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Flash Fiction: Pillow Poppy Opiate

Since I loved the challenge of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, I entered the NYC Flash Fiction Challenge. This involves writing a 1,000 word story in 48 hours based on the prompts provided. I was assigned Science Fiction (oh boy! in a 1,000 words... really?), a pillow (my object) and a poppy field (the place).

I started by trying to imagine my world. The week before I had read that the 1 percent were buying up bunkers in Kansas for when a lot of the land mass in the North America was flooded or burnt to the ground from forest fires as a result of global warming. I imagined enclaves of the rich who were highly dependent on scientists and engineers for providing them with all the amenities and opulence they were accustomed to. But they would also need servants and labourers, or an underclass, to do the farming, processing and building. How would the 1 percent keep them in line when they weren't accountable to anyone? What would happen to people left on the outside of the enclaves without any available food supply--the marauders? What would happen if a natural disaster befell your enclave, like it started to sink under the weight? What kind of technology would we have 50 years from now?

Anyway, I attempted to answer these questions in Pillow, Poppy, Opiate. Here it is:

Ava materializes in a wooded area next to a highway covered in detritus. She applies more dust to her hair, face and ragged clothes to make her look desperate. She feels the vibration of a wind farm. Estimate: 500 turbines.

Ava’s blond hair covers her pillow, a clear plastic component covering the back of her skull, her energy source that helps her scan, disable and strike. She touches her ear to check her energy capacity–92% is displayed in her mind’s eye. Teleportation used 8%.

She leans the back of her head against a tree for a few minutes of sleep to get a full charge. When she awakens, her implant displays 100% in her mind’s eye, followed by her recon and rescue task list: scan security camera positions. An exact match to the positions recorded by the previous two agents, Ester and Caron. They entered Enclave M never to return, both gifted engineers and Ava’s mentors. The record is sent to the vessel and then to Enclave B, a sinking city, home to Ava and her parents, both scientists. Next on her checklist: identify security robot make and model. At a glance, Ava notes four on the rampart, at least a year old.

Twigs snap under foot as she walks towards the fortification. Her nostril quivers, a pungent odour, foul yet familiar. A red light flickers in the corner of her eye. Danger. She swings around and faces three filthy marauders, snarling and salivating. She reaches out and grabs two of them by their biceps, shooting jolts of electricity from her fingertips into their arms. She then pulls them towards her smashing their heads together. They fall to the ground screaming in pain. Ava looks the third man in the eye sending an electrical jolt leaving him in blind pain, long enough to get away. Drones converge chopping overhead. She scans their make and model. New technology, precursor unknown reads the display. Ava runs to the stone wall and touches her ear: 79%, plenty of juice. She slides along to the wall so she can look both ways. The hillside, scrubland, is devoid of greenery. “Like home,” Ava mumbles.

There’s interference in her implant. It crackles hurting her ears. Is she being hacked? She feels sandstone grit against her palms searching for the reported entrance. A vintage film starts to stream in her mind’s eye, a young woman, Dorothy, walking through a field of red poppies. “I’m so sleepy,” the character says before falling to her knees. “I can’t run anymore. Where’s Toto?” she says before falling asleep in the poppies. The film plays in a loop, superimposed over her vision, a scratchy copy with spots, overriding her implant programs. A cloying spicy scent overcomes Ava’s olfactory receptors. She wretches.

Ava blinks hard several times to disable the interference, but fails. She switches from the task list to her personal files: classical music, Enclave B news, anything requiring less energy–68%, 62% and 56% flash on her implant display. Something is sapping her energy.

The red of the poppies flickers in the corner of her eye. Danger. Footsteps pound down the path. The marauders are back. Ava’s at 52%, but the scent of the poppies has irritated her. She’s ready to fight these bastards. She focuses on her attackers through Dorothy falling to her knees in the poppy field.

Ava disables the optic nerves of the first man around the corner through eye-to-eye contact. On her screen, through the image of Dorothy falling asleep, 40% flashes, then 32%, 28%. With an upward flick of her hand to the back of her head, she disengages her pillow from its portal in her brain stem. Only her natural five senses will process incoming stimuli.

Two angry men are running at her. Ava screeches at such a high frequency that both men clamp their hands over their ears and stagger backwards. Ava runs at them, kicks one in the head, crotch and chest. He goes down, but the second man has recovered. She lands a flat-handed cut to his throat. But not before he gets off one punch knocking her head into the sandstone wall, and reconnecting the pillow to her brain stem. The aroma of spice, images of red poppies, the garbled sound of “Where’s Toto?” flood her brain.

Ava’s fingertips find two long grooves on either side of her, once an entrance in the wall. She fires high-voltage electrical impulses through them to break the door’s seal and open it. She pushes in the rock and slips through, 6% flashes. Ava disengages her pillow and runs for cover in an alcove.

Alarms sound in Enclave M to signal a breech. Security seizes the marauder trying to find Ava. She is concussed, but knows not to rest. Droves of emaciated people with small open sores on their arms mill around. After observing awhile, Ava approaches an older woman.

“Hey,” says Ava. “I’m lost.”

The woman stares at her. “You’re new, too.”

Ava nods. “I’m looking for work in service.”

“Wrong part,” says the woman. “Have you got enough for the pain?” she asks pointing at her cheek.

Ava shakes her head. The woman passes her a pill.

“In service,” the woman says, starting to walk away, “that opiate is a mandatory supplement.”

“What do you do in this sector?” asks Ava following her.

“On paper, we’re all opiate addicts in a rehabilitation program. But we pay for it through work, by processing poppies,” says the woman with a shrug.

“Effective,” says Ava.

“Yep. That is the rehabilitation part,” says the woman pointing at a large screen in a hall filled with hundreds of people working in lines.

The Wizard of Oz is playing.

“Take the corridor furthest to your right, past the poppy farm, and you’ll find service.”

Ava nods and walks on. Enclave M drugs its underclass. “Oh what a reactionary place this must be,” Ava mumbles.

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A Summer Read: The Memento

It's summer time again, and we're all looking for something satisfying to read. I have just the book for you: The Memento by Christy Ann Conlin.

The Memento was a great accompaniment to my trip to beautiful Nova Scotia last summer.  As some of you know, I'm a big fan of Conlin's work, and if you enjoy this then I suggest you read her first novel Heave, one of my all-time favourites, especially if you love the recklessness of youth (with an explanation, of course).

Christy Ann was kind enough to answer three of my questions about The Memento. Here's part of our conversation (my question is in bold):

HL: The Memento is your second adult novel since your bestseller Heave (for my review, scroll to the bottom of this page). Although both are set in rural Nova Scotia on the Bay of Fundy, they are very different novels. Heave moves pretty fast, while Memento is more of a slow burn, an old-time novel with plenty of twists and turns, some elements of a ghost story and a suspense novel, but I wouldn’t put it in either category.

At the centre is Fancy Mosher. The reader meets Fancy on her birthday at school, just before summer vacation. The 12-year-old is going to work in service with her friend Art at Petal’s End, a large estate owned by the wealthy Parkers. As a reader, Fancy had all my sympathies. Marilyn arrives unexpectedly at the school in a lamentable state:

“… the rusty door flies open and out she lunges. She’s done up for the weather in a tight summer dress with a black bra hanging out, and she comes strutting over in her high heels with long hair piled fantastically high, dark Mosher eyes all lined, big long lashes, red lips, a line of sunset cutting through her cheeks. Fifty-seven years old. Seeing her from a distance, it does seem that time screeched to a stop for her.”

