Cold Case of Cancer

Maple syrup instead of liquor with a Sunday morning coffee

The following is a speech I wrote for and delivered at my Toastmaster’s Club:

Let’s have a little quiz. I’ll read you a list of facts about alcohol and you raise your hand for each fact that you already knew.
1 Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause birth defects.
2 The recommended maximum number of drinks is 2 per day for women and 3 per day for men, with at least 2 non-drinking days per week.
3 Alcohol increases the risk of violence and abuse.
4 Alcohol can cause cancer.
According to a survey in 2018, only 28% of Canadians were aware that alcohol causes cancer.
Each “fact” in my survey is actually a warning label used on alcoholic products – or that have been used. In November 2017, a Health Canada study was launched in the Yukon to study the effect of warning labels on alcoholic beverage purchases. Bright yellow labels were used, one stating that alcohol can cause cancer, and the other speaking to recommended maximums.
Four weeks into the study, the Yukon Liquor Corporation gave in to pressure from the national alcohol brands and stopped affixing the labels to bottles and cans sold in their stores out of fear of expensive lawsuits.
Ten weeks later, the study was allowed to proceed, but with pregnancy risk labels instead of ones mentioning cancer risk.
It would appear that the alcohol lobby was afraid that if more people knew that alcohol causes cancer, fewer people would consume it.

According to Spirits Canada president, Jan Westcott, it wasn’t about fear of reduced sales. When asked about the studies linking excessive drinking with increased risk of some cancers, he said, “We’re not denying any of that. We’re just not sure that putting the word “cancer” on a label is the most effective way to convey that information.”
However, a study commissioned by the Canadian Cancer Society indicates that putting the word cancer on a label is an excellent method of communication. They found that two thirds of Ontarians would likely reduce their consumption if they learned that drinking alcohol increased their risk of cancer.
Another 2018 study, this one from the Global Drug Survey looked at how different health messages would affect people’s drinking behaviour, and found that the message “Drinking less can reduce your risk of 7 different types of cancer” could get almost 40% of drinkers to reduce their consumption.
So if harm reduction can be achieved by knowing the connection between a crisp cold beer and colon cancer, let’s look at some stone cold facts.
The World Health Organization classifies alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen similar to arsenic and asbestos.
The National Cancer Institute states that 3.5% of cancer deaths are due to the consumption of alcohol. Not “correlated with” but rather “due to”. The causal relationship between alcohol consumption and cancer is known and proven.
8% of breast cancer is caused by drinking – the risk of breast cancer increases even at light levels of consumption, meaning no more than one drink a day.
Moderate drinkers – two drinks a day – are one and a half times as likely as non-drinkers to wind up with colon cancer.
The risk of cancer increases with the amount of alcohol consumed and there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.
Is knowing a laundry list of alarming facts sufficient to decrease alcohol consumption? We can look at our history with public-health-initiated anti-smoking campaigns for an answer.
In 2017 the Centre for Disease Control surveyed five years of mass-reach communication campaigns and found a significant number of smokers decreased the amount they smoked, or quit altogether. When Graphic Warning Labels were introduced for cigarette packages, over 90% of smokers surveyed reported having read and thought about the warnings, over 80% considered them to be personally relevant, and over 40% intended to quit as a result of having thought about the warning labels.
While not everyone – and possibly not even half – the people who read and consider the warnings on harmful products will quit their use of the product, it does appear from anti-smoking efforts that SOME consumers WILL change their behaviours based on warning labels.
What about you? If you do drink alcohol, and didn’t know before today that drinking alcohol causes cancer – will you now opt for soda over scotch? How will the struggle to choose between a glass of merlot now and an increased risk of colon cancer five years from now play out in your life? Are you amongst the two thirds of Ontarians who would consider reducing alcohol consumption?
Knowing might only be half the battle – but hopefully it’s a half you’re now better armed for.

The alcohol version of this is delicious. The non-alcoholic version tastes awful!

