Flight and Flight (short story excerpt)

*

Despite almost fourteen hours in bed, Michael is exhausted and almost impossible to wake. We take turns banging on his bedroom door, reminding him of his mom’s court date. He’s told us he wants to be there when she’s sentenced. Even if she’s released, it’s unlikely that he’ll get to return with her to Black Diamond. His social worker tells him she thinks it’s a bad idea, but it’s all he talks about.

Sandra opens his bedroom door while I stand in the hall. A pungent concoction of body odour and Axe spray deodorant wafts out. She doesn’t flinch, marches in and opens the sliding windows to the winter air. He rolls in his bed, fully-clothed under an out-dated poster of 50 cent.

Shut the fucking window.

Get up.

Shut the fucking window, Sandy.

Get out of bed and I’ll close the window.

He throws off the cheap bedding and stands in front of her, his pecker semi-hard in his Buzz Lightyear boxers. She looks up at him, right in his eyes, for a moment, long enough for him to see she’s not afraid. Then she begins picking his filthy clothes off the burn-stained carpet. He plops down on his single bed, the sheets rolled into a cocoon, the mattress wrapped in thin plastic. He rubs his small black eyes, foetal alcohol syndrome written deeply into his face.

Just leave it.

She stops with an armful and dumps them into a plastic hamper, the only other furniture in the room besides a scarred wooden schoolroom closet and a plastic chair. He pulls on a FUBU sweater and finds a pair of crusty, browned socks on the floor. His black school bag is packed and ready with essentials at the foot of the bed, in case he has to leave quick.

It’s almost noon and our day in the group home has begun.

Michael stands in the doorway to the office, one of the upstairs corner bedrooms converted. The the bottom half of the solid steel dutch door is closed and latched, the top half swung open into the room. He knows he’s not allowed in unless we invite him, so he waits, draped over the half-door, staring.

Take me to Tim’s?

Sandra stops writing in her file and looks over. I offer to make him breakfast, oatmeal, toast, cereal, his choice, but he continues to stare at her.

Come in here.

She flips the latch and he stumbles in, sitting on the chair beside the desk. I lean against the wall while she looks at him.

We need to have a talk about P’s and Q’s.

He watches a point in the near distance, his large, misshaped head hanging from his arched neck. He knows what’s coming and tunes out.

I take you guys to Tim’s like twice a week. The least you could do is say please.

Michael’s head dips lower with each sentence. His spine protrudes from his long neck, holding his head at what seems an impossible angle.

Being polite builds positive relationships with people and will make your life easier.

He sits motionless, his body a physical question mark in the chair.

Will you take me?

She sighs and I offer to make him breakfast again. He declines and asks for some transit tickets. She gives him two and marks the exchange in a book. He grabs his jacket from his closet and walks to the front door. She yells after him to take his toque, but the door closes and he’s gone.

Jesus christ.

She leans back in the office chair and forces out a laugh. Sandra is the mother, whether she wants to be or not. She is round and soft with spray-curled red hair and glasses. It isn’t just a job to her and the boys know it. In her wallet, she has a picture of her dog that she is convinced will never be replaced by pictures of her own children.

*

Småland: Vignettes of single-motherhood (short story excerpt)

My aunt would come over to babysit, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, arriving as I finished brushing my teeth for bed, as my mother packed a bag with night-school accounting textbooks. Sometimes she’d pack me an overnight bag as well and drop me off at my father’s.

He rented a top-floor flat in a huge Victorian house, shared with a woman and her daughter. On alternating Fridays, he would pick me up from my after-school babysitter with his bicycle, steering with one calloused hand on the saddle as we walked together. Noise from the other flats filled the house. Its dirt-floor basement, always unlocked, harboured his swish barrel. Vinegar filled my nose as we tipped the rum cask onto its side and rolled it around to leach the alcohol from the grain of the wood. The Saturday afternoon open swim, movies I wasn’t normally allowed to see, Sunday batting practice in the park, I would use these weekends to test the waters with swear-words I’d learned in the playground, words my mother would punish me for even knowing. “You can say shit, but not fuck,” he said one night when I casually slipped it in there, hands in my pockets, shoulders hunched, imitating his cool stride as we jay-walked through traffic.

During the week, I lived in front of the television, cartoons endlessly fired onto my brain frame by crudely-drawn frame. When the programming changed to news or talk shows, I would leave the TV on so I could hear it in the background while I poked my hamster through the bars in its cage or built Lego until my fingers were sore. My mother’s textbooks covered the kitchen counter while Kraft Dinner brewed on the stove or hot dogs and French fries sizzled in the oven, or while the microwave zapped a leftover mix of the two.

On Honey-nut Cheerios mornings, she would slip quickly from room to room in her pyjamas and full make-up, waiting until the last minute to put on her freshly-ironed office outfit, only a cup of tea for breakfast. I pushed the soggy O’s around my bowl as she marched, forward, keeping our little lives together.

*

It was just before Christmas and she bundled me in my red and blue one-piece snowsuit.

“Christopher. Work with me here, please,” she said, turning me towards her roughly as she did up the zipper.

She was late for work and it was my fault. We were rushing, we were always rushing. I bent down to get my backpack, she chipped her nail in the zipper.

“Would you stand still for one minute, please! Don’t forget, Santa is watching.”

Red-cheeked and overheated, I looked at my mother. “Santa isn’t real.”

She stopped, looked me in the eye. “Where did you hear that?”

“Nowhere.”

“Why do you think Santa doesn’t exist?”

“Because I know it.”

“How?”

“I just do. It’s impossible.”

Tears welled in her eyes. She zipped me slowly to the chin and I bent over stiffly to put on by backpack.