture. Yeah, maybe if his hair was still blond. Jeremy shrugged and walked away.

He could have ripped the poster off the wall but that would draw attention. Somebody might wonder why he’d want to take down a profile of a missing child. They might take a closer look. They might see something familiar in the blond boy in the right hand corner of the poster.

Jeremy forced himself to keep to an even pace despite the overwhelming urge to dash out of the school and never come back. But he had to. He’d promised his grandmother that he would finish school year.

Would he never stop looking for them? It had been ten years now. I won’t tell Mom, Jeremy decided. That was the last thing she needed. As it was, she was hanging on by a thread.

Jeremy looked at his watch. Three-forty-five. He had to hurry. He had to get back to the apartment before Doc MacKay showed up. How long would it take him to clean up? He should have stayed home today but he couldn’t miss any more time. He couldn’t take a chance on the school sending anybody to check on him or teachers trying to phone his home. Nobody had bothered yet. Otherwise they’d know the number he’d put on the forms was incorrect.

The last time a teacher had tried to phone – at the last school, that was – he’d just shrugged and given them another number. By the time anybody got around to trying the new number they’d moved again. How many moves did that make? Too many to count.

He slid the key in the lock and prayed the damage was minimal. He didn’t have much time. The door squeaked open. Raised talk show voices blared from the television set. The curtains were drawn, allowing minimal light into the room. The combination living room – kitchen smelled as dank as it looked.

He saw the prone form stretched out on the worn plaid sofa. A multi-coloured crocheted afghan partially covered her swollen form. Her long brown hair was tangled and in need of a wash. It was tied in a loose, ineffective ponytail. Thin strands spread across a high forehead. He wanted to brush them off her face but he didn’t want to wake her yet. He stared down at his mother.

Her face was sallow and plump, not reflecting the years or abuse it had suffered. Her mouth was open, droops of saliva lay in the v of her lips. His shoulders sagged. At least she had made it out of bed today. He knew it was her illness and side effects of her medicine that made her this way. But on a good day, the drugs kept her this side of sane and functional. But there weren’t many good days and fewer all the time.

With his eyes closed, he thought of the picture he kept hidden in a box under his bed – a photo of a petite, laughing woman, her gleaming brown hair styled like the pixie she resembled. No one would recognize her now. He shrugged. Maybe that was a good thing.

Jeremy turned and started cleaning up the pile of magazines and papers that were scattered over the stained carpet. Next he cleaned up the empty plates and crumbs on the Arborite kitchen table. When he was done, he looked around the confined space. He crossed to his mother’s bedroom and closed the door. Doc Mac Kay would be here any minute. His attempt at tidying would have to do.

“Mom.” He shook her shoulder. “You have to get up now. Doc will be here soon.”

Her eyes drifted open. “Hi, Jeremy. School over?”

“Yeah, Mom. It’s after four. You have to get up. Brush your hair, your teeth. Remember, Doc Mackay is coming to see you.”

“Yeah, that’s right.” She smiled up at him. “Just let me sleep for a few more minutes.”
“No, Mom. You have to get up.”

He reached down and slid his arm under her shoulders, gently lifting her. He supported her unsteady steps to the bathroom. He leaned on the closed door until the toilet flushed. She had washed some of the sleep out of her eyes and the drool from her lips. Her hair was still unkempt and she had a water stain on the front of her sweat top. He guided her back to the sofa, hoping the stain would dry soon. He didn’t know if she had anything else clean to wear.

“Can I brush your hair, Mom?”

Her fingertips caressed his cheek. “That would be nice, dear.”

Jeremy drew a wide toothed brush through her brown stands. Not great, but it was an improvement.

He heard a knock at the door and shoved the brush into his backpack before crossing to the door and letting Doctor MacKay into the apartment.

“Hello, son. How is she today?”

“She’s okay.”

Jeremy picked up his backpack and disappeared into his room. He pulled a book our of his backpack and tried to focus on the words until he heard the Doc’s discreet knock on his door. The doctor came into his room and closed the door behind him.

“I’ve let a bottle of pills on the table. I’ll come back and check on her next week.”