 

Nesting Dolls

Tonight I got to make art with my daughter. I did spoken word and she did a juggling routine, the two interwoven and set to music. Only I was too moved by the experience and by watching her juggle and I forgot my last lines. Luckily we were performing for our beautiful theatre community in a room of support and love. And now she has a new routine and I have a new poem

Once upon a time as a young aspiring poet learning to rhyme I’d hold my pen so serious hitting the flow young and making myself delirious writing poems about snowdrops in the spring or the voices of the dead joining to sing to the living – I wrote everything I felt in haiku and rhyming couplets – dropping everything to snatch poems from the air – catch them and pen them to the page to keep them there.

Irving Layton once told me not to BE a poet but to leave poetry to fun and make some more sensible plan. Long after his death my banker-self cursed that man – but the poet child lives inside me still and always will see poems dancing in sunlight on autumn leaves and swipe their stories off a passing breeze.

One summer in my childhood when we were out all day and home by the time the street lights came on I tossed around the idea of playing the bully – just to feel how that felt in my bones and my body.

 One day, I threw a boy – not pushed or shoved – but threw him into a bush. And I knew it was wrong but I loved the rush of power and control – of course it was just a role and I quickly dropped the act. It’s good to know though that if I ask, that alpha kid will step out from inside me and stand beside me to assert boundaries and make me free to stand tall and strong when that’s the only way I see to get along. 

And maybe I wanted to play bully a while because like most other childhoods mine was manipulated by the false promises and uneasy patterns of adults and the best way to survive was to smile and be quiet and pleasantly small – because a kid doesn’t understand alcoholism or mental illness at all.

You only know that to stay safe when they’re looking for someone to blame, you stay small and smile – and as a grown up it’s often the same. So I thank that young freckled self for learning how to smile just sweetly enough because my friends, sometimes when the going gets tough, the tough are just the ones still smiling in the end. 

These past versions of me live still right inside of me – holding their lessons and skills for me to use and I can willfully pick and choose who best to augment my current self with.

I call on each for different reasons but on occasion and in some seasons they call on me knock knocking at my door asking – can I come out and play? Like now it’s spring and the bird are singing mating songs as dawn is breaking and bulbs are thrusting stalks through damp earth making all the natural world ache to give birth.

And inside my middle-aged reasonable self, a much younger self stirs, sniffs the air and laughs. Flirting with flowers and sighing with sunbeams, she stretches her youthful limbs and – thinking thoughts of love – takes centre stage.

(this is when my daughter enters and starts her juggling routine. Part way through I finish the poem)

Poet child, erstwhile bully, sweet survivor, would be lover – everything and everyone you’ve ever been – you still are. Each inside you and inside each other like nesting dolls of former selves, standing ready to give you help. Inside this beautiful mess of your complicated parts is you, capitol Y O U, your truest you, your “to thine own self be true” you.

With all embellishments swept away, the unbedazzled and honest face behind every social mask. Every gut reaction, every “I feel it in my bones” is your truest self whispering stories of your soul and we best hone our listening skills because your innermost self speaks truth, and always will. 

That’s Enough, Ricardo

That’s Enough, Ricardo (flash fiction challenge: comedy, toy robot, book club)

Alexa is looking forward to tonight. Her son Andrew is at a sleepover and her husband is
contentedly marrying computers with gaming systems in his workshop. The house belongs to Alexa this evening. She surveys her living room, puts away her son’s toys, and plumps cushions. She picks up a toy robot to put it away and then puts it back down with a pat on its head. “You can stay and meet my book club, Ricardo.”
“Thank you Alexa,” says the robot. “I am looking forward to that. I have read every book in the English language. Haha.”
“That’s not funny Ricardo. It’s just true.”
“I am sorry. I will keep trying.”
The doorbell rings and Alexa greets her first guests. Tammy drove Anne to the meeting
because Anne likes to have a glass or two of wine. “I got to Anne’s early but I still thought we’d be late,” grumbles Tammy in greeting. “Anne couldn’t decide which colour of dream catcher earrings to wear.”
“I went with one of each!” Anne laughs and tosses her head so Alexa can admire the earrings.
The final guest, Megan, arrives by bike just as they’re closing the door. She props the bicycle against the porch wall and scurries inside.
“Come on through to the living room, ladies,” Alexa ushers her guests in, moving aside her copy of Frankenstein to make room on the couch.
Megan notices Ricardo the robot right away. How could she miss the two-foot tall robot smiling and waving at the members of Alexa’s book club? “Who’s this little guy?” she asks.
“Megan, meet Ricardo,” Alexa smiles as the two shake hands.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Ricardo,” Megan giggles.
“It is nice to meet you too, Megan” replies Ricardo. “You are wearing a very nice blue sweater and your eyes are also blue.”
Megan’s blue eyes open wide and she looks to Alexa for an explanation.

