Winner of the 2013 U of T Magazine Short Story Contest
The ones in white coats say you’ve got a few months. Or is it weeks? Maybe it’s a few weeks you’ve got. It’s all very confusing. You get these flashes. You don’t control what comes; you sit still and watch the flickering projection, listen to the soundtrack. They come in disjointed bunches. Bunches. That’s what your mother used to say. Love you bunches. Your name was in there too, she’d say your name. You’re sitting on tightly tucked white sheets—sterile is the word that comes to mind—and you’re looking at this month’s calendar of activities, looking at the red circle around “Bingo Night” on Friday. You’re wearing corduroy pants, beige ones, and your hands are on your thighs. You feel the fuzzy ridges. That’s when it happens. You don’t control it. It comes.
It’s recess and you’re in the schoolyard in your corduroy pants. Your mother laid them out for you, but you put them on yourself. You’re a big boy now. You’re a big boy standing in square three. You’ve worked your way up. Ryan Handley occupies square four, holds it like the Russians held…what was it called? That city the Russians held from the Germans. You were never in the army. Even if you were, World War II wasn’t your generation’s fight. You had the Middle East, the Gulf, Kuwait and Iraq. You had it on TV: newscasts of popping gunfire and night-vision explosions that reminded you of film negatives. You watch the action from your bedroom, your university residence. Cameras follow wounded soldiers on gurneys and reporters speculate on civilian casualties. A lot of these people are your age. The only wounds you have are slices on your hands—some crusted-over, some fresh—from working with paper all day in the university’s copy centre. You live alone in a two-bedroom unit. There was an incident. You hit someone, your roommate—what was his name?—and there was a hearing and they moved him out, moved him to a different room. They let you stay—it was your word against his—but next time, they said, if there was a next time, expulsion papers were going to have your name on them. Your name is in the school paper. You can’t quite make it out—the ink is smudged—but you know it’s there. There’s an editorial response to the news of the violence, alleged violence, that went down in your residence room. It says the university should have given your worthless rear-end the boot, says the school dropped the ball.
The ball comes to you and you give it a swift open palm in Ryan Handley’s direction. The ball catches the corner of his square, out of his desperate reach, out of the square, out of the game; you knock Ryan Handley out of the game. Square four is yours. Yours. In that moment, everything is right. You’re on top. When the ball comes back in play you’re the target. You. Everyone is gunning for you.
The door slams shut. You shake. You plant your hands on the tight white sheets, stabilize yourself on the bed, and stare at the closed door. It’s white. Everything here is white. Your fingers are digging into the sheets, the mattress even. You’ve got a grip. A man is walking toward you. He’s looking at you. He’s a doctor. White coat. Clipboard. Relax, he says, I told you I’d be right back. He puts a hand on your arm and smiles. It’s okay, he tells you. He apologizes for letting the door slam, says it got away from him. He’s got serious creases along his forehead, deep, meandering. He taps his clipboard with the tip of his pen, asks you if you’re ready. Ready? For what? Tap, tap, tap. He smiles. Let’s get started, he says. He nudges the bridge of his glasses, tells you he’s going to start you off easy today. Today, you’re starting from twenty and you’re counting backwards by twos. Does that sound okay? Sounds great, you say. Sounds fantastic. He clicks the end of his pen, holds it ready on his clipboard, and looks at you. Twenty minus two, he says. Twenty minus two? Twenty. Minus. Two. Twenty. Two.
You’re twenty-two and you’re living in an apartment downtown. The shithole. You’re next door to a food bank and across the street from a payday loans place. A boy on the corner sells drugs. You pass him on your way to work, the convenience store down the road. It’s summer; it’s hazy. You’re standing behind the counter, serving customers. You slide the tray of lotto scratch cards out from under the Plexiglas cover and a woman plucks one, pays, and leaves. The boy from the corner walks in. He wears a baseball cap. He asks for a pack of Players, king size. You turn, you get them, you turn back. He’s pointing a gun at your chest. He asks for the money. He says please. Aside from the gun, he’s quite polite. You open the register and give him what’s there and he raises his voice. Where’s the rest? You tell him that’s all there is and he swings the gun at you and crushes your face with the butt end. In the hospital, the police tell you the guy made off with the lotto scratch cards. In the hospital, your mother sits by your bed, tears in her eyes, and asks why you never told her you moved to such a shady neighbourhood, why you were working in a convenience store. Why didn’t you come home? You tell her you had to prove to yourself you could make it on your own, fend for yourself. She wants to know if this has something to do with your father. He passed away when you were in kindergarten and the only memory you have of him is a random image of him smiling blankly. That was near the end, when he was in the place your mother called the Care Facility. We’re going to the Care Facility to visit your father, she’d say. The Care Facility: where your father smiled like he was oblivious. This fending for yourself, it does have something to do with him, your mother says. You’ve had issues with boys, with men since he died. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone, she says. Come home. Live with your mother in the house you grew up in. You’re in the hospital for days. You don’t regain your sense of smell. You don’t regain the fourth square at recess. Ever. You’re a target as soon as you step into square one. The kids in two and three don’t even bother with four. They want you out. They all do. You find out later that Ryan Handley struck up alliances. It went beyond recess, carried into the classroom, carried on after school. After school, you cut through the woods and cross the bridge over Woolly Creek to get home. It’s autumn and an afternoon fog has settled in. Leaves crunch behind you. You have a tail. There are four of them. One calls your name and you turn. Their gaits quicken and so does yours. You’re running and you’re looking back through the fog and you’re clenching the straps on your backpack and it’s bouncing around everywhere back there and you’re looking back and they’re gaining on you and…
And the doctor’s on his hands and knees. It was just here, but now it’s gone, he says. He gets up and brushes his white coat. Goddamned thing got away from me. He apologizes for the language. He holds his clipboard, but he doesn’t have his pen. He squints at you through his glasses like you’re out of focus. He says, Were you still thinking? Do you need more time? You scratch an itch on the side of your nose and you think about how it’s not right for the skin there to still have feeling—why should your nose have feeling when it doesn’t work? Then you’re onto wondering if maybe this doctor has body odour, if maybe you have body odour, and then you decide it doesn’t matter. You say, More time? He smiles, pulls a chair over, and sits. The subtraction test, he says. Take your time. Think about it. Twenty minus two. Close your eyes and think about it, he says. You do.