We caught an earlier glimpse of the Moshers in Heave. I remember a conversation with you a few years ago on social media about your next book, and you said it would centre on Fancy Mosher and the island. That wild island with its crashing waves and ragged cliffs certainly figures prominently in this story. I wanted to know about the genesis of this book. How did it all come together?

Christy Ann Conlin: Ah, yes, the island.  I grew up in a region (and a family) steeped in storytelling, where there are stories for the unexplainable, stories associated with houses, places, events, and even objects. My family has always had a fascination for historic buildings and antiques, and the stories they contain.  And we grew up looking out over the legendary Bay of Fundy at a mysterious island which would loom out of the fog, and appear to move on hot summer days, when the bay was as still and shiny as a mirror, and it was impossible to see where the sky began and water ended. There is no doubt that my creative landscape has been shaped by all of this.

And yes, The Memento is a book which defies categorization, ha ha. It reads like a historical novel and yet it is not. It is both coming of age story, and a life reckoning story. And it has elements of magic realism.  There were a number of factors which drove the creation of the book. First, it was totally character driven, by Fancy Mosher, who appeared in Heave as a minor character. She fascinated me, the youngest of twelve children, growing up in a poor family immersed in an old world traditional culture which persisted in modern times. There is a scene in Heave where Fancy tells a ghost story that takes place out in the bay on a mysterious island. It was that moment, when I was writing the scene, where I realized Fancy Mosher had a secret. Despite her poverty and tumultuous childhood, she had such humour and insight, and an uncanny ability to see the truth.

The other driving element behind the genesis of the book was working stylistically to create a world, structure and story which embraced the stages of life and memory. And with regards to memory, the actual development and life of memory: how we create memory when we are young, and how memory changes form, and takes on intensity as we age. And of course, the distortion created in memory with the passage of time, and with the onset of dementia. It’s very much a story of personal and community history, shared memory colliding with personal memory. And herein arises the element of haunting, when unresolved moments and incidents from the past refuse to fade away, and begin to follow us, trailing behind and demanding acknowledgement and resolution, the past shaping the present, the beginning reaching forward and wrapping its hands around the end…

HL: The Moshers' and the Parkers' lives are intertwined, the extent of which is unknown until the very end. Fancy is at the bottom of the pecking order while she works in service at Petal’s End. She is the recipient of some stinging comments and hurtful actions by both other staff and some of the Parkers. In many ways, she cannot escape the actions of her mother, Marilyn. Yet, Fancy assumes her rung on the social ladder, possibly because she has no choice.

I found your portrayal of class differences in The Memento both subtle and very realistic. I was wondering where you found your source(s) of inspiration for these class differences?

Christy Ann: Both class and gender restrictions/expectations are an invincible power in limiting, restricting, and shaping a female life. Even when you want to flee the abuse, take shelter and find something new, you often find yourself in a labyrinth which just leads you back to where you began.
My early introduction to clearly delineated class society and was from reading novels, from English authors such as Jane Austen, the Brontes and EM Forster to the society novels of Edith Wharton and the short fiction of Katherine Mansfield. And later watching DVDs of Upstairs Downstairs.
And of course my mother took me to visit the grand old Nova Scotia estate museums of Mount Uniacke and Prescott House and Haliburton House. In those museums, we could see where the servants lived, and just how much work was involved to keep the homes running. And of course, back then, without transportation, servants were essentially trapped on the estates.

Fancy is born into a working poor reality, with absolute expectations of how her life will unfold. Her family’s past is considered her past. She inherits a low social standing and she also inherits a macabre family ability. 

Although she lives in modern times, she’s still bound by living rurally and poverty. The Memento looks at what we are born into and our response to this. It takes a very strong person to question and ultimately overcome a prescribed role.

And it’s not just class, but gender. Fancy has very few opportunities not just because she’s poor, but because she’s a poor female. Poor women have historically had to work, and often in the same jobs that their mothers have worked in. Fancy is encircled by her socioeconomic status, her gender, and her family history. Those who love and care for her have such limited resources that they really can’t provide her with any sort of experiences or opportunities which would allow Fancy to leave. In some ways, this is a dark twist on Mansfield Park. And Fancy, like Fanny, doesn’t want what is on offer to her. Fancy’s life is pre-ordained in many ways, because of her gift, the family memento as they call it. She manages to subvert this preordination.

Jenny Parker, the youngest daughter of the aristocratic Parker family, is also bound by severe class and gender expectations. She is disabled, has no charisma, and is deformed and unattractive. She’s a throw away person in society. And yet Jenny also subverts the rules and expectations placed on her in a most unexpected way. Pomeline, Jenny’s older, beautiful and privileged sister, is not so lucky. The expectations on her are her undoing. 

I grew up in a very rural and economically depressed area. It was also very racist and sexist, very traditional, and segregated. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s in North America was, obviously, very different from living on an English country estate either as a lady or a ladysmaid, or a scullerymaid, as I no doubt would have been, ha ha.

But there is an invisible class system at play here, one I only fully began to comprehend when I was in high school. It was the opportunities which were available to teens of means, and the lack of opportunities to those without, which really create such divide. Also, the opportunities for a girl were so much more limited. There was a lot of pressure to do a “pink collar” job – to be a nurse or a teacher or be a secretary, to work with children.

We didn’t have a lot and there were hard times as a result. And living rurally means you need parents who can drive you all over creation for enrichment and extracurricular activities, things such as sports, and the arts and dance programs. And when you don’t have a lot, you get a part-time job, if you actually have a way of getting to the job. This is always an issue when you live rurally. It’s too far to bike or walk. I remember being so envious of friends who lived in towns, or who got cars when they were sixteen. When you’re little, you play in the woods and on the beach, and the entire world exists there. It’s when you get a bit older that you crave more of a sense of community, the society of like-minded peers.

I also did have a few domestic jobs working for some very wealthy people, both in Canada and in Europe, looking after children, pets, and working as a cleaning lady. It was peeking into an entirely different reality. It was amazing how much drama unfolded in front of “the help.” And how much my employers would confide in me, in private. Even with that much privilege and with so many resources, there was a lot of loneliness, and pressure to conform and carry out the duties and expectations which came with a particularly high station in life.

HL: Your next project, I gather, will be quite different. Rather than the classic slow-burn type of read, this next book will have more suspense. What can you tell us about your upcoming project?

Christy Ann: The book I’m working on now is very distilled. It’s the recollection of that one summer in Nova Scotia, of a friendship between two thirteen year old girls, the relationship between fathers and daughters, of the secrets kept hidden within families, and of the explosive collision course between the world of adults and the world of children — and what happens particularly when children step into the dark world of adults, a world that no child should witness, much less experience. It’s a literary mystery!

HL: Can't wait. Could you maybe send me the galley?...


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An Adventure in Frustration

Go on! Step On Me!
In my writing class, we were recently instructed to write for 20 minutes about an emotion to see what we came up with. We were told that we would inevitably come up with a story beginning, middle and end. My husband found my foray into frustration amusing, and for anyone, who has forgotten their wallet after ordering food, you will understand my predicament. Please bear in mind that this experience was also replete with embarrassment, but that was not the subject.

Frustration happens so fast, rising to the surface when your expectations don’t pan out. Depending on the day, that surge of irritation can easily be exacerbated by a little noise, a misplaced word or a thoughtless gesture that any other time might go unnoticed. Anyone who does not give full reign to their frustration, particularly in public, should be commended with a pat on the back, an Atta girl or You showed’em.