“Thanks, Doc.”

“Next time, Jeremy, I won’t let you keep her at home. I’ll admit her and get her help whether she wants it or not. You shouldn’t be dealing with this. When’s your aunt coming home?”

“In a day or so,” Jeremy lied.

It was getting so easy. He opened his mouth and the lies poured out. He didn’t even flinch anymore. And Doc MacKay, he never questioned. Never asked to meet the fictitious aunt.

“Sure you can manage until your aunt gets back?”

“I can. She’s not so bad, really Doc.”

Doc raised his eyebrows and shook his head but didn’t pursue the point.

Jeremy suspected the real reason Doc didn’t admit her was more to do with him being too lazy to fill out the forms and arrange for somebody to see her in the hospital. Jeremy was sure it had nothing to do with a minor being left to fend for himself. Doc wouldn’t want social services checking in and finding out how long he had been aware of the problems and not done anything about it.

Yeah, Doc just wanted to get away with as little work as possible until he could retire. But at least Doc’s relationship with his mother had prevented the old guy from reporting them. Jeremy had insinuated just one time that he knew about it. Doc had blushed like a schoolboy, became all flustered and left in a hurry. At least they didn’t have to worry about paying for any medical treatment. If they needed any medicine, Doc would magically appear with what was needed...

Note: To get to the main page, click the Home button at the bottom of this page, or you can go straight to another story by going to the blog archive at the top of the page on the right and clicking on any story.

Vintage vampire, Sheila Gale

When I drank the blood of my first victim, the night was gentle, like silk against my skin. My crimson taffeta gown rustled as I followed a servant into the private dining room to sup with the handsome Prince Igor. As I neared the table, our eyes met. Desire flamed in his eyes, and I knew that, after we had enjoyed the tender venison and the rich claret, he would do my bidding…

Later, he led me to the castle ramparts, where we gazed at the stars as they twinkled in the inky sky, like fireflies. “I am a creature of the night,” I whispered. Our fingers entwined. “I believe that you, too, like the dark.”

I made the mistake of smiling. When he saw my fangs glitter in the moonlight, he let out the most blood-curdling cry. Even though he struggled to free himself, he couldn’t resist the delightful sensations that coursed through his veins. He saw my eyes no longer a soft green but red and wild. He felt my powerful grip as I pulled him towards me and sank my incisors into his throat.

For many years after that evening, I fantasized about the Russian prince. In my mind’s eye, I saw him swathed in a long black cloak as he roamed the dark alleys of St. Petersburg searching for victims. Then I found out from an old friend of Igor’s that the prince seldom ventured out at night, preferring to drink pig’s blood rather than hunt down a human victim.

I rushed around the house looking for Uncle Vladamir and found him in his blood cellar, relabelling some bottles. I told him about Prince Igor.

“So what is your problem, my dear Luna?”

“What kind of vampire drinks pig’s blood?” I raved. My uncle had been a vampire since medieval times, so he should know.

A smile played on his lips. “Becoming a vampire isn’t everyone’s cup of blood.”
“What do you mean, uncle?.”

“He didn’t choose to become vampire, remember.” He patted my hand. “I’m sure he has other strengths. Perhaps he’s a good coffin maker.”

“A coffin maker?” I couldn’t imagine the sensuous Prince Igor spending his nights hammering nails into coffins. With a heavy heart, I returned to my room. How could I respect a vampire who would rather drink animal blood than search for a human victim?

That was a long time ago. 250 years, to be precise. Today, I am launching my first book, Feast of Blood – Memoirs of the World’s Most Famous Vampires. Being of a practical nature, I’ve included a list of questions asked by aspiring vampires. Here are some sample questions from the book. To simplify things, I’ve avoided the awkward "he/she" reference and refer to all vampires as "she."

How do you know if you are changing into a vampire?

Count Dracula, the great, great, great grandson of the Count Dracula urges you to see a vampire doctor if you develop one of the following symptoms:

1. You find hair growing on the palms of your hands
2. Your index finger has grown as long as your middle finger
3. You develop a lust for blood - be warned - this is a sure sign of vampirism.