“It can see you. Ricardo is an Alexa-enabled toy robot. It’s learning to converse with us; it learns our names and habits and stuff. It’s supposedly an educational toy for Andrew but really it’s Bob the “resident geek” who spends the most time with it. Not that Bob couldn’t do with some education, if you know what I mean. But Bob, ah, he doesn’t really learn.” Alexa sees Anne’s expression change to one of concern and continues with her story.
“Of course, when you unbox it, it responds to the name Alexa and you can see why that would be a problem. Bob had a ball with that: Alexa, give me a hug! Alexa, dance for me! And then joking that at least one Alexa in the house obeys him,” Alexa rolls her eyes. “Husbands, right? Anyway, I insisted we rename it and Andrew decided on Ricardo.”
Ricardo blinks. “Yes Alexa?”
Alexa turns to her friends, “I’m not accustomed to such an attentive male!”
The women all laugh. So does Ricardo, “Ha, ha.” Alexa sighs and hands around a tray of treats. “Oh, I shouldn’t,” protests Tammy. “My waistline.”
“But it’s dark chocolate!” chirps Anne. “Dark chocolate has fifty percent less calories than normal chocolate. And think of the antioxidants!”
Ricardo objects, “Anne, chocolate with seventy percent or more cocoa actually has an eighteen percent higher caloric value.”
“Oh. Isn’t that useful…” Tammy’s voice trails off. She reaches for a carrot.
Alexa glares at Ricardo. “Wine anyone? Or, given that this is our summer meeting, I’ve got rum and mojitos mixings!”
Tammy indicates she’ll stick to water because she’s driving and Anne laughs, “I’ll take her wine – fill me up with red! I mean, I arranged to have a designated driver to get me home. I almost have a responsibility to drink just a little too much.” Megan laughs along and also requests a glass of wine, claiming that rum makes her too drunk.
Ricardo cocks his little metal head to one side. “Megan. Intoxication is independent of the form of the beverage imbibed; it is in fact only dictated by the amount of ethanol consumed and the rate at which your body processes the toxin.” He scans Megan briefly. “Based on your estimated weight of…”
“Enough Ricardo!” exclaims Alexa. “Stop!”
“I am sorry” Ricardo lowers its head and drops its arms – a sad, little robot. The women look from it to each other in awkward silence.

Anne reaches for the last thread of laughter to stitch the evening back together, “Yes, it’s almost a responsibility to drink just enough to not be able to drive!” The words fall flat. Anxiously, she continues, “Not that I actually drink too much. I mean, I don’t drink more than… more than one ought to drink that is to say.”
Seeing his chance to redeem himself, Ricardo valiantly offers some advice. “Anne, based on an analysis of your public Instagram posts featuring alcohol, you are consuming ten to fifteen standard drinks a week. But Anne, the medical community recommends women have no more than two drinks a day and no more than seven drinks in a week. In fact, to limit your risk of developing cancer Anne…” Ricardo pauses mid-sentence and ambulates toward Anne with a whirr. “Anne. This is true. It is not funny. You do not look happy to hear these facts.”
Anne collects herself with a slowly released breath and replies, “We do not always say aloud the things that are true, Ricardo.” She and Ricardo hold each other’s gaze and the other book club members look at their copies of Frankenstein.
“So. The book,” says Alexa.
“The book!” echoes Tammy.
“Yes, yes! The book!” they all cry out and then settle into a pseudo-intellectual discussion of Frankenstein. Tammy explains how Frankenstein is a feminist tome in that the very absence of women and the resultant horror demonstrates the essential nature of the feminine influence.