I would have appreciated any one of those gestures just a day earlier.

I’d decided to have sushi for lunch, eat in Jarry Park and saunter home 45 minutes later to return to work. I picked up my phone, grabbed my purse, checked for my bank card and keys, and headed out the door. After ordering my sushi, which was made in front of me, I reached for my bank card, but couldn’t find it. I offered a credit card, but no. "Just cash or debit," said the man at the counter in his crisp white apron and hideous hairnet, not the owner who knew me, but his unsmiling cousin.

I rifled through my purse. No money of course. And then decided to go home and look for my card. "Could you hold that for me," I said. "I just have to run home and grab my bank card." Slightly miffed, I pushed the door to leave and was immediately struck by glaring sunlight. I walked home slightly embarrassed, but reminded myself that at least I was getting some fresh air. At home, I searched for the bank card only to find it in my back pocket with my phone. I scratched my head. I had no recollection of putting it there. Then I went to wash my hands. I’d been out the previous evening and had heard numerous stories of bouts of flu, vomiting, and its related aches and pains.

I stepped out the door again heading back, thinking of fresh sushi with a squeeze of lime and a cold glass of mineral water. As the man at the counter handed me my lunch I reached into my purse, but yet again my bank card was not there. To make matters worse, the man at the counter sucked on the toothpick between his teeth as he waited, not once but three times. Each tslll ratcheted my annoyance up to full blown frustration. "Fuck," I said looking through my purse for the second time. Then I heard a snigger from the kitchen worker. As a regular customer, the owner would have said, "Drop by later and pay me" but the cousin with his Ruth Buzzi hairnet was not feeling particularly generous. He just sucked again, tslll. My irritation gathered momentum forcing its way up to my shoulders and immobilizing my jaw. My sushi lunch was not to be.

"I guess I won’t be having it today after all," I offered forcing a smile before running out the door.

I walked home with my face in a knot, but relieved that I didn’t have to hear El Sucko one more fucking time. My bank card was on the counter in the bathroom. I made a salad and told myself that the Interact terminal at the sushi shop was probably crawling with influenza germs multiplying by the second, and fortunately, I hadn’t come into contact with it, saving me and my family from a weekend of misery.

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Horror story: "A Drug Run"

Well, I made it into the second round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, and this time I was assigned horror as my genre. I also had to incorporate an assembly line worker and a live performance into the story. I had three days to write 2,000 words. I submitted yesterday a few hours before the midnight deadline.

This story is pure fiction inspired by Google maps and the images I found online. I extend my apologies to all vegans out there.

Caleb is on a weed run across the unmanned Canada-US border behind his co-worker Craig. Caleb hopes to net himself $25,000 from the proceeds, but the border patrol is not the only thing they have to worry about.

A Drug Run

“It’s feeling a little light, not exactly 25 keys,” says Caleb lifting his backpack with his thumbs a few times. “I risked my ass back there coming across the border on foot, and I want my money’s worth,” he says staring down at the greying 40-year-old dealer wearing a black leather vest and faded dusty jeans. Caleb is a head taller and thirty pounds heavier. “Look,” says the dealer, “Your friend came through yesterday, and I told him the same thing. The weed’s been treated to give it a little kick, and that costs more,” he says holding his ground. “If you want we can smoke some and you can see for yourself.”

“Fuck,” says Caleb with his hands on his hips looking around at the grey wood rot on three abandoned grain elevators that shield them from the road. “No, man,” he says waving his hand. “I’m already paranoid as shit, and I need to stay on an even keel until I’m back in Montana. Where the hell are we, anyway?”

Whiskey Gap, Alta
“We’re in Whiskey Gap, Alberta, but no one has lived here for years,” says the dealer. “The land, the grain elevators and that ramshackle cottage over there,” he says pointing “all belong to me.” Caleb stamps his feet in the dirt to stave off the jitters. “Listen, I’ve got to go. The sun’s about to set and I’ll need to cross the swath when night falls.”

“A swath?” says the guy squinting.

“Yeah, a swath where all the trees have been clear cut that runs the length of the border; it's about 100 feet wide, ” says Caleb.

“Your friend mentioned something about a swath too. Now I know why he was so worried about border patrol drones,” says the dealer, knocking some dust off his jeans.

“Yeah, among other things,” says Caleb.

The dealer gives him a lift in his truck back along a dirt road to the drop-off point. With trembling hands, Caleb jumps out of the cab without saying good-bye and runs across the meadow with $25,000 worth of “treated” BC bud on his back. “There’s no way this pack weighs 55 pounds,” Caleb mutters to himself. And he should know. He and Craig, the other half of the weed run, haul animal carcasses every day at the meat packing plant in Great Falls. “Fucker,” says Caleb coming into the shade of the trees, which is instantly calming.

The smell of pine is soothing to his rapid-fire heartbeat. He pulls out his camouflage rain poncho and pulls it on over his pack. He takes a long drink of water, his mouth dry from nerves. As the sun sets, he walks about a 100 feet before he sees Craig’s first piece of fluorescent orange string tied around a branch. Caleb unties it and puts it in his pocket. There should be five more strings before he reaches the swath.

The swath courtesy of CBC
Just a month before on the 4th of July weekend, Craig had broached the possibility of a weed run with Caleb while giving him a lift home from work. “All I’m saying,” Craig had said looking over to the passenger side “is if you did this with me, you’d make enough money to buy a car and wouldn’t have to bum rides all the time. Hell, you could even take your sanitation courses and move up the line from grinding beef to preparing boneless cuts with me.”

“Selling weed is just so high school. I’m over that,” Caleb had answered. But his friend, ten years his senior, was convincing. “I did a run a few years back to pay off some gambling debts. What a rush! I’m telling you that’s what freedom feels like. C’mon!” Craig had said slapping him on the shoulder “Besides, what 25-year-old worth his salt doesn’t own his own car?”

Caleb had felt a surge of adrenalin, a rush of excitement when they planned the weed run around a full moon to ensure plenty of moonlight to make their way back through the forest.

Branches snap underfoot, and the silence is broken intermittently by the hoot of an owl or the howl of a wolf. Caleb stops from time to time just to listen, but hears nothing other than the odd branch break. He breathes in the fresh air and revels in the scent of earth, pine and decay. He closes his eyes to remember the moment and to steel himself for crossing the swath, which is just ahead. He pockets the last florescent string and concentrates on the sounds around him: no drones, just the ring of silence.

He pulls his poncho hood over his head, inhales deeply and makes a run for it out into the swath as his heart pounds in his chest and the blood thumps in his ears. He turns his head to the right to see the swath stretch for miles until it ends on the crest of a hill. When he reaches the other side, he keeps running until he is gasping for air, his heart in his throat.

Caleb stops, slumps at the foot of a large tree and wipes the sweat from his brow with his sleeve. He removes his poncho and takes a long drink of water. He lies down on the ground and looks up at the trees and the stars above the moonlit forest. As his pulse returns to normal, he pulls out a few bowls of weed from his pack and his pipe from the side pocket. “Let’s see what this little kick is,” he mutters. He smokes three bowls, one after another. Feeling instant relief, he begins to relax and ponders his next 12 miles on foot to the rented cabin in Babb.