How does a vampire occupy her time?

During the day, most vampires sleep in a coffin. You must be sure the coffin is well hidden in a swamp or cave. After sunset, the vampire opens the coffin and climbs out. She searches for sustenance, but not all vampires are fussy. If human flesh can’t be found, an animal will do.

How does a vampire attack?

She hypnotizes her victim, instilling a sense of peace, well being and/or sexual desire, then attacks the jugular vein. If the vampire kills the victim, the victim in turn becomes a vampire.
She doesn’t always kill but may take sufficient blood to cause extreme lethargy, and keep the victim alive. This is known as the "store cupboard" method. It’s a bit like stocking up your freezer or pantry for future meals.

Two Disadvantages of becoming a vampire:

- She can operate only at night
- If traveling, she has to take her coffin with her so she can climb into it before dawn. In Victorian times, when Count Dracula arrived for a vacation in England, he had several specially prepared coffins in various parts of London. He could therefore expand his area of operation without fear of destruction at sunrise. These days, with baggage restrictions on flights, it’s difficult to take anything bulky like a coffin. However, you can pay extra and have it transported by cargo.

How did I acquire enough knowledge to fill 13,000 pages, you may ask? 300 years of vampirism didn’t hurt, and dear Uncle Vladamir with his centuries of experience was a tremendous source of information.

My vampire teaching certificate helped as well. I studied for the certificate so I could teach Vampirism 101. It bothered me that so many new vampires didn’t have a clue about their rich history, and their general vampire knowledge was abysmal. As I studied for the certificate, I learned many interesting facts. Did you know, for example, that some people believe vampire blood improves their sex life? There have been documented cases of vampires being drained of their blood – or V-juice as humans call it. Currently, V-juice sells on the black market for something like $1,000 a pint!

The extensive research needed for such a lengthy book couldn’t have been completed without the help of my partner, Prince Igor. We had met up again at a three-day vampire conference in Moscow and became good friends. When I told him of my plans to write the book, he tracked down and interviewed fellow vampires in various parts of Europe and Africa. He did the Transylvania portion himself. I concentrated on the Americas, including the US and Canada.
Unlike most vampires, Igor doesn’t like spending his nights in dark alleys, but he sure knows how to do research.

The book’s publisher had turned down J.K. Rowlings’ first Harry Potter book. When I submitted my manuscript, they were so pleased that they practically grabbed it out of my hands and offered me a 200-year contract. Not bad for a first book.

As for me and Prince Igor, living in the 21st century means we see a lot of each other, even though we live in two different countries. I don’t have to worry about bringing my coffin with me when I fly to Russia because he keeps spare ones for guests. We stay in a private apartment in his castle. The rest of the castle has been turned into a luxury five-star hotel. He in turn, enjoys his visits to Canada, where we take canoe trips in Algonquin Park after sunset during the summer and night ski Whistler in the winter.

These days, I seldom go searching for human victims. It’s such hard work and, over the centuries, Igor’s lack of enthusiasm for the task has rubbed off on me. Now, in the evenings, we relax by a roaring fire with a goblet of blood.

Speaking of blood, when Igor is in Canada, we like to root around Uncle Vladamir’s blood cellar. We eyeball each bottle, having learned from Uncle Vladamir that the darker the color, the more concentrated and intense the flavour. The one we usually select for special occasions is True Blood, a medieval blend of royal and peasant blood. Full-bodied, it has an earthy texture and an aroma of oxen roasted over an open fire.

This evening, we are celebrating the night that Igor became a vampire. He makes a toast in Russian. Although I don’t understand the language, his sensuous voice arouses me. My body floods with desire as he lifts my hand to his lips and runs his tongue over the fingertips. He takes me in his arms. His lips close over mine, sucking at my mouth, teasing it. With a low moan, I surrender. The goblet falls out of my hand, splattering dregs of blood over the stone floor.