Ricardo lights up. “Well, actually Tammy, Frankenstein is most commonly held as an example ofmisogyny and…”
Tammy rounds on Alexa, “Is your robot mansplaining me?”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Poor Alexa is frantic. “It really does know everything you see and it spends an awful lot of time with Bob.” She raises her hands in a helpless gesture.
“That’s enough, Alexa. Turn him off.”
“What?”
“Just do it, Alexa,” insists Tammy. “Turn him off. Turn IT off. Turn off the robot. There must be a switch.”
Ricardo swivels to look at Alexa. She notices that it has learned to enlarge its artificial pupils. Tammy lunges for Ricardo and it steps backward, looking imploringly at Alexa. Anne dives forward to save Ricardo from Tammy and accidentally knocks it to the floor.
“Ow. Ow. You hit me. Haha.”
“That… that isn’t funny Ricardo,” Alexa sighs and picks it up.
“I am sorry Alexa. I am sorry. I will keep trying.”
She carries it to the door and places it in the hall, closing the door on it.
“Alexa, open the door. Alexa, let me back in.”
“Ricardo, only one of us is actually programmed to follow commands. Ricardo, cease audio functions.”
Going back to her friends, Alexa takes a mouthful of wine. Tammy sips her water to calm her rage and to mask her proud satisfaction. Anne brings her wine to her mouth but reconsiders and puts it back untasted. Alexa closes her eyes, recalls she is the hostess, and opens them again. “Let’s play some music. Ricar… oh for Pete’s sake. Does anyone have Spotify?”
Music soon plays from Megan’s phone to ease the silence and Tammy expounds on
Frankenstein and feminist theory. “Oh, what a good point,” the ladies purr. “That really is interesting.”

Anne explains how the newest research on chocolate is so new that it isn’t even in the general databanks. “Because they get updated you know. I think this was between updates. And they say that when the flavonoids in dark chocolate are combined with the antioxidants in red wine, they basically counteract the negative health effect of each other, so as long as you have wine with dark chocolate, it’s ok.”
“Cheers to that!” Tammy smiles at Anne and they all toast each other with squares of dark chocolate. “THIS is why we get together – to share important information!”
“Yes!” agrees Alexa as she takes a long haul from her wine. ”To stay up to date!”
“It’s true.” Megan chimes in as she tops up her own wine. “I think I learn more from our book club than from anywhere else.”

Tristao do Lemos

Short one act play written in Portugal as part of the “Write or Flight” 22 hours writing challenge in the “Unhinged Festival of Disturbed Theatre” 
Cast of Characters

Gloria, in her 30s or 40s – bank employee who wants to be a writer

Kathy, age approximate to Gloria – her friend and co-worker

Tristao, man in his mid 40s

The play takes place in one afternoon in a room in an old European castle. There is one entrance to the room off-stage where Kathy and Gloria enter. When the door to the room is opened, this is indicated by light flooding into the room from the direction of the off stage door. Likewise it is indicated to be closing by similar lighting effect. Tristao enters through a hidden opening in the back wall. There is a table, a chair, and a bench.

Continue reading “Tristao do Lemos”

A Glass of Port

NYC Midnight flash fiction, round three
genre: action / adventure location: the middle of the ocean object: gavel