Suddenly, the area is invaded by a high-pitched whining sound like a bone saw. It quickly grows louder like it’s coming closer. Caleb’s on his feet looking around, then above. “Fuck! Drones,” he says. He pulls off his poncho strapped to his pack and puts it on. He sits on the ground with his hood pulled over his head and spreads the poncho over his legs and pack. He covers his ears from inside his poncho. So intense is the noise that it hurts his ears, his brain, even the backs of his eyes. He sits huddled on the ground for what seems like a long time until the noise finally subsides. He rocks his body back and forth for a few minutes. Caleb looks at the backs of his hands. The ropey veins are quivering like the small intestine of a freshly slaughtered calf. He pulls the backs of his hands closer to his face. The veins twitch to the same beat. “I’m hallucinating. Fuck, I am way too high,” he says.

Caleb stands up. “Concentrate man, concentrate. You just have to follow the orange strings,” he says to calm himself, but his voice sounds eerie like it belongs to someone else. Then Thwack! Caleb spins around but sees nothing. Cold clammy fear creeps over him. His teeth chatter as he thinks of someone killing him for his weed, a thought that had preoccupied him on his trek into Canada that morning. He begins to run, on the look-out for anything fluorescent orange. He finds one, two, three strings and he keeps running with the strings balled up in his sweaty palm. He stops to catch his breath, but he’s still too high and the trees begin to melt until he sees red dots that expand and leak outwards to nothing.

Caleb wakes up on the forest floor and begins to crawl. “Just go in same the direction,” he mutters to himself. But he cannot find another orange string, his lifeline. Caleb stops dead. There’s a familiar smell that transports him back to his first visit to his workplace slaughterhouse five years earlier. He's trimming huge deposits of yellow glutinous fat off his first slaughtered heifer when the fat in his hand turns into a large white snake that coils around his body and squeezes until Caleb can’t breathe. He opens his eyes gasping for air and wills the thought away, but the stench remains. Ahead lies a large dark creature on the ground.

But it is not wild animal as Caleb discovers. No, it is a partially clothed male corpse with its legs hacked off, awash in its own blood. The stench he smells is that of decomposition. The large intestine has been partially pulled out of the body and chewed. The spleen and stomach lie next to it covered in maggots and pine needles. Caleb sticks his hand under the ribcage and palpates the chest. The heart is hard meaning that the person has been dead for at least a day. He pulls back the torn shirt that covers the victim’s face, and there lies Craig. His eyes wide with fright have been pecked out by birds. The back of his head has been blown off. Caleb screams and staggers away to vomit green bile. Each time his stomach contracts he sees stars, but he keeps moving, knowing that he could be the next victim.

As he walks he pushes all visions he just witnessed aside and focuses on finding his way back. He walks slower now listening for any kind of sound. Then he hears music, a guitar and someone warbling “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” a song his grandfather used to sing. But then it stops.

He walks a little further as quietly as he can when he hears a gun being cocked behind him. He turns to see an emaciated man with only one eye and a shotgun in his hand. His long grey hair is matted and he’s wearing a nightshirt that billows in the wind, but no pants. He gives Caleb a toothless smile and says, “You weren’t gonna walk on by without stoppin’ in now, were ya?”

With his gun trained on Caleb, the old man says, “Now march.” As they approach the old man’s cabin, the fire has a halo of purple and gold with flying blue sparks. There’s a spit with chunks of meat on it, but the odour is foreign to Caleb, possibly wild game. Caleb sits on an old wooden bench, while the old man in his yellowed nightshirt sits his boney ass on a split vinyl kitchen chair.

“I don’t have many dinner guests,” he says, “and before we eat, I’d like to sing you a song, my own creation." The old man strums his guitar, his one eye trained on Caleb and sings:

I danced with Little Mary on a bear skin rug until her ole man come ‘n gave me a tug, I resisted his move then he turned on me, stuck me with a knife in front of Lil Mareee. I was six feet under for my need for love but wish I’d hit the bastard in the head with a club. Wish I’d hit that bastard in the head with a club.

The old man looks at Caleb with a sparkle in his eye.

“Now,” says the old man jumping up. “How about I get us something to eat.” He moves to the spit, takes a long knife and barbecue fork and cuts off a few pieces of meat.

Caleb sees blue fat drip into the fire and turn green. Then he notices behind the split vinyl kitchen chair, there’s a backpack leaning against the cabin, Craig’s backpack.

Caleb falls down on all fours, coughs and dry heaves. When he’s down, he spies a hoe leaning against the cabin within his reach. He grabs it, rears up on his knees and swings with all his might, knocking the shotgun already in the old geezer’s hands before it goes off. Caleb swings back and catches the old man in the side of the head knocking him out cold on the ground.

Caleb grabs his pack and the old guy’s shotgun and runs on pure adrenaline until the trees stop melting and the red spots disappear.

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Inner Wall

This is my entry in the first round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. I was provided with the theme, falling out of love; a character who had to play an important role, a construction worker; and drama was the assigned genre. The task was to write a 2,500-word story with all these elements in eight days.

Since falling out of love with a person was so overdone and sad, I decided on falling out of love with an object, a painting. I wrote this story the same week I fell in love with the painting below by Martine Fourcand. And one of questions I asked myself before I bought it was "Will I always love it?" I came to the conclusion that we don't fall out of love with objects, our circumstances and priorities change.

Inner Wall

Painting in acrylic by Martine Fourcand
From the street, a large section of the floor to ceiling painting hanging in Kara’s showroom was visible. Kara saw the painting, “Inner Wall,” as the embodiment of her success. The 38-year-old had been able to purchase it from sales commissions from painters and galleries after a mere 12 years in the business. The former owner had referred to it as “a stunner of red, gold and sienna.” It was both symmetrical and asymmetrical, an abstract painting by an artist who was a rising star. It was now worth a small fortune, and although she had countless offers to buy it, she refused to sell.

When she was in her showroom standing alongside it, Kara thought that it complemented her and gave her visitors a good idea of her taste and standing in artistic circles. The changing light of the day revealed a different cache of beauty depending on her visitors’ perspective as they wandered around her private showroom. “I don’t think that I’ll ever tire of it,” she had said more than once. But lately her own difficult moments, her mood swings or fury from stress and overwork left her feeling that the painting was too perfect, mere pigment on canvas that was inconsistent with the increasing darkness in her life. Her attraction to the painting had once been so strong that after looking at it for a long period of time she felt elated, even giddy. In her mind, a true connection to a work of art felt like being drawn into something and being unable to pull away, a concept she relied on in her sales pitch to prospective buyers.

It was a canvas she had fallen hard for before the cracks in her life had emerged. In addition to her moodiness, she had developed a drinking problem from all the first showings she had attended. She came to rely on a few glasses of white to take the edge off a dark spell, while other times it only made her feel worse. She could acknowledge that she had become a tippler, but only to herself.

She chose to hide her many outbursts by working alone. She made her own appointments, ordered her own catalogues, and wrote all the cheques, all the things that an assistant could easily do, but she was sure that an assistant would infuriate her by getting something wrong when she wasn’t feeling particularly well. The assistant would be exposed to her moods on a daily basis, and Kara could terrify anyone. “When you’re angry, you’re frightening,” her mother had told her a number of times when she was growing up. But fortunately, she wasn’t as “scary” as her father when he was drunk, as if that were some consolation. Unsurprisingly, her parents had divorced when Kara was a teen, and other than a few dinners a year, she rarely saw her father and usually avoided his calls.