Note: To get to the main page, click the Home button at the bottom of this page, or you can go straight to another story by going to the blog archive at the top of the page on the right and clicking on any story.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Only On Sunday, Donna Kirk

I learned early on to be wary of cloth napkins, except for my mother’s. Mom put our Sunday table linens in the Monday wash, to be dampened and ironed on Tuesday, ready to be laid out in the dining room for the next Sunday. However, this was not the case at my best friend Kathy’s house. Occasionally when we were together playing she’d ask her Mom if I could stay for dinner. This was a dubious pleasure for me. I was an only child and enjoyed the family banter between her brother and sister, but not the table napkins!

It was Kathy’s job to take them out of the buffet drawer and place one at each setting. I was horrified to see that they were stained with the residue of past meals. It spoiled dinner for me every time, watching this boisterous family eating heartily and wiping their mouths. After the meal Kathy put them back in the buffet to wait for the next evening when they would be brought back out again. I visualized residue food festering on those napkins, the inside of the buffet drawer alive with creepy crawlies.

But, almost as horrifying as the way Kathy’s family used the same napkins night after night was the way they always ate at the dining room table. Was nothing sacred? At my house, Sunday dinner was the only meal served in our dining room. My mom always cooked some kind of roast with all the trimmings, ready at precisely 6 o’clock. The table sparkled with the good dishes, silverware and table linens. As we unfolded our crisp white cloth napkins Dad said grace, also an “only on Sunday” happening.

I like to think that the best dishes, silverware and cloth napkin ritual was easier for my mother. She only had me to keep an eye on, with my Dad at the end of the table, dressed in his church attire, silently but watchfully backing her up. The family attitude was more formal too. Mom worked hard to prepare these feasts and all the proper accoutrements paid homage to her efforts.

Dad was a master carver, a skill he was proud of. Presiding over the carnivorous offering, his knife flashed over the sharpening steel many times before he was satisfied. He made an impressive display, testing the acuity of his efforts with the tips of his fingers on the knife blade while gazing thoughtfully at the ceiling.

If we had guests, Dad poured liqueurs for the adults from a carafe that sat on the buffet, which offered six different kinds in brightly coloured sections. I didn’t like crème de menthe but enjoyed all the others, when I snuck into the dining room for a sampling.

After the meal, Dad and I helped clear and tidy the room. No one entered again until the next Sunday. During the week, when he was in the living room reading his paper Dad always entered the kitchen via the front hall, never passing through the dining room, which would have been the shorter and most obvious way to go. I never sat at that table to do my homework. No plans were ever spread out and discussed there. It was a roast beef sanctuary.

After I married, Sundays at my home were less formal than at my parent’s. In four years we had three children, so the best dishes, silverware and table linens stayed put where they lived in the dining room buffet. Placemats had long been de rigueur. Punishable ones. We also used paper napkins by the ton with never a guilty feeling. My dining room sat empty on Sundays, surrounded by our glorious wedding gifts that were used only in wistful dreams.

Not to say that many of my family’s routines weren’t followed. Sunday was the one day of the week when we all ate together. With the activities of our three children and work for my husband and I, this was a day we looked forward to. My mother came each Sunday to spend the day with us. My Dad died before I was married so we were all she had, and she was all the kids had. My husband’s parents passed away early in our marriage.

While Mom was still driving she’d arrive before lunch, bringing a straw basket filled with baking, knitting and goodies for the kids. Mom always had to have a job to do at our house, thriving on “making herself useful”. My laundry room was cleared of any clothes that had been dumped there. Usually three full loads. The washer and dryer hummed all afternoon. Folding, ironing and putting away followed. If there was any time left before the dinner routine started, her knitting came out. The Salvation Army was the recipient of these efforts. Afghans, baby clothes and mittens were her specialty. She also managed to stock pile an array of baby garments for her future great grandchildren, which, sadly, she would never see.

True to tradition, and from lack of imagination, I served the same Sunday meals my mother prepared, learning to cook by watching her and copying everything she did. Mom’s specialty was her wonderful gravy. Any roasted thing in my house was also accompanied by this eighth deadly sin, and plenty of it.