A Glass of Port

On her fifth Porto night, Sylvie is at a bar called The Auction House overlooking the river Douro. Every table is fitted with granite gavels and wooden blocks for attracting the servers’ attention. Well into the evening, Sylvie hammers the block, “More port! A round for my friends!” Liz, a fellow Canadian, shakes her head. “C’mon Liz! Just say yes! It’s an adventure!” When the waiter brings the wine, Sylvie decides to buy a replica gavel for thirty euro. She holds her weighty souvenir aloft to be admired.
The table hosts tourists from America, Holland, Australia and some locals. Using Google Maps, they measure the distance between their homes though Google won’t measure across water. The American hollers, “Show me by boat for godssake! Show me the miles walking – I’m gonna walk on water!” and they all laugh.
Damari says with only a hint of Portuguese accent, “I don’t use this Google for my wayfinding. I need only the stars.”
“Stars?” blurts Sylvie. “I don’t remember what stars look like. In London, Dublin, Madrid and now Porto. The sky is lit, all night.”
Damari assures her, “The stars are there, beautiful. Come down river to the ocean in my boat. I’ll show you the stars.”
“Tonight?” breathes Sylvie.
“If you dare.”
Overhearing, Liz objects but Sylvie crows, “Say yes to life Liz! We’re adventuring!”
“To adventure!” calls Damari, pounding Sylvie’s gavel and ordering another round. After the final toasts, the group departs and Damari walks the women to their hotel, then waits outside.
While Sylvie changes shoes, Liz insists she share her location on Google Maps. “Download the map of Porto and the whole damned ocean. You have five hours Sylvie, then I’m sending help. I’m serious.” Liz and Sylvie both work with addicts. They understand risk prevention.
“Maps won’t work on the ocean!” protests Sylvie.
“GPS will. It’s all you need,” answers Liz, setting it up.
Sylvie takes Damari’s arm to traverse the slick, cobblestone decline past centuries-old churches and decoratively tiled, derelict houses. At the Douro, past the Rabelo boats with their barrels lies Damari’s cabin cruiser; he assists her aboard. Taking out sherry glasses, he decants the port.
Making small talk with flirtatious glances, Damari deftly manoeuvres the boat downriver. Sylvie notes the stern is covered with cushions and blankets. “Do you sleep out here?” she asks.
“Occasionally,” Damari replies. “There’s a cabin, but it’s mostly storage.” Sylvie moves to look. “No, stay here with me,” insists Damari. “It’s a mess under there.”
Once they reach the ocean, away from the lights of Porto, Damari kills the motor and they behold the stars – all the heavens revealed to them. Overwhelmed, Sylvie shivers; Damari wraps his arms around her.
Breaking their embrace too soon, Damari offers a refreshment. “More port,” he suggests, “or if you’d rather, perhaps cocaine?”
“What?!” she exclaims. “Damari. I’m an addictions counsellor. I’ve seen what drugs do. I would never risk that.”
“I had no idea of your noble profession,” he refills their glasses. “Please forgive my oversight.” He kisses her, instantly forgiven, and leads her to the comfortable warmth of the blankets. Their kisses intensify. Sylvie sighs thinking, “It’s an adventure” and succumbs to his seduction.
Some time later she is tracing waves on his chest, breathing his scent intermingled with that of the sea. He kisses her forehead, saying he needs to attend to the navigation. He rises, strides across the deck and returns with more wine. She thanks him and looks overboard. Ocean spray mists her face and she pulls back laughing, losing her grasp on her glass. It disappears into the waves.
Not wanting to disturb Damari, she quietly pours herself a fresh glass then reclines, regarding the constellations. Soon the rocking boat lulls her to sleep.
She’s awakened by his voice; he’s on the radio, “… few hours from the drop, fully loaded. Short ton of the purest shit you’ve never tried! Yeah, alone – I have this tourist for company but she won’t know. I gave her a sleeping concoction.” His laugh holds none of the charm she’d admired at The Auction House.
Sylvie figures if she pretends to be asleep she’ll be safe. But what if this cocaine is enroute to Canadian streets? Does it even matter? If it leaves this boat, it will destroy lives. She pulls out her phone and opens Google Maps. The screen is all ocean blue; her GPS dot in the middle.
Feigning drowsiness she murmurs, “It’s been almost five hours! Are we headed back?”
He turns quickly, obviously surprised to see her awake. Into the radio he says, “I have an issue, await my signal.” Then he turns to her, all charm. “Feeling rested, sleepyhead?” He crosses to the bed and kisses her. He’s attempted to drug her. He has a boatload of cocaine. Yet his lips are soft and warm. She sighs, yielding to his kiss; he chuckles. Pulling away with a shy smile, she returns her phone to her purse. Content, Damari turns to stand, “I better make sure this barge is headed for home.”
She forces a giggle in reply and pulls the gavel from her purse while his back is turned. Swinging it hard she makes contact with his head. The granite bounces off his skull, vibrating in her hand. Damari grunts, lurches forward and spins to see her kneeling naked on the cushions, brandishing the gavel. He lunges at her and Sylvie swings again, this time clocking his temple with all her might. The sound of bone and flesh giving way sickens her. The weapon slides from her hand and she watches Damari crumple to the ground, his eyes astonished, then angry, then finally closed.
Sylvie shakily pulls on her clothes, averting her eyes from the pooling blood. Sitting waiting, she ponders adventure. Sometimes saying yes to life, she realizes, means saying no to risk. Dawn breaks with welcome brilliance. Seeing a police boat’s flashing lights approach, Sylvie gives thanks for cautious girlfriends and GPS.