The pick-up and delivery of paintings was about the only thing that she had to hire someone for. She had neither the build nor the strength to lift and carry heavy works. She employed a regular deliverer who had his own team, but all the traffic and parking problems and resulting late deliveries caused Kara considerable stress. There were so many other unforeseen events that she had no control over. Although the paintings to be delivered were insured, they were irreplaceable, so she needed someone she could trust. She had found the right person in Tomas, who had worked with her for a number of years. But in the heavy fog of a hangover after the unexpected death of her mother, she had exploded and called him, “a royal fuck-up” and “someone with shit for brains” for a mistake he had made, a mix-up that could have happened to anyone. Tomas left telling her “to find another doormat” and true to his word, he never returned her calls. Her loyal employee, not to mention his team and contacts, was now beyond her reach. The incident left Kara wringing her hands with guilt and shame, as all her outbursts did, but this time her pain felt heavier and more hopeless. To make matters worse, her father was now calling a few times a day, “just to check in.” Never had she felt less like painting a cheerful smile on her face than now.

But Kara could also be very good with people when she was in control of the situation. While still at college, she had worked at various galleries for extra cash, where she met painters, gallery owners and of course, buyers. She quickly developed her own client list and became known as someone with an eye for budding talent. One of her favourite things was to visit the studios of new painters who had just arrived in the city. She found the smell of oils, the texture of acrylics and the creative energy intoxicating. At times, she let an artist stay for free at her apartment or gave them large advances so that they could continue their work. But her generosity extended to her buyers as well. Going into homes of the well-heeled, she knew instantly of the type of work that would match their aspirations and tastes, whether the painting was for investment purposes or solely for its aesthetic qualities. But sales were never rushed, and Kara often brokered deals so that a buyer could keep the painting for a few months or so, to see if it was a “good fit” with their sensibilities. The extra time she spent was greatly appreciated and generated further business through word of mouth.

Her appointment book was now full, but without a delivery person, she would have to postpone some of her appointments until she found someone new. Although it merely involved contacting a placement agency and paying extra to have someone who was bonded, she knew that she would have trust issues. In addition, she noticed that the security camera at the front door was not working. Kara put her hand on her forehead. It was all so overwhelming. She found herself in the mini-kitchen of her gallery pulling out a bottle of pinot grigio from the fridge at 11 am. She would drink two bottles before passing out in front of her prized painting. It was the first blurry image she would see when her father and the doorman woke her up on her showroom floor late in the afternoon.


She struggled to sit up not quite sure what to make of her father and the doorman bursting in like that. But it hurt to think about the situation. Her tongue felt swollen and her lips were stuck together making even “hello” difficult. She quickly scanned the empty bottles in front of her and the late afternoon sun coming through the window and surmised that she had passed out. Her cheeks burned as she looked at her father, a tall thin man in his early sixties whose hair was now completely grey. “Thanks, for letting me in,” he said to the doorman who turned and left.

Her father swung into action by picking up the two empty wine bottles and glass from the floor. “Would you like a glass of water?” he asked making his way to the kitchen.

“Yes, please,” Kara said clearing her throat and straightening her blouse that had come unbuttoned. He returned a few moments later with the glass of water and attempted to put his large palm on the back of her head, but Kara flinched and quickly got up and went to her desk.

“Do you remember our phone call?” he asked.

Her heart sunk. She must have been pretty drunk not to have sent his call directly to voice mail. She shook her head and looked for her phone. She picked it up, but it needed a charge. She felt a hot flash of panic when she realized that she may have spoken or called other people…but who? She felt queasy as she settled into her chair.

“You were crying, slurring something about a broken camera and an employee,” said her father.

She glanced up at her note pad. “AA” was scrawled at the top page with a messy phone number under it, clearly the writing of a drunk. She placed her fingertips on her forehead to shield her eyes from the light and the embarrassment of not recalling whom she had spoken to or who had given her the number. She closed her eyes to pray that it wasn’t a client.

“Believe it or not, I’ve been exactly where you are right now, and I can help you,” said her father standing in the door of the kitchen. “Have you taken any time off since your mother died?”

Oh Christ, here it comes, the recovered alcoholic’s sermon thought Kara, but she refused to let the conversation go any further. “Yes, a little, but I’m not sure that I can handle this conversation right now,” she said touching the corner of her eye with her index finger and drinking some water.

There was a lull in the conversation as Kara stared at a dark patch on the parquet floor. Her chest filled with anger when she thought of her father insinuating his way into her gallery and now asking her personal questions.

“You can’t just march in here and say that you know what I’m feeling, ask about my mother and generally take over,” she said, glaring at her father, but feeling nauseous because it took so much energy.

“Well you did ask for my help earlier today on the phone and that’s why I came over,” said her father. “You didn’t answer when we buzzed, so I explained the situation to the doorman, who kindly offered to escort me up here.”

This was too much information for Kara to process with her recent short-term memory in fragments. She pointed to the washroom and walked quickly, as her stomach lurched. In the bathroom, she vomited as soundlessly as she could, with her head still pounding. When she emerged from the bathroom with a blotchy face, her father was speaking with a large dark-haired man in his 30s wearing jeans and a tee-shirt. Her father immediately introduced him as Lou, the friend he had asked to come and fix her broken camera. Fortunately, it was nothing more than a loose wire, possibly disconnected when a canvas was taken out of storage.

Lou had a calm air about him, and unlike her father, he kept a respectful distance. While reaching up to fix the wire he casually suggested that Kara would be better off with an encrypted wireless camera system.

“I have one in the vault, but I haven’t found anyone to install it yet,” said Kara.

As he stepped down from the ladder, he said, “I can do it for you this weekend if you want. No worries,” he said looking her in the eyes. “Your father will vouch for me.”

She was of two minds about this. Allowing an acquaintance of her father into her gallery might give her prying father greater access to her life. But in light of the kindness of the gesture and her aching head, she agreed, “What a gracious offer. How about noon on Saturday?”

Kara’s father drove her home in silence. The smell of his aftershave mixed with the scent of the leather interior was pungent, but it was stained coffee cup in its dirty holder that made her stomach churn. A few blocks from her apartment, Kara’s father suggested that they get together for dinner in the coming days, “just to touch base.”

But dinner with her father was not to be. Kara needed to regroup and process her drunken meltdown before she saw her father again and so, refused to take his calls. His messages were predictable: “I’m concerned that you’re drinking too much because you’re grieving” and “you’re on a slippery slope.” Although annoying, his messages still made Kara fidget with uneasiness. Her irritation and moodiness could easily be attributed to both her grieving the loss of her mother, something she’d been blocking out as much as possible, and an increase in her regular alcohol consumption. Her blackout that afternoon still troubled her, and her hand quivered whenever she thought of it.

The best way to get over it was to get back to work. She arrived just before noon on Saturday at her showroom, and true to his word, Lou arrived shortly after with his toolbox to install the new wireless security cameras. He apologized for being covered in dust, but he’d just finished installing drywall and hadn’t had time to clean up. Lou was exactly as Kara had remembered him, polite and kind. When she asked him how much it would cost to remove the old cameras and install the new ones, he waved his hand at her. “Please Kara, never mind. I owe your father a lot,” he said, “and I really can’t take any money from you.”

“Well that’s so very generous of you,” said Kara taking a step back. “At least let me go and buy you some lunch.”

“Just one other thing,” she said just before going out the door. “I was just curious. You’re about 30 years younger than my father. How is it that you know him?”

“Well, if you must know,” said Lou turning to look at her. “He was my AA sponsor and he really helped me a lot when things weren’t going so well for me.”

Kara smiled nervously, “Well, I’m happy to hear that he was able to help you.”