You open your eyes and you’re on your back in the forest. It’s foggy. There’s a chill. Every part of you hurts. Your backpack is gone. The kids who were following you are gone. You’re bleeding from the face. You’re bleeding from the face and the cop’s still firing questions at you. What did the guy look like? What can you tell me about the gun? How much did you give him out of the register? You’re aware that he made off with the lotto tickets, right? You answer the questions and you tell the cop you can show him where the kid does business. You tell the cop you’re not supposed to be here. You tell him you’re supposed to be in school. The cop’s tapping his notepad with the end of his pen. Tap, tap, tap. Your ex-roommate files another complaint, fabricates a story about you masterminding an exam copying and distribution scheme. His word, and the word of some people he got to go along with him, against yours. The university gives you the boot—expulsion papers had your name on them—and the school newspaper runs a story on the whole thing. You move to the shithole. You get a job at a convenience store. You don’t tell your mother. You’re on the phone with her and you tell her nothing. Things are great, you say. Life’s fantastic. Love you bunches, she says. She lives in the house you grew up in. You were glad she kept it after you moved out. It was good for nostalgia, a prompt for summoning things you left behind. Kind of like the feel of corduroy—going against the grain on those fuzzy tufts always brings something back. Your mother is always asking you to move back home and you always tell her you love her, but you’re a grown man and you have to do what grown men do, you have to do something for yourself. She says she understands. She keeps living in that house alone, lives there until the place burns down. Burns down with her in it. Investigator tells you it was a cigarette out of an ashtray. You believe it. The woman smoked her Players as if tobacco was about to be outlawed. You collapse. You’re on your back, on the filthy carpet in the shithole’s tiny cube of a bedroom. There’s a gas oven in the kitchen. You could turn it on and leave it on—you wouldn’t even smell it. You never got married, never even had a serious girlfriend. The roof’s ten storeys up. You could take a leap. There’s a subway station three blocks away. You could…
You could get away with it so easily, your roommate says. You’re sitting across from him at the kitchen table in your residence room. He’s laying out his plan. He’s failing his psychology class. You work in the copy centre. It’s exam time. The copy centre has measures to keep its student employees from getting anywhere near exams for their own courses. You’re not in psychology. You can get near the psychology exam. Your roommate says there’s money in it. The two of you could turn a profit. He wants you to take all the risk, wants you to be the one with your head out of the trench. You tell him no. Do it, he says. Just fucking do it. No. He says he’ll expose the whole thing, says he’ll tell university administrators it was your idea, says he’ll enlist friends to go along with him, team up on you. You hit him and he falls and knocks the TV off the stand. Doesn’t disturb the picture. Gunfire pops over night-vision explosions, only now sideways. They remind you of something. Film negatives.
The doctor puts his hand on your arm. It’s okay, he says. We’ll try again tomorrow. He has the look of a stranger, a warm one, one who might return your wallet to you with everything in place. This thing you’ve got, he says, this thing runs in families. Yours is early onset. You shouldn’t have this at forty. He pauses. We’ve ruled out your odour blindness, he says. Your olfaction damage doesn’t explain the degenerative nature of this thing. This thing got your father; that explains it better. Unfortunately, he says, yours is pretty far along. You’ve experienced significant loss already. His hairline is high. He’s experienced some loss himself. He puts his hand on your arm again and says, You’re in a pretty good fight with this thing, but it’s one you’re not going to win. You’ve got a few months. You ask, A few months until what? He hesitates. He looks stupefied. Until any flashes you are still experiencing go the way of the others. You are still experiencing some, aren’t you? Some, you say. He pats your shoulder. Enjoy them, he says. You look at him. Enjoy them? Did he say enjoy them? What about them is worth enjoying, exactly?
He tells you he’s going to leave you to rest. He loosens the tight white sheets, helps you under, and says he’ll be back tomorrow to give the subtraction test one last go. You lie in your bed. You’re gripping the sheets; you’ve got two handfuls of them and you’re squeezing them with everything you’ve got. You’re staring at the ceiling tiles. White. Everything’s goddamned white. You turn. It’s still light outside. This is just a nap, so you’re not in your pajamas yet. You’re still in your corduroy pants. This morning, you put them on yourself. You’re a big boy. You slip your hands under the covers and run your fingers along the rows of soft fabric on your legs. You’re doing this and inexplicably you start thinking of the number eighteen. What’s eighteen? You have a vague sense that it means something good. You enjoy the feeling. You enjoy the feeling the way you enjoy a Friday night Bingo win in this place—you’re sure you’ve played, you’re sure you’ve won. You’ve got a healthy grin going. There’s some anxiety over not being able to pin down meaning on this business about the number eighteen, but you feel at peace, like you’re going to get some rest out of this nap. You close your eyes and breathe easy. You’ve already embraced the idea of letting these remaining flashes go the way of the others, letting your mind purge these images, these negatives. Now though, you think maybe you want to hold onto them.
Adam Giles graduated in 2002 with a BA in sociology from the University of Toronto Mississauga.