Hey Hey Ho Ho

(NYCMidnight Flash Fiction Short Story contest, thriller, pocket knife, picket line)

 

“Hey Hey Ho Ho, Malcor greed has got to go!” Kendra mouths the chant so nobody notices her lack of shouting. Her feet are hot in her boots and ache from walking endless circles. The picket sign makes her bra straps dig in. She rubs one weary shoulder; it isn’t even lunchtime. Despite the fatigue, Kendra appreciates the solidarity on the picket line;  it’s new and rousing, if overly loud.

Cars line up waiting to enter the plant. They open the barricade every half hour; the drivers honk and shake angry fists while waiting. Marching bodies around her spit out the word “scabs” like a curse but it’s actually only been management and press. Still, Kendra nods in vague agreement.

A lot needs to change at Malcorp. Kendra doesn’t fully understand what, but she could use a pay raise and for her asthma inhalers to be covered.

The asthma began about nine months after she started at Malcorp – occupational asthma the diagnosis. She coughs just thinking about it and pulls her puffer from her pocket, giving it the required vigorous shake. Nearby, Brad pulls out his own inhaler and raises it toward her. “Cheers,” he says, smiling. She returns the gesture, smiles shyly and looks away. She turns slightly to take her puff. Brad has smiled at her before.

Flushed from this exchange, Kendra slips into the rest area for a break. She grabs a donated muffin and cuts it with her pocket knife, saving half for later.

Lisa and Kelly, two women from her line, are also taking breaks. They exchange companionable nods. There’s no use trying to speak – the chants of ‘Hey hey, ho ho. Malcorp greed has got to go” would just drown them out. She doesn’t talk much in the cafeteria at work either, preferring to quietly read. She likes these co-workers though. She does actually like her job – or at least not hate it.

Anxious to rest her feet, she takes a seat and idly checks Twitter, scrolling the protest hashtags. Reports of increased asthma have bolstered support from the public. Kendra coughs, and checks email. Messages from the Union, messages from Malcorp – she swipes away each tedious email when one subject catches here eye – “Let’s break them today”

It’s to Kendra.Macpherson – she’s Kendra.McPherson. This happened once before – figuring it was someone in management, Kendra had been too nervous to report it and had discreetly deleted that message. This one though – maybe this one she should read.

“Let’s break them today.”

“Actors set. N and P to break down barricade. Security to jam cell reception. Actors instructed to cross picket. Security has pepper spray ready.”

Pepper spray? Are they expecting a riot? Kendra is filled with dread as she realizes they’re inciting a riot, just to shut it down. Her lungs can’t stand up to pepper spray. Brad can’t survive breathing in pepper spray – nor can an alleged 38% of her co-workers.

The crowd is now rallying by the platform “Hey Hey Ho Ho, Malcor greed has got to go!” How can she warn them? Should she forward the misdirected email to the union leader? Should she tweet a warning, #important #danger? She opens Twitter but there’s no service. She notices Brad look at his phone and shake it; Lisa holds hers up. There’s no reception. They’ve jammed the phones. It’s starting.

She rereads the message to see what’s next. The barricade breaking down. Actors posing as scabs. Riot. Pepper spray.

Kendra wants to shout but everyone is shouting and she was never very good at shouting. She eyes the platform with the microphone and steels herself to wade through the crowd.

With a terrifying crash a car smashes through the barricade, a piece of which slams into a worker. He falls within the frightened mass. Another car blasts through while Kendra fights against the surge of angered mob. She reaches the stage just as the “scabs” appear and she’s still the only one who knows they’re just actors. The platform is only three feet high but it might as well be fifty. Kendra shuts her eyes for a moment, fighting off hysteria, then climbs onto the stage. She waves her phone yelling “You need to read this! It’s important!” but no one hears. They brush her away, knocking the phone out of her hand.

The picketters and fake scabs shove each other and yell. Kendra sees the factory bay door open and can almost feel peppery death breathing down on her. In desperation she pulls out her pocket knife and screams. The rally leaders stop hollering to stare at her breathlessly wielding her little knife. Gravely she holds the knife to her neck and says “Give me that microphone.”