After lunch, Kara was on her computer doing her accounting when she saw her security camera icon. She could finally satisfy her curiosity as to what happened when she had blacked out. It was just a matter of hitting the play button for the camera in the main showroom. But there was indeed trepidation that gave her a tightness in her chest. Few people were pleased with how they looked when they’d had too much to drink. But nothing could have prepared Kara for what she would see. Initially, it was uneventful. She was drinking a few glasses of wine and working, but she was frowning, definitely sad, shoulders hunched and her features were drawn. Kara fast-forwarded a few times and stopped at her crying and talking on the phone and scribbling a note. More tears. Her head was in her hands. Her mouth was gaping open, she was bawling out loud like a young child. She fast-forwarded again to her lying down on the floor still crying, kicking her feet, in front of her beloved painting, the symbol of her success, the source of her pride.

An hour later, Kara walked to the backdoor where Lou was installing the last camera. “I was wondering if I could go with you to an AA meeting sometime?”




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A Conversation with Author Billie Livingston

Photo of Billie Livingston by Braden Haggerty
As I mentioned in my previous post, here is my interview...er conversation with Billie Livingston. To read my review of her book please click here.

HL: In my opinion, The Crooked Heart of Mercy is your most accomplished novel to date. First of all, I was pleased to see that you didn’t move away from the working class: Ben is a limousine driver and Maggie is a homecare worker for seniors. Tragedy has befallen the couple before the story opens, and in societal terms, it’s one of the worst—the death of a child. The circumstances of the death, the bottle of wine shared by the couple might not raise any eyebrows, but the prescription drug used for a recreational purpose would definitely set the fingers awaggin’. You never shy away from the dark side, and I like that you are always willing to look below the surface. But why did you chose such dark tragedy to be so central to the plot of the story?

BL: Yes, I've definitely heard the swish-swish of fingers wagging. Remarks like: These are despicable people. They deserve their misery. To begin with, the majority of the people have, at one time or another, ingested something "to take the edge off." The Rolling Stones sang about Mother's little helpers because it was and remains so very common. I think people tend to distance themselves from those who make tragic mistakes in order to provide a kind of mental insurance that this outcome could never happen in their own lives. Most people tend to imagine themselves as "good" while only others are "despicable."

The inspiration for this child's death was an event from my own family's history. Before I was born, my father and his first wife had a little boy who, at the age of two, climbed up on the window sill and fell two stories. He died. From what I've heard, his mother had had a couple glasses of wine. I really liked my father's first wife. She was fierce and funny, but I don't think she ever forgave herself. What if she hadn't had any wine? What if she was merely exhausted and closed her eyes for a moment?

In the story, Ben and Maggie are both feeling brow-beaten and exhausted by life.
Like so many of us, they are living hand to mouth and unable to get ahead. They took one of those "little helpers," wishing for a reprieve. They didn't get wildly intoxicated, but still, one wonders after the fact — what if I hadn't had that glass of wine? What if I weren't on these anti-depressants that make me drowsy, what if, what if, what if. The keys to survival for all of us are love, hope and forgiveness. For Ben and Maggie, that one decision is the biggest obstacle to finding these keys.

HL: So much of our construct of grieving is middle class. We see grievance counsellors and maybe take time off work. But these are luxuries that the majority of people don't have, as you’ve pointed out. However, tough Ben who is never without a witty or sarcastic repartee is absolutely shattered by the death of his son and the loss of Maggie. As callous as this may sound, Ben’s experience in the hospital is both heartbreaking and hilarious. For one, he’s not the type of man who, even with a head injury, would ever speak to a psychiatrist or go to group therapy sessions. Ben is in a fugue state and sometimes the reader doesn’t know if he’s talking to himself or if he is talking to those around him. It was brilliantly done. How did you come to the decision of having brain-injured Ben narrate his side of the story? And how did you research what his stay in the hospital might be like?

BL: I wanted Ben to be fierce and funny — and lost, so I'm delighted that he came across that way. Yes, I think we get used to the average middle-class person having a therapist when they're depressed. They go on anti-depressants and do talk therapy. But what about a guy who doesn't have the money, time, or the inclination to pour his guts out to a stranger?

The inspiration for Ben's head injury came from a story in the news about a 17-year-old kid in Florida who shot himself in the head, trying to wake up after he ate too many psychedelic mushrooms.  Fortunately he lived and was able to get to a hospital. But as you can imagine, the doctors thought he had tried to commit suicide and he spent the next while convincing them that he hadn't. I wondered how a person would navigate that situation if he had been in a very dark place prior to this event.

Then I had a conversation with a wildlife veterinarian who told me about vet pharmaceuticals that people have been known to take either recreationally or in hopes of getting themselves out of a bout of insomnia. (I've had terrible insomnia in the past so I'm familiar with the desperation and feeling of madness that comes when you haven't slept in days.) One drug she told me about was Telazol, which can put a person to sleep but also put him into a dissociative state. Taking something like this, when one is already feeling half-nuts from sleep deprivation seemed to have Ben written all over it.

Ben's a good man, he takes his responsibilities seriously. But what happens when an already overwhelmed person is pushed to the brink? Ben has so much shame and grief and anger, he doesn't want to be Ben. So, in a way, he embraces that dissociative state. It's a place to disappear. I found the Ben-voice I started to hear in my head very compelling.

As for research, I've had a couple of family members end up in psych wards and I've seen first hand that strange dissociative state that can happen. I've visited psychiatric facilities and psych wards in general hospitals. And when my husband, Tim, was in the seminary, he did some chaplain work in a psychiatric ward on the American Eastern seaboard. He answered my questions and showed me the notes and transcriptions he wrote -- all names removed, of course.

HL: Maggie works with a senior who asks Maggie to accompany her to the First United Church of Spiritualism, where the person leading the congregation speaks to spirits on the other side. Although Maggie is a lapsed Catholic, she still desperately wants to hear or see a sign from her young son Frankie. Ultimately, The Crooked Heart of Mercy is about where you turn when you’ve suffered an unspeakable tragedy and find yourself completely alone. This story is about faith. What is it that interests you about faith?

BL: I guess I've always been curious about faith. I've been to dozens of different houses of worship — everything from synagogues to churches to a Raëlian meeting. I love the very human desire to experience the divine, to find meaning in a way that goes beyond the flesh of this world. Maggie is a lapsed Catholic and yet, the yearning for spirit, for healing, is deep in her bones. Whether it's superstition or something more profound, she's afraid and she has a craving for some kind of magic. This seems pretty normal to me. Even the staunchest atheist — atheists talk more about God than your average priest!

About 400 years ago, Blaise Pascal wrote about the God-shaped hole and maybe there's something to that. Whether a person calls it The Universe, or My Higher Power, or The Great Spirit — these expressions all point to the same hunger for the divine.
I gave a reading in San Francisco recently and there was a homeless man in the audience. He talked about his experience with death and spirit. He believed he'd seen the dead. A few seats over from him, an old woman leaned on her cane and stared out the window. She suddenly turned to him and said, “This vision you had, you said you’re open to it. I haven’t experienced anything like this and I’m not open to it. I’m not. Why are you? How does it happen?” The anger in her voice, the frustration — it was clear that she wanted so much to believe there was something else, something more. I think it's innate in us. For better or for worse.

HL: Maggie’s brother Francis, a Catholic priest, is also on a self-destructive path, and it is only after he suffers the ultimate humiliation on YouTube that he is forced to face his demons. Francis and Maggie together are hilarious and a reminder that life goes on regardless of tragedy. Despite Francis’s fall from grace, he is very good with people and he loves his work. Besides his obvious role as a mediator, why was it important to have an openly gay priest struggling with sobriety and celibacy in this story?