When my mother’s sister and her husband, Nellie and Pat, moved to Toronto after the referendum scare in 1980, they joined us frequently for Sunday dinners. They’d arrive in my uncle’s huge black Lincoln. Uncle Pat always drove black Lincolns. I thought it must have been a status thing in Quebec. Sometimes they brought Margaret, my uncle’s spinster sister, who my kids referred to as “spun,” which I thought was unkind and immature of them, but accurate; she was more than a little dizzy.

The dialogue between my mother and her sister fascinated me. Mom said that Nellie was ‘the family favourite’ when they were growing up. Aunty reiterated that my mother had always been number one. These women were in their eighties. They criticized their two brothers, one of whom Aunty hadn’t spoken to in 30 years. My mother was somewhat sanctimonious about staying out of the family fray, but only because she lived in Toronto and they were in Montreal.

One thing Mom and Aunty both agreed upon, and let us know in the not so subtle terms of the ageing, was our lack of religious responsibility towards the children. This was a favourite Sunday topic. She and Nellie discussed the relative merits of that day’s sermon for our benefit. Uncle Pat sat silently. He was a lapsed Catholic. My aunt confided to me that he’d lost interest in the church years ago when a priest came to stay each summer at a lodge they managed. And, each summer, a different woman had accompanied him.

I acquired religious apathy from my Dad. Every Sunday, wedged between my parents, in a pew precipitously close to the lectern and buffeted by the opposing forces of my parents, I made my decision. The red faced minister, billowing arms flapping in front of me, was of no consequence. It was my parents, my role models, who guided the choice I made. I took the path of least resistance.

Dad always sat at the end of the pew, close to the aisle, falling comfortably and audibly asleep as soon as the sermon started. Mother’s rapt attention was fractured by her futile attempts to awaken him, which took a lot of effort judging by her expression, snapping fingers and hissing whispers. Of the two protagonists, Dad’s Sunday role was by far the most appealing. On the walk home after a long hypnotic service, admonishments from Mom bounced from him like bullets off Superman. He’d take her hand and smile, looking forward to the afternoon, napping and reading, while she prepared the feast.

After our third child was born we gave in to pressure and made one grand gesture, the baptism of all three kids on the same Sunday. We managed to persuade three sets of friends to stand in as godparents, an Anglican imperative. I’m sure my mother was shattered when she realized that this peace offering was not the start of a Sunday church routine. Some months after the baptism we heard that the minister ran off with one of the parishioners, leaving his wife and seven children. I loved reminding mother of this. She worried that his transgression made the baptism null and void.

Mom’s trips to our house in her own car came to a sudden end. One Sunday morning my husband Ed and I received a call from a police officer. My mother had had a mishap with her car. When we arrived at the scene we spotted mother’s car, parked on the rear bumper of someone else’s vehicle. Police officers were writing on note pads and surveying the situation. I was relieved that no one was hurt, particularly my 86 year old mother. The posture of the other driver and the officers told me that something was up besides the fender bender.

As I approached my mother, she said: “I don’t know where he came from.”

“He was right in front of you Mom, you rear ended him.” I looked towards the officers.

One distracted my mother while the other took me aside and whispered, “Your mother should not be driving.”

“You’re the authority,” I said. “You tell her.”

Within a week Mom had her car fixed and sold. From then on, each Sunday, Nellie and Pat became her chauffeur. At the end our day together, my family and I would stand in the doorway, watching these three dear old people walk towards their chariot. The drive home would be slow and steady along the city streets, no highway driving for them after dark.

One by one they exited our Sunday scene. In 1989 Uncle passed away in my Aunt’s arms, nice and quick, no complications. Nellie, after 55 years of bantering with him, was inconsolable. She died six years later, suffering the stroke she dreaded. My mother’s death was the saddest and most prolonged. At 93, after enduring the symptoms of a motor neuron disease for four years, she died in 2001, the last of our Sunday cheering section.

I can still see that Lincoln, creeping up the driveway, the passengers gathering their packages as it comes to a stop. My mother and my aunt walking slowly toward the house, carrying baskets and bags full of goodies. Uncle, trailing behind, a fedora on his head no matter what the season, waving and calling to us, his favourite hosts.

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