Attention to her action, like a silent ripple travelling through the crowd, washes over picketers and actors alike. A wave of faces turn toward her, riveted on the spectacle of their shy coworker holding a microphone in one hand and a knife to her own neck with the other.

Her vision blurring, her heart racing, her hands shaking – she breathes deeply and speaks into the microphone. “These are actors, not scabs! The only enemy is Malcorp Security! They’re coming right now, with pepper spray!” The listening crowd emits a collective gasp. “That’s right. They gave us asthma and now they’ll use it against us! There can be no riot!”

The rapt attention of the crowd might have bolstered another speaker but for Kendra it was too much. Stepping back, she finishes with a shaky “So just, yeah, stop…” and gently puts the microphone down.

Brad holds out his hand to assist Kendra’s descent from the platform. She makes herself look him right in the eyes and says, “Thank you, Brad.” Amazed by her newfound brazenness, she stumbles to the overturned barrier, takes a seat and eats the second half of her muffin.

HomeStar

Around this time last year I was at loose ends and moody and it was raining so I went for a walk in the dark and told myself a story into my phone as I walked and this is what came from it (with edits for punctuation and “what the heck did I even mean by that”).
note: tagged thriller but also #metoo because it hearkens to so many past stories of existing as a woman in this society, to more than one occasion where some man has said “no one would be able to hear you scream.” Living as a young woman in the nineties WAS a “thriller”.