BL: When my husband and I were first dating, he was in the seminary in Washington, DC. I used to visit him there, and on the weekends I'd be up on the rooftop patio drinking cocktails and bantering with young men who felt they had a vocation but were unsure if they could put their appetites aside. So a lot of Francis came out of meeting these guys and seeing all their fear and grace and that wicked sense of humour. A few were gay and clearly had strong appetites for sex and alcohol. The Catholic church doesn't accept active homosexuality and, although priests in the Eastern Catholic rite can marry, that only applies to the straight ones.

I used to ask— Why? why are you so determined to get ordained when it means spending your life in hiding? Why not become an Anglican/Episcopalian? Then you can get ordained and married.  But I think for a Catholic, the only church is The Church. At any rate, a couple of these guys who eventually got ordained did run into trouble later. One of them ended up in a drunken viral video similar to the one in Francis's situation. But the people in his church still wanted him. They found his presence was very healing and merciful and they gave it right back to him. 

It's not very often that you see clergy in film or in books where they're just human beings. Usually they feel as if they're tiptoeing around being excruciatingly holy. I liked many of those seminarians and priests I met. And it was clear to me in witnessing them as they dealt with people, as they delivered the sacraments, that a person can make lousy decisions in his personal life and still be a great catalyst for love and healing.

HL: I told you in an email that it took me months to digest this book. Initially, it made me feel like I wasn't as tolerant as I thought I was. Maggie and Ben taking a prescription drug the night their two-year-old died was just one of events that stuck in my craw. Not the bottle of wine, which is so acceptable in our society. Or the fact that two-year-olds can take off in a flash from sober, alert parents. Just ask the woman whose three-year-old ended up in a zoo enclosure with a gorilla.

We, myself included, are so quick to judge others. It was quite liberating and refreshing when I realized that the Crooked Heart of Mercy was all about forgiveness. Well done.

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Review: The Crooked Heart of Mercy by Billie Livingston

I have interviewed Billie Livingston, who talks about her inspiration for this novel. Stay tuned for my next post.

The Crooked Heart of Mercy
Billie Livingston
Harper Collins
William Morrow Paperbacks
ISBN: 9780062413772

In The Crooked Heart of Mercy, the sixth novel by award-winning Canadian novelist Billie Livingston, we meet Maggie and Ben, a once happy working-class couple whose world is torn asunder when their two-year-old son scrambles out their apartment window just as the couple has settled in for quiet evening together. If this isn’t bad enough, their date-night involves a bottle of wine and a prescription drug that was not prescribed to either Maggie or Ben.

If you’re wincing right now then that is precisely what Livingston had in mind.  But just as the author takes you down to the unfathomable depths of grief, she will just as quickly whisk you back to hope and optimism, with plenty of gallows humor along the way. Livingston continually challenges her readers to look beyond their own prejudices and to suspend their judgment by showing the vulnerable, soft sides of her characters, who have made mistakes, but haven't we all?

After the tragedy, Maggie is no longer able to face Ben and moves out. Ben not only has to contend with the loss of his son and his wife, the only things he got right in life, but he also has to deal with an ailing father and a wayward younger brother. Unable to cope or sleep, Ben attempts to take his own life.

The story opens with Ben finding himself in a hospital room that is “as white as a scream.” In a dissociative state and unable to answer simple questions, Ben is confused as to who Ben is. In response to his psychiatrist’s question about how he ended up in the psychiatric ward with a bullet in his head, Ben does not answer aloud, but to himself, “Dr. Lambert wants to know about the hole. Ben’s black hole. If he stuck his finger in, surely Lambert could find the answer in there.”

He occasionally answers the question of the other characters in the story, but mostly he answers in a meandering interior monologue, airing his comic disdain for therapy, mental health professionals and privileged individuals, such as fellow patient Greg the attorney, who claims at a group session that he was selected by God and brought in with nails in his hands and feet.

While Ben has a hole in his head, Maggie looks on as claw-fisted diggers are excavating a hole on a building site. Maggie has just left Ben and is grieving the loss of her son. But money is needed, and she is on her way to an interview as a helper-cleaner to Lucy, an 82-year-old self-absorbed senior. One of Maggie’s duties is to accompany Lucy to the Church of Spiritualism to listen to a medium who speaks with the dead. This is a little more than Maggie can bear. As a lapsed Catholic, she claims she doesn’t go in for any “hocus pocus”, but she still listens closely just in case her son sends her a message.

If grieving weren’t enough, Maggie gets a call from the seminary about her gay brother Francis, a Catholic priest who has caused a scandal which involves his drunken rant at the county jail being captured on social media. Francis has to go and stay with his sister in her tiny apartment. In one of the book’s funnier moments, an exasperated Maggie confronts her brother about his choice to become a priest. As a bullied child, Francis confesses that he liked the safety of the church and that close-to-God feeling. He also reveals that he likes helping people and he enjoys being a priest, to which Maggie replies, “Why? Is it the robes? Getting all dressed up in the vestments? Is it like the ultimate drag show or what?”

While Francis lives with Maggie, he goes on a short-lived party-sex binge. Despite his weaknesses, Francis is very good with people. His gift of lending an ear and offering hope makes all the difference in this story.

The Crooked Heart of Mercy is suffused with a compassionate take on spiritualism, both conventional and pagan. But rest assured there is nothing preachy in this book. It serves as a reminder that the religion of our childhood, even after we’ve firmly closed the door on it for myriad reasons, is often where we turn, albeit in a more subdued form, when faced with tragedy, crisis and grief, even in spite of ourselves. But unlike the fairy tale depiction of redemption we’ve seen countless times in mainstream media, the reader sees through Ben that there will always be scars.

This is the most ambitious and complex of Livingston’s novels to date, and without a doubt her finest. Of all the books I have read in recent years, this one gnawed at me for months. I found that it poked holes in my belief system and raised so many new questions. Why did Livingston choose to have the couple take a prescription drug? Why did the plot revolve around such a horrific tragedy? Why did the author make Ben so resistant to seeking psychiatric help? And why did she have Francis go on a party-sex binge?

These are a few of the questions that I have asked Billie Livingston. Please drop by for my interview with her.

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A Virtual Team Trek: 10,000 Steps a Day

All My Walks Take Me to Jarry Park
I am a language professional who has the privilege of working from home. It sounds pretty sweet, doesn't it? No more commute, no more running around making my kids' lunches while trying to figure out what to wear, and no more flying out the door because we are late again. (Okay, we still do this.)

Teleworking or working from home sounds pretty good.... But there's one little problem. All that rushing to get to work and get home at the end of the day does burn a lot of calories. Now add that to the fact that desk jockeys like us are sitting for over seven hours a day. This means that those with the luxury of working from home can put on a lot of weight and develop an unhealthy lifestyle very quickly.

I work with a team of eight language professionals who live across Canada, so I came up with the idea of a virtual walk from one co-worker's place of residence to the next. Aware of the dangers of sitting for long periods of time, my colleagues were more than a little enthusiastic about doing this walk with me.

The original goal was for each of us to walk 25 kilometres (about 15 mi) a week, from Monday to Friday. That would mean walking 5 kilometres (about 3 mi) a day in our respective neighbourhoods across the country. At the end of the week, everyone sent me their tallies of the number of kilometres they had walked that week. I added all their weekly totals together, and using Google maps, I plotted our collective distance on a map and announced how far we had walked.