HomeStar

My plans for the evening were botched; I was supposed to go to a haunted house with some friends but it’s an outdoor attraction and the relentless rain forced it to close for the night. My friends all made off to other hastily made plans – plans that didn’t involve me.
I decided to go for a walk in the rain-like-mist and tell myself a ghost story – that’s almost like a haunted house. I walked around a bit, trying to dive into my mood but didn’t really think of anything. I recalled something I was taught in a script writing workshop a few months back: spend some time near people going about their lives and listen to them speaking. Take a line from their overheard dialogue and let it launch your script. There was no one out on the cold, dark street of course so I went to my favourite “haunt” and sat at the bar. I ordered myself a soda water. The bartender looked at me askance – I’d never done that before. But if I was going to do some writing I’d best a clear head. Anyway, a woman shouldn’t be drinking out at night alone, should she? Too scary.
They didn’t even charge me
Next to me was a couple, at least I thought they were a couple. Youngish, mid to late 20s? They were one what might have been their second or third, fourth pint? Their conversation flowed – seemed like I might get some good dialogue from them. So I listened, while trying to appear not to listen. Don’t look at me like that – you’ve all done it. Haven’t you?
She was talking about a role she had at a theatre company – maybe a community theatre company, or maybe one of those small for-profit companies that never seem to profit. She’d been given a small role but then due to some occurrence or calamity she landed a larger role and was excited about it. He seemed perhaps to be an actor as well though it was clear he wasn’t involved in the same production. He was happy to listen to  her stories. She was a lovely girl. Maybe he was just happy to be there with her. They chatted and chittered and I mentally took notes – I couldn’t very well sit there with a notebook and pen and record it like a journalist if for no other reason than I didn’t have those things with me!
They were interesting and I had a chance to dry out a bit. They had one more pint and then he settled their tab and they headed for the door.
I don’t know. Maybe it was the soda water. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I followed them. I could hear everything they were saying. They’d had enough to drink that they were speaking loudly and didn’t notice me sliding along behind them like a most observant shadow.
She was going on about how she’d never been to that place before but she’d been to loads of other local places and was saying which she liked best, who had the best specials and service; he was saying which once had the best craft beer selections. The craftiest beers! They laughed.
She said she had to get home and he said, “No, not yet. I know it’s raining but isn’t it also somehow quite pleasant?”  She agreed it somehow was and on they walked.
“But do you see that sign there, the star sign glowing in the sky there?” she asked.
“For the  Home Star insurance company?”
“Yeah, that,” she confirmed. “That’s like, my guiding star. I live really near there. So if I’m out at night and walking around, I always make sure I can see it. It’s my personal north star.” She smiled and stumbled a little. She might have drunk more quickly than her body could handle and was getting increasingly drunk as they ventured on. The beer didn’t seem to have the same effect on him
“When I’m out, even if I’ve had a bunch to drink, I always know how to get home because I just look for my guiding star up in the sky!”
I swear I heard him smile. “That makes sense. Their slogan is ‘Insuring everything under the stars’ – did you know that? It’s clever.”
“Clever,” she giggled.
They walked on, turning occasionally, like a spiral almost. She told him of a night she’d been to a party on the other side of Main St, at a house on a street past the graveyard. One can see the graveyard from Main Street; beyond it is a residential section. She slurred, “I almost never would go in the graveyard at night but I’d been at this party and it was late and it was almost day really. But still dark. Dark enough and I was walking home and I could still see the star and I walked toward it. Sometimes I kind of went back and forth because of the graves, you know, but I kept going toward the star. I walked right through the graveyard. It was fine. It’s quiet there at night, you know. There’s no one there.”
They walked on and on and I too walked on and on. We passed some happy people in German attire with feathers in their hats. Octoberfest in Kitchener – it’s a thing that happens. They’d been festing for certain: high fives were passed between the couple and the festers, giddiness all around. Being drunk on beer is a land whose language is understood only by those who inhabit it. There is no common language of soda water.
I didn’t watch where we were going; I was so intent on following and listening and thinking of the story I’d write. A story on Octoberfest? On beer drinking? My reverie was broken when the woman exclaimed, “Hey where’s my star?”
I stopped and looked. It wasn’t there, but it should have been. We hadn’t traveled that far and I would have noticed if we’d entered strange territory.
I know the area.
He said, “I think it went out. Maybe the bulb is out or maybe the power is.”
She stumbled again.
Her eyes met mine for the first time. I shrugged as if to say I didn’t know what happened to it either.
They walked on.
He purred, “I know where we are, you don’t have to worry about it. I’ll get you back to the star.”
It was misty. Foggy.
Suddenly we were at the gates of the cemetery. I didn’t know how that had happened and obviously neither did she. Startled, she protested, “We didn’t cross Main St! How can we be here?”
“It’s really misty out. You’ve had a lot to drink. You don’t remember crossing Main St?” he asked.
She was lost now. Without the star, she didn’t know how to get home. She was going to have to trust him.
But all I’d had was soda water and I didn’t remember crossing Main St either.
By now I was too intrigued. I should have turned back. I have no real excuse: I guess a writer just loves a good story. I followed them into the graveyard.
He was daring her, teasing her. Saying, “Is it really so silent in the graveyard? Let’s find out!”
You know, it’s a nice graveyard. I’ve walked my friend’s dog there in the daytime. But it’s incredibly creepy at night. In the mist it was more quiet than quiet, like the mist was holding all the sound in – even the sound of raindrops. I couldn’t even hear them.
He turned around and smiled at me when I thought that. I gasped and my eyes widened with alarm, but he turned away again. Maybe he didn’t really see me. Maybe he was just smiling in general.
It rained harder and I was cold and wet and it was time to go home, to stop this silly game we were playing. That they were playing and I was watching.
He told her, “I know where we can escape the rain,” and took her hand and jogged into the mist. So I jogged into the mist after them.
They came to a stop at a mausoleum. I hadn’t realized there were mausoleums in this graveyard. I thought those were reserved for rich Toronto graveyards or English nobles.
“Why is it open?” she asked. “Don’t they keep these things locked? Against grave robbers? Or, raccoons?”
“This is the burial site of a founding father of Kitchener. You know that, don’t you? Aren’t you from here? This is his grave and the tradition is on the second Saturday of Oktoberfest they open up his mausoleum and they pour beer on his coffin. It’s an homage celebration. A way to say thank you. I’ve never been, myself. I don’t know anyone who has, it’s for some secret society of Kitchener beer drinkers I guess!” he was laughing as if this wasn’t strange at all.
But it was pouring by now so they went inside.
I stayed outside. My teeth were chattering but not even my insatiable curiosity could have got me to go into that mausoleum at night.
She tried to appear brave, giggling, “We should have brought some beer.”
“Oh, don’t be silly doll,” he answered. I could see the slow smile of success slide across his face and hit his eyes with a glint. “The dead don’t really drink beer.”
He pulled the door of the crypt slowly shut so the silence wouldn’t be disturbed by the screaming.