Week 1 of our Virtual Cross-Country Trek
We started our virtual trek in Barss Corners, Nova Scotia, the hometown of one co-worker. Our destination, some 5,716 km away, is Williams Lake, British Columbia, where another co-worker lives.

We began our virtual journey the week of November 9, 2015. Our first week's collective total was 193 km (120 mi), but by week 17, my team had walked 296 kilometres (184 mi). To date, our virtual trek has taken us through Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, northern Maine, Quebec (to visit me in Montreal), Ontario (to visit five teleworkers in and around Ottawa), northern Minnesota and Manitoba (to visit two teleworkers in Winnipeg). In total, the eight of us have walked 3,638 km (2,261 mi) in 17 weeks.

Our collective trek across Canada has also had the benefit of stimulating conversation about walking, exercise and vacations, and has been a nice team-building experience. Most of my team members have reached 40 km (25 miles)  more than a few times, while another team member has walked 75 kilometres (47 miles) in just one

Originally, I wanted to make our walking goal 10,000 steps a day. This is apparently the distance to walk for good health, but it changes for everyone depending on the length of their stride, among other factors. For me, it means walking about 8 km (5 mi) a day.

Beautiful Jarry Park
By Christmas, I noticed that it was easier to reach 8 kilometres (5 mi) a day if I went out to walk at least three times a day. It was too overwhelming to attempt this distance in just one walk. Using Google maps, I now calculate the walking distance before I leave home and keep my daily and weekly tally on a post-it note on my computer screen.

My New Year's resolution was just once to walk 50 km (31 mi) a week to see how I felt afterwards. As anyone who exercises regularly knows, the benefits of exercise can often be felt a few days later. I managed to walk 50 km in the first week of January, and it felt great. I was afraid that it was too much and that I would be exhausted. Instead, I felt energized. The combination of fresh air, sunlight and exercise has made this a wonderful experience, and I have walked 50 km a week ever since.

But what has made this much easier is knowing that seven other people are doing this walk with me, even if they are hundreds or thousands of miles away.

But it has cut into my blogging.

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Advice on Creating a Graphic Novel

We all grow up with a misconception that some people have innate artistic talent. While it's true that some people are born with some natural talent, succeeding as an artist requires self-discipline and years of practice. I've told my 13-year-old daughter this countless times, but as a mother, my view point sometimes falls on deaf ears.

Better to get that information from an actual artist.

That's why I was so pleased to have some input from Alison McCreesh, the artist and storyteller behind Ramshackle: A Yellowkife Story. Here is  how her experience of living off the grid came to be a graphic memoir/travelogue/diary. (That's her self-portrait below.)`

Enjoy drawing
"I had travelled a fair amount before and had always kept illustrated journals of some kind or another. I didn't give it that much thought. I just liked to draw and also liked to keep some kind of notes about my wanderings."

Draw inspiration from other artists
"It took until about 2008 for me to start discovering more indie and alternative comics and to realize that there was a whole genre of visual storytelling that actually existed and got published. A little while after that, I also started following a bunch of comic blogs and was inspired to start my own."

Set short-term goals
"My plan was to draw a few panels a week - never less than one - to document my travels. I figured that a little accountability to the World Wide Web would keep me motivated. I called the blog 'Alison a fini l'école' and started working on it in earnest when I headed out to do an internship in Halifax to wrap up my undergrad."

Exercise self-discipline
"I was surprisingly disciplined once I started and kept it up for a good three years. I made several panels a week and posted them diligently as I wandered - and as I eventually came to settle in Yellowknife. After a while of being sedentary, and of other creative projects taking up more and more time, the blog eventually fizzled out."

Build on the seed of an idea
"It seemed a shame to have done all that work and for barely anyone to have ever seen it and I always planned to do something with it. It just took me a while to figure out the precise incarnation. It wasn't cohesive enough for me just to stick it all together into a book."

Don't expect everything to be perfect
"The visual style changed over time, the drawings were sometimes sloppy and there was often a lack of context. It was a lot of raw material though!"

Decide on your focus
"In the end, I decided to go back and focus on reworking a section and that's how Ramshackle came to be. The book is directly based on about four months worth of the blog - the four months that span our first summer in Yellowknife."

A sense of humour always helps...in art and in life
"As for humour, I try to be of the school of 'the more aggravating at the time, the better the story later.'  Being under pressure (even self-imposed pressure) to draw weekly comics also did wonders for my attitude: every tiny hardship was potential gag material. Working on the story of that first summer in hindsight was also a plus. In revisiting all the old panels and strips, I mostly saw the funny side. It's easy to laugh at sleepless mosquito infested nights when the bites are long forgotten."

Read a review of Ramshackle here.

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Ramshackle: Living Off The Grid

I found myself at Montreal's Expozine again this year. This time, it was to give my daughter a few ideas for creating comic strips. She likes drawing manga characters and has been after me to come up with a story for her characters, and we've worked on some things together, but it's hard to know what is cool to a 13-year-old.  I thought that she might get some inspiration from the eclectic collection of artists at the Expozine.

While we were there, I ran into a few familiar faces from the days when I used to review a lot of books. At Conundrum Press, I was handed a copy of Ramsmshackle: A Yellowknife Story by Alison McCreesh, just in case I wanted to review it. The author was on hand with a very small baby strapped to her chest. A brave mother, I thought.

McCreesh was signing copies of her graphic novel while chatting with a few people. The St-Enfant Jésus church basement, the Expozine venue, can get really hot. Sweat trickled down my back as I waited, watching McCreesh's tiny baby who began to wiggle with impatience. I wondered how the author was going to handle the situation when the heat made him loud and cranky. In the midst of her conversation she effortlessly opened a flap, a little red face popped out, breathed and then went back to sleep. Very smooth, I thought. The woman is a pro.

McCreesh's infant-toting, book-signing feat was my first clue as to her taste for adventure.
Ramshackle is the story of McCreesh and her boyfriend's drive across Canada in a barely roadworthy minivan and their lives starting out north of 60 in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. This is much more than just camping. Think large mosquitoes and no plumbing for months.

The unfathomably high cost of living and rent in Yellowknife force the 20-something couple to live out of their minivan, duct-taping the vents shut to keep the mosquitoes out. They eventually land dull day jobs and make some friends. Then they become house-sitters, the guardians of residents' pets and plants, while enjoying the modern amenities of a comfortable bed, hot showers and flush toilets, periodically returning to the minivan between gigs.

But their lives begin in earnest when they find their place and later their home in Dragon Shack Woodyard, their alternative, off-the-grid Shangri-La, in a tiny community with other like-minded people, sandwiched between million-dollar homes.
McCreesh and her partner not only like their makeshift existence, honey bucket and all, but they also thrive in the land of the midnight sun.

I loved this story of resilience, a type of antithesis to our consumer culture. I especially liked the idea of introducing a woman into pop culture who forges an untraditional path that she clearly finds rewarding, at a time when most people seem to opt for luxury items, comfort and debt.

The last ten years of the planet's swing to the right has often left me searching for a way out of the rat race, but I don't quite have the same sense of adventure as McCreesh.

Ramshackle left me with a lot of questions about the author's obvious enthusiasm for living off the grid. Where did this enthusiasm come from? What sense of community was there? How was this sense of community created? There was plenty about stocking up on water and maintaining a sawdust toilet, presented in a playful way, but what about heat north of 60? What equipment and clothing were absolutely essential to living off grid?

These questions and a few others will be answered in my interview with Alison McCreesh in my next post.

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